Led by Sean Wilson, the Festival’s own Artistic Director, Breaking the Shell began with a quote by Kahlil Gibran: “Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.” Three very different, yet equally astounding, books are the topic of tonight’s discussion as well as how the three authors used the medium of the written word to explore human pain and experience.
In describing Lee Maracle’s latest novel, Celia’s Song , Sean Wilson describes a ‘full-body experience’ he had when reading a particular scene, causing him to be ‘wracked’ with emotion. Few books can affect us in this way and Maracle, a member of the Stó:l? Nation, explains the Aboriginal concept of think-feel—that we cannot think without feeling and vice-versa. Celia’s Song is rooted in a traditional Aboriginal story, though Maracle has re-interpreted it in her own way. Her biggest fear when writing the book was not being able to do her duty to her nation and do justice to the story, though apparently she needn’t have worried—she describes reading the book to her elders, her version of the story met with great appreciation. During her reading I am swept away by the forceful natural description; a storm has arrived and its angry energy is apparent in her voice as she reads aloud. Celia’s Song follows the story of Mink, a shape-shifter, who bears witness to the events of a Native Canadian community on the West coast of Vancouver Island. Celia is a seer, convinced she’s crazy by everyone else, but is called upon to help heal her community in the wake of a shocking event. This sense of community is important to Maracle; she talked about the strength of indigenous communities and how they come together to solve individual problems, when the problem gets too much for the individual to bear.
Shani Mootoo’s novel, Moving Forward Sideways like a Crab is on the longlist for the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize. It follows the story of Jonathan, who reconnects with his mother Sid after many years, only to find out that Sid has become Sydney, an elegant gentleman living back in his native Trinidad. Mootoo’s reading is full of evocative imagery, the lush landscape of Trinidad described in bursts of colour as Jonathan gazes out of the window of the plane as he flies from Canada to Trinidad. Believing he won’t be returning to Trinidad again, he tries to remember every small detail and we are drawn into these minute snapshots, as if seeing everything up close. Mootoo’s tone is melancholy, yet tinged with a bittersweet humour. I wonder how much of this excerpt is based on experience as Mootoo, who was born in Dublin to Trinidadian parents, grew up in Trinidad and moved to Canada at the age of 24. During the writing of her novel, Mootoo said she was concerned about capturing the right voice for the transgendered Sid, as well as for the young male character of Jonathan. Though searching for an authentic voice for Jonathan, Mootoo was adamant that she would write him her own way — she wanted him to feel and to be able to be hurt.
David Bergen is the author of a commendable eight novels including the Giller Prize-winning The Time in Between. The most light-hearted of the evening’s three novels, but no less free of human pain, Bergen’s latest literary offering, Leaving Tomorrow , had the audience chuckling out loud with its witty prose and brusque humour. Set in Alberta and Paris, Leaving Tomorrow is a coming-of-age story about Arthur, an extremely clever and curious individual, whose above-average intelligence leaves him isolated and striving to find his place in the world thus causing him to run away to France. Bergen’s reading was quick and jocular; the ingenuousness of Arthur is at odds with his intellect and his misunderstanding of human nature lends itself well to humour. This is Bergen’s first novel written in a first-person narrative and he was aware of the difficulty of this, however, he commented that his wife has said she finds him happiest when he is in the middle of writing a novel. Lee Maracle guffaws when she hears this—“I should start writing happier novels!” she exclaims.
As a first-time visitor to the Festival, I am grateful that it has introduced me to so many wonderful writers I may not have otherwise heard of or had the chance to see in person. To hear an author read from their own book is a magical experience, their voices soft with compassion as they revisit their words. These events have allowed me, and I’m sure many others as well, to discover not only new books but an impressive and vast back catalogue of Canadian literature. I know how I’ll be spending this winter — indoors, curled up with the many remarkable books the Ottawa Writers Festival has introduced me to.
Catherine Gildiner, Alison Pick, and Donna Thomson, are remarkable memoirists. They wowed the crowd last night with their unique insights into the craft of memoir writing and mesmerised us with their enchanting prose. They exchanged with the audience their vast knowledge on evoking memories from our past that would making meaningful contributions to the stories of each of our lives, and we heard some excerpts from a few of their newest books.
Gildiner’s latest book, Coming Ashore, is the final of a trilogy that taps into the vast experiences of her life. She shares anecdotes with the crowd of her life with Roy, her adventures as a young woman who found herself without anywhere to go early in the morning and her belongings on the street, and her experiences a student. Her book takes place in three different places. Just a glimpse of this memoir makes the avid reader anxious to delve into the beguiling prose. A highly educated woman, Gildiner studied at Oxford and is a former practising clinical psychologist. She also has been published in, The Globe and Mail.
Host with the most, Phil Jenkins, was a real crowd pleaser, and tapped into the authors’ minds with insightful, thought provoking questions. When introducing Alison Pick, Jenkins’ says, “I was fascinated as I moved through this book of the honesty and level of self-assessment that was there, but (Pick), also maintained her poetic sense.”
“ Between Gods, tells the story of coming back to my family’s Judaism,” says Pick, who adds that it also talks about depression. “It’s hard to write a book that is so honest and vulnerable,” Pick says. But she has done it, and I applaud her for that accomplishment. Pick read from her memoir, Between Gods. Her prose is compelling, incredibly detailed and it is entrancing. As her lips move and the words come out, you can picture the scene in your mind until she speaks the very last word of the segment.
Pick discloses to the avid memoirist, as well as to the novice, that you can use character names for the people in your life when writing a memoir, that not everyone is going to agree with you no matter what you do. “It speaks to the fact that you can never make everyone happy,” she says. In the process of completing her memoir, Pick showed it to the people she had included in her prose before it went to publication. She says it was really surprising to her that the things she thought they would be bothered by were non-issues, and that a lot of smaller details were very easy to edit.
Donna Thomson, author of, The Four Walls of My Freedom, says she never intended to write a memoir. Through a conversation with someone, a question was posed that she later reflected on and asked of herself, “How can we have a life we value? How can community and our country help us to do that?” She shared from her memoir an excerpt in learning to be alone as a caregiver.
Thomson says she is interested in ideas on the concept of care, and says she wants people to reflect on their own experiences of giving and receiving care. Her hope is that in reading the book people will ask of themselves what this concept means to them. If you’re wondering if your story is worth telling, Thomson says, “I think what people like are the things that remind them of themselves. They want to say that they remember similarities to the author’s content.”
Living History: In the Shadow of War dealt with themes of history, memory, truth and fiction and was a poignant conversation on the ripple of conflict felt across the ages and the lasting scars of war. The host for the evening’s discussion was CBC’s Laurence Hall, who began the proceedings with a quote by Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Wars are poor chisels for carving out peaceful tomorrows.” These words took on a particularly affecting meaning after the sudden and tragic events of last week. Two soldiers killed in cold blood with little explanation left a country reeling in shock, and Wall took time to honour each soldiers’ memory, speaking their names—Cpl. Nathan Cirillo and Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent—so that we are able to preserve them in words, their bravery in our memory. The audience stood for a moment of silence; reflecting on the sacrifice of these two men, taken before their time.
Laurence Wall then introduced each author, listing their many impressive achievements to a feeling of reverent awe from the audience. First up to the lectern was Winnipeg-native Margaret Sweatman, reading from her fifth book, Mr. Jones . Set against the tense paranoid backdrop of Cold War-era Canada, Mr. Jones follows the story of Emmett Jones, a former WWII bomber pilot who returns to his homeland changed and isolated only to come under scrutiny by the RCMP and FBI for suspected Communist affiliations. Sweatman read three excerpts, each starkly different in subject matter. The first outlined the external and political frame of the book; the stifling scrutiny that Emmett is put under following his return to Canada. The second charts a former love affair of Emmett’s wife Suzanne. The third was a conversation about life and love between Emmett and Suzanne’s five-year-old daughter and a doctor friend of the family. This last excerpt takes place in a country cottage, the natural setting described with vibrance and the open language of Emmett’s daughter a stark contrast from the clandestine tone found earlier in the novel.
Second to speak is Johanna Skibsrud, winner of the Giller Prize in 2010 for her debut novel The Sentimentalists. Her second novel, Quartet for the End of Time , was inspired by and structured around the chamber piece of the same title written by the French composer Olivier Messiaen in a German prison camp. Skibsrud spoke about the connective nature of stories, how one can lead you on to another, and how this intrigued her while writing this book. Quartet for the End of Time follows four characters across time and place; beginning with the Bonus Army riots in 1930s America when some 47,000 veterans and their supporters marched on Washington. Skibsrud reads an excerpt of the moment the Bonus Army, led by General MacArthur, arrives at their destination. The passage is alive with intense imagery—a city engulfed in gas and flame, thick choking smoke smothering the scene as people scramble to fight or to run away—you could just feel the energy and anger rising from the page as Skibsrud read.
Lastly, Ottawa’s own Frances Itani took to the stage to read from her 14th book, Tell , which has been shortlisted for this year’s Giller Prize. Some familiar characters from her previous novel, Deafening, can be found here—obviously, Itani felt there was still more of their stories to be explored. She reads a letter written by Kenan, a minor character in Deafening, to his friend Hugh who is recovering from tuberculosis on Prince Edward Island. Kenan laments their experience during the First World War: “we went off to war like children who had been blindfolded for the occasion.” He constantly questions why it all happened; searching for any answer that will give him some relief, some sense of meaning. He is back in his home, back with his wife, but he is a changed man both physically and mentally. There is a fluidity and a softness to Itani’s prose and as she reads in a clear and steady voice, there is a sense of time slowing down.
Following the book readings, Laurence Hall asked how each author managed to maintain an authentic voice while writing about a difficult and distant time period. Skibsrud responded that the freedom of literature allows authors the opportunity to tell both sides of the story—the known and the unknown. Through literature, multiple stories can be brought alive, even the lesser known ones. Itani says it is a mixture of imagination and immersion that preserves the authenticity within her writing. She spent six years researching her novel Deafening , winner of the 2004 Commonwealth Writers Prize, by reading letters, journals and newspaper articles and interviewing WWI veterans. This immersion allowed her to capture the voice and language of the period. Sweatman likens writing historical fiction to trying to see and hear things that aren’t there, though she insists that they are there, for the unofficial erroneous histories are where the real ‘juice’ is for writers. The idea of mixing fact and fiction was continued as some of the authors’ work featured real-life characters from history. After all, “history is public domain” states Sweatman, you are just borrowing a character to authenticate your story, though she believes you should keep your distance. Skibsrud found it hard not to run into real-life figures, confessing that she perhaps brazenly lifted from true life stories. “But isn’t this what literature can do best?” she questioned, by strengthening the continuity between fact and fiction and bringing back ghosts from their ambiguous resting place.
As the discussion drew to a close, the audience was left with a few parting thoughts. Are we doing ourselves a disservice by trying to move on from past wars? Skibsrud believes it is important to continue the conversation in a healthy way, and literature encourages this. She also questioned if war has really changed at all in the past hundred years—the conflict, the bloodshed, the tragic waste of life, and the numerous men and women who return changed. Are we just inherently fighting the same war, over and over again? In the wake of last week, perhaps this could be closer to the truth than we've ever thought.
It is an uncommon opportunity to hear a firsthand account of life in North Korea, and one that drew a large crowd on a rainy Saturday afternoon. As part of the spotlight on democracy and human rights, veteran CBC news producer and Carleton University lecturer, Laurence Wall, began the event with a segment from the fifth estate episode, ‘The Last Great Escape’. Setting a solemn tone for the next hour, the clip provided some context for those unfamiliar with North Korean society, showing accounts and footage of those fleeing the prison state. Laurence Wall introduced Lucia Jang’s own account as one that spoke of “unbelievable depravation, but also salvation and a new life.”
The book, Stars Between the Sun and Moon was written with Susan McClelland, an investigative journalist and author, with two Amnesty International Media Awards to her name for excellence in human rights reporting. For McClelland, Lucia’s story was similar to many that she had heard from other countries. However, what struck her was that Lucia didn’t realize the power of her account. She kept asking, “Do you think anyone would be interested in my story?” The complete attention of the audience, even through some difficulties understanding her accent, showed that McClelland judgment was right—this is a story that needs to be told.
Jang led the audience from her initial complete dedication to the Supreme Leader, who was loved and esteemed as a god, to her eventual disillusionment with the régime. Before the famine, she remembered receiving candy and new uniforms from Kim Il-Sung, led on with the belief that he could provide for her even better than her own family. When rations began to disappear, the people held on to their loyalty, unaware of the start of a decade-long famine than would leave over a million dead. When the situation only became worse, Jang, among others, began crossing into China and began selling goods through the illegal black market.
Lucia Jang reveals the female perspective that has until now been absent from the written North Korean memoirs. Trafficked into and trapped in an unlawful marriage, she was unable to stop her husband from selling their son. Determination to survive for her children kept her alive through the concentration camps, to which she was sent as punishment for her time in China. Pregnant throughout her second imprisonment, after being cast away for carrying a child not welcome in either China or North Korea, she withstood attempts by authorities to force an abortion, escaping with a newborn baby across China and Mongolia to South Korea.
At times intermingling the serious discussion with anecdotes, she focused on the humanitarian side of the story, avoiding the politics and certain details—such as her full Korean name—that could harm those still in the country. But the most striking comment was in reference to her first time in China, where she saw dogs being fed rice in meat broth, a luxury that the North Korean people could not afford. She felt mocked by their plenty – “I was so extremely shocked that we were worse than puppies.”
But the event was not without hope for the future. Jang, who now lives in Toronto with her two children, is a testament to the possibility of escape and forming a new life. She hopes that her story will change elements of the narrative on North Korea, such as sharing stories of solidarity in prison to alter the misconception that they are hostile to one another. The audience was visibly moved by the event, giving her heartfelt messages of admiration and wishes to offer their support to other North Koreans, concluding the event with a standing ovation. With reference to all North Koreans, Jang stated simply, “We don’t ask for much. Just to be safe.”
Chris Turner’s How to Breathe Underwater was not written as a book. Approached by a publisher about compiling 15 years worth of his magazine features, he secretly wondered if he would be embarrassed by his early work. This was tempered with the unusual fact that he had always thought collected non-fiction volumes were the pinnacle of achievement.
He said yes.
The book’s title essay was originally published in The Walrus, sometimes cutting a solitary figure in Canada for long-form literary journalism. He calls the genre “the poor cousin in the literary firmament,” but the lament is not without a smile. He first discovered feature writing through his aunt’s subscription to Rolling Stone, which soon turned into his own subscription, and then into a fascination with David Foster Wallace and others of the genre’s greats.
Unlike novels, Turner says, magazine features are usually read in one sitting. Self-contained immersion experiences, the scuba suit and mask are secured and new worlds explored. Seemingly discrete events transcend their locality and individual actions become a universal mirror. The genre is doubtlessly undervalued, but Turner’s newest book proves that features are often relevant beyond their one-month-give-or-take shelf life.
A former federal Green candidate (accidentally, he claims), and sought-after speaker on sustainability (again, not on purpose), Turner says his one intentional decision along this road was to write about the environment.
As a natural cynic, he could have adopted the disaster and panic narrative of climate change coverage—if he thought it would work. Instead he writes about solutions, preferring hope to doom as a motivator. Nothing in our daily lives tells us that we need to drastically change—at least not until some GHG-coloured mushroom cloud appears—but Turner says we’re more likely to move in a certain direction if we’re actually excited about where we’re going. Hence he leads his readers towards, not away.
He calls it “transformative myth,” and should the magazine industry last, it may just change everything.
“We are headed somewhere unknown, somewhere surely dangerous but also perhaps blessed with unexpected beauty. The terrain will be at least partially alien, the logic and rules of the place governed by inversions and seeming perversions of the natural order we’ve always known. Some of the tools we’ll need to traverse this new landscape safely may at first appear unfamiliar, unwieldy, inconvenient. We may only comprehend their vital necessity once we’ve taken the plunge into this tumultuous sea. But we will learn to thrive. Feel exhilaration in the place of anxiety and lament. We will all learn to breathe underwater.”
– Chris Turner, “The Age of Breathing Underwater”
What if your childhood memories had a competing narrative, a threat to your convictions? Would you sooner ignore the other memories than than recognize their validity as a alternative to your idyllic memories? In a discussion of her book titled Contested Land, Contested Memory, Jo Roberts addresses the lasting effects of traumatic memory and its effects on a people. Or to be more specific: two peoples—the Israelis and the Palestinians, respectively.
By providing an alternative narrative, which does not focus on the conflict, Roberts instead emphasizes the role of traumatic memory in the manifestation of generations of uncertainty, pain, and misunderstanding. Both lauded and criticized by the full spectrum of political opinion on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Roberts’ book is thought-provoking and refreshing in its renewed focus on the importance of the collective memory of a people; of the problems that emerge when competing collective memories threaten one another, and consequently impede progress.
Though careful not to equate the Holocaust and the Nakba (the catastrophe, the term used by Palestinians for the creation of the State of Israel in 1948), Roberts identifies both events as central to the collective memories of Israelis and Palestinians respectively. She explains that for Israelis, the achievement of statehood, through the creation of a Jewish state is a moment of liberation and assuredness in the future of the Jewish people following the devastation of the Holocaust, while the same event was for the Palestinian people, a moment of dispossession and acknowledgment of an uncertain future. These moments of suffering linger today, and infiltrate the narratives of Israelis and Palestinians, hardening perspectives and limiting understanding. The absence of consideration of one another’s suffering thus perpetuates and hardens feelings between the two peoples.
At the present time, these traumatic memories are not recognized by Israelis and Palestinians, resulting an environment which denies one another’s collective memories—through positive actions and more profoundly, through silence. The unfinished traumas of the Holocaust and the Nakba still live strongly in both Israeli and Palestinian society, wherein the continued threat to Israel’s safety and security serve as a reminder of the vulnerability the Jewish people still face, and the failure to acquire a state of their own reinforces the Palestinian narrative and sentiment of dispossession and abandonment.
Roberts argues that the acknowledgment of one another’s suffering and unfinished trauma is central to validating both peoples, and ensuring that the volatility of this trauma is manipulated for the good, rather than the bad.
Trauma is often times too terrible to forget, but simultaneously too terrible to remember. As such, Roberts recognizes that most often it is the children and grandchildren of those who lived the trauma that are the gatekeepers to their stories and experiences. It is this next generation which has the capacity to use the memory of the trauma to cease the opportunity to recognize the trauma of their “enemy” and utilize it to proceed towards a more cohesive narrative when approaching the conflict itself. These entangled stories of suffering and struggle inform approaches to the Israeli-Palestinian, and in turn determine how it will progress. Should Israel establish a museum in Tel Aviv explaining Palestinian historical memory explaining Palestinian history to the Israeli public? Should the Palestinians create a parallel museum, which teaches Palestinians about the trauma of the Holocaust and its lasting effect? Will this formal recognition and creation of mechanisms of validation facilitate a more peaceful future or will it provoke a greater sense of complacency amongst one another? Will Israelis and Palestinians forever be mutually perceived as “the other”?
Importantly, in her discussion, Roberts referred to an encounter she had with an Israeli woman living in London. This woman, Nira, had a conception of her childhood spent in Tantura, which was filled with beauty, wonder and magic—an idyllic environment. When she moved to London in adulthood, Nira met a Palestinian man named Rafiq, who later became her lover, and confidante. Soon, Nira learned that Rafiq’s family had come from Tantura as well, and was surprised by how drastically his recollections of the city contrasted with hers. Rafiq’s memories of dispossession and hopelessness, forced Nira to re-conceptualize her childhood, and caused her great struggle in reconciling the realities of Rafiq’s narrative with the magic of her childhood memories. Roberts’ description of Nira and Rafiq illustrates the unsettling but truthful reality of a fragmented historical memory, shared by two peoples competing for one space, refusing to recognize the validity of each other's struggles.
Mutual recognition of suffering is central to Roberts' narrative, and is identified as vital to the development of a more understanding generation, one which could one day be capable of achieving a lasting peace. In order to do this, the realities on the ground must first be accepted—primarily, that the Israelis and the Palestinians are not going anywhere, and one way or another, tools must be evoked to ensure that a future mutual acceptance is a possibility. This sentiment is best summarized by Yshay Schecter who is quoted as saying: “I have no place to go, he has no place to go. We have to make good plans for the future together.” This is the reality, and as such, this is what must be addressed, beginning with the mutual recognition of suffering.
Le 23 octobre dernier était un soir de double première. Non seulement c’était la première fois que j’assistais à une conférence dans le cadre du Writers Festival, mais cette présentation à laquelle je me rendais marquait également le début de la collaboration francophone de l’Ambassade de France et de l’Alliance française avec le Festival, et était la première donnée en français.
Son propos ? La vie d’un auteur français parmi les plus importants du siècle dernier et qui aurait, en mai prochain, fêté son centième anniversaire : Romain Gary. Pour en parler devant la dizaine de lecteurs férus du romancier français, réunis dans la faculté de business de l’Université d’Ottawa, David Bellos, biographe et traducteur accompli, enseignant la littérature française et comparée à Princeton, et ayant signé en 2010 l’ouvrage Romain Gary: A Tall Story. Tout comme l’homme du jour, Bellos a gagné, une seule fois cependant, le prix Goncourt de la biographie pour celle qu’il a réalisée de Georges Perec.
Dès le départ, sans formalités, Bellos nous présente Romain Gary, cet homme à la fois juif, polonais et français, qui était non seulement écrivain, mais aussi diplomate, aviateur, journaliste, millionnaire, réalisateur, et, dans l’« arnaque la plus spectaculaire des temps moderne », doublement écrivain, ce qui lui a permis de devenir le seul auteur à gagner une seconde fois le prix Goncourt. Bellos parle de Gary, qu’il a connu en travaillant sur Perec, un peu par hasard, comme s’il le connaissait (ou l’avait rencontré dans un film de Woody Allen).
Tout au long de sa présentation, que pas un bruit n’interrompt, il nous guide à travers sa vie comme à travers un des romans de l’auteur : on suit Gary lorsqu’il arrive à Nice et décide de devenir français; lorsqu’il est décoré grâce au courage dont il a fait preuve et à la chance qu’il a eue dans sa carrière d’aviateur pour l’armée française; et lorsqu’il est devient par hasard, ou encore une fois, par chance, diplomate français à Sofia (Bulgarie), à Berne (Suisse) et aux États-Unis. On le contemple aussi atteindre son apogée artistique et personnelle à Los Angeles, et devenir cet homme cynique que Bellos qualifie de très probablement peu agréable à côtoyer, et qui collectionne les conquêtes amoureuses avant de rencontrer la femme de sa vie, Jean Seberg. Finalement, on l’observe débuter sa chute, et chercher, pour une dernière fois, à se réinventer sous le nom de plume d’Émile Ajar, cet autre écrivain au style totalement distinct qu’il incarnera durant plus de 5 ans, jusqu’à ce qu’il ne mette fin à ses jours.
Si la vie entière de Gary, cet homme « tout sauf ennuyeux », tel que l’avais promis Bellos, tient en haleine l’auditoire, la partie de la présentation touchant à la supercherie Gary-Ajar est visiblement celle que le public attend le plus, moi y comprise. Et je ne suis pas déçue. Le conférencier raconte en détails la façon dont Gary a réussi à faire publier les livres d’Ajar sans que son stratagème ne soit découvert, les aventures ayant eu lieu autour des entrevues faites avec le faux Ajar, les remords passagers de ce dernier, ainsi que le dénouement de l’histoire, dont la clé réside dans le document « Vie et Mort d’Émile Ajar », laissé par Gary à son éditeur, une des seules personnes connaissant la véritable identité d’Ajar, et publié à titre posthume.
L’assistance, dont la grande majorité avait lu Gary, a ensuite posé quelques questions très pertinentes, ayant surtout trait aux habitudes d’écriture de Gary, ainsi qu’à certaines de ses œuvres en particulier. L’expertise évidente de Bellos pour son sujet ainsi que les connaissances du public ont permis de faire passer la suite de la présentation d’un exposé de type universitaire à une discussion enthousiaste, quoique courte, sur cet homme aux multiples facettes qui était avant toute chose un écrivain, « parce qu’il avait besoin d’écrire ».
En apprendre autant sur un auteur de la trempe de Gary, de la bouche d’un homme passionné et passionnant, et dans une ambiance aussi conviviale était exactement ce qu’il fallait pour que je devienne une grande admiratrice du Festival. J’espère qu’un plus grand nombre de présentations francophones d’une telle qualité seront ajoutées aux programmes des prochaines années, et que j’aurai même de la difficulté à me trouver un siège la prochaine fois !
I will begin this review with a confession: I can’t say that every event I’ve ever reviewed was one in which I already had a deep interest. Generally, I leave festival events and end up adding yet more books to my never-ending ‘to read’ list. Susan Pinker’s event, however, was one I couldn’t wait to attend, and would have committed to attending even if I wasn’t volunteering as a reviewer. Besides the fact that I read The Sexual Paradox years ago and loved it—a somewhat isolated incident in a time when I didn’t enjoy reading non-fiction—and besides the fact that I am studying psychotherapy, and thus find anything about relationships really fascinating, Pinker’s most recent book is extremely valid to the technological age in which we live. The Village Effect largely focuses on the importance of face-to-face contact, and I was delighted to experience that contact with Susan Pinker herself.
If Pinker’s previous book is any indicator, I imagine that many will enjoy The Village Effect. Pinker opened her talk by pointing to social neuroscience, which is a relatively new field that I’m sure will only gain popularity as the general public realizes its relevance. And so, it is within the sphere of social neuroscience that Pinker writes her book and suggests that our relationships with other humans impact our thinking, and even our length of life.
Pinker spoke in detail about her experience on the island of Sardinia in Italy, where she and her daughter interviewed elderly members of the community (you can listen to the resulting CBC Ideas program, The Longevity Puzzle, here). A meaningful experience in general, I’m sure, but what is particularly interesting is that on the island of Sardinia, there are an astounding number of centenarians—people over the age of 100. And although some would think that the physical island must possess magical qualities, Susan Pinker discovered that the biggest difference between Sardinians and people in North America is that no one in Sardinia is ever left alone. An initially annoying fact, to be sure, but it has great relevance for the often isolated or disconnected lives of North Americans.
Pinker later referred a meta-analysis in which 309,000 participants were studied over more than seven years, and—as it turns out via this study—what reduces your chance of dying the most is strong relationships. Despite the value of being active or quitting smoking, how much you interact with other people ends up being a strong predictor of your mortality. And, interestingly, according to Pinker it doesn’t actually matter what you do, as long as you are spending time with other people.
As my own experience can testify, there is deep value in seeing the same people in your community on a regular basis. There is nothing like the Bridgehead barista noticing when you’ve been away for a week, or getting back from lunch break late because you bumped into too many familiar faces. I have seen the village effect at work in my Ottawa life, and I am delighted to have a copy of Susan Pinker’s most recent book to root my experience in psychological research. Ultimately, Pinker pointed out that The Village Effect is a book about her own ‘village’, and about how each of us can connect with the principles of village living in order to live longer. Considering how many books I have on my reading list thanks to the Writers Festival, I will gladly take any longevity advice I can get!
I always feel a touch worried when I go to a panel discussion. What if one author gets obviously more attention than the others? Has a more popular book? I don’t want to end up feeling bad for someone.
I shouldn’t have worried. Not only were the authors of the Saturday night panel discussion at Knox Presbyterian, indeed, stronger than they may have seemed, they and their works were so completely different that direct comparison was gratifyingly a moot point. The fact that the authors are women, and that their protagonists are women “finding themselves in need of bravery, strength and smarts” to navigate their lives is a common thread. As became apparent, however, each woman has written a fascinating story equally about place as about person—and boy, are they different places! Each author spoke about the world they had created so absorbingly that the evening was a dizzying and delightful swinging back and forth from the 1950s in the northern community of Moose Factory to a gritty Montreal filled with near-feral cats, and to the prayer rugs and gossip klatchs of Muslim society in Ottawa.
Heather O’Neill shot bolts of humour through the discussion, describing growing up in Montreal in a seedy district and the links between her and the main character Nouschka in The Girl Who Was Saturday Night. O’Neill has done stints on the entertaining National Public Radio show, This American Life. You can see she would be a hit after thirty seconds of listening to her deliver simultaneously hilarious and deeply sad stories out of the corner of a wryly-twisted mouth. “Well, you know, my dad was really a man of that neighbourhood. He was sort of a …a gangster king. He saw me writing all the time and told me not to keep a diary—it could be used against me in a court at some point.” She pauses for audience laughter. “I was seven.”
The book loosely follows Quebec’s history, with echoes of the history in the majority of Nouschka’s stories. A strip club scene is followed by a meditation on Les Filles du Roi. When O’Neill quotes herself: “a nation crawled out between their legs,” you can hear a scandalized murmur from the audience. O’Neill reflected on the act of writing about the gritty, ignoble world of Montreal’s St. Laurent Boulevard. “The expectations of me were so dismal,” she mused, “But there were bright, vibrant kids there. I wanted to rewrite my own narrative. To illuminate that world, but also to break out of it.”
Turning from O’Neill’s self-deprecating irony to Monia Mazigh’s earnestness is like turning on a warm light. Mazigh’s head scarf emphasizes the roundness of her face and her expression is so guileless that adjectives like saintly spring to mind. Mazigh has already written the celebrated Hope and Despair, a memoir about her year-long struggle to free her Canadian husband Maher Arar from a Syrian jail. Mirrors and Mirages has less torture but certain similarity in its stories of continuous struggle. It links an ensemble of Muslim women– some from Tunisia, Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Pakistan, and one rebellious young woman who converts to Islam despite her Catholic’s family’s disapproval. Mazigh wanted the characters to be obviously different. Although all the stories are set in Ottawa and the characters do eventually meet, they are set in environments that vary from public housing to wealthy suburban enclaves. “When I get together with other Muslim women, I find we are all so angry about how we are represented. We need to open this box that we put immigrants in. We are so different!” The women are linked only by the constant failure of expectation. One character longs for Dubai but finds that Dubai is a desert – an “opulent one, but a desert nonetheless.” Another thought she would find freedom from stifling social structures in Ottawa, but finds herself just as suffocated. “It is always better somewhere else,” Mazigh noted gently. “Until it’s not.”
The Umbrella Mender, although not a lived experience for Christine Fischer Guy, is very personal – she was inspired to write it through finding her great-uncle’s memoirs of treating tuberculosis in Moose Factory. “What a gift!” she exclaims. She travelled to Moose Factory, an incredibly lengthy journey that she details amusingly on her blog, and immersed herself in the land. She reflects that it was much lusher than expected, and much more welcoming. When she told a community leader that she was writing a novel and he replied smoothly, “oh yes, like Joseph Boyden.” Boyden’s Three Day Road is set in the same region, the oldest English language trading post in Canada. Boyden, she notes, eventually became a friend and colleague as he helped with Cree translations. Fischer Guy’s narrator, Hazel, travels north as a single woman in the 1950s, questions the supremacy of western medicine, challenges the medical hierarchy of doctor and nurse in her draw to traditional healing methods and eventually has an affair with a visitor to town, the titular umbrella maker and ultimate departure from social constraints. Hazel, Fischer Guy, muses, is a “particular kind of woman. The kind of woman that would do that [leave her community to work in a northern town].”
Mazigh commented that her book was intended to go beyond statistics to create characters that would genuinely challenge stereotypes. I felt a bit ashamed for having assumed, partially because it was a panel of women, that the event would have lent itself to quick categorizing – best and worst, attractive and ugly, foreign and familiar. Once you’ve really met someone, particularly in vivid prose, it’s very difficult to use those boxes again. The host for the evening, Carleton University’s Susan Birkwood, closed with a quotation: “Literature is doing the work of politics in this country.”
“Cowardice and courage,” in Sarah Waters’ own words, is what interested her when writing her latest novel, The Paying Guests. Set in 1920s London, England, the novel follows the fortunes of the widowed Mrs. Wray and her daughter Frances, whose comfortable lives have been shaken by the aftermath of the Great War. Their reduced circumstances oblige them to take in lodgers (the titular “paying guests,” a contradiction in terms which, as the author quipped, is an example of a great British euphemism) to maintain the home that is both Frances’ birthright and burden.
Speaking to a sizable gathering at Knox Presbyterian Church on Sunday night, the award-winning author was reunited with CBC’s Sandra Abma who previously interviewed Waters five years ago after the release of the best-selling The Little Stranger. Clearly a fan of Waters’ back catalogue, Abma’s easy rapport with the author and audience made for a warm, welcoming atmosphere while her attempts to quash spoilers were met with rippling laughter from the crowd. This proved difficult at times for a book that Abma described as “maybe not a thriller, but thrilling” from an author known for “gripping tales, page turners” that are meticulously researched. Following this glowing introduction, Waters shared with the audience an early passage from her novel which not only provided a glimpse of Frances’ character but hinted at some of the broader themes of the text. A fluid, engaging reader, Waters brought to life the imagery present on the page, making listeners eager for the next chapter and the next.
Afterward, in conversation with Abma, Waters discussed her interest in the 1920s, a time period of which she previously had had only superficial knowledge (that of flappers, jazz, and the like) and which was bookended by her understanding of the Victorian era and the 1940s, time periods visited in her earlier novels. She discovered a world very much in flux, one still reeling from the end of the First World War, visible in the former soldiers begging on the streets and a broader absence of men, killed at the Front. It was, as Waters described it, a “world newly unsafe” and drew parallels with the anxieties present in contemporary life. Yet, as “unhappy” or “tired” of a time it was, the 1920s also brought with it a new informality, evident foremost in clothing and changes to hemlines, as well as a new modernity, from the widespread electrification of households to the rapid adoption of the automobile. Against such a backdrop, too, was a renegotiation of gender roles as men and women adjusted to some of the freedoms gained by women during the war. All of this proved compelling for Waters.
As Waters immersed herself in the research, it became evident that she had no wish to write about high society. Rather it was the suburbs that interested her, as well as issues of class, freedom, and people who on the surface seemed ordinary but would be “capable of great passion.” While drawing on newspapers, novels, maps, and material history still present on walks around London, Waters’ found her greatest inspiration in collections of British criminal trials, specifically the 1922 Edith Thompson murder trial, in which Mrs. Thompson conspired with her lover to murder her husband. The trial at the time attracted significant public interest, in large part, Waters theorized, because it highlighted anxieties around the shifting role of women at the time. Describing this and other trials as reading “like crime fiction,” Waters revealed that not only did such documents help shape her novel’s plot, they also proved an incredibly valuable resource for domestic details and the anecdote she shared about a pair of false teeth was met with resounding laughter from the crowd.
As most of Waters’ novels, with the exception of The Little Stranger, feature lesbian characters, the author also talked at length about writing historical fiction that sheds a light on the gay experience. She wondered aloud whether she is “recovering lost histories” or, as one of her more memorable reviewers wrote, providing a “queer retrofitting of a classic car,” which provoked more laughter from the audience. She noted that in her work she has never been particularly interested in writing about homophobia but rather how people lived with their sexuality and sexual desires. Later, when addressing her reputation for including rather salacious scenes in her novels, she laughingly deflected the charge but conceded that “desire is a wonderful narrative engine.”
Widely known for her historical fiction, much of the conversation during Q&A focused on Waters’ research and writing process. The Paying Guests, she shared, was a challenging book to write, especially compared to The Little Stranger which she found to be mostly straightforward once she had the ending clear in her mind. Her newest novel in comparison required endless rewriting, the results of which she actually stacked up and measured – an eye-watering 34 inches of discarded drafts. The difficulty, she revealed, was getting the tone just right. When asked if she might write a novel in the contemporary world, she said that as she evolves as a writer and becomes more interested in the craft of writing, she is becoming more open to the idea of setting a novel in the present and seeing what might emerge. Based on the audience reception, no doubt her next novel will also be snapped up, regardless of the time period in which it is set.