The street food freeze is over. After an interregnum of nearly two decades, the food truck permit freeze in Ottawa was lifted last fall; the fruition of which manifested in the exciting new rollout of new food trucks this past week. James Cunningham, funnyman and erstwhile performer at Yuk Yuk's in its former location at Albert St., was on hand to both mark Ottawa's street food inauguration and to promote his new book Eat St .
Regaling the audience with the restless delivery of a globetrotter finally come home, Cunningham spoke of the creation of his popular TV show and of his love for the magic of food in its most primal transaction: through food trucks and carts. It was serendipitous circumstances that allowed a comedian to end up hosting a food show. Cunningham's experience of how his pilot episode of an inchoate script actually became the first episode of the first season of a show in its fourth season, is a testament to the importance of timing.
What lent credence to his presence was Ottawa's own exciting influx of food trucks. As Cunningham noted, the recession of 2008 saw a great number of talented chefs and cooks lose their positions in established restaurants. These kitchen artists, in turn, saw a great opportunity in the mobility and independence of operating a food truck or cart. Pop, ice cream, burgers and hot dogs have been mainstays from time immemorial (or so it seems), and yet despite the affection that these familiar outlets engendered in us, there remained a distinct feeling of "is this all there is?" Ottawa, with a population of over a million when including our sister city of Gatineau, is only home to about 45 trucks. The 14 new food trucks and carts were vetted and selected from over 60 applicants with mind to "the proposed menu, business plan, level of vendor experience and the overall contribution to Ottawa’s street food scene."
While the spearheading of this effort took applause-worthy political will from the likes of Mayor Jim Watson and Councillor Mark Taylor (who was on hand at the event to give opening remarks) it is precisely the combination of sceptical nannyishness that has kept Canada so far behind when it comes to abundant and creative street food. As Adam Davidson bemoans in the current New York Times Magazine, this ill grips even the Big Apple. Marie-Claude Lotrie of La Presse has a charming expression to describe street food, as "urban acupuncture, injecting vitality into city life." In a country bequeathed with harsh winter climes, getting into the street food business is a labour of love in a country like Canada, where said business, like motorcycle riding, is seasonal. (Also a reason why Vancouver's street food scene is currently the vanguard of the nation). But weather alone cannot account for the astonishing range of street food in places like Portland, Oregon and Austin, Texas. Overregulation of these ventures can act as disincentives rendering it prohibitive to start. Montreal, a city rightly known for its cuisine, seems to tread softly on the dreams of street food: the pre-determined outcome having already been fore-judged; somewhat harshly in VICE and more affably in the Financial Post.
Yet, who am I to despise small beginnings? If Ottawa avoids the worse-off aspects of the forays of other Canadian cities, and moves forward, albeit slowly, in the direction of greater street food, we have a great potential to showing the country how its done. We have a wonderful chronicler, Shawna Wagman, in her City Bites column in Ottawa Magazine and we even have a fledgling Ottawa street food Twitter feed to keep us in the know. There is a definite sense of excitement that was felt at the event for an Ottawa summer filled with innovative and health street food, and I for one cannot wait to sample them all.
Our worlds are increasingly filtered, shaped, and experienced by means of digital technology. Terms like online, email, text, tweet, surf, download, upload, blog, and digitial have become familiar and have frequently been redefined in an Internet era. Douglas Rushkoff had much to say about that on Tuesday night to a packed house at Knox Presbyterian Church.
He began by speaking at length about his idea that digital technology, co-opted by capitalism, has collapsed time to the extent that there is increasingly only a constant present for people; “present shock” describes the human reaction to this world of instantaneous feedback and increasing abstraction. This present shock is characterized by narrative collapse, the undermining of guiding human stories by life focused intensively on the present; digiphrenia, a fragmenting of self fostered by the maintenance of multiple digital identities; overwinding, the result of making time a generic, absolute quantity; fractalonia, the mistaking of self-similarity for real congruence; and apocalypto, the belief that human history has a definite endpoint. The host (Ottawa Citizen Managing Editor Andrew Potter) then asked a number of questions touching on politics, the role of institutions, and the locavore movement before taking questions from the audience.
Rushkoff argued at multiple points that contemporary culture was faced with a choice: there was an opportunity to “restore human-centric agency to culture,” but that there was also the risk of giving in to the pulse and rhythm of present shock. To avoid the latter would involve a much more distributed approach to governance and institutions (à la the Occupy movement) as well as a focus on sharing, developing networks, and filling needs locally.
There were points where I wanted to know more about Rushkoff’s thesis and standpoint. Some thoughts seemed to hang together uneasily (e.g., apocalyto side by side with narrative collapse), and his use of networking as a metaphor for community suggested (at least to me) a strong underlying individualism. And there was a certain irony in hearing him argue for greater mutual attention and relationship in the sort of frenetic, rapid-fire manner that typifies contemporary media interaction.
But this is to quibble; to call the event a success and enjoyable would be a powerful understatement. Rushkoff himself was frank, open, extremely articulate, and keen to encourage his audience to pursue real, in-person, local relationships without a wholesale rejection of digital technology. (This was particularly encouraging for me: I’m a telecomms engineer by trade, and have a special stake in this being possible). So many fascinating ideas came in such a short span that I had trouble falling asleep that night, and reminded me yet again why I love good books.
Just a half hour after listening to the well-honed and comforting words of Rabbi Harold Kushner, the Writerfest audience was confronted with a real and relevant illustration of “when bad things happen to good people,” to borrow from Rabbi Kushner’s famous book. We encountered three novels about the suffering of children in Africa. But these novels and their authors – like Rabbi Kushner – are seeking to explore not merely suffering on its own, but rather the miraculous ability of humans to be resilient in the face of mass repression.
Host Steven Hayward – author of The Secret Mitzvah of Lucio Burke – told us we were in for an “amazing night” and then suggested a unifying theme for the discussion: to imagine the future, we must reimagine the idea of the child.
Meanwhile, I had not read the three featured novels nor had I previously encountered these authors (to my own embarrassment). Fortunately, they read selected passages and then engaged in a dynamic discussion.
First, Emmanuel Dongala read from Johnny Mad Dog (an English translation from the original Johnny Chien Méchant ). Dongala, a chemist and academic who fled Congo in the late 1990’s, writes of gross inhumanity – expressed through the rampages of a militiaman – and, in the same stroke, of the kindness of humanity. We begin to sense the fog of war, the chaotic clashes between White soldiers and indigenous rebels, and the sense of abandonment felt by locals when these soldiers save elites and their puppies, but leave innocent civilians – babies among them – to die. The second excerpt centers around the interaction between a refugee and a foreign journalist. We sense the refugee holding onto her hope of escaping the country that killed her father and raped her, and we come to terms with the preference of the international media for stories about Africa that display maximal gore. She reflects, “I don’t know if [my interview] was good television.” Overshadowing this uncomfortable exchange between foreigner and sufferer is the empathy evoked by Dongala, who explained that every human has the capacity to understand another’s pain if we so choose.
Secondly, Kenneth Bonert read from The Lion Seeker, his debut novel about a Jewish family in South Africa during the apartheid years. The community where the Helger family lives is multi-ethnic, with a large Jewish population – mostly Lithuanians who fled the Nazis. Here, in a profound refutation of the system of separateness and official racism, languages are intermixed; Yiddish and Afrikaans are tossed into the vernacular. The Lion Seeker, the object of considerable buzz in the literary circuit, is told through the perspective of a young Jewish immigrant, Isaac. As someone who is Jewish as well, and fascinated by Jewish life in South Africa, this is a novel I look forward to reading.
Finally, a jetlagged Mia Couto – in his first English-language live reading – read from The Tuner of Silences , the story of an eleven-year-old boy from Mozambique, Mwanito, who has a “talent for perfecting silences.” He recounts growing up in an isolated enclave named “Jezoosalem” by his father, who has “forsaken civilization,” as Couto put it. The English translation of the book is so evocative, and I imagine the original Portuguese is even more engaging for those who speak the language.
Having been offered a teaser of the three writers’ unique styles, the discussion period proved fascinating. Most resonant for me was the (albeit unresolved and mostly implicit) notion that those writing about Africa have some sort of a moral responsibility to represent the society and ‘values’ of the region with a measure of accuracy in order to combat the terrible insensitivities of the mass media in their depictions of African conflict and poverty. Yet this is of course a large burden to place on a novelist, and indeed these writers seem most concerned with remaining true to their characters’ journeys. Dongala emphasized that today’s African youth are tech-savvy and very much aware of current events. They are – like all of us – bombarded with information, but a lack of education leaves many unable to analyze and decode reality from fiction – video game violence from normative behaviour. (Here I was surprised to see Dongala make some sweeping generalizations about young people across an entire continent).
Through their awareness and connectivity, African youth are embracing the 21st century, however structural difficulties, including poverty, limit their participation in globalized networks. These tensions conjure intriguing characters, as youth negotiate so many influences and possibilities. The child suffers at times, but is also full of life, kindness, and happiness, as Couto sought to emphasize (and which Rabbi Kushner might explain as an indication of God’s presence – that is, the ability of the child to emerge from the horrors of tribal violence and maintain their will to meaning). Wise words to end a riveting conversation with three remarkable and unique novelists.
The Fourth Stage of the NAC was a full house as Canadian poet and Carleton University’s Armand Garnet Ruffo took to the stage to introduce his dear friend Richard Van Camp. He talked about the many accomplishments of the writer including his phenomenal novel The Lesser Blessed , now a film which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, and the many awards and accomplishments Van Camp has achieved through his writing. Ruffo recounts a recent conversation with Van Camp in which he said that he likes words that he can feel, stories that stir his blood which is exactly how Armand Garnet Ruffo introduces the radio play the audience is about to be a part of.
Host Shelagh Rogers of CBC Radio then took to the stage to discuss her recent time spent observing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission where she learned exactly how important it is to hear Aboriginal stories from Aboriginal writers themselves which is part of the reason that Van Camp’s work is such a staple of CBC’s The Next Chapter, aside from it’s sheer brilliance. The radio play was an incredible journey, the only way I can think to describe it, the audience was taken on by actors Craig Lauzon, Chris Cound, Russell Bull, and Leela Gilday. A phenomenal cast who were able to bring the vivid images of the story to life, along with the help of the woman who adapted the story for radio, Reneltta Arluk. The central character of the story, Flinch, is a Dogrib man who has found himself caught up in a drug dealing gang and on one of his drops he encounters two men who lead him to a community of Aboriginal people who call themselves “The Not Even Counted.” When he meets these people he comes to realize that the path he’s been on has lead him to this moment and it is through them that he discovers his true power and his destiny that will lead his people home.
After the play ended, Van Camp and Rogers took the stage together to discuss channeling, storytelling, and hardening nipples. Van Camp describes the way in which the story was brought to life on paper, he united the ideas of all the horrible gang killings that were taking place while he lived in B.C. With a story from his home town newspaper about a man he knew all his life who narrowly avoided being incinerated by lightning. The reason he felt it would be amazing to turn into a radio play is, he says, that radio is what connects Canada, more than television can. His characters, like Flinch just come to him and he channels all their thoughts, emotions, feelings and ultimately ends up with a story. They key, Van Camp says, is trusting what it is that his characters want to do.
When asked about the theme of transformation in his work, Van Camp tells the audience the Dogrib creation story, and a story of his own encounter with one of the last shifters. But something that really struck him during the time he was writing the short story that the play is based on, was something a friend of his said concerning ninjas. Van Camp has a fascination with them, and his friend was asking why, and then reveals that she knows her own secret about ninjas. Van Camp asks what this secret is, and he hears her say “you have to die first before you can become one,” something his friend tells him she never said. It was in this moment of channeling that he found a kind of transformation that lies behind the story. Flinch must die in order to gain all of his powers and the life he envisions for himself with his wife and children. In an extremely poetic ending to the night, Van Camp told Rogers that he felt it was his job to braid heaven and earth and to bring peace to people’s lives through his writing. Which is exactly how the audience felt after having watched his incredible story of transformation performed as a lice radio play.
The Writersfest Event “The Future of Food for a Crowded Planet” was held on the first warm Sunday of spring at 6:30, and the doors of the Southminster Church in Ottawa South were open wide to allow the soft evening air to circulate. What wafted in, however, was the unmistakeable smell of someone in the neighbourhood enjoying their first barbeque of the season.
The smell increased my dinner-time hunger and lent an extra poignancy to the discussion of the sustainable food movement - when Barry Estabrook, author of Tomatoland , pointed out that taste was not an important consideration for agribusiness, I found myself unexpectedly anguished. Will no one think of the barbeques?
Everyone loves food. And almost everyone knows food from a giant agribusiness is inferior in taste and looming at the edges of our consciousness is the piece of the social and environmental disaster we are bringing home with us in our grocery bags. But I know I’m not alone in my sense of futility. We can’t afford other food. We can’t feed the world’s population. We can’t go back. I was at the event to hear the three authors assembled tell me what I don’t quite believe: that we can, and that we have to.
Barry Estabrook, Lorraine Johnson, and Sarah Elton each represent a different dimension of the movement for sustainable food consumption – each one appealing to a specific sensibility – which made for a great panel, as each could address Bob Carty’s “Joe Public” questions in a variety of ways. “But isn’t this what we want?” Carty almost whined, “We want this stuff – and we want it at a good price.”
Barry Estabrook provided a systemic look at the food industry and its ills. His book Tomatoland examines tomato production: the economic structures in place to support farming in a place like South Florida where there shouldn’t be tomatoes at all; the science that create tasteless and frighteningly firm “fruits”; the treatment of the workers, who he describes unflinchingly as “slaves.”
Estabrook opened his remarks by bouncing an American tomato he had smuggled through customs on the floor. “Not a split,” he announced, showing it to the other panellists. He threw most of his remarks down with the same emphasis as the tomato; angry and condemning.
Lorraine Johnson softened the tone with a more personal appeal – beginning with a story about her nephew not recognizing peas that came in a curious green casing, (she had brought them home from a farmer’s market in their pods) she returned continuously to the personal loss we are sustaining through our distance from food production. “We are nurturing people. We want to nurture. Food should be the basis for communion, celebration.”
Carty noted that Johnson has established her “chicken cred” by keeping several chickens in her backyard in Toronto in defiance of the bylaw against it. “Chicken cred. Yes. A badge of honour!” she replied. I’m thinking of a goat next.”
Carty then posed the fundamental question of the evening: “Is it true that we need industrial agriculture to feed the world’s population?” Sarah Elton’s book Consumed was inspired by her desire to answer that specific question. Elton took a trip around the world to observe agriculture in a variety of cultures and climates and uses her examples to illustrate that this is emphatically not the case. A Nepalese delegation rose at her introduction, visible proof of the global commitment to sustainable farming she writes about.
Elton noted that she has decided to refuse to debate the issue anymore. “There isn’t a debate,” she stated flatly. “Everyone expects some kind of 50-50 argument, with pros and cons. Unless you own an agribusiness, or a chemical company, or maybe a seed company, there is no need for our current system of food production. None of the research supports it.” Estabrook agreed with withering disdain: “I think that modern industrial agriculture is one of the stupidest ideas ever. It’s a 75 year experiment, and the results are coming in.”
Although the rest of the discussion ranged over the numerous abuses and shocking lack of actual taste in the food industry, the question period following the discussion was that most precious of commodities in sustainability discussions: hopeful. Of interest to the participants was “Permaculture:” large scale, permanent (ie sustainable) agriculture, the Toronto group “Occupy Gardens” (“give peas a chance”), and the social justice possibilities inherent in sustainable food production.
I walked into the evening thinking about how sustainable food is everyone’s issue. While well-presented and specific, nothing that was said in the course of the evening was particularly new or (depressingly) that surprising. As Elton noted, it’s not a debate. Even those of us without chicken cred desperately want to take steps towards the relationship to food all three authors so convincingly say is possible. I sniffed the air – somewhere someone was preparing something beautiful.
To be honest, I wasn't really sure what to expect for this event. I had never seen Guy Gavriel Kay speak before, but as my husband and I made our way through the crowded room to find seats, we settled ourselves in the thick of Kay's loyal fans. Papers rustled as they shifted in their chairs, checking their watches or sipping their wine. All eyes were directed to the front of the room, eagerly waiting for the event to start. Maybe they had seen him speak before and knew that we were in for a treat. Maybe they just knew how much research Kay does to write his books, so they wanted to hear about his craft. Maybe they just wanted to listen to a very intelligent man talk about the world for a while. (Or maybe they were like me, not quite sure what to expect—but happy to end up with all of the above.)
In his opening remarks, Kay noted that River of Stars is (in part) about the way in which memory—individual and collective—can distort the events of the past. We shape and create legends, vilify others, and use this memory of the past to guide how we act in the present day. He plays with the idea of "fighting the last war" and how desperately trying to avoid the mistakes of the past can lead us to make new mistakes altogether. After this brief introduction, Kay read a passage from the book centred around its female protagonist, Lin Shan.
Like most of Kay's books, River of Stars was inspired by a period of our own world's history (the Song Dynasty of the 12th Century this time). Later in the evening, Kay joked about how the academic friends and contacts that he had developed during his research for his previous novel, Under Heaven, had just taken it "as a matter of course" that he would "stay in China for the next book." They gave him research, books, and unpublished monographs about the time period, and he was hooked. Happiest when he has "a trove of material to work with" for his research, it's no wonder that the richness of the Song culture (and the information available about it) seemed too good to pass up.
As usual, River of Stars involves a rather large cast of characters. "Someone once wrote that 'Kay never met a secondary character he didn't like,'" he said with a chuckle, followed by a shrug. "I can live with that."
That said, you won't find famous historical names in Kay's books. He is much more comfortable saying that his characters are inspired by real people from the past. "For one thing," he noted, "it is creatively liberating. For another, it also feels more grounded." Kay doesn't want "an illegitimate boost from readers" by doing something shocking with real people from the past. Instead, by creating settings for his novels that are inspired by the past and by real historical figures, Kay has more freedom to explore the themes of a time and place with his readers.
"I want to share with the reader the notion that, when we work with the past, we're making it up. We're using educated guesses," he said. "I won't pretend that I can nail down the reasons for why things happened [the way they did in the real past], but I can offer what I think."
Kay also emphasized that, for him, working with the past means respecting past cultures and their beliefs. His underlying mantra is "to make the world of the book to be the way that they [people from the time period] would have believed it to be." It isn't about looking down on the past with smug contemporary superiority; it's about giving validity to the way that they saw the world. It's also why he uses what he calls his "quarter turn to the fantastic" in his writing: these elements of the supernatural give credit to the beliefs of previous cultures.
The amount of research that Kay does to bring his stories to life is mind-boggling. It isn't just the grand, sweeping tales of historical figures that grab his attention. He also focuses on the little details of the time period, the minutiae of everyday life. He talked about a "stunningly dry academic book that got [him] alarmingly excited" (by Dr. Alan Cameron, retired from Columbia University) for one of his previous novels, and explained how having primary sources in his research lets him show his audience his characters and their culture at the same time. For example, if he has two characters disputing a technique for creating tesserae, he is able to show that his main character knows his craft and is also able to show elements of their current society (shifts in technology, generational tensions, the importance of art).
During the Q&A session, one audience member pointed out Kay's skill in writing the subtlety of politics and political strategies. Kay laughed about how it would be fun for him to have political advisors to help with his books, but in truth he is drawn to conflict and to cultures on the cusp of change. "That tension lets me spin a story into it," he said. "Those cultures tend to have equally conflicted politics, so I'm drawn to their politics as a way of illuminating the culture I'm working on."
Another audience member drew everyone's attention to Kay's shift to the present tense in the novel for his female protagonist's perspective (based on the passage he read to start the event). Kay answered that he uses this writing technique for many different purposes.
"I want to keep you up until 3am, move you emotionally, and make you think," he said. The shift to the present tense for his female characters emphasizes the razor-sharp perception that women would have needed during that time period to have any impact on their own lives. Kay wanted to portray their ability to be in the moment (and be observant in the moment) and to give a sense of immediacy to their experiences. "Most readers do not overtly notice [the changes in tense], but on a subliminal level, because it has been constructed that way, it has an impact on the reader."
Kay certainly provided his readers—and even aspiring writers—with a wealth of ideas to chew on for the evening. I left feeling that Kay is a rare and gifted craftsman...and I can't wait to dive into more of his books.
I chose to attend “Banned in Canada” partly because all of the girlie, food-related events were taken (I really, really like food), and partly because I was interested in fleshing out why an author’s work should or should not be banned in Canada. Author Howard Chaykin’s most controversial work, the “Black Kiss” series, is not my cup of tea (what can I say, erotic vampires just aren’t my thing), but I wanted to examine why it was banned through the lens of free speech and Canadian legislation.
Black Kiss reportedly violates subsection 163(8) of the Criminal Code, which means it dominantly displays “the undue exploitation of sex, or of sex and any one or more of the following subjects, namely, crime, horror, cruelty and violence.” Considering the theme of the work is, as Chaykin put it, “sexually insatiable vampires,” it is little surprise that it violates the obscenity provision of the Code. Chaykin also explained that the 1st issue of the series, published in Toronto, was censored, not due to depictions of a sexual nature, but because of a language issue; the content was deemed child pornography.
After hearing Chaykin describe his work, I gather his intent is not to shock and awe, but to marry darkness and humor. His aim is to “annoy people” with his work. I sensed that he finds stock comic book characters mass-produced and boring, and looks to inject real life into his prose. His passion is storytelling, so he focuses on narratives first and the visual expression of them second. It follows that he desires any “titillating” nature to his work to be secondary to the actual storyline. Chaykin applies the same quality of narrative to his erotic comics that he does to his non-erotic comics. Visual storytelling is his gift, and by all appearances, he excels at it. For him, comics are a “synergy of pictures and story.” When asked about the perception of comics as adolescent in mainstream thought, Chaykin suggests mature themes in comics are just real-world meat and bread. He labels adults who want moral comics “ephemeral” and “ridiculous." He explores the idea that comics can get away with more controversial content because they depict drawn images rather than real people, though he seems to disprove of comic books solely comprised of pornographic images, with no real story behind them—true to his focus on narrative content.
At one point a member of the audience asked why Black Kiss II contained a theme of duality, of male vs. female, black vs. white. He answered that he loves the concept of a “secret identity” and finds himself ever-evolving to keep up with the trends in his work. He reinvented his life at age 13 by teaching himself to subdue his New York accent. This duality is a current flowing through his work, which he describes as “deadly serious, casual mischief,” preferring that it be dirty and funny.His idea of a likeable superhero is not Batman as he is depicted now, but a superhero who is constantly overpowered and outnumbered, because the underdog is rooted in reality.
I must admit, I felt an ounce of embarrassment when I realized I was likely the only one in the room who didn’t actively read comic books (I attribute it to my lack of imagination, and maybe a childhood void of creativity, but I digress). I was heartened at the joy on the faces of attendees who were devoted comic book consumers delighted to hear a beloved writer speak. Unexpectedly, the event gave me a glimpse into the world of comics and why people appreciate them. The idea of narrative blended with images is not one I had given much thought prior to the event, but I can see the potential and place for such a medium. I also, rather naively, assumed comics held much more appeal for adolescents, and was pleasantly surprised at the smattering of generations present to hear from Chaykin. Though I would have preferred more discussion around free speech and boundaries on obscene material in Canada, I still found something to take away from this Writer’s Festival event. (Who knows, maybe I’ll pop open a comic book on my next commute: vampires not welcome.)
With a healthy turnout at the Mayfair Theatre, the well-loved CBC personality Shelagh Rogers wasted no time introducing Northwords , a film that was clearly a labor of love for her and her team. The lasting effect of the film on Rogers was palpable as she expressed the impetus of the project with great enthusiasm. Her aim had been to pick five Canadian writers to join her on a literary adventure, delving into the remote and starkly beautiful Torngat Mountains National Park in order to evoke inspiration and dialogue with the North.
Northwords did not disappoint. From the drawing of the curtains, to the thunderous applause ending the fifty minute documentary, director Geoff Morrison and cinematographer Stephen Chung invited us on a journey of raw, unmitigated beauty that stirred something in everyone present.
The film documents the five writers’ process of working through their own distinct responses to what seems like a completely foreign land and way of living. The viewer observes each of them arrive at a deep respect and admiration for the people of the land and their relationship with it, cultivating in them, as well as the viewer, a small whisper for a release from cell phones and asphalt. You can sense something coming alive in each of them as their journey goes on.
Morrison and Chung’s eye for the inescapably harsh beauty of the terrain draws the viewer into a world that is only juxtaposed by the warm and intimate relationships of the Inuit people that co-manage the land in partnership with Parks Canada. The historical and cultural relationship the Inuit have with the land is humbling and often a point of pause and reflection for the group of five writers.
Once the film was finished, some of the writers that made the journey with Rogers took questions. The theme of relationship weaved throughout much of the discussion: the relationships in the film between the five writers, the crew, the hospitable Inuit who welcomed everyone into their home and the clear relationship with the land that all experienced.
Northwords succeeds at showing us a part of Canada that too few of us have ever experienced, as well as a people and way of life that we often too easily dismiss. Rogers and Morrison sound the clarion call to engage and step outside of ourselves. They do so with a grace and sincerity that pays respect to the land and its people.
The “E” in Ivan E. Coyote stands for Elizabeth. For those unfamiliar with the author, she looks and sounds like a man – specifically, a homey, appealing, charismatic man with a nifty retro hair cut. Like a northern Stuart MacLean. The “E” is an insider nod to her unclear gender identity – born a girl, she presents as a man and has spent her professional life exploring gender identity and sexuality through story-telling, writing, and music.
If one were to judge by appearances (which obviously Coyote might advise against) the jam-packed crowd at Knox Presbyterian for the 8:30 Saturday night Northern Scene event was composed of more than one Coyote fan. Festival volunteers hastily scrawled name after name onto the wait list for the sold-out night, and the room had a young, buzzy energy.
When Tagralik Partridge from Kujuak, Nunavik, took the stage after Lucy Van Oldenbarneveld’s ebullient introduction of both northern stars, she focused the audience on her particular story of identity in seven words.
“I don’t know what to tell you” she said slowly in a velvety, just-swallowed-molasses voice. Suddenly, everyone wanted to know what she was having difficulty telling us. “We were picking berries,” she continued, as if she had just thought of a story, the perfect parable to inform this particular moment. Van Oldenbarneveld has a snappy, knife-edge voice, perfect for morning news, and I could feel my heartbeat slowing as Partridge opened with a melodic piece on life on the tundra, hunting camps, blackflies, and quiet moments with friends.
Partridge has lived in Montreal for over a decade, so her next story (which won first place in the Quebec writing competition) brought us back to the city, with a mournful but cleanly-told story of a double heart-break: her heartbreak at losing her lover to his own heartbreak at leaving his land and family. “Living in the South is like holding your breath underwater for a long time. You get good at it if you want to survive.”
Ivan E. Coyote’s stories were energetic and rhythmic tales of family and small-town community, punch-line morals falling over each other as the characters vied for attention. The crowd met grandma matriarchs and teenage moms, taciturn uncles and wise mothers, and laughed almost constantly with easy recognition. Even as she related questioning her family about whether they knew she had “caught the gay early on,” her own gender identity was just one among many.
During the question period after the talk, Coyote noted that when she performs she always comes away with notes in the margins of her text - that she gains writing inspiration from how her spoken word impacts the audience. Like here, she said, pulling out her piece of paper – “this one says, ‘nipple clamps and potholders’”. Then: “Oh no, wait – that’s a packing list for moving.”
I reflected that Coyote’s hominess is, in a way, the most subversive thing about her.
Both Partridge and Coyote avoid politicizing their art. When asked about the political import of her work, Partridge noted that “wherever you stand in society is political. If you see something from that place, it’s on you to say something.” Coyote refuses to identify herself specifically as a man or a woman, noting that she only identifies herself as a “she” to the media to avoid a conversation on “what my genitals look like” in favour of focussing on her body of work. “I’m just trying to tell my truth” she noted.
With these artists at the mic, the telling of personal truths was deeply entertaining and profoundly meaningful. The noise of the crowd afterwards, hanging out to get books signed and to chat with Partridge and Coyote, certainly indicated the event was a roaring success
Everyone who came to the House of Anansi Press Poetry Bash on Saturday night was treated to wine, cheese, and excellent Canadian poetry. Anyone who came ignorant of the three authors, Sara Peters, Adam Dickenson and Michael Crummey, left as fans. Those that did know them were just as appreciative. All three poets demonstrated a mastery of language and form that was simultaneously inspiring and intimidating. Each poet was sharing work from recent collections published by House of Anansi.
Sarah Peters opened the evening. She was reading from 1996, her first published collection. Her use of language to explore memory and personal history (both invented and real) is like a scalpel in its precision. She dissects events, revealing their raw beating hearts. One of the poems she read, “Cruelty”, was inspired by her cousin operating on a gopher with a serrated tin-can lid. While the image is quite unsettling, she uses this unbalanced state of the reader to reflect on the cruelty many children exhibit, and how they grow up to use these lessons learned from their childhood in their adult lives. Her poem, “Your Life as Lucy Maude Montgomery”, was just as sharp. This poem was inspired by a quote from Montgomery: “I am very careful to be shallow and conventional where depth and originality are wasted.” When Peters read the line “She places her knife on the thinnest skin you own”, I heard a person gasp at the imagery. Peters read six poems from 1996, and each was of equal quality and potency.
Adam Dickenson was the second poet to read. His book, The Polymers, is a concept album of sorts having been envisioned as a book project from the beginning. Dickenson took the concept of polymers, “molecules composed of numerous repeating parts”, and wanted to perform a scientific analysis of cultural polymers like memes, line-ups, financial credit, etc. Much of Dickenson’s work in the past has explored science and technology as a metaphor for culture, and this is a continuation of that theme. Dickenson read “Hearsay”, which envisioned an imaginary parking lot with cars from every one of the 50 states – the poem contains the slogan from each of the fifty different state plates. This was well received by the audience for both the wit, and the craft to accomplish such a task. Dickenson was a great presenter, and he explained the origins of his works well which helped with appreciating them more deeply.
The final poet showcased was Michael Crummey. A poet for 30 years, his experience was on display through his sparse use of language while simultaneously revealing so much. He was sharing work from his recent collection Under the Keel. The first poem he shared, “Watermark” was inspired out of a project where he was given access to the archives at the Rooms Provincial Art Gallery in St. John’s Newfoundland. One photo in particular, of a minister presiding over a full-immersion baptism in the Atlantic inspired this poem: “If they want comfort, let them join the Sally Ann.” … “I’ve been sove three times now/ Please God this one will take.” Crummey shared his poem “The Kids are Alright” that has clearly come from his experience as a parent; “The kids are alright but you’ll never forgive them for making you feel so human.” Crummey’s final poem of the night was “Something New”. It’s a poem dealing with his father dying of cancer, and is at the same time a love poem. The narrative examines the love his mother showed for her dying husband which the narrator doesn’t comprehend, yet is beginning to understand what it will take to become that kind of person and promising that to his wife. It has that existential-love-song feel to it; raw, honest, but hopeful.
The discussion after the readings was well moderated, with good questions asked to the authors and great discussion. Clearly a lot of people enjoyed the poems on display, as there was a significant line-up after the event to buy the works from these three poets. These are three books I look forward to reading. Overall, the night was a successful showcase of poetry by House of Anansi, and a reminder of the quality of literature they continue to publish.