Ottawa book lovers who chose to come inside on a beautiful Sunday afternoon to attend Guy Gavriel Kay’s talk were not disappointed. This was Kay’s sixth visit to the Writers Festival, and the packed room was evidence of his continuing popularity.
Brandon Crilly stepped up to introduce Kay, leading in with a preview of Kay’s latest book, A Brightness Long Ago. Crilly described how Kay manages to take a complex historical story, in this case from fifteenth-century Italy, and give it a quarter turn toward the fantastic.
As Kay approached the podium, he slid his reading glasses onto his nose, and began by saying that his sincere goal in writing was to reduce the gap between what was in his imagination and what ended up on the page. Kay read from an early scene where the character Adria Ripole first approached the chambers of the Beast. The room was silent as Kay spun his tale. Just as the intensity was rising, Kay chuckled saying, “and because I’m a really mean person…” and he closed the book. The audience breathed a collective sigh and laughed along with him.
In the interview between Crilly and Kay that followed, Kay responded with candour to questions about his process and the struggles he faces as a writer. He has a horror of being bored by his own writing, which challenges him to reach for the uncertain and to write about different historical periods. Research being so important to him, he often takes three or four years to publish a new book, and he thanked the audience sincerely for their patience. (As a side note, he spoke of the pressure on writers to publish a new book each year).
Speaking of the research process which preceded A Brightness Long Ago, Kay explained how thrilled he had been to discover examples of Renaissance women who were unwilling to accept the role foisted on them by society. He wanted a protagonist who was historically accurate, not a twentieth-century protagonist thrust into a historical setting. Kay highlighted his fascination with the many parallels which can be found between the past and the present, noting at the same time how strange the past can be. Thus, Kay often introduces an element of the fantastic in order to put the reader right smack in the middle of the world as they understood it in the past. He quoted the oft-repeated aphorism, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.”
Kay spoke with humour as he finished up his talk, saying how he was “brutally at the mercy” of his own self-consciousness, and that he did not know what was next. He spoke to writers in the audience, candidly discussing his constant anxiety during the writing process and his fear that he wouldn’t be able to portray all that was in his head in a way that was meaningful to the reader. He did admit, however, that in this case he’d done a fine job. The audience laughed with him again.
It was a special privilege to be able to purchase “A Brightness Long Ago,” ahead of its release date of May 14th. Many of the audience lined up to have him sign their books, this reviewer included.
Cory Doctorow returned to the OIWF to discuss the forces behind Radicalized, his collection of four novellas: “Unauthorized Bread,” “Model Minority,” “Radicalized,” and “The Masque of the Red Death.”
In conversation with Derek Künsken, author of The Quantum Magician, Doctorow explained how Radicalized rose out of his anxieties over Trump derangement syndrome. He asks us to consider whom technology works for, and whom it works against.
We are entering what Doctorow calls twenty-first century feudalism—where technology users are convinced to accept a shift from owning to leasing, and where the technology that mediates our daily lives is designed to impose restrictions for the profit of monopolizing corporations with limited liability.
Doctorow calls for legislation to respond to facts, to serve as a regulatory force to protect the public’s interests rather than the profits of corporate oligarchs. Whether concerning climate change, privacy breaches, or systematic disempowerment, apathy is an exploitable resource.
Doctorow expects our society will come to a point of peak indifference, then the accumulation of crises will drive us to pursue change. The risk, however, is that if harmful trends aren’t acknowledged until it is too late, denialism will become nihilism, which encourages defeatist passivity rather than activism.
Any system built on denial will collapse, Doctorow observes. When the inevitable crash happens, it’s the people at the bottom of the power chain who pay the price for poor management executed by those at the top. Meanwhile, those in power exploit the system as much as they can before the crash, rather than guiding the system towards sustainability. The richest can accumulate resources to prepare for the worst—but even if you have a bunker, isn’t it just better if society doesn’t collapse? The future is profitable, but only if we have a future. Or in the less mercenary terms Doctorow prefers: it will all be so great if we don’t screw it up.
Then there’s radicalization. Doctorow stresses that while technology enables individuals to network and form hate groups, radicalization is not an indiscriminate conversion process contracted by exposure to radicals and their ideas. Because a strong predictor of radicalization is suicidal depression after trauma, Doctorow asks how we can shape society to minimize its members’ exposure to trauma.
Doctorow’s work in sci-fi and activism is not undertaken to predict the future, but rather to shape it. He points out that when you are aware of the forces that affect human motivation, and how past, present, and future are connected by patterns of human agency, you can use code, law, market, and norms to shift the power dynamics that are perpetuating an unstable system.
According to Doctorow, the key is neither optimism nor pessimism, but hope—hope in human agency. When you can’t deny that the system is unsustainable, you can try to change the system to mitigate the crash. To that end, he gives us “unauthorized bread,” the keys to unlock our minds, and enough freedom to be dangerous.
Listening in on Lucy van Oldenbarneveld’s conversation with Kim Thùy left me feeling like I had just enjoyed a great meal with two good friends, which is fitting, given that the conversation focused on Thùy’s new cookbook, Secrets from My Vietnamese Kitchen.
Over the course of an hour, Thùy regaled the audience with tales from her home, her travels as a writer and her experiences in a Malaysian refugee camp. Humble, humorous, reflective and empowering – Thùy and Oldenbarneveld explored how food can bring people together, communicate feelings, and bring out the best parts of humanity.
Using Oldenbarneveld’s questions as springboard, Thùy responded with a contagious energy. Thùy had the audience in awe with her ability to cook for three different palates at home (her husband and two sons), then in stitches with her humble brag about her contribution to the Quebec gene pool. Early in life, Thùy told her rapt listeners, she had been allergic to everything, including moderate temperature variations. Now, she can handle the Canadian cold and, by her own admission, is completely indestructible. Thùy also reflected on the beauty and blessing of being able to age, and she had her audience on the edge their seats with her tales from Italy, where flavors of gelato need to be individually appreciated and a bead of sweat can test the limits of human control.
Thùy explored the intimacy and expression allowed by the rituals of cooking and sharing food. In her family, food is the most frequents means to express emotions. Instead of asking “How are you?” or saying “I love you,” it is the act offering of food (“Have you eaten?” “Try the chicken!”) and sharing of meals that provide the most poignant displays of affection. I was especially moved by Thùy’s story of sharing a Coke among thirteen members of her family, including her six year-old brother, in a refugee camp in Malaysia. Despite the heat and thirst, each family member took only the tiniest sip each time the drink was passed. A single Coke was shared three times amongst each of the family members, without anyone having to say a word.
In addition to being an amazing storyteller, Thùy also demonstrated an openness with her audience, especially in her willingness to learn the meaning and weight of new words. Oldenbarneveld’s uncanny ability to get to the heart of the matter facilitated a language lesson none are likely to forget, done with a humor and grace that resonated with this audience member and second language learner.
Over the course of an hour, Thùy and Oldenbarneveld’s intimate discussion on food, family and feeling left me sated. That said, if seconds had been offered, I would have gladly stayed for more!
On a gorgeous Saturday afternoon, an enthusiastic crowd gathered at Christ Church Cathedral to enjoy the wit and wisdom of fantasy writers Kate Heartfield and S.A. Chakraborty. Both Heartfield and Chakraborty are well known amongst fantasy fans, as is local author Amal El-Mohtar, who hosted the event with ease and humour. El-Mohtar launched into the discussion by highlighting the value of fantasy fiction and how the creativity of it allows us to tackle big issues. “But all fiction is fantasy, and then you just have sub-genres. Like domestic realism,” she quipped.
Heartfield’s Alice Payne novellas feature a time-travelling thief turned reluctant hero, while Chakraborty’s City of Brass features a con woman in Cairo at the end of the 19th century who accidentally summons a mysterious djinn warrior. (Chakraborty’s sweeping adventure continues with Kingdom of Copper). These are very different stories—and yet, they both have their genesis in the world we know and see today.
In 2016, Heartfield explained, she started thinking about where the world was headed. She noted that there used to be an accepted sentiment that we, as humanity, were generally progressing toward something better—that we had a direction, even if there were bumps along the way—but that this sentiment has since disappeared. Heartfield couldn’t help but think of the role of small decisions in creating both history and the future—which is how time travel fit into the themes that she wanted to explore. With her degree in political science, Heartfield wanted to examine ideologies in a stripped-down, non-partisan sense, but she also began to consider the ways in which the past remains with us and continues to shape the future.
Chakraborty also made a deliberate choice to use her story to shine a light on issues facing us today. “I had a lot of feelings about my country, and I wanted to talk about tyranny,” she explained. Tyranny, Chakraborty continued “doesn’t happen because there is one bad guy. People in society do not want to examine their own role in it—and if you are part of the majority, you do have a role in it—and I wanted to deal with fixing the place you love without placing the burden of doing so on the people being hurt the most.”
The hour flew by for this event, and I very much appreciated the candid discussion. One of the things that I loved about it was how wholeheartedly everyone on stage recommended books by other authors. In particular, G. Willow Wilson was emphatically endorsed, as was Saladin Ahmed. For those hoping to read more about djinn, the anthology The Djinn Falls in Love & Other Stories (which includes stories by El-Mohtar and Neil Gaiman) should be at the top of the list.
Here’s hoping that both of these authors will return to the festival with their next exciting installments.
Plus, El-Mohtar has a book coming out this summer, so stay tuned for details about the launch!
Finding genuine connection in our seemingly disconnected world is a challenge. Douglas Rushkoff, an American media theorist, graphic novelist and advocate for open source solutions to social problems would question that statement. He would retort by asking us to turn to the person sitting next to us or take a “digital Sabbath” and get to know our neighbours. The key is to rely less on technology because “we use technology to connect and it undermines that connection, dehumanizes us,” he told Writers Festival attendees.
Six years after his last appearance at Writers Fest with his then newly-released book, Present Shock, Douglas Rushkoff returned to OIWF’s stage to share his frustrations about the digital economy and concerns about the state of humanity in a heavily capitalized world. This time, he encouraged us to join, or rather acknowledge, our undeniable belonging to ‘Team Human’.
Inspired by his podcast of the same name, Team Human is not a utilitarian book, but rather a “linear experience of a non-linear phenomenon.” If it is anything like his amusing conversation with Sean Wilson on May 4th, then Team Human is a book of contrasts and moments of hilarity. Rushkoff offers a critical examination of our present; and a remarkably relatable look at the past.
By letting ourselves, our lives, and our data be colonized by technology companies, Rushkoff argues, we are essentially serving an operating system, a chartered monopolistic corporate economy which might have been designed by twelfth-century monarchs. In medieval times, citizens bought and sold in peer-to-peer marketplaces using a barter system and local currencies. In other words, we, humans, exchanged value. With the arrival of central currency, many people became willing to borrow money and pay interest in order to finance economic growth. As a result, today, we rarely sell value and instead, we spend our hours working for others. Naturally, this perpetuates consumer alienation and isolation, making us easier targets for manipulation embedded in advertisements. Our humanity – our skills, intrinsic human value and relationships with others – are undermined and dominated by the values of the market.
Rushkoff perceives the state of human affairs as comprising of the inevitability of our extinction. He draws attention to our weirdness and wonderfulness; our ability to withstand multiple forces, including that of technology; our soulfulness; and our hunger for sensation. Digital media is only a symbol, technology is reactionary (not disruptive, as we are often told) and the internet drains rather than energizes us, he argues. To get back to our roots, to connect, to rediscover our value, and to truly and wholeheartedly join ‘Team Human,’ we must build rapport with one another. Rushkoff wants us to conspire, or ‘breathe together,’ to dare to look into someone’s eyes on occasion. The resulting solidarity and renewed connection may surprise us, he concludes. It may be just the nudge we need to disrupt the status quo.
Nominated for a Hugo Award for best new writer for her Daevabad Trilogy, S. A. Chakraborty continues the sweeping adventure begun in The City of Brass, with her latest book The Kingdom of Copper. With djinn who summon flames at the snap of a finger and three young heroes who have a role to play out, as well as a life to live, her books are captivating readers of all ages. Ahead of her appearance at our festival on May 4th to talk about Imagined Worlds with Kate Heartfield , Manahil Bandukwala interview S.A. Chakraborty to get a view into the writing process, inspiration and future of the Daevabad Trilogy.
MB: Hi Shannon! Congratulations on the success of The Kingdom of Copper. Could you talk about your experience writing the book? What was it like writing into the world and politics of Daevabad that you establish in The City of Brass?
SAC: It was both a lot of fun and very difficult. I had a hard time switching from having all the time in the world to write a book I never thought anyone else would read, to working on a strict deadline for a book I knew some very opinionated fans would definitely read! In regards to the actual story, however, I really enjoyed letting it expand and breathe. There is often a lot of worldbuilding to set down in the first book of fantasy series and it was nice to have already established that and to set the characters on new adventures.
MB: The djinn world is so vivid in your writing, which I find interesting because while it’s an integral part of Islamic mythology, it’s also often very mysterious. What was your research and writing process like when creating the six djinn tribes?
SAC: Ironically enough, my research predates the book as I’ve long been interested in the medieval Islamicate world and had planned to pursue further studies in graduate school. When that didn’t work out (thank you, Great Recession!), I didn’t want to leave everything behind and so I started creating this magical version of the history that I loved, trying to fill in the blanks when it comes to djinn.
Djinn show up in both religious texts and folktales quite often, but they’re often the mysterious, unnamed interloper or villain. We speak of how they have their own world and customs, that the Prophet Suleiman punished them, but I wanted to go beyond that and center their world, making humans the weird outsiders. So, I took Suleiman’s punishment as a jumping off point and then reimagined how they would have rebuilt their world, quietly imitating the humans around them.
MB: Writers often talk about characters taking on a life of their own, and as a writer you don’t have control over what they do. Do you find this is the case when writing characters like Nahri, Ali, and Dara?
SAC: Absolutely. I’m typically a rather meticulous planner—I’ve got multiple to-do lists and schedule events months out—but when it comes to writing, I am the absolute opposite. I tend to draft with a very loose framework in my mind and really let my characters respond to the story as seems fitting at the moment. I find my best scenes tend to come about organically—though this can be frustrating when I attempt to outline!
MB: In The Kingdom of Copper, Nahri is working as a doctor. You mention that you worked in healthcare and this informed why you chose this profession for Nahri. Could you talk more about that?
SAC: Certainly! There were a lot of fantasy tropes I wanted to dive into and reinterpret in these books—the orphan with a secret, noble background, the jaded con artist, the brooding handsome warrior with a tragic past who must be the hero, right?—but one I really wanted to play with was the idea of magical healer. Listen, healthcare is a rough field. You’re seeing people at their worst and most vulnerable and people—both doctors and patients—are messy, complicated creatures who react to this in different ways. I wanted to show Nahri truly growing into this role, including all the struggles and setbacks that would include. And I wanted to show that this would take practice—years of it—rather than some innate talent on her part.
MB: In an interview on Pen America, you talk about building characters who need to confront their roles as oppressors. Why is this necessary?
SAC: Because a truly just world requires accountability. The problems and inequalities that plague society aren’t the sole responsibility of a handful of tyrants and monsters—they persist because it’s often easier for a large part of population to avert their eyes and just try to get by—or quite frankly, for them to not see anything wrong until it’s pointed out by the people being hurt the most—a burden they shouldn’t have to shoulder. And this is normal! I wanted to write characters who don’t start out knowing everything and show that it’s not only okay to be humbled and confront the worst parts of your past—it’s how you grow and effect true change.
MB: I love that you have a section on your website dedicated to sharing fan art from the Daevabad trilogy! How do you feel seeing fans of your work visualizing your world?
SAC: It’s one of the best parts! There are honestly not enough words to describe what a surreal and spectacular experience it is to see other people add their artistic talents to these characters who’ve lived in my head for so long. I love it.
MB: On that note, what is interacting with your fandom like for you? How does having a fandom make you feel?
SAC: It feels amazing! I mean, there’s definitely pressure because I’m a people pleaser and I’m trying to stick to what feels right for the story. But I’m a huge nerd and have been a sci-fi/fantasy fan for so long that to see people raving about my book and dissecting out different theories like I do for other properties is just so cool.
MB: Without giving away too many spoilers, what can you tell us about what’s coming next for Nahri, Ali, and Dara?
SAC: It’s very difficult not to spoil things! But I’ll say Dara is learning the victory he’s always dreamed of comes at a brutal, bloody price—and one he might never shake. Nahri and Ali of course find themselves in a very different place, with options I don’t think they ever dreamed of having. We’ll also be seeing another part of the djinn world!
Want to know more about djinn, Nahri, Ali and Dara? Come out and hear S.A. Chakraborty on Saturday May 4th.
In The Reality Bubble Ziya Tong looks into the structures that govern our lives, from science to society, and on May 4th she will join us in Ottawa to talk about her book with host John Geddes. Ahead of her conversation on our stage, Nina Jane Drystek asked her a quick five questions to get some more insight why she wrote her book.
NJD: In the Reality Bubble you look at the ways in which we see the world and explore the things happening around us that we don't see - from the structure of matter to waste management systems. What was it that got you thinking about the reality bubble we live in?
ZT: I’m fascinated by the unseen systems that govern our lives, much in the way scientists are. If you think about it, it’s incredible because so many things that make our daily lives run smoothly — from the electrons in our cell phones to satellites in space — are things we don’t really see, and for many of us don’t really understand. As I started looking deeper, I began to realize that we are blind to many of the ways in which we survive as a species in the 21st century - and this, in effect, is the ‘reality bubble’ that the book aims to pierce through.
NJD: It's amazing how much ground is covered in this book. You bring in anecdotes, research and facts from many different fields of study–physics, biology, ecology social sciences and more. The ideas flow really well from one to another and it makes each topic very approachable. How did you go about bringing your research and ideas together to tell the story of the reality bubble?
ZT: That’s very kind of you. It was a lot of thinking. Years of thinking. The book itself took just over a year to write, but creating a way to synthesize the different fields into a storyline took a lot longer. It actually took me 3 times longer to write the proposal than to write the book itself.
NJD: What is the most surprising thing you learned in writing this book?
ZT: That half of the nitrogen in our DNA comes from a factory.
NJD: You've been advocating for people to take action on climate change and environmental issues. How do you see your book fitting into this conversation?
ZT: Well, I wouldn’t call this an environmental book --in fact I think the word ‘environment’ is used only once or twice — and that’s because Chapter 2 suggests that the notion that there is any sort of environment at all, is an illusion. That said, this book does tackle how 7.7 billion human beings currently eke out a living on the planet - and makes it crystal clear that the system we have created to do so is about to implode.
NJD: What do you hope readers take away from your book?
ZT: If I’m lucky, and I’ve done my job properly - an epiphany.
Before Samra Zafar was married as a young woman she had dreams of pursuing her education. She had a different definition of a full life than those among her friends and family, and for years she struggled against cultural expectations to achieve these goals. In the end it meant leaving her husband and losing some of those closest to her. But she also made huge gains.
Ahead of our conversation with Samra Zafar on May 5th , Manahil Bandukwala interviewed her about why writing about her experience has been an important step in her life.
MB: Hi Samra, the theme of your event, “The River of Life,” is on finding strength, struggling for empowerment, and making defining choices. In A Good Wife, you talk about finding the strength to leave the past behind. Where do you find your strength?
SZ: I believe our strength lies within us. Strength does not mean the absence of weakness. Strength means getting up and moving forward despite the weak moments. I have always faced (and continue to face) times when I feel weak, broken and afraid. And I choose to get up one more time, and take one more step.
The other very important factor is the support system around us. Human connection creates resilience–and I always seek out and cultivate relationships, friendships and connections that I can lean on or get advice from when times get tough.
MB: You also talk about difficult choices, such as the choice to leave your husband. Can you talk about the choices you’ve made that have shaped who you are today?
SZ: I’m a strong believer in taking charge of one’s own life. Our lives are shaped by the choices we make, every single day - the choice to believe instead of give up, the choice to hope instead of despair, the choice to forgive instead of avenge, the choice to love instead of hate. I always thought if I don’t respect my dreams, no one else will. Despite a lot of opposition, I never gave up on my dreams and I kept making the choice to hope and strive. And today, I make the choice to forgive–because by occupying space in my heart with hate, anger and resentment, I leave less space for love, joy and happiness.
MB: Lots of women have reached out to you after encountering your writing or hearing you speak to talk about their own situations. What effect do you find sharing your story has?
SZ: I started sharing my story because I knew it was the story of millions of women and girls around the world who continue to suffer in silence because of fear, lack of support and other barriers. By raising my voice, I am helping others reclaim their voices. Thousands of women write to me with their stories of struggle and triumph, and how I have inspired them to save their own lives. It’s a privilege and an honour to be able to touch lives this way.
MB: In an article in The Toronto Star, you mention that your older daughter encouraged you to share your story. You started writing and publishing more, including sharing the story in Toronto Life that eventually went on to become A Good Wife. Why do you write? What pushes you to write?
SZ: Every morning, I wake up to dozens of messages on my social media from people across the world who have been impacted and inspired by my work. For example, just 2 months ago, a woman wrote to me how after hearing me speak, she went to the police to report her abuser and put the shame where it belongs. That is what keeps me going, and I will never stop.
MB: You’ve spoken at TEDx Mississauga and Amnesty International, among other places. How does your writing fits in with your public speaking? How did this influence the writing process of A Good Wife?
SZ: My writing and speaking complement each other very well. They are two avenues of amplifying my messages. The success of A Good Wife has opened up new speaking platforms where I can drill deeper into the nuances and structural roots of abuse, and how we can challenge them as a society. And stories from the lives I touch through my speaking make their way into my writing. It all goes together hand-in-hand.
MB: In addition to being a writer and speaker, you work in banking. How does this fit with your writing and advocacy work?
SZ: I now work at BMO as Director, Business Finance. I am very proud to work in an organization that advocates and takes action for gender equity and social justice. In my role, I empower women entrepreneurs across Canada in their success journey, while creating impact in our communities. The bank fully supports my speaking, writing and advocacy work as it fits in beautifully with the company values.
MB: What’s next for you?
SZ: Next is getting A Good Wife in the hands of women across the world!
MB: Do you have anything else you want to add?
SZ: With success comes responsibility. I want to encourage everyone to pay it forward, in their own ways, and reach out to offer connection. Even the smallest action, a few kind words, on our part can have a life changing impact on others.
Téa Mutonji’s Shut Up You’re Pretty is her debut short story collection and the first in Vivek Shraya’s VS imprint with Arsenal Pulp Press. “Téa’s manuscript stood out to me for its unexpectedness,” writes Shraya. “These were coming-of-age stories, yes, butevery ending was a punch in the gut—not unlike the experience of racialized girlhood.”
Both writers will be at the 2019 Spring edition of our festival, but before we sit down to talk with them in person, Ottawa poet Manahil Bandukwala interviewed Téa Mutonji to get a glimpse into the origins of the collection and to get a feel for Mutonji’s writing style.
MB: Hi Téa, congratulations on your debut collection! Your event at the Ottawa Writers Festival involves mentorship. Can you talk about your experience working with Vivek Shraya and how it shaped your book, as well as your literary journey?
TM: Thank you so much! It still hasn’t hit me yet, and I’m not too sure why! I don’t think I would have survived navigating CanLit any other way. I can’t imagine any other scenario involving me publishing without first having had the support and mentorship from Vivek. I can say with confidence that I’m an entirely different artist having now worked so closely with Vivek. A lot of what she was able to offer me was more on the personal side. Vivek has a lot of courage, strength, and trust in her work, and that’s something I’ve never really been exposed to. There is a bit of a self-deprecating culture among young Canadian writers, or perhaps the groups I’ve specifically explored. Vivek didn’t have that. Vivek redefined the relationship an artist may have with her work. And because she never shut down a single idea I had, and only encouraged me to explore it to its most raw and unexpandable form, I learned to love my own work. I think that’s the most important thing I’m taking away from this experience. I’m going to love reading these texts out loud. I’m going to love it all. I definitely didn’t have this sentiment at any point in my writing career.
MB: In an article on UofT’s website , you talk about how the inspiration for your collection was a long-form poem you wrote called “Pretty Woman.” How did the poem become the collection we have today? What was the process of translating poetry to short story like?
TM: The poem “Pretty Woman” is about a little girl realizing that because of the way she looks, she’s going to experience a particular narrative. In the end, her mother almost suggests that it’s true for every woman who looks like her (black, pretty, queerish, soft). Though I didn’t take much from this poem in terms of structure or narrative, I took this conflict between the inner self and the external self. I built this character, Loli, entirely based on this poem. The original manuscript was called Notes from a Pretty Woman, and it was a collection of short poems/maybe flash fiction prose, maybe observations on how having a fixed identity will cause certain narratives. Instead of an abstract, supposed narrative, I wrote actual, tangible, and concrete examples of what this all meant for Loli. The poem was actually my first publication, in 2014.
MB: The first line of “Women Talking” reads “The morning of my abortion, I ate a full meal.” Shut Up You’re Pretty is full of starting lines like these that just pull you in. How do you know when you have that good first line?
TM: This is from years of training under Andrew Westoll. He, as a professor, would urge us to start every story with a scene. A lot of us went for dialogue right at the top of the page. I usually went for a bald statement. I went for: “Last night I was raped and now today I’m awake.” (That’s an actual first line from a story I wrote during a class assignment.) A few other things I took away from Andrew: show don’t tell, excite don’t confuse, start at the middle. We worked on this short, final, direct writing together. I expressed really early on in my academic writing career that I didn’t like the thesis form of creative writing. I like to start at the end, perhaps. I like to start where the heartbeat has caught up.
MB: Lots of the stories in your book show snippets of the narrator’s life. Some are especially short, like “Tilapia Fish,” which is two pages long, yet I think that was my favourite story in the book. What makes a short story complete?
TM: I’m not necessarily sure what makes a short story complete. To me, it’s usually the end of a scene because I do have that ongoing format of writing stories as though they’re a scene in a very long indie film. I end every story the same way I end every poem: when I’ve said all that needed to be said. Sometimes, that means the story doesn’t end at all, but it just lingers between myself, the page, and the reader. And sometimes, I think that’s the most beautiful way to say goodbye. I think “Tilapia Fish” does that.
MB: What makes a good short story?
TM: Truth. To me, truth makes a good short story. With so much restriction, it would be such a disservice to everyone involved in the reading process (the character, the reader, myself) to have a story that lacks depth. That lacks the real juices of the human condition. Even a story entirely about robots, or flowers, or buildings has human condition. Human instincts. Human desires to feel and to unfeel.
MB: In an interview in Read Local BC, you talk about the subtleties in your story that a Congolese protagonist would notice that other people would not. Something that appears as representation is really just instinct – could you talk more about that?
TM: The question about scent was an intentional decision. I notice scent. I notice sound. I notice wrinkles, first. I had a friend in high school who once walked into my house, greeted my mother, and said, “Your house smells like Africa.” It wasn’t an insult; he definitely didn’t mean it like that. Mother and I took a big inhale and concluded that it was true. Palm oil boiling in the kitchen, fried plantain cooling in the dining room. We’re so used to so much conflicting sounds (baby crying, drama outside, cars, people walking) because of such thin walls, that we hear everything first. I don’t necessarily think I meant to say all Congolese people notice this, but I mean for sure that I personally do, and I think that’s contingent on the spaces I’ve occupied as a Congolese girl. Giving that to Loli was actually an accident. Something I’m just personally used to playing with. I love that she has that. It’s so true to her culture, in some ways.
MB: What’s next for you in terms of literary projects? What are you currently working on?
TM: Film! Well, I want to tell the tales of Loli and Jolie in a more accessible medium. I say accessible because my mother won’t read the book. English is just not her preferred way. And even if there was a French translation, she still wouldn’t read it because literature isn’t her preferred way. But she’d watch a film. Over and over again. And I love that. I want to give her that. There’s also a little (long) novel in my heart, and it’s taking up most of my time. It has a lot of love and hope in it. But in true personal fashion, I do push my characters boundaries again.
MB: Do you have anything else you want to add?
TM: Vivek is the absolute best mentor. Everyone needs to submit to her imprint or music grant. She will be there for you every step of the way and beyond. Even if there wasn’t a publication deal attached to this, I would say that very loudly. Nothing compares to developing the skills and patience you need to continuously work at your craft. Vivek gave me that. And also, now I think I can do anything. I think I can do film and write a play and travel the world. I guess I’m saying I’m not afraid of dreaming anymore.
Memoirs can take us inside the lives of people just like us or those who are completely different. They let us experience the world through someone else’s eyes and each time, they leave us changed. From May 2nd to 7th we’ll explore stories of love, peace, change and strength with our memoir writers.
Yousef Bashir – The Words of My Father
Friday, May 3rd • 6:00 pm
In The Words of My Father, Yousef Bashir describes the experience of growing up in Gaza amid the region’s complex maelstrom, and talks about being raised by his father whose message of peace now strongly resonates with him.
Kim Thuy – Secrets from my Vietnamese Kitchen
Friday, May 3rd • 7:30 pm
In her first cookbook, novelist Kim Thuy shares stories of food and family from whom she learned appreciate good cuisine.
Yasuko Thanh & Samra Zafar – The River of Life
Sunday, May 5th • 6:30 pm
It takes strength to break out from the life you have known and pursue your dreams. Sometimes those closest to you are the biggest detractors, and sometimes the biggest obstacle is yourself. Coming from two very different walks of life, Yasuko Thanh and Samra Zafar share their stories of perseverance and transformation.
Joshua M. Ferguson, Lorimer Shenher & Kristen Worley – Beyond Binaries
Sunday, May 5th • 8:30 pm
As a filmmaker, a cop, an Olympic cyclist, and writer our memoirists have excelled and pushed the boundaries, but some of the most challenging boundaries they have pushed are those dictated by gender. They share their experiences so that the next generation of transgender and non-binary folks will feel seen, heard and less alone.
Alicia Elliott & Terese Marie Mailhot – Living History
Monday, May 6th • 8:30 pm
When it comes to colonization, the impact can sometimes seem abstract but the effects are experienced in a myriad of ways, from food security to interpersonal relationships. In their memoirs, Alicia Elliott and Terese Marie Mailhot bring those experiences to the forefront.
Vivek Shraya – Death Threat
Tuesday, May 7th • 8:30 pm
It takes a lot of strength to live publicly, and sadly, sometimes, taking the chance to be open about who you are comes with hate mail and death threats. In her new graphic novel, Vivek Shraya explores the meaning of these threats and wonders if we can move beyond hate to a place where safety is a given, not a condition.