Within the Southminster United Church on Friday night, over 200 heads nodded in accord with American novelist Annie Proulx as she and Charlotte Gray discussed the themes in her novel
: ecology, greed, the loss of culture, and the impact of humanity on a landscape. These are issues that a Canadian audience can relate to, especially one based in former Bytown, “lumber capital of North America.” It was evident from the discussion and the engagement of the audience that Proulx has struck a chord.
Proulx shared her story of the novel’s genesis, which began on a camping trip when she was only 11 years old. With roots in her childhood enthusiasm for the natural world, she said, “the idea of the disappearance of the woods began to take hold” as she traveled across Michigan’s Upper Peninsula some 20 years ago. She spotted a sign telling of a great forest of white pine that had stood, yet no trace of it remained. “All they had left was the sign,” she said, and the pathos of it drove her to write. Still, the story took a long time while Proulx completed other projects, gathered research, and mulled over the scope of the tale. “I began to see what an immense and frightening subject I had chosen,” she remembered, “the book was really about climate change.” Since she felt ill-equipped to tackle this technical subject, she focused on deforestation, and specifically the story of characters involved in the chopping of the great forests in North America.
The result is akin to a great Canadian novel, conscious of the landscape, its destruction, and the effect on its people. Gray noted how the story seemed not to recognize the border between the United States and Canada, to which Proulx replied that her approach is to consider a landscape without political lines. “I imagine it in an earlier time,” to find where the story is really located. Gray also mentioned how the novel handled its Indigenous characters with a cultural sensitivity not common for American writers. Proulx said, “I was intensely aware of the problems of cultural appropriation,” and that she had sought expert advice because she needed the Indigenous characters to be fairly and accurately represented. “Those people equal the forest.” Her compassionate depiction resonates with Canadian readers struggling to integrate Indigenous history within the Western narrative.
Although Proulx spoke about these themes with a light tone and some optimism, she was passionate in asserting that, if possible, we must take action to revitalize the forests. Toward the end of their lively discussion, Gray challenged Proulx to assert an opinion on the effectiveness of sustainable forestry practices, which the characters in Barkskins eventually attempt. Proulx wasn’t sure. “It’s hard to remake a forest,” she said, “once it’s gone it’s gone. Fixing this is harder than anybody can imagine. It’s everybody’s business.” She encouraged the audience to start thinking about our history with forests, and the fact that we are indeed forest creatures. “If you have access to a forest, renew your acquaintance.”
Sometimes, the boldest, bravest act one can perform is simply to listen. CBC presenter Lucy van Oldenbarneveld gave Writers Festival attendees the chance to listen to a phenomenal exchange of ideas between the women writers and activists who contributed to When We Are Bold: Women Who Turn Our Upsidedown World Right. The new anthology, edited by Rachel M. Vincent of the Nobel Women’s Initiative, contains roughly two dozen stories of inspirational women activists, each in turned profiled by a woman writer who has thought carefully about the role of the individual in brokering peace and justice.
Oldenbarneveld skillfully mediated a conversation between Native rights activist Casey Camp-Horinek, poet Aja Monet, writer Madeleine Thien and Nobel Laureate Jody Williams. Monet, Thien and Camp-Horinek each read a selection from their contribution to the anthology. After the readings, Williams joined the panel on stage for a discussion of what might constitute peace-making in 2016. On the night after the Trump-Clinton debate, these Canadian and American women mapped out an understanding of power and social change far more sophisticated than the mainstream media ever allows their audience to take home.
Seated in the pews of Christ Church Cathedral, listeners heard stories of how each author and activist came to understand her place in the world. Horinek spoke of carrying out the will of her mother, also a Native rights activist, whose followers continued to stream to the family homestead long after her death. Madeleine Thien spoke of the intricate relationship between her grief at losing her mother and the public grieving of Ding Zilin, who founded Tiananmen Mothers after she lost her son in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. Aja Monet spoke of the power with which June Jordan’s poetry affected her; she emphasized the idea that the importance of poetry lies in its emanating from the personal interior, the “last frontier of colonization.” All the panelists, including Jody Willliams, spoke of importance of taking the first brave step towards empowering oneself and others; and of the necessity of having a space – either figurative or literal – where one can hear oneself think clearly. Oldenbarneveld and the panel then fielded questions from the audience, including a young girl who asked the crucial question of why so many women have been overlooked for their contributions to the peace process around the world. A highlight of the conversation with the audience was when Williams drew a very useful distinction between simple anger and the more important “righteous indignation” which leads some many women and men to take part in initiatives for peace and justice.
Published by the Ottawa-based Arts and Literature Mapalé Press, When We Are Bold: Women Who Turn Our Upside Down includes profiles of such figures as the Chechan journalist Natalya Estemirova, conflict negotiator Betty Oyella Bigombe, Irish peace activist Mairead Maguire and Canadian politician Flora Macdonald. The trajectory of each of the narrative varies, demonstrating not only how different leaders came to their positions in a diversity of ways, but also how their moments of influence varied according to the receptiveness of their audiences.
Famous man travels to China for six weeks and writes a book about it. Who is Alexandre Trudeau and why should we listen to what he has to say?
Most of the audience at the Writers Festival event held at the Library and Archives Canada auditorium could easily answer the question. As a journalist, documentary filmmaker and, last but not least, brother to the current Prime Minister and son of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, Alexandre Trudeau is not an unknown entity.
Adrian Harewood’s gentle but insistent questions revealed that these labels weighed heavily on Alexandre Trudeau. It was an existential urge that drove Trudeau towards trying to discover the truth within the people he met on travels but also within himself. “You can’t know yourself until you’ve faced wilderness; And lack of comfort; And being pulled out of everything that’s easy.”
China is a deeply complex country that has a long history but is constantly changing. And China will “always [have] questions for you.” For Trudeau, Barbarian Lost is first and foremost a memoir of self-discovery. Although Sinophiles will not be disappointed in the weaving of historical and socio-political context in the book – an approach that cannot be easily executed in documentary film, explains Trudeau – what will be refreshing is the philosophical transformation of a self-labeled “barbarian.” And of course, stories of Chinese, young and old, happy, and grappling with the freedom of modernity.
“There’s no real travel unless somehow you’re transformed.”
Harewood’s deft handling of an often-meandering conversation gave the audience an inside look at Trudeau’s feelings about his first book and the journey to get to this point. Acknowledging the influences of his father, and the privilege of being allowed to explore what he calls deep China, Trudeau explains that he has come under the spell of the Dao, which forms part of the philosophical underpinning of his transformation.
Perhaps the part of the evening that was the most telling of what Trudeau gained through this journey, was when Harwood asked Trudeau, why a book, when he had previously "declared the book an antiquated form." Though still committed to film, Trudeau's stance on the book as an art form has changed to "our words make the world." Documentary films can engage an audience for an hour, but words on paper have a sense of permanence. He admitted that he had, in his younger days, "judged too harshly." This self reflection and continual evolution of his own narrative despite and in spite of the legacy of his father's name, is what makes Trudeau's voice interesting and worth exploring.
As someone who has dedicated his life to ideas, Trudeau’s trip to China has given him a new perspective, to be able to look at himself from the outside. “I’m truly trying to write a book about the human soul… and what great travels that have been in China.”
If we took away his name, would Trudeau’s book still be worth a read? Trudeau made it clear that he wants the public to “choose people for their ideas” and not their names, though judging by the crowd lined up to get their books signed, the name is just as important as the ideas and there is no escaping that in Ottawa.
In her introduction to one of the last events on the last night of the Ottawa International Writers Festival, Canadian writer Charlotte Gray said she was feeling intimidated about having to conduct the interview that was about to ensue.
And, in a way, who could blame her for feeling a little self-conscious?
The person whom Gray would interview was none other than Eleanor Wachtel, one of the world’s finest interviewers. It was a rare opportunity to hear the Montreal native on the end of questions rather than delivering them, which she’s done now for more than 25 years as host of Writers & Company on CBC Radio—a new collection of interviews ( The Best of Writers & Company ) has just been published by Biblioasis.
“Put yourself in my shoes,” Gray said, before reading out the names of many celebrated authors Wachtel has interviewed as well as many of the impressive plaudits and awards she has received.
But not long after Gray’s own interview with Wachtel began, it was clear that there was really nothing for Gray to be intimidated about. Despite her very wide acclaim, Wachtel displays not even a hint of pomposity or self-importance; in person, she’s just as graceful and soft-spoken as the host that many have come to appreciate. Recounting some of the earlier years of her life in Montreal, she makes no attempt at self-aggrandizement, underlining instead the normality of her upbringing. One might have imagined a childhood filled with books, but Wachtel noted how her parents weren’t readers; books came from a local public library in the Snowden neighborhood of NDG, one which wasn’t, in her words, “very elaborate”. She said she didn’t even read all that much and of the books she did read, they were mostly chosen at random. Like many of her friends at the time, she traded comics and watched TV.
Wachtel continued in this self-effacing manner throughout the rest of the interview, which included many funny anecdotes of interviews gone wrong. She discussed her university years in the English department of Mcgill, where she admitted, “I didn’t really know what I wanted to do.” And then there was her winding and uncertain path as a freelancer writer and freelance arts broadcaster that led her to Vancouver and finally to Toronto, where she would eventually earn her own show on CBC.
By the time the interview was over, it was apparent that what ultimately makes Wachtel’s so appealing is not even so much her superlative skills as an interviewer, the way she’s able to pick the brains of and elicit interesting responses from some of the biggest writers in the world, but her hospitable nature—her desire to make the literary world accessible to all. This is captured well in the second segment of the name that Wachtel chose for her show—the ‘& Company’. With Wachtel, no one is excluded: she never wants to make herself the center of attention and is eager to make the audience part of the company.
In a time of political carnival and polished facades, it is rare indeed to witness the honest and heartfelt musings of a public figure intent on, in his own words, baring his soul. Audiences Tuesday evening at the NAC were privy to Governor General David Johnston introducing his newly minted book, The Idea of Canada: Letters to a Nation. Unprecedented for a sitting Governor General (with the very notable exception of the singular John Buchan), his book is a thoughtful compilation of letters written over a lifetime that, he says, crystallize many of his views on Canada.
Throughout the evening, His Excellency spoke in a remarkably unguarded manner about education, justice, First Nations issues, national unity, and the future of the country. Deftly hosted by Mark Sutcliffe, the event drew an impressive mixture of family, onlookers, and top military brass.
While Johnston stressed how important it was for a Governor General, an apolitical role, to be neutral in questions of politics, he asserted it was also crucial to unambiguously stand up for Canadian values. He followed this statement with a quote from Shakespeare's Hamlet, "To thine own self be true, and... thou canst not then be false to any man." To the audience he then directed a profound question, what is the self but a set of values?
And what values does the Governor General believe are truly and distinctly Canadian? Here, Johnston joking referred to what he calls his "governor generalities." He expressed that Canadians are an honorable people of inclusion, tolerance, and peace, who use military power sparingly, and when we must we do so with full conviction. We are a nation of intelligent people who delight in self-improvement, deplore self-satisfaction, and hold an abiding concern for the common good.
The great theme of Canada, the Governor General declared, is that each of us expect our lives to become better. From the beginning we are a nation of immigrants. Thousands of years ago native people arrived on this land in search of a better life, a theme each of us share with our ancestors. The question now, His Excellency mused, is whether life will indeed continue to improve.
Johnston stated that complacency is our enemy, a real danger both to us and the United States. He continued that our two nations are the first in history to be built upon an ethical experiment. Unlike the chaotic circumstances that forged the majority of countries today, both Canada and America were deliberately founded upon certain values. In fact, Canada has been built upon a pluralism so successful that now its population often takes its responsibilities for granted - a harbinger to our potential decline. To tackle this and many other challenges of our time, Johnston pronounced that we must re-assert the values and principles that make up the moral fiber of our national identity, "I think that it begins with our children and the values we pass on... to develop our talents the best we can and to look beyond ourselves."
In reference to Canadian youth, Johnston believes the issues facing the education system are "very challenging." In a world racing forward in interconnectedness, migration, and globalization, he believes we must support the young in developing their intellectual capabilities to their utmost. To accomplish this, we must promote excellence and become "the smartest people our children expect us to be."
To impress upon us the magnitude of this generational task, the Governor General shared a favorite quote by John Buchan, "No great cause is ever lost or won, the battle must always be renewed."
Here then, resounding from the pages of David Johnston's book, is a clarion call for perennial renewal.
“Am I allowed to swear?”
While not a phrase typical to discussions regarding breast cancer, it was a question that set the tone for the honest and frank discussion that the night had in store; shared between three women who have been through the highs and the many lows of the disease, all having walked away with different lessons to share.
All My Life to Live saw author and graphic artist Teva Harrison joining Canadian punk rocker turned author Bif Naked as they discussed their work, their lives, and their experiences with breast cancer. Hosted by the spirited CBC television host Lucy Van Oldenbarneveld, who herself was diagnosed with stage two breast cancer in 2015, the event began with Naked presenting a slice from her book I Bificus. While the book represents the entirety of her life and the trials and hurdles of a career in musical stardom, the passage read focused on the days leading up to her diagnosis (“d-day” as some refer). The section shared the tone with Naked’s demeanour for the night: it was jovial, light hearted. Any moment where Ms. Naked’s stories ventured into darker territory were swiftly brought back up with a snappy joke or an enthusiastically sarcastic eye roll. Speaking on her time waiting for a diagnosis, and her certainty regarding her condition even before it was officially declared by doctors, Naked made herself a promise that no matter how dire the situation looked, she would never shut her mouth, and the quick witted "Bif" that she was before would hold strong throughout.
Harrison took to the stage next, projecting her artwork from her graphic memoir In Between Days on the walls behind her, while she read their accompanying essays. From discovering the real world magic found in her childhood, to her navigating the awkward waters of small talk when after she had been diagnosed, Harrison’s time on the stage was packed with an emotion that left much of the audience speechless. While Naked’s passage focused on remaining true to her off-the-wall, joke cracking self, Harrison spoke about acceptance, finding moments of calmness through her art and her husband, and re-discovering every “happy ending” that she had encountered in life.
Oldenbarneveld brought the two authors together after for a more candid discussion on their lives, their cancer, and their art. While many of the same themes of community and “taking every day as they come” held true for both women, their style and demeanour contrasted each other in a way that complimented the theme of the “highs and lows” of the cancer. A rock star for much of her life, Naked saw the disease almost as a blessing; a reason for her life to slow down, an anchor she could use to build friendships and sisterhoods around. She claimed she remained fearless throughout, and with a wedding coming within the next year, she saw no reason for starting to fear now. While still optimistic, Hairrison (who was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer) fully admits to the often times debilitating fear that she first felt after her diagnosis. Finding comfort in her hobbies, namely drawing and traveling, she encourages all who are going through similar circumstances to focus on what brings them the most joy. “There is a darkness available,” she says to a packed room “it’s easy to jump in if you allow it.”
Speaking to a full house whose audience consisted predominantly of women, some of whom were in differing stages of breast cancer treatment themselves, Bif Naked, Teva Harrison and Lucy Van Oldenbarneveld presented a bluntness that is often absent from conversation surrounding cancer. From giving advice as to how to treat and converse with those afflicted, to coming to terms with reality of your situation in your own way, the trio reflected an honest, heartwarming, and often times hilarious view on living with breast cancer; with extra emphasis on the living.
Great poets tell us much about the world in few words. A number of poets focus on a message; the rest are preoccupied with form and structure. No matter the preoccupation, all of us understand that poetry is a forced peek into the human soul, and perhaps we appreciate poems because those glimpses of our souls are rare to catch in the busyness of our daily lives. It was no surprise, then, to find the Christ Church Cathedral packed for the House of Anansi Poetry Bash.The House of Anansi boasts an impressive roster, and I have often sought comfort and laughter in its voices.
The presenting poets–Steven Heighton, Baziju, Suzanne Buffam, and Michael Crummey–are talented and their readings focused on different themes, but together their readings captured a large segment of human experience. I found Baziju’s reflections on ephemerality and the fragile essence of things well considered; Buffam’s lists of the mundane I found to be sublime and funny. Heighton, whose direct approach to acknowledging and surpassing his influences I found remarkable, delivered some well-constructed poems I found slightly underwhelming. I found the readings of the first three poets, while eloquent and imaginative and respectful of poetry’s aims and forms, unable to elicit deeper stirrings within me.
Not Michael Crummey.
Crummey, like John Berryman or Robert Frost, is a poet of the banal, and his ability to evoke is comparable to either man. More so, Crummey feels life pulsing underneath the indignities of human existence, and his most moving reading of the night, Bread, is a song to the unfathomable ways by which love enters the world. In the crowd that night there was a foreigner who spoke some English, and I saw her cry during the reading of Bread and laugh during his reading of Getting the Marriage into Bed. To connect that deeply with a person from a different place with just an adequate understanding of the English language is a thing only great poetry can do.
Sunday brought a beautifully sunny day that then transitioned into a pleasant and balmy evening; finally, summer was on its way! Everyone was in high spirits due to the lovely weather, and the Christ Church Cathedral was packed and abuzz for Sunday night’s event. Bringing together four fantastic crime fiction authors, Scene of the Crime promised “an evening of murder, mayhem and intrigue.” As a huge fan of mystery and crime fiction myself, I was avidly looking forward to the event.
The event was kicked off by host Barbara Fradkin, two-time winner of the Arthur Ellis Award for Best Novel from Crime Writers of Canada. She noted that crime fiction is often regarded as a ‘guilty pleasure’, when, in fact, it is one of the most popular genres of commercial fiction. She believes this is because crime fiction not only provides escapism and a sense of adventure, but it is also a social commentary on the worst, and the best, of human nature. Not only does crime fiction react to the moral and social issues of our time, it also addresses those enduring basic human responses that are as old as time —anger, greed, jealousy, and lust.
First to speak was Ottawa’s own Brenda Chapman, reading from her latest Kala Stonechild novel, Tumbled Graves . Chapman prefaced the reading with her back story and how she got into writing police procedural and mystery novels. Chapman was a senior communications advisor with the federal government for many years, often working with Aboriginal and First Nations peoples, and found this experience spurred her on to start writing about Kala Stonechild, one of the only female First Nations detective leads in a book series. She reads the first few pages of Tumbled Graves, which set a tense and foreboding opening scene and draw the audience into the mystery of the story.
Next up was John Lawton, whose newest novel, The Unfortunate Englishman , is an espionage thriller largely set in Berlin but with a distinctly English voice. Lawton himself was actually in Berlin the day the wall came down! Before diving into his reading, Lawton provided some historical context for the setting of the novel, which takes place during the Cold War. In Lawton’s excerpt we follow a British spy, newly moved to Russia, experiencing all the sights and sounds the country has to offer. I found the story reminiscent of Ian Fleming’s super spy James Bond, offering a strong sense of mystery, intrigue and secrecy.
We also heard from Joy Fielding: author of an impressive twenty-six novels, including New York Times bestseller,
Someone is Watching
. Fielding read an excerpt of her newest novel, She’s Not There, which was partly inspired by the Madeleine McCann disappearance. Flicking between the past and present, the story follows a woman who is contacted by a girl claiming to be her daughter who had disappeared in Mexico 15 years earlier. Fielding says the challenge in writing this book was making the two timelines equally engaging and interesting to the reader. Fielding wouldn’t describe herself as a crime writer —she says her books are not so much whodunnits as whydunnits. She likes to write strong, believable female characters that are multilayered and complicated, which is where she feels the appeal lies in her work.
Last to read was Linwood Barclay, a journalist, humourist, and bestselling author of thirteen novels. Barclay is a natural stand-up comedian; speaking in a relaxed and jovial tone, he has the audience frequently breaking out in twitters of laughter. His new book, Far From True , is the second novel in his Promise Falls trilogy, which he wrote back to back. His initial reluctance in writing a trilogy regarded the marketing of the series. Should it be labelled as a trilogy from the start? If people know they have to commit to three novels for the full story, will they even pick up the first book? Despite this concern, Barclay says people have responded very well to the series and are looking forward to the final instalment, which will be released later this year. For his excerpt, Barclay reads just one line from the book — we have to buy it to find out the rest, he says!
A black man in Halifax in the 1950s; a red-haired, grey-eyed girl in a Caribbean family; and a Japanese Canadian during the Second World War: these three very different characters were brought together on the stage of the Ottawa International Writers Festival on April 20 as authors Pamela Mordecai, George Elliott Clarke, and Lynne Kutsukake read from and discussed their recent novels. All three of their protagonists are born into a world in which they do not have an obvious place, and their lives provoke serious, sad reflections on identity and belonging—themes that host Adrian Harewood approached with gravitas and delicacy. Nevertheless, the authors were so obviously delighted to share their characters with the audience that it quickly became a jolly event, with laughter bouncing off the beautiful skylight in Christ Church Cathedral's hall. George Elliot Clarke's toothy grin was like extra lighting.
Clarke, currently Poet Laureate of Canada, introduced the room to Carl Black, the main character of The Motorcyclist , explaining that Carl was a modelled after Clarke's bohemian manqué father. Clarke is clearly smitten with the idea of his father, burdened by his racial identity and his family, being seduced by a glamorized 1950s lifestyle – the "swashbuckling erotic masculinity" of Ian Fleming and men's magazines. His reading of a passage in which Carl has successfully engineered a threesome took on a beat poet rhythm, as he paused to gurgle and lick his lips in delight over his best lines and repeat them - "a big ass armchair, the only kind a man should have ... A BIG! ASS! ARMCHAIR!" and "six legs, and six arms, a sextet if there ever was …. A SEXTET IF THERE EVER WAS." As the scene came to a climax, Adrian Harewood began fanning himself with his program, to everyone's delight.
It seemed like just the right setting: a down-below, warmly lit pub, tucked away from the din of the upstairs patio-lined street, where poetry enthusiasts gathered around tall tables, frothy pints in hand. It was the sort of place where one might encounter characters from the lines of Alexandra Oliver and Nick Thran: ordinary people that unwittingly manifest the “unordinary.”