One could be forgiven for thinking that Guy Gavriel Kay, author of thirteen works of historical fiction and fantasy, has his feet firmly rooted in the past. After all, his writing has long been lauded as eminently well researched, a meticulously crafted blend of the real and the fantastical. But when hearing him speak it becomes clear that though Kay has an intimate relationship with the past, it is his ability to use history as a lens to tell universal stories that sets him apart as one of Canada’s greatest writers.
An eager crowd awaited him on Friday evening, despite the unrelenting rain and gloom. The audience buzzed with excitement. Which was your first? they asked one another.
, some replied. Or
Sailing to Sarantium. His titles were whispered and passed around like some form of communion among his devoted fans, perhaps fitting as we sat in a church.
Ottawa Citizen journalist and fantasy author Kate Heartfield delivered a brief introduction before Kay took the stage to a hearty round of applause. He began by introducing his practiced formula of crafting fictional worlds out of real historical events, a process he described as “rich historically and ethically,” as it allows him to write freely without the uncomfortable assumption that he’s occupying the minds of real people. His latest novel,
Children of Earth and Sky, is set in a world that resembles 16th century Croatia and the collapse of Constantinople. The passage he read was from a female perspective and drew the audience in, despite the awkward interruption due to audio difficulties.
For the question period, Kay had his hosts do something unique: paper was passed around for those with questions to write them down, rather than have people line up for a microphone. His theory was that sometimes the best questions are missed when people don’t wish to stand up in front of a crowd, and instead ask them later when getting their books signed. His social experiment was a success; host Kate Heartfield had more questions than time, and it gave her an opportunity to weed out redundant questions or those that would spoil the plotlines of Kay’s books.
The discussion between host and author was rich and interesting. Heartfield, being an author herself, was keen to ask questions about the craft of writing, which can sometimes bore an audience of readers, but Kay knows how to make a story out of even the most potentially mundane topics. He touched on how his goal as a storyteller is to avoid writing about the power players of history and instead focus on the people who were trying to get on with their lives. He spoke of how historical fantasy writing can be a commentary on contemporary times, and how the past fascinates him both because of the different worldviews of people in other times and the similar fears and desires that unite humans all throughout history.
A highlight of the evening was when Kay asked the audience to give a round of applause for the absent Ursula Le Guin on her 87th birthday, acknowledging the work she did and the path she forged for all the fantasy writers who came after her.
A question about the state of publishing fantasy did not elicit what could have been a wholly negative response from Kay, who implored writers to simply “write as well as you can,” claiming that the climate of the publishing industry is not as dire as others would have us believe. The barrier between genre and literary works is thinning as the next generation of writers and publishers grew up on Star Wars/Trek and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. They also grew up on the works of Guy Gavriel Kay, as evidenced by the audience before him. Perhaps he will be for our generation what Le Guin was for his: a seminal figure whose body of work helped to lay down a path for those who came after him. Fittingly, only time will tell.
Rarely is a book so well suited to its launch venue as Jane Urquhart’s
A Number of Things: Stories of Canada Told Through Fifty Objects
was to the event space at Library and Archives Canada. After a decade of closed doors, being permitted into the second floor room felt like being allowed back into history, a perfect segue to Urquhart’s first book of non-fiction.
On its face, the project behind A Number of Things was both immense and contained: In honour of Canada’s sesquicentennial, Urquhart would tell a story of this country through 50 objects of her choosing. “Our story is here, in at least some of its forms,” Urquhart said, by way of explaining that her book is not the history of the country, but rather one look at our collective story.
Flanked by large TV screens showing slides, Urquhart’s presentation was the kind of generous, open look at a writer’s life and process that attendees at book launches dream of. Opening with a black and white photo of her young, pre-child parents sitting on the steps of a farmhouse, Urquhart told the story of how they travelled to northern Ontario — where she and her siblings would be born and raised — and of the dreams and objects they took with them.
A small, intricately painted and delicate sugar pot — already passed down through multiple generations before being carefully packed up and brought north; a pair of moccasins Urquhart was given as an infant from the chief of the Anishnawbe across the lake; a small Inuit carving of geese her father brought her from a trip farther north — Urquhart’s personal objects both inform and are completely separate from the ones she chose to include the book.
The refrain “This isn’t in the book” became a kind of running joke as Urquhart presentation veered increasingly into the personal, feeling at times like a glimpse at a family slideshow. “I think this is the last one,” Urquhart said about numerous slides, each time finding that, no, there was another — Urquhart as a young girl, afraid of horses (“A horse is one of the objects in the book,” she said), a Japanese sword guard, given to her at the launch for her 2001 novel
The Stone Carvers
, and many photos of her cottage in Ireland.
Of course, some of the photos lined up with the book. Many of the objects she wrote about have no connection to her, but Urquhart said she did find herself and her “pioneer” upbringing creeping into the essays.
One of the objects, Tent, was very particular for Urquhart. Although she left many of the objects mysterious or merely hinted at them — “You’ll have to buy the book,” she winked — she read the short essay she wrote for Tent in full. It is a story that starts with Irish immigrants working to build Maple Leaf Gardens. Among that crew is a man named Danny Henry who, after making his way to the mining towns in northern Ontario, would become her father’s best friend and her godfather. The titular Tent, Urquhart says, is really Henry’s prospector’s tent, the only real home he owned for nearly 40 years. But, tents have a much longer history in Canada, and Urquhart’s essay folds in a beautiful passage about the “skin tent” used by First Nations, detailing its construction, utility and portability.
That push-pull between the objects of immigrants and those of Canada’s First Nations is a ribbon throughout the book, and a theme to which Urquhart returned throughout her talk, as well as during the discussion with CBC’s Sandra Abma. It didn’t matter what object she was focusing on, Urquhart said, all the research came back to Canada’s Indigenous people and what has happened to them.
In part, Urquhart told Abma, that is why the book opens with the Beothuk legging. For Urquhart it is the most resonant object in the book, but more than that, she wanted it front and centre, where it could not be ignored.
Throughout the evening, Urquhart was warm, open and generous in both her presentation and, later, the way she answered audience questions. Surely one of Canada’s most celebrated authors, Urquhart is a respected poet, novelist and, with A Number of Things, has now taken the plunge into non-fiction. That breadth of experience makes Urquhart a perfect author to headline a night that was also a celebration of the 80th anniversary of the Governor General’s Literary Awards — an award Urquhart won in 1997 for her novel The Underpainter . Books, of course, are objects too, and if “material culture” tells us what we value (as Urquhart asserted), then what better book to usher us toward both a celebration of our country’s 150th birthday and our longest running appreciation of the literature created here.
Charlotte Gray once got into trouble for referring to Library and Archives Canada as “a morgue,” but on October 17th, the scene at the LAC was most definitely alive. After being introduced by Festival director Sean Wilson and LAC director Guy Berthiaume, Gray asserted that the past is where Canadians must look if they are to find a coherent present. It is precisely in the archives, she argued, where we will find both our current identity and our future together. Gray’s newest book, The Promise of Canada: 150 Years – People and Ideas That Have Shaped Our Country is a deliberately open-ended story of a nation whose story is still evolving. Structured as a series of nine short biographies, The Promise of Canada portrays the country as the product of its citizenry. The choice of which individuals to include is obviously subjective, and Gray acknowledges that the presence of neither prime ministers nor hockey players will undoubtedly be a shock to some readers. Instead, the better- and lesser-known figures included in Gray’s book portray a country where stereotypes fall apart on closer inspection, where the act of inclusion – whether in publishing, legislation or storytelling is an act of nation-building. Gray presents The Promise of Canada is an immigrant’s sesquicentennial gift to her new home country. That gift is not just the story of the nine figures profiled in The Promise of Canada, but the start of a new conversation about what it means to tell the story of a nation.
Gray began her presentation with some of the highlights from her research: phenomenal images by painter Emily Carr; political intrigue and scandal-worthy gossip about George-Etienne Cartier and the moving life story of Elijah Harper, who rose to prominence as an Aboriginal leader in the Manitoba legislature in the 1990s. Gray tied each individual’s story neatly to her main themes of Canadian national identity: a commitment to federalism; an evolving dialogue of inclusion and multi-culturalism; the on-going human relationship with Canada’s vast and unforgiving natural landscape. The themes of immigration and outsider status also work their way through the Gray’s project, as does the recognition of a certain national tendency towards pragmatism and away from heroics. (Why, Gray asked, do so many Canadian narratives feature the lone survivor as a protagonist, as if public attention was merited only by the accident of survival from disaster?) Humorously conceding that her book is a reflection of her own interests and experiences, Gray invites readers to make their own lists of influential people and ideas. The Promise of Canada is a lively remedy for what Gray sees as a public tendency to disengage with Canadian history.
Identity shapes how we see the world and how others interact with us. Through fiction, poetry and journalism, these writers illuminate the realisties of racism, isolation, identity and history for Indigenous people across Canada. Writing offers a new window onto the world and through their books stories these Indigeous writers are shifting the conversation about Idigenous rights in Canada.
Wrist by Nathan Adler's Wrist
October 21 @ 8:30PM
Nathan Adler is a member of Lac Des Mille Lacs First Nation. His debut novel Wrist is an indigenous monster story that will draw you into the lives and stories of the Ojibway people. In 1872, a group of dinosaur hunters in northern Ontario were driven made by a bizarre and frightening illness. Over a hundred years later, the same illness threatens Church and his family. He must delve into his family’s dark history to protect the secrets of his people. He will be part of our Paranormal Prose panel with Kelley Armstrong and Kristi Charish. Click here for tickets and information.
Passage by Gwen Benaway
October 23 @ 8:30PM
Two-spirited Indigenous poet Gwen Benaway’s new collection of poetry, Passage, explores the the effects of violence and the burden of survival for indigenous people. The poems in her collection take readers from Northern Ontario to the Great Lakes, looking at family issues, a legacy of colonization and a new sexuality and gender. She will be joined by Vivek Shraya and Ivan Coyote. Click here for tickets and information.
The Break by Katherena Vermette
October 24 @ 6:30PM
When Stella, a young Métis mother, looks out her window one evening and spots someone in trouble on the Break—a barren field on an isolated strip of land outside her house—she calls the police to alert them to a possible crime. The Break, nominated for the 2016 Writers Trust Award for Fiction and the Governor General's Award, by Katherena Vermette, presents a series of shifting narratives, people who are connected, both directly and indirectly, with the victim—police, family, and friends—tell their personal stories leading up to that fateful night. Through their various perspectives a larger, more comprehensive story about lives of the residents in Winnipeg’s North End is exposed. Vermette will be joined by Zoe Whittall and David Bergen. Click here for tickets and information.
Invisible North by Alexandra Shimo
October 24 @ 8:30PM
When freelance journalist Alexandra Shimo arrives in Kashechewan, a fly-in northern Ontario reserve, to investigate rumours of a fabricated water crisis and document its deplorable living conditions, she finds herself drawn into the troubles of the reserve. Unable to cope with the desperate conditions, she begins to fall apart. Part memoir, part history of the Canadian reserves, Invisible North: The Search for Answers on a Troubled Reserve offers a vivid first-person account of life on a troubled reserve that illuminates a difficult and oft-ignored history. She will be joined by Deborah Campbell and Joy Kogawa. Click here for tickets and information.
A Postcolonial Performance of scenes from The Tempest
October 25 at 6:30PM
As we celebrate the 400 years since Shakespeare's death with Margaret Atwood and retelling of The Tempest in Hag-Seed, we are also inviting Keith Barker and Walter Borden to present a Canadian, post-colonial reimagining of some of the key scenes from The Tempest. Click here for tickets and information.
Witness, I Am with Gregory Schofield
October 26 @ 8:30PM
Gregory Scofield is of Métis of Cree, European and Jewish descent. In his new work, Witness, I am, he addresses themes of identify and belonging and the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women. He weaves his personal perspective and knowledge of indigenous culture into his work, creating poems that are powerful and moving. Schofield will be part of our Poetry Cabaret with Sandra Ridley, Stuart Ross and Stephen Brockwell. Click here for tickets and information.
This fall four writers take us behind the firing line with stories about war and the people it affects. Drawing on personal experiences, as soldiers, journalists and researchers, each writer places the realities of war in perspective with accounts not often told on the outside.
October 23 @ 6:30 pm
In one panel we bring together three novelists who question and explore the theatre of war. In his novel, Into the Sun, Deni Ellis Bechard paints an unsentimental portrait of the impact journalists, mercenaries, messianic idealists, and aid workers have when they flood into war zones. Bechard brings Kabul to life, portraying citizens who are determined, resourceful and as willing as their occupiers to reinvent themselves and survive. Peter Behrens’ Carry Me, is both a love story and a historical epic. The reader gains a fresh perspective on Europe’s violent twentieth century, from the Isle of Wight to London under Zeppelin attack to Germany during the Weimar period. Kevin Patterson’s new novel News From the Red Desert begins in 2001 when everyone thought the conflict in Afghanistan was over. The novel then delves into the mess, confusion and death of a war that was not yet won, and the lives of the men and women involved. Click here for tickets.
A Disappearance in Damascus
October 25 @ 8:30 pm
In the midst of an unfolding international crisis, journalist Deborah Campbell, undercover in Damascus to report on the exodus of Iraqis into Syria following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, finds herself swept up in the mysterious disappearance of Ahlam, her guide and friend. Haunted by the prospect that their work together has led to her friend’s arrest, Campbell spends the months that follow desperately trying to find her—all the while fearing she could be next. A Disappearance in Damascus: A Story of Friendship and Survival in the Shadow of War is a frank, personal account of a journey through fear, and the triumph of friendship and courage. Campbell will join Alexandra Shimo and Joy Kogawa to talk about the crossover between journalism and memoir. Click here for tickets.
An Ongoing Battle with PTSD with Romeo Dallaire
November 30th @ 7pm
Roméo Dallaire, traumatized by witnessing genocide on an imponderable scale in Rwanda, reflects in these pages on the nature of PTSD and the impact of that deep wound on his life since 1994, and on how he motivates himself and others to humanitarian work despite his constant struggle. Dallaire wll talk about his struggles with PTSD and how it has motivated him to help soldiers better deal with the muddy reality of modern conflict zones and to revolutionizing our thinking about the changing nature of conflict itself. Click here for tickets.
Children of Earth and Sky with Guy Gavriel Kay
October 21 @ 6:30PM
Guy Gavriel Kay's novels have captured the imaginations of readers for decades. His latest novel, Children of the Earth and Sky takes place in a fictional world inspired by the conflicts and dramas inspired by Renaissance Europe. In a world where danger lurks on every side, the story follows the lives of several characters who set sail on the same ship and find their lives and fates entwined.
Paranormal Prose with Kelley Armstrong, Kristi Charish and Nathan Adler
October 21 @ 8:30PM
M. G Vassanji's Nostalgia
October 22 @ 8:30PM
Award winning Canadian author M. G. Vassanji is no stranger to new lands, real or fictional. But his new novel, Nostalgia takes on the dystopian genre in Brave-New-World-esque future set in Toronto. The rich live forever by erasing their memories and implanting new ones. A doctors who is attempting to help others keep their old memories from seeping into their new life suddenly discovers he has his memories of a past life. But what do these memories mean? And what will he learn about himself?
Margaret Atwood's Hag-Seed
October 25 @ 6:30PM
Margaret Atwood is back with a new retelling of Shakespeare's The Tempest in Hag-seed . In her retelling, Felix, an Artistic Director of a theatre festival, plans what should be an unforgettable performance of The Tempest but when he is ousted from his position and sent into exile he lands a job teaching theatre in a prison. Atwood once again takes us into an exploration of the prison system where the prisoners as actors, in a theatrical plan to snare Felix's enemies. It’s magic! But will he succeed?
Before the evening’s main event, our own Daniel Bezalel Richardsen stands at the lectern to launch the latest issue of
, the Festival’s literary review magazine that is now in its fourth year of being. For Daniel and the other Foment volunteers (myself included) it has been a labour of love, and something we are all extremely proud to be a part of.
The man we are all here tonight to see is David Mitchell, who starts with a short reading of a passage from his most recent book,
. In the passage, a young boy named Nathan is visiting the mysterious Slade House with his mother in 1979. He has befriended another young boy called Jonah and together they are playing a game called Fox and Hound. As they play, the garden of the house starts dissolving before Nathan’s eyes, and Jonah transforms from innocent young boy into a snarling beast – but is this real or due to the fact that Nathan is high on Valium? We are left wondering.
The evening is hosted by Peter Schneider, a long-time friend of the Festival. Schneider opens the conversation by asking Mitchell about the libretto that he wrote for his Dutch composer friend, Michel van der Aa, for the 3D opera film Sunken Garden. Schneider commented on the similarities between the material for the Sunken Garden and Slade House. Mitchell responded that he hates to waste material, it evolved into a new story within Slade House. He wanted a go at a ‘ghost novella’, the novella being a unique form to conquer this genre, by shortening the typical word count of the average ghost fiction. This is simply Mitchell being Mitchell – subverting the status quo and flipping it on its head.
When Schneider commends Mitchell on the fully dimensional characters within his novels, Mitchell balks at the praise, describing the compliment as something akin to likening him to ‘a giant among pygmies’. He believes that to do anything less than provide his readers with fleshed out characters with distinctive voices, would mean that he wasn’t doing his job as an author very well. This modesty further endears you to Mitchell, whose self-deprecating charm has already sucked me in, all the more.
Though Slade House is a shorter work than Mitchell’s other novels, it is no less richly imagined. Schneider questions Mitchell about his attention to structure, pattern, and design, which is prevalent in all his works. Mitchell settles in for a lengthy discussion – he loves talking structure and jokes that he could talk about it all night. He states that structure is the author’s chance to be truly innovative – it is the casing for the narrative, which makes the novel better. On the subject of structure, Mitchell mentions Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life as an example of a book he read whose structure he was greatly impressed by.
Mitchell lived in Japan for eight years in the 90’s, and Schneider questions him about the impact the country had on him as a writer. It is clear he is influenced by the country, as he wrote his first two books there and he says that his early novelistic role models were all Japanese. His lack of the Japanese language contributed to the discipline of his writing, he described himself as “linguistically infantilized”, saying that having no one to talk to made him more introspective and insular. Mitchell talks about the dichotomy of the country, saying that it’s almost as if there are two Japans – the ancient Japan of wisdom and silence, and the neon, futuristic Japan of today. Despite their differences, they blend together to create a country of immense depth and history.
During the hour-and- a-half chat between Schneider and Mitchell, many deep and thought-provoking topics were discussed – the rise of technology and the effect it is having on children today; conformity versus individualism; the bond that story-telling creates between generations of humans; and finally Mitchell’s work towards heightening awareness about autism, and how having an autistic child has made him a more enlightened parent. With every new topic, Mitchell gave all of himself to the conversation, holding nothing back and speaking honestly and openly about his opinions and experiences. I believe this quality of his personality attributes to his astounding success as a writer – his ability to feel deeply and to express himself eloquently and profoundly.