The issue features a foreword by Jonathan Kay, editor-in-chief of The Walrus, and an afterword by Kate Heartfield, of the Ottawa Citizen. We also feature a special interview series with editors at The Globe and Mail, Maisonneuve, and Herd Magazine.
Foment is the annual literary journal of the Ottawa International Writers Festival, Canada's largest independent literary celebration. It is entirely produced by volunteers, typifying an engagement that is unique in the world of literary festivals. Foment means “to incite” or “stir up,” even “to nurture.” As a journal, Foment seeks to nurture “the quality of the mind” by vigorously engaging with the ideas and works of festival authors. Foment will be an outlet where aspiring writers can express their reflections. Foment seeks be a vessel which edifies, enlivens debate, and provides a thoughtful outpost on a diverse range of books.
ENJOY THE READ!
This past Wednesday night’s Writers Festival event was about as Ottawa-ish as you get. Former Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page sat down with CBC’s Alan Neal to discuss his book, his old job, and the state of Canada’s institutions.
Centretown United Church was nearly full, with people spilling over into the balcony seats. And while this might be encouraging for those of us concerned with voter apathy and growing civic disengagement, I couldn’t help but notice the sea of white hair. It is well and good that seniors are engaged citizens, but the fact that young people are largely uninterested in such an event supports Page’s larger concerns about the state of the country and its government.
Page’s concerns centre around the state of Canada’s institutions and the government’s culture of fear. His book – Unaccountable – speaks to these issues and Page’s role as the country’s first Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO). The PBO was established in 2006 to provide independent financial analysis to Parliament. Page was the first head of the office, serving in the position from 2008 to 2013.
While the book is clearly quite timely in its release (hint – there’s an election soon, and you can make sure you’re registered to vote), Page is the first to admit that an election won’t fix the issues. No government wants to be transparent and accountable, so it is up to the electorate to demand it.
There is reason for cynicism, however. Page’s most famous hour came in 2011 when he uncovered that the true cost of the Conservative government’s proposed F-35 purchase was billions of dollars higher than they were telling the public. An election was called, largely because of this very issue, and Canadians handed the Conservatives a larger mandate by giving Harper a majority. Canadians may talk about wanting government transparency and accountability, but we do not seem to demand it from our leaders.
In a now infamous 2012 interview, CBC’s Julie Van Dusen asked Page if the government was purposefully misleading the public. Initially, Page dodged the question as good economists and bureaucrats often do. But Van Dusen – who was in the audience and brought up on the stage by Alan Neal – asked again, sensing that he was the kind of person “that would have a hard time fudging.” Page said that at that moment he no longer cared. Very bluntly, and much to the embarrassment of the government, Page answered “yes."
Always a thorn in the side of the government, Page was derided by those in the highest positions of power. This, however, proved his worth as PBO. No government appreciates those who hold it to account, which is probably why the PBO is understaffed and underfunded. Page noted that he “signed in blood” to build the PBO to be transparent, analytical, and open. He did what he could; however, the government – who campaigned in 2006 on transparency – is now doing what it can to be as secretive as possible.
Despite Page largely preaching to the choir, Wednesday’s event was informative and motivating for everyone in attendance. He kept an optimistic, personal, and even humorous tone given the cynical nature of the topic. He spoke candidly about the loss of his son and constantly brought up the great work done by his colleagues in the PBO. He is a public servant to the core – wanting only what is best for the country. While he has harsh words for the state of the country’s institutions, one cannot help but feel optimistic going forward. If there are people like Kevin Page working to better the country, maybe the future could be bright after all.
On a windy, rainy Saturday night, Alan Neal welcomed a packed, sweaty Centretown United Church full of all ages of people to unceded, unsurrendered Algonquin territory – territory he joked belongs to “true old stock Canadians.” The crowd was giddy to begin with, and burst into raucous applause and laughter. At the front of the church, vinyl records covered every surface surrounding Neal, and a slideshow played above him, cycling through album art.
The woman we were about to see was a legend to me, but for different reasons than most other people in the church. I had heard her name numerous times, without really knowing who she was, without having ever listened to her music. Based on the standing ovation she received when Neal spoke her name for the first time, everyone else knew of Buffy Sainte-Marie.
We were all gathered to watch CBC’s All In A Day host Alan Neal discuss over five decades of Sainte-Marie’s songwriting. The timing of the event was just in advance of the announcement of the Polaris Music Prize winner on Monday, September 21 (Sainte-Marie was shortlisted for the prize earlier in the summer). However, it was hard to hold a conversation on the topic of songwriting for very long. Neal seemed to know Sainte-Marie’s music inside out; he would find patterns in her music over the years and play clips of them for her to explain the songwriting process. But, Sainte-Marie would repeatedly say, writing a song is like dreaming. You don’t plan your dreams out before you go to bed at night – you can’t even be sure if you’ll have dreams when you fall asleep. But when you do dream, you can’t control what it’s about, or when it’s going to happen. It just does.
Despite the spontaneity that goes into her songs, Sainte-Marie talked about the organization behind some of the songs that took her years to write. She writes everything down (she stresses the importance of keeping everything in a journal – even grocery lists), and completes her notebooks with tables of contents, theme organization keywords, and notes about her moods so she could revisit old writing years later and piece together her songs.
It’s hard to believe Sainte-Marie is 74 years old – her energy was contagious and she had the audience calling back their agreement at her while she bounced out of her seat talking about her songs and experiences.
Although at times I felt like an outsider for having not experienced Sainte-Marie’s influence throughout my life, I certainly felt like I was in the presence of someone unique. She emphasized how the idea of play guides her life, and stressed that we all have childlike creativity inside us, it just tends to be “shushed up from school” as we grow up and imagination isn’t valued as much.
It was clear that Sainte-Marie doesn’t write songs for anyone but herself – she writes them because she can – and she is brazen about her talent. “God, I’m good!” she exclaimed when Neal read out some of her lyrics to the crowd. Later, she said it’s not ego to be able to appreciate the things you’re capable of. Good art speaks for itself.
Sainte-Marie is incredible in her understanding of what is really important to all of us, and she has written songs that have timeless significance. She repurposed “Look at the Facts” from her 1976 album Sweet America into the song “Carry It On” from her latest album, Power In The Blood. The lyrics are still as powerful now as they were originally, especially with the current state of our climate:
If you got the sense to take care of your source of perfection
Mother Nature, She’s the daughter of God and the source of all protection
Look right now
And you will see she’s only here by the skin of her teeth as it is
So take heart and take care of your link with Life
Despite her ties to and respect for the earth, Sainte-Marie is no stranger to technological innovation. She was the first person to record a totally quadraphonic electronic vocal album in the 1960s, and would send her computer-recorded songs over the Internet in the 1990s. She talked about how, as a folk musician, she received backlash for creating music with computers. However, she insists computers are just tools for us to use. They don’t replace the human talent it takes to play instruments or create music; they’re simply another means for us to create art.
At the age of 74, Sainte-Marie seems like she has it all figured out. She has stood for many causes throughout her life, and she continues to provide a strong voice for Aboriginal Peoples. I’m excited to listen to Power in the Blood, and even without having listened to it, I know the music is probably worth the Polaris Prize many times over. Buffy Sainte-Marie has power in her blood. And I think she knows it.
“Not a great start for a professional tough guy, huh?” coughed Jody Mitic, as he choked back tears on stage in front of spectators this past Thursday evening. Taking place in the Canadian War Museum, the night saw the launch of Mitic’s new book Unflinching: The Making of a Canadian Sniper, chronicling the military life of Mitic, his transition into civilian life, and everything in-between.
Presenting in front of Mayor Jim Watson, a full-house of fans, and nearly 1500 metric tons of tanks and artillery equipment, Mitic began the night by reading aloud the introduction to his book, something he had reportedly never done before, let alone in front of a crowd. The introduction told the story of the dramatic mission that saw both of his legs destroyed by an enemy IED in Afghanistan. As he mimed out the actions that he was reading on stage, it was clear, that although this was an event that he had recounted many times, the emotions of that day still stuck close to the surface.
Hosted by CTV’s Kevin Newman, the night saw Mitic talking about his personal experiences, both in and out of the military. Mitic, while clearly emotional throughout the night, described his life and experiences with the coolness and confidence that you would expect from a decorated sniper such as himself. While going into great depths about the night that saw him loose both legs, neither Mitic nor Newman let that be the focus of the night, branching the conversation out around the events that made Mitic the man, the soldier, and the father that he is today.
A gun fan at an early age, Mitic recounted his role models in life, from his father who taught him to question the rules, to his uncle who told him that being a Top Gun pilot may be a bit too lofty of a dream for a 10 year old. From there, Mitic described his early life in the armed forces: getting chewed out by ranking officials, understanding the basics of what makes a valuable sniper, and learning not to take any of the fighting that he was about to part take in seriously.
When asked whether he regretted any of the decisions that lead him to this point, Mitic responded with a confident 'no'. He was proud of role he played in shaping the Afghanistan, and while he acknowledges that you should not expect to see changes over night, he feels content in the actions he took to steer the country in a different direction, for the sake of the younger generation.
At the beginning of the night, museum Director General Stephen Quick stated that the role of the museum was to preserve the experiences, consequences and effects of war, both on nations, and individuals, and reflect just what role Canada has had on the world stage. No better was this goal realized than at this book launch, with the personal stories of one Canadian sniper brought to life on stage. Thoughtful, confident, and at times emotional, Jody Mitic showed the audience just what it meant to him to be a Canadian sniper, and he promises his book will help shed even more light on the experience.
Canada's 42nd election is heating up and the heat was definitely felt in the Centretown United Church on a surprisingly warm September evening. The house was full of attendees fanning their programs trying to catch a breath of air and eager to get a glimpse into the life of the incumbent up for re-election and the subject and title of John Ibbitson's latest book – Stephen Harper. John Ibbitson himself described the evening as ‘sultry’, which I found a marked understatement considering he had dressed for the occasion in a suit and tie and was surely melting from the inside. Before yielding the podium to Ibbitson, Andrew Cohen listed the staggeringly impressive list of achievements that John Ibbitson has accomplished – the two have a long history together, Cohen describing them as “old friends who agree on nothing.”
As Ibbitson stepped up to speak he explained that to rile up his old friend, he would pre-emptively ask and answer the questions he's heard most while on his media tour for this book. The first; why doesn’t the book have a subtitle? Ibbitson knew from the beginning that he didn’t want to write what he deemed a ‘colon’ book. He noted that whether you are a fan of the man or not, you cannot deny that as Canada’s sixth longest serving PM the country has been shaped and changed because of him in ways the author claims will be hard to undo. In the spirit of full non-partisanship, Ibbitson disclosed that the book lists both Harper's good and bad accomplishments, but that the focus is largely on the man himself. Ibbitson says he likes politicians for the social creatures that they are and admires the fact that most enter public life to make the country a better place, even if he may not agree with what the problems or solutions are.
We learned that the first half of the book follows Steve Harper, as he was then known, and how influences by his father Joe and his growing dissatisfaction with Canada's political landscape shaped him into the man who would eventually become Prime Minister. Ibbitson sees as seminal the fact that, although as a student with perfect grades, Harper dropped out of Trinity College within the first month. This would go on to inform Harper's regionally-focused politics as he rejected entering the ranks of the ruling class of Ontario and Quebec, the Laurentian Elites, as opined by Ibbitson in a previous work. Ibbitson claims Harper can hold a grudge and has a large chip on his shoulder, which he channelled into his running as a candidate for the newly-formed Reform Party of Preston Manning. Harper soon discovered the anti-Laurentian consensus sentiment was shared by most western voters and once he realized the same could be said for many suburban ridings across the country, laid out a strategy for success in a 22 page memo to Manning, who disagreed. Harper would go on to use this strategy to win the highest office in the country years later.
Through previously unattainable access to close confidants and friends, of which Harper has very few, Ibbitson shed light on a loner and introvert. A loyal son and brother. A devoted father. A loving husband and equal partner to his wife Laureen, who he met while she was campaigning against him. Ibbitson made clear that beyond family there are very few people Harper will confide in. Perhaps this is because, as Ibbitson later claims while answering a question on disgraced Senate appointments, the man is a poor judge of character. The author points to the many moments throughout Harper's life when he could not accept his place under any figures of authority, which may be why he eventually sought the only job where he wouldn't have to take orders. Jokingly, Ibbitson points out the tarnished relationships Harper has with the last two authority figures a Prime Minister must defer to; the President of the US and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada. As a PM who ran a rather tight and secretive administration, this book successfully humanizes the man many have come to see as stern, cold and calculating – something voters of all opinions can benefit from. It turns out the private man and the politician are closely tied, as Ibbiston stated: “The face of Stephen Harper’s government is Stephen Harper’s face.”
The book goes into details about Harper's handling of federalism, his revamping of the Conservative movement in Canadian politics, the running of campaigns during many elections, his foreign policy, and the many other fundamental changes to Canada implemented while in office. Each decision was made after long and reclusive contemplative sessions, revealing the extent of Harper's intellect. Yet none, as the author answers to an attendee's question, illustrate just how shrewd Stephen Harper is as what many will only discover years after his tenure is over: Mr. Harper re-polarized the Canadian political landscape to leave a lasting legacy of what he set out to accomplish in the first place, specifically, the most basic of conservative tenets – to make government less of a factor in people's lives. On this, Ibbitson believes he has succeeded, but far beyond the current administration. Harper expected the rise of the NDP as a counterbalance to his leaning further to the right and he won't see a swing back to the left on October 19th as much of a setback. The polarization of Canadian politics is here to stay, and empirical data the world over shows that countries with such political landscapes tend to sway right more often than left over time. This profound notion of the multi-levelled implications of the Harper Government's stratagem left me with a more nuanced understanding of the current elections, and, as I returned home through Ottawa's downtown core, I still felt the punishing heat, but now too the thick political tension in the air over who will lead this country into the future.
I must confess, going into this event I had not read any of Azar Nafisi's books. Somehow, despite it being on the New York Times bestseller list for more than a hundred weeks, I had completely missed the staggering success of her first memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran. The book is Nafisi’s recounting of her time as an English professor in her native Iran, where she hosted a secret book club for a small number of female students, teaching them Western classics such as The Great Gatsby and, as the title suggests, Lolita.
Despite suffering from a terrible cold, the event was hosted by Adrian Harewood, who was content to sit back and let Nafisi be the star of the evening. The audience was enraptured with the author, whose joie de vivre and passion for literature rang out from the stage clear as a bell. Nafisi likened writing a book to falling in love; there is something inarticulate about it, leading you discover something about yourself while writing it. Her love of books was instilled in her by her parents, who she describes as ‘book snobs’. Her father served as mayor of Tehran from 1961 to 1963, the youngest person to hold that post, but then spent four years in jail. Nafisi talks with pride about her father’s charge of insubordination, and with good reason. Growing up in a society that repressed and controlled, Nafisi knows as well as anyone the urge to rebel and to stand up for what you believe in. For her it was literature, and the need to share great literary works with the young minds of Tehran. It is not surprising, then, to learn that one of her favourite authors is Mark Twain – a man that challenged conformity and complacency in his work.
When asked if she found writing her second book, Things I’ve Been Silent About, a memoir about her relationship with her mother, cathartic, her response was an emphatic "no!" Books shouldn’t be consoling, she exclaims, they should stir strong emotions within us – rage, fear, guilt, shame. Within books, the whole spectrum of human emotion is contained. She believes that books connect us to one another by opening up avenues of communication. The idea for her most recent book, The Republic of Imagination, was sparked after a conversation with a fellow member of the Iranian diaspora who was waiting in line to get a book signed at an event in Seattle. The man believed that Americans had no appreciation or understanding of real literature, and so Nafisi took this as a challenge to prove that fiction can teach us many things and has every right to live in a democratic society. Nafisi believes that fiction is the ‘moral guardian of a country’ – within the pages of books can lie the shame of a nation, here she discusses the representation of slavery on classic American literature, and says that by being reminded of its guilt, a country can learn how to move forward.
As I listened to the engaging Nafisi talk so ardently about the books she loves and teaches, I made a mental note to add them all to my reading list – great American classics written by authors such as Mark Twain, Carson McCullers, and the controversial James Baldwin. Perhaps, by being raised in England, these authors escaped my radar. Nonetheless, in addition to Nafisi’s own books, which I now cannot wait to read, I think I’m set for reading material for the next long while.
His mind was whirring with plots, twists, and cunning villains. The Post-It notes covered the corkboard with a Caroesque meticulousness. The progression to the next best-selling crime-fiction thriller appeared imminent. The North Carolina summer humidity had other plans. More than two-thirds of his plot punctuations lay prostate on the floor in a scattered heap.
"You'd think I'd have numbered these notes," said Jeffery Deaver.
"I do now. "
Deaver, in addition to a wry, witty sense of humour, is the author of over thirty-something novels, and is perhaps best know to the general populace for having been the author of The Bone Collector, which was subsequently turned into a major motion picture starring Angelina Jolie and Denzel Washington. There is a disarming self-assurance in his manner, akin to a man practiced in his profession, yet not wearied of its rewards.
The festival recently lost a true gem in its bookseller David Dollin. Sean Wilson in his introduction mentioned how much David loved Deaver's page-turners and would have really wanted to be there and hosted the evening. Given that this is Deaver's first trip to Ottawa, he was moved at the sense of loss palpable in the room, and of the welcome extended to him.
We were introduced to the devious Antioch March, the villain of Deaver's latest Solitude Creek featuring one of his popular creations in the investigator Kathryn Dance. Much like Milton's Satan, Deaver takes pleasure in his antiheros, and seeks to endow them with realism and relatability. As March plants fear into families visiting an amusement park that slowly detonates into a full-on stampede, the audience was left tantalisingly wanting more.
"As the great literary theorist, Dirty Harry, once said: A man's got to know his limits," joked Deaver when asked about his career-choice. After trying his hand at poetry and literary short-fiction, coupled with a career in law, Deaver wanted to delve into writing things that he liked reading. To him, it was an honest choice. He also contrasted gore versus suspense by pointing out that there is a difference in someone watching Hitchcock, and someone watching an autopsy video. He decried what he called "torture porn" not on moral terms, but as creative failures due to sloth. It was fascinating to hear him speak of respect for his readers in how he viewed himself in a detached manner from his creations, and worked arduously to grant a definite ending where there are no grisly scenes; making him a mainstay for families and schools.
He is perhaps too modest. He previously collaborated in writing a Bond novel and has a radio play on Audible. We sensed a measure of his work ethic when he confessed that he spent the better part of his day, viz. 10 hours, writing and that at his age (he is 65), he is knackered by the effort thereby making him much more selective with his ventures. It is hard not to admire such deliberate dedication to both his craft and to the many, many readers who are held in rapt suspense by his creations.
On the surface, the three novels featured for the Crime and Punishment session of Writers Festival seem to have little in common. Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen is a tale of four Nigerian youth who encounter a prophetic madman when they go to the river to fish. Linden MacIntyre’s Punishment is about a murder in the Kingston Penitentiary that undergoes two very different trials: one in the court of public opinion, the other through the institutional justice system. Finally, Michael Christie’s If I Fall, If I Die is the story of eleven-year-old Will and his severely agoraphobic single mother, Diane. After a lifetime of delivered groceries, clothes and art supplies, Will dons a helmet and makes his first foray Outside.
If the novels aren’t similar, however, in some ways the authors certainly are. Following that clichéd writers’ maxim, each one writes from what they know.
Appearing in a short video clip made specifically in light of his inability to attend the Festival, Obioma said he wanted his book to “evoke the atmosphere of Africa,” reflecting the relationship between this world and the supernatural. Although he currently lives in Michigan, Obioma set The Fishermen in the Nigerian town where he was born.
MacIntyre also set his novel in a world he knows well. As a career journalist, he recounts reporting from prisons everywhere from post-genocide Rwanda to death row in Texas mere hours before an execution. He listed off the many prisons he’s visited around the world, and it was no surprise that Kingston Pen was included.
When Christie shared his personal connection to If I Fall, If I Die, there was a slight yet ubiquitous gasp from the audience. The story, he said, was modelled on his relationship with his own agoraphobic mother, who died in 2008. By writing the novel from both the son’s and the mother’s perspectives, he was attempting to better understand her—and her illness.
In further conversation with Christie and MacIntryre, this attempt to understand, explore, and even shape readers’ perceptions through literature was evident. “It’s literature that can investigate the grey area, investigate the nuance,” explained Christie. He believes that writing a criminal as a sympathetic character or showing the humanity of a person who struggles with mental illness is ultimately “a net good for society.” Still, he’s wary of writing with a “big ‘A’ agenda.”
MacIntyre agreed, though admitted his own work had almost allegorical origins. The spark was the war in Iraq, or, more specifically, how one terrible incident—September 11—led to the multi-year brutality. After a crime, he explained, people begin looking for answers to reassure themselves that their community will be okay; they want to be convinced that the threat came from without and not from within, and they are hungry to place blame accordingly. When the court of public opinion gets out of control, MacIntyre said, the outcome can be uglier than the original crime. Punishment is this narrative on a smaller scale.
“Linden personalizes the political and individualizes institutions,” said Christie, who is a fan of the full breadth of MacIntyre’s work. “He can tell a story as wonderfully as he can tell the truth.” The admiration went both ways on the stage, albeit a bit crustier from the elder MacIntyre, who summed up his sentiments to the literary newcomer thus: “Being that age, that smart, and that great a storyteller . . . Damn you, Michael Christie!”
It’s a bright, sunny Tuesday in Ottawa’s Centretown. As I enter the Christ Church Cathedral I can smell the damp, cool air and hear the light-coloured maple floorboards creak under my step. I am ushered into a small room filled with five rows of royal blue chairs. They face a small stage containing two directors’ chairs, and a large baby blue sign with the words “Think” written in typewriter font and an inkblot splashed over the letters i,n,k.
As I settle into my seat in the centre of the room for a lunchtime discussion John G. Jung, the author and speaker, and Anil Somayaji, host and Carleton University professor, take their seats in the previously mentioned directors’ chairs. After a brief introduction from Somayaji, Jung launches into what his book, Brain Gain, is all about; intelligent communities and how they can be created.
His ideas are simple, but powerful. To create an intelligent community you need a city that is not just efficient, but also one people want to live in. As Jung describes it — “a community with a soul.” Building a smart city, one with technology to monitor efficiency and harvest big data, is not the answer but merely the first step. According to Jung, creating these intelligent communities comes down to developing talent, keeping that talent in the community, and creating good governance, which will attract investors and more talent.
These concepts are fascinating for their strength, but also for their wide reaching application. Intelligent communities can be found in urban centres, like Toronto, or tiny villages, like Pirai, Brazil. The size and location of the community doesn’t matter, it’s the innovation and creativity of the people that make these communities intelligent.
Jung’s passion for this concept can be easily spotted in his excited tone and endless knowledge on the topic, but also through his actions. He is the chairman and co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum, an organization that shares the success stories of intelligent communities around the world to help others adapt to, and succeed in, the “broadband economy.”
As Somayaji probes Jung with questions clarifying jargon, such as the difference between intelligent and smart communities, and his experiences, the brilliance of his work begins to unfold.
Jung casually peppers into the conversation the cities he has travelled to recently – Taipei, Taiwan – and ones he plans to head to in the coming weeks – Queensland, Australia – demonstrating how far reaching these conceptions are.
Jung discusses how many of these intelligent communities emerged through crisis rather than cutting-edge innovation. For example, RIM in Waterloo and Nokia in Oulu are communities whose economic livelihood depended on companies. From their downfall emerged innovation, not disaster, as the talent that was once consumed by these organizations was released into their communities, creating growth.
As sunlight pours in over the collection of potted plants that line the windowsill above Jung’s head he begins to wind down his talk. Somayaji opens up the floor to questions and immediately the audience comes alive, eager to get Jung’s take on Ottawa’s place in this innovative concept. From sassy inquiries about the difficulty of dealing with government bureaucracy to heartfelt questions regarding Ottawa’s future developments, it was clear Jung had us all engaged. In fact, at one point Somayaji had to get firm with one lady, whose excitement to hear Jung’s opinion on the future construction of the Ottawa library’s central branch was threatening to capitalize all of Jung’s time for questions.
Upon leaving the smells and sounds of the church, I stepped into the sun soaked street with a new appreciation for how far reaching and all encompassing the technology we rely on is. While there are some communities that are struggling under this immense pressure, it is inspiring to see there are people like John G. Jung who are helping communities adapt and thrive on a global scale.
Sunday evening's event was hosted by the CBC’s Adrian Harewood, who Festival founder Neil Wilson introduced as an integral part of the Ottawa Writers Festival family, having been hosting and curating events for the Festival for the past ten years. Harewood in turn called the Festival a vital institution for the city of Ottawa, a sentiment which I resoundingly echo.
Tonight three female authors read excerpts from their novels. First to the lectern was Beth Powning, an accomplished author of historical fiction and non-fiction who resides in rural New Brunswick. Beth’s new novel, A Measure of Light, is a fictionalized account of the life of Mary Dyer, a seventeenth-century Puritan who flees England for the New World and becomes one of America’s first Quakers. Beth reads a passage describing the Dyer family’s first winter in America. The imagery of the bleak and desolate landscape is at odds with the warmth of the family home and the comfort that Mary finds in her husband, William.
Second to read, from her debut novel The Gallery of Lost Species, is Nina Berkhout. The author of five collections of poetry, Berkhout is a Calgary-native but now resides in Ottawa and works at the National Gallery. For this novel she drew on personal experience to write the character of Edith, who also finds work at the National Gallery. This is where she befriends Theo, an elderly cryptozoologist (someone who searches for animals whose existence lacks physical evidence or who are considered extinct). The extract that Nina reads is from the opening of her novel — Edith is on a trip with her father and sister, Viv, and believes that she catches sight of a unicorn. This sighting sparks a hope and belief in Edith – that the mythical and mystical exist.
Last to read is Obi Simic, who admirably self-published her debut novel, Getting Over Yonder. Simic grew up in Montreal but moved to Ottawa in her teens, graduating from the University of Ottawa with a degree in Psychology with a specialization in English Literature. Her novel follows the story of Olivia, a Nigerian-Jamaican-Canadian searching for her own identity. The excerpt that Obi reads is from Olivia’s first day at school; the young girl is petrified of roll call and the teacher being unable to pronounce her name. Obi’s tone is sharp and witty; she reads the words with just the right amount of comic effect, sending chuckles through the audience.
Leading the discussion, Adrian Harewood asks – why did they become writers? Both Beth and Nina left one passion for another; Beth was studying theater and Nina was training as a ballet dancer, they both ultimately realized that writing was their true vocation. Compared to the other two, Obi is quite new to the writing game. She knew she was onto something after taking a creative writing course in high school and getting a standing ovation after reading one of her stories aloud.
The conversation turns to the presence of the autobiographical in their writing. Nina says that you need distance to have objectivity over your work – you take the seed of truth and fictionalize it. Obi, as a new writer, says that she invested a lot of herself in the main character of her novel. She felt that she had to write from the heart to give an accurate representation though, despite some similarities, she is still far from being her character, Olivia. As her novel is based on a true story, Adrian tailored the question for Beth – when writing historical fiction, how does she decide what to fictionalize? Beth states that writing historical fiction is really a case of filling in the blanks that the history books have left out. It is then up to her as to whether she makes up something new or reimagines the past. To add authenticity to her work, Beth read women's journals from the seventeenth-century and listened to the cadence and tone of their words. She is also a fan of visiting living museums as she believes they successfully capture the realism of the period.
Ultimately, it would appear that the three female protagonists in the novels are all searching for something; whether it be a pursuit of the unattainable, a journey to discover one’s true self, or the faith to follow one’s convictions in the face of adversity. Though time, race and culture divide them, these women are all hunting one thing— their own identity.