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Fifth Issue of Our Literary Journal Foment

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Stronger Than They Seem with Heather O’Neill, Christine Fischer Guy and Monia Mazigh

I always feel a touch worried when I go to a panel discussion.  What if one author gets obviously more attention than the others?  Has a more popular book?  I don’t want to end up feeling bad for someone.


I shouldn’t have worried.  Not only were the authors of the Saturday night panel discussion at Knox Presbyterian, indeed, stronger than they may have seemed, they and their works were so completely different that direct comparison was gratifyingly a moot point.  The fact that the authors are women, and that their protagonists are women “finding themselves in need of bravery, strength and smarts” to navigate their lives is a common thread.  As became apparent, however, each woman has written a fascinating story equally about place as about personand boy, are they different places!  Each author spoke about the world they had created so absorbingly that the evening was a dizzying and delightful swinging back and forth from the 1950s in the northern community of Moose Factory to a gritty Montreal filled with near-feral cats, and to the prayer rugs and gossip klatchs of Muslim society in Ottawa. 


Heather O’Neill shot bolts of humour through the discussion, describing growing up in Montreal in a seedy district and the links between her and the main character Nouschka in The Girl Who Was Saturday Night.  O’Neill has done stints on the entertaining National Public Radio show, This American Life.  You can see she would be a hit after thirty seconds of listening to her deliver simultaneously hilarious and deeply sad stories out of the corner of a wryly-twisted mouth.  “Well, you know, my dad was really a man of that neighbourhood.  He was sort of a …a gangster king.  He saw me writing all the time and told me not to keep a diaryit could be used against me in a court at some point.”  She pauses for audience laughter. “I was seven.”


The book loosely follows Quebec’s history, with echoes of the history in the majority of Nouschka’s stories.  A strip club scene is followed by a meditation on Les Filles du Roi.  When O’Neill quotes herself: “a nation crawled out between their legs,” you can hear a scandalized murmur from the audience.  O’Neill reflected on the act of writing about the gritty, ignoble world of Montreal’s St. Laurent Boulevard.  “The expectations of me were so dismal,” she mused, “But there were bright, vibrant kids there.  I wanted to rewrite my own narrative.  To illuminate that world, but also to break out of it.” 


Turning from O’Neill’s self-deprecating irony to Monia Mazigh’s earnestness is like turning on a warm light.  Mazigh’s head scarf emphasizes the roundness of her face and her expression is so guileless that adjectives like saintly spring to mind.  Mazigh has already written the celebrated Hope and Despair, a memoir about her year-long struggle to free her Canadian husband Maher Arar from a Syrian jail.  Mirrors and Mirages has less torture but certain similarity in its stories of continuous struggle.  It links an ensemble of Muslim women– some from Tunisia, Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Pakistan, and one rebellious young woman who converts to Islam despite her Catholic’s family’s disapproval.  Mazigh wanted the characters to be obviously different.  Although all the stories are set in Ottawa and the characters do eventually meet, they are set in environments that vary from public housing to wealthy suburban enclaves.  “When I get together with other Muslim women, I find we are all so angry about how we are represented.  We need to open this box that we put immigrants in.  We are so different!”  The women are linked only by the constant failure of expectation.  One character longs for Dubai but finds that Dubai is a desert – an “opulent one, but a desert nonetheless.”  Another thought she would find freedom from stifling social structures in Ottawa, but finds herself just as suffocated. “It is always better somewhere else,” Mazigh noted gently. “Until it’s not.”


The Umbrella Mender, although not a lived experience for Christine Fischer Guy, is very personal – she was inspired to write it through finding her great-uncle’s memoirs of treating tuberculosis in Moose Factory.  “What a gift!” she exclaims.  She travelled to Moose Factory, an incredibly lengthy journey that she details amusingly on her blog, and immersed herself in the land.  She reflects that it was much lusher than expected, and much more welcoming. When she told a community leader that she was writing a novel and he replied smoothly, “oh yes, like Joseph Boyden.”  Boyden’s Three Day Road is set in the same region, the oldest English language trading post in Canada.  Boyden, she notes, eventually became a friend and colleague as he helped with Cree translations.  Fischer Guy’s narrator, Hazel, travels north as a single woman in the 1950s, questions the supremacy of western medicine, challenges the medical hierarchy of doctor and nurse in her draw to traditional healing methods and eventually has an affair with a visitor to town, the titular umbrella maker and ultimate departure from social constraints.  Hazel, Fischer Guy, muses, is a “particular kind of woman.  The kind of woman that would do that [leave her community to work in a northern town].”


Mazigh commented that her book was intended to go beyond statistics to create characters that would genuinely challenge stereotypes. I felt a bit ashamed for having assumed, partially because it was a panel of women, that the event would have lent itself to quick categorizing – best and worst, attractive and ugly, foreign and familiar.  Once you’ve really met someone, particularly in vivid prose, it’s very difficult to use those boxes again. The host for the evening, Carleton University’s Susan Birkwood, closed with a quotation: “Literature is doing the work of politics in this country.”


Cowardice and Courage with Sarah Waters

“Cowardice and courage,” in Sarah Waters’ own words, is what interested her when writing her latest novel, The Paying Guests. Set in 1920s London, England, the novel follows the fortunes of the widowed Mrs. Wray and her daughter Frances, whose comfortable lives have been shaken by the aftermath of the Great War. Their reduced circumstances oblige them to take in lodgers (the titular “paying guests,” a contradiction in terms which, as the author quipped, is an example of a great British euphemism) to maintain the home that is both Frances’ birthright and burden.


Speaking to a sizable gathering at Knox Presbyterian Church on Sunday night, the award-winning author was reunited with CBC’s Sandra Abma who previously interviewed Waters five years ago after the release of the best-selling The Little Stranger. Clearly a fan of Waters’ back catalogue, Abma’s easy rapport with the author and audience made for a warm, welcoming atmosphere while her attempts to quash spoilers were met with rippling laughter from the crowd. This proved difficult at times for a book that Abma described as “maybe not a thriller, but thrilling” from an author known for “gripping tales, page turners” that are meticulously researched. Following this glowing introduction, Waters shared with the audience an early passage from her novel which not only provided a glimpse of Frances’ character but hinted at some of the broader themes of the text. A fluid, engaging reader, Waters brought to life the imagery present on the page, making listeners eager for the next chapter and the next.


Afterward, in conversation with Abma, Waters discussed her interest in the 1920s, a time period of which she previously had had only superficial knowledge (that of flappers, jazz, and the like) and which was bookended by her understanding of the Victorian era and the 1940s, time periods visited in her earlier novels. She discovered a world very much in flux, one still reeling from the end of the First World War, visible in the former soldiers begging on the streets and a broader absence of men, killed at the Front. It was, as Waters described it, a “world newly unsafe” and drew parallels with the anxieties present in contemporary life. Yet, as “unhappy” or “tired” of a time it was, the 1920s also brought with it a new informality, evident foremost in clothing and changes to hemlines, as well as a new modernity, from the widespread electrification of households to the rapid adoption of the automobile. Against such a backdrop, too, was a renegotiation of gender roles as men and women adjusted to some of the freedoms gained by women during the war. All of this proved compelling for Waters.


As Waters immersed herself in the research, it became evident that she had no wish to write about high society. Rather it was the suburbs that interested her, as well as issues of class, freedom, and people who on the surface seemed ordinary but would be “capable of great passion.” While drawing on newspapers, novels, maps, and material history still present on walks around London, Waters’ found her greatest inspiration in collections of British criminal trials, specifically the 1922 Edith Thompson murder trial, in which Mrs. Thompson conspired with her lover to murder her husband. The trial at the time attracted significant public interest, in large part, Waters theorized, because it highlighted anxieties around the shifting role of women at the time. Describing this and other trials as reading “like crime fiction,” Waters revealed that not only did such documents help shape her novel’s plot, they also proved an incredibly valuable resource for domestic details and the anecdote she shared about a pair of false teeth was met with resounding laughter from the crowd.


As most of Waters’ novels, with the exception of The Little Stranger, feature lesbian characters, the author also talked at length about writing historical fiction that sheds a light on the gay experience. She wondered aloud whether she is “recovering lost histories” or, as one of her more memorable reviewers wrote, providing a “queer retrofitting of a classic car,” which provoked more laughter from the audience. She noted that in her work she has never been particularly interested in writing about homophobia but rather how people lived with their sexuality and sexual desires. Later, when addressing her reputation for including rather salacious scenes in her novels, she laughingly deflected the charge but conceded that “desire is a wonderful narrative engine.”


Widely known for her historical fiction, much of the conversation during Q&A focused on Waters’ research and writing process. The Paying Guests, she shared, was a challenging book to write, especially compared to The Little Stranger which she found to be mostly straightforward once she had the ending clear in her mind. Her newest novel in comparison required endless rewriting, the results of which she actually stacked up and measured – an eye-watering 34 inches of discarded drafts. The difficulty, she revealed, was getting the tone just right. When asked if she might write a novel in the contemporary world, she said that as she evolves as a writer and becomes more interested in the craft of writing, she is becoming more open to the idea of setting a novel in the present and seeing what might emerge. Based on the audience reception, no doubt her next novel will also be snapped up, regardless of the time period in which it is set.


Before the Truth with Joan Thomas, Elizabeth Renzetti, and Eliza Robertson

The title for this event, 'Before the Truth', was very well chosen. As was the Churchill quote that seemed  like an epigraph to the three readings: "A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on."  The program introduction gave us an idea where the conversation with the authors might be headed: "…the lies we tell ourselves and others: Lies of omission and convenience, of deception and self-preservation, and the lies required to tell the truth in fiction."


Host Lucy van Oldenbarneveld, the always delightful and engaging CBC Ottawa TV host, opened the discussion by thanking the Writers festival for holding the fall session as planned despite the dramatic events of the week. She thanked Artistic Director Sean Wilson, for his  statement on CBC Radio earlier in the week where he expressed his belief that in a week like this it is especially important for our community to come together and jointly move forward with positive energy and thinking. The audience in the packed hall at Knox Church reacted with heartfelt applause.  Lucy then addressed all three authors by asking them to briefly reflect on their personal reactions to the week's events. They each expressed that the days of the attacks had not only shocked, they also had demonstrated the very best of Canada. As more details of the events were becoming clearer, there was some concern of a possible overreaction by  in the aftermath.  


The evening opened with Sean Wilson's brief introduction to each writer: Eliza Robertson read from her short story collection Wallflowers, Joan Thomas from her Governor General's Award nominated novel The Opening Sky, and Elizabeth Renzetti from Based On A True Story.   Each of the authors, after first setting the stage, provided us with a good first impression into their stories. Their lively reading style added much to the enjoyment of those listening.  Despite the very different topics and genres of the three books the common theme as outlined above led to an interesting discussion. 


Lucy asked each of the three authors to share with us how they saw themselves in their books. How close does the story reflect "truth," and, echoing Pilate, what is truth? What is the most authentic part? Joan disclosed that, in contrast to her previous, historical novel, Curiosity, for the new novel she has drawn on her own life. The Opening Sky is a story of a couple and their daughter. But, of course, the portrait is nothing like her family. It is more like taking bits of their and other people's lives and experiences and creating a separate reality. She did switch some character traits from her female to the male protagonist and vice versa so that she could explore such traits in a new way. The writing has taken her more than four years.


Eliza, the youngest of the three authors, won the 2013 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. She is studying in England, working on her Ph.D. in Creative Writing. Her take on the truth/authenticity question was based on her personal experience in a way, but she also felt the fictional reality is stitched together from bit of real life. She learned in her course that at least one character in a story needs to be misbehaving. "Some things are too scary to write about them." In a way it is more a question of "augmenting truth" to get to the truth.

Elizabeth Renzetti's novel, Based On A True Story, is full of fun and irony as she explores the lives of two women journalists and their environments. Elizabeth, a well known journalist herself, currently with The Globe and Mail, is of course very familiar with the media business. Elizabeth's two central characters are in some ways failures. She likes to explore how they cope with that and how to get on with their lives. Also while in her professional life she hears and knows things she cannot share or say. She enjoyed to do so in the form of a comic novel.  Moving the story to the UK may suggest some distance but doesn't take away from the fun.


The audience raised a range of questions. Among them was the always interesting one:  How do you know when to end your writing, editing your work?  Joan felt that she gets to a point at which she has a sense of completion. Elizabeth added that you have to walk away at some point not to get crazy. You can lose control if writing the novel goes on too long.  How important is 'genre', chick lit? Elizabeth showed the pink cover of her new books. Does it mean it is chicklit? Of course not. It is a comedy written by an woman. The consensus was that it not very important to categorize fiction in this way. After all, it is well known that, whatever the genre, seventy percent of fiction readers are women. 


Authors with an Agenda: An afternoon with Joseph Kertes, Lee Henderson and Eric McCormack

It was an afternoon filled with literary enlightenment, as Joseph Kertes, Lee Henderson, and Eric McCormack took to centre stage at the writers’ festival. Host Neil Wilson, described the event as, “A master class on the novel,” and the audience sat in anxious anticipation of the literary adventures that were just ahead.


“The authors will be happy to sign your  books,”  Wilson said to the eager crowded house at the beginning of the event at Knox Church. The audience erupts with boisterous laughter.


Joseph Kertes, brings us into his novel, The Afterlife of Stars, by first sharing with us, memories of his personal family experiences of travelling from Hungary to Austria. On writing his novel, Kertes says, “I always start my writing in a real place, the characters take on their own trajectory. I planned out the chapters and the boys commandeered the plot away from me.” While his book could have been written as a memoir, Kertes says, “Sometimes the truth of the matter is not liberating. It doesn’t give you the whole picture.” In the excerpt he reads from his novel, we get a glimpse of what life was like for two young brothers. Kertes’s literature has well developed characters and the diction and syntax in his novel is engrossing.


At this, his third presentation at the Festival,  Lee Henderson, an award winning author and a teacher at the University of Victoria for Creative Writing, begins his presentation at the podium, by telling the audience that he wanted to take photos of them for his Instagram. In turn, they took pictures of him taking pictures.


Henderson gives a detailed account of his novel. As he reads from his richly narrated book, The Road Narrows As You Go, you can hear the uniqueness of the characters’ voices. There is passion in his tone and he has the audience in stitches practically the whole way through reading his excerpt.  Henderson, who took six years to write the book, insists the comedic portions of his novel just found their way in. “With prose, if the language started to go that way, I just let it,” he confesses.


Author Eric McCormack, a former finalist for the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the Governor General’s Award, had the audience feeding off his words of his latest work,  Cloud.   His prose entranced the audience and his presentation at the festival was compelling. On the writing process of his latest work, McCormack says, “What I thought was the best part is now published in Japan as a separate piece of work.”


All three authors put on a stellar performance.



Music can move us to tears. A beautiful view can take our breath away. A chase scene in a film can make us sweat. The amount of things we humans find compelling (from religions to cartoons) is almost innumerable, but cognitive scientist Jim Davies tells us that they all share similar qualities, which he outlines as a unified ‘theory of compellingness’ in his new book, Riveted: The Science of Why Jokes Make Us Laugh, Movies Make Us Cry, and Religion Makes Us Feel One with the Universe


It is noon on a Saturday but Jim Davies has drawn a healthy crowd made up of fans of popular science and Jim’s own students, who come outfitted in black shirts emblazoned with “Carleton Cognitive Science” on the back. It is clear that they already find their professor to be compelling, and they have formed something of a cheering squad for him.


Davies is introduced by poet Stephen Brockwell, who details his somewhat unique academic background: a B.A. in philosophy, an M.A. in psychology and a Ph.D. in computer science. All of his academic work has led him to become an associate professor of Cognitive Science at Carleton University and the director of the Science of Imagination Laboratory here in Ottawa. He is a thin, tall man who is deeply aware of his thinness and height, as evidenced by several jokes at his own expense.


His idea that the things we find compelling share common qualities has roots in evolutionary biology and psychology, and he uses gossip as an example. Gossip, Davies explains, is universal and it is almost always correct. Psychologists call gossip ‘strategic knowledge,’ because we humans live in social environments and gossip helps us to form bonds with other humans. Gossip knits us together, and it is undeniably compelling. Another example Davies explained to the crowd had to do with Finding Nemo, a children’s film that made him cry. It is a movie about an animated fish, and we are moved to tears by Nemo’s struggle. Why? Davies tells us it is a bit like an optical illusion. Cognitive science explains that when we see films, we forget that what we are seeing isn’t real, and our emotional reaction becomes real. Our minds don’t know the difference between fiction and reality.


It is the same reason that a vast majority of paintings feature people. And why religions are largely based on anthropomorphized beings who seem to know everything a veteran gossip would know. Religions, books, music, car crashes, celebrity gossip, myths, and alien abductions are all compelling to us because they deal with human drama.


Davies stops short of telling us what exactly makes something compelling (no matter how compelling you are, if you give away too much, no one will want to read the book), inviting us to read Riveted for a full outline of his theory, but he does an excellent job of igniting curiosity and conversation. He merely hints at his idea of a “psychological immune system,” which, he hopes, the average person would develop to combat against compellingness. A sort of litmus test to be employed when watching the news or reading an article (“I believe this, but why do I believe it”).


While we may have to read more to gain a deeper understanding of Davies’ theory, judging by his rapt audience, and perhaps against his own wishes, he is compelling.


Escape from Tibet: A journey of determination and search for freedom

The screen above the stage showed the audience a picture of a little eleven-year old boy dressed modestly, crying tears of exhaustion, hopelessness and fear. Sitting in a comfortable chair on the stage in a suit and tie was Tenzin, a student of translation and political studies at the University of Westminster in London, England remembering the moment depicted in the photograph when his and his older brother Pasang’s quest for freedom had run into a cruel impasse. “Look at Tenzin, [only] 11 on the screen and he is now [here with us]; he’s wonderful,” said Nick Gray, an award-winning documentary-maker and now first-time author of A True Story: Escape from Tibet,  encouraging a warm round of applause echoing through Knox Presbyterian Church on a soggy Saturday afternoon.


Prompted by the host, his sister Charlotte Gray , Nick read a short passage from the book which he wrote several years after the documentary had been made as it is “the only book of its kind,” taking the reader on a long tiring journey through the most daunting escape route in the world, the Himalayas. The passage Nick shared described an encounter of Tenzin and Pasang with the Chinese guards. Soaked, beaten, distressed, hungry and frightened, Tenzin was losing every hope of ever achieving freedom. At that moment he wished to go back to their village to live with their mother and work in the fields but Pasang offered an alternative: they were going to persist and pursue studies in a monastery in Lhasa. Thus, the treacherous journey continued.


Nick met them on the top of a mountain pass after the boys had already spent over three months climbing through an extremely difficult terrain struggling to reach safety and freedom. Sadly, this was nothing unusual; in fact, one third of Tibetan escapees are children who set out on a hike across the mountains wearing pathetic shoes, suffering from snow blindness, and often perishing during their brave flight from Chinese oppression. Having listened to the story from both Nick and Tenzin’s perspectives, it became hard to believe that the well-educated multilingual young man sitting before us had endured so much in his childhood. It took Tenzin and Pasang months to get to India only to find out Tenzin was going to have to return and face all the embarrassment and abuse on Chinese hands again due to inadequate paperwork. Finally, an audience with Dalai Lama allowed both brothers to stay in India as refugees. Tenzin wiped the tears of despair for “the sun came out, our mood suddenly lifted and we saw a new frontier.”


The production of this documentary was unlike any other. In order to be able to show people’s faces without shading them and exposing them to the possibility and danger of execution, abuse or exile, the filming took place outside of Tibet. Tenzin and Pasang, while sensing the involvement of some Westerners in their journey, were not aware of being showcased in a documentary. As a matter of fact, when they first came across Nick, they didn’t recognize the video camera; they did, however, notice a ‘weapon’ on a tripod. It wasn’t until a copy of the video was sent to the monastery through Pasang’s friend in 1996 that Tenzin watched himself on TV for the very first time. The powerful message of the film was spreading through the UK as well as the United States; the documentary was shown repeatedly, including at the State Department and the White House where Hillary Clinton had watched it before her visit to Nepal. Suddenly, the boys began receiving letters, money and even chocolates. Eventually, they were sponsored to come live in England and arrived to London on one cold November afternoon.


The brothers still live there, Pasang working and Tenzin studying, and have visited their mother in Tibet many times since their escape. “She is an amazing, remarkably resilient woman,” says Nick who fondly recalls their first encounter. He smuggled a photograph of him and the Dalai Lama into Tibet. When she saw the picture, she grabbed it and “put it on her head as a blessing.”


What impressed me the most about Tenzin is how sincere, humble and grateful he is – for the crowded subway he has to take to school every day, for the enriching experience the University of Westminster has provided him with, for the opportunities that have been presented to him. While it is important his communication with Tibetan support groups remains limited, I am so glad that he and Nick came to speak to us openly about the difficult destiny of the Tibetan refugees and let us be part of this incredibly touching story of courage, resilience, hope, and friendship.

On Telling Uncomfortable Stories with Lynn Coady

According to Lynn Coady, writers have two choices when it comes to storytelling: they can gloss over the real, unvarnished ugliness of reality, or they can write honest, uncomfortable stories about real people. Though it hasn’t always won her universal acclaim, Coady is dedicated to the truth.


The crowd in the Kailish Mital Theatre ranges from young to old, but there is an undeniable youthful energy in the air. Carleton’s creative writing undergrads have come out in droves to hear the 2013 Giller prizewinner deliver the annual Munro Beattie Lecture. In doing so, Coady joins a prestigious list of Canadian creative writers and literary critics who have graced the stage since the creation of the lecture in 1985, including Northrop Frye, Jeanette Armstrong, Carol Shields, Mark Kingwell, and Adam Gopnik.


Lynn Coady is an accomplished novelist and short story writer who grew up in Port Hawkesbury, Nova Scotia, and now calls Edmonton home. Hellgoing, her latest short story collection, won the 2013 Scotiabank Giller Prize . It was only the fourth time in the award’s history that a short story collection took home the award.


Her lecture begins with a moment of silence to honour Cpl. Nathan Cirillo and Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent. The crowd falls into a stark and respectful silence for a moment, broken only when Coady remarks that violence in Ottawa (and Canada) is so rare that in some ways she is grateful to not be numb or desensitized to it. It is fitting for an author praised for her unflinching delivery of the honest truth to acknowledge the horrific events that shook Canada this past week. Even in the warm comfort of the theatre, we readers and listeners are reminded of the realities of the world.


She introduces her lecture: “On Storytelling and Discomfort,” joking that those are the only two subjects she can speak about with any real authority. The audience is hers at once, at ease with Coady’s amiable cadence and sense of humour. Her talent for storytelling is evident immediately. In his review of Hellgoing,  Steven W. Beattie praised Coady’s “sharp sense of humour,” which “serves to humanize even the most vicious or clueless figures in the book.”


This talent has sometimes been to her detriment. Her 2006 novel Mean Boy, a story about a small town Atlantic Canadian boy obsessed with his poetry professor, was inspired partly by her own interest in deceased Canadian poet John Thompson. The events in her book are fictional; the ties to the real-life Thompson are tenuous at best. During her promotion of Mean Boy, an incident occurred in Sackville, New Brunswick, home of Mount Allison University, where John Thompson had taught. People who had known Thompson had connected the dots in Mean Boy and accused Coady of rifling through the poet’s life and stealing from it. They accused her of behaving immorally. Their complaints were twofold: Jim Arsenault (her main character based loosely on Thompson) was too much like Thompson and also so much unlike the Thompson they knew.


Coady explains that there wasn’t much she could do to convince her critics that she had never intended for ties to John Thompson to be made. In their eyes, she was a thief and a liar. But her painful experience in Sackville led to the creation of her 2011 novel, The Antagonist,  in which her main character Rank recognizes himself in the writings of an old friend and sets out to correct his false depiction. In some ways, this novel was Coady’s response to a specific critic in Sackville, and Rank’s journey of discovery is one she hoped said critic would embark on. Rank comes to realize that everyone recalls his or her own version of events and that storytelling, by its nature, is difficult.


Coady believes that our hunger for stories has nothing to do with comfort, though it may feel that way. What we are searching for is the truth. As a reader, she tells us, she responds best to troubling novels. In her question and answer period someone asks her to expand on the idea that she wanted her Sackville critic to understand the challenges of writing. Coady explains that writing a novel is a psychological ordeal. Writers, more than anyone else, need to discover sympathy for unsympathetic characters. They need to spend exorbitant amounts of time on people most of us wouldn’t want to spend any time on. Morality, she says, lies in how an author wields their power. To tell a story is to entertain, but fiction is the one place where we can be honest, whether that honesty is well received is up to the reader. In Coady’s eyes, by being honest, the writer’s job is done.


Littérature française: Centenaire Duras avec Joëlle Pagès-Pindon

C’est devant un maigre public de francophones et francophiles, rassemblés au sommet de la tour Desmarais de l’université d’Ottawa, que s’est tenu l’un des premiers événements de langue française de l’histoire du festival. Invitée avec le soutien de l’Alliance française et de l’Ambassade de France, l’auteure et universitaire française Joëlle Pagès-Pindon a habilement réussi à transmettre sa passion—fort bien documentée—pour les nuances de l’œuvre monumentale de Marguerite Duras, figure emblématique de la littérature française du XXe siècle.


S’appuyant sur l’ouvrage posthume Le Livre dit , qu’elle a elle-même recherché, annoté et publié chez Gallimard, Pagès-Pindon a brossé un portrait intime de Duras ainsi que des électrons plus ou moins libres qui gravitaient dans son univers personnel. C’est ainsi que le public, conquis d’avance, a pu savourer anecdotes et révélations sur Yann Andréa, à la fois muse et compagnon improbable de Duras; sur le penchant quasi obsessif (mais si romanesque) de cette dernière pour les amours interdites; et sur les nombreux paradoxes qui animaient Duras dans son art et ses prises de position. En écoutant Pagès-Pindon, on en venait presque à voir Duras au travail, à l’imaginer attablée à son bureau, cherchant à tout exprimer par son écriture et son art, parfois avec la maladresse qu’on lui connaît, mais toujours avec sincérité et précision.


Ne mordant pas à l’hameçon tendu par le public et l’excellente animatrice Catherine Voyer-Léger, l’auteure est demeurée prudente au sujet de l’impact politique des écrits de Duras. Aujourd’hui encore, la seule mention du nom de la célèbre écrivaine suscite souvent une vive controverse en France, en souvenir des polémiques qu’avaient jadis soulevées ses propos tranchés. Pagès-Pindon n’a toutefois pas hésité à reconnaître la contribution de certaines œuvres—pensons notamment à Hiroshima mon amour , ou bien au célèbre L’Amant , qui lui a valu le Goncourt en 1984—à la psyché française de l’après-guerre. Il n’en demeure pas moins probant que l’Asie, qui a tant marqué Duras, s’arrache toujours les dernières traductions de ses œuvres, et sollicite, encore cette année, les lumières de Pagès-Pindon lors de ses grandes tables rondes.


Il était difficile de ne pas voir, en cette soirée, l’incarnation même de l’esprit du festival : un entretien courtois et enjoué avec une auteure accomplie, qui ose consacrer ses talents à l’analyse d’une autre auteure encore d’actualité. Notons par ailleurs la qualité du public qui, bien que clairsemé, a su alimenter la discussion de façon informée et articulée.


Il est à espérer que le festival, ainsi que ses partenaires, poursuivra cette programmation de langue française, et que le public s’y rendra en plus grand nombre. J’y serai certainement.


Shaking hands and finding ‘Common Ground’ with Justin Trudeau

As a special prelude to Ottawa International Writers Festival the Southminster United Church filled to the brim and became the site of a humour-filled conversation between the host Seamus O’Regan and the man applying for the job of Canada’s next Canadian Prime Minister, Leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, Justin Trudeau whose autobiography had appeared on the shelves of bookstores across the country on October 20th.


Not hiding his curiosity of a memoir published at the tender age of 42, Seamus prompted the first-time writer to justify the timing of its release given the approaching federal election of 2015. Choosing laughter to establish rapport with the audience, Trudeau responded by addressing the audience with a series of trivia-like questions about the evening’s host. “Even people well-known to Canadians have stories [we are not familiar with] which allow [us] to trust the judgment of those in the highest representative roles,” said Trudeau. His motivation for filling the blank pages were a few: To share experiences shaping his life, to explain his vision of our country as shaped by meeting Canadians all throughout his life, and to show them that as their representative he understands their issues and concerns.


Trudeau admitted to diligently writing and rewriting each section of the book until a common thread became apparent and the initial choppiness eliminated. Most of the writing took place in the evenings and vacations on his iPad using an external keyboard. It was a “huge endeavour” but the realization that every single word in the publication is his own has been tremendously rewarding. The end goal was not to tell the reader about himself but to findthrough careful reflection on the events and people that have affected his lifethe ‘common ground’ between Canadians as individuals and citizens bound by a unique set of values directing their approach to the world that defines them.


While criticized for being a campaign document and a mere attempt to brand the politician, Common Ground does not center on policy. Instead, it is meant to express Trudeau’s gratitude to the people of Canada for giving him 35 million shoulders to lean on in a time of family tragedy and to tell Canadians about what experiences and encounters have shaped his current approach to policy. The interview served up amusing previews of some of the anecdotes Trudeau shares in his book, including the memory of Ronald Reagan reading him poems, or Princess Diana visiting 24 Sussex. Justin Trudeau’s charisma and willingness to open up enabled easy bonding with the crowd; it is indeed very difficult not to feel affection for someone who admits to having run into a lamppost on the first date with his now wife.


Not surprisingly, the brief question-answer period that had taken place before over 100 attendees lined up to shake hands with the interviewee and to get their books signed reflected an effort by future voters to address the one pressing issue the book does not address: policy. From surveillance and security through unemployment to the economy in general, Justin Trudeau gained a good sense of what people’s concerns and interests are through encounters such as this one.


In a time when cynicism replaces sincerity, and is wielded a classic political tool, finding common ground with the electorate is very challenging. It is most appropriate that I leave the last word on the subject to the man at the centre of Tuesday evening’s attention who believes that “[while it is possible to] get elected through dividing people, [it is impossible to] govern well when you have divided everyone.”  


Inside Douglas Coupland

It was on a bitter and blustery autumn evening that I arrived at the Centretown United Church to hear Douglas Coupland talk about his new book,  Kitten Clone: Inside Alcatel-Lucent, about multinational telecommunications company Alcatel-Lucent. Admittedly, a few weeks prior to the event I had never heard of Douglas Coupland before. While he has a cult following in his native Canada, the fact that I hail from jolly old England may have something to do with the fact that his name had never crossed my path.


Regardless of this, I was instantly enthralled by the author whose acerbic wit and hilariously accurate pop culture references had waves of chuckles reverberating through the church. The discussion was led by Ottawa Citizen columnist, Mark Sutcliffe, whose opening question – “how has the Internet changed our brains?” – set the tone for the rest of the evening. Coupland responded that he feels as if the human attention span has somehow dwindled into two and a half minutes, the length of your average pop song for instance, and how he finds himself lost in endless two and a half minute cycles online. I can relate to this assessment having found my own attention span drastically reduce in the past few years from increased Internet use.


In regards to the worldwide usage of the Internet, Coupland noted that humans have begun to build a “global mono-class,” having “rewired our brains in the same way” and thus creating “homogenized thinking.” It’s as if we are building a new country, virtually spanning the globe. Coupland expressed melancholy that ours is the last generation that will know life without the Internet; we straddle two centuries as if they were different worlds – the old and the new. We have now “entered a state of timelessness” no longer defined by decades. The growth of change has increased so exponentially in the past few years; inventions that used to take decades to come to fruition are now created and implemented in a matter of years. We used to believe our children’s’ lives would be much like our own but now the current state of affairs is much different.


Though describing himself as an optimist, Coupland’s answers veered towards the idea that this new “smupid” generation presents a problem – that despite all the technological innovations, it has never been easier to play dumb. Using the analogy that inventions are like asteroids, hurtling towards the earth at great force whether we want them to or not, Coupland connoted the idea that technological progress will be damaging to the human race. Does the Internet offer a wider learning experience or is it holding us back? I suppose the answer can be found in whichever hand the iPad lies in; just because you are able to catch up on celebrity gossip and watch cat videos all day doesn't mean you will.


Coupland revealed he is teaching himself French via Google Translate, and urged the audience to challenge themselves, do what fascinates them, and constantly look for their next learning curve. Though the internet is a solitary endeavour, at the same time it creates and fosters both local and global communities. The ultimate question for the human race is, “will this technology favour the individual or the group?” Will we be able to use the Internet to enhance our human interaction or will it serve to isolate us further from one another? It was these questions that were left ringing in my ears long after the discussion was over, as the wind whistled me home.