I entered Knox Presbyterian Church in more of a rush than I would have hoped, thanks to the perpetual lateness of buses, and was greeted by the buzz of a room filled with literature enthusiasts excited about the evening ahead. This, in turn, made me even more enthusiastic about the event. Where You Stumble brought together three fantastic Canadian authors - Miriam Toews, Jonathan Bennett and Arjun Basu - to discuss their latest novels and their work in general. I have to admit, as a badly-informed Brit, I was only familiar with Miriam Toews before deciding to attend this event but I quickly caught myself up on Bennett and Basu to fully understand how interesting the discussion would be.
The evening was hosted by Sandra Abma, who asked all the right questions at all the right times and often seem in awe of her interviewees, as we all would have been in her place. We were first treated to readings by the authors from their most recent works, starting with Arjun Basu whose novel Waiting for the Man is about a man who starts listening to a voice in his head (“the man”) who ends up taking him on a journey, both physically and metaphorically - as is the case with all the best literature. Next up was Jonathan Bennett who thoroughly surprised me by being Australian. Once I’d got over his accent, I was interested to learn that his latest novel – The Colonial Hotel, a loose retelling of the story of Helen of Troy, moving the tale to an unspecified developing country where Paris is a doctor for an NGO and Helen is a nurse – started life as an eighty page poem. From the excerpt he shared with us, I think poetry’s loss is definitely the novel’s gain. Finally we heard from Miriam Toews whose novel, All My Puny Sorrows, is about sisterhood, love and loss. She read from the second chapter of the book and left it on such a cliff-hanger that I’m desperate to get my hands on a copy to find out what happens next.
All three novels take their protagonists on journeys, and this was the focus of the discussion which followed the readings. It was interesting to hear how the novels had come into being, from idea to page, and that the story can go to places even the author wasn’t expecting. I particularly enjoyed Bennett’s comment that he sometimes learns about his own books through his readers’ personal insight something which, as a former literature student, I think gives an extra level to all those essays that are written about authors’ hidden meanings and secret agendas.
The discussion also explored the personal element of novel writing, especially that of Toews’ whose work has been influenced by her own family tragedies, which she spoke about in an elegant and beautiful way, unsurprisingly given the beauty and elegance of her writing. I was also tickled to hear Baru’s secret to writing: he challenges himself by writing “Twisters”; Twitter stories of exactly 140 characters. Since this isn’t something I feel I could do, I was happy to learn that there was no consensus to The Trick Of Writing A Brilliant Novel except that there really is no trick: Toews’ draws from personal experience, Bennett’s imagination is endless and Baru is indeed the king of Twitter.
Way back at the beginning of the evening, Miriam Toews’ reading touched on how to leave your audience feeling “happy and content” rather than “wild and restless” and I think it’s safe to say all three authors were already in on that secret.
“The more critical reason dominates, the more impoverished life becomes; but the more of the unconscious, and the more of myth we are capable of making conscious, the more life we integrate. Overvalued reason has this in common with political absolutism: under its dominion, the individual is pauperized.” -- Carl Jung
Alongside her own personal experiences, it was this perspective particularly which prompted and spurred on Patricia’s research and interest in what exactly happens when we die. She noticed that especially in the last few decades, the pendulum of our shared cultural understanding of death has swung far to the side of the intellectual atheist’s -- that when you die you cease to exist. But she argues that this idea that believing in life beyond death is a serious blow to one’s credibility is blocking the general population’s ability to express their own experiences which suggest that there may be something more.
Through her readings of several passages in her book and recounting her own stories and those told to her by others as she compiled her research for the book, Patricia led us through many compelling stories of people making contact with a force beyond that which we can observe with our earthly senses. The stories fell into two general categories of those experiencing “Near Death Experiences” (or NDEs) and people experiencing the spiritual presence of a friend or loved-one.
These experiences might seem unthinkably rare, like an urban myth. Not so, says Patricia! These stories are all around us. They are so commonly recognized in hospice or long-term care facilities that the caregivers have their own vocabulary to describe them. She tells of people bringing stories to her when they found out about the subject of her research -- close friends that she had no idea had had encounters with the other side. But her opening the topic created a welcoming place for people to share the experiences which had been so meaningful for them. After the event, I was surprised to find that, when discussing the event with a friend, he was able to recount two separate post-death spiritual encounters within his immediate family! This taboo about open discussion on the matter is creating, in Patricia’s mind, “a real subterranean world of spiritual experiences.” All around us people are having encounters, but not feeling able to discuss them, and so many keep these experiences private, missing out on the reassurance of those who can say “me too.” Writing this book was Patricia’s first step to bridging that gap.
In the Near Death Experiences she heard about, the experience of the now cliche “white light” was described with stunning uniformity across all cultures. Those experiencing it describe it as “simply indescribable” above all, but the words that fit the experience best were consistently akin to a “sentient emotional light”, “profoundly comforting”, and the feeling of “dissolving into light, like a drop of water joining a sea of light.” One described it as feeling “I had been lost for centuries and found my way home.”
Though nearly every organized religion has its sacred passages drawing parallels to god(s) and heaven being “pure light,” Patricia also quickly points out that this experience, for those who have had it, does not seem to be about organized religion at all. As you would imagine, being on the brink of death and discovering what lies beyond is an incredibly jarring experience, and one that takes years to fully integrate into your worldview. It takes on average twelve years, according to Patricia’s research. But she mentions that in almost every case, no matter what the subject’s initial religion, they leave the constructs of their organized religion, feeling the lack of fit with what they’ve experienced on so personal a level.
Is it possible that this sentient, emotional light is a glimpse of our same shared spiritual reality that is more complex than any one religion can convey? Patricia doesn’t say one way or the other, and in our short time did outline other options and explanations (as well as her reasons for finding them wanting) An oxygen starved brain? A grief hallucination? A rush of serotonin? The biochemical process of the brain shutting down? Their effects wouldn’t satisfactorily match the description given by so many she interviewed. And though Patricia notes carefully during the question period that she’s “non-declarative” on the subject of exactly what the afterlife is like, she shares something we can all take comfort in -- her belief that death is nothing to fear. Those facing their moment of death are much more likely to feel a calm and peace, than fear and isolation. Whatever that force may be is that takes us into its arms at the moment of our passing, in that moment no one dies alone.
Joseph Heath was one of the first writers I happened to see at the Writers Festival, where five years ago he came to town to speak about his then newly released book Filthy Lucre, which is still one of the best popular (i.e., non-technical) economics text to have come out post-2008. Heath has the air of an introverted wonk, but it belies his irrepressible enthusiasm when he is talking about a subject that he clearly loves: why do people believe and act the way they do?
After giving us a précis of his work, Heath was interviewed by Andrew Potter – a frequent host, and writer on previous occasions – to whom Heath’s newest book, Enlightenment 2.0, was dedicated to. The main premise of the book can loosely be pinpointed as a sort of paean to rationalism, particularly in the arena of politics.
The Rally to Restore Sanity/Fear, the joint project in 2010 by Messrs. Stewart and Colbert were mentioned as starting points in his book. While it may now seem dated, this was an example of a time when over a quarter million people gathered on Capitol Hill for the sole purpose of extolling rationalism and calling for it be restored in public discourse. Perhaps the largest such gathering in the name of reason since the French Revolution.
To get to what reason is, Heath stated that it was important to have a sense of what it really means. Once defined, we’d need to then genuinely examine whether it is indeed the case that were are suffering from a deficit in politics and in the public square.
As Daniel Kahneman explained in his magisterial Thinking, Fast and Slow, our brains prefer shortcuts as a way of increasing efficiency, and this can often lead to many irrational behaviours. If we suspend physiological factors for a moment, we can clearly see the pattern of mental shortcuts in action when it comes to addiction, and much more nakedly with respect to procrastination. Often the advice is to “think/try harder!” But this approach is rarely effective simply because operating in a rational mode is too taxing to be sustained for more than relatively short periods.
This is where our brains could use external aids to help us self-regulate. Heath says that the simple process of “writing things down,” gave us a huge advantage in helping us to be more efficient. This simple idea of freeing up our working memory or RAM by capturing items in a secure and trustworthy storage device like a Moleskine or digital calendar, form the very foundation of the very successful time management program by business guru David Allen. Since we are heavily dependent on our environment, it would help if we could re-structure it to suit our long-term ends.
Community as environment was an interesting example. Many cultural and subcultural settings have often reinforced desirable behaviours and this is largely absent in an individualized setting where the self becomes the sole and final arbiter of the right course of action and behaviour. Heath gave the example of his own marriage as mutual form of regulation within a secure commitment, and mused that perhaps this was the reason that married couples are on average happier and more financially successful than those who are not. Taxes, in Heath’s view, to encourage desirable collective action whether in the positive sense through tax credits or in the negative sense such as the Bloombergian soda tax are seen important environmental regulators. Since much of what is “common sense” has now gained currency, this may mask the fact that what may offend us at the surface may actually be the better solution, and since it can be so counter-intuitive, we need closer and deeper examination of why this is so. Yet there were instances where Heath contradicted himself on this very point. Mandatory Minimums in criminal law override the discretion of the judge, but could it not in the same sense act as a helpful external regulator that helps the often irrational mind of the human judge – however experienced – to perhaps make deliver justice more consistently?
Conservatism originally, as exemplified by Burke and Hume, affirmed tradition against revolution or “progress” in the name of reason. Conservatism now, with a heavy dose of populism, is seen to be for “anything-but-reason” instead of tradition. This again is a false choice, that Heath didn’t explore, for it implies that there is nothing reasonable about “that’s the way it has always be done,” falling prey to the hubris of the “old fogeyism” that Heath himself cautions against.
While the degradation in the quality of discourse has recently been decried, Heath mentions that the 24/7 cycle and the ever constant presence of Twitter as sharing part of the blame. This is a rather simplistic approach, and both Potter and Heath agreed that there was no putting the toothpaste of the Internet back into the halcyon tube of the analogue age. The media are also seen to be complicit in certain issues as they form an interest group. This means that the merits (or drawbacks) of open access and transparency are never properly discussed. Heath mentions that many public servants simply say that “I’ve never talked on the phone so much in my life!” as a remedy to having all their e-mails be subject to public scrutiny.
Finally, I wish that Heath had had time to get into ethics since much of what is right may not necessarily be rational, or rational in a much more winding way that it takes a form of moral reasoning to arrive at how this is indeed the case. And to assume that rationality started with the Enlightenment is historically untrue. His strongest contribution may be in emphasizing the role of the external environment; having stable and strong institutions collectively and useful tools individually to help us make better choices.
This Cabaret was intellectual and fruitful in nature. It was different from the cabaret you had in mind – you know, the one where actors prance and other characters sport super glue haircuts. There was no stage or heavy lighting, just the corner of a pub with a microphone stand. Ray Robertson said he’s been here about nine times, but he may have been over exaggerating. He is a fiction writer, after all.
It was hot and muggy in the Manx basement, but it rained a chill outside. CBC Journalists and professors from local universities collected themselves on stools to hear what Ray Robertson and Harry Karlinsky had to read. Two polar opposite authors brought forth an abundance of kind ears, ones which encouraged laughter and scientific intrigue, all within the hour.
Harry Karlinsky politicized the discussion surrounding literary awards in a world where some vote themselves in or are pushed to the top by inner circles. “What about Sigmund Freud?” he questioned, and expanded on his disappointment with the history of the Nobel Prize. Curated words and a research-based novel awakens the senses of the mature intellects; luckily there were many of them. I learned that Freud philosophized by saying that it is “from air to air that one discovers truth”; a path of righteousness that few dare to travel. If Freud were still around, I’d give him props.
Ray Robertson read with the aura of a Beat era poet and questioned the difference between published and self-published. This let out a few warm giggles because the festival’s attendees understand this dilemma quite well. He made us consider the advantages and disadvantages of being born rich, which immediately made me think, rich or self-rich? Someone who is having an inner battle with these questions, would surely argue “Google me! I’ve got my own website and I’m only one click away” (WINK) – which is something Ray read during his performance.
Just before Ray sat down to devour some edible delicacies, which out of chivalry prevented me from asking him a few questions, he left a lasting impression by sharing that, “sometimes, broken hearts sound like an attractive option.”
I’ll ask you about that on the tenth time you’re around, Mr. Robertson, as I'm sure you'll be coming back.
The April showers didn’t stop the crowd from gathering at the Knox Presbyterian Church on Saturday evening. I was one of a handful of folks purchasing books before the panel even began, so I clearly wasn’t the only one expecting a line-up afterwards! It’s always fun to hang out around the book displays once the festival is in full swing, anyway, to hear the chatter about the authors people have already seen and the ones that they’re excited to read. The chatter had already turned toward the authors we were about to see.
The panel kicked off with introductions from moderator Mark Medley. Each author read from his or her latest book, but Sean Michaels was the only one to put on a musical performance! His novel, Us Conductors , is inspired by the true life and loves of the Russian scientist, inventor and spy Lev Termen, who was also the creator of the theremin. Sean gave us a demonstration of playing the theremin, which is quite a thing so see since the theremin is controlled without physical contact by the performer. (Sadly, Steven Galloway, whose novel is inspired by the life and death of Harry Houdini, did not perform any magic tricks to go with his reading.)
Once the readings were complete and everyone was settled on stage, Mark Medley started the discussion by asking why the authors chose to write about the historical figures that they did. The range of answers on the panel was quite interesting—and, as my husband pointed out when we were on our way home, the seating order of the authors was also intriguing. Eva Stachniak, who was sitting next to the moderator, is likely the only one of the authors who writes “old school” historical fiction (in terms of genre, but also technique). On the other end of the panel was Sean Michaels, who said that his work is not like Eva’s: he used the story of these real-life characters as a silhouette and “filled it with fictions to let the silhouette convey things I was grappling with.” Steven Galloway, who was right smack in the middle (seating-wise), also seemed to fit somewhere between what Eva and Sean were doing with their historical characters, albeit with closer leanings to Sean.
Their answers, then, ranged from Eva’s fascination with Catherine the Great (“I want to imagine myself in this world; I want to stand by and watch her live”) to Steven’s simple answer about his interest in Houdini (“I think Houdini is neat, but I wanted to use a magician, and if Houdini didn’t work, I would have found someone else”) to Sean’s rather eloquent take on a writer’s inspiration (“Writers walk around with bulging pockets; you pick up bits and pieces that interest you or that you’re curious about—and Lev’s story was one of those bits that I had tucked away”).
The discussion then turned to invention in historical fiction, and Steven made the interesting point that the difference between historical fiction and creative non-fiction is the agreement with the reader that the novel in their hands is a work of fiction. It isn’t a biography, so they should be prepared to suspend their disbelief. In other words, there should be room for invention. Eva, who tries not to invent details, brilliantly compared her own (more traditional historical fiction) work to that of a sonnet writer: the form is already there (i.e., the historical figures, events, and facts), but she can write whatever she wants within that form. The motivations of characters and their thoughts are what she invented, but she had done so much research ahead of time that she is “confident in that world.”
All of the authors did quite a bit of research to write their books, actually. Mark mentioned the shelf full of books about Houdini in Steven’s office, and Steven explained that he didn’t reference the books while he was writing, but doing the research ahead of time makes things easier. He could have made up how Houdini did his tricks, or he could look it up. “There’s quite a lot to make up already,” he explained. He also went on to joke about the (disappointed) reactions he gets when someone asks him if a scene was real or made up. “It’s way harder to make it up!” he laughed.
Sean’s father built his theremin for him as part of his research, but he also travelled to Russia. “The main thing a writer does is conjure a continuous dream,” he said. “The vividness and continuousness of that dream takes [lots of writing] practice.” He said that his trip to Russia was a subtler aspect of research, one that helped him with the vividness and continuousness that he was seeking in his writing. He noted that he could have looked up famous landmarks and other photos in books or online, but “to describe the sunset or how it feels on the streets, I wanted [to go to Russia myself] to be able to trust my own instincts in writing this.”
Before things wrapped up and the floor was open to the audience for questions, Mark asked the panel how they would want to be fictionalized by another writer, possibly decades or hundreds of years from now. All of the authors would be happy to be fictionalized themselves. Eva made the point that by writing, you give that character another chance at life—who wouldn’t want that?—and that there might be something in your own story that you might not even realize is important. Sean would be perfectly happy with a completely fictional version of himself gracing the pages of a future book. “If a made-up version sings an interesting song, then that’s fine,” he said. Steven joked that the real version wouldn’t be very interesting (“guy goes into room alone and types for years on end”), so he declared that his fictionalized self should be “taller, handsomer, funnier, and more dramatic.”
I like the way they think.
Overall, this panel was put together quite well and the discussion gave me a lot to chew on about the relationship between history and fiction and where the author’s responsibility lies. It’s a topic that I’d like to see come up at future festival panels, too, because it can be a fascinating discussion. Each author was charismatic, and I’d be happy to see any one of them again, as well. Now, on to delve into their books…
With recent debates over the Prime Minister’s powers to prorogue parliament, Senators’ accountability, and the “Fair ” Elections Act galvanizing public conscience, one could forgive Canadians for holding a jaded view of Parliament and the people ‘we’ elect — or ‘they’ appoint — to operate within its musty chambers. But I think many of us would be surprised to learn that departing Members of Parliament (MPs) — regardless of gender, party, or status within their party — would espouse similar skepticism, and at times even apathy, when reflecting on their years on the Hill. Yet that is just what Alison Loat and Michael MacMillan, founders of Samara have uncovered by interviewing 80 former MPs; 35 of whom had held cabinet positions.
Loat and MacMillan joined an enthusiastic, full house at the Ottawa International Writers Festival to discuss, along with Kate Heartfield of the Ottawa Citizen, the process of writing Tragedy in the Commons , a book which weaves together the findings from these interviews.
Although the MPs were mostly frank and forthcoming, the interviews are equally fascinating when one considers what topics were not raised. Relationships with the public service, and with the media? Although always of interest to the Ottawa audience, most of the MPs did not discuss these issues. Nor did any particularly imaginative recommendations for improving the health of our political system emerge from the interviews.
But let’s get to what the MPs did say. And do keep in mind that all except Jay Hill, a Reform Party MP who served as Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s House Leader from 2008-2010, spoke to Loat and MacMillan on the record. Here are some golden nuggets straight from the MPs-turned-pensioners:
A majority of interviewees acknowledged that most Canadians have an unfavourable view of politicians, and quickly sought to distance themselves from the ‘typical MP.’ For instance, many claimed to have ‘stumbled into politics’ or even been ‘dragged’ into the political arena from careers as social workers, educators, lawyers, and community activists. Many said that nothing in their pre-political careers prepared them to succeed in Ottawa. Furthermore, once they arrived on Parliament Hill — following a gruelling nomination process and campaign — a large number noted they felt unsupported, and even that some of their caucus colleagues were hesitant to point them in the right direction, not wanting to position the rookie to outshine him or her within the party.
In spite of the fact that Canadian MPs vote in line with their party positions the vast majority of the time, most of the interviewees were quick to elaborate on the instances in which they fundamentally disagreed with their parties. That ‘whipping votes’ is effectively silencing elected officials is well established as the current status quo. A number of MPs criticized their parties’ “opaque” and “black box” processes, and many had some unpleasant things to say about their experience obtaining the nomination in their riding to run as a candidate — and these were the voices of the winners of those intra-party contests!
When asked if they had any advice to offer future parliamentarians, many MPs suggested that they try to become experts in ‘something,’ so that when their issue comes up on the agenda, they will be their party’s ‘go-to.’ Liberal MP Kirsty Duncan’s expertise in environmental science comes to mind. Yet Loat and MacMillan are right to question how this modus operandi might challenge traditional views of the role of the MP as a faithful representative of, or trustee for, constituents and their policy preferences.
I’m a theatre person myself, so I was interested that the authors described MPs as ‘playing a role’ in a piece of parliamentary theatre, rather than being the scriptwriter and director of their own career. At the extreme end of this tension was an MP who said, “I didn’t leave my wife and children and move across the country to Ottawa to be told what to do,” presumably by ‘teenage PMO staffers in short pants,’ as the saying goes.
Many MPs claim the ‘real work’ takes place not in the House of Commons, but in parliamentary committees. Yet they point out that the thoughtfulness of committee work vanishes as soon as the agenda becomes tinted in partisanship and the media rushes in. As Loat and MacMillan wonder, why is it that MPs are on their worst behaviour in front of the cameras, and their most constructive behaviour when left to their own deliberations?
Though they themselves had few ideas for improving parliamentary processes and practises (except for electronic voting to speed things up in the House of Commons), a number of MPs from all parties expressed support for ‘dissident’ MP and former Conservative cabinet minister Michael Chong’s private members bill, which would give caucuses the ability to demand leadership reviews, and would erode the discretion of party leaders in local nomination contests.
Tragedy in the Commons is a riff of Garrett Hardin’s economic theory “tragedy of the commons,” which examines the short-run incentive to exploit common resources, such as common grazing fields, in spite of the long-run, collective advantages of prudence and moderation. Indeed many of the MPs expressed frustration over the extent to which the Canadian political machine forced them to sacrifice the long-run social good for short-term partisan gains. It would certainly be interesting to compare perspectives by interviewing retired MPs in various other Westminster parliaments, especially New Zealand and Australia.
For Loat and MacMillan — whose day jobs see them dreaming up ways to increase public participation in political affairs during the years between elections — the key question raised in Tragedy in the Commons is as follows: how can we expect Canadians, particularly young people, to be energized about participating in politics if their own departing MPs offer such a sour and stagnant view of the very system they devoted their lives to navigating?
A Saturday evening of poetry in the capital, what more could you ask for? Forget your nightclubs and bars; poetry cabaret is where the weekend fun is to be had. The Saturday evening in question brought together three exciting, contemporary poets: Rob Winger, Adam Sol and Sina Queyras, to share readings of their most recent work with an attentive audience.
First up to the podium was Rob Winger, an Ontario native whose most recent book Old Hat aims to subvert the clichés of poetry - or, depending on the cliché, reveal them to be inevitable to any poet. My personal highlight from his readings was “In this poem”, a poem about another, imaginary poem and the many complicated, pseudo-intellectual meanings and allusions hidden within it that the reader would be required to understand in order to fully appreciate the poem; meta-poetry at its finest.
While Winger was a hard act to follow, Adam Sol took to the task admirably, not least through his banter between poems which was almost as entertaining as the poetry itself. His newest collection Complicity seeks to understand how we can reconcile ourselves with our identities while comprehending the violent undercurrents in society; a deep and dark concept which yet gives rise to entertaining, if thought-provoking, poetry.
Finally we were treated to readings by Sina Queyras, whose latest book MxT is about loss and grief. Her work often combines poetry with non-lyrical writing; whether that be in the form of an instruction manual or with mathematical symbols, giving her poems a specific structure without losing the heart of the poetry. Her performance was more sombre in style than the preceding poets, unsurprising given the nature of her poetry, and the contrast in styles was interesting to see, especially during an evening in which the concept of “Canadian Poetry” as a movement was discussed.
Our host for the evening, Stephen Brockwell, estimated the audience to be made up of roughly 90% poets; a demographic inclined to enjoy an evening of poetry reading. However, as someone to whom the poetic muse hasn’t spoken since I was in the midst of those angst-ridden teenage years, I still very much enjoyed the event.
It is always fantastic to hear a poet perform their own work; to hear the inflections, emphasis and speed that the poet envisioned for their words, which are so often confined to the paper, and this particular evening was no exception. From Winger’s brilliant comedic delivery, to Sol’s rambling – but very entertaining – introductions to his poems and Queyras’ more sombre reading of her beautiful, grief-drenched poetry, hearing the poems the way they were intended to be read was a rare treat.
The discussion that followed the readings touched on the significance of events and discourse for modern poetry, an importance that was underlined by the evening itself. While poetry cannot be written with the sole aim of pulling in an audience, it is wonderful to have an occasion to experience live poetry readings. Adam Sol referred to poetry as a “quasi-religious experience,” and on a night such as yesterday, in a fabulous venue such as Knox Presbyterian Church, it is an easy statement with which to agree.
What is it about a small, spry, spunky nonagenarian that captures our attention and leads us to examine our habits and lifestyle choices? For starters, there aren’t many of us that will make it over 90 so encountering a healthy, happy one inevitably invokes a bit of curiosity. But even the healthy, happy ones we would presume to be confined to a senior’s home, most likely losing lucidity and agility at a rapid rate. The last place we’d expect to find a ninety year-old would be the medal ceremony of a 100-metre dash at a Masters Track competition. But ninety-five year-old Olga Kotelko isn’t interested in meeting our or any expectations. She defies the rules of aging, and her story as told by writer and author Bruce Grierson, naturally compels us to question what it is that makes her live so long (and so well) and how we might get in on that good fortune. It amazes and baffles us that as the rest of humanity slowly succumbs to the irrepressible powers of gravity and time, Olga marches on indomitably and zestfully through her tenth decade of life.
Her story alone is compelling enough to make us drop our frozen dinners and take note. But Grierson’s lighthearted delivery and endearing self-deprecation invite us to explore the mystery of Olga in a way that is approachable, engaging, and fun. While there are few on this earth who can personally relate to an outlier like Olga, we can all relate to someone who wants to be more like her. Grierson begins his exploration with questions any of us might have: “What makes Olga different?”, “Can I be like Olga?” His five-year journey of observing, learning, and writing about what we could easily try to classify as a “freak of nature” reveals the confounding complexities of the science, the theories, and the mystery behind aging.
Like any good exploration of life’s perplexing realities, Grierson’s talk at the Writers’ Festival left the audience with deeper and more nuanced questions than easy and straightforward answers. Olga’s “secret to success” (the number one thing people hope to learn in reading Grierson’s book or speaking to him in person) is both mundanely simple and bewilderingly complex, all at once.
As Grierson says, it’s a complicated combination of “genes, lifestyle, temperament, and luck.”
Ask Olga what her secret is, or better yet, watch her in action and you won’t find her following a fad diet or applying some special skin cream. It’s as basic as this: she lives in balanced moderation, determined positivity, and constant movement. In a society where being deskbound for hours on end is the norm and grabbing pre-made meals is the rule rather than the exception, this timeless recipe for healthy living is now once again, as rediscoveries often are, novel. In the amnesia of modern life, the lifestyle our bodies and minds were made for has somehow become a “secret elixir” to living long and well.
Obviously, it goes farther and deeper than that. Grierson is quick to point out how many different variables are involved, some of which are controllable (diet, attitude, physical movement that goes beyond 30 minutes of vigorous “exercise”); others that are harder if not impossible to control (genes, environment, upbringing.) The way nature melds this all together in a person, and peppers it with (or without) a good dose of luck, will likely remain a mystery to us mortals. Our desperate need to quantify the unquantifiable makes this conclusion maddeningly unsatisfactory. But it also makes Olga’s story and Grierson’s interpretation of it one of the most gripping life narratives of our day. She may not have found the Elixir of Life but she’s discovered many ways to help her live well and after hearing from Grierson, I’m willing to give it a try. Though I don’t know if I’d bet my life on it.
Sometimes, I am a bit dim-witted. I am especially dim-witted on Fridays. In my state of aforementioned dim-wittedness, I failed to process that Rae and Ivan’s event at Writers Fest would be so much more than a reading and Q&A session. Gender Failure, a collaborative multi-media show that Rae and Ivan have toured across North America, was both heart-breaking and hilarious. It is no wonder that this event was not only sold out but also had a waitlist for tickets.
Throughout the course of the evening, Rae and Ivan alternated between sharing their personal narratives and experiences of gender, and performing songs. I was blown away by Rae Spoon’s phenomenal vocals, and by Rae and Ivan’s excellent grasp of how to tell a story.
Theirs is an excellent collaboration.
Not many musical experiences literally make me shiver. Perhaps that Basia Bulat show a few years ago at First Baptist Church, where she played a strange instrument in total darkness. Or maybe even the nostalgia-for-adolescence-in-the-90s flashback known as the Backstreet Boys 20th year tour. You can most certainly add Rae Spoon and Ivan Coyote’s performance to that very short (and diverse) list.
Gender Failure was both accessible and intimate. One minute, Rae and Ivan had the audience singing along to gender confused YouTube comments; the next, we were aching with the recognition that none of us feel fully attached to (and thus comfortable with) our physical bodies.
I’m certain that many of Rae and Ivan’s experiences were all too relatable. Perhaps some of us were heartlessly abandoned by our BFF Janine, whose breasts and interest in cheerleading appeared overnight. Or perhaps we experienced a middle school gymnastic dancing nightmare, during which we heard a mysterious voice that prompted us to flee from the gymnasium.
These are, of course, two of many heartfelt and humourous anecdotes shared during the evening, all of which allowed us a fascinating glimpse into Rae and Ivan’s lives.
It is clear to me that the collaborative work—both music and prose—between Rae and Ivan is not just entertaining but also extremely important: Gender Failure ultimately speaks to the desire to be known, and points out that a name is not the same thing as a person. And, as Ivan pointed out, he is a writer; he knows where words fail us.
I’d be hard pressed to single out one reading from all of Gender Failure that was most revelatory or influential, as the entire performance was such a cohesive yet diverse experience. Were last night’s event not the last on Rae and Ivan’s tour, I would be urging you to buy tickets to their next show immediately. Instead, I’m urging you to pick up a copy of their book, and to hope that the show tours again the future.
What is language? We use it every day, but rarely stop to consider it. Language is a critical part of life in a society, providing the ability to communicate by allowing individuals to share information, ideas and experiences across physical space and time through sounds or written forms that represent sounds. Each sound can be combined with others into recognizable patterns which we identify with words. We then combine those words into phrases to communicate more and more complex things. But all of this is based around a shared set of understood meanings that those who make dictionaries earn their livelihoods from (or used to anyway). What happens when this process of defining meaning gets undermined through the disruption of the source information or worse, through the disruption of the understanding of the individual? These are the questions that each author of Friday night’s book panel wrestled with. Yet, while each book took a similar starting point, they are all unique interpretations of the answers.
Peter Norman was the first author up. He shared three readings from his novel Emberton. Emberton is a gothic style novel, based in an old office building housing a dictionary publisher. The readings illustrated the style, and Norman used the excessive descriptive passages well to either comic effect or building tension. Norman shared later that part of the inspiration behind the structure of the office building had been from seeing the movie Titanic , where the ship was envisioned as a microcosm of society, with the captain and the upper-class people on the top of the ship, while the working class people were deep within the structure operating the motors. In Emberton, the crumbling office tower is that microcosm, with the editors in the glass penthouse and the printers buried down in the basement. Norman used the gothic elements of medieval buildings and magical elements with a threatening sense of mystery in a modern way.
Alena Graedon shared next, from her novel The Word Exchange . After hearing Emberton’s style, it was apparent that The Word Exchange was more relaxed in tone, and listening to Graedon read felt like listening to a friend share a story. Graedon read the opening section, where we meet the protagonist who is experiencing her world crumble. First, she is questioning her identity (having been working on a portfolio to apply to an MFA program for several years, but never being quite “ready”), and then losing her boyfriend (figuratively) of many years, and then her father disappears (literally). Graydon’s use of language in her writing was equally strong as Norman’s, and the “near-future” science fiction style works perfectly for this story. Her description of the world around the characters seems fully plausible yet has an element of a dystopian future to keep the audience on edge.
The third author of the evening was Ghalib Islam, who shared from his book Fire in the Unnameable Country. While the other two authors had strong reading voices, Islam unfortunately seemed uncomfortable reading out loud from his book. Initially I had thought this might be for effect, increasing the discomfort that you could sense from the text, but it eventually became clear this wasn’t the case. Much of the audience was visibly straining to hear him speak. Despite the difficulty in listening to the reading, there was no doubt in the strength of the writing, with Fire in the Unnameable Country being a dense satirical fantasy based in the world of the War on Terror, and confusion over collective and personal history from the severing of language from identity.
The host for the evening was Stephen Brockwell, a Canadian poet living in Ottawa. Brockwell had read all three books before the event and was well prepared, asking good questions of each of the authors. The questions raised varied from asking about the origin of the ideas for each of the novels, to exploring the unique forms each author used, to the transition of text from print to digital forms and how is this changing society. Each novel had an interesting origin story, and two of the three were marred with personal hardship and tragedy.
Emberton actually was based around an idea the Norman had as a young child. He was reading the dictionary and came across the page with the many names of people who contribute to the dictionary. His eight year-old mind envisioned all these people working in the same building, sitting side-by-side. During the process of writing the novel, his research found that the organizations that made dictionaries were not as fanciful as he originally imagined, encouraging the novel into further fantasy.
The idea that sparked The Word Exchange came from reading a dictionary she had received as a graduation gift upon completion of her MFA in creative writing. Shortly before finishing her MFA, she had a house fire, and all her books and everything had been burned. Her parents bought her the dictionary as a gift to replace the one she had lost in the fire. As she was reading the new dictionary she came across entries for people such as Sylvia Plath, and wondered what it would be like if one of these entries just disappeared. This idea was the starting point of her novel (where the father of the protagonist disappears from the dictionary, and from the world).
Islam’s origin story is much more difficult. He explained that he had worked for a year on a precursor to what has become Fire in the Unnameable Country, and then was hit by a drunk driver and was nearly killed. In his time in the hospital and during rehab he started revising, editing and reworking, and that process has taken its time to eventually become what is now published. As Islam shared this story, he was calm, sharing details such as seeing the photos of the accident scene where there was more blood than he could imagine coming out of his body and feeling a strong sense of fragmentation from the question of “where am I in this image”. But, Islam got visibly upset when he shared that the person who had hit him (and subsequently ran from the accident) was only charged with Drunk Driving, and not with anything more severe despite the fact that she had nearly killed him. This sense of disrupted justice has also been something that was clearly an influence on elements of his book which he alluded to, but didn’t have time to expand upon.
What I love about the Ottawa International Writers Festival is the opportunity to be exposed to new books, ideas and authors. This event introduced me to three new authors, and their first books. Each of these authors are clearly talented, and I’m excited about picking each of these books up to read. I love looking at philosophical questions, and the philosophy of language and its influence on individuals and society has so much room for exploration. Each author here has started with similar questions but has used their artistry and personality to create three unique books.
There are no answers to questions like these, but sometimes in the experience of thinking more deeply about the importance of something like language, we can learn how to be more mindful in our use and valuation of it as the use of language drastically keeps transforming through new technology.