Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Make Tomorrow with Michael Christie and Johanna Skibsrud

The descriptions of the books that were to be the subject of “Make Tomorrow” made me think “science fiction!”  Not the brash, exploding sort of science fiction, doing obeisance to technology and human hubris, but the kind that looks ahead thirty years, fifty, maybe a hundred, where you can see our world but where the writer changes certain elements to help you to see it with new eyes.  ‘Dystopian near-futurism’?  Whatever the label, I was intrigued and wanted to hear more.  And, I resolved, having just purged my personal library, I would visit the festival and buy no new books; no, the discussion would suffice.

 

Michael Christie described the flow of his novel Greenwood, following a family through time from the outer ring of a tree -- itself a principal character -- to the centre, then back out again.  Indeed, the book’s table of contents is a lovely cross-section of that tree, labelled with the years in which the book’s events were set. Through a creature with roots and branches made of wood that is “time, captured, a cellular record, a memory,” he explores identity as experienced and shaped through family. Christie spoke of wanting to delves into the essential nature of family relationships in all their complexities, as well as what our family trees, for all their desire to record and explain our connections, leave out.

Johanna Skibsrud’s Island doesn’t fit the ‘near-futurism’ label particularly well, it turns out, though it does seem dystopian. (The novel is set on a fictional island, echoing Thomas More). But the conversation was no less engaging for that. Skibsrud’s novel explores questions of identity expressed in terms of race, class, inequality, and addiction in a setting different enough from our own that we can hear it.  Significantly, Skibsrud spoke of wanting to illuminate talk about such questions via “real bodies in a real place.” In Island, she also tried make visible what is so often inaccessible to us and our language (e.g., the wired infrastructure behind invisible wireless technology). Indeed, her focus on embodiment in the context of a story about a revolution made me wonder whether she saw any conflict between seeking change and preserving place, between revolution and human flourishing.

 

Host Stephen Brockwell brought out other parallels between Greenwood and Island.  Strong female characters are prominent in both stories as “powerful agents of change,” people who are after something, engaged, active and drive the narrative forward.  He asked too whether the questions and issues addressed in the books drove or inhibited the story, to which both authors responded that narrative and the novel seemed the best vehicle to broach and explore questions of this kind. After all, as Christie put it, a “novel is a container for life.”

 

The discussion wasn’t quite what I had expected, but that offered no barrier to an engaging and stimulating discussion.

 

And I bought books.  Of course I did.