Rainy weekend afternoons on Elgin St. aren’t known for their political tenor and intensity, but that’s just what we got with Chris Alexander, Robert Fowler and Michael Petrou going head-to-head in a panel discussion titled “Terror and Hope” – hosted by the “incomparable” Adrian Harewood of CBC Ottawa.
Robert Fowler, Canada’s longest serving Ambassador to the UN – the pinnacle in an incredible career in our foreign and public service – recently published A Season in Hell: My 30 Days in the Sahara with Al Qaeda . In December 2008, Fowler was kidnapped by Al Qaeda operatives while acting as the UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy to Niger. The book is a fascinating psychological analysis of his captors. Indeed, Fowler’s experience getting to know his captors – their values, lifestyle, sense of time (or lack thereof), and their singular focus on entering Islamic paradise – now has a powerful influence on his perspectives regarding the War on Terror and the possibilities for progress in Afghanistan. As you may well imagine, Fowler is about as jaded as can be.
Fowler explained that while he fully supports efforts to, as he put it, “whack Al Qaeda,” the US-led post-9/11 intervention veered seriously off track. Specifically, he dismisses the attempts to “nation-build” and impose Western values on the Afghans, many of whom view North America as “Sodom and Gomorrah.” Over the past several months, Fowler has been alerting Canadians to Al Qaeda’s hold of the upper two thirds of Mali, which has already led to the displacement of more than double the number of Syrians who have become refugees in light of its civil war. Fowler noted that the UN, the EU and other actors are exploring the viability of a peacekeeping force. He not only supports such a mission, but also wants Canada to play a constructive role. After all, Canada has already invested billions in Mali and this investment must be urgently defended.
After serving as Canada’s Ambassador to Afghanistan followed by a term as the UN deputy special representative in Afghanistan, Chris Alexander can now be found in the House of Commons as one of Stephen Harper’s more eloquent Parliamentary Secretaries. He keeps himself quite busy cleaning up after the exploits of the Honourable Peter McKay, Minister of National Defense. Here, however, Alexander expounded upon his book, The Long Way Back: Afghanistan's Quest for Peace.
Alexander was indignant (and repetitive): the major issue facing everything the West has stood for in Afganistan is not within that country’s borders, but rather in neighbouring Pakistan.
Alexander was correct to point out that for too long, the West overlooked the cross-border nature of the situation in Afghanistan. As Pakistan’s involvement in sheltering Osama Bin Laden in Islamabad becomes clearer, our entire conception of the War on Terror is shifting. While 2014 remains the expected pullout date, Alexander and others are wondering what will happen after the troops have returned home. He cautioned that a Pakistan-supported radical movement could easily overtake North American-trained forces loyal to President Hamid Karzai. Alexander explained that his book is in part a call to action for a coalition of states to condemn Pakistan for hosting the Taliban and, in doing so, violating numerous UN Security Council resolutions. Invoking the fear associated with the Cuban Missile Crisis during the Cold War, Alexander affirmed the world’s responsibility to seek a regional peace.
Michael Petrou, the acclaimed Maclean’s journalist, was by far the least verbose of the panelists. Petrou recently wrote Is This Your First War?: Travels Through the Post-9/11 Islamic World, chronicling his wild ride as an correspondent for the Ottawa Citizen in Afghanistan just weeks about the 9/11 attacks. Petrou introduced the audience to some inspirational people he met during that tense time, including a poet who gives him “hope for Afghanistan’s future.”
When the three gentlemen sat down for a discussion, sparks began to fly in all sorts of directions. When asked about the War on Terror, Fowler alleged that in the aftermath of 9/11 the West threw core tenets of our civilization out the window, from habeas corpus to failing to condemn and stop torture behind the scenes. He stated ominously: “the War on Terror has created damage to our civil society that will not soon be repaired.” Chris Alexander, meanwhile, seemed unwilling to move beyond his focus on Pakistan. He offered a call to action straight from the JFK Cold War playbook: “we” must ensure a candidate sympathetic to the Taliban does not win the upcoming Pakistani election. Fowler shot back: “who’s we?” “We have nothing to do with the Pakistani election.” This exchange took place a few minutes after Alexander accused Fowler of “romanticizing Al Qaeda” for pointing out the Taliban’s disinterest in timelines in light of their absolute certainty that they – and Allah – will triumph in the end.
It was Petrou who brought a measure of calm to the conversation, putting the focus on human security and urging decision makers to consider the impacts of aggressive tactics (think drones) on the local population’s feelings toward the West. In addition, he was astute in pointing out that we cannot be true liberal internationalists if we advocate for a strategy of abandoning the Afghan people after all they have suffered “for the freedoms we take for granted.”
On a more forward-thinking note, Fowler – who is convinced that the men of Afghanistan are unlikely to change their belligerent ways – pointed to the importance of empowering women in Afghanistan to assume greater roles in the government.
The discussion concluded with all panelists agreeing that the greatest threat to Western security is a Pakistan-based Al Qaeda affiliate getting its hands on nuclear weapons. Overall, this was a fascinating discussion, one that could have gone for an additional hour. (Indeed, there was no time for even a single question from the audience!)
I wonder when Gandhi purportedly said “Be the change you wish to see in the world,” if he didn’t secretly think to himself, “oh I do hope they don’t find that too clichéd.” Our modern world has a terrifyingly remarkable capacity to eschew reality according to its own taste, and to transform even prophets of peace into palatable icons for the insatiable appetite of consumerism. But this divide between reality as it is and how it appears to be both informs today’s talk, and becomes apparent as we dig deeper. How we get to that point is a scene that would remind Dorothy and Toto of being uprooted, blown away, and then brought back to earth. And the question we begin with is that even though we believe in the ecological crisis and agree that that necessitates certain shifts in our daily lives, when it comes down to it however, we falter. It is to address this gap between knowledge and action that Tim Ward and Tzeporah Berman stand on stage with (metaphorical) levers, ready to deconstruct our Kansas of convenience.
Metaphor and narration are elemental for Ward who reaches the issue of language - what I find to be - the heart of the subject quickly. His recent book is about what he assures to be are metaphorical Zombies on Kilimanjaro. His motive for choosing that trope was in the idea of zombieness, how someone can have their mind taken over by an idea and run by someone else. Not unlike an automaton.
As I reiterate his words, a classic scene from Romero’s 1978 Dawn of the Dead comes to mind, wherein a group of survivors encounter a horde of zombie shoppers in a mall- mountains beyond mountains -and the only explanation is that they have become habituated to that to the point that the idea of consumption runs them. That idea has been propagated by the language of economics and belief in exponential and infinite growth in a finite universe . “It is no accident,” says Ward, “that the ‘tar-sands’ have become the ‘oil-sands.’” It is clearly an attempt by better storytellers to tell their own version. Ward believes that the language you choose is critical because there is no shortage of counter narratives that challenge the fact that we are no longer in Kansas.
Tzeporah Berman, former co-director of Greenpeace International’s Climate and Energy program, begins on a similar note when she says that it is little wonder why there is a gap between awareness and action: the climate debate has long been focused on lifestyle and that framing itself is faulty. Berman says that this leads to us being guilt-ridden and overwhelmed and Ward later add that this is the case until we become paralyzed. Is it only about walking to work and switching to better light bulbs, asks Berman. And even though people are beginning to realize how the rhetoric of consumption has run humanity on a conveyor belt headed to the ‘mystic’ portal of happiness, we are still polluting more. This is because 80% of the pollution is caused by big polluters.
Ward wonderfully says that the greatest motivation for humanity has long been fear, but this motivation-not unlike fossil fuels-runs out and we become exhausted if there is nothing but fear. And when that happens, people just switch to a different channel and tune into a nicer story. To facilitate that switch, to turn the long mistreated environment into the Wicked Witch and to hang our hopes on the Good Witch, played by the market and the religion of economics, Berman says that the government has actively pursued a systematic elimination of knowledge. Whether it be the elimination of the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy, or the decision to shut down the Experimental Lake Station , or spending 80 million dollars in ads to cover the embarrassment that is the tar-sands (and the ‘tar-sands’ is what is, says Ward, and not the ‘oil-sands’ which he refuses to acknowledge).
Its brilliant how a few moments into the evening, the talk has turned into a conversation and both Berman and Ward are together reconstructing the Babel of truth, only this time with renewable energy and an alternative plan. They both note how the bright side of things is constituted by the fact that those alternatives now really do exist, that we really do have the capacity, in terms of both technology and investment, to revision the future. And the primary way to do this is by observing our use of language to disseminate these ideas. Berman says that part of the reason why the people have been disengaged from this conversation is because they have been approached with the language of the lobby. She says that the environmental movement is possibly the most policy-wonkish movement and there is no need to reiterate that policy talk when bringing together people.
And not only have we misused language on Turtle Island , but we have also long used it to label many others as the flying minions of the Wicked Witch, which allows us to see ourselves as innocent. One example of this is the emphasis on the questionable human rights of the Saudi government, which are not under contention here, but that emphasis gives the green flag to the tar-sands. And even though China has long faced a similar bumper sticker, it has seen a 700% increase in ‘green’ investment, setting up wind turbines at the rate of every hour for the last year. Ward says that it is hard for us to surrender the myth of the nice Canadian and to realize that we are now seen internationally with a different set of lenses.
In the end, both Berman and Ward focus on the need for a vision of what the road at the end of this play looks like. Is it a scene where we look back and tell our grandkids, who listen in utter bewilderment, how we once relied completely on fossil fuels, or do we tell them that we saw our house go up in flames but decided to wait it out until the flames reached the second floor before panicking. The change lies in that vision, but that requires a wee bit more than just closing our eyes and tapping our feet.
“He obviously wasn’t having a good day.”
The host of the CBC Radio One’s wildly popular show Q, Jian Ghomeshi kept the overflowing Ottawa crowd rapt at attention with his unfailing humour and quintessential Canadian politeness, even whenasked about the bizarre interview with a belligerent Billy Bob Thornton back in 2009.
But Billy Bob Thornton wasn’t what the audience of young and old had come to hear about. 1982 tells the story of a transformative year in the then 14-year old Ghomeshi’s life, dealing with the grip of the old country of his family’s Iranian heritage and his awkward efforts to fit in at the all-white high schoolin Thornhill, Ontario, that he attended, all the while paying tribute to his idol David Bowie. Early in the evening, Ghomeshi endeared himself to his adoring fans, by apologizing for his fast growing facial hair (“I’m Iranian”) and recounting the story of an admirer who had mistaken him for Ian Hanomansing (“You can’t keep track of only five brown guys on television?”)
Those who had endeared long lineups to get into the reflective temple of the Knox Presbyterian Church were rewarded with not just one, but two lengthy excerpts from his book, which debuted at the top of the Canadian bestselling books list. Ghomeshi recalled his twin obsession with rocker David Bowie and his older love interest Wendy (“She reminded me of Bowie”), against the uneasy backdrop ofthe Iranian Revolution.
Local CBC celebrity Lucy van Oldenbarneveld elicited further humourous talesfrom Ghomeshi about growing up “in the Middle Eastern version of The Jeffersons,” ranging from his teenage experiment wearing purple eyeliner (“Don’t deny you’re wearing eyeliner when, in fact, you’re wearing eyeliner”), his finger wagging father (“Why aren’t you studying like your cousin to become an engineer?”), the vagaries of recording top hits on cassette decks (“There’s a whole generation of people who don’t know the words to the first ten seconds of songs”), and his humiliating struggle to sing as “Ivory” in a school production of Paul McCartney’s and Michael Jackson’s unlikely hit Ebony & Ivory.
But prodded on by a question from the floor, Ghomeshi paused his light manner with a moment ofsharp political commentary. Even as he praised Ben Affleck’s Argo , a fictionalized account of the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979, Ghomeshi seemed exasperated with the lack of even a single positive portrayal of ordinary Iranians in the film, calling it “not just irresponsible, but dangerous” to loud applause, as the United States and Iran move closer and closer to conflict.
Ghomeshi also commented on his family’s struggles of being the only “ethnic” family in their Thornhill neighbourhood. With memories of the Iranian hostage crisis still fresh, a young Ghomeshi had deniedto his school aged friends his Iranian background, which he now embraces with its values of family,deference, and kindness grounded in a rich history of literature, dance, and music.
As the long line-up to the mic forced van Oldenbarneveld to extend the question-and-answer period, Ghomeshi explained that one of his main motivations for writing 1982 was to tell readers that “it’s okay to be unique and weird.” The experience of denying his ethnic background in the tense years after the Iranian Revolution had pushed him to both at once try to blend into his high school, and to explore new wave music, new hair styles, and his sexual orientation.
The prologue is that Ghomeshi, a once awkward teenager at the fringes of his 14-year old world inThornhill, is now a celebrated writer, broadcaster, and producer. Just don’t tell that to his father, who asks him, “How many books have you sold?”
Admittedly, I’m a fan of all the venues used for the Writers Festival, largely because they’re located in my neighbourhood . Joining Missy Marston and Pasha Malla for Plan 99 Fiction at the Manx was thus a particular delight. The Manx, a small and literally underground pub in the core of Ottawa on Elgin Street is the ideal venue for an intimate poetry or fiction reading. There is nothing like tight quarters, accommodating strangers and a warm beverage to make you feel like hearing a good story. Marston and Malla certainly delivered, and to a receptive audience that felt like family.
As pointed out at the start of the event by resident poet and Manx bartender David O’Meara , the Manx merits a larger font on any pages to be read due to its ambient lighting. This, and the apparent lack of seating, was my only critique of the event. O’Meara, whom I bumped into while hunting for a seat, recently became a Griffin Poetry Prize judge, so he’s certainly a qualified host for an event such as this one. He wasted no time in getting Marston into a corner cleverly disguised as a stage, and thus began our brief time with Plan 99.
A woman after my own heart, Ottawa native Missy Marston brought her book flagged with neon Post-Its. Clearly, I was in the right place. Her summary of her book The Love Monster went something like this: Margaret H. Atwood—the fictional proofreader, as opposed to Margaret E. Atwood , the author of The Handmaid’s Tale fame—is visited by an alien. A brief yet captivating summary if I do say so myself. Oddly enough, Marston’s reading voice reminds me of the non-fictional Atwood. When I mentioned this to Marston after the event, she happily accepted this as a compliment, and guessed that it may have something to do with her love of the real Atwood .
The first and most-notable excerpt read by Marston was a tale of what I will politely refer to as bathroom concerns, which is obviously a highly-relatable but rarely discussed topic. Add this to the list of reasons why the Manx feels like a family gathering, because everyone was laughing along with Marston’s unfortunate and hopefully fictional story. Latter readings shared by Marston dealt with love and loss, and thus continued the relatable theme. She certainly piqued my interest.
Next on the docket was Pasha Malla, a Newfoundland-born and Ontario-raised author who was reading from his first full-length work of fiction People Park . As a general rule, anyone who includes obscure rap references in his or her work is a-okay with me. Malla began his background of People Park just so, offering free drinks to anyone who could come up with the context for “all in together now.” For those too lazy to research the reference themselves, Malla was referring to the Wu Tang Clang, a fact I discerned much too late to receive anything other than personal satisfaction from.
Malla provided a noticeable reading contrast to Marston; though both were confident readers sharing a quasi-relatable subject, Pasha spoke at a rapid pace, and was considerably more risqué in his content. A bold move, but one that was certainly appreciated by the audience.
Pasha’s side comments, such as “Anyone from London, Ontario? Yes, that’s a reference,” were a welcome addition to his brief reading from People Park. He had me picturing a weird fusion of the film adaptation of Watchmen with the Rocky Horror Picture Show . And, as odd and perhaps as worrisome it may sound, I also felt as though Pasha was telling his story somewhat first hand; as if he saw a series of raucous activities on our street, yesterday. Our gracious host David O’Meara claimed he couldn’t wait for the film adaptation.
Guests at the Manx were appropriately enraptured by story time with Missy and Pasha, whose brief readings were vastly different but equally appealing. It is my hope that all Writers Festival events feel as comfortable as Plan 99.
How often do you consider the wonder of consciousness? It is incredibly meta to try and think aboutthinking, and then think about the underlying structures that create the experience of thinking, butthis is one of the modern philosophical battlegrounds that Mario Beauregard has decided to venture into. Beauregard came to the Ottawa Writers Festival to present his new book The Brain Wars , which is a scientific examination of research he and other scientists are finding regarding the nature of consciousness.
I consider myself reasonably well read on the topic of “popular neuroscience,” as this has been a common book topic recently. I’ve read work by Tom Stafford and Jonah Lehrer, and many other authors of a similar style – the case study, followed by an examination of current research explaining the merits of that case, then expanding out to how this applies to everyone. From my reading I have changed my opinion on the nature of my consciousness from a religious one believing in a distinct “soul,” to one accepting that perhaps my consciousness simply was just a quirk of evolution and the way the brain makes sense of the environment around it. I felt that this was an enlightened stance because it was finally letting go of the ghost-in-the-machine—letting go of superstitions that try to explain something that was up until now unexplainable. Seeing that Beauregard was arguing back towards consciousness being something distinct outside of the brain and body fascinated me, especially knowing the quality of the research that is coming out of Montreal on the topic of neuroscience. It was clear I was not the only one interested in this topic, as Beauregard spoke to a packed house.
The presentation was fast-paced consisting of many seemingly unrelated ideas, much like how the mind often works. Beauregard touched on Quantum Mechanics and Materialism, the Placebo effect, Psychoneuroimmunology, Neuroplasticity, Neurofeedback, the Psi phenomenon, and near-death experiences. He tried to tie these all together as the basis for his view of consciousness. Arguments like this are like a house of cards, in that they require the listener to grasp the nuance of each idea so that atthe end of the presentation the listener will have a tower balanced in their minds showing the structure of the thesis. If they miss something, or interpret information differently than the presenter, the tower will not be able to stand. The other challenge for a presenter with a topic like this is that each personin the audience will be coming in with a different base for the author to build their argument upon, resulting from their education, background, personal philosophy, and other intangible things like their mood.
I think the cold rainy day primed the mood of the audience, as it quickly became clear during the question period following his presentation that many disagreed with him. Obviously I wasn’t the only person in the audience who came in with a different perspective. It seemed more like question period in the House of Commons where the “questioner” would start with a diatribe detailing why Beauregard couldn’t possibly be right, followed by a pointed question. The big difference between Knox church that afternoon and the House of Commons was the Beauregard was quite respectful towards those who disagreed with him. I thought he handled the challenges from the audience very well, and he obviouslyhas faced similar questions before.
After the presentation I purchased a copy of Brain Wars for myself, as this will be the only way I canfully engage with Beauregard’s argument. A twenty-minute presentation barely scratched the surface of a very complicated and nuanced idea. I approached Beauregard to ask him to sign my copy, and mentioned to him that I appreciated his presentation, but that I wasn’t sure if I agreed with him or not. He signed my book with “May this book stimulate your reflections about the nature of the human
I think that is the beauty of ideas like this—you may not walk away agreeing with the presenter, but if you are open to a new perspective you will develop a stronger understanding about why you believe what you believe, and will earn a better understanding about yourself in the process. Whether his research and ideas prove to be correct in the end, if they lead us all to more reflections about thenature of the human mind, I think that’s a noble goal.
More than 350 people filled Knox Presbyterian Church Friday, to hear Lloyd Robertson talk about the kind of life it’s been, say festival organizers.
“For a slightly lapsed Presbyterian, this is an intimidating place to be,” said Robertson before diving into a discussion of his autobiography.
Robertson shared stories from his new book The Kind of Life It’s Been and answered questions from event host CBC radio’s Laurence Wall, for a packed Ottawa Writers Festival audience. Wall introduced Robertson as the anchor with the longest running career of any news anchor in history
Robertson retired his seat at CTV’s lead news desk in September 2011, after 35 years. Prior to that he spent 6 years as the anchor of The National on CBC. He now co-hosts W5, CTV’s magazine news show.
For 41 years Canadians turned to Robertson for coverage of important events of the day, but knew little of his journey to the anchor’s seat. In his book –titled after his signature sign-off phrase “and that’s the kind of day it’s been”– Robertson reveals the story of a boy from Stratford, Ont. with a dreary home life and a striking baritone voice, who escaped into the excitement and endless possibilities of radio.
Robertson gave Friday’s Writers Festival audience a privileged look at his life, sharing the lessons he learned and the barriers he over came.
As Robertson grew up, his father was sick with a number of stomach conditions and was frequently ill. His is mother suffered from serious mental illness and eventually underwent a lobotomy. As a child Robertson witnessed his mother’s illness and those of other patients at the hospitals where she spent much of his youth, he said.
“All this left me with a life long commitment to try to help in every way possible to uncover the mysteries of mental illness,” said Robertson.
He says his love of radio started when he heard announcers broadcasting live in the middle of a parade welcoming soldiers home from WWII.
“I was transformed into another world at that point… I then became a radio groupie,” said Robertson who was 12 years old at the time.
“Radio opened up a world of imagination for me, but it was also an escape. It was an escape from where I was,” said Robertson.
He described learning the voices of all the local radio hosts and hanging around their studio as often as he could, until eventually getting an on air job.
Robertson told Wall and the Writers Festival audience how he went from a teenager forcing his way onto local radio, to the anchor of CBC’s The National. “I think I became the kind of person I am because of my experiences at the CBC. The CBC to me was like getting a liberal arts degree,” said Robertson who graduated high school, but never attended a post secondary institution.
CBC –or as Robertson calls it in his book: “Mother Corp.” was where he learned how to use the new medium of television, and where he rose to be a lead anchor. But because of union rules, Robertson was not able to act as a journalist and write his own stories.
He says he moved to CTV in 1976 because they told him “come over here, you can do everything.” Robertson said he felt loyal to the public broadcaster and believed in it, but knew that he would not advance in his career if he stayed there. After six years as anchor of The National, Robertson moved to CTV where he would become the chief anchor and senior editor of CTV’s evening news.
Wall presented the magnitude of Robertson’s career with a list of some of the major events he covered, including the opening of Expo 67, both Quebec referendums, Terry Fox’s Marathon of Hope, the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, the construction and fall of the Berlin wall, and the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Robertson described covering major events like these –recalling his coverage of the first moon landing– as significant to him because he was helping shape moments in history for the Canadian audience.
Robertson’s career was spent in news, but he revealed a chance he had at a career in politics. Former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien in offered him a senate seat in 2003. Robertson said he was troubled by the impact a partisan position would have on his reputation as a journalist. “I ended up saying ‘no thank you’ because I really thought that after all those years and that long commitment to independence and journalism that I really couldn’t and I don’t regret that,” said Robertson.
Robertson held his job as anchor until he chose to retire last year at age 77. “I wanted to go out on top. My heroes were always people who left at their peak…I wanted to get out when everything was intact. The voice was still intact,” he said, adding jokingly “and the looks reasonably intact.”
When asked about the future of mainstream media in the face of the online world, Robertson responded “the urge to know what is really going on will always be there and that is where the mainstream news come in.”
After about an hour discussing the kind of life it’s been, Wall had Robertson wrap up the event by handing him a script from which he read “and that’s the kind of day it’s been. I’m Lloyd Robertson, for the Ottawa Writers Festival, goodnight.”
A very enthusiastic and sold out audience enjoyed an evening celebrating Ottawa’s own Lynn Miles’ 25 year career as a singer/songwriter on Friday night. Her dedicated following and very strong connections to the local arts community were evident throughout the evening.
Alan Neal from CBC Radio One 91.5 FM hosted the evening (his day job is host of the program All In A Day). Neal had done a great deal of background research and did a masterful job of providing the backdrop to the story of Lynn’s career. While keeping Lynn as the focal point of the evening, Neal showcased a trip down memory lane. Lynn and the audience were treated to video and audio clips of people past and present who were or are part of her career. Lynn sang several songs, old and new, all to the audience’s delight. Lynn bantered with Neal and connected with the audience from start to finish.
Lynn made her first recording, on videocassette in 1987. At one point it was mentioned Lynn had written over 700 songs. In one audio clip from the early 1990’s, CBC’s Peter Gzowski asked Lynn if she was shy. She said she was and it took her a year to open her eyes in front of an audience and another year not to just look at the microphone once her eyes were open. There was an audio clip tribute from Murray McLauchlin, video clips of being interviewed by Alanis Morrisette and messages from producers and collaborators throughout the years. Lynn told a story of being busted for busking with Alanis Morrisette when they were in Santa Monica many years ago.
Lynn has won and been nominated for a number of awards over the years, including winning a Juno in 2003 and the 2005 Canadian Folk Award. Throughout the evening we heard several songs including Surrender Dorothy, Hockey Night in Canada and The People You Love. She played every request and she showed sheer enjoyment when guest artists such as Lynne Hanson performed I’m The Moon (Lynn Miles spontaneously joined in to sing harmony) and Sarah Slean performed Black Flowers.
Lynn was humble, down to earth and demonstrated a great sense of humour throughout the evening. We were treated to insights about her early career and to the influential roles played by a number of people like the owners of Rasputin’s Café. It was there Lynn and other singer/songwriters would perform and hang out till the wee hours. One of the owners, Helen, provided Lynn with cash to help make her make an album in the earliest years. She thanked the owner of The Ottawa Folklore Centre for hiring her when she needed cash and she thanked many others for their support over the years. In the end, it was the audience who showed their gratitude and respect to one very gifted singer and songwriter, Lynn Miles. I’d recommend that if you aren’t familiar with her work, then it’s time to log on to iTunes or head out to shop for a CD or, as Alan Neal did, look on eBay for a copy of that very first Lynn Miles cassette.
At noontime Friday, a sizable crowd composed of the “young and young at heart” gathered at Knox Presbyterian Church to hear Annabel Lyon speak about her latest young adult novel Encore Edie , sequel to All-Season Edie . The novelist is perhaps best known for her 2009 novel The Golden Mean , which was shortlisted for all three major Canadian literature awards: the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Governor General's Literary Award, and the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize, winning the latter. Those interested in hearing about that novel, however, or its sequel, The Sweet Girl , were laughingly told by the event’s moderator, Meagan Black, a Carleton University student, that they should have attended the previous evening’s event (“ Freedom ”) instead. Not that any attendees were disappointed with Friday’s hour-long event, which covered everything from the perceived didactic nature of children’s literature to the nuts and bolts of the writing process.
Lyon, a relaxed and engaging speaker, began with a reading from Encore Edie . In this latest installment of a confirmed trilogy, the titular “nerdy, bookish” character has recently begun high school. Coupled with the regular stresses of growing up and fitting in, Edie is also trying to dodge parental pressure to hang out with her cousin “Merry” (Meredith), who was born with Down’s syndrome. In an attempt to do both, she tries to put on a musical production of Shakespeare’s King Lear . In the selected reading, Lyon shared a scene in which Edie meets with an older student, Reagan, the costumer of the school’s previous play. The lightness of the scene (Edie ordering a large black coffee; the girl nervously meeting with the army-jacket wearing Reagan; Edie still rattling from the “serious” coffees she consumed hours before) was well presented, with Lyon perfectly mimicking the flat tone of the bored barista, the faster delivery of a nervous Edie, and the cooler demeanor of Reagan.
Following the reading, Black queried Lyon about the differences she has noticed between writing for adults and for children. While conceding that “writing is writing,” Lyon noted that while she can get a little discouraged when writing her adult novels, it was “always a joy to go back to that world, to go back to this character (of Edie).”
Indeed, she wrote much of the first Edie book while working on The Golden Mean , flipping back and forth between the two. Later speaking on the didactic reputation of children’s literature, Lyon reiterated how she cannot tolerate writing that patronizes children, noting that few topics should be off-limits and that “darkness is in the treatment” of subject matter. That being said, in writing her Edie books (and indeed, The Golden Mean ), she has purposely included characters with mental disabilities, a theme influenced by growing up with a brother with Down’s syndrome.
Consequently Lyon noted that she “feels strongly about how people with mental disabilities are treated in arts and culture” and aimed to create in Merry a “rounded character” rather than using her as a mere symbol of Down’s. In this line of discussion, she referenced the movie Dumb and Dumber and spoke about how language to describe mental disabilities persists whereas comparable slurs (relating to race, for example) have been largely been deemed unacceptable in contemporary society. She also discussed how while still resistant of any writing that condescends to audiences she is interested in how ethics can be communicated in fiction, noting that there is an “emotional value-added aspect of fiction that you don’t get in academic texts.”
Much of the talk also focused on the technical and practical aspects of writing, editing, and publishing. Lyon further elaborated on these points during the Q&A session toward the end of the event. Now a professor at the University of British Columbia (UBC), Lyon discussed how as a would-be student in the same program she first came up with the character of Edie. Although at that point exclusively interested in writing novels for adults, a requirement of the program meant that she had to choose two specializations and opted for children’s literature as her second. She wrote the first chapters for All-Season Edie in 1994, picking the story up again 8 to 10 years later and then finishing it. At that point she had had a collection of short stories published, but admitted that the worlds of adult and children’s publishing are worlds apart. Not only has she learned to rely on her editor’s guidance when it comes to adjusting vocabulary for younger readers, she learned about the “two year rule,” whereby readers will generally read about characters roughly two years older than themselves, so that an 11-year old character is actually written for 9-year old readers. These readers have proven to be a great motivator for Lyon as she shared an anecdote about how she was “stuck about two chapters into the second book” when she read a letter from a child saying how much they loved the first book. This realization of “oh, I have a reader!” acted as a great reinforcement, a kind she suggested you don’t get when writing for adults.
In terms of advice for would-be authors Lyon strongly recommended that writers study their craft just as a carpenter or journalist might, be it through a MFA program, non-credit courses, or similar, arguing that writing doesn’t just happen in a garret somewhere with a muse to guide you. She noted how in her studies she was able to draw on poetry and screenwriting courses to improve her fiction, commenting that all of her longer works are composed in traditional three-act structures. She also warned against writing to trends, saying that the success of books such as Twilight and the like cannot be predicted and wryly commenting that “mermen” are apparently going to be the next big thing in YA publishing.
The event concluded with much applause and a book signing where copies of Lyon's books, for both adults and children, were available. Attendees were also pleased to hear a rumor about a possible stand-alone children’s and YA literature festival that is in the works. Based on Friday’s event, it will likely be a great success.
Thursday night’s late show, “Freedom,” featuring eclectic novelist trio David Bergen, Annabel Lyon and Shauna Singh Baldwin, turned out to be a fine, intriguing evening. From start to finish, the event was engaging. The authors were too bright, too accomplished at their trade for anything else to be possible. Yet certainly, there was a precise moment about halfway through where, just as things threatened to descend into the realm of predictable, introverted lit-talk, David Bergen managed to toss in just the right amount of unpredictability and informality needed to keep the pot boiling.
It was during the panel section of the evening, when Ottawa poet and moderator for the evening Sandra Ridley asked the trio questions. Unexpectedly, Bergen, apparently unable to contain his boyish curiousity, apologized to the moderator, faced Lyon, and started asking his own questions to her. He asked about how she structured her works, and whether she outlined her plots ahead of time and a few other technical questions. For a few minutes the three of them discussed their organizational approaches to writing, and it seemed that they had almost forgotten the audience in their curiousity to uncover the others’ trade secrets. The audience certainly didn’t mind being momentarily excluded.
Seeing the natural connection form between the authors was memorable. At the best moments, it wasn’t three performers trying to entertain an audience, it was three very different people who had allinvested their lives into the same craft, genuinely connecting in conversation.
The evening concluded with a time of Q&A, which did a good job maintaining that informality so necessary in keeping things relevant and interesting. Some fascinating reader-writer connections were formed: The first audience member to stand up addressed Singh and told her of a trip through Pakistan in which she had used one of Singh’s novels as a kind of guidebook, going to each of the different sites mentioned in the novel. Singh was clearly honoured that her book had made such an impact on this woman’s life.
Perhaps the most memorable moment of the night came near the end of the Q&A. A woman stoodup, prodded by a friend, and asked hesitantly whether a certain baby in Lyon’s most recent novel, The Sweet Girl , had been fathered by this character or that. Apparently this had been the source of some controversy in their book club. Lyon’s shocked and surprised expression was priceless.
“You thought that!” she exclaimed, laughing. “Come talk to me after.”
She wasn’t being derisive of the woman’s comment. She was simply fascinated that an intelligent reader could come up with such an alternate interpretation. Raising her arms in a baffled expression, she brought up Roland Barthes essay, “The Death of the Author,” implying, who was she to judge an interpretation of her own book? The book is finished; its text is there for anyone to dismember and reassemble; it is no longer hers to dictate exactly what it means. They would speak after the event not as author and reader but as two readers of the same book. I wish I could have witnessed the conversation.
To me, the event was a success not because of its profound in-depth look at “freedom” (the theme, in fact, was only touched on briefly and tangentially) but because of a few small perfect moments.
Maybe the most perfect of these moments was Bergen’s reading from his latest work in Canadian realism, The Age of Hope . When Bergen spoke the last sentence of his reading and raised his eyes to the audience a quiet laugh ran through the audience, not because the last line was funny, but because wewere thrown slightly off-balance at how compelling the narrative was, how perfectly it ended, and how much emotional thrust it contained for its simplicity.
In a packed hall at the Knox Presbyterian Church, we were privileged to listen to three highly respected authors and follow the ensuing question and answer session that Charlotte Gray, well-known Ottawa-based writer and a Writers Festival board member expertly and firmly moderated. It is worth mentioning here that all three authors in some way have started out using part of their own history and their family's history as one aspect from which to build the fictional lives of their characters.
Christine Pourtney's Sweet Jesus tells the story of two sisters and their adopted brother, addressing moral and religious questions that come to life during a road trip and in the relationships between the siblings and their surroundings. In response to the question on placing religion centrally in the novel, Christine Pourtney answered that she wanted to explore the "meaty soup of opinion, beliefsin a strong framework," and write a book "in which both camps (believers and non-believers) could co-exist." Linda Spalding's novel, The Purchase , also centres on religious and moral issues as it follows the life of a Quaker family who have to confront slavery as a fundamental personal question.
Finally, M.G. Vassanji's The Magic of Saida takes the reader to the coastal area of present-day Tanzania and its rich history, its mythology, and magic. His protagonist, a medical doctor from Edmonton, returns to the places of his childhood in search of his childhood friend. Reading this novel currently, I was especially taken by his explanations of the moral quests that are contained in the story.
The selection of the novels paired for the session could not have been better in my view. Not only did they have at the centre protagonists in their personal struggle with a quests or search for clarity in their lives, they represent excellent examples how the past informs the present and how the present also can shed new light on the past. In fact, as the moderator stated at the outset: History is not the past, it is all around us.
Interestingly also, when they were each asked how they begin a novel and what aspect was most important at that point, they each answered that they were most interested in a question that the novel attempts to answer or not. It could be a deep moral or religious question or one of identity and belonging. As they also agreed, the initial question did not necessarily find an answer at the end of the novel. It was as important, or even more so, to follow the protagonist's quest for the answer, to understand the individuals whose lives were influenced by the search for an answer. "To get into the question and build a world around it," this reflection by Christine Pourtney reflects the general agreement among the authors.
Finally, from the general discussion some salient points for me deserve to be highlighted. Historical fiction can be seen as a hybrid between fact and fiction. Is that a problem for the fiction writer? For Christine Pourtney, "writing about the present is a historical act." It is what it feels like here and now, whether it is set in the present or the past. She writes out of "intuition, not history." For Linda Spalding, the question is about moral judgment. "Trying to understand the complications of people in their time
and environment. I have an expanded sense of the decisions and actions of the time for the reader to have a better understanding." For M.G. Vassanji his book is "not historical fiction, more a quest - questions about the past. At the end you learn about the question and the person who asked the questions." That does not suggest that some form of historical reality is of course necessary.
In summary, having heard the readings and the discussion, I can only recommend all three books. I will certainly add the two I don't have on my bookshelf yet.