Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Worlds Within Words: Life and Language

What is language?  We use it every day, but rarely stop to consider it.  Language is a critical part of life in a society, providing the ability to communicate by allowing individuals to share information, ideas and experiences across physical space and time through sounds or written forms that represent sounds.  Each sound can be combined with others into recognizable patterns which we identify with words.  We then combine those words into phrases to communicate more and more complex things.  But all of this is based around a shared set of understood meanings that those who make dictionaries earn their livelihoods from (or used to anyway).  What happens when this process of defining meaning gets undermined through the disruption of the source information or worse, through the disruption of the understanding of the individual?  These are the questions that each author of Friday night’s book panel wrestled with.  Yet, while each book took a similar starting point, they are all unique interpretations of the answers. 


Peter Norman was the first author up.  He shared three readings from his novel Emberton.  Emberton is a gothic style novel, based in an old office building housing a dictionary publisher.  The readings illustrated the style, and Norman used the excessive descriptive passages well to either comic effect or building tension.  Norman shared later that part of the inspiration behind the structure of the office building had been from seeing the movie Titanic , where the ship was envisioned as a microcosm of society, with the captain and the upper-class people on the top of the ship, while the working class people were deep within the structure operating the motors.  In Emberton, the crumbling office tower is that microcosm, with the editors in the glass penthouse and the printers buried down in the basement.  Norman used the gothic elements of medieval buildings and magical elements with a threatening sense of mystery in a modern way. 


Alena Graedon shared next, from her novel The Word Exchange .  After hearing Emberton’s style, it was apparent that The Word Exchange was more relaxed in tone, and listening to Graedon read felt like listening to a friend share a story.  Graedon read the opening section, where we meet the protagonist who is experiencing her world crumble.  First, she is questioning her identity (having been working on a portfolio to apply to an MFA program for several years, but never being quite “ready”), and then losing her boyfriend (figuratively) of many years, and then her father disappears (literally).  Graydon’s use of language in her writing was equally strong as Norman’s, and the “near-future” science fiction style works perfectly for this story.  Her description of the world around the characters seems fully plausible yet has an element of a dystopian future to keep the audience on edge. 


The third author of the evening was Ghalib Islam, who shared from his book Fire in the Unnameable Country.  While the other two authors had strong reading voices, Islam unfortunately seemed uncomfortable reading out loud from his book. Initially I had thought this might be for effect, increasing the discomfort that you could sense from the text, but it eventually became clear this wasn’t the case.  Much of the audience was visibly straining to hear him speak.  Despite the difficulty in listening to the reading, there was no doubt in the strength of the writing, with Fire in the Unnameable Country being a dense satirical fantasy based in the world of the War on Terror, and confusion over collective and personal history from the severing of language from identity.


The host for the evening was Stephen Brockwell, a Canadian poet living in Ottawa.  Brockwell had read all three books before the event and was well prepared, asking good questions of each of the authors.  The questions raised varied from asking about the origin of the ideas for each of the novels, to exploring the unique forms each author used, to the transition of text from print to digital forms and how is this changing society.  Each novel had an interesting origin story, and two of the three were marred with personal hardship and tragedy. 


Emberton actually was based around an idea the Norman had as a young child.  He was reading the dictionary and came across the page with the many names of people who contribute to the dictionary.  His eight year-old mind envisioned all these people working in the same building, sitting side-by-side.  During the process of writing the novel, his research found that the organizations that made dictionaries were not as fanciful as he originally imagined, encouraging the novel into further fantasy. 


The idea that sparked The Word Exchange came from reading a dictionary she had received as a graduation gift upon completion of her MFA in creative writing.  Shortly before finishing her MFA, she had a house fire, and all her books and everything had been burned.  Her parents bought her the dictionary as a gift to replace the one she had lost in the fire.  As she was reading the new dictionary she came across entries for people such as Sylvia Plath, and wondered what it would be like if one of these entries just disappeared.  This idea was the starting point of her novel (where the father of the protagonist disappears from the dictionary, and from the world). 


Islam’s origin story is much more difficult.  He explained that he had worked for a year on a precursor to what has become Fire in the Unnameable Country, and then was hit by a drunk driver and was nearly killed.  In his time in the hospital and during rehab he started revising, editing and reworking, and that process has taken its time to eventually become what is now published.  As Islam shared this story, he was calm, sharing details such as seeing the photos of the accident scene where there was more blood than he could imagine coming out of his body and feeling a strong sense of fragmentation from the question of “where am I in this image”.  But, Islam got visibly upset when he shared that the person who had hit him (and subsequently ran from the accident) was only charged with Drunk Driving, and not with anything more severe despite the fact that she had nearly killed him.  This sense of disrupted justice has also been something that was clearly an influence on elements of his book which he alluded to, but didn’t have time to expand upon.


What I love about the Ottawa International Writers Festival is the opportunity to be exposed to new books, ideas and authors.  This event introduced me to three new authors, and their first books.  Each of these authors are clearly talented, and I’m excited about picking each of these books up to read.  I love looking at philosophical questions, and the philosophy of language and its influence on individuals and society has so much room for exploration.  Each author here has started with similar questions but has used their artistry and personality to create three unique books. 


There are no answers to questions like these, but sometimes in the experience of thinking more deeply about the importance of something like language, we can learn how to be more mindful in our use and valuation of it as the use of language drastically keeps transforming through new technology.