Neil Wilson, founding director of the Ottawa Writers Festival, began this Sunday evening discussion by introducing Nora Young of CBC Radio’s Spark, author of The Virtual Self , along with the event’s host Michael Bhardwaj of CBC radio, who would lead the discussion as it dove into the rabbit hole of virtual worlds and the Internet. Neil appeared tentative toward the subject of a emerging technologies, describing it as hot topic in which he has little knowledge, but also suggesting that “even at 63, you can still learn.” It was a sentiment that rang true for many in the room, and certainly by the end of the evening we had received an awe-inspiring education as to what the future may hold in terms of self-tracking and connectivity.
As the discussion began, Knox Church Hall was suddenly filled with technological buzz words and phrases: “Virtual territory,” “self tracking,” “moral perfection,” “dynamic demographics,” and “digital haunting” to name a few. Having e-mail, Twitter and Facebook accounts, apparently, does not make one an expert on the evolving virtual world. It does, however, include you as a participant who is actively shaping the future of technology (Not a bad consolation, really.) And what might once have been viewed as extreme, narcissistic self-tracking (think status updates, group emails, tweeting about your lunch, relationship status reporting) has now, through the introduction of simple and engaging platforms, become main stream behaviour.
And through this discussion Nora and Michael continually returned to the why: Why do we self-track?
As Nora went over examples of self-trackers such as Feltron of Felton’s Annual Report – a report put out each year summarizing through images exactly how Feltron lives his life; the We Feel Fine project – a program that seeks out the statements beginning with “I feel” across weblogs such as blog posts or pages and collects the complete “I feel” sentences in one location, categorizing them by emotion; or Google’s Traffic View – with live feedback of users who agreed to be monitored as they drive, providing a ‘living map’ of the city and traffic congestions, there was one idea amongst these jaw-dropping examples that truly stood out. In our sharing, “There’s something core to humanity,” according to Nora. She doesn’t see it as narcissist, but rather, “as human beings there’s something about us that wants to create a narrative.”
Perhaps we want to tell a story . . . a story of our lives, a story of the world. Yet there’s a problem with this. Firstly, what is happening to our information? Is it being sold, harvested, manipulated? Most likely. But according to Nora, “This is the time we have the power to help shape it.” Regarding social media and online tools, “ultimately they’re just platforms.” The user has power to protest, and often times these agencies respond to those reactions. However, this takes a certain awareness and initiative. While Nora says that our engagement “Should be something we do with our eyes wide open, and not because we click the terms of agreement to services.” I cannot help thinking that despite this ideal behaviour, most of us inevitably click ‘Agree’ and move on.
Secondly, in the telling of our stories, what happens to that information? It is stored online, kept on your ‘timeline’ or perhaps some past webpage (with all the nooks and crannies on the internet, it’s not worth listing everything here. But feel free to visit 123People and look up your name), and what happens? For a novice in the computer world, it’s seemingly impossible to remove.
And then, of course, there is this wonderful idea Nora Young and host Michael Bhardwaj discussed, about connection. The internet with its pop-ups, feeds, and notifications, essentially demands “continuous partial attention.” We are focused on our screens, flipping page to page, chatting with friends and eating our lunches. This fragmentation in focus “Prevents us from relaxing, physically grounding ourselves into our body,” which is in itself interesting, because in telling our stories and self-tracking, aren’t we trying to connect with ourselves?
Could it be that this virtual world is the reason we need to define ourselves online –because in the ‘real world’ we are not truly connecting?
There are big ideas happening within the virtual world, and big concerns about how this might evolve. I arrived feeling clued into the trends (Twitter and Facebook? No problem!), and left with an impression that we are on the tip of an iceberg, without a clear sense of what lies below. Listening to Nora Young explore the virtual world as discussed in her book was a fascination experience, and for those of us in the audience, most certainly for myself, an educating experience as well.
The Manx Pub is a venue perhaps most charitably described as “cozy;” someone less charitable (or not as enchanted by its warm earth tones, wooden support pillars and intimate nooks and crannies) would call it “cramped.” I have come to this event blind, trusting that I'll quickly learn all I need to know about the presenters.
First up is Claire Tacon, reading excerpts from her debut novel, In The Field . She describes it as a “you can't come home again” novel, outlining briefly its premise: a former academic woman returns to her small-town childhood home in Nova Scotia to take care of an aging mother. My initial reaction is admitted pleasure at the novel's East Coast connection (us Maritimers living in exile are sentimental folk, after all); however, I soon gain an additional appreciation for the novel's tone. Piecing it together from vignettes, Claire Tacon has constructed the chronotope of rural Atlantic Canada (both now, and as it was in 1970) with loving detail. I listen quietly with a smirk as she narrates a character's almost superstitious fear of Nova Scotia highways – a regional phobia that most long-time inhabitants have yet to conquer.
Her excerpts read, Claire surrenders the microphone to Heather Jessup, reading from her novel The Lightning Field . Having given us a snippet of the novel's subject matter (the events surrounding the unveiling of the Avro Arrow, the Western world's reaction to launching of Sputnik, and an unfortunate lightning strike) the reading immediately takes on a tonal shift. Where Claire is intimate and confessional, Heather is analytical and encyclopaedic. Her prose has a matter-of fact, almost archival quality. Every so often, Heather will inject some character dialogue, rife with 1950s colloquialisms, and the effect is palpable, jabbing through the clinical narration like an icepick of anecdote, opening up the possibility of so much more than bald-faced historiography.
The readings end, and there is applause all around. As soon as I get the opportunity, I break through the little crowd that has accreted around Claire and Heather as they sign fresh new copies of their books, and ask for brief interviews. I get my first interview opportunity with Claire:
“I guess writing is something I've always been interested in from quite a young age.” Claire talks about her brother, a talented visual artist, and her respect for all kinds of artistic endeavours, though she admits her own lack of talent for visual or musical arts. Her father encouraged her early creative endeavours: “I started dictating poetry to my Dad, who was very kind enough to write it down on, like, cocktail napkins when we were out to eat together.” The particular germ for the novel was a free-writing exercise from her MFA in Creative Writing at UBC:
“I started writing about this woman who was driving down a road with the windshield wipers... not quite working... and for whatever reason, that scene really intrigued me, and I felt like, 'I know that road; it's the road right out of Acadia.' It just spiralled from there... the story just spun out from that one image.”
Heather (who, in addition to signing the novel, stamps each one with two ingenius stamps: one taken from the old Avro Arrow project's letterhead, the other from an advertistment in the newspaper the day the project was canceled), tells me that “writing chooses you; on some level I feel like you... don't have a choice. If you're going to write a book, you have to just want it.” As it turns out, her interest in the Avro Arrow comes from a conversation with her grandfather, who was a technician working on the landing gear of the original, “but I thought that wings were somehow more beautiful to write about; less grounded, and more flight-oriented.”
The Manx clears out as festival-goers move on to new events. For my part, I have two new books I need to go home to enjoy.
A sunny afternoon and a packed house greeted Joshua Foer for what was a highly stimulating talk on his hit book, Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything . CBC’s Adrian Harewood was, as always, an excellent moderator.
Foer, 30, needs no notes at the podium. Rather, he forms “memory palaces.” On the imagined front door, he explains, there is an image of his first anecdote for today’s talk. He then visualizes himself entering the ‘palace’ foyer and seeing a vivid, even grotesque (and therefore unforgettable) image representing the next topic. And so on and so forth. This, we learn, was how Cicero managed to map out his lengthly public speeches.
Foer is all about taking age-old memory techniques and explaining them through up-to-date understandings of how we absorb, retain (or fail to retain) information. By no means a neuroscientist, one senses Foer stumbled into the (ancient) world of memory by happenstance in the way Freakonomics’ nerdy authors Steven Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner defy conventional wisdom and make head-scratching connections between seemingly unrelated ideas. While nothing here is revolutionary, Foer has a gift for communicating tricky concepts - unsurprisingly leading to many Malcolm Gladwell comparisons.
Memory, for Foer, is the “root of our self-identity” since it forms our base of knowledge from which we can derive new ideas and make new connections. Yet our Google-obsessed society has largely rejected the value of memory. After all, everything can simply be researched online - what Foer terms the “externalization of memory.” An increasing number of high school students graduate with an alarmingly shallow base of knowledge. Rapid education system reforms have led to an almost exclusive focus on creative and critical thinking, yet, as Foer exclaims, these thinkers “need something to think about!”
Dedicating himself to practicing ancient memory techniques each day led to a stunning victory at the 2006 USA Memory Championship. Foer memorized a full deck of cards in 1 minute and 40 seconds, a new national record. It is unclear by Foer’s own admission if the techniques used to triumph at a memory competition are actually relevant to retaining more complex, value-laden real-world concepts.
Still, Foer’s key ideas are highly relatable and actionable. The secret to being a memory champion is activating a form of memory already highly developed in us humans: spatial and visual memory. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors relied on these aspects of memory to survive. The theory of elaborative encoding explains that we are more likely to remember information that can be linked to an already-existing schema or network of information. Meanwhile, we are less likely to remember isolated, useless bits such as names. (On that note, during the Q and A session many audience members shared their challenges remembering names. Foer suggests associating each name with a highly-memorable image and/or sound.)
When it comes to subjects about which we are especially passionate, we tend to flex our memory muscles to the fullest. As an opera and theatre lover, I am able to follow the careers of dozens of my favourite performers. When I learn that such-and-such coloratura soprano is undertaking a new role or production, I can integrate this nugget into existing networks. Indeed, Foer notes that our learning potential is inextricably linked with what we know already.
What is perhaps most frustrating to Foer - and to myself, as a student - is the gaping discrepancy between the state of our knowledge on memory and the methods used to educate our children. We know, for instance, that it is most effective to learn in intervals - learning something, leaving it to marinate for a while, and then returning to expand upon it. Meanwhile, most students from elementary school right through university learn in units - with a test at the end for which to cram (of course!). We then proceed to forget the content and move on. Foer’s advocacy for cumulative tests - requiring students to study an entire term rather than one unit at a time - would not go over so well in my University of Ottawa classes. One could not miss the collective groan that is sure to be prompted, by a professor who announces cumulative exams.
As the Q&A session progressed, I became more and more aware that with all his inquisitiveness and dynamism, Foer is certainly no messianic expert on memory improvement. On the question of how to apply his tricks to stave off memory decline in aging adults, Foer had little to offer. However, Foer’s drive to discover and conquer his own brainpower - while managing to not freak out his girlfriend - is in itself a source of inspiration.
On Sunday April 29, in Knox Presbyterian Church, there was a gathering of individuals, but instead of a Presbyterian church service, which, as Neil Wilson pointed out, politely and willingly displaced to the basement, there was a meeting of minds and curious folk who sought to find out about or discuss further the most recent grassroots movement for social change, the Occupy movement.
The event was well organized, formative, and attendees were treated to a brief synopsis of each speaker’s—Amanda Joy, Joel Westheimer, and Jacqueline Kennelly —perspective on the Occupy movement, followed by an enlightening question and answer period hosted by Neil Wilson. From the beginning it became clear that a conversation about the Occupy movement and the issue of activism would also involve a conversation on morality and ethical responsibility; making it not so much different, perhaps, from the meeting downstairs.
After a brief introduction, Jacqueline Kennelly took to the stage. Taking a more academic approach, she focused her discussion on youth activism. She argued that the Occupy movement is important because it manages to shift society’s idea of “what is okay” in a culture that defines itself by “the way we live in the world today”. To her, “culture” is as natural “as the way we breathe”; however, it makes us complacent on what we believe to be a propriety, or “common sense”. Reading from her novel, Citizen Youth: Culture, Activism, and Agency in a Neoliberal Era, she was quick to identify the stigma that most youth activists face of being “troublemakers” and “rabble-rousers” and of the contrary and contradictory relationship between the good activist and good citizen.
Next to speak, Amanda Joy’s perspective is that of one within the center of the movement looking out. An activist, she described her participation in the Québec City Protest of 2001 as a “personal transformation”, in which she realized that there where others who could imagine “alternatives” to the hierarchal government system. She described the Occupy movements as being about “producing meaningful social change” and seeking to “illustrate how disconnected issues are inter-related, where there are no elites making decisions”, but rather where every decision made seeks to work towards “non-coerced agreement”. Her insider perspective was educated and hopeful, yet she was clear that the Occupy movement is not an exclusive movement.
Joel Westheimer was last to speak, and with him the conversation quickly turned to how certain organizations and media outputs were quick to note the “insignificance” of the impact of the Occupy movement. He, rather, wanted to highlight its success. The words “income inequalities” and “99% versus 1%” are now, thanks to the Occupy movement, part of society’s current language. He argues that “economical disparity is now of medieval proportions” and the inequalities affect society’s educational institutions. He says that education is now a matter of mathematics and literacy test scores, dehumanizing the process of education. “What is worth reading?” “What do the numbers add up too?” As he sees it, the Occupy movement made possible the conversation of educational narrowness manifesting the possibility for change.
As the panel was open to questions, the conversation further developed into a discourse education and technology. Is education limiting or freeing? Does technology hinder or help activism? As Joy is quick to note, the most important part of activism is participation. Joel sums it up best when he notes that “half of social justice is social”. To him, “the language of Occupy is the language of participation”.
In the end, this was an afternoon of questions asked rather than of questions answered, and as long as the conversation continues with movements like Solidarity Against Austerity, so too, does the hope for social change.
“Truth can be a hazy term…the very concept of objective truth is falling out of the world and lies are passing into history.” Martin Levin, books editor at the Globe and Mail, and moderator of a discussion about the place of truth in fiction and non-fiction writing between Guy Gavriel Kay and Marianne Apostolides, stated the great fear of many in the room in allowing wiggle-room around the terms “fact” and “fiction”. The three writers debated the topic with relish, with Apostolides holding firm to her position that she takes in her latest book, Voluptuous Pleasure: The Truth About the Writing Life , that language and narrative can both be used to question a truth in works of fiction, but that this strategy should also be the portion of non-fiction writers.
The discussion that proceeded from her claim was at times fast-paced, occasionally circular, but the participants kept the audience members constantly on their toes with close attention to the details of what was at stake and frequent references to a wide variety of literary works from across the modern and post-modern landscape. Although, at first glance, the stances that Kay and Apostolides each took regarding the definition and place of truth in writing, their discussion revealed that their positions were not quite so divergent on the essentials.
A continuing thread throughout the lengthy discussion was a recent book published by John D’Agata and John Fingal about the article D’Agata wrote that covered the 2002 suicide of a Las Vegas teenager, and Fingal’s subsequent work fact-checking that article. The book lies at the intersection of the debate between what is commonly perceived as non-fiction (factual) and fiction, defining and assigning a useful role to the truth in different works and the meaning of the phrase “artistic license”.
Apostolides argued her position, saying, “To me, the problem with non-fiction is because we’re caught…on these certain facts.” Kay, who frequently writes works of historical fiction, returned to his position persistently throughout the discussion that regardless of the semantic term used for the literary genre, be it fiction, non-fiction, theatre or essay, the reader needs to have an awareness of the author’s position. He cited D’Agata, who defended his article by claiming that the article he wrote had been mistakenly presented as journalism when in fact, it was theatre.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, due to his training in law, Kay dominated the discussion and provided consistent clarification of what exactly was being examined. At many points, he concluded his summarizing by pointing out that although Apostolides appeared to be taking a more radical position, they were actually in agreement. Apostolides emphasized and re-emphasized the idea that a good writer fit with Kay’s demands for an ethical writer, both being someone who makes clear their intentions to their reader. Kay phrased this same idea slightly differently; eventually managing to gain Apostolides’ agreement with the idea that everyone is entitled to interpretation in his or her opinions but not of the facts. And while both agreed that something that is true has a physical reference in reality, Apostolides added the important caveat that perfectly capturing the physical world in words is an admirable, but ultimately naïve and unachievable goal for writers.
The Writer’s Festival guide describes this performance piece, created by musician Mike Dubue, as a “collaborative multimedia presentation”, but the event itself was far less straightforward and sterile than what that description suggests. Dubue, when afterwards asked to provide the audience with some explanatory comments, responded with, “I don’t really know what to say about this piece of music.” The piece fits in with others works that uses sound, beat and music to as a means of storytelling, such as that produced by soundscape artists and other musical efforts that are specifically directed towards capturing narrative.
Dubue composed his work a traditional symphonic form of separate movements and melodic repetitions. He noted afterwards that his intention in using the symphonic form was in fact to destroy it by creating various themes and motifs, deconstructing and then reconstructing them, leaving them and returning to them, all in an effort to reflect the place of memory and forgetting in determining how fact and fiction are distinguishable (or, perhaps more accurately, indistinguishable) from one another.
Octavie Dostaler-Lalonde , a talented classical cellist from Montreal, opened the piece with a short solo that was simultaneously light and dark, setting the scene for the sense of ambivalence that characterized the performance as a whole. The next movement slowly integrated each of the other musicians, Socalled (otherwise known as Josh Delgin) playing the melodica, producing a unique sound that hinted vaguely at klezmer, Ottawa folk artist Lynn Miles with wordless vocals and Ian Keteku, renound slam poet, rounding out the soundscape with his rapid-fire lyrics and energy.
Throughout the performance, Dubue was mixing live, providing the final sound with an electronified, synthesized character and manipulating volumes and background noises. The entire performance grew steadily louder, more discordant and haunting, mimicking Dubue’s intention to express the ways in which memory can be a nostalgic, slippery and persistent creature.
Keteku’s lyrics were occasionally lost in the midst of the other artists’ sounds, but the effect also ensured that certain lines stood out to the audience more than others and were consequently retained. For example, he played with the lyrics of a well-known Christmas pop tune, twisting its familiar ending into something decidedly unfamiliar: “You better watch out, you better not cry, you better not shout, I’m telling you why: Santa Claus is lactose intolerant.” Keteku explained afterwards that this line is particularly illustrative of his attempt throughout the entire piece to rely on the things that are widely believed that then show how they can be twisted, to show that “what we see as real, as tactile, are not.”
The performance was short, running only about twenty minutes or so, and the artists followed with some of their own thoughts and comments on it. Their enthusiasm for performing and for art was evident, and spurred impromptu performances (upon the request and support of the audience) by all of the artists on stage. Dubue performed a solo piece on the piano, revealing his versatility as an artist and his love for music. Keteku followed with his characteristic energy, announcing that he would perform a popular poem of his with the support of each of the others on stage, none of whom had ever heard the piece before. He provided a couple of words of direction to each of them, and once they were started and harmonizing with one another, Keteku took over the microphone and the stage. The improvisation session was a perfect summary of the immense talent of each of the performers and of their excitement for creating and collaborating.
For those who have never visited the Manx Pub, it is the perfect setting for the Ottawa International Writers Festival’s Plan 99 Poetry Cabaret; with its underground entrance and its quaint, smoky interior that seems to fit the mood of the audience and poet-readers alike. Its walls are embedded with bookshelves and resonate with the sound of excited chatter as its audience mingled, anticipating the readings to come. Nonetheless, when either David Groulx or Chris Jennings took the microphone, there was complete silence. Anita Lahey who was originally slotted, unfortunately, was unable to attend.
David Groulx was the first speaker; a veteran author of proud Ojibwe descent. His book, A Difficult Beauty , is described by the evening’s host, David O’Meara, as dealing with “hard truths”, “tentative hope”, and the “injustice dealt with by First Nations communities”. His opening poem, “I Am Only One Percent”, is no different. He declares, “I protest my brokenness and your brokenness”, and one is quick to realise that although his voice is frank and witty, his poems are also deeply personal and intensely reflective.
Throughout his reading, his aversion to John Wayne and dislike for Mr. Stephen Harper is apparent and it is in his openness that he is able to relate to the audience. He manages to relate the issues of First Nations communities on a personal level and, although his message is serious, he was not without humour as he discussed his topsy-turvy relation with “red wine or vin rouge” the morning after a night of indulgence. It is within the honesty of his words that he connects the audience to the injustices that First Nations communities often face, yet it is in his frankness that he can relate to the everyman.
Chris Jennings was next to read. Described as a brilliant essayist and currently writing in Arc Poetry Magazine, he wittily remarked that he is proud to be introduced as having written his “first” book, suggesting that it gives hope to the idea that this will not be his “only” book. His verse is no less noteworthy than Groulx and shows the skill of a mature artist. Reading from his book Occupations , his poems are vigorous contemplations of the relationships that bind and form us in relation to objects, and seem to stem, like Groulx, from his own personal experience.
His poem, “Vacant Suite” is a reflective piece on the dynamics of relationships that cause rented space to become available. In it, we see parts of the breaking down of a relationship, and his short and snappy word choices, such as the line “words were things again”, shows his genius at work. His follow-up poem, “Keys”, shows the complete breakdown of the relationship. His poems are sincere, realistically portraying the subject of their observation.
Both poets seem to be on different spectrums of the poetic scene: Groulx has numerous books under his belt and deals with the collective, while Jennings has but begun and deals with individual experiences. However, while Groulx deals with issues of heritage and injustice, placing himself as a spokesperson for the First Nations community, he still relates to his audience on an individual level. On the other hand, Jennings deals with the mechanics of personal relationships in terms with which the whole can identify too.
When the microphone was left standing alone, one cannot help but feel that because of the frank honesty of each poet, this evening of poetry reading has left each individual present connected to a larger collective. For both the connoisseur of poetry readings and to the curious new enthusiast, it was an experience to be savoured.
Nahlah Ayed, author of A Thousand Farewells says at the beginning of her talk, that she won’t say farewell to the crowd until the very end, till after her story. Therein lies the journey of the reporter, from refugee camp to the Arab Spring. Ayed’s talk is a quick peek through her book and thus, her journey could not have a beginning without her parents’ decision to return to Jordan when Nahlah was six years old. Both she and her sister were born in Manitoba and not unlike the odyssey of so many immigrants – the story of Chinese-Canadian poet Fred Wah’s Diamond Grill being the most pertinent example – her parents wanted them to meet their relatives. And to be rooted in and imbibe the same values that they themselves grew up in and, most importantly, to learn the medium of those values: the Arabic language.
Having been born and raised – till the age of 6 – in a comfortable home in Winnipeg wherein the voice of Gordon Lightfoot filled the air and the children played in the sandbox outside; the move to a Palestinian refugee camp in Amman, Jordan, where the only sight of green was afforded by sewage, was jarring to say the very least. “It was the worst case of culture shock I have ever experienced,” says Ayed of the move to Jordan. So much so that even after all her travels, she says she never experienced anything quite like it. Or perhaps it was because of that very experience that regardless of what Ayed encountered through her travels, she would not be overwhelmed. Ayed later jokes the move to Jordan, away from a comfortable life in Winnipeg, means that she can eat without reservations and can sleep just about anywhere too - pointing to a pew at the front and saying that "that could work very well!"
One thing I found particularly interesting was that after her family’s sojourn of seven years in Jordan, Ayed had come to know the “Middle-East” as a cranky uncle that she would rather avoid. Her mind was made up on pursuing a career in medicine. She was doing her Masters in Human Genetics at the University of Winnipeg, when a piece in the student run newspaper caught her attention. A switch to the Journalism program at Carleton University ensued, coupled with a stint at the Canadian Press, after which Ayed found herself in Afghanistan in the wake of the September 11 attacks.
Conflict after conflict, from the Iraq war, the exodus of countless Iraqis, and the fall of Saddam Hussein; the violence that erupted into a civil war in Baghdad and her own capture when Ayed was beaten and bloodied by a mob, came close to being shot; to covering the assassination of Lebanese President Rafik Hariri, Ayed explores the burgeoning outcry of millions throughout the Arab world and the veritable phenomenon that has come to be called the Arab spring.
Apart from Ayed’s brief, yet moving, tour through her journey, one feature for which the evening was unlike many events that I have had the opportunity to attend was Adrian Harewood’s conversation with Nahlah Ayed. From the very beginning, he saw Ayed’s book as a love letter to her parents for it was not only their decision to move to Jordan, in spite of their having themselves faced challenges as Palestinian refugees. So that their children may learn Arabic – without which Ayed could not have taken on that journey – but also that they returned to Winnipeg and put their hearts into Canada. So much so that when at the end of the conversation, Harewood asked Ayed what being Canadian meant to her, for a brief moment there was silence, and that silence itself bespoke of the seeming impossibility to define, and thus limit, her sentiment. “It’s everything” says Ayed, after that eternal moment, “it’s my soul, my heart.”
Adrian Harewood posed questions that were not only born of an understanding of Ayed’s work, but of an admiration of it too, and the conversation was an event in and of itself. In the end, the audience could see the necessary groundwork for the Arab spring right there; the spring is the natural result of a conversation, and not an imposed monologue. And it seems from her book that that monologue is imposed by both those within and from outside the Arab lands for were one to travel through those lands and meet people as Nahlah Ayed has, they too, like Ayed, would come to see that this "cranky uncle" can be pleasantly surprising.
It was still light outside as festival-goers flocked in to “The Weight of History.” Five chairs were on the stage – one for each panellist, and one empty as PEN’s reminder of writers still struggling for freedom. Before the panel discussion and the question period, the authors each read from their latest works – and each chose a very different part of their novels to share.
Ami McKay began at the very beginning of The Virgin Cure , a richly evocative work. The heroine Moth introduces herself, gives the story of her magical naming and her father’s abandonment, and describes the world of New York tenements during the Civil War, where girls are inducted into the shadowy world of child prostitution because they have no other way to survive. “Those of us who managed to make any luck for
Vincent Lam took up The Headmaster’s Wager, just as the life of his protagonist, Percival Chan, changes forever. Percival flees the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong in 1941. He has the chance to take Cecilia, the bohemian young lady whom he adores, to Indochina (now Vietnam) with him. Lam struck a surprising note of mordant social comedy. Shocked schoolboys recount a massacre in the hospital where they have volunteered; their school’s only response is to cancel the annual dance.
Peter Hobbs reading came from the very centre of In the Orchard, the Swallows . Peter described this novella primarily as a love story – but in this segment, the beloved is absent. The narrator is recuperating from years of imprisonment, and he describes his re-awakening sense of freedom as he remembers what it is to take pleasure in the scent of roses. He has moved from prison to a temporary paradise.
Mark Medley's questions focused on the novels’ own histories and subtly teased out the authors’ positions on the relationship of history and fiction. The Virgin Cure emerged from McKay’s research into family history, and her admiration of her great-great-grandmother, who was one of the first female physicians and who worked in New York tenements like Moth’s. A female doctor befriends Moth; her voice makes a “sidebar” to The Virgin Cure’s narrative. McKay said that her work depends on the intersections of past and present. The Birth House focuses on midwifery and the politics of childbirth, a contentious area now as well as during the novel’s First World War-era setting. “Virgin cures” are still undertaken in sub-Saharan Africa to get rid of HIV/AIDS – just as they were for syphilis in nineteenth-century America. The past and present resonate together in her works.
Lam has always wanted to tell the story of the Chinese community in Vietnam in the mid-twentieth century. In all the excellent writing on the Vietnam War, their story was largely silent. At first he relied heavily on family journals, until his own writing voice demanded more freedom to be heard. Although Lam strongly felt that his novel is fiction that just happens to be set in the past (and not historical fiction per se), it was still important to him to show how the twentieth century was shaped by wars that affected non-combatants as much as soldiers.
Hobbs described how In the Orchard surprised him by appearing in his head almost complete, while he was working on something quite different. In the Orchard does draw on his sojourn in Pakistan in the early 1990s, but Hobbs thinks of his next book as more of a historical novel. Although it is set in the near future and concerns the digitization of a library, it does more of the traditional work of a historical novel in unfolding an era to its readers. All three novelists spoke of the need to be truthful to the era – to convey the feeling of real lives, even when their facts are beyond our power to recreate.
During a lively question period, all three authors spoke generously of the editors whom they had worked with. In that spirit, I’d like to point out the work of the volunteers at the ticket desk, the bookstands, and the coffee-and-sandwich stall. Their kindness and their pleasure in the panel added immensely to the evening. The technical crew unobtrusively combated technical hitches – and then sprinted to ready the room for the next day’s events.
The Empty Chair and it’s ensuing explanation by President of PEN and author Charles Foran began the night on a reflective note. The atmosphere soon became lighthearted and jovial as Charlotte Gray, a biographer herself, asked a variety of interesting and deeply thought provoking questions.
Carol Bishop-Gwyn, author of the compelling biography The Pursuit of Perfection: A Life of Celia Franca, discussed how her biography may not have been published were Celia still alive, describing Celia as “difficult” when the project was being worked on before her death in 2007. But both Carol and Charles Foran, author of Mordecai: The Life and Times agree that their subjects had certainly wanted nothing more than to have their lives commemorated in some way. Both Franca and Richler left every note, letter, and scrap of detritus to the archives. Bishop-Gwyn emphasized that these personal letters and private diaries were how she discovered Franca’s voice in her writing, that connection that allows biographer to briefly understand their subject on a level that is not merely academic.
Gray raised and very interesting question about Franca and Richler feeling like outsiders as Jewish-Canadians; Franca facing anti-Semitism in Toronto decided to turn away from Judaism completely and certainly did feel like an outsider because of her “dark, sultry, Eastern atmosphere” said Bishop-Gwyn. Mordecai Richler however, as Foran tells it, internalized every aspect of the Torah and his faith and argued against it. However, Richler was an outsider in literature circles because he was “anti-everything”, said Foran. Foran goes on to say that Richler was one of many Diaspora writers in post-war North America working to bludgeon in their own mark. Foran describes them as “forcing themselves upon mainstream North America... they were the New World, and they were coming at you.”
Which is certainly something done successfully by Richler who has more than left his mark on Canadian literature. It is the humanity of the subject that shapes a biography. These surprises often fall into place when writing biography such as the 2,400 word letter that is at the heart of Foran’s book. He was only able to gain access when the restriction was lifted on it in the archives for a few days by Richler’s widow, Florence. This letter from Richler to his mother is one that ends their relationship and he makes it clear that they will never speak again. Foran describes it as “sorrowful, furious, indignant, regretful, unapologetic,” filled with a vast range of emotions but still eloquent and remarkably written.
Bishop-Gwyn’s moment of surprise and the thing which truly represents Franca's humanity was a short, pencil written, diary-like entry written around the time when she was being pushed out of the National Ballet, it becomes almost suicidal, Franca wondering what she will do now, commenting on how her husband does not love her. This woman who was the epitome of composure puts aside her mask for a moment and becomes a very vulnerable, scared woman. While these two moments in the biographies are very different from one another, they have similar impact: the reader and biographer are given a glimpse into the personal lives of a cultural icon.
As Foran said early on in the night, he does not say anything about being the authoritative source on the life of Mordecai Richler, but what he is trying to do, and what Bishop-Gwyn agrees she strives for as well, is the tactile experience of a life. Certainly the biographies achieve this experience, but the event itself gave one the sense that their subjects were manifest in the lives of the biographers, and this allowed them to portray with integrity who they were as they saw it.