Music can move us to tears. A beautiful view can take our breath away. A chase scene in a film can make us sweat. The amount of things we humans find compelling (from religions to cartoons) is almost innumerable, but cognitive scientist Jim Davies tells us that they all share similar qualities, which he outlines as a unified ‘theory of compellingness’ in his new book, Riveted: The Science of Why Jokes Make Us Laugh, Movies Make Us Cry, and Religion Makes Us Feel One with the Universe.
It is noon on a Saturday but Jim Davies has drawn a healthy crowd made up of fans of popular science and Jim’s own students, who come outfitted in black shirts emblazoned with “Carleton Cognitive Science” on the back. It is clear that they already find their professor to be compelling, and they have formed something of a cheering squad for him.
Davies is introduced by poet Stephen Brockwell, who details his somewhat unique academic background: a B.A. in philosophy, an M.A. in psychology and a Ph.D. in computer science. All of his academic work has led him to become an associate professor of Cognitive Science at Carleton University and the director of the Science of Imagination Laboratory here in Ottawa. He is a thin, tall man who is deeply aware of his thinness and height, as evidenced by several jokes at his own expense.
His idea that the things we find compelling share common qualities has roots in evolutionary biology and psychology, and he uses gossip as an example. Gossip, Davies explains, is universal and it is almost always correct. Psychologists call gossip ‘strategic knowledge,’ because we humans live in social environments and gossip helps us to form bonds with other humans. Gossip knits us together, and it is undeniably compelling. Another example Davies explained to the crowd had to do with Finding Nemo, a children’s film that made him cry. It is a movie about an animated fish, and we are moved to tears by Nemo’s struggle. Why? Davies tells us it is a bit like an optical illusion. Cognitive science explains that when we see films, we forget that what we are seeing isn’t real, and our emotional reaction becomes real. Our minds don’t know the difference between fiction and reality.
It is the same reason that a vast majority of paintings feature people. And why religions are largely based on anthropomorphized beings who seem to know everything a veteran gossip would know. Religions, books, music, car crashes, celebrity gossip, myths, and alien abductions are all compelling to us because they deal with human drama.
Davies stops short of telling us what exactly makes something compelling (no matter how compelling you are, if you give away too much, no one will want to read the book), inviting us to read Riveted for a full outline of his theory, but he does an excellent job of igniting curiosity and conversation. He merely hints at his idea of a “psychological immune system,” which, he hopes, the average person would develop to combat against compellingness. A sort of litmus test to be employed when watching the news or reading an article (“I believe this, but why do I believe it”).
While we may have to read more to gain a deeper understanding of Davies’ theory, judging by his rapt audience, and perhaps against his own wishes, he is compelling.
The screen above the stage showed the audience a picture of a little eleven-year old boy dressed modestly, crying tears of exhaustion, hopelessness and fear. Sitting in a comfortable chair on the stage in a suit and tie was Tenzin, a student of translation and political studies at the University of Westminster in London, England remembering the moment depicted in the photograph when his and his older brother Pasang’s quest for freedom had run into a cruel impasse. “Look at Tenzin, [only] 11 on the screen and he is now [here with us]; he’s wonderful,” said Nick Gray, an award-winning documentary-maker and now first-time author of A True Story: Escape from Tibet, encouraging a warm round of applause echoing through Knox Presbyterian Church on a soggy Saturday afternoon.
Prompted by the host, his sister Charlotte Gray , Nick read a short passage from the book which he wrote several years after the documentary had been made as it is “the only book of its kind,” taking the reader on a long tiring journey through the most daunting escape route in the world, the Himalayas. The passage Nick shared described an encounter of Tenzin and Pasang with the Chinese guards. Soaked, beaten, distressed, hungry and frightened, Tenzin was losing every hope of ever achieving freedom. At that moment he wished to go back to their village to live with their mother and work in the fields but Pasang offered an alternative: they were going to persist and pursue studies in a monastery in Lhasa. Thus, the treacherous journey continued.
Nick met them on the top of a mountain pass after the boys had already spent over three months climbing through an extremely difficult terrain struggling to reach safety and freedom. Sadly, this was nothing unusual; in fact, one third of Tibetan escapees are children who set out on a hike across the mountains wearing pathetic shoes, suffering from snow blindness, and often perishing during their brave flight from Chinese oppression. Having listened to the story from both Nick and Tenzin’s perspectives, it became hard to believe that the well-educated multilingual young man sitting before us had endured so much in his childhood. It took Tenzin and Pasang months to get to India only to find out Tenzin was going to have to return and face all the embarrassment and abuse on Chinese hands again due to inadequate paperwork. Finally, an audience with Dalai Lama allowed both brothers to stay in India as refugees. Tenzin wiped the tears of despair for “the sun came out, our mood suddenly lifted and we saw a new frontier.”
The production of this documentary was unlike any other. In order to be able to show people’s faces without shading them and exposing them to the possibility and danger of execution, abuse or exile, the filming took place outside of Tibet. Tenzin and Pasang, while sensing the involvement of some Westerners in their journey, were not aware of being showcased in a documentary. As a matter of fact, when they first came across Nick, they didn’t recognize the video camera; they did, however, notice a ‘weapon’ on a tripod. It wasn’t until a copy of the video was sent to the monastery through Pasang’s friend in 1996 that Tenzin watched himself on TV for the very first time. The powerful message of the film was spreading through the UK as well as the United States; the documentary was shown repeatedly, including at the State Department and the White House where Hillary Clinton had watched it before her visit to Nepal. Suddenly, the boys began receiving letters, money and even chocolates. Eventually, they were sponsored to come live in England and arrived to London on one cold November afternoon.
The brothers still live there, Pasang working and Tenzin studying, and have visited their mother in Tibet many times since their escape. “She is an amazing, remarkably resilient woman,” says Nick who fondly recalls their first encounter. He smuggled a photograph of him and the Dalai Lama into Tibet. When she saw the picture, she grabbed it and “put it on her head as a blessing.”
What impressed me the most about Tenzin is how sincere, humble and grateful he is – for the crowded subway he has to take to school every day, for the enriching experience the University of Westminster has provided him with, for the opportunities that have been presented to him. While it is important his communication with Tibetan support groups remains limited, I am so glad that he and Nick came to speak to us openly about the difficult destiny of the Tibetan refugees and let us be part of this incredibly touching story of courage, resilience, hope, and friendship.
According to Lynn Coady, writers have two choices when it comes to storytelling: they can gloss over the real, unvarnished ugliness of reality, or they can write honest, uncomfortable stories about real people. Though it hasn’t always won her universal acclaim, Coady is dedicated to the truth.
The crowd in the Kailish Mital Theatre ranges from young to old, but there is an undeniable youthful energy in the air. Carleton’s creative writing undergrads have come out in droves to hear the 2013 Giller prizewinner deliver the annual Munro Beattie Lecture. In doing so, Coady joins a prestigious list of Canadian creative writers and literary critics who have graced the stage since the creation of the lecture in 1985, including Northrop Frye, Jeanette Armstrong, Carol Shields, Mark Kingwell, and Adam Gopnik.
Lynn Coady is an accomplished novelist and short story writer who grew up in Port Hawkesbury, Nova Scotia, and now calls Edmonton home. Hellgoing, her latest short story collection, won the 2013 Scotiabank Giller Prize . It was only the fourth time in the award’s history that a short story collection took home the award.
Her lecture begins with a moment of silence to honour Cpl. Nathan Cirillo and Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent. The crowd falls into a stark and respectful silence for a moment, broken only when Coady remarks that violence in Ottawa (and Canada) is so rare that in some ways she is grateful to not be numb or desensitized to it. It is fitting for an author praised for her unflinching delivery of the honest truth to acknowledge the horrific events that shook Canada this past week. Even in the warm comfort of the theatre, we readers and listeners are reminded of the realities of the world.
She introduces her lecture: “On Storytelling and Discomfort,” joking that those are the only two subjects she can speak about with any real authority. The audience is hers at once, at ease with Coady’s amiable cadence and sense of humour. Her talent for storytelling is evident immediately. In his review of Hellgoing, Steven W. Beattie praised Coady’s “sharp sense of humour,” which “serves to humanize even the most vicious or clueless figures in the book.”
This talent has sometimes been to her detriment. Her 2006 novel Mean Boy, a story about a small town Atlantic Canadian boy obsessed with his poetry professor, was inspired partly by her own interest in deceased Canadian poet John Thompson. The events in her book are fictional; the ties to the real-life Thompson are tenuous at best. During her promotion of Mean Boy, an incident occurred in Sackville, New Brunswick, home of Mount Allison University, where John Thompson had taught. People who had known Thompson had connected the dots in Mean Boy and accused Coady of rifling through the poet’s life and stealing from it. They accused her of behaving immorally. Their complaints were twofold: Jim Arsenault (her main character based loosely on Thompson) was too much like Thompson and also so much unlike the Thompson they knew.
Coady explains that there wasn’t much she could do to convince her critics that she had never intended for ties to John Thompson to be made. In their eyes, she was a thief and a liar. But her painful experience in Sackville led to the creation of her 2011 novel, The Antagonist, in which her main character Rank recognizes himself in the writings of an old friend and sets out to correct his false depiction. In some ways, this novel was Coady’s response to a specific critic in Sackville, and Rank’s journey of discovery is one she hoped said critic would embark on. Rank comes to realize that everyone recalls his or her own version of events and that storytelling, by its nature, is difficult.
Coady believes that our hunger for stories has nothing to do with comfort, though it may feel that way. What we are searching for is the truth. As a reader, she tells us, she responds best to troubling novels. In her question and answer period someone asks her to expand on the idea that she wanted her Sackville critic to understand the challenges of writing. Coady explains that writing a novel is a psychological ordeal. Writers, more than anyone else, need to discover sympathy for unsympathetic characters. They need to spend exorbitant amounts of time on people most of us wouldn’t want to spend any time on. Morality, she says, lies in how an author wields their power. To tell a story is to entertain, but fiction is the one place where we can be honest, whether that honesty is well received is up to the reader. In Coady’s eyes, by being honest, the writer’s job is done.
C’est devant un maigre public de francophones et francophiles, rassemblés au sommet de la tour Desmarais de l’université d’Ottawa, que s’est tenu l’un des premiers événements de langue française de l’histoire du festival. Invitée avec le soutien de l’Alliance française et de l’Ambassade de France, l’auteure et universitaire française Joëlle Pagès-Pindon a habilement réussi à transmettre sa passion—fort bien documentée—pour les nuances de l’œuvre monumentale de Marguerite Duras, figure emblématique de la littérature française du XXe siècle.
S’appuyant sur l’ouvrage posthume Le Livre dit , qu’elle a elle-même recherché, annoté et publié chez Gallimard, Pagès-Pindon a brossé un portrait intime de Duras ainsi que des électrons plus ou moins libres qui gravitaient dans son univers personnel. C’est ainsi que le public, conquis d’avance, a pu savourer anecdotes et révélations sur Yann Andréa, à la fois muse et compagnon improbable de Duras; sur le penchant quasi obsessif (mais si romanesque) de cette dernière pour les amours interdites; et sur les nombreux paradoxes qui animaient Duras dans son art et ses prises de position. En écoutant Pagès-Pindon, on en venait presque à voir Duras au travail, à l’imaginer attablée à son bureau, cherchant à tout exprimer par son écriture et son art, parfois avec la maladresse qu’on lui connaît, mais toujours avec sincérité et précision.
Ne mordant pas à l’hameçon tendu par le public et l’excellente animatrice Catherine Voyer-Léger, l’auteure est demeurée prudente au sujet de l’impact politique des écrits de Duras. Aujourd’hui encore, la seule mention du nom de la célèbre écrivaine suscite souvent une vive controverse en France, en souvenir des polémiques qu’avaient jadis soulevées ses propos tranchés. Pagès-Pindon n’a toutefois pas hésité à reconnaître la contribution de certaines œuvres—pensons notamment à Hiroshima mon amour , ou bien au célèbre L’Amant , qui lui a valu le Goncourt en 1984—à la psyché française de l’après-guerre. Il n’en demeure pas moins probant que l’Asie, qui a tant marqué Duras, s’arrache toujours les dernières traductions de ses œuvres, et sollicite, encore cette année, les lumières de Pagès-Pindon lors de ses grandes tables rondes.
Il était difficile de ne pas voir, en cette soirée, l’incarnation même de l’esprit du festival : un entretien courtois et enjoué avec une auteure accomplie, qui ose consacrer ses talents à l’analyse d’une autre auteure encore d’actualité. Notons par ailleurs la qualité du public qui, bien que clairsemé, a su alimenter la discussion de façon informée et articulée.
Il est à espérer que le festival, ainsi que ses partenaires, poursuivra cette programmation de langue française, et que le public s’y rendra en plus grand nombre. J’y serai certainement.
“F&#!” says Patrick Lane during his master class, and then tells the audience that he once informed his old students that there are no bad words, only dirty minds. Lane, whose collected works came out just a few years ago, follows up with this, his latest masterpiece, Washita. The verses are compelling. The words in his poetry are irresistible for the avid reader to put down. At this, his master class, Lane entrances poet novices, writers, students and professional poets alike with his intellect and craftily weaved works of poetry and insight on the written word.
Host Stephen Brockwell, asked some very insightful questions of Lane, who said that writing poetry offered him the possibility of how to express his life.
Lane emphasised that great readers make great writers, and that this is true of poets he has known. What Lane wants the audience to know is that from his experience, he feels that great poets asked of him to learn how to read their works. It made him ask of himself, "How could the written word evoke emotions?"
“I can write a Patrick Lane poem better than anyone,” says Lane, who has hardly touched his water through his class. We all laugh, but his message of the importance of our uniqueness as poets, as writers to have our own voice and be comfortable with it, sits with me. I soak his words in like a sponge, I sit at the edge of my seat waiting to hear what Mr.Lane has to say next.
Patrick Lane discussed in detail the importance of language in our writing. He covered the fundamentals of writing poetry, the importance of images and symbolism, he spoke of using fragments of syntax, and writing with dramatic presentation. “We all speak poetry, nobody speaks prose,” says Lane.
Patrick Lane’s class was an educational, entertaining event,that I won’t soon forget.
As a special prelude to Ottawa International Writers Festival the Southminster United Church filled to the brim and became the site of a humour-filled conversation between the host Seamus O’Regan and the man applying for the job of Canada’s next Canadian Prime Minister, Leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, Justin Trudeau whose autobiography had appeared on the shelves of bookstores across the country on October 20th.
Not hiding his curiosity of a memoir published at the tender age of 42, Seamus prompted the first-time writer to justify the timing of its release given the approaching federal election of 2015. Choosing laughter to establish rapport with the audience, Trudeau responded by addressing the audience with a series of trivia-like questions about the evening’s host. “Even people well-known to Canadians have stories [we are not familiar with] which allow [us] to trust the judgment of those in the highest representative roles,” said Trudeau. His motivation for filling the blank pages were a few: To share experiences shaping his life, to explain his vision of our country as shaped by meeting Canadians all throughout his life, and to show them that as their representative he understands their issues and concerns.
Trudeau admitted to diligently writing and rewriting each section of the book until a common thread became apparent and the initial choppiness eliminated. Most of the writing took place in the evenings and vacations on his iPad using an external keyboard. It was a “huge endeavour” but the realization that every single word in the publication is his own has been tremendously rewarding. The end goal was not to tell the reader about himself but to find—through careful reflection on the events and people that have affected his life—the ‘common ground’ between Canadians as individuals and citizens bound by a unique set of values directing their approach to the world that defines them.
While criticized for being a campaign document and a mere attempt to brand the politician, Common Ground does not center on policy. Instead, it is meant to express Trudeau’s gratitude to the people of Canada for giving him 35 million shoulders to lean on in a time of family tragedy and to tell Canadians about what experiences and encounters have shaped his current approach to policy. The interview served up amusing previews of some of the anecdotes Trudeau shares in his book, including the memory of Ronald Reagan reading him poems, or Princess Diana visiting 24 Sussex. Justin Trudeau’s charisma and willingness to open up enabled easy bonding with the crowd; it is indeed very difficult not to feel affection for someone who admits to having run into a lamppost on the first date with his now wife.
Not surprisingly, the brief question-answer period that had taken place before over 100 attendees lined up to shake hands with the interviewee and to get their books signed reflected an effort by future voters to address the one pressing issue the book does not address: policy. From surveillance and security through unemployment to the economy in general, Justin Trudeau gained a good sense of what people’s concerns and interests are through encounters such as this one.
In a time when cynicism replaces sincerity, and is wielded a classic political tool, finding common ground with the electorate is very challenging. It is most appropriate that I leave the last word on the subject to the man at the centre of Tuesday evening’s attention who believes that “[while it is possible to] get elected through dividing people, [it is impossible to] govern well when you have divided everyone.”
It was on a bitter and blustery autumn evening that I arrived at the Centretown United Church to hear Douglas Coupland talk about his new book, Kitten Clone: Inside Alcatel-Lucent, about multinational telecommunications company Alcatel-Lucent. Admittedly, a few weeks prior to the event I had never heard of Douglas Coupland before. While he has a cult following in his native Canada, the fact that I hail from jolly old England may have something to do with the fact that his name had never crossed my path.
Regardless of this, I was instantly enthralled by the author whose acerbic wit and hilariously accurate pop culture references had waves of chuckles reverberating through the church. The discussion was led by Ottawa Citizen columnist, Mark Sutcliffe, whose opening question – “how has the Internet changed our brains?” – set the tone for the rest of the evening. Coupland responded that he feels as if the human attention span has somehow dwindled into two and a half minutes, the length of your average pop song for instance, and how he finds himself lost in endless two and a half minute cycles online. I can relate to this assessment having found my own attention span drastically reduce in the past few years from increased Internet use.
In regards to the worldwide usage of the Internet, Coupland noted that humans have begun to build a “global mono-class,” having “rewired our brains in the same way” and thus creating “homogenized thinking.” It’s as if we are building a new country, virtually spanning the globe. Coupland expressed melancholy that ours is the last generation that will know life without the Internet; we straddle two centuries as if they were different worlds – the old and the new. We have now “entered a state of timelessness” no longer defined by decades. The growth of change has increased so exponentially in the past few years; inventions that used to take decades to come to fruition are now created and implemented in a matter of years. We used to believe our children’s’ lives would be much like our own but now the current state of affairs is much different.
Though describing himself as an optimist, Coupland’s answers veered towards the idea that this new “smupid” generation presents a problem – that despite all the technological innovations, it has never been easier to play dumb. Using the analogy that inventions are like asteroids, hurtling towards the earth at great force whether we want them to or not, Coupland connoted the idea that technological progress will be damaging to the human race. Does the Internet offer a wider learning experience or is it holding us back? I suppose the answer can be found in whichever hand the iPad lies in; just because you are able to catch up on celebrity gossip and watch cat videos all day doesn't mean you will.
Coupland revealed he is teaching himself French via Google Translate, and urged the audience to challenge themselves, do what fascinates them, and constantly look for their next learning curve. Though the internet is a solitary endeavour, at the same time it creates and fosters both local and global communities. The ultimate question for the human race is, “will this technology favour the individual or the group?” Will we be able to use the Internet to enhance our human interaction or will it serve to isolate us further from one another? It was these questions that were left ringing in my ears long after the discussion was over, as the wind whistled me home.
As the golden hues of this Indian Summer weekend gently drift away, the necessity to chronicle that resplendent evening last Saturday, where Ottawa was treated to the delightful company of Canadian-born, Man Booker Prize winning, rising star and author of The Luminaries, Eleanor Catton, remained. The setting (New Zealand) and era (1860s) of her novel are akin to my personal discovery of The Kalevala at the public library; at once remote, yet beguilingly plausible, and an encounter with a vast sky populated with a constellation of characters.
As she began her conversation with host Adrian Harewood, the impression was one of stupefaction: here was the youngest ever winner of the prestigious prize, and with the longest ever entry to do so as well, and yet despite these singularities, there she was before a modest, intimate audience giving us her time with unvarnished candour. The first question was one of fame: in just her second book (her first, The Rehearsal, also garnered positive reviews and won the Betty Trask Award in 2009), it seems that she has catapulted to fame overnight. She confessed how this newfound affection could mean microscopic attention and calls for a reading, say at parties, for someone who is self-effacingly shy. It conjures up the image of a young Jane Austen, as played by Anne Hathaway.
With The Luminaries set amidst the backdrop of New Zealand's gold rush, Harewood remarked that Catton has become a sort of gold rush herself, with many laying a claim to her. Catton enthused that she is "very happy to be claimed." The gushing pride and affection Canadians blanket on anyone they consider their own, for instance a Eugenie Bouchard, was embodied in the Governor General Award bestowed on Catton, which followed her Booker win, that Catton called a "connective award" that would link her indelibly to her natal home.
An interesting part of the evening's conversation revolved around the notion of public personas, and their necessity as a coping mechanism of celebrity. Catton related the tale of an encounter with Margaret Atwood at a literary event in Dublin, and her observation of Atwood's façade. Readers have a kinship with authors they love at an intensity that exceeds other artists perhaps due to the fact, in Harewood's apt phrasing, that they are "bathed in language." This creates a sensation of intimacy with a writer that is more immured to the falseness of this assumed familiarity.
At night I practiced writing and studied Joyce, Dostoyevsky, Stein, and Hemingway. Especially Hemingway; I read him to learn his sentence structure and how to organize a story.
It comes as no surprise that Catton admired nineteenth century English fiction, and the past century's masters; the ambition, and tautness of her prose leads one to amble to this comparison. While admitting that "ugliness is a tricky subject to navigate," she emphasized the necessity of its dissection. As an audience member pointed out, and Harewood affirmed, Catton seems to have an immense respect for the intelligence of her readers to follow her lead. She stated that a "return to the plot" as a new norm, especially following the modern and post-modern stylistic adventures that reached their apotheosis in Joyce's Ulysses.
It was satisfying to hear the works that are beloved by her, particularly when they were shared by those in the audience. Specific works were The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi, the Dr. Doolittle series by Hugh Lofting, and general authors were Roald Dahl and J.K. Rowling. Her fondness for children's works lies in the fact that children don't pretend, but "read for the pure joy of it."
Her youth again seemed incredible given her poise. Catton had spent two years researching the novel, and advised that "it is important not to begin too soon." Sage words that seem to be the antithesis of a Norman Mailer esque superego bent on wreaking literary destruction on an unsuspecting world. She has set-up a remarkable grant aimed at giving writers "time to read." In an interview with The Guardian, she says:
We're very lucky in New Zealand to have a lot of public funding available for writers, but they generally require the writer to have a good idea about what they want to write, and how, before they apply. I think that this often doesn't understand or serve the creative process, which is organic and dialectic; I also think it tends to reward people who are good at writing applications rather than, necessarily, people who are curious about and ambitious for the form in which they are writing. I'm also uncomfortable with the focus that it places on writing as production, with publication as the end goal, rather than on writing as enlightenment, with the reading as the first step.
Earlier this year, Catton was inducted as a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to literature. There are many young artists you worry about, but Catton, despite the protectiveness she evokes with her humility, is not someone who conjures concern. It will be exciting to see what she does next in the ensuing years; I hope she gives her readers enough time to recover from her stellar sophomore effort.
A neighbourly visit prompted Tim Cook to go searching through his cavernous, overflowing library. "You're a historian right?" the neighbour quipped. "Do you have something that I could read on the Second World War?"
On a weekday evening fresh off the first week of school, Tim Cook launched his first volume of Canada's involvement in what has been oft-called The Necessary War. While Cook's namesake -- he of Apple Inc. -- likely garnered more attention with the new iPhone and smartwatch this week, the room at Carelton's gleaming Riverside building gathered a full-house. It seemed to confirm Cook's assertion that "Canadians want their history." Charlotte Gray, the host for the evening, pressed Cook to reveal what prompted him to write this book; do we really need another book on possibly one of the most examined historical events of recent times? Cook candidly admitted the implicit hubris of attempting such a large feat. In fact, affirming that the best scholarship takes both intrinsic drive and a fraternal collaboration, Cook reached out to scholars and academics across the country to seek their advice, and ascertain whether anyone else were planning on embarking the same trail before setting about his work.
History sprouts new branches with the passing of time -- definitive records may be refuted, and certainly complemented as new source material are unearthed, and fresher perspectives emerge from new approaches. Cook admitted that there had been single volume histories of the Second World War by eminent Canadian scholars, and yet in the past fifteen years, much of the personal narratives and stories from the soldiers had yet to be synthesized into a new, cohesive narrative. Notwithstanding the fortuitous timing (this week marks the 75th anniversary of Canada's entry into the War), and the obvious desire to supplement his already acclaimed two-volume history of the Great War, Cook confessed that his endeavour had more intimate underpinnings than the prompting of a neighbour's curiosity. Writing this history was Cook's way of anchoring his period of illness with purpose.
Since the writing of chronological narratives generally require fastidiousness than an overweening imagination, Cook expressed the solace he derived from a methodical approach to his craft. The writing process for him was straightforward, and he showed enormous fidelity to his pre-planned outlines. Rightly so, as they have resulted in excellent tomes. Yet, with this project, his original plan of a single volume got away from him as his desires widened, and only a two-volume project would do justice to what he now wished to convey. Cook is especially beholden to the songs, letters, and personal artifacts -- the spaces that allow for a certain humanity, even humour, of people better than their circumstances to shine through.
Having just completed my Canadian citizenship exam earlier in the day prior to the event, I appreciated the importance of "popular history," the sort of label any self-respecting scholar is supposed to flee. As Gray cheerfully hinted, it is indeed a better fate than being an "unpopular historian," which Cook would certainly rather not be. History need not be hagiography; Cook affirmed that war exemplified "courage, cowardice and everything in between." Understanding what went before, strips us of the hubris that what we face today is comprehensively unprecedented. Alluding to this, Cook answered askance a question from the audience on the current military action against the Mesopotamian jihadi group ISIS/ISIL. Wars to safeguard Civilization are not novel, and the two world wars were certainly seen, and still are regarded, as just due to its resolute opposition to barbarism. It is likely that the current engagement has more corollaries with the Vietnam conflict of the 1970s, mixed in with the elusive telos of these asymmetrical wars against apocalyptic foes.
Cook bemoaned that "Canadians are bad at telling their own stories" with a reference to Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan. The jarring realism of the movie was so indelible, Cook continued, that it displaced the significant Canadian contribution to D-Day at Juno Beach. This again underlined the necessity of a civic seeping of events of great import in order to gain a literacy, which without a healthy self-regard buffeted by a critical outlook is not even possible. Popular history matters, as Cook's own work at the Canadian War Museum attests. And for this, history needs to be more popular, whilst avoiding popularization. The most moving part of the evening was in the care that Cook took to thank all those who had helped him with his work, and for the warm friendship he received during his period of battling with cancer. His work(s) deserve the widest audience possible.
It is with a cheerful and a sad feeling coming to the end of this Spring session of the Writers Fest. It was cheerful and even buoyant because it was such a successful session with fifteen hundred participants listening and discussing with 47 writers, poets, bloggers, entertainers, et al. Sad, of course, because the festival has ended, for the time being that is. And personally, I was also sad because the hall wasn't filled to the last seat at this final event as it had done for most of them.
For us, who listened to the three engaging readings and the discussion, moderated by CBC journalist, TV host and community activist, Adrian Harewood, the last event was a great treat indeed. The authors, from very diverse backgrounds, were not lost for words at all and – contrary to the title – had much left to say. Each novel had a strong political and/or social underpinning, while the stories themselves delved deeply into personal lives of the novels' characters. From the reverberations twenty years later of the Air India fatal bombing in 1984 to growing up in Luanda, the capital of Angola, to crossing physical and emotional borders in an unnamed desert, we were introduced to accomplished wordsmiths and imaginative thinkers.
Nadia Bozak was born and raised in London, Ontario. She has a PhD in Comparative Literature and has written novels and short stories. El Niño is the second novel in a trilogy that is linked by theme rather than characters. Inspired by J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace , El Niño tracks the survival of one woman and a young, undocumented migrant as they journey through the no-man’s-land of a remote southwestern desert. Borders, physical and psychological, are of central importance to the story. Borders can be defined in many ways. The people attempting to cross them, successfully or not, have stories to tell.
Ondjaki is an award winning fiction writer, poet, children's book author and more. Most recently he won the prestigious José Saramago Prize (2013). He was born and raised in Angola, studied in Portugal, and lives in Luanda, the capital. Returning from Brazil he flew in the night before to join our panelists. In the introduction, Neil Wilson expressed special thanks to Ondjaki's translator Stephen Henighan, who has brought Ondjaki to the attention of the North American reading public. Stephen is the general editor of the Biblioasis International Translation Series, based in Windsor, ON - a project that deserves the attention of all internationally curious fiction readers. Ondjaki's new novel, Granma Nineteen and the Soviet's Secret , is inspired by the stories told by author's own grandmother. "Energetic and colourful, impish and playful, Granma Nineteen and the Soviet's Secret is a charming coming-of-age story…" states the book's back cover. From listening to him read, you can tell it will be fun to explore.
Padma Viswanathan, born in Nelson, BC, raised in Edmonton and currently living in Arkansas, is a fiction writer and playwright. In her new (second) novel, The Ever After of Ashwin Rao , she imagines the devastating long term impact and aftershocks of the fatal Air India bombing on families of those who perished. Her central character is Ashwin Rao, a psychologist, whose study into "comparative grief," allows him to remain an outside observer for some time. However, this distance to the tragedy collapses as he becomes increasingly involved with one family in particular. Furthermore, his personal experience of loss pushes him to confront his own emotions leading to a deep crisis of faith.
Adrian led the discussion by asking each of the authors about their motivation for their novel. Padma started with an idea for a novel about a psychologist who, through external events, faces a life crisis. The Air India tragedy grew into emotional centrality as the novel developed. Adrian stressed that the most unique aspects of the novel is that it is the first time that the Air India bombing, an event that has continued to be like an open wound in the Canadian consciousness, has taken the central role in a substantial work of fiction.
The questions for Ondjaki were as much to tell us more about Angola and the literary scene there as about the book itself. Angola, he said was probably mostly in the news at the time of independence and not much since then. In contrast to Portuguese people, who gave the impression that they tended to feel sad and down, Angolans were upbeat: they loved music and dance – one of their exports – and always hoped for a better tomorrow. The literary scene is expanding and quite healthy, he explained. Young people approach him and ask for advice how to "become a writer". They don't necessarily like his answer of having to read and write a lot in the process. Given the publishing market is not very developed, he tends to circulate his books to friends and others around him. Adrian asked about his upbringing; he felt that maybe women had a great influence on Ondjaki's upbringing. Yes, he smiled. He grew up with two sisters and both his mother and, in particular, his grandmother have influenced him greatly and still do. The new novel centres on Granma Nineteen and he explains, among other things, the reason for her nickname. It sounds like a very entertaining read. Ondjaki has a great sense of humour that was not diminished by him having to use English instead of Portuguese.
Nadia, in response elaborated more on her theme of 'borders', real or arbitrary, and the challenges of cross-cultural encounters. Landscapes she explained can define borders as can personal relationships. Social and political issues are of great importance to her and fiction is also a device to explore those in a personal way.
An interesting discussion developed in response to Adrian's question of the "power of narrative." For Padma it was to use narrative to develop better understanding of pain; the freedom to reorder events and timelines to tell the story in a different way. Nadia's interest is to expand the conversation on the plight of marginal people, a tool for exposure of the vulnerability of characters. In this novel, the dog/coyote mix takes a central place and while he is not anthropomorphized, he is also an object. Finally, for Ondjaki it is the power of "playing God," the fear and pleasure to imitate life in fiction and to follow reality in a new way.
The evening concluded with a pertinent, general question from the audience: while many of the writers we have met during the Festival are of the younger generation, the majority of the audience has been of the older generations. What to do? One can only hope, the consensus of our panelists was, that when the young people reach middle age they will move to reading books. In the meantime, all three authors (as many others) either teach or are otherwise engaged with young people to motivate them to read and enjoy stories.