Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Running in the Family

Penning a family memoir is always a tricky task, and the three writers gathered for the final authors' event of the Ottawa Writer’s Festival had faced their share of challenges in the attempt. The night was a fitting inquiry into the relationship between parent and child, fiction and non-fiction and the uncomfortable truths that surface when children grow up and ask hard questions. CBC Radio’s Laurence Wall hosted the event, and his smooth and professional manner set a polished tone for the evening’s animated discussion.


All three writers on the panel had undertaken the project of writing autobiographical accounts of their families, for the most part examining how relationships with their parents had shaped their identity for better or worse. The discussion was largely framed by the consensus that difficult experiences made one stronger, and each writer found ways to share their personal triumph over hardship.


Brian Fawcett, the first to discuss his book, Human Happiness , explained that the unconventional methods he used to write about his parents - including interviewing them separately and using Photoshop - revealed unusual facts. Although his investigation uncovered the painful discovery of his parents’ infidelity, Brian affirmed his project for helping him to understand his parents’ happiness without being judgmental. From battling against his father’s dominant imagination to resisting a determined career as an ice-cream salesmen, Brian credited the struggles for only making him stronger in the end.


Kim Thúy hardly discussed family dynamics except to say that her mother was a key figure in her life. Instead, she focused on the sense of home rather than family itself, reading an excerpt from her novel, Ru , that described her first feeling of homesickness triggered by the smell of a Bounce dryer sheet. Her words emphasized the powerful link between smell and memory, a connection that challenged her to find “an aroma that would give me my country, my world.” Although Kim’s family endured great hardship in fleeing Vietnam to come to Quebec, she affirmed the experience for strengthening their family bond.


Before reading from his book, Cures for Hunger , Deni Y. Béchard shared the challenge of normalizing his father’s past as a bank robber. Denis’s passage explored the inescapable longing for his father’s presence and affirmation despite a difficult relationship, revealing that his father was the key to understanding himself. Although reckless and unpredictable, Deni’s father was the only one who shared his love for mystery and understood his wildness - a link that made it all the harder to reject his father’s values, but was a choice that ultimately strengthened his character.


For the most part the author’s discussed their family dynamics frankly and with humour. Of the group, Deni seemed to be the most honest in coming to terms with the implications of his family legacy. Although his story could easily be sensationalized, Deni focused on the formational experience of having to decide it was ultimately better for him not to have his father’s approval, whereas the others tended to glide over any personally troubling examinations.


When asked if they had been tempted to embellish their life-stories, all three authors emphatically agreed that the line between truth and fiction is at best a blurry one. Brian conceded that exaggeration happened at times, but that the process of writing was more about selecting certain memories over others and essentializing the experience. Kim shared that often the things you thought you’d forgotten return through writing, and that their importance is only apparent later. Deni found it tricky to hold his father’s tales accountable to some fixed standard of truth because of his limited ability to prove them, but for his part decided to write about the stories his father told him as true because he believed them as a child and their impact on his life was significant.   


Perhaps the greatest insight of the evening exposed our fear of the uncomfortable truths our families might reveal. While coaxing the admission of an affair from his mother, Brian confessed to being unsure if his reluctance was “discreet or cowardly”; nonetheless, his interviews led to a conclusion he had always missed - that his parents were happy. For all of us, the temptation to leave things as they are could be a missed opportunity to discover deeper truths about the people we are linked to inextricably for better or worse: our family.