Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

The Weight of History

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

ourselves at all,” she says, “became” the bustling city of New York.


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.