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.”
The room was packed on Saturday afternoon to welcome Kate Harris and Ruth Marshall to the Writers Festival. Given the excited chatter amongst the all-ages crowd before the event started, it’s a safe bet that these festival goers weren’t just trying to escape the lousy weekend weather. I overheard attendees discussing the books at length—and by the end of the event, as the lively and engaged audience asked questions, it was clear that these two wonderful authors already had a room full of fans. The CBC’s Lucy van Oldenbarneveld hosted the event with the ease and humour that make her a festival favourite. As she opened the event, van Oldenbarneveld noted how different Harris and Marshall’s books are, yet both “these books allow us to witness these two women go through life-changing journeys.”
Kate Harris read first, explaining that her memoir, Lands of Lost Borders: Out of Bounds on the Silk Road , is really an exploration of the idea of exploration itself. Harris’ “mad longing for a world without maps” as a child had made her feel that she was born in the wrong time. Surely everything on Earth, with all the neatly drawn lines in her many atlases, had already been discovered. So what should a modern-day explorer do? Harris recounted, in all seriousness, “I decided to become a scientist and go to Mars.” In fact, in her second year of university, Harris was able to take part in a Mars simulation in Utah. Much to her own surprise, she didn’t like it. In fact, the experience actually rekindled her desire to explore our world—a desire that led her to travel the Silk Road by bicycle with her best friend. Today, Harris looks at exploration differently: it doesn’t necessarily mean being the first to find a new place. Instead about exploration can mean a willingness “to have your maps of the world re-written for you… which could be through travel or reading a really good book.”
Ruth Marshall then read a few short excerpts from her memoir, Walk It Off: The True and Hilarious Story of How I Learned to Stand, Walk, Pee, Run, and Have Sex Again After a Nightmarish Diagnosis Turned My Awesome Life Upside Down. In her opening, Marshall emphasized “none of us go through this life struggle-free.” Marshall observed that her new memoir has seemed to resonate with people, even though her story is incredibly specific about her experiences after a rare tumour was removed from her spine. “Our individual stories can take flight and dovetail with others,” she said, adding that she originally wrote only for herself as she was going through recovery and rehabilitation. “I wrote to process [what was happening] . . . and to entertain myself. I didn’t have the energy or the know-how to inspire others,” she said. When Marshall finished rehab, she started to feel that her story could be a book—and the rest is history.
During the discussion, Marshall said that it took her a while to make peace with her body, “but we’re friends now.” One of the remarkable things that Lucy van Oldenbarneveld mentioned from Marshall’s book was that it seemed like she was always refusing to take “no” as an answer from her body, despite being in rehab for months. “I didn’t think about the big picture at all [being able to walk again] because it was too big,” Marshall replied. “It was about baby steps. I focused on the task at hand and didn’t let myself think too widely about the negative possibilities.” Marshall also relayed a story about waiting for her husband to pick her up from rehab to take her to dinner for their sixteenth wedding anniversary, cherishing how excited she was for that date. “The key to happiness,” she proclaimed, “is always having something — anything — to look forward to.”
As the discussion continued, Lucy van Oldenbarneveld asked Kate Harris a variation of the question that was on everyone’s mind: how do you muster up the courage to chase your dreams? “The hardest part of any journey is making the decision to go,” Harris replied. “You can’t just want to do it. You have to make the decision, and then you have to hustle to make it happen.” For Harris in particular, despite having the goal of biking to the end of the Silk Road, it was truly about the journey and not the final destination. Riffing on the old adage about shooting for the moon and then still landing amongst the stars, Harris said, “It doesn’t matter that I didn’t get to Mars. If I hadn’t aimed for that, I never would have gotten here…and I want to do what I can now through words and journeys to wake people up to this world’s marvels.”
I have attended many Writers Festival events over the years, and I can honestly say that this discussion was one of my favourites. I walked away with two new books to read — and I suggest you check them out, too.
At what point might we detect backsliding in our own practise of empathy and kindness? And once we detect it, how do we fix it rather than ignore the problem for fear of piling on shame? Eternally-curious emergency physician Dr. Brian Goldman joined Alex Munter, President and CEO of the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario, for a discussion of Goldman’s new book, The Power of Kindness: Why Empathy Is Essential in Everyday Life.
In the book, Goldman looks back on a long career in hospitals to uncover real manifestations of empathy, as well as examples of pain and loneliness. Goldman’s stated goal is to shed light on our contemporary yearning for human connection, yet it became clear early in the evening that Goldman’s motivations for writing this book were also bound up in personal experiences. Only at end of Goldman’s talk did the audience learn about an incident that made him question whether he remained a kind person or whether the practice of emergency medicine had compromised his own ability to demonstrate empathy. (Read the book for more on that!)
Munter, who was greeted by an unexpected celebration of his 50th birthday and sincere appreciation for his energetic service to Ottawa, noted that reading The Power of Kindness reminded him of a quote by Maya Angelou: “People may not remember exactly what you did, or what you said, but they will always remember how you made them feel.” All patients are keenly attuned to how their medical professionals make them feel. Meanwhile, Goldman argues these professionals would rather not be informed of their mistakes, fearing shame, rather than embracing an opportunity to learn. A shame-based outlook within the medical profession hinders the ability of doctors to improve their interactions with patients.
Fortunately, Goldman shared examples of people whose past experiences of suffering had led them to tangible demonstrations of empathy. Mark Wafer, now an advocate for inclusion, is a former Tim Hortons franchise-owner who hired a significant number of individuals with developmental disabilities as employees. When he first received an application from a young man with Down syndrome, he recalled his own experiences of being humiliated by his peers because of his deafness. In hiring the young man, Wafer made an empathic connection that guided his later business decision-making.
Audience members were audibly conflicted by the discussion of robots and empathy. Goldman recounted his travel to Japan, a country that within ten years is expected to be short one million personal care workers for elderly individuals. The Japanese government is investing massively along with the private sector in developing robots that offer social interaction and can assist with daily tasks. But can these inanimate objects — despite their increasing human-like look and sophistication — truly supplement the fundamental need for human connection? Goldman introduces research that, as he put it, questions the very definitions of what is human.
For policy people like me, the discussion provided refreshing clarity on the value of empathy for creating successful societies. Yet currently we are experiencing a deficit in this regard, as individuals become so overwhelmed by constant email, social media barrages and other intrusions, that they do not take time to be kind to themselves, a prerequisite for showing empathy to others. As an example, Munter suggested — to applause — that public resistance to tax increases reflects declining empathy. Goldman argued compellingly that everyone can enrich the world by fulfilling acts of kindness, including acts of unexpected kindness. But getting to this point requires both self-care and self-love, as well as a sense of humility and comfort with the process of learning from mistakes.
By David Law
These are gloomy times. The White House appears to be occupied by a drunken bear hypnotized by his Russian ringmaster, Canada’s Prime Minister changes costumes more often than Lady Gaga and the daily news is filled with fresh disasters. Yet Harvard professor and author Steven Pinker is having none of the dire outlook propagated by the news media. He has been to the mountaintop, and he’s brought PowerPoint slides back down with him to show you. Armed with those slides, a sunny disposition and the findings from his new book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress, Pinker brought the good news to Ottawa’s Southminster United Church. A standing room-only crowd cheered his thought-provoking lecture.
An award-winning graduate of Dawson College, McGill University and Harvard, Pinker is an experimental psychologist with a prodigious knowledge of the Western tradition. Pinker has a fierce commitment to reason over passion, as well as an appetite for contrarian positions. Married to wit, these ingredients have rocketed Pinker into popular esteem. Pinker is after more than popularity, though: he is a man on a mission. Nothing less than a widespread revival of confidence in reason, science, humanism and progress will satisfy his public yearnings. Why? So that we can all continue to “enhance human flourishing.” A weighty goal perhaps, but if you tie enough balloons to an anvil, eventually it will fly.
Beginning with a stockholders’ meeting-style slide show where all the bad arrows (such as hunger, poverty, and war) trend downwards, while all the good ones (like democracy, literacy and life expectancy) point up, Pinker demonstrated why widespread despair is simply unfounded. According to the statistics, today’s world is safer, fairer, more generous, less violent, better fed, and better read than it was fifty years ago. Pinker’s presentation was a persuasive tonic for an audience thirsty for good news.
In puncturing the gloom, Pinker did more than lift the spirits of the assembled crowd. Indeed, his true purpose was to demonstrate his thesis at work: facts are better than beliefs. And it is religious, political and cultural beliefs which can make us blind to the truth. Following Pinker’s brief talk, interviewer Adrian Harewood of the CBC took the professor for a walk amongst the sacred cows of contemporary culture. It was a fun hunt, especially in a church sanctuary. Yet Pinker was after fresher game than weary Christianity or rabid Islamism. His sharpest harpoons sunk into the hides of more modern shibboleths:
Harewood didn’t let Pinker off the hook easily. “But what about indigenous beliefs?” Harewood asked, nudging Pinker towards the third rail of our politics. “Is indigenous knowledge wrong?” Tiptoeing carefully on this thinnest of Canadian ice, Pinker said indigenous culture “deserves respect” but – if it contradicts science – sure, it is wrong. Another victim of Pinker’s assault on popular values was the praise lavished on well-known saintly figures like Mother Teresa. You might think Mother Teresa was a great person, Pinker said, “but how many lives did she save? None.” Better for us to admire someone like scientist Norman Borlaug, whose dwarf wheat plants have averted famines and saved a billion lives since 1965. “But is it just about numbers?” Harewood asked, flailing a bit. No, Pinker countered nimbly, but “if you don’t look at the numbers, you don’t know what you’re talking about. . . A number has a moral value.”
In keeping with his general disdain for popular sentimentality, Pinker finished the evening with a sharp dig at political militancy. “The global market economy is a far more powerful force for progress than political protest” he said. “After all, smallpox wasn’t cured by student protestors, but by people working in a laboratory.” Reason over passion, indeed.
In her opening lines, the host of Monday evening's closing event, Carleton University's Susan Birkwood interpreted the title "Just between us" as suggestive of intimacy, confidentiality, and exclusivity. In a way, she was right for mulling over the themes of identity, selfhood, and belonging is inherently a very personal, intimate affair. Nevertheless, the atmosphere the three exceptional authors thoughtfully guided by Susan created for their attentive audience was one of openness, inclusion, and curiosity.
Prefaced by authors' readings of their respective novels, the pensive discussion that ensued left me wondering: Who am I? Am I truly one of a kind? These are fundamental questions that, to a certain extent, each of the three books' main protagonists are grappling with. Inevitably, family bonds and the relationship we have with those closest to us shape and define who we become and what kind of a relationship we build with ourselves. By offering us a sneak peak into their most recent literary works, Terry, Eliza, and Michael showed us that twins, whether real or imaginary, could irreversibly disrupt the status quo of our state of mind.
In the case of Terry Fallis' newest book, One Brother Shy, unexpected reunification with an estranged twin brother pushes Alex MacAskill further outside of his comfort zone than he'd ever imagined and awakens in him a whole new world of possibilities, a side of his identity he had never knew existed. The idea of twinning is prevalent, albeit more metaphorically, in Eliza Robertson's Demi Gods, which explores a complex and mystery-infused relationship between a stepbrother, Patrick, and stepsister, Willa, mirrored against their two other siblings. Michael Redhill in Bellevue Square creates a masterfully crafted female character, Jean, whose sense of self and personal sovereignty are questioned and threatened when she is alerted to the prospect of sharing the world with a doppelgänger.
The past is ever present; it remains engraved in our personality's coat of arms; what's more, it is a red dot that flickers like a lighthouse in the night, alerting us to that which has remained unresolved and misunderstood. Ultimately, it accentuates the three protagonists' present difficulties as they confront their other I's. Alex MacAskill is haunted by the memories of a vicious bullying incident; Jean must learn to live with post partum depression; and Patrick has a dark, controlling, manipulative streak that affects his behaviour towards Willa.
Visibility is both helpful and oppressive at the same time. Surveillance is watching the other, observing oneself, and defining the self. In the end, it is up to us how much of ourselves we let on, what we choose to reveal to the outside world. Or is it? For there are instances, such as those in which Alex, Patrick, Willa, and Jean find themselves that have the power to crack through the thick surface of our identities and transform our worlds, our status quos.
Monday evening's exceptionally well-curated and free-flowing conversation between three Canadian authors who are as eloquent in person as they are on paper took us on an exploratory literary journey of the deep and complex self, interwoven with moments of genuine humour and authenticity. The latter is a simple equation consisting of just the right amount of details and corkiness (T. Fallis) and little examples from your everyday life, including habits, quirks, or pet peeves (E.R.). After all, it rings true that being authentic is being yourself.