“So, take us back to 1914,” stated Adrian Harewood.
“I wasn’t there, Adrian!” quipped Olive Senior to peals of laughter from the packed audience who had already been primed to Senior taking mock umbrage at Harewood’s suggestion that her project began “decades” ago.
Senior, was aptly described by Harewood as a “decathlete” of writing; having prodigiously started at age 19 at Jamaica’s venerable institution The Gleaner, she is the author of numerous novels, poetry collections, plays and works of non-fiction. The Festival Café was brimming with those eager to explore the narrative she weaves in her beautifully produced Dying to Better Themselves: West Indians and the Building of the Panama Canal. It is an untold story of how tens of thousands of emigrants from the various mostly English-speaking Caribbean nations, along with Martinique, played a significant role in building up one of the great engineering marvels that is the Panama Canal, which just celebrated its centenary last year.
I recall vividly the reverent tones in which my father, my uncles, and their assorted friends discussed the dominant West Indian cricket team during the 1970s and 1980s during my childhood in India. It was only much later that I came to realize that the West Indies as such comprised not of a political entity but a deeper cultural unit that may well have had its beginnings leading up to the influx into Panama in the early twentieth century. Speaking of which, Harewood pointed out that the great George Headley, considered one of the best batsmen to ever suit up, was born in Colón, Panama.
The seed for the book was planted in Senior when she was just four and was visiting her mother’s side of the family, which had an uncle who plied his trade in Panama. She recalls seeing colourful stamps embossing the envelopes of letters sent by relations with money and wistful longing. Her research for the project began a few decades ago but went dormant following the theft of her many cassette tapes that contained the oral catalogue of the many who had been a part of that experience. While pursuing other endeavours, she was constantly reminded of “your-Panama-book-when-is-it-out?” best exemplified by the pertinacious pleading of a fan who reminded Senior of the 2014 centenary, prompting her to dust off the cobwebs and bring it to fruition.
Senior held her audience in rapt attention with her delectable patois lilt, and her sagacious charm. Some of the facts she described were astounding: the fact that the lock canal system created a lake that was larger than the island of Barbados, or the fact that St. Lucia lost nearly 10% of its total population to Panama. The abolition of slavery in the British Empire did not improve the day to day realities of the predominantly black population of the Caribbean, and many, forced by poverty and lack of opportunity, decided to leave for other opportunities overseas. What began with the construction of the Panamanian railroad in the 1850s reached its zenith when the Americans took over the failure of the French to build a canal that would link the Atlantic and the Pacific.
There were many hardships for these new workers. They faced segregation in churches for the first time – instituted by the Americans who imported Jim Crow from the South— and in other sectors of society as well. Wages for blacks were fixed at a fraction of what whites earned, coupled with no prospect for improvement. It was an unforgiving landscape with poor sanitation, rampant malaria, and many deadly Panamanian fauna populating the rivers and lush jungles. Yet, Senior’s story is not just a tale of woe, but also one of accomplishment. These West Indians built a strong civic life, faithfully sent remittances (despite their lower salary) back home for the most part, maintained racehorses, and intermarried with those from other islands forming a larger West Indian identity for perhaps the first time. Most men left without organized recruitment or documentation, where in those days—much like Marlon Brando’s world of stevedores in On The Waterfront —one just boarded a ship and left, just like that. What is even more remarkable is the amount of women who left of their own volition in search of a better life. Some of the comical features occurred when these emigrés returned home. The mischievous Colón man, which many in the audience sang along the words to with Senior, is a representation of the paradoxical realities and characters which accompanied this cross-pollination.
There was a question from the audience as to how to make this history better known, and Senior mentioned that there may be a children’s edition in the form of a graphic novel that is in the works. By reminding us that history comes alive when we start to have curiosity about our forefathers’ and foremothers’ times, aspirations, meanderings, struggles and accomplishments, Senior modelled how good history can and ought to be done.
In just over an hour last Saturday night, four Canadian short story writers tackled some big literary questions. What draws us to the short story and how do we define it? Steered by CBC's Sandra Abma, Mark Anthony Jarman, Steven Hayward, Heather O'Neill and Guy Vanderhaeghe gave brief readings then got into dissecting the art form.
Steven read from the introduction to his collection which tried to explain the particular pull he felt to write short fiction. He likened it to the temptation of a bacon breakfast sandwich, because just like his doctor told him to avoid the sandwich, his publisher suggested he avoid the short story if he wanted to live. For there is no future in the short story and certainly no money, but still authors succumb.
Heather O’Neill, known previously for her novels Lullabies for Little Criminals and The Girl Who Was Saturday Night , chimed in with the advice to the audience that editors are not asking for anything unless it’s cookbooks and books by celebrities, so everyone might as well write what they want.
The evening was full of tidbits for aspiring short story writers, including how to pick the right section to read at an event, how to know when you’ve finished a short story, and what makes a group of short stories a collection. Good short story collections often have a thread that ties the stories together. Mark’s first version of his new collection, Knife Party at Hotel Europa , contained stories that were not part of the Italian theme, which were then taken out and replaced by others to flesh out the concept. Heather’s collection Daydreams of Angels is less gritty than her novels, and explores origin stories and fables mixed with her own family’s lore. It’s this room for experimentation that is part of the thrill. A good short story does not drag the reptilian tail of the novel it could have been behind it, but short fiction can be a playground. For example, the voice in one of the short stories included in Steven’s collection, To Dance the Beginning of the World , became the central character in his novel Don’t Be Afraid . F or Heather, her novels were set across the street from each other on the corner of Sainte-Catherine and Saint-Laurent in Montreal, while her short stories are sometimes fanciful and now she says she has found the confidence to write a historical novel.
Writers don’t have to agonize over short fiction in the same way as a novel before getting into the writing. Guy said this means he doesn’t have to ask himself: is this the short story for me? Instead, he can just try it out. For him, short stories start with a voice and a good story is always channeled through one consciousness. Often for him that means a first person narrative, his understanding perhaps stemming from his first experiences with stories told by his father around the kitchen table. This understanding growing as he read in the Western tradition, which holds an epiphany moment in the final lines when the emotional impact sets in.
So how do you know when you’ve written a good short story? When you are sick of it. When you feel that if you tinker any more you are going to break it. When it is better than the last story you wrote. According to Guy, stories are like parallel parking. At some point you just need to say, that’s good enough.
It’s false to say there is such a thing as short story perfection. The authors attest that they are always revising, even as they read aloud at such events as the Ottawa Writers Festival. But for readers there is something nearly perfect about the promise short fiction offers, the promise of not being interrupted. Good fiction is like a dream from which you do not want to wake up.
Saturday morning in the Christ Church Cathedral. Three heavy hitting political critics led in a discussion of democracy in Canada by well-known Canadian television host, Don Newman.
Before the talk, fiery snippets of conversations about civic life and democracy circulate the room. The crowd sits upright and watches the stage where Mark Bourrie, Brooke Jeffrey and Brent Rathgeber sit smiling.
All of the panel participants have strong views on Canadian politics. The titles of their books, Kill the Messengers: Stephen Harper’s Assault on Your Right to Know, Dismantling Canada: Stephen Harper’s New Conservative Agenda, Irresponsible Government: The Decline of Parliamentary Democracy in Canada, don’t beat around the bush. They sit at the ready, looking alert and excited to be surrounded by interested parties. The panel is weighted to academics but Brent Rathgeber, a former conservative MP, brings first-hand experience of working with the current government.
Mark Bourrie, a longtime academic, got involved in the democracy discourse through PhD work on WWII media censorship. Reflecting on the similarities between Canada’s current media/political landscape and that of the Mackenzie King era, Bourrie decided to apply his thesis framework to the contemporary context. He cites the frailty of our media landscape and a party determined to stonewall the work of all MPs as creating a dangerous situation. A round of applause erupts as Bourrie affirms that we are in a downward spiral with citizens disconnected from elected representatives and representatives from information.
A failed MP bid in 1993 saw Brooke Jeffrey representing the Liberals in debates with Conservatives across British Columbia, helping her understand Reform and New Conservative thinking. She explained Harper’s early 1990s role in the Conservative establishment and his falling out with the powers that be as a brief period relegated to the political wilderness before his triumphant return and meteoric rise as a leader. Through the two minority governments and the current majority, Jeffrey assures us that the parties' dictatorial tendencies have only increased. Questioning the crowd she wondered who these Conservatives are, why they are doing what they are doing and how they have changed the face of Canada so quickly.
Brent Rather talked like an insider on the current government, explaining the gradual changes in parliament that have made being an MP more difficult. The increase in powerful cabinet committees made of members of the executive and unelected political staffers doing the bulk of work on bills rose in the 80s and 90s and is at its worst today. He calmly explained how parliamentarians are overloaded by massive bills and the clever ways the executive spins the opposition’s votes on those bills.
How though, is Harper so popular despite his actions? Don Newman prods curiously as the crowd nods in agreement and exasperation. Answers are clear and swift: Bourrie fingers a media obsessed with people and not ideas, as well as political bickering from a “little town in the bush” that is easy to tune out of for the rest of Canada.
Jeffrey contends the Harper government’s excellent control of information and creation of an in-house, parallel information universe that has taken advantage of an increasingly anemic Canadian media to disseminate the party line. This strategy and others were borrowed from elite American political strategists who helped the Conservatives focus on honing their appeal to specific target groups who could win them the seats necessary in an election. This type of campaign was only possible thanks to a heavy coin purse filled by public and private funds.
Rathgeber, the inside man, echoed Jeffrey, saying that the party has been very effective at micro-targeting specific groups. He stated that they don’t listen, and don’t need to listen, to people outside those target groups. All of the panelists were squarely supportive of one another, warriors with pens fighting the same battle, eager to spread information and get people thinking.
Newman, always affable, points out that a weak opposition helped along the current situation. Jeffrey, a former Liberal strategist, agrees and takes the argument a step further, saying the Liberals have gotten caught in the parable of Conservative thinking: all government is negative, no deficit and lower taxes are the best a federal government can offer. Jeffrey urged them to rebel and face this head on, creating a discourse of increased funding and programs to create a better Canada.
The talk was wrapped up with the infamous topic of voter suppression. Beyond Pierre Poutine and robocalls, Bourrie charged that the story was woefully under-investigated by Elections Canada and under-reported, thanks in part to the poor state of journalism and journalistic training in Canada. Last minute voting booth location changes to the obscure (second floor of a Superstore) or exclusionary (gated community center) in the riding of Oakville alone are emblematic of the problem.
There is a dispirited air in the room as the talk winds down. The crowd wants to know how they can change the current situation. Our authors give faith; most changes by the Conservatives are reversible. There are a growing number of people, like them, keeping tabs and reporting on the situation.
Jay Ingram has been widely recognized for his work. He takes complicated concepts and findings in science and translates the information into language we all can understand. His outstanding ability to do just that was evident at this Writers Festival event on Sunday evening.
When it comes to our healthcare, we routinely hear of new findings in chronic disease management or of a certain diet can bring us long lasting life. Incredibly, what was touted as good for us yesterday is bad for us today. We long for a trusted source of credible information about health and the health of our loved ones. If you want to learn about "A Natural History of Aging and Alzheimer's" (the book's subtitle), then Jay Ingram's The End of Memory is the book for you.
Ingram wrote the book because he believes "it's a rare person who hasn't been touched" by Alzheimer's disease. He wanted to raise awareness and to describe some aspects of normal aging; namely, that some memory loss is normal. Both Jay Ingram and host Lawrence Wall recounted their experiences with the disease. Each of them had a parent who lived and died with Alzheimer's disease.
Dr. Alois Alzheimer first described the disease that would be named after him in 1906. Now, over 100 years later we know the disease affects millions around the world yet we have very limited knowledge of what causes it and there is no cure in sight. Alzheimer's makes up 75% of all known forms of dementia. The vast majority of Alzheimer's disease diagnoses are known as 'late onset', meaning they occur after the age of 65. The current prevalence of the disease is 1 in 10 at age 65 and 1 in 3 at age 80.
Ingram spoke of a number of common misunderstandings about the disease. Some say if you have seen one Alzheimer's patient you've seen them all when in fact the disease and its impact are unique to each individual. Within the treatment community the more common phrase is " if you've seen one Alzheimer's patient, you've seen one Alzheimer's patient". Over the years there have been theories about what causes and what can prevent or delay Alzheimer's. At one point it was thought that aluminum from sources such as cooking pots contributed to Alzheimer's. The theory has since fallen apart. As for whether or not doing crossword or Sudoku puzzles has any impact on staving off the disease, perspectives are mixed.
There are many unknowns. It's not clear just when the disease starts. In the short term, there are no promising treatments on the horizon. There have, however, been interesting findings that can predict the likelihood of Alzheimer's disease. For example, it appears the further you were able to go in school, the more the chances of getting the disease are reduced. The exact correlation between the two is unknown.
Ingram pointed to a trio of questions everybody has about Alzheimer's disease. What are my chances of getting the disease? What can I do stave off the disease (response: three simple things)? And, if I can't stave off the disease, what should I anticipate? Ingram, in turn, addressed each of the questions, leaving the audience with a combination of hope and frustration. We hope that the current evidence about three simple things we can do to prevent or delay the disease stands up over time. It is frustrating we aren't close to a cure or effective treatment.
As for those three things that have been proven to stave off Alzheimer's disease? You'll need to pick up a copy of the book to get the full story.
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 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.
“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 Bonjay, Craig Finn from The Hold Steady (I saw a few “The Hold Steady saved my life” t-shirts), Rose Cousins, Elliot Brood, isKwé, 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 numbe—a short story about aquaman that Neal loaded onto his iPod after finding the record at a garage sale—lacked the hilarity and verve of the on-stage dance party that happened in 2013 with the same piece. But that’s why we—and Neal—love 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.
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.
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 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.
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 Oberson. Together they have engaged in several new projects, such as her poetry collection, beautifully illustrated by him, Terrestres. This 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.