I could scarce believe that Anita Desai, that enduring titan of letters, would be in Ottawa. I wasn’t alone; festival founder Neil Wilson confessed to being jittery about whether Desai—roped in from Montreal where she was in attendance as the Blue Met Grand Prix laureate—would actually arrive and speak to us. She was a tender presence, and her soft register as she read a selection from her novella
The Artist of Disappearance,
transported me to my childhood in India where my Malayalee patti (Tamil for grandmother) whispered stories as I fell asleep.
I’ve never read any of Desai’s books (a situation I’m bent on remedying immediately), but when my fiction book club was in its early, amorphous days six years ago, one of our books was Kiran Desai’s (Anita Desai’s daughter)
The Inheritance of Loss,
winner of the Man Booker Prize in 2006. Its prose was so beguiling and self-assured that Desai the younger seemed immediately to join the ranks of bright young stars such as Zadie Smith, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Monica Ali. Within our intimate group of four, The Inheritance of Loss opened up new avenues of vulnerability and friendship and indelibly convinced me that a reading life without fiction is a thoroughly impoverished one. It formed part of my own early journey of falling in love with and discovering literature like a rustic Danish diner sampling Babette’s feast.
So I came to the evening thinking, “I wonder what Kiran’s mother is like.”
Peter Schneider of the Canada Council for the Arts, was our mediator. Schneider did a stand-up job with David Mitchell last fall, and his steady demeanour exudes both his mirth and moral seriousness towards literature, reminiscent of the respected critic James Wood. Even as they began after Desai’s brief reading tapered off, the first thing that struck me was their mutual self-restraint and maturity: it added a certain elegant dignity that only comes with time and apprenticeship to reading and writing.
You could sense this self-restraint and maturity in Desai’s confession that she hardly reads her earlier work. She described how she found her voice in Fire on the Mountain and this development was her true starting point. I could hear the inbreathed sighs from the audience at this display of humility. Desai mentioned how she was aware of a community of established Indian writers in mid-twentienth century, post-colonial India. These included luminaries such as R.K. Narayan, Mulk Raj Anand and N.C. Chaudhri. Yet, Indian publishers were not keen to give a young Indian writer a chance, preferring the stable sales of textbooks and established writers, usually from Great Britain and America.
Desai would say, “We didn’t have writers festivals, and one rarely met other writers.” But there was a rare exception - a neighbour in Old Delhi, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (as trivia would have it, the only person to have won both a Booker and an Oscar). Jhabvala was a German who had married an Indian architect, and Desai had a German mother, so it was their shared roots that drew them to each other. Desai recalls, “We discovered that we both wrote, and I remember Ruth putting her first published novel [To Whom She Will] in my hands, and I thought…it would be possible.”
Desai also gave credit to younger writers such as Salman Rushdie (she wrote the foreword in the Everyman edition to Midnight’s Children) and the brilliant observations of her peer, V.S. Naipaul in his Indian trilogy. In many ways, a colonial heritage has now become wholly adopted to Indian ends, as English is as Indian a language as any.
One of the special highlights of the evening was to hear Desai speak with tenderness towards her daughter Kiran, whose The Inheritance of Loss she termed “a profound book.” Desai also mentioned working for the inimitable Robert Silvers of the New York Review of Books, where Desai had been penning essays since the early 1990s.
There’s only so much a meagre review like this can capture and convey. But I know many years later I’ll recall with special fondness the evening where I sat and gave my attention to this thoughtful, warm woman whose “lifetime of habit” will be one that will endure.
“Do you think there's any truth to the idea that a writer tends to revisit the same question again and again in all their stories?” host Rhonda Douglas asked the featured authors on Monday night's fiction panel, "What You Want". It's an idea I'd heard before, and one that Lori McNulty, Elise Levine and Karen Connelly seemed largely to reject in their responses. How vaguely would one have to define a central question for that rule to hold, after all?
The thought stayed with me, though, in thinking about the three featured books: though apparently divergent in terms of subject matter and tone, there was a certain hard-to-place common ground that let them fit meaningfully alongside one another.
I was excited to hear Lori McNulty's reading. Her short stories selected for The Journey Prize Stories in recent years have been wonderful, and my hopes were high. I wasn't disappointed. McNulty's stage presence was self-effacing and warm. She opened by asking her listeners to share thoughts on places they loved to travel, before explaining that writing was, for her, the activity that came closest to the freedom of travelling.
McNulty then read an excerpt from one of the short stories in her debut collection, Life on Mars, introducing a man who, once a week, and unbeknownst to his family, dons a disguise and panhandles among the poorer downtown residents of his city. The colour of McNulty's writing, along with her compassionate, unsentimental portrayal of oddballs and outcasts, translated vividly to a live reading.
Quite a bit darker in tone was Elise Levine's reading from her most recent novel, Blue Field. The scenes she read, following two scuba divers and soon-to-be-lovers, were as dream-like as they were intense. Though it's possible it was the title's power of suggestion, I had the impression of seeing the scenes (one underwater, the next in a motel bedroom) as if through a blue-green filter – a hypnotic and oddly sinister effect.
Levine later explained that an early draft of this novel was over 600 pages long. Now, in its published form, it's quite a slender volume. Whatever distillation process she used to get to the final product, it has left her with highly concentrated, high-impact imagery demanding slow, thoughtful digestion.
The evening took another turn, tonally speaking, with Karen Connelly's reading from her new novel, The Change Room, which deals with a married woman having an affair with a female sex worker she first meets at a swimming pool. Before reading, Connelly told us there was a significant element of fantasy-fulfillment in this novel, and that the protagonist was like her in a lot of ways. I was surprised to hear her say so as readers' tendency to imagine any equivalence between author and protagonist usually seems to frustrate writers. Connelly apparently had no issue with it, in this case.
Marital infidelity aside, The Change Room is no Anna Karenina. While host Rhonda Douglas had warned the audience this was a sexy piece of writing, I didn't realize the reading would have most of the audience laughing out loud. Connelly later pitched her book as being “as consumable as a cinnamon bun,” and let us know that it was something she'd started writing mainly to make herself happy.
More than once during the discussion following the reading, the panel addressed the fact that the three featured books didn't necessarily have a lot of obvious overlap. One recurrent theme Douglas proposed was that each story dealt with moments of irrevocable character transformation – moments after which “nothing would ever be the same.” While it's undoubtedly true, it struck me that this could be said of almost all stories published, and that, for many writers and their readers, this more or less determines whether a story is worth telling. Regardless, the differences between the books weren't jarring, in my opinion – and perhaps even more could have been made of all three authors' command of evocative and poetic language, a shared feature that definitely stood out during the readings.
Perhaps the most memorable moment of the evening came when Rhonda Douglas asked the panel to share their thoughts on writing about sex. Following Connelly's enthusiastic response and Levine's thoughtful take on using sex scenes to manifest characters' deeper conflicts, Lori McNulty confessed to feeling a bit awkward talking about the subject on a live panel, and joked that she wished she'd had some wine first. Moments later, festival artistic director Sean Wilson bounded up to the stage with a glass of wine, leading her to remark, above the audience's laughter, “This is why I come to Ottawa!”
Jan Andrews’s performance on Saturday was divided into two parts, the first being a short story, “Seal Skin”, from Sarah Maitland’s collection Angel Maker, and the second part being largely autobiographical. Coming from a theatre background, I was expecting more visual cues and physicality, perhaps a little movement, some audio or lighting cues, an acting out of a memory or experience. Initially, I have to admit, I was disappointed, but then soon adapted to the simplicity of stories being shared solely through spoken words. Andrews’s performance definitely provoked a desire to shut my eyes and just listen.
“Seal Skin” was a fictional, parable-like story of gender exploration and identity. It slowly drew the audience into a created world and into the mind of someone experiencing the limitations of their own body. Brilliantly presented as someone not only transforming their gender, but also becoming a seal (or at least that’s what I understood), it captured my imagination quite vividly. The language was poetic, all the while presented in a soothing manner Andrews. Explicitly sexual and very intimate content not usually shared aloud in a public setting quickly quieted the minds of those listening so as to hang on every word spoken. “The fear is pleasing and desire.” The switching of pronouns for the primary character from “he” to “she”, and then back again to “he” by its conclusion, was smooth and poignant. This transition was accepted with ease, without having any visuals to confirm or deny what was being communicated. This is the power of storytelling at work. “Later, he does not know if he is a man.”
The use of this short story before hearing Andrews’s story was an inventive way to warm the audience up to the relatable themes, and to better understand the nuanced and complex details of Andrews’s own journey. The honesty and vulnerability in which she took us back in time into “the secret reaches of the night” to share with us personal desires, thoughts, fears, and memories, made it easy to empathize and appreciate what was shared even more.
Andrews has a knack for rhythm, and both the personal narrative and the short story seemed to have a similar flow and certainly blended well together. The consistent use of repetition and alliteration throughout heightened my enjoyment of listening. Andrews’s use of imagery and specific examples from her youth captured a feeling that otherwise would be difficult to explain. She often repeated the phrase “safe and settled” throughout, but almost to communicate the opposite feeling. Gender questioning seemed to be a repeating theme of Andrews’s personal story, but it was not presented in a cerebral or academic way. Rather, it was accessible for anyone of any gender, with the definition of being one gender captured well by the line “It meant doing those things and enjoying them.”
The ending of the performance remained rather open ended, which I liked, not neatly wrapping up with an answer or conclusion, but rather posing more questions, honestly sharing a search for identity and gender and wondering how things would be different from a different generation, a different time and place, and with different knowledge, opportunities, and experiences. Andrews concluded, quite appropriately, “I am not a literary construct,” but rather a real person and a work in progress, like all of us. It was a refreshing perspective and a story bravely told.
This was my first time at the Writers Festival and one of the most striking features was the audience, keenly waiting for Jay Ingram. As I was speaking to a fellow member we discussed that there were people of all ages present. I believe this observation speaks for his book, The Science of Why, as it was written with everyone in mind. The way the conversation weaved into place during the event, the message that science communication should be made for the audience resonated. What does the audience want to know? Clearly, we want to know why?
Jay brought forth the story of Newton’s apple and his discovery of gravity. Though he expressed that an apple falling from the tree could not have simply inspired Newton to come up with the theory of gravity but rather the story of the apple was Newton’s gift of explaining a complex grandeur phenomena using a simple analogy that everyone could relate to. Jay shared that science communication should strive for just that, making science understandable so that the everyday person can appreciate and find importance in complex ideas, theories and evidence.
The value of scientists learning to communicate is so important as there is a demand for evidence based change in all realms of life. This demand is rooted in beliefs and emotion. Though many people may not pair science with emotion together, however, Jay explained that science communication must move in this direction. Emotion brings forth change however when stances and beliefs are strong, evidence becomes weaker or unimportant and may contribute to further polarization as he referred to the example of climate change. So, the challenge for us, as the public, is how can we change this? The way to start is to teach how scientists (and even science enthusiasts) to communicate the evidence to the public. The need to change the language to ensue passion so it can bring awareness. "Science is the root to being more aware," Jay says.
This book and what Jay conversed is about awareness. Awareness about the questions we always ask ourselves and never pursue to answer. Most of these questions ultimately start with why. Referring to Newton once more, where he morphed gravity into a simple analogy involving an apple to explain it, The Science of Why, does the same. Evoking emotion (in this case happiness and humour), while explaining the evidence in a simple yet elegant way for everyone to enjoy and later share with their family and friends.
“Everybody dies. Life is not a substance, like water or rock; it’s a process, like fire or a wave crashing on the shore. It’s a process that begins, lasts for a while, and ultimately ends. Long or short, our moments are brief against the expanse of eternity.”
This, as Sean Carroll will tell us, is a key part of “The Big Picture.” The fact that everyone dies may seem obvious to even the most casual student of the school of life; however, there is much more to this story. How did it all start? How can consciousness be explained? How do we as humans construct meaning in the cosmos? What is the nature of the wider universe?
On Saturday, April 29, 2017 a full house at Christ Church Cathedral gathered to listen to theoretical physicist Sean Carroll talk about the story of the universe and suggest scientific frameworks for contemplating the meaning of life. He began his talk with the tongue in cheek admission that despite the title of his book he was not quite able to tell us the meaning of life and how the universe began.
Having set a light hearted and accessible tone for his talk, Carroll went on to provide the audience with an intellectual tour of some of the theories of physics which can be used to attempt to explain the key forces at play in the universe and why we experience the arrow of time as moving forward. He touched on the big bang theory, quantum field theory and the differences between entropy and complexity.
One of the threads woven through Carroll’s lecture was the recognition that scientific knowledge is never perfect. He argued that despite this limitation science offers unparalleled tools for observing evidence and considering the big picture. By taking the audience down a scientific path we journeyed to a place of awe at the vastness and complexity of the universe. Life is not a miracle, Carroll says, but it is elegant and complex. Near the end of his talk he shared an image from the Hubble Telescope which allows us to peer deep into space. The image drove home the fact that humans are indeed minute in the vast cosmos.
Our lives are short. As Carroll eloquently states in his book “a person is a diminutive, ephemeral thing” — and yet, humans used their imaginations to conceive of the Hubble Telescope. In human terms we can imagine, we can care, we can have something to show for our lives as entropy increases around us and our moment in time passes. Ultimately, Carroll invites us to a conversation and provides his audience with a deeper understanding of physics and the good news that in the big picture the finitude of life lends poignancy to the human condition.
Plan 99 co-founder David O’Meara introduced the festival’s poetry showcase at The Manx Pub with a tongue-in-cheek warning about the potential raucous ahead: situated below and between several sports bars — and on a playoff game night, no less — the readings might very well be interrupted by the shouts and cheers of an audience other than their own. (And they were). Normally, one might be tempted to extract a trite and lazy metaphor from the scene — something about poets being consigned to the cultural margins by those who, like the speaker of Cassidy McFadzean’s “I’ll Be the Skipper, You Be the Sea,” only ever want to know “What is a poem for?” But the interruptions from above were curiously apropos for the likes of McFadzean, Aisha Sasha John, and Kevin Connolly: a disparate group of Canadian poets whose latest works are threaded together by a mutual appreciation for the uneventful, the fragmentary, and the anti-epiphanic.
Sharing excerpts from her award-winning debut Hacker Packer, a title which conjures images of drunken scrapbooking and haphazard collage, McFadzean led her audience through a labyrinth of museums, myths, and surrealist landscapes, where the material and temporal boundaries between antiquities and their observers are magnificently distorted. For all the temples and tombstones, however, the speakers’ odysseys never seem to offer a final catharsis. “[W]e crawled inside [the Temple of Apollo], expecting to unearth / some prophesies,” the speaker of “The Charioteer” admits; instead, “We breathed in the ethelyne, / then left in a trance with dirt on our knees.” The poet, in this case, is no oracle or diviner, but a frustrated, iPhone-wielding scavenger of surface and symbol, who can “barely [make] it up Mount Parnassus / without stopping to pee next to some cows.” McFadzean’s poems were challenging to parse in the oral format, and even more difficult to speak: the poet herself had to pause for sips of beer after long, plosive-laden strings of Greek and Latinate syllables. But, like the tapestry described in “Large Leaf Verdure with Animals and Birds,” the fact that the poems “[lack] a focal point upon which to rest the eyes” — or ears — make them no less gorgeous an achievement.
Poet/choreographer/visual artist/ all-around “multi-disciplinarian” Aisha Sasha John followed McFadzean with fragments from I have to live., a collection teeming with non-sequitur, misremembered conversation, and human excretion. After anointing the floor in an offering to her ancestors, John launched into observations of the myriad ways in which human bodies stumble over themselves in their confused pursuits of existential cohesion. “Chicken/egg,” thinks the speaker of “Hi.,” before realizing that she “need[s] to take a dump.” Questions such as “Who are people? Who are anybody?” become hopelessly entangled with concerns about breakfast choices and the minutia of English grammar, leading only to the muted confession: “I’m scared.” Elsewhere, markers of identity and inheritance give way to a panicked and playful interrogation of the “line[s]” — be they narrative or spatial, geopolitical or social — that trip up diasporic subjectivities at the same time as they offer an “index,” an “idea of direction.” John’s ambivalent relationship with linearity was evident even at the level of poetic sequence. For the first time in recent memory, she decided to write the poems down for herself in the order in which she would read them. The result? “It feels. . .funky.” But no matter. Therein lies the joy of I have to live.: Doing it again and doing it differently. And if we make mistakes. . . well, as John queried in her first piece of the evening, “Who gives a f*ck?”
For Kevin Connolly, the final reader of the showcase (and perhaps the best known), determining what does and doesn’t matter over the course of a life seems precisely as arbitary and painstaking as determining what to include in a poetry collection, and what to leave out. Setting aside some lazy periods in Connolly’s career, when he considered publishing a book composed “entirely of titles,” Xiphoid Process is the culmination of nine years of writing, scrapping, and reconceiving an extensive archive of the poet’s material. Indeed, the way Connolly reads from his collection makes it sound as if it were unearthed from a dusty, disorganized box in the bowels of a local library. In one piece, a late-career Judd Nelson begs into the void of a film exec’s voicemail to be given his call-time. In another, Connolly dictates from the Point Reyes police blotter, where citizens’ news items range from the banal, to the heartbreaking, to the absurd. The most telling detail from Connolly’s reading, though, and perhaps the key to this year’s Plan 99 showcase, did not come from his book at all; rather, it was the moment when he recalled the meandering and nonsensical way in which his personal library first took shape. Living in the small town of Maple, Ontario, the majority of his book buying took place not in a Chapters or a well-curated independent bookstore, but among the detritus of church rummage sales:
“I would read The Count of Monte Cristo and then a book about UFOs,” he laughed. “All this stuff is in your head, and it is all equally a part of who you are as a person.”
It was a happy and social crowd that convened at Christ Church Cathedral on Sunday afternoon. It was not an atmosphere one might expect at a reading concerned with the conflict in Israeli-occupied Palestine, but negativity was not going to be the theme in that room. As people filed in, Samah Sabawi and Stephen Orlov, the two playwrights who were editors and contributors for the book in focus; “Double Exposure: Plays of the Jewish and Palestinian Diasporas” mingled with the crowd, sharing hugs and handshakes. After anyone settled and the perfunctory introductions were made, the event host Arthur Milner; also a contributor to the book, stood at center stage rather than behind the podium to make his preamble, personable and up-front, setting the tone to what was already off to a very good start.
First up was a reading of Samah’s play “Tales of a City by the Sea”, featuring a passage wherein the two main characters; an engaged couple named Gomana and Rami debate whether they should stay in the conflict-riddled Gaza Strip where Gomana has grown up or leave for the safety of the United States which Rami calls home. The passage, although read by the actors from sheets of paper in their hands, was ripe with the conflict of loyalty to heritage versus self-preservation. Next, Samah and Stephen themselves read through a passage from Stephen’s play “Sperm Count”. It was exquisite to watch Samah, the Palestinian portray the Jewish woman asking for a controversial new treatment that may help her become pregnant, and Stephen, the Jewish man portraying the Palestinian doctor who is refusing it. It really solidified the whole spirit of the event.
Next the panel discussed the impetus of the project. Stephen told the audience that it was the first time Palestinian and Jewish playwrights have collaborated on a project such as this to address the conflicts happening in the Middle East. Samah added that it was wonderful to connect with Stephen through the internet, although it took some time for Stephen to catch up with the new technologies, a comment that drew some hearty laughter from the crowd. They discussed the use of diaspora playwrights in the anthology to give voices to the Palestinians who cannot return to the country that has opened its arms to another ethnic group and made it their homeland. They also illustrated the fact that those who had left the Middle East had a more worldly and subjective view on the conflict. As Stephen so eloquently put it, diaspora artists had a “diverse prism” through which to project the conflict, one that would be helpful in finding ways to create peace after years of destruction.
The panel was then asked to recount the difficulties they had with presenting their plays in an atmosphere that has been so sensitive to the subject. Both playwrights could say with confidence that the dissent they endured came only from uneducated prejudice, from people that never even bothered to see the plays. With all the controversy surrounding the topic however, Samah and Stephen were proud to explain that reception for the project has been enthusiastic. They told the audience of the positive atmosphere they encountered at a similar reading in New York, how attitudes are changing, welcoming dialogues to start and ideas to flow on how to bring about positive change. Given the open camaraderie on the stage, and the open appreciation from the crowd, it looked like they were all headed in the right direction and the message of positive collaboration was being heard loud and clear.
In the aftermath of Pierre Laporte's murder during the 1972 October Crisis, a CBC producer had the inspired idea to invite author W.O. Mitchell to address the nation on television. As Douglas Gibson points out in his presentation 150 Years of Great Canadian Storytellers, Mitchell opened his address with the words, “There's been a death in my family.” It's a message of unity that helped heal a nation reeling from the threat of violent fragmentation. Meanwhile, as we find out later in Gibson's presentation, the one man both Pierre Trudeau and Paul Rose would trust with the task of negotiating the FLQ's surrender proved to be acerbic Quebecois novelist Jacques Ferron.
It's hard to think of a more striking example of novelists taking a central role in Canadian politics and history. In the context of Gibson's presentation, however, the story comes across as almost inevitable: the richness of life in Canada, his two-hour multi-media presentation implies, has always depended on the participation of our greatest storytellers.
Douglas Gibson's enthusiasm for Canadian literature is contagious. Armed with a binder of typed notes and bedecked in his “publisher's uniform” of a navy blazer and striped tie, Gibson, like a university professor delivering his dream lecture, seemed on Saturday to be utterly delighted at the opportunity to talk about the subject he loves best.
This all stands to reason, of course. Canadian literature has been Gibson's life's work. As an editor and publisher, he worked with authors who defined the Canadian literary canon for the past fifty years. Alice Munro, Alistair MacLeod and Robertson Davies are names he speaks with the fondness of friendship as much as the admiration of a devoted reader.
Since retiring from publishing in 2008, Gibson has been at work writing books on his experience of the Canadian literary world, first in Stories about Storytellers: Publishing Alice Munro, Robertson Davies, Alistair MacLeod, Pierre Trudeau, and Others, and more recently in Across Canada by Story: A Coast-to-Coast Literary Adventure. Instead of simply reading excerpts from his books in promoting them, Gibson has opted to craft multi-media stage presentations he can take on the road.
It's the right choice. Not only is Gibson an engaging, personable storyteller, but the multi-media format lets him re-imagine his books' content in light of the demands of public presentation – a liberty I wish more authors felt free to take.
His most recent “show,” 150 Years of Great Canadian Storytellers, takes on the ambitious task of presenting a highlight reel of the major Canadian authors who've written fiction since Confederation. “It's an arrogant thing to do,” Gibson admitted in his first minutes on stage. To curate a list of Canadian authors (English, French and Indigenous), particularly one condensed enough to explore over the course of two hours, makes exclusion and omission a feature of the presentation.
That being said, throughout most of the two hours, what struck me most was, delightfully, Gibson's enthusiasm for literature of all sorts. Limiting himself to two or three writers per decade lets him share (often very personal) stories about each writer, as well as providing some timely cultural context through art, photographs, headlines and music. In Gibson's accounts, Robertson Davies is a man who “looked like God,” while Stephen Leacock's restored cottage gives the visitor a “'Goldilocks feeling' that the owners will return at any moment.
Notably – and refreshingly – Gibson has made a point of centering francophone literature in this English-language presentation: 14 of his roughly 30 featured works were originally written in French. I'd argue there isn't nearly as much cross-pollination as there could be between anglophone and francophone literature in Canada, and it was wonderful to see one of our star bookish taste-makers celebrating our two official literary traditions side by side.
In the midst of this exuberant and jam-packed presentation, the demand for selectivity did make me reflect on how we build literary canons – that process of selection and, inevitably, exclusion. This struck me most in light of Gibson's decision to feature writer Joseph Boyden, whose work and public persona has been the subject of increasing criticism by Indigenous communities over the past year. After praising Boyden's work, Gibson drew attention to this controversy, adding, “Is Joseph Boyden really an Indigenous writer? I don't know – it's not for me to say.” He then followed this with an affirmation of the role of Boyden's work in fostering broader awareness of aboriginal narratives in Canada.
It struck me that it is difficult to acknowledge the impact of Boyden's work without letting the noise of that impact muffle other Indigenous voices. On the one hand, a discussion of 21st century Canadian literature that omitted Boyden's work would likely seem ahistorical. On the other hand, I'm certain many audience members were previously unaware of the criticism Gibson alluded to, and while it's possible they left feeling the need to look into it, it seems equally likely that Gibson's gentle, diplomatic framing of the controversy allayed their concerns rather than arousing them.
In this presentation (as in the prioritizing of one's reading list), including one book means saying “no” to another. The editor's skill of paring the fat from a story is one Gibson has mastered over the course of a long career, but it was moving to see that in conversations about books, he seemed disappointed by the need to leave anything out.
There was a moment at the end of Gibson's presentation when he invited the audience to suggest storytellers he unjustly omitted. It's an excellent idea, and it's a part of the session I was really looking forward to. Sadly, in this case, the session ran out of time before audience could make their suggestions.
Despite this, I was grateful for everything that fit in the allotted time, particularly Gibson's personal stories about writers like Alice Munro. Though it's an account I'd heard before, I loved hearing him recall his conversation with Munro early in her career, when she felt that, since everyone in publishing was telling her she should stop writing short stories and focus on novels, she ought to listen. All of Canada (and the international literary community, no doubt) owes Douglas Gibson a debt of gratitude for telling her, “If everyone is telling you to write a novel, then everyone is wrong.”
Having a champion like Douglas Gibson is an absolute game-changer for an emerging writer. The whole, broad spectrum of Canadian storytellers (and their readers) deserves more of them.
Claire Cameron and Barbara Gowdy inspired knowing smiles, laughter, and a spirit of contemplation in their captivated audience on the festival’s second evening, celebrating women in writing. CBC’s Alan Neal guided a delightfully meandering, dance-like conversation between the two beloved Canadian novelists, whose disparate backgrounds and approaches to their art nonetheless resulted in works that summoned similar questions and themes.
Cameron, best-selling author of The Bear and staff writer at The Millions, instantly endeared us to her with her honesty about her writing struggles and her outspoken admiration for Gowdy, an internationally acclaimed and award-winning novelist and short story writer, whose The White Bone reenergized Cameron’s commitment to her latest novel, The Last Neanderthal, and inspired its opening line. Cameron mused that in a way she sees herself as a “chip off Gowdy’s block.” That sentiment, in fact, became a strong theme of the evening: how are we shaped by our experiences, the people we encounter, and, most mysteriously, those we may never meet? And is this method of self-discovery via ‘other’ perhaps a way of responding to the Delphic maxim, “know thyself,” to which Gowdy made reference?
By nature, we seek belonging, the sense of inclusion a family provides, and so we embrace and cling to the familiar; in the path of discovery, it is necessary to make distinctions, to allow the mind to both separate and unite, and thus it is important to seek out the unfamiliar, as Cameron and Gowdy challenge us to do. In their novels, both women take us to the limits of this possibility, to not just the unfamiliar, but to the never-truly-knowable. Both Cameron and Gowdy write about women who develop a fascination with another woman whom they will never meet. In Cameron’s novel, the object of fascination is a Neanderthal separated by millennia, while Gowdy imagines, in Little Sister, a world where the female protagonist supernaturally enters the body of an unknown woman, whose physical and emotional states she is permitted to share. And when it comes to self-knowledge, as both women reflected, this is all the more necessary. As Cameron spoke for all for us, “It is easier to know someone else. It is hard to be self-aware.” Encounters with others will little by little reveal aspects of ourselves, shape who we are, or directly inform us, if we are but willing to listen and be moved. Gowdy comically illustrated this when she interjected to provide the psychology behind Cameron’s confessed taste for the macabre by suggesting that her relationship with her even-tempered, relaxed, Californian husband liberated her to explore places that perhaps one with a brooding and dark New Yorker could not. Cameron agreed.
Flannery O’Connor, the great short story writer of the 20th century, claimed that “the type of mind that can understand good fiction is not necessarily the educated mind, but it is at all times the kind of mind that is willing to have its sense of mystery deepened by contact with reality, and its sense of reality deepened by contact with mystery.” If this is true, then a fortiori, fiction writers must be willing to do the same. The interplay of reality and mystery is woven into both story lines with a foreign faraway world at the characters’ fingertips, as in Gowdy’s line “the farthest thing you can imagine is closer than you think.” But it was above all a treat to hear about the reality of the authors’ own lives, most notably their fondness for nature and wildlife, and how their daily experiences guided them to ask the bigger questions, such as what it means to be human, what true empathy is, and what the bonds are that unite us. In the end, these celebrated women leave us with an impression of what they personally hold most dear. After recounting pieces of her career and personal life, Gowdy, who enchanted the audience with her regal presence and old-soul wisdom, reflected, “what seems to matter way more now is the people I love,” harmonizing with a line in Cameron’s latest novel, “It is the things that don’t fossilize that matter the most.”
It was a packed house on Friday night to see Heather O’Neill and Mary Walsh at the Christ Church Cathedral—and well worth the short wait in line.
O’Neill, known for her brain-ticklingly gorgeous writing, is a veteran of the Ottawa International Writers Festival and easily warmed up the crowd with a few anecdotes before her reading. (I’m not kidding about the brain-tickling gorgeousness, by the way. If you haven’t read her books yet, fix that immediately.) She noted that her inspiration for writing The Lonely Hearts Hotel came partly from her dad, who was one of nine (!) boys raised in Montreal single-handedly by her grandmother after his father passed away. Since those boys came of age during the Great Depression, “they, naturally, turned to crime.” Her dad was rather talented in the field of crime, as it turned out, and he lamented the fact that he didn’t pursue it as an adult. He had missed his calling, but he did have lots of bedtime stories for O’Neill that were filled with 1930s gangsters. Her novel, which is set mostly between World War I and World War II, is infused with the spirit of those bedtime stories. In fact, she noted that Rose, the female protagonist in the book, is essentially a cross between a 1930s gangster and Simone de Beauvoir.
Walsh, who has kept Canada laughing for decades, was at the Festival to promote her first novel, Crying for the Moon . Known for her characters and for creating the CBC’s This Hours Has 22 Minutes , she surprised the crowd by saying that she had actually wanted to write a novel since she was eight years old. She joked about being a month away from collecting her CPP (Canada Pension Plan), and said that she had a moment before she started writing the book when she had to ask herself, “If not now…when?”
Dr. Susan Birkwood, the moderator for the evening, led the discussion smoothly and touched on the various imagery and influences in both novels. Both O’Neill and Walsh talked about how a first novel almost inevitably includes more autobiographical details than subsequent novels—as O’Neill noted, “You have a treasure trove from your childhood, so you use it”—but both authors emphasized how much research still goes into the writing process, even if the times and places in the novel reflect some of their own experiences. “There are also themes that you get stuck on, and the novel radiates around them,” explained O’Neill as she joked about how her editor pointed out that she was once again creating motherless characters. “I was just like, ‘Ahhh, I forgot to give them mothers!’” she laughed. (O’Neill was raised by her father and added that “your autobiography can come through [in your writing] from the strangest perspectives.”)
After a fascinating discussion that included comparisons between childhood and war, insights into abuse and escape, and links between oppression and language (which I will not spoil here and will instead use as a marketing ploy to encourage you to read these books!), the audience members were invited to ask questions.
Asked about how her lifetime in the performing arts had influenced her approach to writing a novel, Walsh emphasized that she needs to do it “out loud.” She prefers to write by hand, and then she reads the text to an assistant who types it up for her. “It gives me the chance to edit as I read it and hear it out loud,” she explained. “Plus, I can read [her assistant’s] face. If she pulls a face, I think ‘hmm, was that an undigested piece of potato or was that a bad line?’”
O’Neill writes mostly about Montreal, and she was asked if she thought she could ever write about another city in the same way. While she said that she could see herself writing about a different city, she knows that it wouldn’t be the same. “It wouldn’t have the same intimacy,” she explained. Given her own history there—and her family’s lengthy history there—Montreal “feels like my story to tell.” She also noted that she felt she could say things about Montreal that she wouldn’t be able to say about other cities, much in the same way that we can say things about our own families in ways that we would never tolerate coming from someone else. “I also get to move buildings,” she joked, “because in my Montreal, this street would be better off here . If I did that with another city, I’d be told that I was bad at geography.”
As the session wrapped up, I imagined a practical stampede to the book signing (I had to leave, but I heard lots of excited chatter about getting books signed as I dashed out the door), and on another night I would have been the one leading the charge. I am a huge fan of Heather O’Neill, so I will happily attend any and all future Writers Festival events that feature her, and I sincerely hope that Mary Walsh—despite the immense relief that she described upon finishing her novel—will also return for more books and more laughter.