Photo credit: Daniel Bezalel Richardsen
The opening of the pre-festival literary revelry featured the marquee event with a featured author who needs little introduction, even among the Tim Horton's crowd (well, sort of). Margaret Atwood is, with all due respect to Alice Munro, the grand dame of Canadian literature; and the list of awards with which she has been honoured throughout her long career as a novelist, poet, and essayist is lengthy. It was no surprise then that as I arrived to the event, I was just one among hundreds of others, all abuzz with excitement, who turned up to watch her be interviewed by CBC’s Alan Neal (host of the Radio 1 program “All In A Day”).
From the syllable, Atwood demonstrated her confidence and ease with her audience, and began things on an endearingly intimate note by pointing out that the venue, a church, merited a hymn. And so, unselfconsciously and in a somewhat shaky, childlike voice, she sang a hymn that, in her newest book MaddAddam, was sung by the 'God’s Gardeners' characters. Adding in her own sound effects as she went, she encouraged the enthusiastic audience to join her for the last note.
Never having previously experienced any of her public speaking or interviews before, this little performance struck me as incongruent with her reputation as an outspoken feminist, environmentalist, and award-laden writer. However, it meshed well with her recent comment in a New York magazine interview that at her age (73), “you’re neither an honorary man or a dishonorary woman; you’re an elder.” If such is the case, then she appeared to be relishing in the social freedom granted by her new role. She repeatedly joked about her age by introducing her anecdotes with the phrase “Once upon a time…”, and referring to people under the age of 60 as “kids.”
She selected a couple of short excerpts to read from MaddAddam , the final book in the dystopic “Oryx and Crake” trilogy, and instantly captivated the audience through the voices of her created characters and the storytelling mastery for which she is celebrated. Within minutes of beginning her interview with Neal, her ease and disarming charm provided a striking contrast with his apparent nervousness. He jumped from topic to topic and posed questions that did not leave much room for Atwood to speak about some of the larger issues that are brought up in the book or what she hopes her audience will take from it.
However, here and there, she still managed to discuss those things that are quite clearly, closest to her heart. She spoke with some degree of passion about her commitment to changing the way that we use and live in the natural environment, and bookended the evening with her thoughts and comments about the environmental damage that society is currently causing.
It is in fact, this preoccupation and passion of Atwood’s that is one of the driving forces in the plot of this trilogy, which is set in a future just beyond the world as we know it, in the age after a human-caused ecological catastrophe meets the near-elimination of the human race through a virus created in a laboratory. The themes in this trilogy are quite distinct from her first (and only other) foray into the realm of science fiction (and science fiction it is, despite her prim insistence that the trilogy not be classified as such) was with her 1985 book The Handmaid’s Tale , in which she describes a world where women are valued for their capacities as wives and as childbearers, but nothing more.
While The Handmaid’s Tale also describes a dystopic world, the reasons that Atwood chooses to use for the eventual and total breakdown of society as we know it are very different from those that she chooses in MaddAddam. Although still using her fiction as a mouthpiece for causes about which she is passionate, Atwood switches gears slightly from a strong focus on feminist issues to things like corruption within the corporate structure, environmentalism and increasing moral ambiguity in scientific research.
I must admit that I have yet to read the book MaddAddam. However, if it is anywhere near as delightful, entertaining, and thought-provoking as its author revealed herself to be during her interview, then I look forward to the experience immensely.
We launched our 2013 Fall Season Tuesday September 24 with Margaret Atwood and MaddAddam in Ottawa!
The world-acclaimed author, winner of the Governor General’s Award, Man Booker Prize and Giller prize, Margaret Atwood joined Artistic Director Sean Wilson for a funny and insightful conversation for a fully-booked Restaurant E18teen in the Byward Market.
Everyone enjoyed a delicious lunch menu inspired by the MaddAddam Trilogy and received their own copy of Atwood's latest book. Proceeds went to the Ottawa International Writers Festival School Literacy Programs. More photos & audience reactions to our day with Margaret Atwood can be found through @writersfest on Twitter http://twitter.com/Writersfest
Thank you to all who were able to attend this sold-out event and support our literacy programs.
Special thanks to Ottawa Writers Festival Board Member Hattie Klotz for her part in making this event with Margaret Atwood such a success!
Ottawa Writers Festival Board Member Hattie Klotz gets bunny ears from Margaret Atwood, and Artistic Director Sean Wilson isn't safe either.
Margaret Atwood and Sean Wilson sharing talk of MaddAddam & a few futuristic dystopian laughs with 100 guests before lunch is served.
Also there to show their support for children's literacy in Ottawa are
Elizabeth Gibbons & Diane Sullivan from TELUS
Overseeing the book signing table after dessert was Neil Wilson,
Director of Development and Founding Director of the Ottawa International Writers Festival
Photo credit: Daniel Bezalel Richardsen
Having been rebuffed from his original trip from just outside of Boston to the fall 2012 edition of the Writers Fest by nothing short of Hurricane Sandy (cue Sean Wilson’s suggested “the tweet that wrote itself”: #whenbadweatherhappenstogoodrabbis), Ottawa was treated to Rabbi Kushner this spring. The author of numerous titles, but perhaps consigned to eternal recognition of his thoughtful treatise on suffering, ‘ When Bad Things Happen To Good People .’
After his introduction by CBC’s Laurence Wall, the good rabbi intoned that he didn’t suspect that the problem of suffering would have solved itself. A resident of a suburb in Boston for several decades, the audience still had very fresh shock from the Boston Marathon bombings by the Tsaernev brothers. And Rabbi Kushner had a grandson who was barely a mile away from the bomb site at the time of detonation. Horrible as it is, the Rabbi Kushner’s original witticism rings true; no matter when or where, we would hardly have to search far or in vain for a maddening, inexplicable atrocity. Having lost a young son to the disease of progeria (a rare disease that causes rapid aging), Rabbi Kushner confessed that suffering is a something that “continues to oppress me.”
The book of Job in the Hebrew Bible is one of the oldest books in the scriptural canon, and indeed of literature, and according to Rabbi Kushner is “the only serious theological book on the nature of God [in Jewish scripture].” While this may perhaps be an overreach (the minor prophets of Hosea, Jonah, and Habakkuk all deal with the nature of God in a bold, heterodox way), there is great deal of truth in the special resonance of Job. He approaches the book in the manner of Rabbi Heschel, who wrote that “the Bible is not Man’s theology but God’s anthropology, less about who God is and more about who human beings ought to be.”
A great translator of the Hebrew scripture, Robert Alter, writes that
The Book of Job is in several ways the most mysterious book of the Hebrew Bible. Formally, as a sustained debate in poetry, it resembles no other text in the canon…Its astounding poetry eclipses all other…
Rabbi Kushner likened it to a hybrid of a serious work of philosophy and a Shakespearean tragedy. To get a sense of the unsettling verse, here is a small sample from Chapter 3 in Alter’s ringing translation:
3 Annul the day that I was born
and the night that said, “A man is conceived.”
4 That day let it be darkness.
Let God above not seek it out,
nor brightness shine upon it.
9 Let its twilight stars go dark.
Let it hope for day in vain,
And let it not see the eyelids of dawn.
Those are the forlorn words of Job, an innocent man whose is afflicted with suffering from a wager that God makes with Satan to test whether Job’s righteousness can remain steadfast when he suffers unbearable lost and torment.
Rabbi Kushner makes a fairly astonishing judgement on the Book of Job as a Conservative rabbi – he asks readers to completely discount the first two and the final chapters in Job. While scholars dispute the unity of the book, the difference in tone is evident even to the observant lay reader. The core of the book, Rabbi Kushner terms as “Poem” with the aforementioned jettisoned portions are called “Fable.”
Two forces present in the world are identified. One is Behemoth, and the other Leviathan.
Behemoth is said to be the “id” that consists of lust and desire, chiefly responsible for the misery in the world. Yet this is also seen as necessary. A selfless world would be a world without loyalty or interests or a choice to do good. Rabbit Kushner illustrates this idea succinctly with a Talmudic tale.
One day in a certain village, they captured the yetzer ha-ra (selfishness) and imprisoned it. They said, From now on, our world will be Paradise. No one will ever do anything wrong. The next day, we are told, no one opened his store for business, no one bought or sold anything, no marriages were arranged, and no babies were conceived. All those activities, it turns out, contain an element of selfishness, without which the world could not function. (pg. 75)
Leviathan on the other hand, is the “spirit of chaos” that acts in sync with the natural world. For according to Rabbi Kushner, “God is moral, Nature is not.” For all the dismissal of theology as mere “intellectual Sudoku,” there is still a yearning for God that is at the root of Rabbi Kushner’s message.
After Job hears God address/respond to him, he says
By the ear’s rumor I heard of You,
and now my eye has seen You.
Therefore do I recant,
And I repent in dust and ashes.
The reason why this is the key portion of this whole book is that it affirms the fact that in spite of all that ails us with and during our mortal coils, the presence of God alone suffices. Rabbi Kushner essentially paraphrases this passage to mean “Now mine eyes have seen You, and I withdraw my complaints. Vulnerable mortal that I am, I am comforted.”
Mark Noll, in reviewing Luhrmann’s ‘When God Talks Back’ in The New Republic , made the following observation:
And how can believers keep on believing when they pray to a supposedly generous God for children to be healed and yet they die, for marriages to survive and yet they fall apart, for careers to take shape and they never do? It is because for those who have come to practice the presence of God, it is not what the presence offers, but the presence itself, that has become most important.
There remained many questions – and how could there not be? – on the place of miracles, the interpretation of scriptural texts, and the reality that this is fundamentally a mystery. Rabbi Kushner mentions C.S. Lewis as a person who went through a transformation from his The Problem of Pain , a largely apologetic work, to A Grief Observed , when he is faced with the profound loss of a belated love barely held for a few happy years. That we will experience pain and be indelibly marked by it is certain. Rabbi Kushner reaffirms that there is a benevolent, transcendent God, who offers us Himself. Often no more, and just as often, no less.
Crime night at this year’s writers festival did not follow the standard crime night format, but then again, no good crime novel is predictable so why should the event be? Usually the authors begin by reading from their most recent novel, then join in the question and answer session for a discussion. This year’s readings did not go quite according to that plan.
Gail Bowen started the evening off with a bang by reading, not from her most recent release, but from her upcoming August novel titled The Gifted. This being the debut of her new material, Bowen was not as polished as one might expect from such a veteran novelist, but the prose was simple, yet somehow illuminating, giving the listener the sense of being present for the events about to unfold. The book will certainly be worth a read when it is released.
Second up was author Inger Ash Wolfe, who in the second twist of the night, turns out to be Michael Redhill. Despite the twist in author's identity, this reading was the most straight-forward as far as content. The story had a great sense of humour and the listener was left with a sense of who the heroine was and a desire to see her situation through to the finish. When asked why he would write under a pseudonym yet reveal his identity, Michael described Inger as a character he “becomes” and through whom he writes his novels. He revealed his identity in order to champion his books and be able to bring them to a wider audience (by doing things such as appearing at a festival such as this).
Perhaps the most fascinating story told this particular evening was Peggy Blair, who did not read from a novel at all. Blair chose not to read from her novel because set in Cuba, she could not possibly get the voices down right to leave the reader the right impression. Instead she regaled the audience with her tale of how she managed to finally get published after meeting Ian Rankin in a bar by chance, bringing the audience along through all the ups and downs of the writing process, the scores of rejections after rejections before lucking out. It turns out that Ian Rankin allowed her to drop his name to his agent, a kind gesture for a complete stranger, and a move which ended up changing her life.
After this rather unusual introduction to the authors and their books, the question and answer session did proceed as usual. The questions asked were thoughtful and the responses provided by the authors were enlightening. Topics covered included social justice issues as all three authors incorporate this to some extent as well as the reasoning behind why all three authors remain true to their Canadian roots. Perhaps most profound of the evening were some of the questions raised by the authors. I will leave you to ponder their answers as the unsolved mystery of this year’s annual crime night.
Michael Redhill asked, “What happens when a place that needs to be small doesn’t remain small?” Gail Bowen asked, “What would push somebody over the edge (and into crime)?” If you can answer those two questions, you might just have yourself a novel.
The street food freeze is over. After an interregnum of nearly two decades, the food truck permit freeze in Ottawa was lifted last fall; the fruition of which manifested in the exciting new rollout of new food trucks this past week. James Cunningham, funnyman and erstwhile performer at Yuk Yuk's in its former location at Albert St., was on hand to both mark Ottawa's street food inauguration and to promote his new book Eat St .
Regaling the audience with the restless delivery of a globetrotter finally come home, Cunningham spoke of the creation of his popular TV show and of his love for the magic of food in its most primal transaction: through food trucks and carts. It was serendipitous circumstances that allowed a comedian to end up hosting a food show. Cunningham's experience of how his pilot episode of an inchoate script actually became the first episode of the first season of a show in its fourth season, is a testament to the importance of timing.
What lent credence to his presence was Ottawa's own exciting influx of food trucks. As Cunningham noted, the recession of 2008 saw a great number of talented chefs and cooks lose their positions in established restaurants. These kitchen artists, in turn, saw a great opportunity in the mobility and independence of operating a food truck or cart. Pop, ice cream, burgers and hot dogs have been mainstays from time immemorial (or so it seems), and yet despite the affection that these familiar outlets engendered in us, there remained a distinct feeling of "is this all there is?" Ottawa, with a population of over a million when including our sister city of Gatineau, is only home to about 45 trucks. The 14 new food trucks and carts were vetted and selected from over 60 applicants with mind to "the proposed menu, business plan, level of vendor experience and the overall contribution to Ottawa’s street food scene."
While the spearheading of this effort took applause-worthy political will from the likes of Mayor Jim Watson and Councillor Mark Taylor (who was on hand at the event to give opening remarks) it is precisely the combination of sceptical nannyishness that has kept Canada so far behind when it comes to abundant and creative street food. As Adam Davidson bemoans in the current New York Times Magazine, this ill grips even the Big Apple. Marie-Claude Lotrie of La Presse has a charming expression to describe street food, as "urban acupuncture, injecting vitality into city life." In a country bequeathed with harsh winter climes, getting into the street food business is a labour of love in a country like Canada, where said business, like motorcycle riding, is seasonal. (Also a reason why Vancouver's street food scene is currently the vanguard of the nation). But weather alone cannot account for the astonishing range of street food in places like Portland, Oregon and Austin, Texas. Overregulation of these ventures can act as disincentives rendering it prohibitive to start. Montreal, a city rightly known for its cuisine, seems to tread softly on the dreams of street food: the pre-determined outcome having already been fore-judged; somewhat harshly in VICE and more affably in the Financial Post.
Yet, who am I to despise small beginnings? If Ottawa avoids the worse-off aspects of the forays of other Canadian cities, and moves forward, albeit slowly, in the direction of greater street food, we have a great potential to showing the country how its done. We have a wonderful chronicler, Shawna Wagman, in her City Bites column in Ottawa Magazine and we even have a fledgling Ottawa street food Twitter feed to keep us in the know. There is a definite sense of excitement that was felt at the event for an Ottawa summer filled with innovative and health street food, and I for one cannot wait to sample them all.
Our worlds are increasingly filtered, shaped, and experienced by means of digital technology. Terms like online, email, text, tweet, surf, download, upload, blog, and digitial have become familiar and have frequently been redefined in an Internet era. Douglas Rushkoff had much to say about that on Tuesday night to a packed house at Knox Presbyterian Church.
He began by speaking at length about his idea that digital technology, co-opted by capitalism, has collapsed time to the extent that there is increasingly only a constant present for people; “present shock” describes the human reaction to this world of instantaneous feedback and increasing abstraction. This present shock is characterized by narrative collapse, the undermining of guiding human stories by life focused intensively on the present; digiphrenia, a fragmenting of self fostered by the maintenance of multiple digital identities; overwinding, the result of making time a generic, absolute quantity; fractalonia, the mistaking of self-similarity for real congruence; and apocalypto, the belief that human history has a definite endpoint. The host (Ottawa Citizen Managing Editor Andrew Potter) then asked a number of questions touching on politics, the role of institutions, and the locavore movement before taking questions from the audience.
Rushkoff argued at multiple points that contemporary culture was faced with a choice: there was an opportunity to “restore human-centric agency to culture,” but that there was also the risk of giving in to the pulse and rhythm of present shock. To avoid the latter would involve a much more distributed approach to governance and institutions (à la the Occupy movement) as well as a focus on sharing, developing networks, and filling needs locally.
There were points where I wanted to know more about Rushkoff’s thesis and standpoint. Some thoughts seemed to hang together uneasily (e.g., apocalyto side by side with narrative collapse), and his use of networking as a metaphor for community suggested (at least to me) a strong underlying individualism. And there was a certain irony in hearing him argue for greater mutual attention and relationship in the sort of frenetic, rapid-fire manner that typifies contemporary media interaction.
But this is to quibble; to call the event a success and enjoyable would be a powerful understatement. Rushkoff himself was frank, open, extremely articulate, and keen to encourage his audience to pursue real, in-person, local relationships without a wholesale rejection of digital technology. (This was particularly encouraging for me: I’m a telecomms engineer by trade, and have a special stake in this being possible). So many fascinating ideas came in such a short span that I had trouble falling asleep that night, and reminded me yet again why I love good books.
Just a half hour after listening to the well-honed and comforting words of Rabbi Harold Kushner, the Writerfest audience was confronted with a real and relevant illustration of “when bad things happen to good people,” to borrow from Rabbi Kushner’s famous book. We encountered three novels about the suffering of children in Africa. But these novels and their authors – like Rabbi Kushner – are seeking to explore not merely suffering on its own, but rather the miraculous ability of humans to be resilient in the face of mass repression.
Host Steven Hayward – author of The Secret Mitzvah of Lucio Burke – told us we were in for an “amazing night” and then suggested a unifying theme for the discussion: to imagine the future, we must reimagine the idea of the child.
Meanwhile, I had not read the three featured novels nor had I previously encountered these authors (to my own embarrassment). Fortunately, they read selected passages and then engaged in a dynamic discussion.
First, Emmanuel Dongala read from Johnny Mad Dog (an English translation from the original Johnny Chien Méchant ). Dongala, a chemist and academic who fled Congo in the late 1990’s, writes of gross inhumanity – expressed through the rampages of a militiaman – and, in the same stroke, of the kindness of humanity. We begin to sense the fog of war, the chaotic clashes between White soldiers and indigenous rebels, and the sense of abandonment felt by locals when these soldiers save elites and their puppies, but leave innocent civilians – babies among them – to die. The second excerpt centers around the interaction between a refugee and a foreign journalist. We sense the refugee holding onto her hope of escaping the country that killed her father and raped her, and we come to terms with the preference of the international media for stories about Africa that display maximal gore. She reflects, “I don’t know if [my interview] was good television.” Overshadowing this uncomfortable exchange between foreigner and sufferer is the empathy evoked by Dongala, who explained that every human has the capacity to understand another’s pain if we so choose.
Secondly, Kenneth Bonert read from The Lion Seeker, his debut novel about a Jewish family in South Africa during the apartheid years. The community where the Helger family lives is multi-ethnic, with a large Jewish population – mostly Lithuanians who fled the Nazis. Here, in a profound refutation of the system of separateness and official racism, languages are intermixed; Yiddish and Afrikaans are tossed into the vernacular. The Lion Seeker, the object of considerable buzz in the literary circuit, is told through the perspective of a young Jewish immigrant, Isaac. As someone who is Jewish as well, and fascinated by Jewish life in South Africa, this is a novel I look forward to reading.
Finally, a jetlagged Mia Couto – in his first English-language live reading – read from The Tuner of Silences , the story of an eleven-year-old boy from Mozambique, Mwanito, who has a “talent for perfecting silences.” He recounts growing up in an isolated enclave named “Jezoosalem” by his father, who has “forsaken civilization,” as Couto put it. The English translation of the book is so evocative, and I imagine the original Portuguese is even more engaging for those who speak the language.
Having been offered a teaser of the three writers’ unique styles, the discussion period proved fascinating. Most resonant for me was the (albeit unresolved and mostly implicit) notion that those writing about Africa have some sort of a moral responsibility to represent the society and ‘values’ of the region with a measure of accuracy in order to combat the terrible insensitivities of the mass media in their depictions of African conflict and poverty. Yet this is of course a large burden to place on a novelist, and indeed these writers seem most concerned with remaining true to their characters’ journeys. Dongala emphasized that today’s African youth are tech-savvy and very much aware of current events. They are – like all of us – bombarded with information, but a lack of education leaves many unable to analyze and decode reality from fiction – video game violence from normative behaviour. (Here I was surprised to see Dongala make some sweeping generalizations about young people across an entire continent).
Through their awareness and connectivity, African youth are embracing the 21st century, however structural difficulties, including poverty, limit their participation in globalized networks. These tensions conjure intriguing characters, as youth negotiate so many influences and possibilities. The child suffers at times, but is also full of life, kindness, and happiness, as Couto sought to emphasize (and which Rabbi Kushner might explain as an indication of God’s presence – that is, the ability of the child to emerge from the horrors of tribal violence and maintain their will to meaning). Wise words to end a riveting conversation with three remarkable and unique novelists.
The Fourth Stage of the NAC was a full house as Canadian poet and Carleton University’s Armand Garnet Ruffo took to the stage to introduce his dear friend Richard Van Camp. He talked about the many accomplishments of the writer including his phenomenal novel The Lesser Blessed , now a film which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, and the many awards and accomplishments Van Camp has achieved through his writing. Ruffo recounts a recent conversation with Van Camp in which he said that he likes words that he can feel, stories that stir his blood which is exactly how Armand Garnet Ruffo introduces the radio play the audience is about to be a part of.
Host Shelagh Rogers of CBC Radio then took to the stage to discuss her recent time spent observing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission where she learned exactly how important it is to hear Aboriginal stories from Aboriginal writers themselves which is part of the reason that Van Camp’s work is such a staple of CBC’s The Next Chapter, aside from it’s sheer brilliance. The radio play was an incredible journey, the only way I can think to describe it, the audience was taken on by actors Craig Lauzon, Chris Cound, Russell Bull, and Leela Gilday. A phenomenal cast who were able to bring the vivid images of the story to life, along with the help of the woman who adapted the story for radio, Reneltta Arluk. The central character of the story, Flinch, is a Dogrib man who has found himself caught up in a drug dealing gang and on one of his drops he encounters two men who lead him to a community of Aboriginal people who call themselves “The Not Even Counted.” When he meets these people he comes to realize that the path he’s been on has lead him to this moment and it is through them that he discovers his true power and his destiny that will lead his people home.
After the play ended, Van Camp and Rogers took the stage together to discuss channeling, storytelling, and hardening nipples. Van Camp describes the way in which the story was brought to life on paper, he united the ideas of all the horrible gang killings that were taking place while he lived in B.C. With a story from his home town newspaper about a man he knew all his life who narrowly avoided being incinerated by lightning. The reason he felt it would be amazing to turn into a radio play is, he says, that radio is what connects Canada, more than television can. His characters, like Flinch just come to him and he channels all their thoughts, emotions, feelings and ultimately ends up with a story. They key, Van Camp says, is trusting what it is that his characters want to do.
When asked about the theme of transformation in his work, Van Camp tells the audience the Dogrib creation story, and a story of his own encounter with one of the last shifters. But something that really struck him during the time he was writing the short story that the play is based on, was something a friend of his said concerning ninjas. Van Camp has a fascination with them, and his friend was asking why, and then reveals that she knows her own secret about ninjas. Van Camp asks what this secret is, and he hears her say “you have to die first before you can become one,” something his friend tells him she never said. It was in this moment of channeling that he found a kind of transformation that lies behind the story. Flinch must die in order to gain all of his powers and the life he envisions for himself with his wife and children. In an extremely poetic ending to the night, Van Camp told Rogers that he felt it was his job to braid heaven and earth and to bring peace to people’s lives through his writing. Which is exactly how the audience felt after having watched his incredible story of transformation performed as a lice radio play.
The Writersfest Event “The Future of Food for a Crowded Planet” was held on the first warm Sunday of spring at 6:30, and the doors of the Southminster Church in Ottawa South were open wide to allow the soft evening air to circulate. What wafted in, however, was the unmistakeable smell of someone in the neighbourhood enjoying their first barbeque of the season.
The smell increased my dinner-time hunger and lent an extra poignancy to the discussion of the sustainable food movement - when Barry Estabrook, author of Tomatoland , pointed out that taste was not an important consideration for agribusiness, I found myself unexpectedly anguished. Will no one think of the barbeques?
Everyone loves food. And almost everyone knows food from a giant agribusiness is inferior in taste and looming at the edges of our consciousness is the piece of the social and environmental disaster we are bringing home with us in our grocery bags. But I know I’m not alone in my sense of futility. We can’t afford other food. We can’t feed the world’s population. We can’t go back. I was at the event to hear the three authors assembled tell me what I don’t quite believe: that we can, and that we have to.
Barry Estabrook, Lorraine Johnson, and Sarah Elton each represent a different dimension of the movement for sustainable food consumption – each one appealing to a specific sensibility – which made for a great panel, as each could address Bob Carty’s “Joe Public” questions in a variety of ways. “But isn’t this what we want?” Carty almost whined, “We want this stuff – and we want it at a good price.”
Barry Estabrook provided a systemic look at the food industry and its ills. His book Tomatoland examines tomato production: the economic structures in place to support farming in a place like South Florida where there shouldn’t be tomatoes at all; the science that create tasteless and frighteningly firm “fruits”; the treatment of the workers, who he describes unflinchingly as “slaves.”
Estabrook opened his remarks by bouncing an American tomato he had smuggled through customs on the floor. “Not a split,” he announced, showing it to the other panellists. He threw most of his remarks down with the same emphasis as the tomato; angry and condemning.
Lorraine Johnson softened the tone with a more personal appeal – beginning with a story about her nephew not recognizing peas that came in a curious green casing, (she had brought them home from a farmer’s market in their pods) she returned continuously to the personal loss we are sustaining through our distance from food production. “We are nurturing people. We want to nurture. Food should be the basis for communion, celebration.”
Carty noted that Johnson has established her “chicken cred” by keeping several chickens in her backyard in Toronto in defiance of the bylaw against it. “Chicken cred. Yes. A badge of honour!” she replied. I’m thinking of a goat next.”
Carty then posed the fundamental question of the evening: “Is it true that we need industrial agriculture to feed the world’s population?” Sarah Elton’s book Consumed was inspired by her desire to answer that specific question. Elton took a trip around the world to observe agriculture in a variety of cultures and climates and uses her examples to illustrate that this is emphatically not the case. A Nepalese delegation rose at her introduction, visible proof of the global commitment to sustainable farming she writes about.
Elton noted that she has decided to refuse to debate the issue anymore. “There isn’t a debate,” she stated flatly. “Everyone expects some kind of 50-50 argument, with pros and cons. Unless you own an agribusiness, or a chemical company, or maybe a seed company, there is no need for our current system of food production. None of the research supports it.” Estabrook agreed with withering disdain: “I think that modern industrial agriculture is one of the stupidest ideas ever. It’s a 75 year experiment, and the results are coming in.”
Although the rest of the discussion ranged over the numerous abuses and shocking lack of actual taste in the food industry, the question period following the discussion was that most precious of commodities in sustainability discussions: hopeful. Of interest to the participants was “Permaculture:” large scale, permanent (ie sustainable) agriculture, the Toronto group “Occupy Gardens” (“give peas a chance”), and the social justice possibilities inherent in sustainable food production.
I walked into the evening thinking about how sustainable food is everyone’s issue. While well-presented and specific, nothing that was said in the course of the evening was particularly new or (depressingly) that surprising. As Elton noted, it’s not a debate. Even those of us without chicken cred desperately want to take steps towards the relationship to food all three authors so convincingly say is possible. I sniffed the air – somewhere someone was preparing something beautiful.
To be honest, I wasn't really sure what to expect for this event. I had never seen Guy Gavriel Kay speak before, but as my husband and I made our way through the crowded room to find seats, we settled ourselves in the thick of Kay's loyal fans. Papers rustled as they shifted in their chairs, checking their watches or sipping their wine. All eyes were directed to the front of the room, eagerly waiting for the event to start. Maybe they had seen him speak before and knew that we were in for a treat. Maybe they just knew how much research Kay does to write his books, so they wanted to hear about his craft. Maybe they just wanted to listen to a very intelligent man talk about the world for a while. (Or maybe they were like me, not quite sure what to expect—but happy to end up with all of the above.)
In his opening remarks, Kay noted that River of Stars is (in part) about the way in which memory—individual and collective—can distort the events of the past. We shape and create legends, vilify others, and use this memory of the past to guide how we act in the present day. He plays with the idea of "fighting the last war" and how desperately trying to avoid the mistakes of the past can lead us to make new mistakes altogether. After this brief introduction, Kay read a passage from the book centred around its female protagonist, Lin Shan.
Like most of Kay's books, River of Stars was inspired by a period of our own world's history (the Song Dynasty of the 12th Century this time). Later in the evening, Kay joked about how the academic friends and contacts that he had developed during his research for his previous novel, Under Heaven, had just taken it "as a matter of course" that he would "stay in China for the next book." They gave him research, books, and unpublished monographs about the time period, and he was hooked. Happiest when he has "a trove of material to work with" for his research, it's no wonder that the richness of the Song culture (and the information available about it) seemed too good to pass up.
As usual, River of Stars involves a rather large cast of characters. "Someone once wrote that 'Kay never met a secondary character he didn't like,'" he said with a chuckle, followed by a shrug. "I can live with that."
That said, you won't find famous historical names in Kay's books. He is much more comfortable saying that his characters are inspired by real people from the past. "For one thing," he noted, "it is creatively liberating. For another, it also feels more grounded." Kay doesn't want "an illegitimate boost from readers" by doing something shocking with real people from the past. Instead, by creating settings for his novels that are inspired by the past and by real historical figures, Kay has more freedom to explore the themes of a time and place with his readers.
"I want to share with the reader the notion that, when we work with the past, we're making it up. We're using educated guesses," he said. "I won't pretend that I can nail down the reasons for why things happened [the way they did in the real past], but I can offer what I think."
Kay also emphasized that, for him, working with the past means respecting past cultures and their beliefs. His underlying mantra is "to make the world of the book to be the way that they [people from the time period] would have believed it to be." It isn't about looking down on the past with smug contemporary superiority; it's about giving validity to the way that they saw the world. It's also why he uses what he calls his "quarter turn to the fantastic" in his writing: these elements of the supernatural give credit to the beliefs of previous cultures.
The amount of research that Kay does to bring his stories to life is mind-boggling. It isn't just the grand, sweeping tales of historical figures that grab his attention. He also focuses on the little details of the time period, the minutiae of everyday life. He talked about a "stunningly dry academic book that got [him] alarmingly excited" (by Dr. Alan Cameron, retired from Columbia University) for one of his previous novels, and explained how having primary sources in his research lets him show his audience his characters and their culture at the same time. For example, if he has two characters disputing a technique for creating tesserae, he is able to show that his main character knows his craft and is also able to show elements of their current society (shifts in technology, generational tensions, the importance of art).
During the Q&A session, one audience member pointed out Kay's skill in writing the subtlety of politics and political strategies. Kay laughed about how it would be fun for him to have political advisors to help with his books, but in truth he is drawn to conflict and to cultures on the cusp of change. "That tension lets me spin a story into it," he said. "Those cultures tend to have equally conflicted politics, so I'm drawn to their politics as a way of illuminating the culture I'm working on."
Another audience member drew everyone's attention to Kay's shift to the present tense in the novel for his female protagonist's perspective (based on the passage he read to start the event). Kay answered that he uses this writing technique for many different purposes.
"I want to keep you up until 3am, move you emotionally, and make you think," he said. The shift to the present tense for his female characters emphasizes the razor-sharp perception that women would have needed during that time period to have any impact on their own lives. Kay wanted to portray their ability to be in the moment (and be observant in the moment) and to give a sense of immediacy to their experiences. "Most readers do not overtly notice [the changes in tense], but on a subliminal level, because it has been constructed that way, it has an impact on the reader."
Kay certainly provided his readers—and even aspiring writers—with a wealth of ideas to chew on for the evening. I left feeling that Kay is a rare and gifted craftsman...and I can't wait to dive into more of his books.