Human societies are fundamentally good. So argues Nicholas Christakis, author of Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society. Trained as a palliative care physician and social scientist, Christakis now directs the Human Nature Lab at Yale University, where he is also Sterling Professor of Social and Natural Science. His new book Blueprint interweaves aspects of sociology, medicine, evolutionary biology, and ecology in an intense study of the human condition. At a time when truth and evidenced-based research are facing challenges as never before and dangerous half-truths rage on social media, Christakis’s carefully laid out, factual book offers an optimistic view on where humanity is headed next, grounded not in wishful thinking but in a what Christakis argues is a mountain of evidence-based truths.
The facts paint an optimistic picture, says Christakis. The fact that humans have evolved to live in society suggests that our being social carries evolutionary benefits. Influenced by the philosophy of Philippa Foot, who said, “In moral philosophy it is useful, I believe, to think about plants,” Christakis says that like plants, human societies need good roots to thrive. Human good is located in the roots that lead to human flourishing over time. While it is tempting to hone in on the horrors of human history and get pulled into the pathos of hate, Christakis argues instead that human good and our propensity for cooperation are overwhelmingly engrained in us, socio-biologically.
Christakis and his team studied thousands of societies, intentional and non-intentional, across different times and places. They found that certain common features are salient across all of them. Christakis calls these nourishing principals the “Social Suite”: identity, love, friendship, networks, cooperation, in-group preference, mild hierarchy, and teaching. All of these functions arise out of our inter-individuality; i.e., our identity formation through our social interactions with one another. The Social Suite is what makes us essentially human.
These principals form a blueprint for the formation of human societies that is deeply, even genetically, ingrained. The attempt to suppress any of these instincts, such as engineering a society that suppresses love or freedom of association, as for example is undertaken by authoritarian regimes, cannot be engineered successfully, at least not forever. Christakis speaks from experience; he was just a boy when the military dictatorship was overthrown in his native Greece. Human society may be flawed says Christakis, but despite centuries of hatred and violence Christakis believes that society fundamentally leans towards the good. He backs this by science. He is optimistic about our common future because the long arc of our evolution says that the societal behaviours that will thrive are those that nourish us. Malice and vitriol will not last.
The horizon of humanity offers hope.
Some years ago I interviewed the late British crime writer P.D. James, and we discussed the distinction often made between literary and genre fiction. She dismissed it rather decisively, noting that the distinction seemed to be of much more importance in North America than elsewhere, and cited successful crime writers who were also winners of major prizes for literary fiction to buttress her point.
Since then various crime writers have validated her view. One of the most conspicuous is the featured author at last Fall’s OIWF event, Ian Rankin. And this Spring, I’m delighted to say that two more writers at the OIWF festival offer further evidence that quality fiction is not a matter of genre.
After years of covering social issues as a journalist, Stephen Maher comes across as a thoughtful observer of the human scene. In his latest novel, Social Misconduct, Maher relates the terrifying tale of Candace Walker, who works in the pressurized advertising world of internet marketing, yet suddenly finds herself the target of a vicious smear campaign on social media. The perpetrator is unknown to her, but when the attack spreads like wildfire Candace is forced to abandon her former life, even discarding her cell phone to prevent others from tracking her. She takes refuge in a rented storage locker as she attempts to discover who is behind these assaults, and why. It is an excellent tale, well-told, and offers a cautionary note about the times we live in.
In conversation with Peter Scheider and Ausma Zehanat Khan, Maher revealed that his latest work has been very much a learning process for him. His earlier novels, Deadline and Salvage, were largely character-drive tales, but in Social Misconduct, Maher wanted to cast his net wider and deeper. He noted that enduring novels such as Pride and Prejudice, Madame Bovary, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? can be seen as literary tools which help us to understand our changing world. In order to research the background for Social Misconduct, Maher talked with many people in media, law enforcement, as well as people who simply lived in Brooklyn and took the L train to work every day, Then, when he began writing, he sent the first half of the book to fifteen friends. Along with the draft, he sent a questionnaire, asking them whether certain elements were too obvious, or too subtle. If they filled out the questionnaire, Maher told his friends, he would send them the second half! So including his first readers, his agent and his editor at Simon & Schuster, it’s been a collaborative and in-depth process that dozens of people have had a hand in, and his book, Maher acknowledged, is all the better for that.
A Deadly Divide is the fifth book in Ausma Zehanat Khan’s intriguing crime fiction series featuring detectives Esa Khattak and Rachel Getty. Working in the community policing section of a law enforcement agency, Khattak and Getty undertake cases which bring them into minority communities where they must navigate the competing tensions that exist in marginalized minority groups, not just in Canada but around the globe.
A Deadly Divide tells the timely story of a mass shooting at a mosque in Quebec. It seems to be a hate crime, and the police focus their attention on a young Muslim man. But the detectives sent to liaise with the community aren’t certain it’s that simple. Khan vividly portrays a community in which powerful and conflicting forces are at work, masking layers of fear, distrust, and hatred.
Although each of the books in this series are certainly crime novels, Khan points out that each book is also deeply rooted in a global human rights issue that reflects her own passion to engage, and then transcend, the differences that divide us. So far her books have encompassed the topics of genocide, the international refugee crisis, the plight of political prisoners in Iran, global terrorism, to name a few.
Khan notes that at least since the American election campaign of 2016 we find ourselves in a world that is increasingly hostile to Muslim identity. She acknowledges that she likes to write books about intersections in time, in history, in language, and in culture, in which readers are encouraged to engage the darkness that we see all around us. Fortunately for her readers, Ausma Khan has an exceptional ability to see, the world around her. Khan is also extraordinarily adept at expressing her view of the world. As a result, her books help us understand some of the prevailing social dynamics of our turbulent times.
Coming from very different backgrounds, both Ausma Zehanat Khan and Stephen Maher are living proof that quality fiction transcends the bounds of any single genre.
Artistic Director Sean Wilson opened Monday’s evening’s Writers Fest session by asserting that “our history is shamefully untold in the classroom.” It certainly didn’t remain so for the rest of the evening. Rising strong through creativity, Alicia Elliott and Terese Marie Mailhot delivered picturesque literary accounts of families, mental illness, and what it means to be Indigenous in a world that lacks respect and hope, compelling the audience to acknowledge the unedited past of shame, pain, and hurt.
Mailhot’s Heart Berries is a memoir about teenage pregnancy, heartbreak, motherhood, post-partum depression, father-daughter relationships, and ultimately, forgiveness. The memoir weaves together a rhetoric about the smallness, and parallel but unacknowledged greatness of Indigenous peoples. As Mailhot indicates, it is the Indigenous people who came from this land and named its mountains, rivers and lakes but tragically can’t see themselves as fully part of it. Her book is a materialization of a public grief and realness, necessary and beautiful at the same time. Most of all, Heart Berries is an example of life translated into art form. The moving memoir is the product of a deep revision process that began with the process of unpacking clichés and untruths, ultimately leading to acceptance and authenticity.
Elliott’s book of collected essays, A Mind Spread Out on the Ground, asks readers to dive into the book seeking answers, and asks them to emerge even more curious. Her writing points out the dangers associated with repressing pain and shame, of pushing through in times of weakness and postponing grief instead of coming to terms with it. Elliott reminds us that Indigenous people care about more than just their identity; they value vulnerability, craft, story-telling, and playing with structures. For Elliott, creative non-fiction has been an outlet for talking without worrying about the immediate reaction or judgment from the outside world and without having the conversation turned against her. The most powerful thought that she left me with at the end of the night was her observation that “we live in an abusive nation-state that uses gaslighting mechanisms to keep itself propped up.” I recommend we all mull this one over.
Through the act of writing, both authors re-examined the people in their life and gave voice to shame, usually a powerful silencer. Elliott and Mailhot each approached their projects with love and authenticity rather than resentment, in so doing, directed their readers’ attention to the importance of healing, empathy, and compassion. Their stories are relatable and told sincerely; they validate the suffering of those who may be afraid to stand up and lean into their pain. They give courage to us all.
Yousef Bashir grew up in the Gaza Strip. He was only eleven years old when the second intifada broke out in 2000. His family home, the land his ancestors inhabited and farmed replete with lush date trees and crops for over 300 years, stood next to an Israeli settlement. When soldiers tried to evict the Bashir family from their ancestral home Yousef’s father Khalil refused to leave. “Khalil, take your children, they aren’t safe here,” the soldiers warned him. “If my children are not safe in their home, they are not safe anywhere,” he replied. Overnight, the Bashir home became a microcosm of the Israeli occupation. Soldiers entered the family household and occupied the top floor of the building. They divided the house into sections and strictly controlled movement and access to the building for the next five years.
Speaking at the Writer’s Festival, Yousef conveyed the pain experienced by his family throughout these difficult years. His voice was calm and extremely peaceful, echoing the legacy of his father in his tireless advocacy for peace. Growing up under occupation Yousef didn’t always agree with his dad. “One day you will understand,” his father reassured him. Yousef says that his father taught all of his children the meaning of peace by modeling it for them. “No matter what you do, I am not going to leave,” said Khalil patiently to the soldiers occupying his home, “no matter what you do I am not going to hate you.” Palestinians were born to be peaceful, Yousef’s father insisted.
Khalil Bashir’s outlook was continuously challenged on multiple fronts. The soldiers gradually encroached more on the family home. The men and boys had to be accompanied even to the bathroom, and the door had to remain open. Women and girls were permitted to close the door, but not to lock it. At night, the family would be rounded up on the first floor and locked in while soldiers occupied their bedrooms above. The upstairs floor of the house became an open toilet, with smells gradually seeping down to the lower levels. Soldiers destroyed the greenhouses that had provided the Bashir family sustenance and a living for many years, and they uprooted trees that had stood on the property for centuries. Once, the soldiers even targeted Khalil’s bedroom, showering him with gunfire, and shattering the room’s windows and ceiling. The elder Bashir had to be rushed to the emergency room in order to have pieces of glass taken from his head. In hospital, CNN journalist Ben Wedeman asked Khalil if these actions had made him ready to give up on peace, Khalil’s answer: “No. These actions make me believe in the need for peace even more.”
Still, young Yousef struggled with his father’s stance and often challenged him. This changed however one fateful day in 2004, shortly after Yousef’s fifteenth birthday. The family was receiving visitors from the United Nations. Shortly after giving permission for the UN visitors to enter the household, the Israeli soldier in charge changed his mind for no apparent reason and told everyone that they had to leave. Khalil and Yousef accompanied the UN delegates out to their car. As they approached the UN vehicle, Yousef heard a single resounding shot. He crumpled to the ground. The soldier had shot him in the back. “I went to the hospital,” Yousef said, “and I felt pain.” The pain told him he was still alive.
Yousef was rushed to a hospital in Tel Aviv where Israeli doctors healed him. He recounted how the doctors showed him a scale of happy faces and asked him to choose the level of his pain. Over the next year Israeli nurses patiently restored the paralyzed child back again to health, they made him believe in himself and helped him regain the ability to walk once more. The Israeli hospital stay led to cognitive dissonance for Yousef. He had only known the Israelis through the lens of the occupation, from the soldiers inside towers and later inside his home, from the settlers living warily across from him, but he had never had such a human connection with Israelis.
Human connection, realized Yousef, is what is needed most. Over the next months and years, Yousef would transform his views to become his father’s son, carrying on his legacy of being a spokesperson for peace. He says that forgiveness, like peace, is a process. It is a process that every day he wakes up and chooses to forgive. He chooses to forgive the soldier who shot him in the back as a child. Although his body is still racked by the pain of the bullets that entered his spine, still he chooses to follow the advice of his father and put his faith in peace, after all, as his father said to him, “you are a true Holylander, and that is what a Holylander does.” Building partitions and walls that destroy connection does not bring peace, says Yousef. The solution for peace is to respect the other as as a human being. This means respecting the inherent right to live equally, as a human being with dignity, to understand that ultimately both sides are connected to the land and to one another, and like his father, to have the courage to choose peace, over and over again.
Ottawa book lovers who chose to come inside on a beautiful Sunday afternoon to attend Guy Gavriel Kay’s talk were not disappointed. This was Kay’s sixth visit to the Writers Festival, and the packed room was evidence of his continuing popularity.
Brandon Crilly stepped up to introduce Kay, leading in with a preview of Kay’s latest book, A Brightness Long Ago. Crilly described how Kay manages to take a complex historical story, in this case from fifteenth-century Italy, and give it a quarter turn toward the fantastic.
As Kay approached the podium, he slid his reading glasses onto his nose, and began by saying that his sincere goal in writing was to reduce the gap between what was in his imagination and what ended up on the page. Kay read from an early scene where the character Adria Ripole first approached the chambers of the Beast. The room was silent as Kay spun his tale. Just as the intensity was rising, Kay chuckled saying, “and because I’m a really mean person…” and he closed the book. The audience breathed a collective sigh and laughed along with him.
In the interview between Crilly and Kay that followed, Kay responded with candour to questions about his process and the struggles he faces as a writer. He has a horror of being bored by his own writing, which challenges him to reach for the uncertain and to write about different historical periods. Research being so important to him, he often takes three or four years to publish a new book, and he thanked the audience sincerely for their patience. (As a side note, he spoke of the pressure on writers to publish a new book each year).
Speaking of the research process which preceded A Brightness Long Ago, Kay explained how thrilled he had been to discover examples of Renaissance women who were unwilling to accept the role foisted on them by society. He wanted a protagonist who was historically accurate, not a twentieth-century protagonist thrust into a historical setting. Kay highlighted his fascination with the many parallels which can be found between the past and the present, noting at the same time how strange the past can be. Thus, Kay often introduces an element of the fantastic in order to put the reader right smack in the middle of the world as they understood it in the past. He quoted the oft-repeated aphorism, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.”
Kay spoke with humour as he finished up his talk, saying how he was “brutally at the mercy” of his own self-consciousness, and that he did not know what was next. He spoke to writers in the audience, candidly discussing his constant anxiety during the writing process and his fear that he wouldn’t be able to portray all that was in his head in a way that was meaningful to the reader. He did admit, however, that in this case he’d done a fine job. The audience laughed with him again.
It was a special privilege to be able to purchase “A Brightness Long Ago,” ahead of its release date of May 14th. Many of the audience lined up to have him sign their books, this reviewer included.
Cory Doctorow returned to the OIWF to discuss the forces behind Radicalized, his collection of four novellas: “Unauthorized Bread,” “Model Minority,” “Radicalized,” and “The Masque of the Red Death.”
In conversation with Derek Künsken, author of The Quantum Magician, Doctorow explained how Radicalized rose out of his anxieties over Trump derangement syndrome. He asks us to consider whom technology works for, and whom it works against.
We are entering what Doctorow calls twenty-first century feudalism—where technology users are convinced to accept a shift from owning to leasing, and where the technology that mediates our daily lives is designed to impose restrictions for the profit of monopolizing corporations with limited liability.
Doctorow calls for legislation to respond to facts, to serve as a regulatory force to protect the public’s interests rather than the profits of corporate oligarchs. Whether concerning climate change, privacy breaches, or systematic disempowerment, apathy is an exploitable resource.
Doctorow expects our society will come to a point of peak indifference, then the accumulation of crises will drive us to pursue change. The risk, however, is that if harmful trends aren’t acknowledged until it is too late, denialism will become nihilism, which encourages defeatist passivity rather than activism.
Any system built on denial will collapse, Doctorow observes. When the inevitable crash happens, it’s the people at the bottom of the power chain who pay the price for poor management executed by those at the top. Meanwhile, those in power exploit the system as much as they can before the crash, rather than guiding the system towards sustainability. The richest can accumulate resources to prepare for the worst—but even if you have a bunker, isn’t it just better if society doesn’t collapse? The future is profitable, but only if we have a future. Or in the less mercenary terms Doctorow prefers: it will all be so great if we don’t screw it up.
Then there’s radicalization. Doctorow stresses that while technology enables individuals to network and form hate groups, radicalization is not an indiscriminate conversion process contracted by exposure to radicals and their ideas. Because a strong predictor of radicalization is suicidal depression after trauma, Doctorow asks how we can shape society to minimize its members’ exposure to trauma.
Doctorow’s work in sci-fi and activism is not undertaken to predict the future, but rather to shape it. He points out that when you are aware of the forces that affect human motivation, and how past, present, and future are connected by patterns of human agency, you can use code, law, market, and norms to shift the power dynamics that are perpetuating an unstable system.
According to Doctorow, the key is neither optimism nor pessimism, but hope—hope in human agency. When you can’t deny that the system is unsustainable, you can try to change the system to mitigate the crash. To that end, he gives us “unauthorized bread,” the keys to unlock our minds, and enough freedom to be dangerous.
Listening in on Lucy van Oldenbarneveld’s conversation with Kim Thùy left me feeling like I had just enjoyed a great meal with two good friends, which is fitting, given that the conversation focused on Thùy’s new cookbook, Secrets from My Vietnamese Kitchen.
Over the course of an hour, Thùy regaled the audience with tales from her home, her travels as a writer and her experiences in a Malaysian refugee camp. Humble, humorous, reflective and empowering – Thùy and Oldenbarneveld explored how food can bring people together, communicate feelings, and bring out the best parts of humanity.
Using Oldenbarneveld’s questions as springboard, Thùy responded with a contagious energy. Thùy had the audience in awe with her ability to cook for three different palates at home (her husband and two sons), then in stitches with her humble brag about her contribution to the Quebec gene pool. Early in life, Thùy told her rapt listeners, she had been allergic to everything, including moderate temperature variations. Now, she can handle the Canadian cold and, by her own admission, is completely indestructible. Thùy also reflected on the beauty and blessing of being able to age, and she had her audience on the edge their seats with her tales from Italy, where flavors of gelato need to be individually appreciated and a bead of sweat can test the limits of human control.
Thùy explored the intimacy and expression allowed by the rituals of cooking and sharing food. In her family, food is the most frequents means to express emotions. Instead of asking “How are you?” or saying “I love you,” it is the act offering of food (“Have you eaten?” “Try the chicken!”) and sharing of meals that provide the most poignant displays of affection. I was especially moved by Thùy’s story of sharing a Coke among thirteen members of her family, including her six year-old brother, in a refugee camp in Malaysia. Despite the heat and thirst, each family member took only the tiniest sip each time the drink was passed. A single Coke was shared three times amongst each of the family members, without anyone having to say a word.
In addition to being an amazing storyteller, Thùy also demonstrated an openness with her audience, especially in her willingness to learn the meaning and weight of new words. Oldenbarneveld’s uncanny ability to get to the heart of the matter facilitated a language lesson none are likely to forget, done with a humor and grace that resonated with this audience member and second language learner.
Over the course of an hour, Thùy and Oldenbarneveld’s intimate discussion on food, family and feeling left me sated. That said, if seconds had been offered, I would have gladly stayed for more!
On a gorgeous Saturday afternoon, an enthusiastic crowd gathered at Christ Church Cathedral to enjoy the wit and wisdom of fantasy writers Kate Heartfield and S.A. Chakraborty. Both Heartfield and Chakraborty are well known amongst fantasy fans, as is local author Amal El-Mohtar, who hosted the event with ease and humour. El-Mohtar launched into the discussion by highlighting the value of fantasy fiction and how the creativity of it allows us to tackle big issues. “But all fiction is fantasy, and then you just have sub-genres. Like domestic realism,” she quipped.
Heartfield’s Alice Payne novellas feature a time-travelling thief turned reluctant hero, while Chakraborty’s City of Brass features a con woman in Cairo at the end of the 19th century who accidentally summons a mysterious djinn warrior. (Chakraborty’s sweeping adventure continues with Kingdom of Copper). These are very different stories—and yet, they both have their genesis in the world we know and see today.
In 2016, Heartfield explained, she started thinking about where the world was headed. She noted that there used to be an accepted sentiment that we, as humanity, were generally progressing toward something better—that we had a direction, even if there were bumps along the way—but that this sentiment has since disappeared. Heartfield couldn’t help but think of the role of small decisions in creating both history and the future—which is how time travel fit into the themes that she wanted to explore. With her degree in political science, Heartfield wanted to examine ideologies in a stripped-down, non-partisan sense, but she also began to consider the ways in which the past remains with us and continues to shape the future.
Chakraborty also made a deliberate choice to use her story to shine a light on issues facing us today. “I had a lot of feelings about my country, and I wanted to talk about tyranny,” she explained. Tyranny, Chakraborty continued “doesn’t happen because there is one bad guy. People in society do not want to examine their own role in it—and if you are part of the majority, you do have a role in it—and I wanted to deal with fixing the place you love without placing the burden of doing so on the people being hurt the most.”
The hour flew by for this event, and I very much appreciated the candid discussion. One of the things that I loved about it was how wholeheartedly everyone on stage recommended books by other authors. In particular, G. Willow Wilson was emphatically endorsed, as was Saladin Ahmed. For those hoping to read more about djinn, the anthology The Djinn Falls in Love & Other Stories (which includes stories by El-Mohtar and Neil Gaiman) should be at the top of the list.
Here’s hoping that both of these authors will return to the festival with their next exciting installments.
Plus, El-Mohtar has a book coming out this summer, so stay tuned for details about the launch!
Finding genuine connection in our seemingly disconnected world is a challenge. Douglas Rushkoff, an American media theorist, graphic novelist and advocate for open source solutions to social problems would question that statement. He would retort by asking us to turn to the person sitting next to us or take a “digital Sabbath” and get to know our neighbours. The key is to rely less on technology because “we use technology to connect and it undermines that connection, dehumanizes us,” he told Writers Festival attendees.
Six years after his last appearance at Writers Fest with his then newly-released book, Present Shock, Douglas Rushkoff returned to OIWF’s stage to share his frustrations about the digital economy and concerns about the state of humanity in a heavily capitalized world. This time, he encouraged us to join, or rather acknowledge, our undeniable belonging to ‘Team Human’.
Inspired by his podcast of the same name, Team Human is not a utilitarian book, but rather a “linear experience of a non-linear phenomenon.” If it is anything like his amusing conversation with Sean Wilson on May 4th, then Team Human is a book of contrasts and moments of hilarity. Rushkoff offers a critical examination of our present; and a remarkably relatable look at the past.
By letting ourselves, our lives, and our data be colonized by technology companies, Rushkoff argues, we are essentially serving an operating system, a chartered monopolistic corporate economy which might have been designed by twelfth-century monarchs. In medieval times, citizens bought and sold in peer-to-peer marketplaces using a barter system and local currencies. In other words, we, humans, exchanged value. With the arrival of central currency, many people became willing to borrow money and pay interest in order to finance economic growth. As a result, today, we rarely sell value and instead, we spend our hours working for others. Naturally, this perpetuates consumer alienation and isolation, making us easier targets for manipulation embedded in advertisements. Our humanity – our skills, intrinsic human value and relationships with others – are undermined and dominated by the values of the market.
Rushkoff perceives the state of human affairs as comprising of the inevitability of our extinction. He draws attention to our weirdness and wonderfulness; our ability to withstand multiple forces, including that of technology; our soulfulness; and our hunger for sensation. Digital media is only a symbol, technology is reactionary (not disruptive, as we are often told) and the internet drains rather than energizes us, he argues. To get back to our roots, to connect, to rediscover our value, and to truly and wholeheartedly join ‘Team Human,’ we must build rapport with one another. Rushkoff wants us to conspire, or ‘breathe together,’ to dare to look into someone’s eyes on occasion. The resulting solidarity and renewed connection may surprise us, he concludes. It may be just the nudge we need to disrupt the status quo.