Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Sense and Sensibility

Sunday evening's event was hosted by the CBC’s Adrian Harewood, who Festival founder Neil Wilson introduced as an integral part of the Ottawa Writers Festival family, having been hosting and curating events for the Festival for the past ten years. Harewood in turn called the Festival a vital institution for the city of Ottawa, a sentiment which I resoundingly echo.


Tonight three female authors read excerpts from their novels. First to the lectern was Beth Powning, an accomplished author of historical fiction and non-fiction who resides in rural New Brunswick. Beth’s new novel, A Measure of Light, is a fictionalized account of the life of Mary Dyer, a seventeenth-century Puritan who flees England for the New World and becomes one of America’s first Quakers. Beth reads a passage describing the Dyer family’s first winter in America. The imagery of the bleak and desolate landscape is at odds with the warmth of the family home and the comfort that Mary finds in her husband, William.


Second to read, from her debut novel The Gallery of Lost Species, is Nina Berkhout. The author of five collections of poetry, Berkhout is a Calgary-native but now resides in Ottawa and works at the National Gallery. For this novel she drew on personal experience to write the character of Edith, who also finds work at the National Gallery. This is where she befriends Theo, an elderly cryptozoologist (someone who searches for animals whose existence lacks physical evidence or who are considered extinct). The extract that Nina reads is from the opening of her novel — Edith is on a trip with her father and sister, Viv, and believes that she catches sight of a unicorn. This sighting sparks a hope and belief in Edith – that the mythical and mystical exist.


Last to read is Obi Simic, who admirably self-published her debut novel, Getting Over Yonder. Simic grew up in Montreal but moved to Ottawa in her teens, graduating from the University of Ottawa with a degree in Psychology with a specialization in English Literature. Her novel follows the story of Olivia, a Nigerian-Jamaican-Canadian searching for her own identity. The excerpt that Obi reads is from Olivia’s first day at school; the young girl is petrified of roll call and the teacher being unable to pronounce her name. Obi’s tone is sharp and witty; she reads the words with just the right amount of comic effect, sending chuckles through the audience.


Leading the discussion, Adrian Harewood asks – why did they become writers? Both Beth and Nina left one passion for another; Beth was studying theater and Nina was training as a ballet dancer, they both ultimately realized that writing was their true vocation. Compared to the other two, Obi is quite new to the writing game. She knew she was onto something after taking a creative writing course in high school and getting a standing ovation after reading one of her stories aloud.


The conversation turns to the presence of the autobiographical in their writing. Nina says that you need distance to have objectivity over your work – you take the seed of truth and fictionalize it. Obi, as a new writer, says that she invested a lot of herself in the main character of her novel. She felt that she had to write from the heart to give an accurate representation though, despite some similarities, she is still far from being her character, Olivia. As her novel is based on a true story, Adrian tailored the question for Beth – when writing historical fiction, how does she decide what to fictionalize? Beth states that writing historical fiction is really a case of filling in the blanks that the history books have left out. It is then up to her as to whether she makes up something new or reimagines the past. To add authenticity to her work, Beth read women's journals from the seventeenth-century and listened to the cadence and tone of their words. She is also a fan of visiting living museums as she believes they successfully capture the realism of the period.


Ultimately, it would appear that the three female protagonists in the novels are all searching for something; whether it be a pursuit of the unattainable, a journey to discover one’s true self, or the faith to follow one’s convictions in the face of adversity. Though time, race and culture divide them, these women are all hunting one thing— their own identity.