It was encouraging to see volunteers pull out more chairs to seat the audience before this ‘Living History’ event. The historical fiction novels, Wild Rose by Sharon Butala, Matrons and Madams by Sharon Johnston and A Superior Man by Paul Yee imagine the lives of the lower class, the marginalized in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
As is the custom, host Susan Birkwood introduced each author and invited each to read a selection from their book. Quite out of the custom was to hear one of the authors, Paul Yee, recite an entire selection from his book without once referencing text. A Superior Man is centred in the time around and after the building of the CPR in Canada. Yang Hok, raised in a dysfunctional home in China, is in Canada working on a logging crew, a coolie. He is trying to restore respect to his family while toiling in an environment where the work is sub-human. Yee found there was little documented history about “peasants in the late 19th century” and the life of the coolies in Western Canada. At a time of social breakdown and a huge population boom in China, Yee imagines the lives of the men, who were likely “rebels, troublemakers and bitter”.
Matrons and Madams is Sharon Johnston’s first novel. The story is set in Lethbridge, Alberta after the First World War. Clara Durling, matron of the hospital, establishes the first venereal-disease clinic in Alberta, with Lily Parsons, a former schoolteacher and manager of a brothel called the Last Post. The views and actions of conservative thinkers, of prostitutes and gamblers, of union organizers are recounted. The city of Lethbridge openly accepted prostitution. The rate of ‘venereal disease’ was skyrocketing and the concept of public health was little known. It was a struggle to change attitudes and improve health, something Johnston noted that we continue to experience to this day. Johnston used her own grandmother’s experience as Matron in the hospital in Lethbridge, Alberta as a basis for story.
Wild Rose by Sharon Butala is centered on the life of Sophie Hippolyte, a young, naive Québécois woman in the 1880s. She moves to Saskatchewan to homestead with her new husband. After a few years he deserts her and their toddler son, the land is sold out from under her (the Dominion Lands Act made it impossible for women to own land) and she is left to try to make an honourable life in a time where women had few rights. In the small outpost of Bone Pile, Sophie starts a small business using her wits and resourcefulness. Several women in the town have also been abandoned and they must make difficult choices to survive. Her strict upbringing in the Catholic Church, the uncertainties of the future in Bone Pile or further west are all in play as Sophie considers her options for the future. Butala read novels of the period about life in Eastern townships to understand Sophie’s perspective.
During the panel discussion the authors spoke of how works of historical fiction provide the freedom and liberty to imagine the life of the lower class or marginalized where there is little or no documented history. Each novel, in its own way, tells of strength of character, human frailty and the impact of relationships on individuals and on communities, bringing life to history.
As Neil Wilson, founding director of the Ottawa International Writers Festival shared in his opening remarks at this event, hopefully the recent ‘climate change’ in Ottawa will be able to start addressing such issues as inaction on climate change and mismanagement of the environment. Wilson subsequently introduced the three authors speaking tonight, sharing that together, they provide an "essential overview of our most important natural resources, our economy and our very future."
First off was Andrew Nikiforuk, who has been writing about oil and related issues for some 20 years, winning numerous prizes along the way. He was one of the first to write about hydraulic fracking. His most recent book is Slick Water . Accompanied by clear and informative images, Nikiforuk explores one of the terribly important impacts of hydraulic fracturing: dramatic ground contamination.
Nikiforuk continued by introducing the audience to a central person from his book, Jessica Ernst. After many years working with the oil business, Ernst launched a multimillion-dollar court case in 2007. This court case was against one of the biggest companies in the business—EnCana—, the Alberta government and the Alberta Energy Regulator in court. One aspect of the case is on its way to the Supreme Court of Canada. Why, you ask? Because Ernst discovered the she could light the water from her well on fire due to high levels of methane gas. In her research, Ernst discovered that this was not an isolated case, but that methane gas has been escaping from hydraulic fracturing in many places and on an ongoing basis.
Cheap gas is coming to an end, and Nikiforuk commented that we had best prepare ourselves. Covering up by the oil industry, the government and regulators has to be challenged. Nikiforuk commented that mini-earthquakes are on the rise, which are partially deliberate in order to free more gas. Nikiforuk links these current problems to the history of fracking as far back as the 1860s in Pennsylvania. In those days, when miners depleted one well, they opened up another, and continued to do so over time. Jessica Ernst's work has continued on without much media attention. Nikiforuk's book brings her story and fight to a wider public.
Next during the event was Louis Helbig, who was working as an economist with the government up until 2006, when he left his position to become an artist full time. His book, Beautiful Destruction , takes readers into the air above the oil sands and the surrounding landscapes. The book project started in 2009 and with a photo exhibition in 2010 including some of the images that are now in the book. The exhibition was accompanied by a comment book in which viewers could share their impressions of the images. Subsequently, this comment book took on a life of its own, opening up space for dialogue. What makes Beautiful Destruction most unique are the essays written by diverse public figures: from First Nations' elders to oil executives, as well as many other concerned persons.
Helbig defines the ‘oil sands’ as a cultural problem, largely because people can't even agree on the term. Arguments around the issue of oil are divisive and polarizing. Helbig believes that this leaves little opportunity for finding new group, and hopes that his role as an artist can better engage people’s imaginations.
The third and final speaker at this event was Marq de Villiers, a well-known expert on water issues and an award-winning author. His new book, Back to the Well , challenges us to rethink the future of water, as there is a looming water crisis. The problem, de Villiers contends, is not that we have one big crisis, to which pollution and mismanagement contribute in a major way, but rather that the world faces thousands of smaller, regional crises.
This should make the aforementioned crises easier to address. Nevertheless, de Villiers commented, it is important to remind ourselves of important information; for example, that a child dies every six seconds due to water contamination. While stressing the severity of the issue, de Villiers also sees several paths to solutions. His newest book outlines two particular paths: desalination and cleaning processes. He provided a few particularly interesting examples, such as the surprising contaminant of the Spanish Mediterranean coastline: suntan oil. De Villiers also shared a more encouraging anecdote: that Windhoek, the capital of Namibia, recycles all of its water (an important piece of information in light of the recent drought in California).
Each of the three authors provide significant food for thought, which was certainly seen in the brief but lively discussion to conclude the event. Ultimately, this event successfully demonstrated that everything is connected, particularly when the environment is involved.
This past Friday local residents were offered a firsthand glimpse into the mind of one of the English speaking world's most renowned historians, and his account of one of today's most polarizing political figures. Niall Ferguson treated the Ottawa International Writers Festival to a discussion of his newly released book, Kissinger: 1923-1968: The Idealist.
If you know anything about Henry Kissinger, idealist is probably not the first word that comes to mind. Kissinger often draws references to Machiavelli, and has become synonymous with Cold War realpolitik . Yet, as Ferguson eloquently suggested to attendees, the narrative that been built up around Kissinger is far too simplistic to capture the life and career of a man as complex as Henry Kissinger.
Not only did Ferguson elaborate on the content of his book, he also gave the audience unique insights into the origin and writing of the book. Ferguson recalled the first time he met Kissinger at a party in London. With a mix of humour and sophistication that few can replicate, Ferguson explained that Kissinger approached him about writing the book — a task that he initially refused given the magnitude of such a project. However, Kissinger returned with an offer no historian could refuse; access to over 140 boxes of unpublished letters and journals written by Kissinger.
It was within this material that Ferguson discovered a new Kissinger, one he describes as an "idealist." The first volume covers Kissinger's life from 1923-1968, before he became National Security Advisor and later Secretary of State. The second volume will thus deal with the parts of Kissinger's career that ignite so much debate among both scholars and laymen. Ferguson was clear that he had not yet devoted enough research or thought to this part of Kissinger's life, and would not be drawn into judgements over his legacy.
In defending his characterization of Kissinger, Ferguson explained that Kissinger the statesman was deeply shaped by his early experiences. The early Kissinger, from his humble beginnings as a German Jewish refugee, to his combat experience in Germany in the Second World War, to his academic career, was not the power hungry Machiavellian he is so often described as. Ferguson recalled intimate details of Kissinger's life, such as his immersion in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant; his incredibly long undergraduate thesis that led to Harvard creating a limitation on the length of such theses still known as the "Kissinger rule"; his casual strolls on World War Two battlefields with his mentor Fritz Kraemer (who remained for much of Kissinger's life a second conscience); and his hopeless attempts to convince the Washington bureaucracy to allow him to take a position part-time while he continued his academic career. For all this, Ferguson went as far to call the young Kissinger "naive." As Ferguson elaborated, the values and ideals that shaped young Kissinger remained the first principles that defined his entire career, which has led Ferguson to understand this Kissinger as an idealist.
Ferguson is not one to shy away from unorthodox historical and political positions, and it was clear by some of the questions asked by the audience that his portrayal of the early Kissinger made some uncomfortable. Yet, throughout the night Ferguson made use of his unique charm and wit to suggest that the standard opinions about Kissinger simply do not provide a truthful and complete account of the man. Seducing the audience with a mixture of humor, anecdotal stories and mastery of the material he has been given access to, Ferguson showed at the very least why his argument is worth consideration. The discussion was aided by the guidance of the CBC's Adrian Harewood, whose gentle yet thorough questioning maximized the time available. The challenge Ferguson now faces is completing his biography of this intriguing figure with a second volume as compelling as the first.
The Munro Beattie Lecture is a distinguished event at Carleton University, launched in 1985 to honour one of the founding members of the university’s English department. Taking place annually, the lecture celebrates literary studies in Canada and, over the years, has played host to a number of literary critics and creative writers discussing both general and academic issues. Arriving five minutes before the lecture is due to start was a risky move on my part. The theatre is completely packed with literature lovers waiting eagerly for Joseph Boyden to take to the stage.
Boyden’s appearance is met by raucous applause and loud cheers from the audience. If ever there was a rock star of Canadian literature, Boyden is it. Coincidentally, he tells the audience his childhood dream was to be a rock star. However, he explains, his singing voice is so bad that not even the punk rock bands would take him. Though his singing voice may not be up to scratch, he does boast some musical talent—Boyden divides his talk into three parts, each of which he introduces with a short musical performance on the harmonica or mouth harp.
Boyden begins by talking about his upbringing in North York, Ontario, and the path he took to becoming a writer. He speaks of his time at the University of New Orleans, when he first discovered not only his own voice but the voices of his characters. Boyden says that his characters come to him with stories to tell, stories demanding to be heard. As a writer, he knows he has created a good character when one surprises him. His characters like to rebel against him like children against a parent, choosing to take their own path and not the one he is trying to write for them. In particular, this applies to the character of Snow Falls from The Orenda, who Boyden never intended to include in the novel but whose strength of voice he could not deny and so had to make her part of his story.
Boyden is very enigmatic, a truly engaging public orator. He speaks comfortably and candidly, like he is chatting to a small intimate gathering of friends and not a lecture hall full of strangers. His open manner leads him to talk about his experience with mental illness. As a teenager he used to cut, this was his way of outwardly releasing some of the inner pain he felt, and at age 16 he tried to commit suicide. The chance to discuss this topic openly, as a way to relieve some of the stigma associated with mental illness, is very important to Boyden. He believes that we need to treat mental illness the way we would a physical illness —as a very real problem and not something to shy away from.
Interspersing his lecture with readings from his three books – Three Day Road, Through Black Spruce and, most recently, The Orenda – Boyden comes across as a sincere and straightforward individual with a knack for storytelling. His open character, positive attitude, and outstanding literary talent prove that the standing ovation he received at the end of the evening was extremely well-deserved.
The issue features a foreword by Jonathan Kay, editor-in-chief of The Walrus, and an afterword by Kate Heartfield, of the Ottawa Citizen. We also feature a special interview series with editors at The Globe and Mail, Maisonneuve, and Herd Magazine.
Foment is the annual literary journal of the Ottawa International Writers Festival, Canada's largest independent literary celebration. It is entirely produced by volunteers, typifying an engagement that is unique in the world of literary festivals. Foment means “to incite” or “stir up,” even “to nurture.” As a journal, Foment seeks to nurture “the quality of the mind” by vigorously engaging with the ideas and works of festival authors. Foment will be an outlet where aspiring writers can express their reflections. Foment seeks be a vessel which edifies, enlivens debate, and provides a thoughtful outpost on a diverse range of books.
ENJOY THE READ!
This past Wednesday night’s Writers Festival event was about as Ottawa-ish as you get. Former Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page sat down with CBC’s Alan Neal to discuss his book, his old job, and the state of Canada’s institutions.
Centretown United Church was nearly full, with people spilling over into the balcony seats. And while this might be encouraging for those of us concerned with voter apathy and growing civic disengagement, I couldn’t help but notice the sea of white hair. It is well and good that seniors are engaged citizens, but the fact that young people are largely uninterested in such an event supports Page’s larger concerns about the state of the country and its government.
Page’s concerns centre around the state of Canada’s institutions and the government’s culture of fear. His book – Unaccountable – speaks to these issues and Page’s role as the country’s first Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO). The PBO was established in 2006 to provide independent financial analysis to Parliament. Page was the first head of the office, serving in the position from 2008 to 2013.
While the book is clearly quite timely in its release (hint – there’s an election soon, and you can make sure you’re registered to vote), Page is the first to admit that an election won’t fix the issues. No government wants to be transparent and accountable, so it is up to the electorate to demand it.
There is reason for cynicism, however. Page’s most famous hour came in 2011 when he uncovered that the true cost of the Conservative government’s proposed F-35 purchase was billions of dollars higher than they were telling the public. An election was called, largely because of this very issue, and Canadians handed the Conservatives a larger mandate by giving Harper a majority. Canadians may talk about wanting government transparency and accountability, but we do not seem to demand it from our leaders.
In a now infamous 2012 interview, CBC’s Julie Van Dusen asked Page if the government was purposefully misleading the public. Initially, Page dodged the question as good economists and bureaucrats often do. But Van Dusen – who was in the audience and brought up on the stage by Alan Neal – asked again, sensing that he was the kind of person “that would have a hard time fudging.” Page said that at that moment he no longer cared. Very bluntly, and much to the embarrassment of the government, Page answered “yes."
Always a thorn in the side of the government, Page was derided by those in the highest positions of power. This, however, proved his worth as PBO. No government appreciates those who hold it to account, which is probably why the PBO is understaffed and underfunded. Page noted that he “signed in blood” to build the PBO to be transparent, analytical, and open. He did what he could; however, the government – who campaigned in 2006 on transparency – is now doing what it can to be as secretive as possible.
Despite Page largely preaching to the choir, Wednesday’s event was informative and motivating for everyone in attendance. He kept an optimistic, personal, and even humorous tone given the cynical nature of the topic. He spoke candidly about the loss of his son and constantly brought up the great work done by his colleagues in the PBO. He is a public servant to the core – wanting only what is best for the country. While he has harsh words for the state of the country’s institutions, one cannot help but feel optimistic going forward. If there are people like Kevin Page working to better the country, maybe the future could be bright after all.
On a windy, rainy Saturday night, Alan Neal welcomed a packed, sweaty Centretown United Church full of all ages of people to unceded, unsurrendered Algonquin territory – territory he joked belongs to “true old stock Canadians.” The crowd was giddy to begin with, and burst into raucous applause and laughter. At the front of the church, vinyl records covered every surface surrounding Neal, and a slideshow played above him, cycling through album art.
The woman we were about to see was a legend to me, but for different reasons than most other people in the church. I had heard her name numerous times, without really knowing who she was, without having ever listened to her music. Based on the standing ovation she received when Neal spoke her name for the first time, everyone else knew of Buffy Sainte-Marie.
We were all gathered to watch CBC’s All In A Day host Alan Neal discuss over five decades of Sainte-Marie’s songwriting. The timing of the event was just in advance of the announcement of the Polaris Music Prize winner on Monday, September 21 (Sainte-Marie was shortlisted for the prize earlier in the summer). However, it was hard to hold a conversation on the topic of songwriting for very long. Neal seemed to know Sainte-Marie’s music inside out; he would find patterns in her music over the years and play clips of them for her to explain the songwriting process. But, Sainte-Marie would repeatedly say, writing a song is like dreaming. You don’t plan your dreams out before you go to bed at night – you can’t even be sure if you’ll have dreams when you fall asleep. But when you do dream, you can’t control what it’s about, or when it’s going to happen. It just does.
Despite the spontaneity that goes into her songs, Sainte-Marie talked about the organization behind some of the songs that took her years to write. She writes everything down (she stresses the importance of keeping everything in a journal – even grocery lists), and completes her notebooks with tables of contents, theme organization keywords, and notes about her moods so she could revisit old writing years later and piece together her songs.
It’s hard to believe Sainte-Marie is 74 years old – her energy was contagious and she had the audience calling back their agreement at her while she bounced out of her seat talking about her songs and experiences.
Although at times I felt like an outsider for having not experienced Sainte-Marie’s influence throughout my life, I certainly felt like I was in the presence of someone unique. She emphasized how the idea of play guides her life, and stressed that we all have childlike creativity inside us, it just tends to be “shushed up from school” as we grow up and imagination isn’t valued as much.
It was clear that Sainte-Marie doesn’t write songs for anyone but herself – she writes them because she can – and she is brazen about her talent. “God, I’m good!” she exclaimed when Neal read out some of her lyrics to the crowd. Later, she said it’s not ego to be able to appreciate the things you’re capable of. Good art speaks for itself.
Sainte-Marie is incredible in her understanding of what is really important to all of us, and she has written songs that have timeless significance. She repurposed “Look at the Facts” from her 1976 album Sweet America into the song “Carry It On” from her latest album, Power In The Blood. The lyrics are still as powerful now as they were originally, especially with the current state of our climate:
If you got the sense to take care of your source of perfection
Mother Nature, She’s the daughter of God and the source of all protection
Look right now
And you will see she’s only here by the skin of her teeth as it is
So take heart and take care of your link with Life
Despite her ties to and respect for the earth, Sainte-Marie is no stranger to technological innovation. She was the first person to record a totally quadraphonic electronic vocal album in the 1960s, and would send her computer-recorded songs over the Internet in the 1990s. She talked about how, as a folk musician, she received backlash for creating music with computers. However, she insists computers are just tools for us to use. They don’t replace the human talent it takes to play instruments or create music; they’re simply another means for us to create art.
At the age of 74, Sainte-Marie seems like she has it all figured out. She has stood for many causes throughout her life, and she continues to provide a strong voice for Aboriginal Peoples. I’m excited to listen to Power in the Blood, and even without having listened to it, I know the music is probably worth the Polaris Prize many times over. Buffy Sainte-Marie has power in her blood. And I think she knows it.
“Not a great start for a professional tough guy, huh?” coughed Jody Mitic, as he choked back tears on stage in front of spectators this past Thursday evening. Taking place in the Canadian War Museum, the night saw the launch of Mitic’s new book Unflinching: The Making of a Canadian Sniper, chronicling the military life of Mitic, his transition into civilian life, and everything in-between.
Presenting in front of Mayor Jim Watson, a full-house of fans, and nearly 1500 metric tons of tanks and artillery equipment, Mitic began the night by reading aloud the introduction to his book, something he had reportedly never done before, let alone in front of a crowd. The introduction told the story of the dramatic mission that saw both of his legs destroyed by an enemy IED in Afghanistan. As he mimed out the actions that he was reading on stage, it was clear, that although this was an event that he had recounted many times, the emotions of that day still stuck close to the surface.
Hosted by CTV’s Kevin Newman, the night saw Mitic talking about his personal experiences, both in and out of the military. Mitic, while clearly emotional throughout the night, described his life and experiences with the coolness and confidence that you would expect from a decorated sniper such as himself. While going into great depths about the night that saw him loose both legs, neither Mitic nor Newman let that be the focus of the night, branching the conversation out around the events that made Mitic the man, the soldier, and the father that he is today.
A gun fan at an early age, Mitic recounted his role models in life, from his father who taught him to question the rules, to his uncle who told him that being a Top Gun pilot may be a bit too lofty of a dream for a 10 year old. From there, Mitic described his early life in the armed forces: getting chewed out by ranking officials, understanding the basics of what makes a valuable sniper, and learning not to take any of the fighting that he was about to part take in seriously.
When asked whether he regretted any of the decisions that lead him to this point, Mitic responded with a confident 'no'. He was proud of role he played in shaping the Afghanistan, and while he acknowledges that you should not expect to see changes over night, he feels content in the actions he took to steer the country in a different direction, for the sake of the younger generation.
At the beginning of the night, museum Director General Stephen Quick stated that the role of the museum was to preserve the experiences, consequences and effects of war, both on nations, and individuals, and reflect just what role Canada has had on the world stage. No better was this goal realized than at this book launch, with the personal stories of one Canadian sniper brought to life on stage. Thoughtful, confident, and at times emotional, Jody Mitic showed the audience just what it meant to him to be a Canadian sniper, and he promises his book will help shed even more light on the experience.
Canada's 42nd election is heating up and the heat was definitely felt in the Centretown United Church on a surprisingly warm September evening. The house was full of attendees fanning their programs trying to catch a breath of air and eager to get a glimpse into the life of the incumbent up for re-election and the subject and title of John Ibbitson's latest book – Stephen Harper. John Ibbitson himself described the evening as ‘sultry’, which I found a marked understatement considering he had dressed for the occasion in a suit and tie and was surely melting from the inside. Before yielding the podium to Ibbitson, Andrew Cohen listed the staggeringly impressive list of achievements that John Ibbitson has accomplished – the two have a long history together, Cohen describing them as “old friends who agree on nothing.”
As Ibbitson stepped up to speak he explained that to rile up his old friend, he would pre-emptively ask and answer the questions he's heard most while on his media tour for this book. The first; why doesn’t the book have a subtitle? Ibbitson knew from the beginning that he didn’t want to write what he deemed a ‘colon’ book. He noted that whether you are a fan of the man or not, you cannot deny that as Canada’s sixth longest serving PM the country has been shaped and changed because of him in ways the author claims will be hard to undo. In the spirit of full non-partisanship, Ibbitson disclosed that the book lists both Harper's good and bad accomplishments, but that the focus is largely on the man himself. Ibbitson says he likes politicians for the social creatures that they are and admires the fact that most enter public life to make the country a better place, even if he may not agree with what the problems or solutions are.
We learned that the first half of the book follows Steve Harper, as he was then known, and how influences by his father Joe and his growing dissatisfaction with Canada's political landscape shaped him into the man who would eventually become Prime Minister. Ibbitson sees as seminal the fact that, although as a student with perfect grades, Harper dropped out of Trinity College within the first month. This would go on to inform Harper's regionally-focused politics as he rejected entering the ranks of the ruling class of Ontario and Quebec, the Laurentian Elites, as opined by Ibbitson in a previous work. Ibbitson claims Harper can hold a grudge and has a large chip on his shoulder, which he channelled into his running as a candidate for the newly-formed Reform Party of Preston Manning. Harper soon discovered the anti-Laurentian consensus sentiment was shared by most western voters and once he realized the same could be said for many suburban ridings across the country, laid out a strategy for success in a 22 page memo to Manning, who disagreed. Harper would go on to use this strategy to win the highest office in the country years later.
Through previously unattainable access to close confidants and friends, of which Harper has very few, Ibbitson shed light on a loner and introvert. A loyal son and brother. A devoted father. A loving husband and equal partner to his wife Laureen, who he met while she was campaigning against him. Ibbitson made clear that beyond family there are very few people Harper will confide in. Perhaps this is because, as Ibbitson later claims while answering a question on disgraced Senate appointments, the man is a poor judge of character. The author points to the many moments throughout Harper's life when he could not accept his place under any figures of authority, which may be why he eventually sought the only job where he wouldn't have to take orders. Jokingly, Ibbitson points out the tarnished relationships Harper has with the last two authority figures a Prime Minister must defer to; the President of the US and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada. As a PM who ran a rather tight and secretive administration, this book successfully humanizes the man many have come to see as stern, cold and calculating – something voters of all opinions can benefit from. It turns out the private man and the politician are closely tied, as Ibbiston stated: “The face of Stephen Harper’s government is Stephen Harper’s face.”
The book goes into details about Harper's handling of federalism, his revamping of the Conservative movement in Canadian politics, the running of campaigns during many elections, his foreign policy, and the many other fundamental changes to Canada implemented while in office. Each decision was made after long and reclusive contemplative sessions, revealing the extent of Harper's intellect. Yet none, as the author answers to an attendee's question, illustrate just how shrewd Stephen Harper is as what many will only discover years after his tenure is over: Mr. Harper re-polarized the Canadian political landscape to leave a lasting legacy of what he set out to accomplish in the first place, specifically, the most basic of conservative tenets – to make government less of a factor in people's lives. On this, Ibbitson believes he has succeeded, but far beyond the current administration. Harper expected the rise of the NDP as a counterbalance to his leaning further to the right and he won't see a swing back to the left on October 19th as much of a setback. The polarization of Canadian politics is here to stay, and empirical data the world over shows that countries with such political landscapes tend to sway right more often than left over time. This profound notion of the multi-levelled implications of the Harper Government's stratagem left me with a more nuanced understanding of the current elections, and, as I returned home through Ottawa's downtown core, I still felt the punishing heat, but now too the thick political tension in the air over who will lead this country into the future.
I must confess, going into this event I had not read any of Azar Nafisi's books. Somehow, despite it being on the New York Times bestseller list for more than a hundred weeks, I had completely missed the staggering success of her first memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran. The book is Nafisi’s recounting of her time as an English professor in her native Iran, where she hosted a secret book club for a small number of female students, teaching them Western classics such as The Great Gatsby and, as the title suggests, Lolita.
Despite suffering from a terrible cold, the event was hosted by Adrian Harewood, who was content to sit back and let Nafisi be the star of the evening. The audience was enraptured with the author, whose joie de vivre and passion for literature rang out from the stage clear as a bell. Nafisi likened writing a book to falling in love; there is something inarticulate about it, leading you discover something about yourself while writing it. Her love of books was instilled in her by her parents, who she describes as ‘book snobs’. Her father served as mayor of Tehran from 1961 to 1963, the youngest person to hold that post, but then spent four years in jail. Nafisi talks with pride about her father’s charge of insubordination, and with good reason. Growing up in a society that repressed and controlled, Nafisi knows as well as anyone the urge to rebel and to stand up for what you believe in. For her it was literature, and the need to share great literary works with the young minds of Tehran. It is not surprising, then, to learn that one of her favourite authors is Mark Twain – a man that challenged conformity and complacency in his work.
When asked if she found writing her second book, Things I’ve Been Silent About, a memoir about her relationship with her mother, cathartic, her response was an emphatic "no!" Books shouldn’t be consoling, she exclaims, they should stir strong emotions within us – rage, fear, guilt, shame. Within books, the whole spectrum of human emotion is contained. She believes that books connect us to one another by opening up avenues of communication. The idea for her most recent book, The Republic of Imagination, was sparked after a conversation with a fellow member of the Iranian diaspora who was waiting in line to get a book signed at an event in Seattle. The man believed that Americans had no appreciation or understanding of real literature, and so Nafisi took this as a challenge to prove that fiction can teach us many things and has every right to live in a democratic society. Nafisi believes that fiction is the ‘moral guardian of a country’ – within the pages of books can lie the shame of a nation, here she discusses the representation of slavery on classic American literature, and says that by being reminded of its guilt, a country can learn how to move forward.
As I listened to the engaging Nafisi talk so ardently about the books she loves and teaches, I made a mental note to add them all to my reading list – great American classics written by authors such as Mark Twain, Carson McCullers, and the controversial James Baldwin. Perhaps, by being raised in England, these authors escaped my radar. Nonetheless, in addition to Nafisi’s own books, which I now cannot wait to read, I think I’m set for reading material for the next long while.