A review in the form of a drawing.
An audience of intrepid armchair explorers gathered to hear Bob McDonald talk about all things space, as drawn from his new book, An Earthling's Guide to Outer Space. It’s safe to say that his debut at the Ottawa Writers Festival was a roaring success, as his talk generated laughter, gasps, and lengthy applause.
McDonald has been explaining scientific findings to enraptured audiences since 1972. Most people know him from CBC’s Quirks and Quarks, which he has been hosting since 1992. McDonald’s latest book is written as a series of answers to questions that young people often ask, and each chapter finishes with activities to really get their minds connected with the subject at hand. McDonald’s own childlike enthusiasm was both touching and palpable; he barely contained his smile throughout the talk. At one point he brandished a beach ball that looks like Earth, giddy at the idea of just how far our knowledge has come in the past several centuries.
As a young boy, McDonald’s imagination was sparked by a planetary science book given to him by his mother. McDonald’s latest work is inspired by the generations that come after him, and there were tears in his eyes when he claimed “if even one kid is inspired, it’ll make a difference.” Alas there were only one or two possible candidates for the Guide’s target audience of 7-14 year olds present, but as host Laurence Wall told the audience: “everyone is a young person tonight!”
If you’ve ever wondered what we’ve gotten wrong about space in the past, the answer is apparently: almost everything! Our five senses are not sufficient to really see or appreciate much of the vastness of the cosmos . As a result, many people were led to believe that the universe actually revolves around us. (I know some people who still believe this to be true in their own lives). One reason for this conclusion was because the movement of the Earth can’t be felt. Presently, we can only really see about 5% of the contents of the universe. Trivia fans were not disappointed when McDonald revealed, amongst many other things, that it would take us 100,000 years to reach the centre of our galaxy – and that’s if we were able to travel at the speed of light.
Interest in outer space couldn’t be more timely, given all the current fears about climate catastrophe on Earth. Talk turned to what civilization might do now we’re potentially facing the beginning of the end. Is there anywhere out there we can escape to? Is a mass exodus to Mars viable? Or perhaps another planet will be discovered as a new land to colonise? McDonald’s predictions for space travel in the next hundred years include the development of space tourism, hotels in space, as well as tourists and colonies on the moon and on Mars. More poignantly, he told us that instead of looking to a plan B, we need to focus on saving our planet. As he told his audience: “We live in the crown jewel of the universe. We need to move from protest to proactive… My exploration of space has made me love this planet.”
With no migration of humanity on the cards, perhaps An Earthling's Guide to Outer Space will help both children and adults alike see how good we have it here, by showing them what else is out there.
It was standing-room-only in Manx Pub, a warm and intimate setting befitting of the occasion, as lovers of poetry and spoken word gathered together on October 27th to celebrate the launch of Arc Poetry Magazine's latest issue. The camaraderie between colleagues and strangers alike was infectious as attendees waited for the event to begin, a testament to the sense of community which has evolved from the magazine and its influence on the Canadian literary scene. The murmur of the enthusiastic crowd only faded as Frances Boyle, Arc’s associate poetry editor, took the stage to open the evening and introduce "Labour and Livelihood," the 90th issue of the magazine. The new issue of Arc explores the idea of “work” in all of its many definitions and facets, Boyle explained, as well as the relationship between poetry, identity and labour.
To demonstrate how this theme is put into practice, Boyle introduced Mike Chaulk, the first of the three contributors in attendance that evening, to read his poetry and reflect on his own relationship with “work.” Reading from his series “How Long do Birds Live?”, Chaulk began by presenting his poems “The House Wren” and “The Golden Crowned Kinglet”, both of which were existential pieces that reflected upon the modern tendency towards passivity over activity. Many people could be seen nodding along as lines hit home, and the room laughed and hummed at shared experiences, which good poetry always illuminates. With his final reading of the night, Chaulk explored the question of identity and Indigenous issues, perfectly encapsulating the theme of the issue which seeks to explore how poetry and identity intersect with labour.
Next to the stage was Andrea Thompson, who presented several spoken word pieces, each of which was just as poignant as the last. In “A Brief History of Soul Speak”, Thompson reflected on the influence of black literary art on spoken word while paying homage to Langston Hughes, Booker T. Washington, and other “ancestors of verse.” Thompson also lamented that so many other stories remain unsung, and emphasized the work that still needs to be done within the literary scene to make room for these voices. As Thompson artfully delivered her poems, the audience once again collectively nodded along and met her with warm applause when the last notes faded out.
Finally, Eli Tareq Lynch got up to present several moving pieces that dealt with gender, religion, race, and climate change. Reading their poem “When I Lived on Acadie,” they reflected on how they are too busy making progress and moving forward to notice all those who only stand, and stare, and judge. Lynch demonstrated an inspiring level of dedication to the work they have chosen which struck all those in attendance. A line from their last poem “Underwater” really resounded with the evening, as they asked “how do you muster optimism when everything seems doomed?” How do we find the motivation to move forward when so much stands in our way, and progress seems impossible? How do we persevere against all this adversity? Because, as Thompson pointed out in her poem “Free Write Manifesto,” poetry is “filled with magic, healing, and connection,” all of which give us the strength to get up and get on with our work. You can find this connection with a diverse and beautiful group of writers in the latest issue of Arc Poetry Magazine, available through subscription and at your local magazine stand.
I have a confession to make: I was already a huge fan of Amanda Jetté Knox before she appeared at Writers Fest.
I stumbled across her blog just a few short months before her middle child came out back in 2014, and I followed along as she introduced the world to her daughter – and then to her wife. Jetté Knox truly leads with love, and I was delighted to find that she is just as warm, witty, and wise in person as she is online.
Jetté Knox was the first panelist of the evening to read from her book. She chose to read the passage about the night that she and her spouse received a life-changing e-mail from their 11-year-old, telling them who she really was, and how they put aside their shock to love their daughter unconditionally.
Holy schnikes, folks.
I already knew the story. Like I said, I read the blog post ages ago. I’ve also heard Jetté Knox on the radio and seen the local CBC coverage of her family.
And yet, there I was, sitting in the back row and fighting off the Ugly Cry. (I wasn’t the only one, right?!)
Rick Prashaw also read selections from his book, choosing to highlight his late son Adam’s voice through social media posts. (I was lulled into a false sense of security when my eyes didn’t prickle at first – but Prashaw certainly got me when he later spoke of Adam’s death and organ donation, noting that Adam’s heart continues to beat in another man’s chest).
During the ensuing discussion, both Jetté Knox and Prashaw talked about why they chose to tell their families’ stories. Back in 2014, Jetté Knox’s daughter had searched for positive examples of other young people coming out as trans—but she mostly found stories about kids being utterly rejected by their families. On a similar note, in a blog post way back when, Jetté Knox mentioned that she also searched for positive examples of marriages surviving transition when her spouse came out – but she, too, was left empty-handed. Part of her family’s intention with the book has been to fill the narrative gap and to provide a window for people wanting to learn more about gender transition.
Prashaw, in telling his story as a parent, also wanted to talk about the steep learning curve he faced. “I had to be honest. I confessed all the mistakes I was making,” he noted. “But listening, learning, and loving worked well for us as a family – and I highly recommend it.”
Jetté Knox agreed. “Love isn’t perfect. We are going to make mistakes when we learn new things, even when it involves people you love unconditionally.”
But, my goodness, does that love ever triumph.
“My family members bring out the best in me,” Jetté Knox continued, beaming. “The authenticity with which they’re living their lives…They have the strength, hope, and determination to show the world that this can be a very happy and beautiful situation.”
In fact, one of Adam Prashaw’s friends contacted Rick Prashaw after reading Soar, Adam, Soar. The friend summed it up perfectly: “Thank you for writing this love story.”
A common denominator of humour kept the audience laughing at the Ottawa International Writer’s Festival, while the rain came down on a dreary Sunday afternoon. Laurie Gelman has recently released her second book You’ve Been Volunteered, part of her Class Mom series. The book takes a humourous look at the trials and tribulations of being a Parent Teacher Association (PTA) Class Mom volunteer. Dave Hill’s most recent book, Parking the Moose: One American’s Epic Quest to Uncover His Incredible Canadian Roots, was written by the author as he tried to find out why his grandfather had always claimed that Canada was better than the United States.
Gelman has a strong Ottawa connection, having attended both Vincent Massey Public School and Carleton University. After a successful career in radio and television on both sides of the border, Gelman decided to stay home with her two children for a few years. When she turned 50, Gelman decided she would write about her experiences as a parent volunteer in her children’s school. “Women in the US turn the PTA into their own fiefdom,” observed Gelman. “You have a Mom who left her job as one of the Fortune 500 company presidents to raise her kids, and then decides to put her energy into the PTA in their child’s school.”
People can relate to the social scene in You’ve Been Volunteered because it is the same anywhere you have a diverse group of people who are working towards something together, Gelman added. The PTA experience can be found anywhere, in a church group, or even a book club, said Gelman. People are often telling her stories of their own experiences, and Gelman said she has enough material to go into a third book for this series.
Dave Hill’s experience was that of an American who had always heard tales of Canadian exceptionalism from his grandfather. He then decided to come and find out for himself what his Northern neighbor was really like. In the course of researching Parking the Moose, Hill travelled to Montreal, Moosejaw, Regina, Winnipeg, Merrickville, as well as Clinton, Ontario, the birthplace of his grandfather.
Growing up in the US, Hill observed, everyone is taught to believe that their country is the best, and not many Americans are curious to explore their neighbor to the North. “I’ve never met an American who’s been to Saskatchewan, and I don’t think I ever will,” said Hill. He chose the places he travelled to in Canada, because of a particular connection, said Hill. For instance, he went to Winnipeg, since his Grandfather had worked in a clothing factory there. Along the way, Hill had many Canadian experiences, including stopping a sled dog team in mid-ride to let two dogs “get it on” on a trip in Quebec. He tried his hand at axe-throwing in Halifax and made a point to attend NHL games whenever he could.
Both writers said they really liked coming to Canada, especially with the current political scene in America. Hill admitted that that he lives in New York, which he considers an oasis from the political scene. Still, he observed, “Coming to Canada is nice, because you don’t have to see or hear Donald Trump, every minute of every day.”
Sally Armstrong opened an afternoon trifecta of empowering women’s authors and speakers with a glimpse into her newest book Power Shift: The Longest Revolution. Armstrong's readings from the book, which is based on her 2019 CBC Massey Lectures, left the audience gasping, nodding, and at a loss for words at times. The renowned Canadian journalist, documentary filmmaker, and human rights activist sometimes called ‘La Talibanista’ or “the war correspondent for the world's women” filled the room with wholeheartedness, unapologetic fierceness, and faith in the gradual progress of feminism.
Armstrong’s commitment to authenticity in writing and reporting resonated in every word and anecdote she generously shared with her audience. She once had to hire a man, “a bearded turbaned Danny DeVito,” to accompany her to go to Afghanistan, otherwise she would have been refused an entry visa. While in Sarajevo reporting on the impact of the war on children in the Balkans, Armstrong came across a horrifying story about gang rapes of 20 000 women as old as eighty and girls as young as eight, and handed it off to an international news agency. To her shock and disappointment, Newsweek published a mere four-line write-up. As it turns out, nobody wanted a women-only story. Armstrong went back and wrote it anyway, and just one year ago the grandchildren of one of the victims she had interviewed, Eva Penavic, reached out to her to say they persist in the search for justice for their grandmother even though the perpetrators are now too old and ill to be tried. Armstrong’s response: “the perpetrators are guilty.”
Armstrong is a woman of bold claims, including “women invented agriculture,” “the earth is shifting under the status of women,” and “women were not illiterate.” In 2012, a British anthropologist discovered that blue stains on the teeth of a German nun’s skeleton dating to sometime between 997 and 1162 A.D. were in fact from lapis lazuli, a deep-blue metamorphic rock used by ancient scribes. Further examination showed that many of the books stored in monasteries and supposedly written exclusively by monks were, in fact, written by nuns.
Recognizing that women’s history has been flawed from the start and left women out on the sidelines, Armstrong vows to overturn the unfair status quo. After the suffrage, the 1960s, and Hill-Thomas sexual harassment case in the 90s, we are now on the threshold of the fourth wave of feminism ushered in in 2012 by social media, the narrative of inclusion and intersectionality, and hashtag feminism. The hope for a more equal future rests in social movements that start within and are rooted in personal will. “Goodness comes from people looking out for each other. Our voice is the most powerful tool. We have to be willing to say, ‘that’s not OK.’”
Moreover, Armstrong asserts,“inequality is costing a fortune. Violence against women costs us $1.3 trillion a year.” A fellow male journalist, an editor at Newsweek, once accused her of “always going on and on about the women.” Well, I think we should be admiring and praising her for it. I hope she never stops.
What is the price of silence? What happens when the constructs of language break down or are insufficient to communicate the realities of trauma, grief, or suffering? Discussion host Daniel Bezalel Richardsen led authors Anar Ali (The Night of Power) and Rebecca Fisseha (Daughters of Silence) in a thoughtful discussion on the experiences of personal trauma and loss. Captivating their audience, the authors each opened with a key reading from their novels and introduced listeners to the concepts of home, family, and struggles with abuse. Ali and Fisseha explored how each of their characters are an expression of their own memories and, as Fisseha stated, how writing creates an opportunity to co-exist with the past.
Central to the evening’s conversation was the idea that history continues to affect us, whether that history is our own, or that of our family or community. Writing is a way to convey the past’s importance and to achieve a sense of wholeness, as Ali beautifully stated. Language is a conduit for personal connection and the sharing of history from one generation to the next. However, as Ali and Fisseha explored throughout the evening, language can also be our greatest barrier to connection, especially when in is not fluent enough to portray true depth of feeling and personal experience. Throughout both of their books, there is much that is left unsaid, including topics and memories that the characters themselves are not able to express. Secrets, especially those surrounding grief or trauma, can be kept silent for generations, creating an underlying feeling within a family or a person’s life that something is incomplete or missing.
Language fails us further when there is a lack of understanding. Fisseha spoke of her own memories of an intergenerational divide, where two individuals who spoke the same language were still not able to communicate effectively with each another. A barrier arose, inhibiting true understanding and empathy. Silence developed when understanding was not received on either end of the conversation. When words are not fully understood by all parties, there is a risk of miscommunication. That risk is a threat to both personal relationships and the greater context of cultures and communities. These books tackle the joys and struggles associated with idea of “coming home” as the characters confront new and different people, places and cultures. The risk of miscommunication runs higher with greater disparity of place and background. Yet at the heart of it, these characters, and perhaps every one of us, is simply seeking to form real and true connections and community.
Richardsen led the authors in a conversation about this inability to communicate suffering, whether it is from fear, uncertainty, or pain. Ali and Fisseha spoke of their own struggles with speaking openly and honestly after difficult and traumatic experiences. In contemplating her own writing process, Ali mused that she wanted to draw on emotional truth and the honesty of real life. She closed the night by explaining that everyone writes from an identity, sharing their story as they experienced it, but that all stories are universal. Our literary landscape has space for a multitude of voices. Ultimately, what is most beautiful about our culture and our art as Canadians, is that we are able to share our own histories and experiences with one another to create a greater and stronger collection of voices.
The descriptions of the books that were to be the subject of “Make Tomorrow” made me think “science fiction!” Not the brash, exploding sort of science fiction, doing obeisance to technology and human hubris, but the kind that looks ahead thirty years, fifty, maybe a hundred, where you can see our world but where the writer changes certain elements to help you to see it with new eyes. ‘Dystopian near-futurism’? Whatever the label, I was intrigued and wanted to hear more. And, I resolved, having just purged my personal library, I would visit the festival and buy no new books; no, the discussion would suffice.
Michael Christie described the flow of his novel Greenwood, following a family through time from the outer ring of a tree -- itself a principal character -- to the centre, then back out again. Indeed, the book’s table of contents is a lovely cross-section of that tree, labelled with the years in which the book’s events were set. Through a creature with roots and branches made of wood that is “time, captured, a cellular record, a memory,” he explores identity as experienced and shaped through family. Christie spoke of wanting to delves into the essential nature of family relationships in all their complexities, as well as what our family trees, for all their desire to record and explain our connections, leave out.
Johanna Skibsrud’s Island doesn’t fit the ‘near-futurism’ label particularly well, it turns out, though it does seem dystopian. (The novel is set on a fictional island, echoing Thomas More). But the conversation was no less engaging for that. Skibsrud’s novel explores questions of identity expressed in terms of race, class, inequality, and addiction in a setting different enough from our own that we can hear it. Significantly, Skibsrud spoke of wanting to illuminate talk about such questions via “real bodies in a real place.” In Island, she also tried make visible what is so often inaccessible to us and our language (e.g., the wired infrastructure behind invisible wireless technology). Indeed, her focus on embodiment in the context of a story about a revolution made me wonder whether she saw any conflict between seeking change and preserving place, between revolution and human flourishing.
Host Stephen Brockwell brought out other parallels between Greenwood and Island. Strong female characters are prominent in both stories as “powerful agents of change,” people who are after something, engaged, active and drive the narrative forward. He asked too whether the questions and issues addressed in the books drove or inhibited the story, to which both authors responded that narrative and the novel seemed the best vehicle to broach and explore questions of this kind. After all, as Christie put it, a “novel is a container for life.”
The discussion wasn’t quite what I had expected, but that offered no barrier to an engaging and stimulating discussion.
And I bought books. Of course I did.
Amy Jones and Terry Fallis are two of the OIWF’s “repeat offenders.” Both authors love to challenge their audiences, as well as make them laugh. Jones’ last appearance at the OIWF was in 2009 with a book of short stories; Fallis took the stage in 2017 with his seventh novel. Both writers are funny and witty, both live in Toronto, and their October 25th joint book talk was their third such event in the last two months. On Friday evening, along with their new novels, Amy Jones and Terry Fallis brought a dose of humour, a bucket of laughter, and a plate of food for thought for a packed audience as they introduced their characters’ struggles, tribulations, and triumphs in the face of fame.
Amy Jones’s novel Every Little Piece of Me is a book about growing up in the spotlight and coming to fame reluctantly. The character of Mags Kovach is a musician, the lead singer of a struggling rock band in Halifax. Her friend Ava Hart is an unenthusiastic cast member of a reality TV show portraying her New York City’s family’s efforts to run a Nova Scotia inn. Ava has been on the show since she was a teenager, forced to navigate growing up, coming into her own identity, and being famous all at the same time. Ultimately, fame has become an insidious desire within her. Every Little Piece of Me chronicles a friendship in which the two characters may not always make the best decisions, but they always support and encourage each other, especially as no one else understands their predicament or the heavy toll of fame.
The protagonist of Fallis’ eighth novel Albatross, Adam Coryell is an ordinary high school student with a girlfriend and an extraordinary passion for fountain pens and writing. Suddenly, as a result of his gym teacher’s interest in an obscure theory by an eccentric Scandinavian scientist, Adam finds out that he has a body perfectly suited for golf, a sport he neither knows how to play nor cares about. “Lucky” for him, he needn’t practice or even think about the sport lest it impede his innate abilities and weaken his skills. Throughout the novel, the readers follow Adam’s unexpected and shockingly rapid rise to fame as a golfer making millions of dollars within months virtually through no fault or effort of his own. Fallis yet again demonstrates his wry and gentle way of describing reality and using humour as a tool for social comment, an entry point to examining another serious issue – the dichotomy between success and happiness, fame and fulfillment, gift and burden.
Jones and Fallis once again showed us why they are two of Canada’s best-selling authors. Interwoven in their respectively unique and humorous books are serious and even heartbreaking insights into the meaning of our work, agency over our lives and decisions, consequences of success, and origins of happiness.
The Ottawa Writers Festival’s opening night concluded with Poetry Cabaret, an intimate conversation about listening to Indigenous voices and finding balance. The event was hosted by writer and scholar Tracey Lindberg, who is a citizen of As’in’i’wa’chi Ni’yaw Nation Rocky Mountain Cree and from the Kelly Lake Cree Nation community. Phoenix Sandrock of Poetry in Voice opened the event, reading aloud Billy-Ray Belcourt’s “Love is a Moon Time Teaching.” Poetry in Voice is a Canadian organization that encourages students to read, recite, and write poetry. Silence fell across the room as Sandrock brought Belcourt’s words to life. Afterwards, Lindberg welcomed both Belcourt and Katherena Vermette to the stage to read from their work.
Katherena Vermette opened with the haunting title poem from her newest collection, river woman. Vermette is a Métis writer from Treaty One territory and much of her work refers to her hometown of Winnipeg, Manitoba. Her previous works span several genres, including North End Love Songs, her first book of poems, which won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Poetry. Vermette is also the author of the novel The Break, a series of children’s books and graphic novels, and short documentary film, this river. “I like to acknowledge the rivers in these places; they are why we are here,” she said, reminding the audience that most major Canadian cities were settled along shorelines. Vermette related her experience of writing while also shooting the documentary this river, which follows the work of the volunteers from the non-profit organization Drag the Red as they search the Red River in search of evidence of missing loved ones. Vermette also read aloud “where” and the beautiful love poem “I write you into every word every.”
Billy-Ray Belcourt is from the Driftpile Cree Nation and the author of two books of poetry: This Wound is a World, which won the 2018 Griffin Poetry Prize and his newest collection, NDN Coping Mechanisms: Notes from the Field. His forthcoming work, A History of my Brief Body, will be released in next year. Belcourt read “Flesh,” a powerful work based on the erasure of words from Walter L. Williams’ 1986 text The Spirit and the Flesh. He followed with “The Wall Clock Caught Fire from Neglect” and ended with an homage, “NDN Brother.”
After the readings, Tracey Lindberg opened the conversation with the seemingly simple question: “Who got you into this room?” Both Vermette and Belcourt’s replies spoke to the strong tradition of Indigenous writers before them. Belcourt characterized this “chorus” of Indigenous voices as “rebellious but joyous,” while Vermette credited earlier Indigenous writers with tearing “down those walls so we could come forward.” As the conversation continued, both also spoke of their experiences presenting their works to non-Indigenous audiences, each describing their own coping mechanisms and the need for a balance between offering an open and honest venue for exchange and safeguarding their own time and energy. The conversation was at turns serious and light, as Vermette and Belcourt expanded on the themes of melancholy and anger in their poetry, as well as the need for resistance through the arts, but also noting the humbling effect of spending time at home with a toddler. The evening closed on an optimistic note, as Katherena Vermette captured the energy and excitement of reading emerging Indigenous voices: “Indigenous writers, we are just getting started.”