Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

The Ever-Present Past

In a packed hall at the Knox Presbyterian Church, we were privileged to listen to three highly respected authors and follow the ensuing question and answer session that Charlotte Gray, well-known Ottawa-based writer and a Writers Festival board member expertly and firmly moderated. It is worth mentioning here that all three authors in some way have started out using part of their own history and their family's history as one aspect from which to build the fictional lives of their characters.


Christine Pourtney's Sweet Jesus tells the story of two sisters and their adopted brother, addressing moral and religious questions that come to life during a road trip and in the relationships between the siblings and their surroundings. In response to the question on placing religion centrally in the novel, Christine Pourtney answered that she wanted to explore the "meaty soup of opinion, beliefsin a strong framework," and write a book "in which both camps (believers and non-believers) could co-exist." Linda Spalding's novel, The Purchase , also centres on religious and moral issues as it follows the life of a Quaker family who have to confront slavery as a fundamental personal question.


Finally, M.G. Vassanji's The Magic of Saida takes the reader to the coastal area of present-day Tanzania and its rich history, its mythology, and magic. His protagonist, a medical doctor from Edmonton, returns to the places of his childhood in search of his childhood friend. Reading this novel currently, I was especially taken by his explanations of the moral quests that are contained in the story.


The selection of the novels paired for the session could not have been better in my view. Not only did they have at the centre protagonists in their personal struggle with a quests or search for clarity in their lives, they represent excellent examples how the past informs the present and how the present also can shed new light on the past. In fact, as the moderator stated at the outset: History is not the past, it is all around us.


Interestingly also, when they were each asked how they begin a novel and what aspect was most important at that point, they each answered that they were most interested in a question that the novel attempts to answer or not. It could be a deep moral or religious question or one of identity and belonging. As they also agreed, the initial question did not necessarily find an answer at the end of the novel. It was as important, or even more so, to follow the protagonist's quest for the answer, to understand the individuals whose lives were influenced by the search for an answer. "To get into the question and build a world around it," this reflection by Christine Pourtney reflects the general agreement among the authors.


Finally, from the general discussion some salient points for me deserve to be highlighted. Historical fiction can be seen as a hybrid between fact and fiction. Is that a problem for the fiction writer? For Christine Pourtney, "writing about the present is a historical act." It is what it feels like here and now, whether it is set in the present or the past. She writes out of "intuition, not history." For Linda Spalding, the question is about moral judgment. "Trying to understand the complications of people in their time
and environment. I have an expanded sense of the decisions and actions of the time for the reader to have a better understanding." For M.G. Vassanji his book is "not historical fiction, more a quest - questions about the past. At the end you learn about the question and the person who asked the questions." That does not suggest that some form of historical reality is of course necessary.


In summary, having heard the readings and the discussion, I can only recommend all three books. I will certainly add the two I don't have on my bookshelf yet.