Natalie Morrill holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of British Columbia. Her fiction and poetry have been published in Canadian journals and included in The Journey Prize anthology. She lives in Ottawa, Canada. Her first novel, The Ghost Keeper, launched this year with HarperCollins. It’s a story about the terrible choices we make to survive and the powerful connections to communities and friends that define us. This sweeping novel set in Vienna during the 1930s and ’40s centres on a poignant love story and a friendship that ends in betrayal. Natalie will be joining the festival this year to talk about The Ghost Keeper and historical fiction with novelists Alix Hawley and Wayne Grady.
Congratulations on The Ghost Keeper’s two awards so far – the HarperCollinsPublishers/UBC Prize for Best New Fiction, and the Canadian Jewish Literary Award for Fiction. What was the writing and revision process like for this book?
It was long and fairly intensive. I started it as my thesis for my MFA program, and then I was lucky enough to have an editor at HarperCollins look at it about a year after. In the meantime I had finished another draft. They looked at it and they were interested but it still needed some key changes before they would feel good about accepting it. That was awesome because to hear from an editor that she couldn’t accept it unless I was working on certain things was a wake-up call that I needed. So I worked on it again for another six to eight months and then I got my agent and my editor.
The revision process at HarperCollins was also fairly intensive, which was amazing. It's sort of terrifying and intense in some ways, and it's a very emotional roller coaster. I felt like the book was very protected in that they weren't going to let it out until it was the way it was supposed to be. It was emotional when I thought it was done and then an editor would come back and say, oh but couldn't we make this even better. They pushed back the publication date a couple times, but ultimately I'm so pleased, I feel so fortunate that they were willing to do that. It was a really lovely experience.
You lived in Vienna, where most of The Ghost Keeper is set, when you were young. What about Vienna led you to choose it as a setting?
It was really specifically the Währing Cemetery, the cemetery that's very prominent in the book. It was very near to our house when I was growing up. It is as described, even in the opening scenes of the book. There's a brick wall around it with barbed wire and glass on top. The only times I ever saw inside it as a kid were when one of my parents would hold me up to see over the wall, and all the headstones were knocked over and overgrown with ivy and things. My parents also worked hard to explain why there was this very neglected Jewish cemetery in our neighborhood, and nobody to look after it, and it was locked up and there's graffiti all over it. It was around the same time that I was first starting to understand what the Holocaust was so I think I got them conflated in my head: like dead people buried in there, and the genocide that happened. Which is not accurate, it's a nineteenth century cemetery and there's not a direct literal connection in that way, but as I grew up I realized there's certainly a connection in the sense that it is neglected because the community isn't there anymore and the reason it looks like a prison with the barbed wire and stuff is because people do break in and do antisemitic graffiti and things. So there was something resonant there for me in terms of the image of it reflecting that history indirectly. And then out of that, I began thinking about the kind of characters who might be connected to that situation. Most of the story arose out of that.
This book follows the life of the main character, a Jewish man named Josef, before, during, and after the Holocaust. Recording and records of different kinds are a recurring motif throughout his life. Why is the process of recording so important in this story?
I guess like the reason Josef is telling the story is to get it out of himself and let it exist apart from himself in a written record. As he says, it’s to be able to “set it down” almost like to set down like a burden. So I was thinking about what it would mean to be able to put this down in writing as opposed to just carrying it as a memory, and how that might be connected to his sense of what grave markers stand for, and all kinds of written testimonies like that. Partly because of what he would be trying to commemorate, with people for whom there wasn't really any kind of material record of their passing.
I worked for a while as a writer-in-residence for an organization in Sudbury called the Northern Initiative for Social Action. It's based around peer support for members who have lived experience of mental illness. I was working on the book before that, but it definitely deepened my thinking about what it means to be able to record something that was difficult and traumatic, as opposed to just carrying it in yourself.
Josef is definitely a very spiritual character and I think that the act of turning the memory into written testimony is connected with his faith, connected with his understanding of how faith is passed on, and what it would mean to testify or to study written accounts of faith. I think it has a spiritual element for him in terms of processing the significance of various moments, as well as being able to allow himself to be seen, because he's kind of a character who naturally would prefer to disappear in some ways. So the act of setting it down and making everything very plain is like an act of like self-offering.
The Ghost Keeper is your debut book. Has publishing a book changed your writing process?
Oh my goodness, it might be too early days to know. I think having finished the revision process has probably refined my writing process in the sense that as I'm starting another book now I see problems arising ahead of time. Like, maybe I should do some more planning with this or that because those are the questions that are going to come up later, or I ask myself in the first draft the questions that I was asking in third or fourth drafts.
I try not to think too much about what my editor or my agent are expecting for the next book. I don't want to go off the rails, but as much as I need to be in love with the book and put myself into it for that many years, I am not just writing for myself but for other readers. So I do want it to be something that my editor and my agent are excited about. But I have to trust myself at this point that if I'm excited about the project then probably there's something in it.
You’ve written poetry as well as fiction, and the language in The Ghost Keeper is beautiful and sometimes very poetic. Do you think your poetry and prose writing influence each other?
In poetry, the opportunity to pay such careful attention to what language is doing and how each word is impacting the poem, I think it encourages a habit of mind, or of thoughtfulness, perhaps, that maybe prose writing doesn't always encourage in the same way.
The writers that I admire most do have that thoughtfulness about language, whether they're writing poetry or prose, and they're thinking about how language works and how the punctuation and grammar and diction influence the way the text works and the meaning of it. So if I'm allowed to think about those things and play with them, then of course why wouldn't I? It's super interesting and lovely and enriching. I think that's a characteristic of my interest in literature so it's probably always going to be there. It was wonderful to have a story where the voice gave me the opportunity to bring that out a bit more.
You have a background in biology as well as literature. Do you think your biology background has affected your approach to research?
It gave me a lot of my experience doing research. I think it was very helpful in terms of realizing how resourceful one could be in terms of making use of libraries and getting good at Google and things. You learn how to make as much as possible of the resources you have access to, whether that's in an academic setting, or that's in a public library, or contacting local experts. There are certain skills in terms of research, like getting the research and compiling it and checking facts and things. And then just understanding the way that sources quote each other is definitely helpful.
You’re taking part in Living History, a panel of historical fiction writers at the Ottawa International Writers Festival. Do you have any advice for people interested in writing historical fiction?
One piece of advice would be just to go for it, because I was really intimidated by it when I first started. I felt like I wasn't qualified somehow because I didn’t have a history degree or something, but I think if you're passionate about the project then you'll be willing to do the work that it takes to do justice to the project.
Something that I was told early on was that it's very easy to get caught up in the research so much that you don't really write. And it is possible to just go down rabbit hole after rabbit hole and just keep finding out about what kind of cloth people used for clothes at different points. It's not that that stuff isn't wonderful for the text, but it's definitely possible just to never get any writing done. The story is probably what the reader is there for, more than those historical details which they could probably get from a textbook. The research can come into it at different drafts.
At a fairly late draft, I realized that particular historical details would have been impossible. In the moment that I recognized that, it was terrifying. But very quickly it became a creativity prompt, like it was a little puzzle. As in, if I want to be faithful to this truth there has to be another way for me to work out this plot point. Then I ended up being a bit more creative about how that could work, which ends up making the book a bit better.
Knowledgeable and honest readers are such a gift if you can get them. Whether it's historians, whether it's people who have experience of a particular context or moment, that's completely invaluable. I wouldn't have written this book if I didn't have somebody who had edited a lot of Holocaust memoirs and could tell me along the way if she thought that I was doing it justice.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Take heart, all parents of children who would rather play with their food than eat vegetables. Marc Lepine, the owner of Atelier restaurant and author of its eponymous cookbook, didn’t eat many vegetables – or even like cheese – until he was about 21. Plating a caprese salad in Toronto, Lepine suddenly felt the urge to taste the items he was being paid to handle, and from that point on, his palate and curiosity have continued to expand. Lepine, who opened Atelier in 2008, attracted a passionate crowd to the launch of his first cookbook at Library and Archives Canada last Saturday. The book is intended as much as a source of inspiration and a documentation of Lepine’s career as it is a realistic guide to home cooking.
The first half of the launch was dedicated to conversation about Lepine’s training, work experience and goals. Lepine chatted comfortably with Jessie Duffy, (formerly of Wilf + Ada’s, now with Edible Ottawa), then took questions from the audience. The most compelling part of their discussion involved Lepine’s explanation of why he so often chooses to cook with liquid nitrogen rather than, for example, methane, propane or wood flame. Lepine is fascinated by the theatre of preparing and presenting food: if he can alter a texture, change a temperature or coax a new combination of flavours from familiar ingredients, he will do it. He spoke rapturously of the process of turning hot custard into ice cream in half a minute, as well as using science to make fine powders from oily nuts and olives. Lepine’s enthusiasm debunked any stereotypes of the prize-winning chef as a genius of molecular gastronomy. In fact, he dislikes the term, embraces teamwork, and welcomes others to post copies of his techniques on Instagram. The behind-the-scenes collaborative process, as well as the specialized kitchen instruments at Atelier are clearly a large part of the restaurant’s success. When a spectacularly bright blob of sauce or powder makes it onto a plate at Atelier, it is because it contributes something meaningful about culinary aesthetics, and because it tastes good. Lepine rebutted Duffy’s assertion that the embrace of hi-tech gadgets implied a disregard for seasonality. He works with the same local ingredients as other chefs, he reminded her; it is simply his process which makes them look and taste different on the plate. The point of eating in a restaurant like Atelier is to enjoy a special occasion designed and produced by creative specialists. “We strive,” he told his audience, “to make food you would never make at home.”
After gamely addressing questions from his fans, Lepine stepped over to an adjacent demonstration table and began making frozen “noodles” of passion fruit sauce. This section of the event was both fascinating and easy to follow. Leaning over a steaming tank of liquid nitrogen, Lepine explained that the boiling vapor is easier to handle than hot oil. Like a magician at a party, he showed off the wild and varied forms he could pull from his unconventional cooktop. Lepine’s energy and enthusiasm belied any stereotype about the so-called molecular gastronomy movement as tired or pedantic. Grabbing prefilled balloons full nitrogen gas and fruit juice, Lepine demonstrated how he makes the hollowed-out frozen juice spheres which structure some of his creations. It was reassuring to see that while practice certainly helps in the kitchen, it doesn’t make perfect. Lepine shrugged off the failures as he kept up a lively talk with his audience. (In the restaurant, Lepine told us, he sometimes injects smoke into the frozen sphere, which further compounds the surprise element of the dish). After successfully producing three elegant spheres of frozen cherry juice, Lepine invited volunteers to take part in the production process. It was wonderful to watch Lepine teach a teenager who stepped up to the stage, and to sample the products of the brief demonstration. After the presentation, audience members were all offered small versions of the “carrot hoop” appetizers served at Atelier. The Friends of the Ottawa Public Library ran a small wine bar as a complement to the food.
Set in the lovely Pellan Room on the second floor of Library and Archives Canada, this free public event was co-sponsored by three organizations: LAC, the Ottawa Public Library and the Ottawa International Writers Festival. Looking up at Alfred Pellan’s two murals (The Alphabets and Knowledge, both 1968) while nibbling Lepine’s food, browsing books and chatting with other festival-goers, this reviewer couldn’t help but wish for more events which satisfied so many senses at once.
Jordan Tannahill is an award-winning playwright, director, and author. In 2016 he was described by the Toronto Star as being “widely celebrated as one of Canada’s most accomplished young playwrights, filmmakers, and all-round multidisciplinary artists.” His plays have been translated into multiple languages and honoured with prizes including the Governor General’s Literary Award for Drama and several Dora Mavor Moore Awards. Jordan’s films and multimedia performances have been presented at festivals and galleries such around the world and from 2012 to 2016, Jordan and William Ellis ran the influential underground art space Videofag out of their home in Toronto’s Kensington Market. While he established his writing and performance career in Toronto, Jordan is originally from Ottawa and this month he will be retuning to his hometown to talk about his novel Liminal alongside Dionne Brand on October 26.
The basic premise of Liminal is: a young man, standing in the doorway of his mother's bedroom, experiences a cascading revelation about corporeality and consciousness within the single instant he sees his mother's body lying in bed. In that instant he cannot tell whether she is alive or dead. The idea of containing an entire narrative universe within that split second of ontological confusion struck me as an inherently literary proposal rather than a theatrical one. It felt profoundly interior. Rather than working with bodies in space, in real time, I wanted to use philosophy, language, and style to probe my protagonist's psyche. I am borrowing inspiration here from the late, modernist Brazilian author Clarice Lispector whose novel The Passion According to G.H. takes place almost entirely within the instant the protagonist closes a door on a cockroach and watches as the bug slowly succumbs to death. It is an extraordinary, ecstatic text and all the more so for its extreme temporal constraints. I was also heavily inspired by other literature I was reading at the time -- the work of autofiction writers like Sheila Heti, Chris Kraus, and Emmanuel Carrere, who craft books that hover somewhere undefinably between novels, essays, and memoirs.
Simply put: a work of fiction that draws heavily on the author's life. A synthesis of memoir and novel.
The act of writing a novel feels profoundly hermetic. Like Jacob wrestling with the angel, it feels like a daily battle with the self. And while I also write my plays in isolation, they are reborn in the rehearsal hall, where the text comes to life in the mouths and movements of others. Playmaking is an inherently social and collaborative venture, full of long conversations about human nature, politics, aesthetics, etc. When writing a novel, most of those conversations happen inside of you.
Oh it's shaped it immensely! Much of Liminal is set in Ottawa, and a great deal of my work is set in suburban landscapes inspired by my east end childhood and adolescence.
I think my favourite creative pursuits have been the ones where the divisions between my life and art fall away. I would say this was certainly true of Videofag (the performance space) and Liminal.
I would collaborate with Adam and Eve on a biodegradable, plant-based lingerie line.
Haha I love that you're asking me this! This was the question I posed to another writer for CBC Book's Magic 8 Q & A. Well... I was just writing a scene last night for my new play The Listeners in which an English teacher describes the ways a former student of hers turns her on... and I have to say I really got into it.
Sexiest: when, despite the burning pyres, Sandro Botticelli and Leonardo da Vinci make love in Botticelli in the FireLeast sexy: a real frat boy (not an actor) barfing all over the stage
Fun question. I suppose the music referenced in the book itself! Which includes Steve Reich, Frank Ocean, and Christeene.
Not writing! You risk becoming something other than a writer.
Memoirs, unlike autobiographies, provide writers with the opportunity to focus on specific themes through the lens of time, and thereby convey certain truths. Confronting these truths can be as frightening for the writer as for the reader, particularly when a book focuses on imperfect parents and families, memories, and grief. It takes courage to contemplate the lives of those closest to one’s heart with humour and candour, and only a courageous writer can evoke the tender grace of those lives nearing their end. When host Charlotte Gray asked Elizabeth Hay whether her parents would have liked the book, she replied without a moment’s thought “well, they’d be glad they’re dead.”
Hay opened the event by reading an excerpt about her parents as they neared the end of their long lives. However shrunken her elderly parents might have appeared to others, they were forever vivid giants in their daughter’s mind. Hay described her habitual walk to her ailing parents’ retirement home and contemplated the ways their arrival in Ottawa seemed to have changed its landscape. The city had collected layers of memories of her respectively bitter and befuddled parents: the dip in the sidewalk where her mother had stumbled, the boulder where they’d huddled together to rest, the trees whose names they tried to recall. Her words conveyed the peculiarity of those walks and the disorder of time—as she folded into her past, she simultaneously floated towards her future.
Hay is best known for fiction, including the best-selling Alone in the Classroom, the Scotiabank Giller Prize-winning novel Late Nights On Air, and three other award-winning titles: A Student of Weather, Garbo Laughs, and Small Change. When Gray, a biographer and historian, asked Elizabeth whether All Things Consoled was the most difficult book she’d ever written, Hay, without hesitation and likely to the surprise of many, said it was the easiest. Fiction is not real, Hay explained, so it feels as if nothing matters. Hay commented on the beauty of imagining the world from other people's points of view, and the lure of leaving oneself behind. In All Things Consoled, however, her parents are the main characters. In order to make the transition from daughter to author, Hay had to balance the raw emotion and pure affection of a child with writerly objectivity. Hay noted that she’d made several earlier attempts to write about her father, while he was still alive. When she discovered the material some years later, she found it narrow—she’d been angry and too self-absorbed. In order to revisit the material, she’d done her best to cut herself out of the book and step away from her pain.
Hay said that in our imaginations, we soothe ourselves. Yet she was unflinching—almost brutal—in her honesty around her new book. She didn’t hesitate to describe her relationship with her siblings, or her father’s temper, his melancholy, or the ways in which he instilled in her a tremendous fear. Hay’s portrayal of her mother was somewhat gentler: her mother had been a frugal person who studied nursing but wanted to paint, and eventually achieved her goal. While her mother lost some lucidity towards the end of her life, she was never unable to recognize Elizabeth, and always strove to make others happy.
The audience fell under Hay’s spell as she reminisced. Most were aware that Hay, in Gray’s words, “belongs to Ottawa” and were undoubtedly familiar with her tremendous body of work. At one point, Hay explained that her mother had said “I’ve had a good life, all things consoled.” Hay thought her mother had meant to say “all things considered,” but also thought she meant exactly what she had said. After this, questions from the audience didn’t touch on Hay’s writing routine or her sources of inspiration. The brave people who approached the microphone described their own struggles with unwell parents or sibling dynamics, and seemed to seek reassurance that they are not alone with their tribulations. The evening provided insight, solace and perhaps even consolation for difficult process of accompanying loved ones through the last days of life.
Humor, assault and class are an unlikely trio of topics for a successful evening of conversation, even at the Writers Festival. Heather O’Neill, the Montreal-born novelist best-known for her 2006 debut novel, Lullabies for Little Criminals, somehow managed to broach all three issues with equilibrium and insight. O’Neill started the evening by reading four passages from Wisdom in Nonsense: Invaluable Lessons from My Father, a collection of essays based on the Canadian Literature Centre’s Kreisel Lectures. In the readings, as well as a concluding discussion with CBC journalist Joanne Chianello, O’Neill painted a portrait of a man whose deep love for his daughter was intertwined with anger at the world in which he raised her. O’Neill’s power as a writer clearly emerged from the faith placed in her by her father, as did her feeling of being an outsider in a world which all too frequently defies the rules of justice and equality.
O’Neill’s father, a sometime-janitor and occasional petty criminal, had several arbitrary rules for his daughter. The most ironic of these rules, given O’Neill’s literary talent, was “never keep a diary.” For her father, a diary was evidence which could potentially be used against the writer in a court of law. But for the young girl, the diary was a means of making sense of the world, of self-actualizing in a society which would often like to forget the existence of creative and talented working-class girls. The rules which O’Neill learned from her father simultaneously forged her loyalty to his deepest values and underscored the emerging differences between a young writer and her working-class father. (Despite making her father the focus of the conversation, O’Neill never named her father for the audience, nor clarified how long after his death the lectures were written). Another rule from O’Neill senior was “learn to play the tuba,” by which he meant, do something that no one else can do. As a girl, Heather O’Neill took her father’s mandate literally, and her description of her adolescent struggles with a series of inappropriate wind instruments was hysterically funny. It is testament to both the public education O’Neill received in Montreal and O’Neill’s growth as a writer that she has been able to both embrace her father’s idiosyncratic code and leverage his advice into growth as a writer and public figure.
The evening took a more somber tone when O’Neill revealed that her drive to write was driven at least in part by an effort to come to terms with her identity as a survivor of childhood assault and abduction. From O’Neill’s perspective, fiction is “full of more truth” than non-fiction, serving as a place where she can explore feelings and events to which she cannot yet assign non-fiction descriptors. O’Neill described childhood abuse as taking place “in the realm of silence,” and hopes that her work might give other readers the vocabulary to talk about violence. Together, O’Neill and Chianello discussed Junot Diaz’s recent New Yorker essay “The Silence: The Legacy of Childhood Trauma.” [This event took place before the recent Diaz controversy]. For O’Neill, magical realist fiction is particularly freeing. She revealed that her attempts at memoir have been aided by the invention of a talking goose which allows her to access painful episodes in her past. In response to Chianello’s thoughtful questions, O’Neill described what makes her a writer: more than anything, it has been a conscious decision to embrace a “life of joy,” despite the challenges of daily life in an unequal world.
In his book Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, Alex Hutchinson skillfully interweaves scientific research, accounts from athletes and training techniques to shed light on the limits of human athletic performance. Hutchinson is also an engaging speaker, as he proved in his conversation with the writer and broadcaster Mark Sutcliffe. Sutcliffe, himself a marathon runner, guided a discussion which began by asking Hutchinson what caused him to focus on the topic of endurance. The conversation then touched on the roles that the mind and body play in determining the limits of performance, the power of belief, and the implications new research may have for athletics as well as other areas of human performance.
Hutchinson shared with the full house gathered at Christ Church Cathedral that this book took nearly ten years to complete. He was motivated to find out all he could on the topic of the limits of human performance after achieving a personal best time in a 1500-meter race. This race was significant because he had received inaccurate timekeeper results during the race which made him believe he was running a personal best time. With increased confidence, Hutchinson achieved a personal best time which had previously seemed unattainable to him. Hutchinson was fascinated by the fact that what had felt like a physical limit was not real because there had been an untapped reserve that he hadn't realized was accessible.
Having a curious mind, this race formed an important part of Hutchinson’s journey to understand the science of why the limits of performance are so elastic. After much research in the field, Hutchinson concluded that once we reach a certain level through training and conditioning, the brain and our beliefs play an increasingly important role in peak performance. Put another way, when we explore our upwards limits of performance, mental discipline can matter as much or more than physical fitness in breaking performance barriers. Studies have found that the brain protects us from overexertion. However, our internal monologue, or motivational self-talk, can enable us to achieve new levels of performance by convincing us that greater achievements are possible. This positive mindset can allow us to withstand pain or discomfort longer than expected.
These findings are fascinating and can be extrapolated to many other human activities. Mental discipline, optimism, and belief can all be harnessed to help us to achieve more in any area in which there is a need to enhance human performance. Hutchinson ended the session by mentioning some of the scientific research that is yet to be done including work relating to the benefits that training with team mates may have on our physiology as compared to training alone.
Hutchinson’s conversation with Sutcliffe was a perspective-altering discussion, and the audience was quite receptive to the ideas presented as evidenced by the many questions that followed during to Q&A session. It was a pleasure to attend, and Hutchinson’s extensive research background, his natural curiosity about his environment, and his engaging manner will serve him well in his future literary and athletic endeavors.
For eighteen of her twenty-plus years on the bench of the Canadian Supreme Court, Beverley McLachlin served as Canada’s first woman Chief Justice, as well as the nation's longest-serving holder of the same position. Now that she has retired (a relative term, as we shall see), McLachlin has turned her considerable intellect to pen a legal thriller, Full Disclosure. After reading it, we can only hope that it is the first in a long line of such works. On May 1st, as a featured speaker at the Writer’s Festival, McLachlin was interviewed on stage by Ottawa’s own Charlotte Gray, an event that filled Ottawa’s Christ Church Cathedral to capacity. What follows is an extract of former Justice McLachlin’s insightful remarks.
Acknowledging that she came from the small rural community of Pincher Creek, Alberta, Justice McLachlin said that her childhood experiences there and later served to make her a keen observer of the human condition, and to build in her a compassion for those who have set a foot wrong in life. So much so that the plot of Full Disclosure grew out of its characters, even to the extent of their taking on a life of their own. She admitted to being influenced by P. D. James, and said that as a neophyte to writing fiction, she learned to pare down her list of characters and to shorten her narrative. In one instance, she explained, she’d edited what would have been a three-hour argument in an actual courtroom to just three pages, only to have her editor further reduced the scene to a single paragraph. It seems even former Chief Justices are not immune to the diktats of editors.
McLachlin’s debut novel has not been exactly an overnight project. Justice McLachlin said she first began the work forty years ago, finding time in the early hours of the morning before beginning her “day job” as an attorney, and later, judge and justice. Once she formally retired from the bench McLachlin returned to her fiction project, updating the work to reflect current technology and practice. When she was asked whether Full Disclosure would be the basis for a series of novels, McLachlin replied that discussions are underway for a possible screen treatment. McLachlin hopes to write a memoir soon, which would give her an opportunity to address important legal and social issues for a new audience. Asked to expand on her memoir plans, McLachlin revealed the scope of her formidable intellect: she hopes to discuss relations between indigenous and non-native peoples, assisted dying, and the experience of being a woman in what has been traditionally a man’s world. Not one to be intimidated by such a sweeping list of topics, Justice McLachlin acknowledged that she currently sits on high-ranking judicial bodies in Singapore, and plans to take on similar duties in Hong Kong. When asked when she would really retire, she said “When my husband does.” And added “He’s ninety.”
“What do we tell our daughters about this election?” columnist Elizabeth Renzetti asked her Globe and Mail readers in November of 2016. Renzetti called for all “nasty women” to not forget, to look forward, to organize and, somehow, overcome. That same evening, her publisher told her to write a book about the gap between “where we thought we were and where we really are.” Shrewed : A Wry and Closely Observed Look at the Lives of Women and Girls, the result of that conversation, explores the body blow of the election and the valorization of Trump in the White House. Galvanized by the mess of misogyny we collectively found ourselves in that night, Renzetti’s essays explore the personal and the political — at times through a prism of popular culture — as a means of collectively navigating our way out of the current state of affairs in North America.
Renzetti’s Sunday night conversation with CBC’s Vassy Kapelos was at turns rollicking, sardonic, and consistently insightful. Renzetti described her vision of modern feminism and activism with wit and a sense of irony, informed by years of reporting, motherhood, and avoiding household chores. By the end of the evening, the audience knew about her passion for more women to enter and remain in politics, her approach to social media in a world where trolling has become commonplace, and her take on whether the Prime Minister can truly be a feminist if he has let electoral reform fall off the agenda. The clearly adoring, largely female and predominantly older crowd in the hall also revealed their own unsettled concerns about what will happen next: have we gone backwards, or forgotten what our victories have been? Renzetti’s response here was thoughtful, admitting that the voices of older women should be more actively sought and acknowledged on topics not related to aging alone. She praised the new wave of young, vocal, dedicated feminists whose fierce commitment to inclusion is key to moving the agenda forward.
Reading from Shrewed, Renzetti began the evening with two humourous letters to her children. Addressing her twelve year-old daughter, Renzetti shared her hope that their shared pleasure in watching formulaic television shows like The Bachelor might serve as a modern-day “vaccination” against big fat weddings and all they signify. Renzetti urged her daughter to be a strong, empowered protagonist in her own life, approaching its possibilities on her own terms. To her son, Renzetti cleverly fashioned a letter around his love of Lego. “Lego snaps together perfectly, and can always be repeated”, Renzetti observed. “But you’ve discovered now that the world isn’t - it’s more Jenga than Lego these days. The road ahead and all the links are like disappearing ink.” The love and connection she has with both children is palpable and more optimistic than one might think, as she reminds them both, “I trust you to be able to build something true, even on shaky ground.”
But the ground is at a seismic moment right now: Renzetti confessed that while there is much progress made with more women wanting to enter politics and the enthusiastic consent movement, she is observing a worrisome “lava of rage” which has the potential to derail advancements thus far. Renzetti’s prescription is all about connecting, respect, and understanding history. She referenced Roxane Gay and Mona Eltahawy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Ottawa’s own Julie Lalonde. As for emotional labour in the household and in the office, where women too often play the role of domestic convener and workplace organizer, Renzetti insists there be discussions first. And then? Step back and stop bringing the coffee, taking collections for office occasions, counsels Renzetti. The author of Shrewed has sage advice for difficult times.
It is an interesting time to be a man in our culture. While many ideas about masculinity have been challenged and undermined, too little effort has been invested (by men, first and foremost) in fostering healthy aspects of maleness and reimagining unhealthy ones. The contemporary understanding of gender has generated a great deal of angst and a host of questions for men and boys. It was, therefore, with a mixture of keen interest and mild trepidation that I attended the event Man Up: Understanding Masculinity on Sunday afternoon at Christ Church Cathedral. What would be said, and in what tone?
Adrian Harewood of CBC Ottawa hosted the event and opened by speaking of a contemporary reckoning for negative aspects of masculinity via his own past admiration for Bill Cosby, then invited his guests to read from their respective books. Rachel Giese spoke of the so-called “man box,” shorthand for masculinity defined in terms of seven commonly-accepted characteristics, and how many men are reclaiming such “masculine markers” as a response to an uncertain cultural landscape around maleness. Daemon Fairless read a beautiful description of a close friend who had helped him to learn how to express love to male friends. Harewood then facilitated a conversation about the ideas raised in Fairless’ Mad Blood Stirring: The Inner Lives of Violent Men and Giese’s Boys: What It Means to Become a Man. Fairless spoke about his own experience of aggression and its attraction for men, his interactions with serial killers and rapists and the role of testosterone from a neuroscientist’s perspective. Giese spoke about the limitations placed on both men and women by some male narratives; how feminism is good for men as well as women; and the gendered aspects of educational crisis in non-white communities. Both authors spoke about sexual violence perpetrated by men and its motivations. Significantly, both expressed hope about what might define the “man box” of the twenty-first century, for example a desire to become fully-developed persons, more openness and comfort speaking about their emotions, and an increased willingness to embrace broader definitions of maleness.
There were a few points made that some would find contentious. For example, Fairless challenged the idea that rape is about domination, claiming that sexual pleasure is also a prime motivator for rapists. Giese’s assertion that feminism is positive for men also warrants some unpacking, especially in terms of which vision of feminism, a clearer understanding of what ‘good’ means. But these are small drawbacks in a conversation that was engaging, interesting, and timely. All the speakers were thoughtful, nuanced, and took great care to appropriately explain and qualify their statements. Moreover, they genuinely wishing to avoid ‘us-them’ language or the assumption that addressing masculinity involved any sort of zero-sum game with femininity, as if the interests of women and men were automatically opposed. So, my trepidation had been unfounded; I left Man Up in possession of two new books which each contribute to a good and necessary conversation.
The deep pleasures of reading as a child — disappearing into books, getting swept up with characters that you wanted to live with forever in a reader’s high — were at the heart of the conversations during “The Wonder Years” on Saturday, April 28. Three authors with young protagonists at the centre of their novels shared themes and memories of their work, vividly communicating their own deep pleasures in the process of writing and the wonder of creating characters. The settings of each work: the prairies, Scarborough, Port Alberni, internment camps, and Toronto, are characters in these stories as much as the individuals which inhabit and pass through them.
During the conversation with moderator Rhonda Douglas, Robert Everett-Green spoke of the analogy of “a sweater knitting itself,” just the right image for a chilly spring night of storytelling. Everett-Green’s pre-teen narrator in In a Wide Country , forges his way in the ‘60s telling his version of stories: his glamorous, slightly unreliable mother’s somewhat fanciful yarns and her boyfriend’s usually factual accounts. The narrator’s re-tellings seek to decode a complicated world which his mother repackages for him in a long drive from Winnipeg to Vancouver. Her own generous tales, adapted to protect him, serve as a kind of magic, rendering the world and ultimately his own history more accessible to him.
The interwoven stories in Carrianne Leung’s That Time I Loved You take place in Scarborough, a suburb which once expressed another kind of magic. In Leung’s work, new immigrants in a new subdivision face the new possibilities in the era of Trudeau-père mania, yet their outlook darkened by a pair of incomprehensible suicides. The opening story “Grass,” portrays a strong narrative voice in young June, whose matter-of-fact, pithy observations lead us to see what was not visible at the time: racism, domestic violence, and homophobia intermingled with the possibilities of finding yourself away from your neighbourhood.
Kerri Sakamoto’s magical realist novel Floating City has a different take on childhood: ambition and imagination in times of hardship and plenty. Sakamoto paints a world of spirits, love, and architecture inspired by family mysteries and the influence of Buckminster Fuller on the main character, Frankie Hanesaka. For Sakamoto, Frankie’s ambitions cannot be contained by one place alone, or his imagination and creativity. He invokes Buckminster Fuller in searching to make the right choices for his career and his identity: place takes on other dimensions as he finds himself in the sea and on water, with no need for land. For Everett-Green and Leung, the confidence and optimism of the time that the action takes place, the early ‘60s and late ‘70s, were a time of growth for their characters and for Canada; this contrasts with Sakamoto’s use of geography in her fiction.
Moderator Rhonda Douglas artfully led the evening’s discussion, exploring the authors’ creative processes as well as the spectre of autobiography in their writing. Borrowing from the past “like a mosaic” was how Everett-Green described some of his choices; memories from his Edmonton childhood served as a springboard for his story’s actions and characters’ preoccupations. Leung and Sakamoto referred to some of their inspirations beyond autobiography: Judy Fong Bates’ Midnight at the Dragon Café for Leung, and Joy Kagawa’s work and activism for Sakamoto. Each writer referenced the importance of period research in their work, while also acknowledging what happens when characters simply present themselves to the writer. Leung confessed that at one point she “was just their typist; writing is a bit of magic.”