With recent debates over the Prime Minister’s powers to prorogue parliament, Senators’ accountability, and the “Fair ” Elections Act galvanizing public conscience, one could forgive Canadians for holding a jaded view of Parliament and the people ‘we’ elect — or ‘they’ appoint — to operate within its musty chambers. But I think many of us would be surprised to learn that departing Members of Parliament (MPs) — regardless of gender, party, or status within their party — would espouse similar skepticism, and at times even apathy, when reflecting on their years on the Hill. Yet that is just what Alison Loat and Michael MacMillan, founders of Samara have uncovered by interviewing 80 former MPs; 35 of whom had held cabinet positions.
Loat and MacMillan joined an enthusiastic, full house at the Ottawa International Writers Festival to discuss, along with Kate Heartfield of the Ottawa Citizen, the process of writing Tragedy in the Commons , a book which weaves together the findings from these interviews.
Although the MPs were mostly frank and forthcoming, the interviews are equally fascinating when one considers what topics were not raised. Relationships with the public service, and with the media? Although always of interest to the Ottawa audience, most of the MPs did not discuss these issues. Nor did any particularly imaginative recommendations for improving the health of our political system emerge from the interviews.
But let’s get to what the MPs did say. And do keep in mind that all except Jay Hill, a Reform Party MP who served as Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s House Leader from 2008-2010, spoke to Loat and MacMillan on the record. Here are some golden nuggets straight from the MPs-turned-pensioners:
A majority of interviewees acknowledged that most Canadians have an unfavourable view of politicians, and quickly sought to distance themselves from the ‘typical MP.’ For instance, many claimed to have ‘stumbled into politics’ or even been ‘dragged’ into the political arena from careers as social workers, educators, lawyers, and community activists. Many said that nothing in their pre-political careers prepared them to succeed in Ottawa. Furthermore, once they arrived on Parliament Hill — following a gruelling nomination process and campaign — a large number noted they felt unsupported, and even that some of their caucus colleagues were hesitant to point them in the right direction, not wanting to position the rookie to outshine him or her within the party.
In spite of the fact that Canadian MPs vote in line with their party positions the vast majority of the time, most of the interviewees were quick to elaborate on the instances in which they fundamentally disagreed with their parties. That ‘whipping votes’ is effectively silencing elected officials is well established as the current status quo. A number of MPs criticized their parties’ “opaque” and “black box” processes, and many had some unpleasant things to say about their experience obtaining the nomination in their riding to run as a candidate — and these were the voices of the winners of those intra-party contests!
When asked if they had any advice to offer future parliamentarians, many MPs suggested that they try to become experts in ‘something,’ so that when their issue comes up on the agenda, they will be their party’s ‘go-to.’ Liberal MP Kirsty Duncan’s expertise in environmental science comes to mind. Yet Loat and MacMillan are right to question how this modus operandi might challenge traditional views of the role of the MP as a faithful representative of, or trustee for, constituents and their policy preferences.
I’m a theatre person myself, so I was interested that the authors described MPs as ‘playing a role’ in a piece of parliamentary theatre, rather than being the scriptwriter and director of their own career. At the extreme end of this tension was an MP who said, “I didn’t leave my wife and children and move across the country to Ottawa to be told what to do,” presumably by ‘teenage PMO staffers in short pants,’ as the saying goes.
Many MPs claim the ‘real work’ takes place not in the House of Commons, but in parliamentary committees. Yet they point out that the thoughtfulness of committee work vanishes as soon as the agenda becomes tinted in partisanship and the media rushes in. As Loat and MacMillan wonder, why is it that MPs are on their worst behaviour in front of the cameras, and their most constructive behaviour when left to their own deliberations?
Though they themselves had few ideas for improving parliamentary processes and practises (except for electronic voting to speed things up in the House of Commons), a number of MPs from all parties expressed support for ‘dissident’ MP and former Conservative cabinet minister Michael Chong’s private members bill, which would give caucuses the ability to demand leadership reviews, and would erode the discretion of party leaders in local nomination contests.
Tragedy in the Commons is a riff of Garrett Hardin’s economic theory “tragedy of the commons,” which examines the short-run incentive to exploit common resources, such as common grazing fields, in spite of the long-run, collective advantages of prudence and moderation. Indeed many of the MPs expressed frustration over the extent to which the Canadian political machine forced them to sacrifice the long-run social good for short-term partisan gains. It would certainly be interesting to compare perspectives by interviewing retired MPs in various other Westminster parliaments, especially New Zealand and Australia.
For Loat and MacMillan — whose day jobs see them dreaming up ways to increase public participation in political affairs during the years between elections — the key question raised in Tragedy in the Commons is as follows: how can we expect Canadians, particularly young people, to be energized about participating in politics if their own departing MPs offer such a sour and stagnant view of the very system they devoted their lives to navigating?
A Saturday evening of poetry in the capital, what more could you ask for? Forget your nightclubs and bars; poetry cabaret is where the weekend fun is to be had. The Saturday evening in question brought together three exciting, contemporary poets: Rob Winger, Adam Sol and Sina Queyras, to share readings of their most recent work with an attentive audience.
First up to the podium was Rob Winger, an Ontario native whose most recent book Old Hat aims to subvert the clichés of poetry - or, depending on the cliché, reveal them to be inevitable to any poet. My personal highlight from his readings was “In this poem”, a poem about another, imaginary poem and the many complicated, pseudo-intellectual meanings and allusions hidden within it that the reader would be required to understand in order to fully appreciate the poem; meta-poetry at its finest.
While Winger was a hard act to follow, Adam Sol took to the task admirably, not least through his banter between poems which was almost as entertaining as the poetry itself. His newest collection Complicity seeks to understand how we can reconcile ourselves with our identities while comprehending the violent undercurrents in society; a deep and dark concept which yet gives rise to entertaining, if thought-provoking, poetry.
Finally we were treated to readings by Sina Queyras, whose latest book MxT is about loss and grief. Her work often combines poetry with non-lyrical writing; whether that be in the form of an instruction manual or with mathematical symbols, giving her poems a specific structure without losing the heart of the poetry. Her performance was more sombre in style than the preceding poets, unsurprising given the nature of her poetry, and the contrast in styles was interesting to see, especially during an evening in which the concept of “Canadian Poetry” as a movement was discussed.
Our host for the evening, Stephen Brockwell, estimated the audience to be made up of roughly 90% poets; a demographic inclined to enjoy an evening of poetry reading. However, as someone to whom the poetic muse hasn’t spoken since I was in the midst of those angst-ridden teenage years, I still very much enjoyed the event.
It is always fantastic to hear a poet perform their own work; to hear the inflections, emphasis and speed that the poet envisioned for their words, which are so often confined to the paper, and this particular evening was no exception. From Winger’s brilliant comedic delivery, to Sol’s rambling – but very entertaining – introductions to his poems and Queyras’ more sombre reading of her beautiful, grief-drenched poetry, hearing the poems the way they were intended to be read was a rare treat.
The discussion that followed the readings touched on the significance of events and discourse for modern poetry, an importance that was underlined by the evening itself. While poetry cannot be written with the sole aim of pulling in an audience, it is wonderful to have an occasion to experience live poetry readings. Adam Sol referred to poetry as a “quasi-religious experience,” and on a night such as yesterday, in a fabulous venue such as Knox Presbyterian Church, it is an easy statement with which to agree.
What is it about a small, spry, spunky nonagenarian that captures our attention and leads us to examine our habits and lifestyle choices? For starters, there aren’t many of us that will make it over 90 so encountering a healthy, happy one inevitably invokes a bit of curiosity. But even the healthy, happy ones we would presume to be confined to a senior’s home, most likely losing lucidity and agility at a rapid rate. The last place we’d expect to find a ninety year-old would be the medal ceremony of a 100-metre dash at a Masters Track competition. But ninety-five year-old Olga Kotelko isn’t interested in meeting our or any expectations. She defies the rules of aging, and her story as told by writer and author Bruce Grierson, naturally compels us to question what it is that makes her live so long (and so well) and how we might get in on that good fortune. It amazes and baffles us that as the rest of humanity slowly succumbs to the irrepressible powers of gravity and time, Olga marches on indomitably and zestfully through her tenth decade of life.
Her story alone is compelling enough to make us drop our frozen dinners and take note. But Grierson’s lighthearted delivery and endearing self-deprecation invite us to explore the mystery of Olga in a way that is approachable, engaging, and fun. While there are few on this earth who can personally relate to an outlier like Olga, we can all relate to someone who wants to be more like her. Grierson begins his exploration with questions any of us might have: “What makes Olga different?”, “Can I be like Olga?” His five-year journey of observing, learning, and writing about what we could easily try to classify as a “freak of nature” reveals the confounding complexities of the science, the theories, and the mystery behind aging.
Like any good exploration of life’s perplexing realities, Grierson’s talk at the Writers’ Festival left the audience with deeper and more nuanced questions than easy and straightforward answers. Olga’s “secret to success” (the number one thing people hope to learn in reading Grierson’s book or speaking to him in person) is both mundanely simple and bewilderingly complex, all at once.
As Grierson says, it’s a complicated combination of “genes, lifestyle, temperament, and luck.”
Ask Olga what her secret is, or better yet, watch her in action and you won’t find her following a fad diet or applying some special skin cream. It’s as basic as this: she lives in balanced moderation, determined positivity, and constant movement. In a society where being deskbound for hours on end is the norm and grabbing pre-made meals is the rule rather than the exception, this timeless recipe for healthy living is now once again, as rediscoveries often are, novel. In the amnesia of modern life, the lifestyle our bodies and minds were made for has somehow become a “secret elixir” to living long and well.
Obviously, it goes farther and deeper than that. Grierson is quick to point out how many different variables are involved, some of which are controllable (diet, attitude, physical movement that goes beyond 30 minutes of vigorous “exercise”); others that are harder if not impossible to control (genes, environment, upbringing.) The way nature melds this all together in a person, and peppers it with (or without) a good dose of luck, will likely remain a mystery to us mortals. Our desperate need to quantify the unquantifiable makes this conclusion maddeningly unsatisfactory. But it also makes Olga’s story and Grierson’s interpretation of it one of the most gripping life narratives of our day. She may not have found the Elixir of Life but she’s discovered many ways to help her live well and after hearing from Grierson, I’m willing to give it a try. Though I don’t know if I’d bet my life on it.
Sometimes, I am a bit dim-witted. I am especially dim-witted on Fridays. In my state of aforementioned dim-wittedness, I failed to process that Rae and Ivan’s event at Writers Fest would be so much more than a reading and Q&A session. Gender Failure, a collaborative multi-media show that Rae and Ivan have toured across North America, was both heart-breaking and hilarious. It is no wonder that this event was not only sold out but also had a waitlist for tickets.
Throughout the course of the evening, Rae and Ivan alternated between sharing their personal narratives and experiences of gender, and performing songs. I was blown away by Rae Spoon’s phenomenal vocals, and by Rae and Ivan’s excellent grasp of how to tell a story.
Theirs is an excellent collaboration.
Not many musical experiences literally make me shiver. Perhaps that Basia Bulat show a few years ago at First Baptist Church, where she played a strange instrument in total darkness. Or maybe even the nostalgia-for-adolescence-in-the-90s flashback known as the Backstreet Boys 20th year tour. You can most certainly add Rae Spoon and Ivan Coyote’s performance to that very short (and diverse) list.
Gender Failure was both accessible and intimate. One minute, Rae and Ivan had the audience singing along to gender confused YouTube comments; the next, we were aching with the recognition that none of us feel fully attached to (and thus comfortable with) our physical bodies.
I’m certain that many of Rae and Ivan’s experiences were all too relatable. Perhaps some of us were heartlessly abandoned by our BFF Janine, whose breasts and interest in cheerleading appeared overnight. Or perhaps we experienced a middle school gymnastic dancing nightmare, during which we heard a mysterious voice that prompted us to flee from the gymnasium.
These are, of course, two of many heartfelt and humourous anecdotes shared during the evening, all of which allowed us a fascinating glimpse into Rae and Ivan’s lives.
It is clear to me that the collaborative work—both music and prose—between Rae and Ivan is not just entertaining but also extremely important: Gender Failure ultimately speaks to the desire to be known, and points out that a name is not the same thing as a person. And, as Ivan pointed out, he is a writer; he knows where words fail us.
I’d be hard pressed to single out one reading from all of Gender Failure that was most revelatory or influential, as the entire performance was such a cohesive yet diverse experience. Were last night’s event not the last on Rae and Ivan’s tour, I would be urging you to buy tickets to their next show immediately. Instead, I’m urging you to pick up a copy of their book, and to hope that the show tours again the future.
What is language? We use it every day, but rarely stop to consider it. Language is a critical part of life in a society, providing the ability to communicate by allowing individuals to share information, ideas and experiences across physical space and time through sounds or written forms that represent sounds. Each sound can be combined with others into recognizable patterns which we identify with words. We then combine those words into phrases to communicate more and more complex things. But all of this is based around a shared set of understood meanings that those who make dictionaries earn their livelihoods from (or used to anyway). What happens when this process of defining meaning gets undermined through the disruption of the source information or worse, through the disruption of the understanding of the individual? These are the questions that each author of Friday night’s book panel wrestled with. Yet, while each book took a similar starting point, they are all unique interpretations of the answers.
Peter Norman was the first author up. He shared three readings from his novel Emberton. Emberton is a gothic style novel, based in an old office building housing a dictionary publisher. The readings illustrated the style, and Norman used the excessive descriptive passages well to either comic effect or building tension. Norman shared later that part of the inspiration behind the structure of the office building had been from seeing the movie Titanic , where the ship was envisioned as a microcosm of society, with the captain and the upper-class people on the top of the ship, while the working class people were deep within the structure operating the motors. In Emberton, the crumbling office tower is that microcosm, with the editors in the glass penthouse and the printers buried down in the basement. Norman used the gothic elements of medieval buildings and magical elements with a threatening sense of mystery in a modern way.
Alena Graedon shared next, from her novel The Word Exchange . After hearing Emberton’s style, it was apparent that The Word Exchange was more relaxed in tone, and listening to Graedon read felt like listening to a friend share a story. Graedon read the opening section, where we meet the protagonist who is experiencing her world crumble. First, she is questioning her identity (having been working on a portfolio to apply to an MFA program for several years, but never being quite “ready”), and then losing her boyfriend (figuratively) of many years, and then her father disappears (literally). Graydon’s use of language in her writing was equally strong as Norman’s, and the “near-future” science fiction style works perfectly for this story. Her description of the world around the characters seems fully plausible yet has an element of a dystopian future to keep the audience on edge.
The third author of the evening was Ghalib Islam, who shared from his book Fire in the Unnameable Country. While the other two authors had strong reading voices, Islam unfortunately seemed uncomfortable reading out loud from his book. Initially I had thought this might be for effect, increasing the discomfort that you could sense from the text, but it eventually became clear this wasn’t the case. Much of the audience was visibly straining to hear him speak. Despite the difficulty in listening to the reading, there was no doubt in the strength of the writing, with Fire in the Unnameable Country being a dense satirical fantasy based in the world of the War on Terror, and confusion over collective and personal history from the severing of language from identity.
The host for the evening was Stephen Brockwell, a Canadian poet living in Ottawa. Brockwell had read all three books before the event and was well prepared, asking good questions of each of the authors. The questions raised varied from asking about the origin of the ideas for each of the novels, to exploring the unique forms each author used, to the transition of text from print to digital forms and how is this changing society. Each novel had an interesting origin story, and two of the three were marred with personal hardship and tragedy.
Emberton actually was based around an idea the Norman had as a young child. He was reading the dictionary and came across the page with the many names of people who contribute to the dictionary. His eight year-old mind envisioned all these people working in the same building, sitting side-by-side. During the process of writing the novel, his research found that the organizations that made dictionaries were not as fanciful as he originally imagined, encouraging the novel into further fantasy.
The idea that sparked The Word Exchange came from reading a dictionary she had received as a graduation gift upon completion of her MFA in creative writing. Shortly before finishing her MFA, she had a house fire, and all her books and everything had been burned. Her parents bought her the dictionary as a gift to replace the one she had lost in the fire. As she was reading the new dictionary she came across entries for people such as Sylvia Plath, and wondered what it would be like if one of these entries just disappeared. This idea was the starting point of her novel (where the father of the protagonist disappears from the dictionary, and from the world).
Islam’s origin story is much more difficult. He explained that he had worked for a year on a precursor to what has become Fire in the Unnameable Country, and then was hit by a drunk driver and was nearly killed. In his time in the hospital and during rehab he started revising, editing and reworking, and that process has taken its time to eventually become what is now published. As Islam shared this story, he was calm, sharing details such as seeing the photos of the accident scene where there was more blood than he could imagine coming out of his body and feeling a strong sense of fragmentation from the question of “where am I in this image”. But, Islam got visibly upset when he shared that the person who had hit him (and subsequently ran from the accident) was only charged with Drunk Driving, and not with anything more severe despite the fact that she had nearly killed him. This sense of disrupted justice has also been something that was clearly an influence on elements of his book which he alluded to, but didn’t have time to expand upon.
What I love about the Ottawa International Writers Festival is the opportunity to be exposed to new books, ideas and authors. This event introduced me to three new authors, and their first books. Each of these authors are clearly talented, and I’m excited about picking each of these books up to read. I love looking at philosophical questions, and the philosophy of language and its influence on individuals and society has so much room for exploration. Each author here has started with similar questions but has used their artistry and personality to create three unique books.
There are no answers to questions like these, but sometimes in the experience of thinking more deeply about the importance of something like language, we can learn how to be more mindful in our use and valuation of it as the use of language drastically keeps transforming through new technology.
Most people with severe food allergies haven’t stopped to reflect on how their ancestors’ diets and behaviours got them to the point where they can enjoy a milkshake without severe physical repercussions.
But Dr. Sharon Moalem has.
The award-winning physician and New York Times best-selling author has spent years examining how our genes are in a state of constant change, and that while you may be preprogrammed for either failure or success with respect to specific circumstances, your biological wiring doesn’t necessarily determine your fate.
At a kickoff event for the spring edition of the Ottawa International Writers Festival, we had a full house to hear Dr. Moalem’s talk. While some might find it surprising that literary enthusiasts would rush to get a good seat for a speaker focusing heavily on science, that just means they aren’t familiar with Moalem’s approachable demeanour. Similar to his writing style, Moalem speaks without jargon, cracks plenty of jokes, and uses anecdotal evidence to support his studies and theories.
In short, Moalem is a university student’s dream professor.
Informative and entertaining, Moalem explained that the human genome is not as rigidly pre-set as the scientific community once thought. Mutants do not simply develop from cosmic radiation; and yet it may surprise you to learn that many of us are indeed mutants.
Make you nervous? It’s not so scary. A specific, evolutionary mutation is actually the reason why many humans can break down and digest milk into adulthood. Does that sound like you? Welcome to the club. (And no, the club is not the X-Men. If only.)
As Moalem explained from in his new book, Inheritance: How Our Genes Change Our Lives and Our Lives Change Our Genes , mutations, environmental factors, and lived experiences all have an impact on what kind of person we will ultimately become.
Human genes are able to support what Moalem refers to as, “annotations in the margins.” That means there is enough room for your genes to make notes about important events in your life that strongly impacted you, and to prepare you should they ever occur again.
After reading an excerpt of his book to the attendees, Moalem and event host Sean Wilson conducted a Q&A session with the audience. Among the diverse subtleties of genetics explored during the discussion, Moalem explained to the audience how traumatic events like experiencing severe bullying as a child, or a soldier developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from combat are currently being studied to see whether the resulting certain genetic markers, or “annotations,” can be passed down from one generation to the next.
Studies with mice have shown that traumatic events can change the way mice behave. Moalem explained a study in which baby mice that were taken away from their mother on a regular basis experienced a form of PTSD and were more timid and less exploratory than mice that matured in a more stable environment.
A basic knowledge of psychology and many societal issues would indicate that such behaviour holds true for humans as well.
What remains to be revealed, is whether humans pass down certain behaviours to their children like the mice do: subsequent generations of the affected offspring exhibited similar timid behaviours as well. However scientists were able to avoid causing apprehension in the next generation of mice by administering a neutralizing drug in time.
Scientists want to know whether this could be done for traumatized humans as well, though since the amount of time between our generations is significantly longer, we’re left on a scientific cliffhanger until the next chapter is researched and written. We may have to wait longer to find out what happens next than fans waiting on George R. R. Martin ’s next book.
With his engaging writing and personality, Moalem has created a key opportunity for those literary enthusiasts with an interest in history, physiology, and human genetics to indulge their curiosity in an accessible and entertaining way. While you may not think you look good in your genes, chances are you may not even be aware of what kind you had to begin with, or what condition they’re in today.
Genes tell the story of your life, and you are the main character. Hopefully you find it to be a great read.
The House of Anansi Poetry Bash was something special. It was hosted by David O'Meara and included presentations by Garth Martens, Sarah Lang, Anne-Marie Turza and Matthew Zapruder, all of whom had tremendous chemistry throughout the evening.
If you've ever had poetry read to you in a church, then you'll understand what Matthew Zapruder meant when he said, "All poetry should be read here until the end of time. It should be illegal to do it anywhere else."
All four writers had incredible stories to share and it felt less like a staged event and more like a reunion among friends, which is all part of the magic at the Ottawa Writers Festival. There were discussions, debates and thoughtful commentaries which arose from the conversations during the night. It is always a pleasure to hear kind words of encouragement from authors and this evening was no exception. The poets urged writers to create problems to solve, to question "what can poetry do?", and to allow an editor to completely annihilate your work.
Some highlights of the night were Garth Martens' poem, "The Bug Unit," Sara Lang's poetic advice in "For Tamara," Anne-Marie Turza's "The Veil," and the first poem in Matthew Zapruder's book, "Sunbear."
Given that it is Poetry Month, the bash allowed for the authors to present an abundance of styles under the poetic umbrella. There was lightness, darkness, humour, a mosquito gracing ears and a letter written to God.
A lamp gave out when the authors were on stage but that didn't stop the artists from saying two things:
One; that a poetry book is an interior world in which we should wander around in.
and Two; a true poet will forget about making you look for double meanings.
I'll take poetic advice like like that any day.
The next poetry event is the Poetry Cabaret at 8:30 PM on Saturday, April 26
Meeting and listening to Jonas Bengtsson made for a very enjoyable and interesting pre-launch event to the Spring edition of the Ottawa International Writers Festival. This event was presented in association with the Royal Danish Embassy, The Canadian Nordic Society and The Danish Club of Ottawa, with the Danish Ambassador and his wife and members of the two locally based organizations in attendance. Some of them knew Bengtsson well and had, evidently came to the event having already read his book. We filled the large dining room in the Army Officers' Mess to full capacity. Most of us, at least as far as those not reading Danish in the audience were concerned, had not heard of Jonas Bengtsson and his newly translated novel, A Fairy Tale . Our guest, however, is well-known in his home country, has written two other novels and has been the winner of several Scandinavian literary prizes. I am convinced that, with A Fairy Tale , now available in Canada in English, as translated by Charlotte Barslund, through Anansi Press, his popularity will increase considerably.
Neil Wilson, Founding Director of the Writers Festival, took over as the host to step in for Laurence Wall, who was not able to attend. He jumped right into the discussion of one of the central themes of the novel: the complex relationship between father and his young son made more challenging by them "living at the margins of society." Written in the voice of a young boy, it could not have been an easy voice to maintain. How does an author succeed so brilliantly to get s into the mind of a six year old and grow with him and his voice into young adulthood? It was a privilege to listen to the stimulating exchange that followed these questions.
Jonas Bengtsson answered openly and candidly to Neil's and audience's questions. He admitted that he found writing this novel more difficult than anything he had written before. In fact, when he had started, he'd planned to write a very different novel altogether. He had never attempted anything similar before and didn't really want to write the kind of novel it turned out to become. So, what changed in the process of writing? Life, in short.
His own son, who was slightly younger than his character at the time of writing, had moved in with him more than they previous part-time arrangement they'd had, and they were spending considerable quality time together. He had to make adjustments to his routines (he writes at night usually) but that was a small price to pay for what he gained. For example, the recognition of the total trust a child has in his parent, the beauty of it, but also the realization of the profound responsibility that comes with this recognition. All of this made him reflect more deeply on his role: how would one educate their child, pass on to them knowledge, experience and social norms? How does one instill stability and routines that the child expects while also encouraging creativity and a certain amount of risk taking? How to balance the fundamental need to keep his son safe while leaving him room to grow into his own increasingly independent person? Not surprisingly, many of these reflections have found their way into his novel.
Having read the book prior to the event, I found Bengtsson's very personal connections to his novel moving. It goes without saying that he created a father figure in the novel who does not represent him. The fictitious father has other issues to deal with also and does not, or cannot, take quite such a balanced and considerate perspective on raising his son. Still, while his deep love for his son speaks from every page, here again, life has ways of interfering that make his efforts more complicated and challenging. Bengtsson also brings in an element of magic to his story – the Fairy Tale – and at least one central character, who, in addition to the father, can create a magical world for the son.
Much more could be said about the evening and the great discussions with Jonas Bengtsson but it must suffice to encourage everyone to pick-up, read and enjoy his novel. Neil Wilson reflected the view of many in his closing remarks when he expressed his hope that the successful collaboration with the Danish Embassy and the other partners can bring more Danish writers and talent to the Writers Festival in the future.
It has now been over a decade since the final full sequence of over 20,500 genes was mapped by the multi-national Human Genome Project. It is still surreal to fathom the enormity, and the seeming anti-climactic finality of this achievement. For the numerous scientists who collaborated on this project, their final aspiration was not simply the conquest of a biological puzzle per se but was rather in translating this newly compiled information into health for individuals and across populations.
The full realization of a personalized, “genomic medicine” is still very much an ongoing venture. Dr. Sharon Moalem's third book, titled Inheritance, seeks to imprint the relevance of genetic research on rare conditions to everyday life. As a practising physician and clinical researcher, Dr. Moalem's writing style is bereft of jargon, filled with anecdotes, and presumes little to no prior knowledge on the subject.
Citing the reality of over 6000 rare genetic disorders, Dr. Moalem sets up the advice of the British physician James Paget as his guide. Paget, writing in the British medical journal The Lancet, in 1882, wrote that “[n]ot one of them [rare diseases] is without meaning...[n]ot one that might not become the beginning of excellent knowledge, if we could answer the questions – why is it rare? Or being rare, why did it in this instance happen?”
The reason rare genetic disorders occur so infrequently is that complex, multicellular animals operate under the principle of “biological totalitarianism.” This is the mechanism that, when functioning as it should, “promotes cellular obedience at all costs, an obedience enforced by receptors on the surface of any potentially misbehaving cells.” Yet the paradox is that our DNA – our hereditary material and biological instruction manual – is susceptible to change through individual actions, and stimuli from the environment. The remarkable fact is that even a a very small change in genetic code has a significant transformation in its expression. Dr. Moalem recounts the story of a young boy in Lahore, Pakistan who had a small mutation in the SCN9A gene leading to his accidental death as he jumped off a roof on a dare, as he was completely devoid of feeling any pain.
There are various points in the book where the reader is encouraged to have their exome (partial) or whole genome sequenced as it has become relatively cheaper to do so. While this is true – in 2000, $10 million could barely sequence 1 person while the same amount, accounting for inflation, can sequence up to 400 people – there is still stubborn bottlenecks due to the complexities involved in computing and interpreting this genetic data. The practicality of access continues to be restricted due to these barriers, and are far more in abeyance in developing countries for the same reasons, amplified.
Dysmorphology is using careful observation of the physical appearance of the patient to deduce the probability of different genetic disorders. While this harkens discomfiting thoughts of a phrenologists' fingers tracing the contours of one's skull, Dr. Moalem outlines how noting certain features of the patient's face can yield useful medical clues aplenty. In fact, just last month, Dr. Moalem and his team won a hackathon event at MIT for developing a smartphone app that can help identify “predispositions to certain diseases based on facial structure.”
The possession of such intimate knowledge raises a slew of other issues. At a time when truly private spheres continue to diminish in a world of prevalent social media and connectivity, privacy concerns are inescapable. Dr. Moalem raises the thorny issue of “genetic discrimination” where someone could be turned down disability or life insurance based on their profile. Perhaps even the prospect of a romantic relationship becomes contingent on genetic capability; the possibilities for exclusion abound. The practise of gender-selective abortion is prevalent in China, and this is inadvertently abetted by the ultrasound technology that enables parents to identify the sex of the foetus. The case of Ethan, who does not even have the a trace of a Y chromosome, who was still born male is a caveat against eugenics of this kind. The personal ebullience of Dr. Moalem shines through in the passages where he praises the courage and patience of his patients with rare conditions, sincerely expressing how much they have to teach us, not just in biology, but in being human.
Availability of genetic data need not always be so irredeemably filled with pitfalls. Parents Amy Garland and Paul Crummey were placed under surveillance in the UK under suspicion of abuse when their infant son had numerous broken bones. It was only much later that the source was diagnosed as a symptom of osteogenesis imperfecta or OI, a genetic disorder which impairs the quality of collagen that constitutes healthy bones. The acknowledgement of the physiological fixity of transgender traits – whether they be kathoeys in Thailand or hijras in the Indian Subcontinent – have helped usher in increased social tolerance in very conservative societies.
Personalized genomic medicine seems like a panacea to rigid rules, and holds the promise of maximal individual care. In this way, genetic abnormalities can nullify many behaviours that are deemed harmless and even recommended. Having Hereditary Fructose Intolerance means that most fruits and vegetables could be toxic. A mutation of the CYP1A2 gene could make caffeine consumption dangerously raise blood pressure. Genetic variation on the MTHFR gene could mean that mothers would need much more than the recommended dose of folic acid to prevent neural tube defects in their babies, while also contending with the elevated levels of folic acid masking a deficiency in Vitamin B12. An interesting conundrum to explore would be whether an overly individualized approach to medicine could erode any authoritative clinical directive? Evidence exists that cigarettes' causation of lung cancer varies along the probability scale based on personal genetic make-up. Would tobacco or junk food companies now be exempt from blame if they can shift it to someone's genes rather than their unhealthy product?
While much of the prose is straightforward and plain, Dr. Moalem occasionally slips into sublimity:
Like shadows behind a rice-paper screen, we do occasionally catch glimpses of our inner workings. We feel our pulse race when we're excited. We notice a but scab over, then slowly disappear altogether. Through it all we are oblivious to the hundreds if not thousands of genes being continually expressed and repressed to make it all happen seamlessly until the inevitable happens.
The inevitable, mortality, happens to us all. Much of the advances gained, and the many more still to come that alleviate pain as illustrated by Dr. Moalem, are no doubt welcome. Yet in all the manic fear and control exhibited in seeking to be a “previvor” (a preventative survivor) there is a great unease in facing death and suffering. Perhaps not all of us can wrestle and attain the grace attained by Tolstoy's Ivan Illyich. But it would be a greater tragedy to not try at all.
It was well below zero outside and dark, and my breath, quickly turning to cloud, seeks its forebears in the heavens above. But even though walking in this landscape makes me at times fancy myself a walker in our mythic North, straddling alongside “the Dorset giants who drove the Vikings back to their long ships,” Bank Street, however cool, is still an incredible stretch of the imagination away from Al Purdy’s North, or the tundra of Lopez’s Arctic Dreams. Perhaps owing to that dissimilarity, I don’t carry food in my backpack, but instead a small copy of notes from the journals of Thoreau—that inimitable man, that Harvard graduate who gave up human boundaries to make himself at home in the woods. And I think I have Gary Snyder—the poet laureate of Deep Ecology—in there too, somewhere.
That Beat of a poet,
that bead-wearing monk
of a Zazen poet
Part mountain ranger,
Later, sitting in one of the front pews in Southminster United Church, the time at least 5 minutes past 7, I wonder why J.B. Mackinnon hasn't taken the stage yet. But, having come to a talk on nature, perhaps I had someone the likes of John Muir or Edward Abbey in my head, and am a bit surprised when Neil Wilson, the director of the Writers’ Festival, introduces J.B. and a young looking fellow in a plaid shirt steps onto the stage.
Mackinnon has just recently released his book The Once and Future World: Nature As It Was, As It Is, As It Could Be . As the title might suggest, it is a work of historical ecology, or the history of nature, today and into the future. The bookseller blurbs say that “The Once and Future World began in the moment J.B. MacKinnon realized the grassland he grew up on was not the pristine wilderness he had always believed it to be.” I feel however that it has its genesis a bit before that; before he realized that the wilderness he had seen in his childhood was far from “pristine” and closer to an illusion. When James once returned to his home in the interior grasslands of B.C., he discovered that the land had been turned into a housing development. It was this personal encounter with a memory hijacked by development that led him to his research, only to realize that what he remembered was in itself artificial.
In his childhood, he had seen the Red Fox as the biggest beast on the land, but when he started looking into the matter, he found out that the Fox wasn’t even a native species, and was instead introduced to the grasslands in the 1700s. In fact, it was the Grizzly Bear that was the biggest native animal.
How many of us have been fortunate enough to see a whale…in the wild? Mackinnon says that 150 years ago, the whale population was thriving, and the Great Whale used to swim into Vancouver waters. But by 1908, the abundant whale population had been hunted into obscurity. And by now, our present time, the disappearance is normal, as if this is the way it has always been. But, Mackinnon says, “if we are aware of their presence in the past, then their absence would seem abnormal.”
As he expands his research, Mackinnon finds that this capacity to readily forget is characterized by the term “Shifting Baseline Syndrome,” a term that was initially coined by fisheries scientist Daniel Pauly in 1995. Pauly describes the syndrome thus: “Each generation of fisheries scientist accepts as baseline the stock situation that occurred at the beginning of their careers, and uses this to evaluate changes. When the next generation starts its career, the stocks have further declined, but it is the stocks at that time that serve as a new baseline. The result obviously is a gradual shift of the baseline, a gradual accommodation of the creeping disappearance of resource species…"
Generation after generation our reference points slip, and we accept compromises for reality. “We excuse, permit, adapt — and forget” writes Mackinnon. What we need, he says, is a process of Re-wilding, reacquainting ourselves with the natural world. While the idea is not at all new—Thoreau firmly believed that in wildness lay the salvation of the world—Mackinnon applies it on a large scale, perhaps knowing full well that the human species, for the first time in its history, has become an inhabitant of cities—homo urbanus—as the majority of the world’s population now lives and dies far from the woods of Thoreau and Emerson.
Diana Beresford-Kroeger has come to speak about her latest book The Sweetness of a Simple Life and one thing she says early on in her talk holds my attention. “I’m not a very wealthy person,” she says, “nor do I intend to be.” This reminds me of Thoreau’s words in his Journals: “Our life is frittered away by detail. An honest man hardly need to count more than his ten fingers, or in extreme cases he may add his tend toes, and lump the rest. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity. I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail.”
Fritz Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful, published in 1973,is in the same vein of thought—voluntary simplicity and frugality—as Beresford-Kroeger’s thought and challenges our progress-based economics and the myth that happiness is purchased through higher levels of consumption. She belongs to an ancient family in Ireland, part of the Druidic tradition, and has long committed herself to the protection of the world’s forests, as can be seen from her earlier work. She now tells us a story about her search for the sacred tree of the First Nations People. The Red Cedar tree, also known as the Tree of Life for its diverse benefits, was almost completely wiped out of existence—like the whales and the grizzlies of B.C.—as a result of European and post-European contact. While it might be difficult for us to imagine the significance and sacredness of a tree, some would say that that sense of sacredness and meaning can be evinced through the portrayal of the “Tree of Souls” in James Cameron’s film Avatar.
The subtitle of Beresford-Kroeger’s book reads “Tips for Healthier, Happier, and Kinder Living Gleaned from the Wisdom and Science of Nature,” and that might by itself paint a portrait of the lady on stage. She speaks with the wizened air of a grandmother, doling out advice to her eager-to-run-around child, advice that though might seem silly and naïve, contains truth nonetheless.
In the end, we must remember the beginning, and all that has passed since. We need a process of “active remembering,” to keep alive the wisdom of the ages, and not be deluded into accepting our own present-day reality as the absolute truth. Those who have spoken about the need for a simpler existence, unfettered by modern day contrivances which sell on account of their plastic packaged purpose of “simplicity” and “happiness,” these speakers are chastised for propagating a return to the stone-age. But this accusation itself is based on what Mackinnon has spoken of as the shifting baseline and totally abnegates the past. The now-as-it-is becomes the norm. But “when we talk about a ‘norm,’” says Gary Snyder, “we’re talking about the grain of things in the larger picture. Living close to earth, living more simply, living more responsibly, are all quite literally in the grain of things… I will stress, and keep stressing, these things, because one of the messages I feel I have to convey—not as a preaching but as a demonstration hidden within poetry—is of deeper harmonies and deeper simplicities, which are essentially sanities, even though they appear irrelevant, impossible, behind us, ahead of us, or right now."
“Right now” is an illusion, too.” Snyder’s point connects the thought and purpose of Beresford-Kroeger and Mackinnon: we need to remember that we once lived simpler lives, and that was better for all of us. And that no matter how outrageous it might seem now, given especially our proclivity for social amnesia, it is still possible to live that way.