With a sun-splashed spring evening in full strut outside, those who gathered within Southminster United Church for the first post-festival event could be forgiven for missing the patio. For they were more than compensated by the regal, radiant Nazanin Afshin-Jam; here to promote her book The Tale of Two Nazanins , which she co-wrote with the esteemed writer and journalist, Susan McClelland.
While her profile is outsize – she is after all a former Miss Canada and a recording artist – it is her efforts to be a humanitarian, tinted with earnestness, which really sustains her listeners' receptivity. Nazanin begins by sharing the all-too-familiar story of the flight of Iranian dissidents after that country's Islamic Revolution of 1979, with all its ensuing disappointments. Having a father who managed Tehran's Sheraton, what with all its mingling, boozing and fun, did little to bestow any favours from the new theocratic regime and its imposed morals. It was only the twist of fate, whereby her tortured, impisoned father's executor met with a car accident; allow a window of opportunity for Nazanin's family to flee Iran to Canada, by way of Spain.
“A senstive child”, Nazanin displayed early signs of activism and empathy. She undertook a political science and international relations degree, in her adopted home of Vancouver, at UBC. Lucky the person to whom it falls a clear clarion call to pursue justice. Nazanin's involvement with her namesake in Iran – the Kurdish teenager Nazanin Fatehi – began with a chance reading of an e-mail from a stranger (whose message apparently and thankfully got through the spam filter) who shared the story of this young girl's tragic entanglement.
Nazanin Fatehi's lot was to be born in a culture where women face the stark alternatives of being a hidden, voiceless womb or a dishonorable whore; the judgement solely and sternly asserted by the men in their lives. As it happened, the 17 year old and her 15 year old niece were strolling in a park when a gang of three thuggish men harrased and attempted to rape the young girls. In the ensuing struggle, Fatehi managed to stab one of her assailants, leading to his death. For the alleged 'crime' of self-defence, the still teenaged Nazanin Fatehi, was sentenced to death for murder.
Under international law – to which Iran is a signatory – the execution of any person(s) under the age of 18 is illegal. However, Islamic law as applied by the state of Iran supersedes any “man-made” laws. This wrong-hearted judiciary system not only holds a girl of 9 criminally responsible, it also adds insult to injury by alloting half-weight to the testimony of a woman. To corroborate a woman's accusation of rape, the testimony of four men of good standing is mandatory (leading one to wonder what men of “good standing” were doing in idly observing a rape occur in the first place). The suffocating, shallow strain of shame and honour deeply distorts the worldview of many – savaging the lives of both women and men.
Nazanin immediately felt drawn to get involved and help Fatehi from prison. There is a type of boldness in taking on a powerful regime which is commendable. Nazanin did face anonymous threats regarding her campaign to free Fatehi. Nazanin pressed on: a petition to force the government of Iran to grant a stay on the execution, netted over 350,000 signatures. Engaging the European Parliament and the United Nations to place pressure resulted in exoneration of Fatehi of murder charges; but not before a bail of $40,ooo had to be paid. Apparently, two out of five judges did completely clear Fatehi sans bail; a glimmer of a humaneness that exists even within Iran's legal system. Descriptions of Fatehi's treatment in prison brought to the fore jarring images from the film Incendies . A now liberated Fatehi, kept in touch with Nazanin in the ensuing years before vanishing without a trace. Mixed endings populate our experience more so than happy ones. While Nazanin hopes that Fatehi is alive and well somwhere, she can never know for certain.
Nazanin firmly opposes external military intervention to effect regime change in Iran. She believes that the use of targeted sanctions and the freezing of assets will be effective in allowing the youthful Iranian population (70% under the age of 30) to eventually form a more democratic and liberal government. Even in this wished-for renewed nation (as one of her interlocutor's pointed out) there is also the necessity of a plural state to make room for its conservative, religious population – of which in Iran there are legion. A challenging tension in every society.
While the dominating issue with Iran has been its nuclear program and its tit for tat against Israel, Nazanin feels that this sadly distracts from human rights issues within Iran. While Nazanin cites the many examples of counter-revolutions that have been successful, the tense, unfinished unfolding of revolutions in places like Egypt and Ukraine into illiberal directions, paired with the heavy suppression in places like Syria and China, dims hope.
Then I remember the extraordinary if imperfect changes in Burma. Nazanin's book and her message seeks to emphasize, in Bismarck's words, “the art of the possible.” Nazanin's lifestory and work embody these very possibilities, however circumscribed.
Phil Jenkins started the final afternoon event of the Writers Festival by limning the question of what “poetic sensibility” is and why it is such an essential quality to have in not only literature, but in life itself. The architecture of religious texts, such as the Bible, were presented as the archetype of what we gropingly classify as ‘creative non-fiction’ at the slightest hint of imagination.
According to Jenkins, the heart of the desire to suffuse an inventive quality that breaks the mould when writing or making an artistic statement, is to really get at the truth; not capital T truth but truth nonetheless. Or in James Wood’s words, “...the real, which is at the bottom of my inquiries.”
Jenkins makes the astute observation that almost everyone who is literate, writes but what distinguishes a writer is that (s)he re-writes; with poets perhaps re-writing the most. The anecdote of Jenkins’ poet friend who takes an hour-long stroll for every line of poetry summons up images of the painstaking work of historians like Robert Caro, who has spent decades on a single subject – in his case the life of Lyndon B. Johnson.
When it comes to documenting reality, too often the dogged stance of being objective “has got in the way”. As Gloria Steinem put it to Moses Znaimer, as “the new journalism” which promulgated a personal style came into vogue in the 1960s, “some of the tears need to get into the story” - when speaking of a New York Times reporter who sobbed while recounting President Kennedy’s assassination, over the telephone. While professing the vital role of the poet in “conducting emotional research and development” what Jenkins is implying is that the role of bringing lyricism should not be left to the poet alone (or alternately, that poets need to get busier!) Michael Ondaatje’s memoir Running In The Family and Vittorio De Sica’s Ladri Di Biciclette (The Bicycle Thief) were held up as examples as works of documentary that transcended stale objectivity whilst simultaneously not betraying it in a fit of artistic license.
This is no easy task; anyone who remembers the defrocking of James Frey in the wake of his mostly fabricated memoir A Million Little Pieces can understand the tension inherent in Ken Kesey’s statement, “it’s the truth even if it didn’t happen.” Ondaatje describes his grandmother dying by being consumed by a tsunami whereas the real cause of her death was alcoholism. Not literally true but poetically so. On closer inspection, James Frey’s attempt evokes sympathy when considered alongside a very creative profile on the man and his later endeavours.
Jenkins accidentally uttered the phrase “poese” (an amalgam of poetry and prose). And it stuck – with him joking that if Shakespeare were permitted his numerous neologisms, then surely he was entitled to one.
As the hour wore on, Jenkins himself got personal. When discussing other books, Jenkins stated that he felt uncharitably towards Noah Richler’s This Is My Country, What’s Yours? since it fails to discuss works of poetry in its survey of Canada’s literary landscape. Jenkins also called for “poese” to sink into our political life. “When was the last time a politician’s speech made you cry?” was a preamble in reference to Jack Layton’s farewell message.
He was on shakier ground however in decrying “conservative” politics as being devoid of compassion and thus immanently incapable of the “poetic sensibility” he was espousing .T.S. Eliot would have surely been surprised to be told he lacked it. Jenkins is certainly entitled to his political views, even have them influence his oeuvre: but his implicit assumption that everyone in his audience shares them brandished an unfortunate lack of decorum and open-mindedness.
Jenkins ended by taking some questions from the audience. One of his suggestions mentioned that writers should learn how to weld, so as to appreciate the craftsmanship required with words. His delightful characterization that “a well-written sentence is like a lozenge” left an urge to consume, encounter and produce words which get at the real. An experience for which in some places, the courageous are dying to live.
Noah Richler, who is the former Books Editor of the National Post was interviewed by Mark Medley, Books Editor of the National Post. They discussed Mr. Richler’s book What We Talk About When We Talk About War . I don’t know how much these two knew each other from before the interview, but they both conducted the interview with an obvious friendliness and respect for the other which led to a great event.
Richler's talk was not made of memorable talking points or simple slogans. Noah was concerned with communicating complex ideas, examining how subtle changes in language can have large ramifications, and exploring how and why those changes in language occur. Just as the man himself is nuanced and hard to turn into a caricature, his talk is difficult to summarize precisely because its values lies in its nuance.
I had never met Mr. Richler, but from what I knew of him, I expected him to be more of a firebrand. So, I was naturally a little disappointed to find that he was a reasonable and considered man. To use his own words, he “love[s] the idea of doubt” because he sees doubt as the source of intelligent inquiry. I would describe his tone regarding the language of war not as angry but as indignant. He seemed to feel that the shift in language has been illegitimate and manipulative. He also seems disgruntled that it had fallen on him to address this issues of language and to offer a different narrative. He felt that this represented a political failure: that the responsibility of the political opposition to provide an opposing narrative, has fallen short.
Mr. Richler’s focus was on the the language surrounding war, and not on the war itself. The war in Afghanistan was always present, but it is our understanding and expression of that conflict here in Canada that Mr. Richler is concerned with.
Mr. Richler felt that peacekeeping became associated with a wimpy kind of failure, and was presented as a failed vision. Yet he pointed out that while this image if the Canadian Forces as a Peacekeeping force is still prevalent, it has rather been co-opted into recruitment ads with combat images. This is a picky distinction. Not that he is a fan of the Afghan mission, but that he thinks that the language has been shifting in ways that are dishonest.
I think that the source of Mr. Richler’s offence that generated this book would be the oversimplification of how the war has been presented. Noah Richler is not a man who over-simplifies. He felt that the war was presented in the media in the same way as sports; where it is assumed that we are all cheering for the home team. Where every dead Canadian soldier is given full coverage in the media and added to the tally of lost soldiers. The accompanying list of dead Afghanis is glossed over. No tallies are kept. Noah went so far as to invoke the Lord of the Rings. Pointing out that no one morns the dead orcs, or sympathizes with their families. While this analogy drew laughs, it was also a sobering moment for me, because this was the point where I decided that I agreed with him, and that we seem to have decided at some point which human beings are more valuable than other. This is the language of war that Noah is repulsed by. He prefers the language of peacekeeping, where the dignity of a shared humanity is far more inclusive.
Event Review by Benjamin Martin
The venue is packed; it's the final event of the Ottawa Writers Festival, and the audience atmosphere is a mix of anticipation for the Songwriters' Circle, and regret that the whole thing will soon be over. Alan Neal of CBC's All In A Day introduces the theme of the night: the Stage Name Summit. Sure enough, all of the guests usually perform under stage names. Tonight will be a bit more informal, as we learn how these monikers came into being (and see some incredible musical prowess along the way).
The evening, it turns out, is to be divided into three “rounds”, each one having its own theme. Round one: perform any song about a name (or involving names thematically). First to perform is Oh Susanna (born Suzie Ungerleider), whose song “Zoey” is delivered with strident, alt-country tones and music-box delicate guitar accompaniement. Next to the mic is Socalled (Josh Dolgin), whose plan to perform “Richi”, a particularly angry song about heartbreak, has to be derailed briefly due to technical difficulties. Socalled is up to the challenge however, and bangs out a sidesplitting cover of Ira Gershwin's “Tchaikovsky” until the sound crew can get his equipment working. Joey “Shithead” Keithley (original last name “Keighley”, pronounced with a “th”), frontman for D.O.A., regales the audience with a ballad about early 20th century BC coal mining union martyr Ginger Goodwin. The ground-breaking punk artist, acoustic guitar plastered with a “This Machine Kills Fascists” decal, sounds like a counter-cultural Gordon Lightfoot giving the finger to the establishment. Masia One (Mei Xian Lim), whose sound equipment is also out of commission, instructs the audience to accompany her with a boom-clap, as she performs “Model Minority” a capella. Finishing up round one is Snailhouse (Mike Feuerstack), who pulls no punches in getting to the sentimental, low-key, introspective tune “Homesick”.
Round two invites the musicians to perform their first song (performed or recorded) under their current stage name. Oh Susanna starts it off with “Crooked Down the Road” from her first EP, confident and soulful despite her assertion of not having played the song in about 10 years. Socalled breaks out a track from his album “The So Called Seder” entitled “Chad Gadya” - Yiddish for “One Little Goat”. His fusion of hip-hop beats with klezmer melody keeps the audience on the edge of their seats, despite having no clue what the lyrics mean. Joe Keithley explains why his earliest material may not be the most edifying – consisting mainly of repetitive swear words and little content – and instead gives an acoustic rendition of D.O.A. classic “The Enemy”. Masia One follows up (her sound equipment finally working) with “Split Second Time” - her Much Music debut – switching it up midway through by instructing her DJ, DJ 2 Creamz to change the backing track. Snailhouse rounds it off with a twist: rather than performing his first Snailhouse tune, he gives a preview of his new album – the first to be released under his actual name, Michael Feuerstack.
Between rounds, the winner of the All In A Day songwriting contest gets a chance to perform. Each artist provided, in advance, a single word. The winning song had to contain all 5 words: hospital, important, ninja, willfull, and Agamemnon. The winner was Cape Breton musician Brett Maclean, with his harmonica-infused, folk-heavy entry “Why Can't Everybody Get Along".
In Round three, the songwriters have to showcase a song with a 4 syllable word in the title – though most of them have to stretch the definition of “4 syllable word” to meet the requirements. Oh Susanna follows the rule to the letter (to the syllable?) with her song “Alabaster”. Socalled joins in on piano, and the audience lets out a contented sigh. This sets the tone for the remainder of the evening, as gradually, the musicians become more and more comfortable collaborating onstage. By the end of the event, the musicians are all adding their own improvisational touch to a raucous cover of “Taking Care of Business”. The audience sends them (and the Ottawa Writers Festival) off with resounding applause, and the lights come back up. It's a cheerful end to a wonderful festival, and as we all part ways, we're sorry it's over – but not sorry that it was, that it happened.
Penning a family memoir is always a tricky task, and the three writers gathered for the final authors' event of the Ottawa Writer’s Festival had faced their share of challenges in the attempt. The night was a fitting inquiry into the relationship between parent and child, fiction and non-fiction and the uncomfortable truths that surface when children grow up and ask hard questions. CBC Radio’s Laurence Wall hosted the event, and his smooth and professional manner set a polished tone for the evening’s animated discussion.
All three writers on the panel had undertaken the project of writing autobiographical accounts of their families, for the most part examining how relationships with their parents had shaped their identity for better or worse. The discussion was largely framed by the consensus that difficult experiences made one stronger, and each writer found ways to share their personal triumph over hardship.
Brian Fawcett, the first to discuss his book, Human Happiness , explained that the unconventional methods he used to write about his parents - including interviewing them separately and using Photoshop - revealed unusual facts. Although his investigation uncovered the painful discovery of his parents’ infidelity, Brian affirmed his project for helping him to understand his parents’ happiness without being judgmental. From battling against his father’s dominant imagination to resisting a determined career as an ice-cream salesmen, Brian credited the struggles for only making him stronger in the end.
Kim Thúy hardly discussed family dynamics except to say that her mother was a key figure in her life. Instead, she focused on the sense of home rather than family itself, reading an excerpt from her novel, Ru , that described her first feeling of homesickness triggered by the smell of a Bounce dryer sheet. Her words emphasized the powerful link between smell and memory, a connection that challenged her to find “an aroma that would give me my country, my world.” Although Kim’s family endured great hardship in fleeing Vietnam to come to Quebec, she affirmed the experience for strengthening their family bond.
Before reading from his book, Cures for Hunger , Deni Y. Béchard shared the challenge of normalizing his father’s past as a bank robber. Denis’s passage explored the inescapable longing for his father’s presence and affirmation despite a difficult relationship, revealing that his father was the key to understanding himself. Although reckless and unpredictable, Deni’s father was the only one who shared his love for mystery and understood his wildness - a link that made it all the harder to reject his father’s values, but was a choice that ultimately strengthened his character.
For the most part the author’s discussed their family dynamics frankly and with humour. Of the group, Deni seemed to be the most honest in coming to terms with the implications of his family legacy. Although his story could easily be sensationalized, Deni focused on the formational experience of having to decide it was ultimately better for him not to have his father’s approval, whereas the others tended to glide over any personally troubling examinations.
When asked if they had been tempted to embellish their life-stories, all three authors emphatically agreed that the line between truth and fiction is at best a blurry one. Brian conceded that exaggeration happened at times, but that the process of writing was more about selecting certain memories over others and essentializing the experience. Kim shared that often the things you thought you’d forgotten return through writing, and that their importance is only apparent later. Deni found it tricky to hold his father’s tales accountable to some fixed standard of truth because of his limited ability to prove them, but for his part decided to write about the stories his father told him as true because he believed them as a child and their impact on his life was significant.
Perhaps the greatest insight of the evening exposed our fear of the uncomfortable truths our families might reveal. While coaxing the admission of an affair from his mother, Brian confessed to being unsure if his reluctance was “discreet or cowardly”; nonetheless, his interviews led to a conclusion he had always missed - that his parents were happy. For all of us, the temptation to leave things as they are could be a missed opportunity to discover deeper truths about the people we are linked to inextricably for better or worse: our family.
This past Sunday evening, Venus Envy hosted a full-to-capacity event for the Ottawa Writers Festival where the audience was giddy, packed and surrounded by dildos. Sipping on their Mouthful Cocktails and watching the microphone positioned toward the back of the store, we had gathered en masse for a discussion on sex, intimacy, and the written world. Host Amanda Earl started the ball rolling by breaking through inhibitions with her poem that overflowed with various hot and dripping body parts before introducing that night’s line up. Tamara Faith Berger, Nerys Parry, Daniel Allen Cox, and Jasmine Aziz satisfied the crowd from beginning to end with their various gripping takes on intimacy, sex, and fiction.
Leading the charge was Tamara Faith Berger, author of Maidenhead , with an excerpt from her novel. The story focused on a young girl of sixteen years embarking on a sexual adventure that had the audience clinging to her every word. Tamara’s style is intense, direct and unapologetic. She embodies erotica, avoiding the stereotypical language in many paperback romance novel. No "budding flowers" or "yearning loins". As we were taken on a journey through the eyes of the young girl, Tamara contrasted the impression of youth and innocence with hunger, lust and inhibition. Very stimulating, to say the least.
Following Tamara was Nerys Parry, author of Man and Other Natural Disasters , who explained her surprise at being an invited author for the CockTales evening. “There’s no sex in my book really,” she asserts before explaining the sexual undercurrent within her novel is wholly connected to the idea of intimacy, sharing of shames, and making oneself vulnerable to another. Simon, the protagonist, puts himself at risk as he reveals all to Minerva, and in return, opens himself to not only falling in love, but reliving dark moments he had previously suppressed. As we learn Simon’s secrets, his deepest shames; as an audience we in turn become invested, clinging to Nerys’ words as she reveals a dark and engaging story.
With yet another approach to erotic fiction, Daniel Allen Cox followed Nery’s reading with two excerpts from his novel, Basement of Wolves . “Thanks for liking sex and thanks for liking books,” he begins, paying homage to the audience before him and the audience behind him (a wall of protruding dildos and strap-on harnesses) before launching into his excerpts. From examining the social habits of wolves (who, by the way, can be rather cruel in their isolation of a shunned pack member) to investigating the psyches of straight men who must have invented bombs and wars due to lack of anal rimming, his work was both provocative and insightful; sexuality mixed with relationships, behaviour, and an enjoyable contemplation of the world.
Last but not least was Jasmine Aziz, author of Sex and Samosas , and former sex-toy party hostess who is laugh-out-loud funny. Her approach to sexuality in the writing of Sex and Samosas is really a slow dip into the world of erotic fiction – using humour coupled with family antidotes as the mild manner protagonist attends a sex-toy party and has flashbacks to her mother’s tantrum over the plant Uranus. Coming from years of selling goodies at parties, Jasmine knows how to grab a room of listeners and explore the world of sexy, fun things. Her light approach to sexuality creates a space for those who are hesitant to erotic fiction, and gently – with humour galore – guides them forward.
Who knew so much fun could be had in a sex shop? Well, I suppose everyone knows. This presentation of erotic literature – from the intensely sexual, the deeply revealing, the carefully discussed, to the lightly treated, was absolutely enjoyable. The Ottawa Writers Festival discussion of sex, lust and desire was certainly an evening not to be missed.
Neil Wilson, founding director of the Ottawa Writers Festival, began this Sunday evening discussion by introducing Nora Young of CBC Radio’s Spark, author of The Virtual Self , along with the event’s host Michael Bhardwaj of CBC radio, who would lead the discussion as it dove into the rabbit hole of virtual worlds and the Internet. Neil appeared tentative toward the subject of a emerging technologies, describing it as hot topic in which he has little knowledge, but also suggesting that “even at 63, you can still learn.” It was a sentiment that rang true for many in the room, and certainly by the end of the evening we had received an awe-inspiring education as to what the future may hold in terms of self-tracking and connectivity.
As the discussion began, Knox Church Hall was suddenly filled with technological buzz words and phrases: “Virtual territory,” “self tracking,” “moral perfection,” “dynamic demographics,” and “digital haunting” to name a few. Having e-mail, Twitter and Facebook accounts, apparently, does not make one an expert on the evolving virtual world. It does, however, include you as a participant who is actively shaping the future of technology (Not a bad consolation, really.) And what might once have been viewed as extreme, narcissistic self-tracking (think status updates, group emails, tweeting about your lunch, relationship status reporting) has now, through the introduction of simple and engaging platforms, become main stream behaviour.
And through this discussion Nora and Michael continually returned to the why: Why do we self-track?
As Nora went over examples of self-trackers such as Feltron of Felton’s Annual Report – a report put out each year summarizing through images exactly how Feltron lives his life; the We Feel Fine project – a program that seeks out the statements beginning with “I feel” across weblogs such as blog posts or pages and collects the complete “I feel” sentences in one location, categorizing them by emotion; or Google’s Traffic View – with live feedback of users who agreed to be monitored as they drive, providing a ‘living map’ of the city and traffic congestions, there was one idea amongst these jaw-dropping examples that truly stood out. In our sharing, “There’s something core to humanity,” according to Nora. She doesn’t see it as narcissist, but rather, “as human beings there’s something about us that wants to create a narrative.”
Perhaps we want to tell a story . . . a story of our lives, a story of the world. Yet there’s a problem with this. Firstly, what is happening to our information? Is it being sold, harvested, manipulated? Most likely. But according to Nora, “This is the time we have the power to help shape it.” Regarding social media and online tools, “ultimately they’re just platforms.” The user has power to protest, and often times these agencies respond to those reactions. However, this takes a certain awareness and initiative. While Nora says that our engagement “Should be something we do with our eyes wide open, and not because we click the terms of agreement to services.” I cannot help thinking that despite this ideal behaviour, most of us inevitably click ‘Agree’ and move on.
Secondly, in the telling of our stories, what happens to that information? It is stored online, kept on your ‘timeline’ or perhaps some past webpage (with all the nooks and crannies on the internet, it’s not worth listing everything here. But feel free to visit 123People and look up your name), and what happens? For a novice in the computer world, it’s seemingly impossible to remove.
And then, of course, there is this wonderful idea Nora Young and host Michael Bhardwaj discussed, about connection. The internet with its pop-ups, feeds, and notifications, essentially demands “continuous partial attention.” We are focused on our screens, flipping page to page, chatting with friends and eating our lunches. This fragmentation in focus “Prevents us from relaxing, physically grounding ourselves into our body,” which is in itself interesting, because in telling our stories and self-tracking, aren’t we trying to connect with ourselves?
Could it be that this virtual world is the reason we need to define ourselves online –because in the ‘real world’ we are not truly connecting?
There are big ideas happening within the virtual world, and big concerns about how this might evolve. I arrived feeling clued into the trends (Twitter and Facebook? No problem!), and left with an impression that we are on the tip of an iceberg, without a clear sense of what lies below. Listening to Nora Young explore the virtual world as discussed in her book was a fascination experience, and for those of us in the audience, most certainly for myself, an educating experience as well.
The Manx Pub is a venue perhaps most charitably described as “cozy;” someone less charitable (or not as enchanted by its warm earth tones, wooden support pillars and intimate nooks and crannies) would call it “cramped.” I have come to this event blind, trusting that I'll quickly learn all I need to know about the presenters.
First up is Claire Tacon, reading excerpts from her debut novel, In The Field . She describes it as a “you can't come home again” novel, outlining briefly its premise: a former academic woman returns to her small-town childhood home in Nova Scotia to take care of an aging mother. My initial reaction is admitted pleasure at the novel's East Coast connection (us Maritimers living in exile are sentimental folk, after all); however, I soon gain an additional appreciation for the novel's tone. Piecing it together from vignettes, Claire Tacon has constructed the chronotope of rural Atlantic Canada (both now, and as it was in 1970) with loving detail. I listen quietly with a smirk as she narrates a character's almost superstitious fear of Nova Scotia highways – a regional phobia that most long-time inhabitants have yet to conquer.
Her excerpts read, Claire surrenders the microphone to Heather Jessup, reading from her novel The Lightning Field . Having given us a snippet of the novel's subject matter (the events surrounding the unveiling of the Avro Arrow, the Western world's reaction to launching of Sputnik, and an unfortunate lightning strike) the reading immediately takes on a tonal shift. Where Claire is intimate and confessional, Heather is analytical and encyclopaedic. Her prose has a matter-of fact, almost archival quality. Every so often, Heather will inject some character dialogue, rife with 1950s colloquialisms, and the effect is palpable, jabbing through the clinical narration like an icepick of anecdote, opening up the possibility of so much more than bald-faced historiography.
The readings end, and there is applause all around. As soon as I get the opportunity, I break through the little crowd that has accreted around Claire and Heather as they sign fresh new copies of their books, and ask for brief interviews. I get my first interview opportunity with Claire:
“I guess writing is something I've always been interested in from quite a young age.” Claire talks about her brother, a talented visual artist, and her respect for all kinds of artistic endeavours, though she admits her own lack of talent for visual or musical arts. Her father encouraged her early creative endeavours: “I started dictating poetry to my Dad, who was very kind enough to write it down on, like, cocktail napkins when we were out to eat together.” The particular germ for the novel was a free-writing exercise from her MFA in Creative Writing at UBC:
“I started writing about this woman who was driving down a road with the windshield wipers... not quite working... and for whatever reason, that scene really intrigued me, and I felt like, 'I know that road; it's the road right out of Acadia.' It just spiralled from there... the story just spun out from that one image.”
Heather (who, in addition to signing the novel, stamps each one with two ingenius stamps: one taken from the old Avro Arrow project's letterhead, the other from an advertistment in the newspaper the day the project was canceled), tells me that “writing chooses you; on some level I feel like you... don't have a choice. If you're going to write a book, you have to just want it.” As it turns out, her interest in the Avro Arrow comes from a conversation with her grandfather, who was a technician working on the landing gear of the original, “but I thought that wings were somehow more beautiful to write about; less grounded, and more flight-oriented.”
The Manx clears out as festival-goers move on to new events. For my part, I have two new books I need to go home to enjoy.
A sunny afternoon and a packed house greeted Joshua Foer for what was a highly stimulating talk on his hit book, Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything . CBC’s Adrian Harewood was, as always, an excellent moderator.
Foer, 30, needs no notes at the podium. Rather, he forms “memory palaces.” On the imagined front door, he explains, there is an image of his first anecdote for today’s talk. He then visualizes himself entering the ‘palace’ foyer and seeing a vivid, even grotesque (and therefore unforgettable) image representing the next topic. And so on and so forth. This, we learn, was how Cicero managed to map out his lengthly public speeches.
Foer is all about taking age-old memory techniques and explaining them through up-to-date understandings of how we absorb, retain (or fail to retain) information. By no means a neuroscientist, one senses Foer stumbled into the (ancient) world of memory by happenstance in the way Freakonomics’ nerdy authors Steven Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner defy conventional wisdom and make head-scratching connections between seemingly unrelated ideas. While nothing here is revolutionary, Foer has a gift for communicating tricky concepts - unsurprisingly leading to many Malcolm Gladwell comparisons.
Memory, for Foer, is the “root of our self-identity” since it forms our base of knowledge from which we can derive new ideas and make new connections. Yet our Google-obsessed society has largely rejected the value of memory. After all, everything can simply be researched online - what Foer terms the “externalization of memory.” An increasing number of high school students graduate with an alarmingly shallow base of knowledge. Rapid education system reforms have led to an almost exclusive focus on creative and critical thinking, yet, as Foer exclaims, these thinkers “need something to think about!”
Dedicating himself to practicing ancient memory techniques each day led to a stunning victory at the 2006 USA Memory Championship. Foer memorized a full deck of cards in 1 minute and 40 seconds, a new national record. It is unclear by Foer’s own admission if the techniques used to triumph at a memory competition are actually relevant to retaining more complex, value-laden real-world concepts.
Still, Foer’s key ideas are highly relatable and actionable. The secret to being a memory champion is activating a form of memory already highly developed in us humans: spatial and visual memory. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors relied on these aspects of memory to survive. The theory of elaborative encoding explains that we are more likely to remember information that can be linked to an already-existing schema or network of information. Meanwhile, we are less likely to remember isolated, useless bits such as names. (On that note, during the Q and A session many audience members shared their challenges remembering names. Foer suggests associating each name with a highly-memorable image and/or sound.)
When it comes to subjects about which we are especially passionate, we tend to flex our memory muscles to the fullest. As an opera and theatre lover, I am able to follow the careers of dozens of my favourite performers. When I learn that such-and-such coloratura soprano is undertaking a new role or production, I can integrate this nugget into existing networks. Indeed, Foer notes that our learning potential is inextricably linked with what we know already.
What is perhaps most frustrating to Foer - and to myself, as a student - is the gaping discrepancy between the state of our knowledge on memory and the methods used to educate our children. We know, for instance, that it is most effective to learn in intervals - learning something, leaving it to marinate for a while, and then returning to expand upon it. Meanwhile, most students from elementary school right through university learn in units - with a test at the end for which to cram (of course!). We then proceed to forget the content and move on. Foer’s advocacy for cumulative tests - requiring students to study an entire term rather than one unit at a time - would not go over so well in my University of Ottawa classes. One could not miss the collective groan that is sure to be prompted, by a professor who announces cumulative exams.
As the Q&A session progressed, I became more and more aware that with all his inquisitiveness and dynamism, Foer is certainly no messianic expert on memory improvement. On the question of how to apply his tricks to stave off memory decline in aging adults, Foer had little to offer. However, Foer’s drive to discover and conquer his own brainpower - while managing to not freak out his girlfriend - is in itself a source of inspiration.