Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Stronger Than They Seem with Heather O’Neill, Christine Fischer Guy and Monia Mazigh

I always feel a touch worried when I go to a panel discussion.  What if one author gets obviously more attention than the others?  Has a more popular book?  I don’t want to end up feeling bad for someone.


I shouldn’t have worried.  Not only were the authors of the Saturday night panel discussion at Knox Presbyterian, indeed, stronger than they may have seemed, they and their works were so completely different that direct comparison was gratifyingly a moot point.  The fact that the authors are women, and that their protagonists are women “finding themselves in need of bravery, strength and smarts” to navigate their lives is a common thread.  As became apparent, however, each woman has written a fascinating story equally about place as about personand boy, are they different places!  Each author spoke about the world they had created so absorbingly that the evening was a dizzying and delightful swinging back and forth from the 1950s in the northern community of Moose Factory to a gritty Montreal filled with near-feral cats, and to the prayer rugs and gossip klatchs of Muslim society in Ottawa. 


Heather O’Neill shot bolts of humour through the discussion, describing growing up in Montreal in a seedy district and the links between her and the main character Nouschka in The Girl Who Was Saturday Night.  O’Neill has done stints on the entertaining National Public Radio show, This American Life.  You can see she would be a hit after thirty seconds of listening to her deliver simultaneously hilarious and deeply sad stories out of the corner of a wryly-twisted mouth.  “Well, you know, my dad was really a man of that neighbourhood.  He was sort of a …a gangster king.  He saw me writing all the time and told me not to keep a diaryit could be used against me in a court at some point.”  She pauses for audience laughter. “I was seven.”


The book loosely follows Quebec’s history, with echoes of the history in the majority of Nouschka’s stories.  A strip club scene is followed by a meditation on Les Filles du Roi.  When O’Neill quotes herself: “a nation crawled out between their legs,” you can hear a scandalized murmur from the audience.  O’Neill reflected on the act of writing about the gritty, ignoble world of Montreal’s St. Laurent Boulevard.  “The expectations of me were so dismal,” she mused, “But there were bright, vibrant kids there.  I wanted to rewrite my own narrative.  To illuminate that world, but also to break out of it.” 


Turning from O’Neill’s self-deprecating irony to Monia Mazigh’s earnestness is like turning on a warm light.  Mazigh’s head scarf emphasizes the roundness of her face and her expression is so guileless that adjectives like saintly spring to mind.  Mazigh has already written the celebrated Hope and Despair, a memoir about her year-long struggle to free her Canadian husband Maher Arar from a Syrian jail.  Mirrors and Mirages has less torture but certain similarity in its stories of continuous struggle.  It links an ensemble of Muslim women– some from Tunisia, Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Pakistan, and one rebellious young woman who converts to Islam despite her Catholic’s family’s disapproval.  Mazigh wanted the characters to be obviously different.  Although all the stories are set in Ottawa and the characters do eventually meet, they are set in environments that vary from public housing to wealthy suburban enclaves.  “When I get together with other Muslim women, I find we are all so angry about how we are represented.  We need to open this box that we put immigrants in.  We are so different!”  The women are linked only by the constant failure of expectation.  One character longs for Dubai but finds that Dubai is a desert – an “opulent one, but a desert nonetheless.”  Another thought she would find freedom from stifling social structures in Ottawa, but finds herself just as suffocated. “It is always better somewhere else,” Mazigh noted gently. “Until it’s not.”


The Umbrella Mender, although not a lived experience for Christine Fischer Guy, is very personal – she was inspired to write it through finding her great-uncle’s memoirs of treating tuberculosis in Moose Factory.  “What a gift!” she exclaims.  She travelled to Moose Factory, an incredibly lengthy journey that she details amusingly on her blog, and immersed herself in the land.  She reflects that it was much lusher than expected, and much more welcoming. When she told a community leader that she was writing a novel and he replied smoothly, “oh yes, like Joseph Boyden.”  Boyden’s Three Day Road is set in the same region, the oldest English language trading post in Canada.  Boyden, she notes, eventually became a friend and colleague as he helped with Cree translations.  Fischer Guy’s narrator, Hazel, travels north as a single woman in the 1950s, questions the supremacy of western medicine, challenges the medical hierarchy of doctor and nurse in her draw to traditional healing methods and eventually has an affair with a visitor to town, the titular umbrella maker and ultimate departure from social constraints.  Hazel, Fischer Guy, muses, is a “particular kind of woman.  The kind of woman that would do that [leave her community to work in a northern town].”


Mazigh commented that her book was intended to go beyond statistics to create characters that would genuinely challenge stereotypes. I felt a bit ashamed for having assumed, partially because it was a panel of women, that the event would have lent itself to quick categorizing – best and worst, attractive and ugly, foreign and familiar.  Once you’ve really met someone, particularly in vivid prose, it’s very difficult to use those boxes again. The host for the evening, Carleton University’s Susan Birkwood, closed with a quotation: “Literature is doing the work of politics in this country.”