Just this week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asked Governor General Julie Payette to dissolve Parliament, marking the start of the federal election campaign. Monday night’s “On Justin Trudeau” event could hardly have been more timely. Robyn Bresnahan, host of CBC Radio’s “Ottawa Morning,” seized on her guests’ political expertise to ask a series of astute, important questions: is the claim that Justin Trudeau is a merely spokesperson for his advisors is a fair one? How is Justin Trudeau described by those who work closely with him, and how can he address the challenge of long memory and family legacy, particularly in Alberta and Quebec? Should he have spoken out against events or issues with which many Canadians taken issue, such as Bill 21 in Quebec or the treatment of migrant families in the United States?
Aaron Wherry, author of Promise and Peril: Justin Trudeau in Power and senior writer with the CBC’s Parliament Hill bureau and John Ivison, author of Trudeau: The Education of a Prime Minister and political columnist for the National Post provided balanced, considered responses to Bresnahan’s questions. If the evening’s discussion was any indication, the two new biographies are packed with behind-the-scenes information and insightful perspectives, and both books will provide readers with a firm understanding and analysis of the historical, cultural and international forces that have led to today’s political context in Canada. Both Wherry and Ivison shared their views on the criticisms which have been levelled against Trudeau, and where they believe he made mistakes or demonstrated skilled responses. Rather intriguingly, each author also claimed not to have read the other’s book, and both refrained from predicting the outcome of the upcoming election. It was clear that the discussion could have lasted all night; towards the end of the evening, Bresnahan noted that they hadn’t yet broached the India trip, Canada’s relationship with China or the SNC Lavalin scandal.
As a result of further questioning from the audience, the conversation touched upon other important issues for Canadians: the new North American free trade agreement (CUSMA); former Liberal Cabinet Ministers Jane Philpott and Jody Wilson-Raybould and their possible influence on the election; Trudeau’s relationship with President Trump and the G7 tweets; the possible discrepancy between the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion and environmental policies; as well as the election campaign. As an audience member who had not yet read Ivison and Wherry’s new biographies, I left the discussion feeling that I perhaps understood Justin Trudeau more as a politician and as a person, with all of the complexities and contradictions inherent in those identities.
Nevertheless, it was arguably the very first question posed by Bresnahan that set the tone of the evening. She had opened by asking how Justin Trudeau would be remembered if the Liberals were not re-elected in the 2019 federal election. Wherry and Ivison agreed on this point: enthusiasm for Justin Trudeau in 2015 has not been maintained, and in many senses this is a disappointment. They both argued that Trudeau had raised the bar so high that any of his accomplishments may seem diminished. That said, Ivison and Wherry confessed that the election is not a referendum on Trudeau’s performance, nor is it a choice between the Trudeau of 2015 and 2019. Instead, it is a choice between Trudeau and the opposition leaders, and we should carefully consider our choices at the polls.
In collaboration with RBC Bluesfest, OIWF brought festivalgoers the third installment of “Random Play” last Thursday. The show is a quirky but wonderful brainchild of Alan Neal, the host of CBC’s All in a Day radio program.
The basic concept of “Random Play” is simple: the show is a shuffled iPod playlist brought to life. Alan Neal gleans random songs from his iPod library, then invites each performing artist to join the program for the event. Neal then engages the artists about their work for the stories behind their creations.
To start off, Alan brought out techno-artist Lydia Ainsworth and discussed her song “The Time,” which had been inspired by the Los Angeles wildfires last year. To Ainsworth’s surprise, Neal had tracked down a survivor of the disaster, and had played him the song in question. The gentleman noted Ainsworth had captured the “sense of when the pressure [of the disaster] is crushing you, but giving the opportunity for the human spirit to come forward with hope. . .”
Next was folk rock troubadour Tom Wilson. Neal’s surprise for Wilson was a fresh revelation from Wilson’s song-writing partner Josh Finlayson, who had explained to Neal how he Wilson had conceived the song “Blades of Grass.” In Wilson’s brash style, he gave a hearty laugh and insisted Finlayson “was high when he did that interview!”
Drew Gonsalves, frontman of the band Kobo Town was next to be interviewed about his song “Tick Tock Goes the Clock,” a surreal representation of the apocalypse. Gonsalves confessed to being nervous about having his lyrics scrutinized by such a well-read crowd as the one in attendance that night. He and his band then played the song; a perfectly offsetting presentation to such a morbid theme.
Neal then brought out pure folk songbird Basia Bulat who was effervescent and enthusiastic. Bulat even brought out her own old iPod from 2005 to show Alan what she had been listening to back then. She then performed her song “If Only You,” and the smile on her face showed that she truly loves to sing.
The last performer of the first segment was Ottawa’s own Kathleen Edwards. Edwards was candid when describing her upbringing, as well as the process of falling in love with Ottawa when her family finally settled here. Neal then played a clip from poet David O’Meara, where he recited a poem dedicated to her, entitled “Autobiography.” Edwards then sang the song “Away” for the audience. Edwards’ voice has a gorgeous cadence when she holds a note, and the room’s ambience added an angelic dimension to her whole performance.
After a short break, Alan Neal challenged the participating artists to perform covers of other songs plucked from his playlist. Drew Gonsalves and Tom Wilson played a duet from a Muppet movie, with Gonsalves as Kermit and Wilson offering his trademark growl as Rowlf the Dog. Backed by Kobo Town, Basia Bulat sang “Music Makes Me” by Ginger Rogers. Bulat then accompanied Lydia Ainsworth and Tom Wilson to recreate Buffy Saint-Marie’s “Moonshot.” Kathleen Edwards followed with Willie Nelson’s “Forgiving You Was Easy”; she was then urged by Alan Neal to debut her new song “Redfern.” Lastly, Lydia Ainsworth joined with Kobo Town and Basia Bulat to perform Bonnie Tyler’s “Faster Than The Speed of Night.”
The finale was the most absurdly wonderful segment of all, when the ensemble performed a classic Aquaman radio play. Kathleen Edwards played the villain, Tom Wilson played Aquaman, and Lydia Ainsworth provided the sound effects. Alan Neal observed from the side, beside himself with laughter at the ultimate chaos he had designed. The crowd joined Neal in his evident pleasure. Indeed, the evening had been the product of Alan Neal’s mind, made only the better by the star quality of the performers he had invited to perform for the evening. It made for a truly unique and memorable event.
Rush and Ottawa have always seemed to be two passing ships in the night. Ottawa has often been overlooked on Canada’s premier rock trio’s touring schedule. In return, Ottawa has often looked away from the Toronto scene. Last Wednesday, the stars aligned for the two to connect in the most intimate way with at least one of Rush’s three members: its bassist, Geddy Lee.
Lee’s tour, which promotes his new book, Geddy Lee’s Big Beautiful Book of Bass, stopped at the new Carleton Dominion-Chalmers Centre on Cooper Street. At the event, Lee was interviewed by CBC Ottawa’s Alan Neal amidst an audience composed of festival members and diehard t-shirt-donning Rush fans alike.
To start off, the venue itself was stunning. Carleton University purchased the former Dominion-Chalmers United Church last year, and spent the interim renovating its interior, creating a fitting setting for an interview with rock royalty. The interior of the new arts centre, resplendent with its fine wood trimming, gold stenciling, features a stage backed by a full pipe organ occupying the entire rear wall. Since the centre just opened to the public back in April as a rehearsal, performance and lecture space for Carleton University’s music program, the Geddy Lee event was one of the first events to be held in its new incarnation.
After a thunderous standing ovation for Lee finally died down, Alan Neal posed questions in his affable way, using lighthearted jokes in reference to the sheer size and weight of the book. Neal’s tone was a perfect match for Lee’s brand of humour, which frequently employs thinly veiled cutups and jovial self-deprecation. Lee responded to Neal with his own witticisms and brainy shop-talk about his love for the electric bass.
Lee spoke of his own journey as a bass player, meeting his heroes and taking his own misguided steps in emulating their sounds before settling on what would become his own sound. The conversation followed Lee’s steps as he found his way to becoming a rock-and-roll hero in his own right. Alan Neal had really researched his topic, asking Lee pointed questions about the exasperation of finding the right tone for the bass to complement the projects at hand, such as his decision to use his 1972 Fender jazz bass to cut through the wall of sound in the song “Tom Sawyer.” Neal and Lee also revisited Lee’s memory of meeting Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones, a moment when Lee had to fight the urge to geek out as Jones played the bass lines for “Heartbreaker” for himself and his friend.
The comments that drew the most enthusiastic responses were the ones that answered questions from the crowd. Lee admitted that his favourite song to play live was “Headlong Flight” from the album Clockwork Angels. The song is a typical Rush opus of straight-ahead rocking out which drew on the band’s endearing talents. Lee was quite candid and truthful when he spoke of his plans for the future, saying: “I think I am still too young to just stop.”
Indeed, Lee was his usual energetic and approachable self, even while signing copies of the book. It was definitely a dedicated crowd, and he obviously has more to offer as far as his creativity and his connection to his fans. It was a fortunate thing to have him visit, knowing how such opportunities may be rare and precious forthwith, so it was a magical night for Ottawa, its writing festival and music itself.
Non-profit leader Michael Adams chose a glass of Chardonnay, while political theorist David Moscrop chose beer and Playstation. Each man braved the news of the 2016 American election in his own way. However, while each approached the the implications of that night in a manner as different as his choice of beverage, both shared several conclusions. The Ottawa International Writers Festival invited Michael Adams and David Moscrop to speak on their respective books, Could it Happen Here? Canada in the Age of Trump and Brexit and Too Dumb for Democracy? for an evening of conversation hosted by veteran columnist Susan Riley. The resulting conversation explored the implications of that fateful evening when Trump became President of the United States of America, the global rise of populism, and the future of Canadian democracy.
Adams had decided that his six published books were enough, but on the night of the US election he felt compelled to write one more. Could it Happen Here? addresses the fears that what happened to our neighbors south of the border might also happen here in Canada. Adams provided reassurance that Canadian institutions and culture are a far cry from that of the United States. As the director of a polling research firm, Adams was able to back his sunny optimism with solid numbers.
The statistics Adams cited are revealing. If Canadians had voted in the US election, Hillary would have won with 60% of the vote. Next after her would have come Jill Stein for the Greens. Adams observed that our political culture has been profoundly shaped by the Quiet Revolution in Quebec, the rise of the concept of multiculturalism, and the proliferation of a widespread culture of compromise and acceptance. Adams argued that this provides an inoculation against the kinds of levels of xenophobia seen in the United States. Right now the population of Toronto is 49% foreign-born, and Adams claimed therefore that xenophobia simply cannot make a viable political platform.
Further, Adams argued that in the United States there is a much more widespread authoritarian reflex than in Canada. For example, almost half of Americans believe that the father is the head of the household. In Canada, less than a quarter of the population would agree. Adams traced our ability to have peaceful dissent and a stable means of questioning of authority to the strength of Canadian institutions. The development of the social welfare state in Canada has given people sufficient security for freedom and political participation. Despite the rags-to-riches rhetoric of the “American Dream,” there is twice as much social mobility in Canada as there is in the United States. The strength of our healthcare, our unions, and our teachers all provide Canadians with a sense of existential security.
Moscrop, author of Too Dumb for Democracy, agreed with Adams. If you look around at world democracies, he claimed, Canada will likely be the last domino to fall. Our democratic institutions are extremely strong in comparison to those of the United States. Nonetheless, he reminded the audience, we cannot take these institutions for granted, nor can we assume they will be well-enough equipped to deal with the fast-paced global challenges of the future.
Moscrop believes that we have a strong system but questions how it will weather the impending crises of climate change and a shrinking planet. The Syrian refugee crisis is one example that Moscrop cited where Canadians responded dismally in comparison to other rich nations like Germany. Moscrop posed a thought experiment to the audience: imagine a refugee crisis ten times the scale of the Syrian refugee crisis, a migration driven by the failure of crops, water wars, and the rising spread of disease. How would Canada respond? Moscrop urged his audience to think of a future radically different than the one we are living in now. He emphasized the importance of open a space for new conversations about the future.
We are not “too dumb for democracy” noted Moscrop, but we are often played as victims. Our current political climate pressures us to think and respond out of the pathos of our lizard brain. Moscrop cautioned us to slow down and breathe. Rational decision-making is not made in haste or in anger. We do not need town hall forums filled with drama and shouting. Instead, we need new spaces for meaningful debate filled with boring but patient, quiet, and deliberative reasoning. Moscrop envisions the creation of civic nodes of randomly selected participants who can play an agenda-setting role. These new civic nodes would not supplant but rather supplement our existing participatory systems, to build better, more responsive and representative democracies.
“Ordinary citizens,” asserts Vicki Heyman, “have kept the US-Canada relationship alive for centuries.” Returning to Ottawa for the launch of their new book, The Art of Diplomacy: Strengthening the Canada-U.S. Relationship in Times of Uncertainty, Vicki and Bruce Heyman only barely qualify as ordinary citizens. A long-time financial advisor for Goldman Sachs, Bruce Heyman served as the United States’ Ambassador to Canada from 2014 to 2017. Vicki Heyman, an experienced cultural leader and philanthropist, also comes from a background in finance. Both Vicki and Bruce Heyman became major supporters of Barack Obama’s 2007 presidential bid. Energized by the excitement of meeting ordinary people on the campaign trail, both continued their engagement with the Democratic party, and both were delighted when Bruce Heyman was nominated for the Ambassadorship which brought them to Ottawa. Together, Bruce and Vicki Heyman redefined the role of the American ambassador’s office in Canada, opening the ambassador’s residence to a record number of guests, sponsoring new arts events, and travelling the Canadian provinces with the enthusiasm of a young couple on a college road trip. Their enthusiasm for their new home was contagious, and they were able to forge a startling number of new alliances between Americans and Canadians. Now based in Chicago, Bruce Heyman and Vicki Heyman returned to Ottawa for a conversation with journalist Evan Solomon.
With the changed political context, it may seem tempting for ordinary Canadians to scale back their American engagements. After all, it is just as easy to book a vacation to the Caribbean as it is to Florida, and American trading partners can sometimes be replaced with others. Yet now is the time when America needs Canada most, stressed both Bruce and Vicki Heyman. Trump won’t be hurt by your boycott of the States, both Heymans reminded their listeners. As tempting as it may be to re-direct your spending and business relationships outside the States, such behaviour will only hurt American innkeepers, restaurant workers and other ordinary people who have a great deal to learn from their Northern neighbors. Part memoir, part manifesto, and part apology, The Art of Diplomacy is intended as Bruce and Vicki Heyman’s joint “love letter to Canada.” Speaking to a highly-engaged multi-national audience, Bruce Heyman told his listeners, “don’t be a bystander.” There are as many as 600,000 eligible American voters in Canada today, he explained; it is crucial that each of these expatriates vote in the next American election. Vicki Heyman stressed the importance of Canada as example as a North American democracy where private enterprise flourishes alongside single-payer healthcare, relatively successful gun control, and less acceptance of the dramatic income inequality which has come to define American society in the twenty-first century. Both Bruce Heyman and Vicki Heyman felt that simple acts of conversation between travelling Canadians and their American hosts, for example, could go a long way to change the current political log jam south of the border.
Lee Smolin strode onto the stage to face his audience, a man on a mission. His posture suggested it was a mission he did not expect to see completed in his lifetime. Smolin is a renowned physicist in pursuit of a holy grail of physics. His goal is of both quantum and cosmic proportions — a theory unifying the very small with the very large, as expressed in his new book Einstein's Unfinished Revolution. The event was hosted by Stephen Brockwell, a man uniquely skilled at steering conversation away from dense thickets of terminology. But for the occasional jargon, Smolin’s tale was elegant and accessible. His tranquil voice belied a fiery passion to solve one of the toughest problem in intellectual history: unifying quantum mechanics with general relativity. This challenge is a nut that Einstein himself had failed to crack, leaving it to be resolved by future generations of scientists. While much progress has been made, a final theory eludes us. Smolin believes he can tell us why.
Einstein’s revolution began with his theory of general relativity — a theory governing the very large. Shortly after scientists began developing theories of the very small - that of the spooky quantum realm. Here, Smolin has a bone to pick with theories of phenomena that depend on the presence of an observer. Considered mind-dependent, he calls these theories “anti-realist.” Smolin believes such theories should be exchanged for ‘realist’ views, like those we have of the atomic world. This view of realism has been criticized, with some voices arguing that science should only be evidence-dependent. Regardless, scientists agree that a grand theory of everything still waits to be discovered. Opinions differ on how to arrive there.
In Einstein’s Unfinished Revolution, Lee Smolin proclaims he has found the pieces of the map, hidden within the history of physics. When pieced together, he says, they will guide our way to the final treasure. Smolin recognizes that this will take unconventional thinking. He calls on fellow physicists to remove their anti-realist blinders and move past their theoretical entrenchment.
As much as Smolin departs from mainstream science, he is in line with the history of scientific thought. There was a time in the history of every modern idea when it once seemed daring and unconventional. It has been those who set sail from familiar thinking who opened new continents of thought.
Whether one agrees with him or not, Smolin stood on stage with an intellectual bravery to be admired. The history of progress has been marked by such deviations from the norm. It is an intellectual heritage that Einstein knew well as he advanced ideas that forever changed the direction of thought. How fitting it would be if completing Einstein’s revolution meant once again turning the world on its head.
The launch of Missy Marston’s second novel, Bad Ideas, at the Manx Pub was definitely a good idea. The packed house included friends and fans of Marston’s award-winning debut novel of 2013, The Love Monster. At the May 5th event, Marston talked about the genesis of Bad Ideas. Growing up in a small town on the St. Lawrence Seaway, Marston related, it was impossible not to hear about the Mad Canadian, Ken Carter. Carter spent three years preparing to jump a mile-wide segment of the St. Lawrence River in a rocket-powered Lincoln Continental, but was replaced at the last minute by an American, who only made it about 500 feet across.
It was also impossible to ignore the aftereffects of Inundation Day, July 1, 1958, when more than a dozen towns and hamlets of less than 1,000 people were flooded to create the St. Lawrence Seaway. Seaway construction wasn’t disruptive just because entire towns were moved or lost, but because the massive project saw 20,000 men, all young, mostly single, and far from home, flock to the area for work.
Bad Ideas explores the consequences of these two events from the point of view of its seven characters in the fictional town of Preston Mills.
Marston read excerpts from the four main characters.
Claire, a mother at 17 and a grandmother at 34, is a romantic who fell in love with and had two daughters by one of the married Seaway workers and continues to pine for him. “Inside Claire’s head was a running narrative, telling her story. The story of a princess abandoned and forgotten, mistaken for a scullery maid, biding her time, awaiting the return of her prince.”
Tammy is Claire’s younger daughter, pregnant at 16 but, like, the rest of Preston Mills, is in denial about many things, and abandons her daughter. Trudy, Claire’s older daughter, works the night shift at a local linen factory. Trudy is the kind of person Marston finds impressive—someone who shoulders huge responsibility at a tender age. Trudy works the night shift because her mother is working the day shift and the two of them have ended up raising Tammy’s daughter Mercy. And then there’s Jules Tremblay, a Montreal daredevil, who, like Ken Carter, dreams of building a ramp to jump the St. Lawrence in a rocket car, and who seems like a very bad, but absolutely irresistible, idea to Trudy.
With her characteristic wit, warmth, and humour, Marston explores the lives of people slowly drowning, those who didn’t manage to escape the confines of their tiny towns and whose dreams, perhaps small to begin with, are still bigger than their ability to realize them. As Marston pointed out, the flooding may have begun with a big bang on Inundation Day, but the water levels rose very slowly over the course of several days, and the consequences continued for months, as dead animals and the occupants of graves that hadn’t been relocated surfaced and floated to new locations. As Mercy says, “This day at the fair didn’t turn out the way she thought it would. Sometimes it’s like that.”
Last Saturday, Ziya Tong led a riveted audience through some of the questions that have been circling her mind throughout her remarkable career as a science journalist, producer and award-winning broadcaster. Tong, who anchored the Discovery Channel’s Daily Planet from 2008 to 2018, has recently finished her first non-fiction book. The Reality Bubble: Blind Spots, Hidden Truths and the Dangerous Illusions That Shape Our World will be available in bookstores on May 14th.
Throughout her talk and subsequent discussion with host, John Geddes, Tong revealed an intellectual curiosity which runs through all her work, even confiding that she has a question-mark shaped tattoo on the back of her neck mark as a symbol of her inquisitive nature. Geddes praised The Reality Bubble for its density, praising its scientific data as well as its anecdotes. He also asked Tong to elaborate on some of the challenges she faced in her research. In her responses, Tong was approachable and charismatic, and when she described the process of writing this first book, she quoted Yoda of Star Wars. (It was May the 4th, after all). She described it as a process of unlearning all that she had previously learned.
The unlearning process is also a useful metaphor for the experience of reading The Reality Bubble. While few people had the opportunity to read the book before her talk, Tong explained that it is not an “environmental” book. She does not want people to approach it with preconceptions or a sense that they know what will be written on its pages. Instead, Tong hopes to convey all that we take for granted as humans; all that our collective understanding fails to appreciate of the world and of other species. For example, she conceded that many animals understand our language: Coco the gorilla responds to thousands of signs; whales and dolphins follow commands to jump and play in marine parks; dogs grasp the meaning of hundreds of human words. But what do we understand of other species’ communication patterns? For the most part, nothing at all. We pat ourselves on the back for building airplanes, landing on the moon and communicating abstract ideas, but we’ve also come to a point where our most common encounter with ‘nature’ is in the supermarket.
Geddes and Tong discussed the fact that the book pivots around metaphors of blindness and invisibility in the human-animal relationship. One could feel a collective intake of breath in the room when Tong stated that we’ve made slaves of our domesticated animals. But she explained that this has come from commodifying nature to the point where we’ve placed a price on almost all species on the planet. Tong explained that this realization hit her as she wrote under a Baobab tree. At that moment, she fully understood the absurdity of the concept of ownership, especially with respect to these majestic trees that outlive us by thousands of years.
In conclusion, Tong asserted “life can’t be owned by anybody. Life belongs to life.” Yet this review is being prepared the same week that the United Nations released a report on biodiversity, claiming that extinction looms over one million species of plants and animals. When Geddes asked Tong about how she grappled with sad themes of climate change and species loss, she admitted that she had considered writing a piece about scientists when they are faced with the realization of what is to come. (Tong has met many crying scientists). But the conversation remained hopeful, in particular when Tong spoke of epiphany, wonder and awe, and the joy that we can find in being near animals. She reminded us that animal videos are all over social media, for better or for worse, almost as a salve for the stress of our misguided human lives.
Some questions from the audience touched on metaphysical interpretations of reality; others asked about Tong’s future projects. Listening to Ziya Tong, I felt anxious about the future of our planet, but also experienced a hopeful, delightful feeling - that feeling when one is in the presence of a person who can demonstrate the limits of our knowledge while inspiring us to learn more. Hopefully we have time to appreciate the fact that our human perspective of the world may not be as solid as we presume it to be. Listening to Tong may be just what many of us need in order to reevaluate our reality bubble, and to unlearn all we have learned.
Human societies are fundamentally good. So argues Nicholas Christakis, author of Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society. Trained as a palliative care physician and social scientist, Christakis now directs the Human Nature Lab at Yale University, where he is also Sterling Professor of Social and Natural Science. His new book Blueprint interweaves aspects of sociology, medicine, evolutionary biology, and ecology in an intense study of the human condition. At a time when truth and evidenced-based research are facing challenges as never before and dangerous half-truths rage on social media, Christakis’s carefully laid out, factual book offers an optimistic view on where humanity is headed next, grounded not in wishful thinking but in a what Christakis argues is a mountain of evidence-based truths.
The facts paint an optimistic picture, says Christakis. The fact that humans have evolved to live in society suggests that our being social carries evolutionary benefits. Influenced by the philosophy of Philippa Foot, who said, “In moral philosophy it is useful, I believe, to think about plants,” Christakis says that like plants, human societies need good roots to thrive. Human good is located in the roots that lead to human flourishing over time. While it is tempting to hone in on the horrors of human history and get pulled into the pathos of hate, Christakis argues instead that human good and our propensity for cooperation are overwhelmingly engrained in us, socio-biologically.
Christakis and his team studied thousands of societies, intentional and non-intentional, across different times and places. They found that certain common features are salient across all of them. Christakis calls these nourishing principals the “Social Suite”: identity, love, friendship, networks, cooperation, in-group preference, mild hierarchy, and teaching. All of these functions arise out of our inter-individuality; i.e., our identity formation through our social interactions with one another. The Social Suite is what makes us essentially human.
These principals form a blueprint for the formation of human societies that is deeply, even genetically, ingrained. The attempt to suppress any of these instincts, such as engineering a society that suppresses love or freedom of association, as for example is undertaken by authoritarian regimes, cannot be engineered successfully, at least not forever. Christakis speaks from experience; he was just a boy when the military dictatorship was overthrown in his native Greece. Human society may be flawed says Christakis, but despite centuries of hatred and violence Christakis believes that society fundamentally leans towards the good. He backs this by science. He is optimistic about our common future because the long arc of our evolution says that the societal behaviours that will thrive are those that nourish us. Malice and vitriol will not last.
The horizon of humanity offers hope.
Some years ago I interviewed the late British crime writer P.D. James, and we discussed the distinction often made between literary and genre fiction. She dismissed it rather decisively, noting that the distinction seemed to be of much more importance in North America than elsewhere, and cited successful crime writers who were also winners of major prizes for literary fiction to buttress her point.
Since then various crime writers have validated her view. One of the most conspicuous is the featured author at last Fall’s OIWF event, Ian Rankin. And this Spring, I’m delighted to say that two more writers at the OIWF festival offer further evidence that quality fiction is not a matter of genre.
After years of covering social issues as a journalist, Stephen Maher comes across as a thoughtful observer of the human scene. In his latest novel, Social Misconduct, Maher relates the terrifying tale of Candace Walker, who works in the pressurized advertising world of internet marketing, yet suddenly finds herself the target of a vicious smear campaign on social media. The perpetrator is unknown to her, but when the attack spreads like wildfire Candace is forced to abandon her former life, even discarding her cell phone to prevent others from tracking her. She takes refuge in a rented storage locker as she attempts to discover who is behind these assaults, and why. It is an excellent tale, well-told, and offers a cautionary note about the times we live in.
In conversation with Peter Scheider and Ausma Zehanat Khan, Maher revealed that his latest work has been very much a learning process for him. His earlier novels, Deadline and Salvage, were largely character-drive tales, but in Social Misconduct, Maher wanted to cast his net wider and deeper. He noted that enduring novels such as Pride and Prejudice, Madame Bovary, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? can be seen as literary tools which help us to understand our changing world. In order to research the background for Social Misconduct, Maher talked with many people in media, law enforcement, as well as people who simply lived in Brooklyn and took the L train to work every day, Then, when he began writing, he sent the first half of the book to fifteen friends. Along with the draft, he sent a questionnaire, asking them whether certain elements were too obvious, or too subtle. If they filled out the questionnaire, Maher told his friends, he would send them the second half! So including his first readers, his agent and his editor at Simon & Schuster, it’s been a collaborative and in-depth process that dozens of people have had a hand in, and his book, Maher acknowledged, is all the better for that.
A Deadly Divide is the fifth book in Ausma Zehanat Khan’s intriguing crime fiction series featuring detectives Esa Khattak and Rachel Getty. Working in the community policing section of a law enforcement agency, Khattak and Getty undertake cases which bring them into minority communities where they must navigate the competing tensions that exist in marginalized minority groups, not just in Canada but around the globe.
A Deadly Divide tells the timely story of a mass shooting at a mosque in Quebec. It seems to be a hate crime, and the police focus their attention on a young Muslim man. But the detectives sent to liaise with the community aren’t certain it’s that simple. Khan vividly portrays a community in which powerful and conflicting forces are at work, masking layers of fear, distrust, and hatred.
Although each of the books in this series are certainly crime novels, Khan points out that each book is also deeply rooted in a global human rights issue that reflects her own passion to engage, and then transcend, the differences that divide us. So far her books have encompassed the topics of genocide, the international refugee crisis, the plight of political prisoners in Iran, global terrorism, to name a few.
Khan notes that at least since the American election campaign of 2016 we find ourselves in a world that is increasingly hostile to Muslim identity. She acknowledges that she likes to write books about intersections in time, in history, in language, and in culture, in which readers are encouraged to engage the darkness that we see all around us. Fortunately for her readers, Ausma Khan has an exceptional ability to see, the world around her. Khan is also extraordinarily adept at expressing her view of the world. As a result, her books help us understand some of the prevailing social dynamics of our turbulent times.
Coming from very different backgrounds, both Ausma Zehanat Khan and Stephen Maher are living proof that quality fiction transcends the bounds of any single genre.