A black man in Halifax in the 1950s; a red-haired, grey-eyed girl in a Caribbean family; and a Japanese Canadian during the Second World War: these three very different characters were brought together on the stage of the Ottawa International Writers Festival on April 20 as authors Pamela Mordecai, George Elliott Clarke, and Lynne Kutsukake read from and discussed their recent novels. All three of their protagonists are born into a world in which they do not have an obvious place, and their lives provoke serious, sad reflections on identity and belonging—themes that host Adrian Harewood approached with gravitas and delicacy. Nevertheless, the authors were so obviously delighted to share their characters with the audience that it quickly became a jolly event, with laughter bouncing off the beautiful skylight in Christ Church Cathedral's hall. George Elliot Clarke's toothy grin was like extra lighting.
Clarke, currently Poet Laureate of Canada, introduced the room to Carl Black, the main character of
, explaining that Carl was a modelled after Clarke's bohemian manqué father. Clarke is clearly smitten with the idea of his father, burdened by his racial identity and his family, being seduced by a glamorized 1950s lifestyle – the "swashbuckling erotic masculinity" of Ian Fleming and men's magazines. His reading of a passage in which Carl has successfully engineered a threesome took on a beat poet rhythm, as he paused to gurgle and lick his lips in delight over his best lines and repeat them - "a big ass armchair, the only kind a man should have ... A BIG! ASS! ARMCHAIR!" and "six legs, and six arms, a sextet if there ever was …. A SEXTET IF THERE EVER WAS." As the scene came to a climax, Adrian Harewood began fanning himself with his program, to everyone's delight.
"So is the novel a place to have a conversation about race?" asked Adrian Harewood. Kutsukake pointed out that literature is a place to address "difficult problems or feelings," and that race is something "we need to have a conversation about." Canadians listen in horror to tales of racial discord south of the border, smug in our lack of evidence of racial disharmony.
Mordecai pointed out, however, that some people in Canada can go their entire life without having a meaningful encounter with a person from another race. Clarke stated that we need to see how we have created ethnic enclaves, and he illustrated how persistent these by noting that you still can't buy Russian vodka in provinces with large Ukranian populations: "Everyone is fighting to preserve their little panel of the mosaic." When the discussion prompted a reflection on Canada's greatest racial shame, our treatment of Canada's indigenous peoples, the room applauded. Then everyone looked at the floor.
The discussion about race was much more tense and halting than the readings. No amount of educated conversation about race could do what had already been easily, joyfully accomplished earlier in the night by giving a voice through literature to the people who "don't belong." Kutsukake's selection from her work The Translation of Love was the only one in which racism obviously appeared. Her reading quietly portrayed Japan and the complex Japanese responses to the occupying Americans after the Second World War. Although set in Japan, it teased out some sobering facts about the Canadian government's treatment of Japanese Canadians. Japanese Canadians were not allowed to return to the west coast after the war, forced instead to either move east of the Rockies and "disperse"—
not settle in groups—
or to "return" to Japan, even if they had been born in Canada. A young Japanese girl rejects the new Japanese-Canadian in her class, whose family has left the Canada that her father says "will always hate us."
"That is not a kindness to come after my friend,” said Mordecai with pursed lips after the laughter had died down. Her precise Jamaican accent was a joy to listen to, like a visit to an idealized Caribbean, whether she was reading from her work Red Jacket, set on the fictional island of St. Christopher, or pausing to explain the subtleties of the Creole language. I was reminded of a saucy, knowing grandma whose opinion you had better watch out for. At one point, she read one character's lines as if she was advising her audience: "Learn to swallow your spit. You are black... you can't cry about how people treat you." She looked up and there was a collective straightening of spines before she continued: "That is no way to live." Mordecai noted that Red Jacket is seen as a book about identity, but that really, she's more interested in how people play the hand with which they are dealt.