Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Pride, Prejudice, and Polar Twins

On Friday night, a close-knit audience was treated to everything that I’ve come to expect from the Writers Festival: laughter, music, and thought-provoking discussion. Hosted by the Ottawa Citizen’s Matthew Pearson, the evening included two readings from Raziel Reid and Michael V. Smith, as well as special performances by musician Glenn Nuotio.

 

During the first readings, there was a lot of nodding along and knowing chuckles scattered throughout the crowd, but Michael decided to mix things up for his second reading by inviting everyone to play Polar Twin with him. The goal of the game was to find Michael’s polar opposite in the room, so the audience was asked to stand while he read a list of things that he had done or that had happened in his life. Anyone who had the experience in common with Michael was asked to sit down. It was, to say the least, delightfully funny—particularly as the list got racier.

 

“Sit down if…you’ve ever had a threesome,” he said, then glanced up with a sly grin. “That one always clears half the room.” (It did.)

 

I was not Michael’s polar twin (and no, I won’t mention which thing landed my butt back in my seat), but when a lovely lady in the back corner was the last one standing, Michael gave her a free copy of his memoir, My Body Is Yours. “You and I will have the least amount in common here,” he said, “but hopefully the book will show you that we also have a great familiarity.” It was a wonderful sentiment, and it touched on a major theme that pulsed throughout the session: books have the power to enrich us, to free us, and to reveal common ground (even between polar twins).

 

During the discussion, Matthew noted that some of the Canada Reads debate about Raziel Reid’s When Everything Feels Like The Movies focused on the language in the book. While Craig Kielburger argued that the language was too graphic, that it wouldn’t be accessible to audiences everywhere, Lainey Lui was a staunch defender of the book’s use of “the language that young people use.” Raziel admitted that some people do think that the book and the language are too provocative, but he was trying to be honest and raw with the narrative. He emphasized the fact that the themes in his book are present in a lot of (less provocative) LGBTQ books, and yet “we still have LGBTQ teens killing themselves. We’re still driven to promiscuity because we’re so isolated. So, maybe it takes something bold to shatter the wall and break the barrier.”

 

As the discussion shifted from societal barriers to personal armour and the stories we tell, Michael explained that his goal in writing My Body Is Yours was to write about his emancipation from masculinity. He focused the book on all the ways in which masculinity shaped him—or, alternatively, the ways that he resisted the constructions of masculinity that surrounded him. “We have had lives as gay people that have been torturous because we’ve been forced to…be people we’re not. That twists up a soul,” he said, “so I was trying to undo the knots.” He also said that he was trying to be candid and thorough with the memoir, which was evident when he became emotional while reading a passage from My Body Is Yours about his father lying in pain in a hospital bed. His father, he explained, didn’t know how to “be a man” and have an emotional life. Escaping that version of masculinity let him be something else, something more authentic. “And see?” he said later, referring to his own display of emotion. “That was perfectly okay.”

 

The first audience question came from an educator who works in a small town and wanted to know how she can support LGBTQ kids in her school. Although there isn’t a single, simple answer, both Michael and Raziel provided excellent advice. “The teachers that saved my life saw me,” said Michael, who had explained earlier that his younger self had gravitated toward teachers to find safe spaces. “You know who the kids are that are ostracized. Find ways to include them.” Raziel agreed and explained that his high school English teacher, who started a creative writing club, never mentioned his sexuality. “Don’t bring up the struggle,” he explained. “Bring up the positive. Find out what those kids are good at and nurture that.”

 

Asked how it feels to suddenly become spokespeople for these issues, both Raziel and Michael emphasized that—despite the pressure—it is an honour to be in that position. “I felt like my homosexuality interfered with my relationship to the rest of the world,” said Michael. “Now I feel like I’m part of a great legacy…I feel like I’m making space for younger people, and I’m trying to make the world a better place for the man that my father could have been.”

 

I really enjoyed this panel, and I sincerely hope that these writers will come to the festival again. They both expressed the hope that “more straight people will read queer books,” and I wholeheartedly agree. Let’s forget about our differences and embrace the familiarity.

 

The Sound and the Fury: the Malleability of Art

The Sound and the Fury seemed to set out with one overarching goal in mind, which was to prove just how fluid art can be. More specifically, showing that just because a piece of art was created specifically for one medium (such as literature), does not mean that it cannot be translated into other artistic vehicles.

 

The premise was simple: the night promised three respected Canadian authors reading pieces from their latest works to the audience. Afterwards, both the audience and the authors would be treated to a selection of music performed by the talented Mike Dubue, frontman to the Ottawa based band Hilotrons, which was commissioned to reflect each one of the stories created by the authors.

The first to present was Russell Smith, reading from his new collection of short stories entitled Confidence. The story that he read from, titled “Racoon,” presented the reader with a narrative of frustration—frustration with spouses, frustration with ex-flames, and most importantly, a frustration with racoons (and really, who can blame him?) The story was comedic when it needed to be, yet dark and thoughtful at all other times, all told leading to an entertaining and engaging journey. After he was finished, attention was turned to the projector screens set up around the hall, and Dubue began his performance, “Sexual Shivers.” While not based off of the particular story that was read during the night, the song carried many of the themes found in the story, starting in a melancholy plea, and becoming more aggressive and anxious as the song went on, all while being accompanied by the soft plucking of a violin.  


After the musical number, author Neil Smith took the stage to read the first chapter from his new book, Boo. Taking place in the late 1970s, Boo follows the story of a young boy who finds himself dead, and sent to an afterlife compromised entirely of 13 year old Americans. Told in a light hearted, jovial manner, Boo appears to be equal parts religious satire, and coming of age story. While the reading was short, it left me wanting more, and I found myself leaving the night with a brand new copy of the book in tow (Boo is set for release world-wide within the next couple of weeks). The musical piece that accompanied the reading, “My Heart Will Not,” showed the story in a much more melancholy light, presenting the work in a more sombre, emotional manner than the passage that was read implied, suggesting that the remainder of the book will have a considerable amount of heart to it as well.

Rounding off the trio, Giller Prize winner Sean Michaels read a couple of passages from his new book. Us Conductors follows the fictional life and times of real life composer-turned-spy Lev Termin, creator of the Theremin. For those not in the know, a Theremin is an electronic musical instrument that is played by conducting your hands in front of a series of antenna, creating sound without any physical contact required. The pieces read to the audience represented Termin as a thoughtful man, who was as anxious as he was proud of his invention, seeing it as the next logical step in the musical world.  While the selections read by Michaels only showed a brief glimpse of Termin’s life, the book promises to be filled with emotion and espionage, and was quick to catch my interest. And this is coming from a guy who had to google what a Theremin was 20 minutes before writing this review.

 

The final music number of the night was entitled “Subtle Siren Song,” and once again featured Dubue on piano, accompanied by a violin. While this piece was sadly missing any actual Theremin…ing (or is it Thereminizing?), it did use electronic distortion to produce a sound that was both mesmerizing and haunting, traits often found in the instrument that Michael’s novel idolizes.

 

Part of the main appeal of the night, was experiencing the authors reactions to the musical pieces following their readings, as they had not yet heard the songs until this moment. As Neil Smith described in a question and answer period following the three speakers, the music was able to pull emotions that he had previously experienced regarding characters from his story out of a place of dormancy, and he described himself as almost being moved to tears by “My Heart Will Not.”

 

While it is hard to say whether the other two authors felt similarly to Smith regarding the musical pieces, what I took away from the night was that it demonstrated just how flexible art and writing can be, showing that even the artists themselves can experience their own work in totally different ways, while still conveying the same emotional message. Representing art not as a concrete structure, but as a collection of ideas and feelings, changing form and expression as the mood sees fit. With something for a wide range of audiences to enjoy, the night was a delightful and thought provoking experience, showing that art was often materializes in the ear of the hearer.

 

Random Play: All In A Day Songwriter's Night

“So, explain it to me again?” my companion asked me, looking at the wide variety of instruments set up at the front. Mainly a Radio-Canada listener, he didn’t recognize the beloved figure of CBC Radio 1 host Alan Neal fiddling with a computer near the front. “It’s a concert?” I leaned over to him as Alan took the microphone: “It’s like, yeah, a concert, and sort of lyrical exegesis and … it’s amazing.”

 

Random Play was Alan Neal’s brain-wave that first delighted the 2013 Writersfest crowd at the smaller of the two rooms in Knox Presbyterian. He took his iPod, packed with his varying musical passions, and chose the first 10 songs that came up on random shuffle to be performed and dissected as only a truly nerdy musical lover can. (Whenever possible, that is: Madonna, for example, declined his invitation). Neal expounded on lyrics that caught his interest, pushed the musicians to reveal their artistic intentions and inspiration, paired stars in unlikely but fabulous ensemble pieces and generally ensured that everyone present felt part of a huge, hilarious, musician party. “I was shocked how people played along with my crazy idea in 2013,” he mused, “and then even more shocked when Writersfest let me do it again!”

 

Neal introduced the 2015 version of Random Play in the somewhat more imposing new Writersfest venue of Christ Church Cathedral, with quite a few audience members pleasantly curry-scented from the new Writersfest Café. The formerly-of-Ottawa duo BonjayCraig Finn from The Hold Steady (I saw a few “The Hold Steady saved my life” t-shirts), Rose CousinsElliot BroodisKwé, Ottawa band The Split and Slim Moore took the stage one after the other to perform an incredibly varied set of songs.

 

One of the chief delights of the event is getting to see such an eclectic group of performers at the same event.  Elliott Brood stomped and wailed and banjo-ed the crowd back to the Wild West, Alanna Stewart from Bonjay’s long, elegant frame threw her techno-dance-hall patois upwards and outwards, and Rose Cousins collapsed into her piano from to the side of the stage, blanketing the room with her melodic darkness.  Particularly electrifying was Cree/Dene/Irish artist isKwé’s piercing “Nobody Knows,” about missing and murdered aboriginal women.

 

In between taking surreptitious photos of the musicians like the superfan he is, Neal extended the meaning of each song to its furthest boundaries.  As in 2013, he picked on particular lyrics, asking for meaning from the artists, and, when the artists weren’t available, tracking down their next of kin or aged managers about it.  Neal maintains a touching faith in the integrity of lyrics, insisting that the artists often have to believe them in order to sing it.  He interviewed David Axelrod, Lou Rawls’ 84-year-old producer, and played the clip of Alexrod’s gritty voice talking about the meaning of “Breaking my Back Instead of Using my Mind” (performed with panache by Slim Moore in a natty suit and hat).  “You gotta unnerstand something,” drawled Axelrod: “every once in a while, Lou would put his name on a song.  Maybe he wrote it, maybe he di’nt.  Everyone did it.  Cause he sang it, you know.”    

 

Neal complemented every song with a similarly delightful commentary – after encouraging Alanna Stewart from Bonjay to rail against fake Jamaican accents in Hollywood movies, he read out a grovelling email from Jamaican actor Doug E. Doug apologizing to Stewart for the hideous accents in the film Cool Runnings.  (Stewart subsequently taught the entire audience how to properly imitate a Jamaican accent.  It involves the word beer can.  You’ll have to ask her.)  Craig Finn’s story about his loss of youth when an influential punk band returned to his favourite venue as Hari Krishnas was verified through an interview with the heart-breaking Hari Krishna himself, and Neal even called up the Car Wash Union of Los Angeles to determine the veracity of the car wash mentioned in Bruce Springsteen’s Car Wash (beautifully performed by isKwé, Craig Finn, and The Split).  While some of the background colour was too far down the rabbit hole for most fans (a prolonged journey through Hank Snow discography left a few audience members cold) most of it was like Christmas for music and history lovers – there was even a video clip of an interview between Lou Rawls and Peter Gzowski on Gzowski’s short-lived TV show!

 

The 2013 performance had that kind of spontaneous magic that is the reason people go to live shows.  That didn’t happen this year. Maybe it was the absence of a few really big personalities, like 2013’s Measha Brueggergosman, to jolly-up the show, or the fact that the audience was physically much farther away in the new venue, with a not-ideal sound-system to bring them in.  In particular, the final numbea short story about aquaman that Neal loaded onto his iPod after finding the record at a garage salelacked the hilarity and verve of the on-stage dance party that happened in 2013 with the same piece. But that’s why weand Neallove music.  All the talent and work in the world can’t guarantee that special chemistry. 

 

That is not to say the show was not a delight.  Random Play is like a road trip with hours to listen to fantastic music and wonder about what the artists were thinking, about their life and times.  Only with Neal as a host, the audience has the actual artists present, clips from the CBC archives, and his inexhaustible enthusiasm to know to support such musings.  We went from the punk scene in 1980s New York with Craig Finn, to Capitol Records in the 1960s, to the Winnipeg aboriginal community after the murder of Tina Fontaine.  I hope Alan is already thinking about where we’ll go next.

 

This Is How You Keep Him – One on One with Junot Díaz

Junot Díaz seemed poised to make an impression, his wiry frame hanging to the edge of his seat due to a back ailment, with a mischievous gleam marking his eyes; he is the very avatar of both coiled tension and quiet ease. The crowd in the audience is both packed and eclectic; a personal delight is in seeing so many young writers of colour whom Díaz has tirelessly championed. Adrian Harewood is the anchor in the carousing range of issues that Díaz freely ranged to and fro across. The casual eloquence, relentlessly peppered with obscenities, projected a trust: I am not a brand, I am a person rooted in my experiences.

 

Alexander McCall Smith, writing in his Introduction to an Everyman's Library collection of the famed Indian novelist R.K. Narayan, wistfully recalls the extra year that Narayan had to simply read when he failed his university entrance exam at his first attempt: “To the modern mind, with our insistence on parcelling out of time, a year of reading seems an almost unattainable luxury, redolent of the simpler, less-hurried world which we have now lost.” Díaz affirms this luxury when he half-jested that he fell into his métier simply out of an ardent desire “to be a full-time reader.” In a later question from an audience member, a teacher, Díaz confirmed the perception that he reads a book for every page he writes as no mere exaggeration.

 

In this way, he touches on the role of an artist, in a way that lightens the darkness surrounding the insatiable curiosity of both practitioners and the reading public as to how one actually writes. When he says that “books are more interesting than writers,” even though the sparkling world of the famed The Paris Review interviews refute that notion, we get a certain sense of the yearning for permanence we all feel. This is the sense we get when James Salter states, “I’m a frotteur, someone who likes to rub words in his hand, to turn them around and feel them, to wonder if that really is the best word possible.” But to get to this stage requires work. And the best work, contrary to all the hype surrounding open-office concepts, often occur when someone hunt their monsters in solitude. Simply because this is hard work, and requires a wrestling with silences, it isn’t glamorous or something that can be rushed. Díaz pointed out that nearly a decade passed between the success of his debut collection Drown in 1997 and the runaway success of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao —our generation’s Invisible Man —in 2008, there was just the banal toil of a craftsman labouring over a keyboard, away from the limelight with no surety of success. Years his accolades today can never restore, however fulfilling its emolument. We catch a glimpse of his ferocious work ethic, the bequest of most immigrant communities, as Díaz describes putting himself through college while working a full-time job delivering pool tables.

 

He extends this metaphor to the practice of living when he concludes, “family is incredibly hard work.” When Harewood broaches the subject of abandonment of Díaz’s father, who left behind his wife and five children, Díaz doesn’t mince the failure that desertion is. In a later related discussion on masculinity and failure, Díaz expands a lot on how patriarchy—like White Supremacy (his unadorned term for racism)—is an immersive reality. There is a lot to admire in his desire to explore the unexamined topics of intimacy and love, as his latest collection This Is How You Lose Her does, particularly because it stems from an enforced childhood ethic of violence and sexual conquest masquerading as masculinity. Yet the picture Díaz paints is not just of a triumphant patriarchy but an enfeebled and enabled one, with women as co-conspirators, where men (who were once boys) abscond, flail, and wither at alarming rates, especially in poor communities where the preservation of dignity is overwhelmingly a matriarchal realization and cultural inequality is just as corrosive as economic disparities.

 

Perhaps this is fodder for art (even if it beggars happiness in real life). As Díaz notes, “literature does not thrive on happily adjusted people.” He likens his characters’ traits as someone exercising the free right to vote, while he as the author just arranges the vote rather than rig it. There is much more that Díaz expressed regarding race and hegemony that is beyond the scope of this space to dissect.

 

The most indelible impression, in my opinion, that Díaz made is in his insistence on the greatest of all social liberties: dissent. He playfully chided the question posed by Harewood on the criticism of Michael Eric Dyson on Cornel West’s scathing pronouncement on Obama, by emphasizing that Obama can handle the battering, occupying the peak position of privilege. He dismissed the idea that inner denouncement lends fuel to the greater opponents who hate the President no-matter-what, that it is more crucial to practice the art of criticism, even within our circles, and let the intransigents rage. As Lars Vilks—in hiding from death threats by Islamists—tells Cal Fussman in the current edition of Esquire: “The best thing for a work of art is argumentation.” Amen.

 

Education for the 21st Century

Have you ever gone to an event only to wonder why it isn’t standing room only? As I arrived at the Education for the 21st century event I was shocked at how small the crowd was; yes I realize there was an important hockey game on, but I still wanted to yell from the roof top “Ottawa, why aren’t you here?”  

 

Even though the venue was less than half full, everyone was engaged and interested in the subject matter and before the event started the room was full of lively discussions about education in anticipation of the speakers ahead.  Given the level of excitement, I was shocked when during the presentations it because clear that many in the audience were unfamiliar with John Mighton’s JUMP Math program and the results it has achieved for math education.  I had just assumed that everyone there would have been as excited as I was to hear him speak, having read his book when it came out in 2007 after he was interviewed on All in a Day. I knew of Joel Westheimer as the education columnist for CBC Ottawa, but knew little about his new book. So much was shared over the course of the evening that I am certain everyone left having learned something new and with much to think about.    

 

John Mighton described his experiences with JUMP Math which started as a tutoring group and expanded as he gained experience with students in classrooms, and looked to empirical evidence for best teaching practices.  The results he has seen are remarkable, and really dispute the age-old idea that only an elite few can do math.  His book The End of Ignorance (and its predecessor The Myth of Abilityare both fascinating reads that really disrupt much of what we believe to be truth about education. 

 

John Mighton described what it was like going into a classroom as a playwright and realizing that a classroom of students can become an audience.  When students are all learning together as the lesson unfolds it is much like they are the audience for a play engaging in the story of what they are learning. Yes, they even engage in the story of math.  Mighton discussed the synergy that happens in the moments when the students are learning together, and how that is missing when students only learn independently or at staggered rates due to some being left behind.  Mighton walked us through a mini math lesson, giving us a glimpse of what we was referring to, the isolation of being left out as others solve a question you don’t get, and then the collective excitement as you all work through the concepts to achieve the answer together. To me this was a magical revelation to consider, so often when we are worried about the end goal of education we forget about the experience and the value found in the experience itself.  This is something that came up throughout the evening, the reminder that education is not about the destination, but the journey.

 

Joel Westheimer was at ease with the audience and a very engaging speaker.  More than a few times I was so caught up with what he was saying that I forgot to focus on my notes.  For example I started writing about the three main things he outlined from his book and only clearly wrote down the first, which was the current obsession with standardization in education.  The topic of standardized testing is heavily covered in the news right now, and Westheimer spoke about how the focus on testing has taken many things of great value out of our schools. He spoke of the challenge of testing passion, creativity, critical thinking, art appreciation and many other concepts that are highly valuable but hard to test, and suggested that instead of measuring what we care about, as a society, we have chosen to care about what we can measure. This is no clearer than when discussing school registration with other parents. Every parent I have spoken with about choosing a school for my daughter has mentioned the EQAO scores as if they will tell me whether or not the school is a good fit for my child and family.  When I later asked about choosing a great school the answer was to find one that doesn’t stress grades, or ranking students, and encourages every student to contribute and grow, and his suggestion on how to find a school like this was simple: visit the school and look on the walls, see what the school is choosing to showcase.  That will tell you more about the culture of the school than the test scores, and is the first step in measuring what matters. 

 

The theme of the night was “Education for the 21st Century” and both Westheimer and Mighton shared many great ideas to ensure that no child is left behind in any way that matters, and while both stressed that there are great things happening in schools, it is clear that our students are not being given the education they deserve—yet.

Have you ever gone to an event only to wonder why it isn’t standing room only? As I arrived at the 
Education for the 21st century event I was shocked at how small the crowd was, yes I realize there was 
an important hockey game on, but I still wanted to yell from the roof top “Ottawa, why aren’t you 
here?”.  Even though the venue was less than half full, everyone was engaged and interested in the 
subject matter and before the event started the room was full of lively discussions about education in 
anticipation for the speakers ahead.  Given the level of excitement I was shocked when during the 
presentations it because clear that many in the audience were unfamiliar with John Mighton’s JUMP 
Math program and the results it has achieved for math education.  I had just assumed that everyone 
there would have been as excited as I was to hear him speak, having read his book when it came out in 
2007 after he was interviewed on All in a Day. I knew of Joel Westheimer as the education columnist for 
CBC Ottawa, but knew little about his new book. So much was shared over the course of the evening 
that I am certain everyone left having learned something new and with much to think about.    
John Mighton described his experiences with JUMP Math which started as a tutoring group and 
expanded as he gained experience with students in classrooms, and looked to empirical evidence for 
best teaching practices.  The results he has seen are remarkable, and really dispute the age old idea that 
only an elite few can do math.  His book The End of Ignorance (and its predecessor The Myth of Ability) 
are both fascinating reads that really disrupt much of what we believe to be truth about education.  
John Mighton described what it was like going into a classroom as a playwright and realizing that a 
classroom of students can become an audience.  When students are all learning together as the lesson 
unfolds it is much like they are the audience for a play engaging in the story of what they are learning. 
Yes, they even engage in the story of math.  Mighton discussed the synergy that happens, in the 
moments when the students are learning together, and how that is missing when students only learn 
independently or at staggered rates due to some being left behind.  Mighton walked us through a mini 
math lesson, giving us a glimpse of what we was referring to, the isolation of being left out as others 
solve a question you don’t get, and then the collective excitement as you all work through the concepts 
to achieve the answer together. To me this was a magical revelation to consider, so often when we are 
worried about the end goal of education we forget about the experience and the value found in the 
experience itself.  This is something that came up throughout the evening, the reminder that education 
is not about the destination, but the journey. 
Joel Westheimer was at ease with the audience and a very engaging speaker.  More than a few times I 
was so caught up with what he was saying that I forgot to focus on my notes.  For example I started 
writing about the three main things he outlined from his book and only clearly wrote down the first, 
which was the current obsession with standardization in education.  The topic of standardized testing is 
heavily covered in the news right now, and Westheimer spoke about how the focus on testing has taken 
many things of great value out of our schools. He spoke of the challenge of testing passion, creativity, 
critical thinking, art appreciation and many other concepts that are highly valuable but hard to test, and 
suggested that instead of measuring what we care about, as a society, we have chosen to care about 
what we can measure. This is no clearer than when discussing school registration with other parents. 
Every parent I have spoken with about choosing a school for my daughter has mentioned the EQAO 
scores as if they will tell me whether or not the school is a good fit for my child and family.  When I later 
asked about choosing a great school the answer was to find one that doesn’t stress grades, or ranking 
students, and encourages every student to contribute and grow, and his suggestion on how to find a 
school like this was simple: visit the school and look on the walls, see what the school is choosing to 
showcase.  That will tell you more about the culture of the school than the test scores, and is the first 
step in measuring what matters.  
The theme of the night was “Education for the 21st Century” and both Westheimer and Mighton shared 
many great ideas to ensure that no child is left behind in any way that matters, and while both stressed 
that there are great things happening in schools, it is clear that our students are not being given the 
education they deserve—yet.

An Evening with Nancy Huston

It was a great pleasure and privilege to hear Nancy Huston speak at the Ottawa International Writers Festival last night. 

 

Catherine Voyer-Léger, the director general of the organization of French Canadian editors, introduced our guest and gave those not so familiar with Nancy Huston's work a very good overview. Ms. Huston has written around 50 works of fiction, poetry, plays, essays and other non fiction. Born in Alberta, she moved to Paris at a young age and has lived there ever since, becoming an award-winning author in France, Europe as well as in Canada. In recent years, she explains later, her interest in her Canadian roots and the English language has grown substantially, due in part to her researching her family background in Alberta. She has visited northern Alberta recently, discussed with local First Nations people the impact of the oilsands on their lives and livelihood. In this context we heard that she recently sold her personal archives to the National Archives. With the funds she has established a foundation, Awinita, with the objective to assist education and training programs for First Nation women, victims of abuse and neglect. The Foundation's name is that taken from one of the characters in her latest novel, Black Dance.

 

To provide the audience with a taste for her writing (and reading) Nancy Huston read from her latest book, Bad Girl: Classes de littérature.  While classified as a récit, which is a very broad term for what the book represents, it is probably better defined as a kind of literary fictionalized autobiography or " autofiction " - not a term the author is very fond of. In response to Catherine's question why she wrote the book in the second person, Ms. Huston explained that for her the first person voice would not have worked. Referring to, for example, Rimbaud's " Je est un autre " (I is an other), she felt that what she had written was one version of reality, that she created one possible path through it by collecting and assembling many small pebbles and stones along the way. The structure of Bad Girl matches this approach very well, as it is written in form of vignettes of varying length, with much white space on the pages. The addressee of Huston's musings is little Dorrit, the name she gives her own foetus, and that she guides from conception to birth. What emerges is part family history over several generations, part recounting of memory about her own growing up, about her mother and father and also, directly and indirectly, a select commentary on issues of the wider society over the decades she has lived through. Ms. Huston has a very expressive reading voice, so it was a great pleasure to listen to her interpretation of the text: sometimes very funny, ironic, and sometimes with a twinkle in her eyes.

 

In the ensuing discussion the author elaborated on her preference for the second person voice. It gives her a certain distance to the subject matter but also addresses the reader more directly. She hopes that the reader can see him/herself in little Dorrit and what she learns from the adult version of herself.

 

Many more topics were addressed in the conversation between Catherine Voyer-Léger and Ms. Huston, too many to reflect here. Always referring back to the author's writing, the audience was treated to more insights and reflections. Seen by many as a strong feminist, she told us that, in fact, in recent years she has been thinking and writing more about men and their issues than about women.

 

One topic that spoke to me personally very much was that of living a large part of your life in a different linguistic and cultural context. When Ms. Huston moved to Paris she totally absorbed herself in French and French culture. She hardly used English then. It is only in more recent years and her re-emerging interest in her background and family history that she returned to English to live parallel to French. While she referred to herself for a long time as "French" she now thinks of herself as "foreigner - étranger" and she moved to a multilingual and multicultural part of Paris. Her life changed in other ways to and she feels healthier and happier now than she has been years back. She admitted, smiling, it might also have something to do with her partner of a few years, the Swiss painter Guy ObersonTogether they have engaged in several new projects, such as her poetry collection, beautifully illustrated by him, TerrestresThis volume explores the connections between human life and the environment as well as the animal aspects of human beings and their animal behaviour.

 

During her stay in Canada Nancy Huston will participate in the Festival Metropolis Bleu in Montréal. She will be the recipient of the prestigious Met Bleu Grand Prix littéraire international 2015 . She is especially delighted to receive this honour because it is the only truly bilingual international literary prize.

 

A Journey Poised to Take: An Evening with Jane Urquhart

Photo credit: Daniel Bezalel Richardsen

 

There is a black-and-white photograph of Kenneth standing in sunlight beside a prairie railway station. He is loose-limbed and smiling, happy maybe, or at least unconcerned about the journey he seems poised to take. ( The Night Stages , p. 3)

 

Thus began the evening with host and author Charlotte Gray, and Jane Urquhart, author of bestselling novels Away (1997) and The Stone Carvers (2010). Urquhart, reading from her newest novel, The Night Stages (2015), was composed and collected at the podium in Christ Church Cathedral Ottawa, where the first special event of the spring Writers Fest season unfurled.

 

Reading with a muted passion, Urquhart introduced her audience to Kenneth Lochhead, one of the central characters of The Night Stages and a fictionalized interpretation of the real-life Canadian artist (1926-2006). This Ottawa boy would grow up to paint a 72-foot-long mural in the “crossroads of the world” – the international airport in Gander, Newfoundland – titled Flight and Its Allegories. In 1958, Urquhart later explained, this airport was the hub for all airplane flights between Europe and North America for the very practical reason of refuelling. Lochhead’s colourful mural would have greeted all the weary international travellers in transit.

 

Such is the case for Tamara, the English protagonist of The Night Stages. Tam, having fled the west coast of Ireland for New York City, is grounded in Gander for three days due to fog. With the mural as her companion, she reflects on her past as she waits for the fog to lift in order to seek a new future. She is leaving behind a relationship and a home, in full flight from the wild landscape of County Kerry.

 

Urquhart shared that she recently sold her own place in Kerry, a milestone that was bittersweet for her. She reminisced nostalgically on her many years spent writing in her little cottage; the first lyrical draft always in longhand. She has a passionate relationship with Ireland – the people, the landscape, and the poetry interwoven in every aspect of life and integral to understanding and appreciating the island’s rugged beauty. Ireland, she explained, “is a part of the world where people really, really care about family.”

 

Her love for Ireland is apparent in a number of her novels, including The Night Stages. In fact, the Irish landscape becomes itself like a character, telling its own story and influencing those who dwell within it. The second passage that Urquhart chose to read aloud illustrated this, the “marvellous, heartbreaking, toughness of the Kerry landscape.” In this passage, Kieran, the third interwoven story of the novel, has gone up into the mountains. There, along with two of three remaining mountain men, he observes “the hardness of this life, and then the beauty.”[1]  

 

The rugged beauty of Ireland, however, does not prevent people from leaving it. Departure is an underlying current throughout both the novel and evening at Christ Church. The Gander airport, its mural (the inspiration for the novel), Tam’s career as a pilot, Tam fleeing from Kerry, Kieran’s own story of disappearance, and the landscape slowly being depopulated – all these share in common the idea of changing place, departing for elsewhere. Urquhart’s own departure from Ireland came during the writing of this novel. This novel, she acknowledged, is a memorial of sorts. She wanted to honour the people she left behind and mourn the loss caused by leaving.

 

This evening with Urquhart revealed the mind behind the minds of her stories. The insights she gave into her muses for the novel and the real people who inspired several of the characters showed a woman who has few qualms about taking liberties with reality and an artist who knows herself and yet conquers anyways. Michael Kirby, a deeply respected neighbour of Urquhart’s in Kerry, for example, was also Kieran’s bicycle coach in the novel. In truth, he was a fisherman and local poet, but she took care to ensure that he held his genuine character. And in spite of a self-proclaimed “despise for sport”, she understood from near beginning that a bicycle race, the An Post Rás, (“the Irish Tour-de-France”) would play a significant role in revealing the landscape and toxic relationship between two brothers.

 

Urquhart may have departed from Ireland but showed this evening that she has not departed from herself. She shared that when she was writing her first novel back in the 1980s, she truly believed she was writing a prose poem. She has remained true to her lyrical cadence in her eighth story today. She still sculpts words into art and captures passion in poetic melody in order to share with her readers the significance of beauty remaining long after a leaving has taken place. “Writing,” she said when pondering the changes in her life, “is a way of making that which is fragile and fleeting permanent.”



[1] Urquhart, The Night Stages (McClelland & Stewart, Random House of Canada: Toronto, 2015): 159

 

The Right to Be Cold: One Woman’s Story of Protecting Her Culture, the Arctic and the Whole Planet

I always love the anticipatory buzz of the events of the Writers Festival. Perhaps I begin every event review with those same words, but that is because they are true. The selection of events is diverse and fascinating, and none so much as this pre-festival event with Sheila Watt-Cloutier, who is, to say the very least, a distinguished and engaging speaker.

 

As with many of the other events of the Writers Festival, this event took place at Centretown United Church. Often the beauty and acoustics of such old churches are merely a surfeit. On Tuesday, however, those acoustics were more important than ever due to the opening performance of traditional dance and throat singing from the Nunavut Sivuniksavut students. This was my first time hearing throat singing, which I found haunting and beautiful, and an excellent introduction and connection to Watt-Cloutier’s life and work.

 

As Intuit Tapiriit Kanatami president Terry Audla shared in the introduction to this event, Sheila Watt-Cloutier was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, has thirteen honorary doctorates, and possesses a seemingly endless list of other achievements. She is an environmental activist and educator, and is strongly connected to the Ottawa community based on how many familiar faces she pointed out at her event.

 

Watt-Cloutier’s first book, The Right to be Cold, may initially be perceived as a book about the environment and climate change. As Writers Festival founder Neil Wilson commented, however, The Right to be Cold is more of a love letter and memoir than an environmental treatise. Watt-Cloutier made clear that a large part of her intent behind her book The Right to be Cold was to alleviate the burden placed on the current generation because they carry so much trauma from their predecessors. There was much talk at this event about having Watt-Cloutier’s book incorporated into school curriculum, which I whole-heartedly agree with.

 

When speaking about the book’s content, Watt-Cloutier made sure to emphasize that putting the challenges of the Inuit people into context was important. Watt-Cloutier explained that, contrary to what many people believe, it is not just a way of life that has been taken from the Inuit communities and they aren’t able to adapt. In fact, Watt-Cloutier points out, Inuit people are highly adaptable due to the importance of hunting within Inuit culture.

 

People have asked Watt-Cloutier why she spends so much of her time and energy focusing on the environment when so many other social problems exist. Her consistent response is that she does not see any disconnect between environmental problems and social ones. One of the examples she provided was that of the seismic testing in Clyde River. The Clyde River community is concerned that seismic testing would harm or frighten away the marine animals upon which Clyde River residents depend upon for survival. Although the seismic testing certainly concerns the environment, Watt-Cloutier shows that there are also deep connections to the lives of people. Watt-Cloutier also mentioned of her work with Many Strong Voices, a fascinating and important initiative that works to connect Inuit communities where the ice is melting to small island nations where the land is sinking.

 

Although the last thing most Canadians are thinking of at this time of year is how badly they want to be cold, Sheila Watt-Cloutier’s book will cause them to consider the cold in a different light, and to side with Watt-Cloutier with believing that we all have more in common than we think. For those curious about the specific content of the book, Naomi Klein’s review of The Right to be Cold is well worth the read.

 

Flowers for Hitler: Andrew Morton's 17 Carnations

On a rainy morning a few weeks ago, I wandered into the Metropolitain Brasserie off Sussex for the Ottawa International Writers Festival first literary luncheon of 2015. It was perhaps one of the most exciting lunches I have attended because earlier that week I had attended a Literary Café at York Street Public School that showcased the work of the grade three class we have been running a pilot project with for the last ten weeks. The desks were lined up to showcase the comic books and short stories the children had created in the workshops. The students sat before a roomful of parents and siblings ready to read their group short stories and share what they had learned.

 

Over the last year that I have been working for the festival and I have attended several of our in-school author visits, but our Write On! pilot project was the first time I got to see what students can produce if they are given the opportunity to let their imagination run wild and work with professional writers and artists. So, attending our literary luncheon with Andrew Morton, I was full of hope knowing this event would not only be fascinating but would help give back to Ottawa students.

 

When I arrived Andrew Morton was sitting at the bar talking with Development Director Neil Wilson, but their quiet chat didn’t last for long. As our lunch guests began to arrive, many of them recognised Morton and took this pre-lunch opportunity to snap a photo of themselves and the acclaimed journalist and writer. Morton was charming and looked pleased to pose with the women as they came in and to sign books.

 

The Morton luncheon was a sold out even and the tables were bustling with chatter. Among the guests were many members of The Monarchist League of Canada, including the head of the Ottawa Branch Mary de Toro, and acclaimed journalist Don Newman. Over salad and wine, Morton dished about his research for 17 Carnations with host Jayne Watson, as the last few guests arrived.

 

As the salad plates were cleared away, Morton and Watson took centre stage and launched into the story of the abdication of Edward VIII. Edward was a reluctant king, Morton explained, who probably never wanted to be king. The story behind his abdication is his poorly regarded love affair with Wallis Simpson. Simpson was an American socialite who was not only a divorcée, but still married while she was courting Edward. When Edward became king he insisted on marrying Simpson, but Parliament and the Royal Family would not hear of it. Edward was headstrong though and when he abdicated before his coronation his love for Simpson was cited as the reason.

 

There is no reason they could not have been together, Morton explained, if Edward had waited until after his coronation; when he could have quietly ushered Simpson into his life, as one such royal has done in recent years. A chuckle went around the crowd.

 

The shadowy part of this story of course, is the Nazi connection. Simpson was not simply a lover who fell into Edward’s path but a woman put in his way by Hitler. For years, Morton recounted, Hitler had been looking for ways to win the sympathies of Britain and he saw that in Edward. Simpson was sympathetic to the Nazi cause before she met Edward, having previously a member of the Nazi Party, Hitler saw her as an ideal partner to woo Edward. And Edward was wooed. After abdicating he spent time with Hitler in Germany until he was pulled out of the region by Churchill.

 

The story of their marriage, of their strange demands and attempts to stay in touch with Hitler make for an interesting narrative, but the most enlightening parts were when Morton shined a light on the real Edward. He recounted a visit Edward took to Canada in his late teens, before he was king. It was probably one of the only times Edward was free, Morton suggested. He didn’t have to think about his duties, or conform to expectations. Canada was in this instance an idyllic land where Edward could truly be himself. Morton also noted that Edward had been quite close to Churchill, though he did not take Churchill’s advice about Simpson, they inevitably began to grow apart.

 

Throughout the talk, the crowd laughed and I could tell that many of them were familiar with the history and relationships within the Royal Family. This became even more apparent during the questions and answer period where a few men in the audience chimed in to provide further insight into the goings-on of the clan.

 

After the chat and the meal, I was pleased to talk with one of the men who had been keen on providing such insights. I asked him what had attracted him to this event and to my surprise he hadn’t come because of the Royal Family but because of Wallis Simpson. “She knew what she was doing,” he told me, “she plotted her life and marriages out very carefully. I just find her to be a fascinating person.” And so the saying goes, behind every great man there is an equally great woman.


The Great Escape: A Canadian Story by Ted Barris

Everyone knows the story of The Great Escape. Forever enshrined in cinematic history, the iconic movie tells the tale of a group of prisoners-of-war digging a tunnel underneath their containment camp and escaping their German captors. But is that really the true story? History tells us a different tale.

 

As author Ted Barris states, “Hollywood never lets facts get in the way of a good story.” The fact of the matter is that many of the key players in the true story of The Great Escape —the diggers, scroungers, forgers and stooges—were Canadian.

 

This is Ted Barris’ third time at the Ottawa Writers Festival and, as soon as he begins speaking, I can see why he has been invited to return. The energy and passion with which he talks about history—about this story in particular and the men who conspired to make it happen—is contagious. He talks about the men as if they are close family members, his voice soft with compassion as he speaks their names; Roger Bushell, Wally Floody, Gordon Kidder, Johnny Weir, Tony Pengelly, Kingsley Brown, Frank Sorenson and Don McKim—to name but a few. And he has become like family to them too; in 2011, Barris was awarded a Minister of Veteran’s Affairs Commendation, chosen and honoured by the veterans themselves.

 

The setting of this remarkable story is Stalag Luft III, a German POW camp in Sagan, Poland. The Germans thought that housing all their worst flight-risk prisoners in one place would be a good idea, and the resulting compound was built with escape deterrence in mind. The barracks were raised up off the ground on stilts so that the patrolling Luftwaffe guards could look under the buildings to make sure the prisoners weren’t tunnelling beneath them.

 

Microphones were buried in the ground around the barracks so that any sounds could be detected. What the Germans didn’t take into account, however, was that by putting their most troublesome, inventive and brilliant prisoners in one place, they were forming a dream team of escape artists.

 

Just one year after it was built, Stalag Luft III housed 5,000 Commonwealth airmen. In the story of the Great Escape, approximately 2,000 of these men would play some part. The sheer scale of effort and hard work that went into the planning of that single night in 1944 is astounding. The men who were involved covered every detail meticulously; from the forged work permits with near-authentic stamps created by carving into wooden boot heels, to the cardboard suitcases and dyed and modified prison uniforms to make them appear like civilians.

 

The ingenuity of the men, and their unrelenting commitment to their cause, meant that on the night of March 24, 1944 — 71 years ago today — 80 of the prisoners crawled through one of the four tunnels they had dug, 360 foot long ‘Harry’, and were able to escape the camp. However, the ending is not happy but tragic. Upon finding out about the escape, Hitler ordered the capture and execution of every man who had fled.

 

In the end, because there were German POWs held by Allied Forces and the Germans feared retaliation, 50 of the 80 escapees were murdered. They were shot, cremated, and buried in a corner of the compound that they had spent so long planning to be free from.

 

The Great Escape is a story of teamwork, companionship, and the ability to never give up hope, even in the bleakest and most hopeless of situations. At the site of the former Stalag Luft III camp , the barracks, guard towers, and wire fencing may be gone but the memory of The Great Escape—and the men who took part in it—are commemorated by a monument often wreathed in flowers.

 

The previously untold stories, now forever remembered in the work of Barris. Not Hollywood, but history.