“Truth can be a hazy term…the very concept of objective truth is falling out of the world and lies are passing into history.” Martin Levin, books editor at the Globe and Mail, and moderator of a discussion about the place of truth in fiction and non-fiction writing between Guy Gavriel Kay and Marianne Apostolides, stated the great fear of many in the room in allowing wiggle-room around the terms “fact” and “fiction”. The three writers debated the topic with relish, with Apostolides holding firm to her position that she takes in her latest book, Voluptuous Pleasure: The Truth About the Writing Life , that language and narrative can both be used to question a truth in works of fiction, but that this strategy should also be the portion of non-fiction writers.
The discussion that proceeded from her claim was at times fast-paced, occasionally circular, but the participants kept the audience members constantly on their toes with close attention to the details of what was at stake and frequent references to a wide variety of literary works from across the modern and post-modern landscape. Although, at first glance, the stances that Kay and Apostolides each took regarding the definition and place of truth in writing, their discussion revealed that their positions were not quite so divergent on the essentials.
A continuing thread throughout the lengthy discussion was a recent book published by John D’Agata and John Fingal about the article D’Agata wrote that covered the 2002 suicide of a Las Vegas teenager, and Fingal’s subsequent work fact-checking that article. The book lies at the intersection of the debate between what is commonly perceived as non-fiction (factual) and fiction, defining and assigning a useful role to the truth in different works and the meaning of the phrase “artistic license”.
Apostolides argued her position, saying, “To me, the problem with non-fiction is because we’re caught…on these certain facts.” Kay, who frequently writes works of historical fiction, returned to his position persistently throughout the discussion that regardless of the semantic term used for the literary genre, be it fiction, non-fiction, theatre or essay, the reader needs to have an awareness of the author’s position. He cited D’Agata, who defended his article by claiming that the article he wrote had been mistakenly presented as journalism when in fact, it was theatre.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, due to his training in law, Kay dominated the discussion and provided consistent clarification of what exactly was being examined. At many points, he concluded his summarizing by pointing out that although Apostolides appeared to be taking a more radical position, they were actually in agreement. Apostolides emphasized and re-emphasized the idea that a good writer fit with Kay’s demands for an ethical writer, both being someone who makes clear their intentions to their reader. Kay phrased this same idea slightly differently; eventually managing to gain Apostolides’ agreement with the idea that everyone is entitled to interpretation in his or her opinions but not of the facts. And while both agreed that something that is true has a physical reference in reality, Apostolides added the important caveat that perfectly capturing the physical world in words is an admirable, but ultimately naïve and unachievable goal for writers.
The Writer’s Festival guide describes this performance piece, created by musician Mike Dubue, as a “collaborative multimedia presentation”, but the event itself was far less straightforward and sterile than what that description suggests. Dubue, when afterwards asked to provide the audience with some explanatory comments, responded with, “I don’t really know what to say about this piece of music.” The piece fits in with others works that uses sound, beat and music to as a means of storytelling, such as that produced by soundscape artists and other musical efforts that are specifically directed towards capturing narrative.
Dubue composed his work a traditional symphonic form of separate movements and melodic repetitions. He noted afterwards that his intention in using the symphonic form was in fact to destroy it by creating various themes and motifs, deconstructing and then reconstructing them, leaving them and returning to them, all in an effort to reflect the place of memory and forgetting in determining how fact and fiction are distinguishable (or, perhaps more accurately, indistinguishable) from one another.
Octavie Dostaler-Lalonde , a talented classical cellist from Montreal, opened the piece with a short solo that was simultaneously light and dark, setting the scene for the sense of ambivalence that characterized the performance as a whole. The next movement slowly integrated each of the other musicians, Socalled (otherwise known as Josh Delgin) playing the melodica, producing a unique sound that hinted vaguely at klezmer, Ottawa folk artist Lynn Miles with wordless vocals and Ian Keteku, renound slam poet, rounding out the soundscape with his rapid-fire lyrics and energy.
Throughout the performance, Dubue was mixing live, providing the final sound with an electronified, synthesized character and manipulating volumes and background noises. The entire performance grew steadily louder, more discordant and haunting, mimicking Dubue’s intention to express the ways in which memory can be a nostalgic, slippery and persistent creature.
Keteku’s lyrics were occasionally lost in the midst of the other artists’ sounds, but the effect also ensured that certain lines stood out to the audience more than others and were consequently retained. For example, he played with the lyrics of a well-known Christmas pop tune, twisting its familiar ending into something decidedly unfamiliar: “You better watch out, you better not cry, you better not shout, I’m telling you why: Santa Claus is lactose intolerant.” Keteku explained afterwards that this line is particularly illustrative of his attempt throughout the entire piece to rely on the things that are widely believed that then show how they can be twisted, to show that “what we see as real, as tactile, are not.”
The performance was short, running only about twenty minutes or so, and the artists followed with some of their own thoughts and comments on it. Their enthusiasm for performing and for art was evident, and spurred impromptu performances (upon the request and support of the audience) by all of the artists on stage. Dubue performed a solo piece on the piano, revealing his versatility as an artist and his love for music. Keteku followed with his characteristic energy, announcing that he would perform a popular poem of his with the support of each of the others on stage, none of whom had ever heard the piece before. He provided a couple of words of direction to each of them, and once they were started and harmonizing with one another, Keteku took over the microphone and the stage. The improvisation session was a perfect summary of the immense talent of each of the performers and of their excitement for creating and collaborating.
For those who have never visited the Manx Pub, it is the perfect setting for the Ottawa International Writers Festival’s Plan 99 Poetry Cabaret; with its underground entrance and its quaint, smoky interior that seems to fit the mood of the audience and poet-readers alike. Its walls are embedded with bookshelves and resonate with the sound of excited chatter as its audience mingled, anticipating the readings to come. Nonetheless, when either David Groulx or Chris Jennings took the microphone, there was complete silence. Anita Lahey who was originally slotted, unfortunately, was unable to attend.
David Groulx was the first speaker; a veteran author of proud Ojibwe descent. His book, A Difficult Beauty , is described by the evening’s host, David O’Meara, as dealing with “hard truths”, “tentative hope”, and the “injustice dealt with by First Nations communities”. His opening poem, “I Am Only One Percent”, is no different. He declares, “I protest my brokenness and your brokenness”, and one is quick to realise that although his voice is frank and witty, his poems are also deeply personal and intensely reflective.
Throughout his reading, his aversion to John Wayne and dislike for Mr. Stephen Harper is apparent and it is in his openness that he is able to relate to the audience. He manages to relate the issues of First Nations communities on a personal level and, although his message is serious, he was not without humour as he discussed his topsy-turvy relation with “red wine or vin rouge” the morning after a night of indulgence. It is within the honesty of his words that he connects the audience to the injustices that First Nations communities often face, yet it is in his frankness that he can relate to the everyman.
Chris Jennings was next to read. Described as a brilliant essayist and currently writing in Arc Poetry Magazine, he wittily remarked that he is proud to be introduced as having written his “first” book, suggesting that it gives hope to the idea that this will not be his “only” book. His verse is no less noteworthy than Groulx and shows the skill of a mature artist. Reading from his book Occupations , his poems are vigorous contemplations of the relationships that bind and form us in relation to objects, and seem to stem, like Groulx, from his own personal experience.
His poem, “Vacant Suite” is a reflective piece on the dynamics of relationships that cause rented space to become available. In it, we see parts of the breaking down of a relationship, and his short and snappy word choices, such as the line “words were things again”, shows his genius at work. His follow-up poem, “Keys”, shows the complete breakdown of the relationship. His poems are sincere, realistically portraying the subject of their observation.
Both poets seem to be on different spectrums of the poetic scene: Groulx has numerous books under his belt and deals with the collective, while Jennings has but begun and deals with individual experiences. However, while Groulx deals with issues of heritage and injustice, placing himself as a spokesperson for the First Nations community, he still relates to his audience on an individual level. On the other hand, Jennings deals with the mechanics of personal relationships in terms with which the whole can identify too.
When the microphone was left standing alone, one cannot help but feel that because of the frank honesty of each poet, this evening of poetry reading has left each individual present connected to a larger collective. For both the connoisseur of poetry readings and to the curious new enthusiast, it was an experience to be savoured.
Nahlah Ayed, author of A Thousand Farewells says at the beginning of her talk, that she won’t say farewell to the crowd until the very end, till after her story. Therein lies the journey of the reporter, from refugee camp to the Arab Spring. Ayed’s talk is a quick peek through her book and thus, her journey could not have a beginning without her parents’ decision to return to Jordan when Nahlah was six years old. Both she and her sister were born in Manitoba and not unlike the odyssey of so many immigrants – the story of Chinese-Canadian poet Fred Wah’s Diamond Grill being the most pertinent example – her parents wanted them to meet their relatives. And to be rooted in and imbibe the same values that they themselves grew up in and, most importantly, to learn the medium of those values: the Arabic language.
Having been born and raised – till the age of 6 – in a comfortable home in Winnipeg wherein the voice of Gordon Lightfoot filled the air and the children played in the sandbox outside; the move to a Palestinian refugee camp in Amman, Jordan, where the only sight of green was afforded by sewage, was jarring to say the very least. “It was the worst case of culture shock I have ever experienced,” says Ayed of the move to Jordan. So much so that even after all her travels, she says she never experienced anything quite like it. Or perhaps it was because of that very experience that regardless of what Ayed encountered through her travels, she would not be overwhelmed. Ayed later jokes the move to Jordan, away from a comfortable life in Winnipeg, means that she can eat without reservations and can sleep just about anywhere too - pointing to a pew at the front and saying that "that could work very well!"
One thing I found particularly interesting was that after her family’s sojourn of seven years in Jordan, Ayed had come to know the “Middle-East” as a cranky uncle that she would rather avoid. Her mind was made up on pursuing a career in medicine. She was doing her Masters in Human Genetics at the University of Winnipeg, when a piece in the student run newspaper caught her attention. A switch to the Journalism program at Carleton University ensued, coupled with a stint at the Canadian Press, after which Ayed found herself in Afghanistan in the wake of the September 11 attacks.
Conflict after conflict, from the Iraq war, the exodus of countless Iraqis, and the fall of Saddam Hussein; the violence that erupted into a civil war in Baghdad and her own capture when Ayed was beaten and bloodied by a mob, came close to being shot; to covering the assassination of Lebanese President Rafik Hariri, Ayed explores the burgeoning outcry of millions throughout the Arab world and the veritable phenomenon that has come to be called the Arab spring.
Apart from Ayed’s brief, yet moving, tour through her journey, one feature for which the evening was unlike many events that I have had the opportunity to attend was Adrian Harewood’s conversation with Nahlah Ayed. From the very beginning, he saw Ayed’s book as a love letter to her parents for it was not only their decision to move to Jordan, in spite of their having themselves faced challenges as Palestinian refugees. So that their children may learn Arabic – without which Ayed could not have taken on that journey – but also that they returned to Winnipeg and put their hearts into Canada. So much so that when at the end of the conversation, Harewood asked Ayed what being Canadian meant to her, for a brief moment there was silence, and that silence itself bespoke of the seeming impossibility to define, and thus limit, her sentiment. “It’s everything” says Ayed, after that eternal moment, “it’s my soul, my heart.”
Adrian Harewood posed questions that were not only born of an understanding of Ayed’s work, but of an admiration of it too, and the conversation was an event in and of itself. In the end, the audience could see the necessary groundwork for the Arab spring right there; the spring is the natural result of a conversation, and not an imposed monologue. And it seems from her book that that monologue is imposed by both those within and from outside the Arab lands for were one to travel through those lands and meet people as Nahlah Ayed has, they too, like Ayed, would come to see that this "cranky uncle" can be pleasantly surprising.
It was still light outside as festival-goers flocked in to “The Weight of History.” Five chairs were on the stage – one for each panellist, and one empty as PEN’s reminder of writers still struggling for freedom. Before the panel discussion and the question period, the authors each read from their latest works – and each chose a very different part of their novels to share.
Ami McKay began at the very beginning of The Virgin Cure , a richly evocative work. The heroine Moth introduces herself, gives the story of her magical naming and her father’s abandonment, and describes the world of New York tenements during the Civil War, where girls are inducted into the shadowy world of child prostitution because they have no other way to survive. “Those of us who managed to make any luck for
Vincent Lam took up The Headmaster’s Wager, just as the life of his protagonist, Percival Chan, changes forever. Percival flees the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong in 1941. He has the chance to take Cecilia, the bohemian young lady whom he adores, to Indochina (now Vietnam) with him. Lam struck a surprising note of mordant social comedy. Shocked schoolboys recount a massacre in the hospital where they have volunteered; their school’s only response is to cancel the annual dance.
Peter Hobbs reading came from the very centre of In the Orchard, the Swallows . Peter described this novella primarily as a love story – but in this segment, the beloved is absent. The narrator is recuperating from years of imprisonment, and he describes his re-awakening sense of freedom as he remembers what it is to take pleasure in the scent of roses. He has moved from prison to a temporary paradise.
Mark Medley's questions focused on the novels’ own histories and subtly teased out the authors’ positions on the relationship of history and fiction. The Virgin Cure emerged from McKay’s research into family history, and her admiration of her great-great-grandmother, who was one of the first female physicians and who worked in New York tenements like Moth’s. A female doctor befriends Moth; her voice makes a “sidebar” to The Virgin Cure’s narrative. McKay said that her work depends on the intersections of past and present. The Birth House focuses on midwifery and the politics of childbirth, a contentious area now as well as during the novel’s First World War-era setting. “Virgin cures” are still undertaken in sub-Saharan Africa to get rid of HIV/AIDS – just as they were for syphilis in nineteenth-century America. The past and present resonate together in her works.
Lam has always wanted to tell the story of the Chinese community in Vietnam in the mid-twentieth century. In all the excellent writing on the Vietnam War, their story was largely silent. At first he relied heavily on family journals, until his own writing voice demanded more freedom to be heard. Although Lam strongly felt that his novel is fiction that just happens to be set in the past (and not historical fiction per se), it was still important to him to show how the twentieth century was shaped by wars that affected non-combatants as much as soldiers.
Hobbs described how In the Orchard surprised him by appearing in his head almost complete, while he was working on something quite different. In the Orchard does draw on his sojourn in Pakistan in the early 1990s, but Hobbs thinks of his next book as more of a historical novel. Although it is set in the near future and concerns the digitization of a library, it does more of the traditional work of a historical novel in unfolding an era to its readers. All three novelists spoke of the need to be truthful to the era – to convey the feeling of real lives, even when their facts are beyond our power to recreate.
During a lively question period, all three authors spoke generously of the editors whom they had worked with. In that spirit, I’d like to point out the work of the volunteers at the ticket desk, the bookstands, and the coffee-and-sandwich stall. Their kindness and their pleasure in the panel added immensely to the evening. The technical crew unobtrusively combated technical hitches – and then sprinted to ready the room for the next day’s events.
The Empty Chair and it’s ensuing explanation by President of PEN and author Charles Foran began the night on a reflective note. The atmosphere soon became lighthearted and jovial as Charlotte Gray, a biographer herself, asked a variety of interesting and deeply thought provoking questions.
Carol Bishop-Gwyn, author of the compelling biography The Pursuit of Perfection: A Life of Celia Franca, discussed how her biography may not have been published were Celia still alive, describing Celia as “difficult” when the project was being worked on before her death in 2007. But both Carol and Charles Foran, author of Mordecai: The Life and Times agree that their subjects had certainly wanted nothing more than to have their lives commemorated in some way. Both Franca and Richler left every note, letter, and scrap of detritus to the archives. Bishop-Gwyn emphasized that these personal letters and private diaries were how she discovered Franca’s voice in her writing, that connection that allows biographer to briefly understand their subject on a level that is not merely academic.
Gray raised and very interesting question about Franca and Richler feeling like outsiders as Jewish-Canadians; Franca facing anti-Semitism in Toronto decided to turn away from Judaism completely and certainly did feel like an outsider because of her “dark, sultry, Eastern atmosphere” said Bishop-Gwyn. Mordecai Richler however, as Foran tells it, internalized every aspect of the Torah and his faith and argued against it. However, Richler was an outsider in literature circles because he was “anti-everything”, said Foran. Foran goes on to say that Richler was one of many Diaspora writers in post-war North America working to bludgeon in their own mark. Foran describes them as “forcing themselves upon mainstream North America... they were the New World, and they were coming at you.”
Which is certainly something done successfully by Richler who has more than left his mark on Canadian literature. It is the humanity of the subject that shapes a biography. These surprises often fall into place when writing biography such as the 2,400 word letter that is at the heart of Foran’s book. He was only able to gain access when the restriction was lifted on it in the archives for a few days by Richler’s widow, Florence. This letter from Richler to his mother is one that ends their relationship and he makes it clear that they will never speak again. Foran describes it as “sorrowful, furious, indignant, regretful, unapologetic,” filled with a vast range of emotions but still eloquent and remarkably written.
Bishop-Gwyn’s moment of surprise and the thing which truly represents Franca's humanity was a short, pencil written, diary-like entry written around the time when she was being pushed out of the National Ballet, it becomes almost suicidal, Franca wondering what she will do now, commenting on how her husband does not love her. This woman who was the epitome of composure puts aside her mask for a moment and becomes a very vulnerable, scared woman. While these two moments in the biographies are very different from one another, they have similar impact: the reader and biographer are given a glimpse into the personal lives of a cultural icon.
As Foran said early on in the night, he does not say anything about being the authoritative source on the life of Mordecai Richler, but what he is trying to do, and what Bishop-Gwyn agrees she strives for as well, is the tactile experience of a life. Certainly the biographies achieve this experience, but the event itself gave one the sense that their subjects were manifest in the lives of the biographers, and this allowed them to portray with integrity who they were as they saw it.
With his head and hands planted delicately on the stage, legs dangling above him, Ian Keteku imagined aloud to his audience a world viewed differently: “I wonder if stars in the sky ever wish on a shooting human Or what butterflies get in their stomach when they are scared?”
Dubbed fittingly as “yogatry” - a combination of yoga and poetry - Keteku performed Right Side Up , one of three original poems that the audience in attendance had the pleasure of absorbing from the spoken word artist at the auditorium of Knox Presbyterian Church.
This event was equally enlightening and light-hearted in showcasing a burgeoning artform and the acclaimed talents of Keteku, a local artist whose relentless passion in mashing together wit, words, and syncopated cadences have made him one of the most well respected orators in the genre.
Keteku acknowledged that although writing was not an outlet that had come natural to him, it was an outlet in which he had always gravitated towards to express himself, and a skill that he started to hone at an early age. As a child, his parents had assigned him to write essays summarizing what he watched on television(!). Later embracing the hip-hop scene and Emcee Battles where lyrical artists attempt to superimpose themselves against their opponents - an arena that Keteku described as “a lot of fun” - hip-hop provided a backdrop for Keteku to pursue slam poetry. It is a forum that greatly resonated with Keteku, and one in which he discovered a true passion.
A Slam is a competition for spoken word poetry. It is a platform, Keteku explained, that allows for “diverse voices” and a “spectrum of experiences” to be shared among people. It draws from a variety of influences in the performing arts and is generally edifying in its intent. Host Kevin Matthews added that what is also unique to Slam is the integral and intimate role that the audience plays in evaluating and judging the performers.
Matthews and Keteku discussed the many arenas of spoken word and the versatility of the medium in finding creative synergy with other formats such as dance, video, and social media. Keteku attributed the broad appeal of spoken word to the three dimensional experience of the audience in hearing, seeing, and feeling the emotion of the performer, which transcends all language, cultural, and demographic differences; it is the human connection.
In a culture where words have been diminished out of misuse and convenience, spoken word “brings back the power of words”, Keteku mused. Matthews also proposed that it is through the vocalization of ideas and human expression that new possibilities can be injected into this world. As a preface to performing his composition, Pick Me , Keteku shared with the audience a conviction and desire to use the power of words in a meaningful way that would give a voice to those in the world who cannot freely speak words of their own.
Spoken word is an oral tradition that has been deeply woven throughout the history of human culture. Through Slam and a wide variety of media, spoken word has grown out of the perception that poetry is not and should not be merely an antiquated or exotic form of literature whose enjoyment is limited to small nibbles in the classroom. Rather it can be a vibrant and relevant form of art that can provoke critical commentary on social issues, and even arouse lamentations for old technological flames passed by, as Keteku demonstrated to the audience with Laptop Love .
As the event wrapped up, there was a sense of excitement rippling through the crowd, which ranged in age from grade six students to an audience member who was on the verge of turning eighty years old, as they left to digest the words and riveting performance of Keteku who provided inspiration for us to explore the creative possibilities of using the bits and rudders of our words to speak truth and value into this world and into each other’s lives.
In the peaceful atmosphere of the Knox Presbyterian Church, conversations of violence are usually not for the faint of heart, nor a laughing matter. However, perhaps divine interventions played a role in gathering three of Canada's most gifted storytellers and an willing audience to partake in an intimate conversation about the acts of violence. The irony redolent is perhaps that the evening took place in the comfort of a church where the issue of violence could be talked about in a light but thoughtful manner. The three authors, Yejide Kilanko, Lauren B. Davis and Linden McIntyre each read a passage from their respective books which did not introduce us to the protagonists as individuals, but rather as human beings experiencing the consequences of being violated. It was not about who they were personally, but rather about how they can come to a place of understanding of these personal violations, and how they can become better individuals from it; ultimately stopping the cycle. The passages evoked the same emotions felt by individuals despite the differences.
"What do they (the protagonists) want and why do they want it?", inquired CBC anchor Adrian Harewood to the three storytellers about the protagonists of their respective books. For Yejide Klianko, author of the Daughters Who Walk This Path , it is about acceptance and understanding. "She wants to know why she violated in that way", referring to her character Mayaro, dealing with the after-effects of being raped by a male relative to which she later added, "Sometimes the bad things that happen to us don't make sense".
For Lauren B.Davis' protagonist Albert Erskine, in her latest work Our Daily Bread , Erskine wants the protection to be good and noble. She explains, "Does he become the abusers like those before him or the protector of his brothers and sisters from the self-same abuse he himself went through?" For Effie Gillis, the protagonist of Linden McIntyre's Why Men Lie , it is stable intimacy with integrity, along with companionship.
While acts of sexual abuse are obviously considered violence, seeing the betrayal of trust and damaged relationships as acts of violence through Effie's relationships with men is certainly an eye-opener. To see infidelity and mistrust between men and women's intimate relationships as an violent act opened new possibilities of defining violence. However, during the conversation, it became quite clear McIntyre's Effie and her own struggle with betrayal at the hands of men is not much different from the rape of Mayaro or the child abuse of Albert. "The consequences of violence," as McIntyre pointed out, "migrate in time and space." One prominent consequence of violence that is prevalent in the three books is the inter-generational cycle of silence. Kilianko emphasized the act of silence is inter-generational and that women reinforce this powerlessness in order to keep peace in the home.
The three books examined the prevalence of male potency of power, to which Harewood asked, “Why are they (the men in the novels) so obsessed with power?” Ideas of power as control and driven by impulse were echoed in the sentiments of the authors in the stories of their protagonists, however it was Davis who pointed out that, in these acts of violence, “there is no true power (the power that takes place in the three books), rather that it is the misuse and misconception of power that makes it obsessive”. Indeed, while there is a sense of power that is misconstrued and misused in the novels, the protagonists themselves seem to be on a quest themselves for some type of power-relationship. Their own longing for meaning, perhaps?
As we came towards the end of the conversation, the Q&A session dug deeper into why cycles of violence and silence become inter-generational. “Shame does not only belong to the victim, it also belongs to the family”, as Kilanko suggest, “If the silence continues, there is the belief that it will go away”. These cycles of silence present in these books, if not broken, become what Davis called the secrets that become the beast under the bed . There was no one particular highlight from the night because it was simply an educated conversation about human experiences with violence that was beneficial for all. However, I don’t know which was better, Lauren B. Davis admitting that she writes about the stuff that bug or obssess her or the fact that Linden McIntyre proclaimed that he always wanted to take a break from writing dull, boring journalism to write about "outrageous sex."
Listening to this conversation, one realizes that there are no "permanent" solutions or answers to questions of power relations or why acts of violence occur. There is only understanding, which is the opposite of perplexity. No matter how much we may know, as Linden McIntrye pointed out, “we are always unprepared for the majority of our lives, there is always something we don’t know”. We who gathered in the Knox Prebyterian Church on Thursday night learned a unfamiliar definition for the term violence through the presence of these three authors. The questions were asked and now it is our job to find those answers of understanding by digging deeper into the stories of these protagonists.
“Through the course of my happy six years there,” began Richard Stursberg, former head of English Services at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, “I was variously described as bad man, a sociopath, a spineless rat, and, on a number of occasions, even recently - a sort of mass murderer.” His book, The Tower of Babble: Sins, Secrets and Successes Inside the CBC , is a memoir of his tumultuous six-year ride at the helm of “English Canada’s greatest cultural institution”.
Tonight, Stursberg at first glance certainly appears to be an “amiable fellow”, to borrow the words of Rob Russo, the evening’s host and Ottawa bureau chief of the Canadian press. He wears glasses and looks a bit like an uncle, if your uncle were the type to wear tailored suit pants with a sheen. It’s a rainy evening at Knox Presbyterian Church on Elgin, and the audience laughs easily when Stursberg, in a funny, staccato voice, recounts a comparison between himself and his successor, Kirstine Stewart, “she may seem milder than Richard,” he recounts part of an article in Toronto Life Magazine, “but then Khrushchev looked better after Stalin.” Stursberg smiles, “I thought it was a little bit tough to be compared to one of the great mass murderers of the twentieth century for the sin of wanting to make television shows that Canadians might actually want to watch.”
Dictator-themed jabs aside, Stursberg is clearly proud of his time spent at the CBC. Knowing what he knows now, would he take the job over again? Absolutely. Would he do anything differently? Perhaps one thing. “Faster, further.” he says with reference to the changes made to Radio 2’s musical offerings.
Stursberg is direct and intense. Even when friendly, his posture and inflection betray a fierce negotiator. What’s more, he deflects criticism with humour, and, while entertaining, it’s a sure-fire way to raise the ire of people who don’t share his views. It’s clear, however, that his fierceness is channelled in many ways. Taken at his word, he is fiercely passionate about the CBC and its role as a public broadcaster. When the question of the CBC’s mandate is broached, he is fiercely opinionated. Direct approval from the Canadian public, he argues, is not only the ultimate litmus test of the public broadcaster’s success, but it was and is overwhelmingly good for business and for morale within the Corporation.
And so the debate opens. Mandate and ratings. Internal culture at the CBC and ‘the outside’. Cultural distinction and popularity. Are these pairings destined to be at odds? Stursberg says simply no.
The ‘capital M Mandate” of the CBC that Stursberg recalls encountering in 2004 was in his view misguided, sporadic in its successes, and fundamentally disconnected from the public the Corporation was meant to serve. It had to be left on the cutting room floor. The Stursberg regime saw the introduction of a holy trinity of worthiness. Programs had to be culturally relevant, distinctly our own, and, mostly importantly, consistently bring in ratings. “The root of the entire strategy,” he said, was to provide an as yet unprecedented “sustained push” in the development of quality Canadian television; a marriage of popularity and quality.
There was much resistance, there were “great flops”, but there were also resounding successes. Unprecedented numbers of Canadians tuned into CBC television and radio, and are tuning in still. Ask Stursberg and he’ll tell you that CBC is enjoying its golden age. Radio and television are promoting one another, programs are not only popular, but they are smart and distinctly Canadian. There is no compromise between numbers success and quality. The two are mutually reinforcing. On the April 22nd airing of Michael Enright’s The Sunday Edition, Stursberg defended television and his quest for a revision of the old CBC mandate, “We should respect television. We should admire it for what it is. It’s an entertainment medium. This is the greatest popular medium that there is.”
So what’s next for the CBC? At the height of the success Stursberg describes, it has faced more budget cuts. A poor reward and a confusing message. Its future ought to be secured by a different funding system, he suggests. Out with arbitrary budgets and in with surveys of Canadians to define its role clearly and thus determine an appropriate allocation of funds.
As Stursberg’s talk comes to an end, he speaks with a warm intensity. He champions the CBC. "No organization does what the CBC does." "No one offers this quality of prime-time Canadian television, no one does CBC radio talk, no one offers CBC news coverage, no one provides such a varied portal to the arts, no one does Hockey Night in Canada." Like it's erstwhile executive, the CBC’s uniqueness is its armour. So long as the CBC’s content is unparalleled, there will always be a place for the public broadcaster.
“Something must be wrong about me if so many Jews like my work!” quipped Sayed Kashua, with a tinge of shy mischief, as he was in conversation with Kate Heartfield of the Ottawa Citizen. Kashua is the author of 3 well-received books, the latest of which, Second Person Singular, has recently been translated into English. He is also a screenwriter whose TV show Arab Labor (transliterated as Avoda Aravit in Hebrew) the title being an appropriation of the disparaging term for “shoddy work” in the Israeli vernacular, is now in its third season since debuting in 2007. Its distinction is that it is the first sitcom in Israel to feature an Israeli-Arab/Palestinian citizen of Israel as the protagonist. And so it was with the first episode from the third season of this irreverently observed comedy of manners and station, the afternoon at the Mayfair began.
The ice being broken, Kashua took the stage to discuss aspects of being an artist who enjoys varied success as a columnist, screen-playwright and author in a nation with which his relationship could best be described as ambivalent. Embodying the voice of the minority has long been the calling of writers in the Jewish diaspora, whose ‘otherness’ often fuelled an incandescent emission of literary energy. From the haunting, lyrical visions of Bruno Schulz to today’s sardonic bite of Howard Jacobson, Jewish writers often communicated insight in the subtle, subversive manner which is the hallmark of all great writers; minority or otherwise. Kashua firmly placed himself within this tradition, whilst simultaneously pulling for a solitary grimness in the reality of the Palestinian minority. Writing primarily in Hebrew, which Kashua considers his first language, draws one to make the not-so-grasping parallel to Maimonides who wrote much of his work in Arabic with the Hebrew script. Attending on scholarship at the Arts and Science Academy and later the Hebrew University – both in Jerusalem, Kashua admitted the difficulty of being immersed in a world solely in Hebrew, yet the process opening literary doors to authors (many who happened to be Jewish) such as J.D. Salinger, Saul Bellow and Franz Kafka.
Using the language of the majority inevitably lends on to charges of going native: receiving Jewish praise may result en revanche in Arab criticism. He blithely observes that Amjad, the protagonist in Arab Labor, doesn’t even have to be successful to invite criticism. This unenviable place is a lonely one. More so than ardently wishing to convey the world of one’s belonging, there is also the fearful self-doubt of the artist who must wonder if acclamation is the fruition of being great or merely being “exotic”. How else to explain something like V.S. Naipaul’s bold yet vulnerable boast that “...in 1954 he began to write, and since then has pursued no other profession.”? When Heartfield asked Kashua if he saw any parallels between himself and other “minority” writers such as Canada’s Mordecai Richler, he spoke of how much of his favourite writings have come from these very writers. Kashua has been called “the most Jewish of Israeli writers”, his response being that perhaps being the majority in Israel has left its Jewish populace bereft of its once indispensable gaiety.
It is rather remarkable that the ever-active cultural arm of the Israeli Embassy in Ottawa, would choose someone who doesn’t share the basic raison d’être of the state, as its ambassador. Kashua joked that a picture taken next to the embassy’s banner might “destroy one year of (goodwill) work” with the Palestinian population.
The theme of loneliness and jealousy run thick in the narrative of Second Person Singular: the title itself an accidental arrival at the theme of the angst Kashua wishes to convey. Despite his many successes and his relative youth (Kashua is 37), the borderlands he straddles will perhaps only self-inspire rather than offer clarity. However, in his portrayal of inter-ethnic interaction, there is hope that the erosion of prejudice is advancing; albeit slowly.