Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Story, Place, Time and Magic: The Wonder Years with Carriane Leung, Robert Everett-Green and Kerri Sakamoto

The deep pleasures of reading as a child — disappearing into books, getting swept up with characters that you wanted to live with forever in a reader’s high — were at the heart of the conversations during “The Wonder Years” on Saturday, April 28. Three authors with young protagonists at the centre of their novels shared themes and memories of their work, vividly communicating their own deep pleasures in the process of writing and the wonder of creating characters. The settings of each work: the prairies, Scarborough, Port Alberni, internment camps, and Toronto, are characters in these stories as much as the individuals which inhabit and pass through them.

 

During the conversation with moderator Rhonda Douglas, Robert Everett-Green spoke of the analogy of “a sweater knitting itself,” just the right image for a chilly spring night of storytelling. Everett-Green’s pre-teen narrator in In a Wide Country , forges his way in the ‘60s telling his version of stories: his glamorous, slightly unreliable mother’s somewhat fanciful yarns and her boyfriend’s usually factual accounts. The narrator’s re-tellings seek to decode a complicated world which his mother repackages for him in a long drive from Winnipeg to Vancouver. Her own generous tales, adapted to protect him, serve as a kind of magic, rendering the world and ultimately his own history more accessible to him.

 

The interwoven stories in Carrianne Leung’s That Time I Loved You take place in Scarborough, a suburb which once expressed another  kind of magic. In Leung’s work, new immigrants in a new subdivision face the new possibilities in the era of Trudeau-père mania, yet their outlook darkened by a pair of incomprehensible suicides. The opening story “Grass,” portrays a strong narrative voice in young June, whose matter-of-fact, pithy observations lead us to see what was not visible at the time: racism, domestic violence, and homophobia intermingled with the possibilities of finding yourself away from your neighbourhood.

 

Kerri Sakamoto’s magical realist novel Floating City has a different take on childhood: ambition and imagination in times of hardship and plenty. Sakamoto paints a world of spirits, love, and architecture inspired by family mysteries and the influence of Buckminster Fuller on the main character, Frankie Hanesaka. For Sakamoto, Frankie’s ambitions cannot be contained by one place alone, or his imagination and creativity. He invokes Buckminster Fuller in searching to make the right choices for his career and his identity: place takes on other dimensions as he finds himself in the sea and on water, with no need for land.  For Everett-Green and Leung, the confidence and optimism of the time that the action takes place, the early ‘60s and late ‘70s, were a time of growth for their characters and for Canada; this contrasts with Sakamoto’s use of geography in her fiction.

 

Moderator Rhonda Douglas artfully led the evening’s discussion, exploring the authors’ creative processes as well as the spectre of autobiography in their writing. Borrowing from the past “like a mosaic” was how Everett-Green described some of his choices; memories from his Edmonton childhood served as a springboard for his story’s actions and characters’ preoccupations. Leung and Sakamoto referred to some of their inspirations beyond autobiography: Judy Fong Bates’ Midnight at the Dragon Café for Leung, and Joy Kagawa’s work and activism for Sakamoto. Each writer referenced the importance of period research in their work, while also acknowledging what happens when characters simply present themselves to the writer. Leung confessed that at one point she “was just their typist; writing is a bit of magic.”