Although this relatively early Monday event was more sparsely attended than some of the evening events of the Writers Festival, I’m certain that those of us who were present can agree: Masterclass with David Gilmour was an excellent selection for our lunchtime extracurricular activity.
The event appropriately began by addressing Gilmour’s recent controversy, in which a large portion of the internet exploded with claims of homophobia and sexism after the publication of an interview with Gilmour in Hazlitt . Although Gilmour’s words in the aforementioned interview were perhaps not ordered in the best way, it is fairly clear that the claims are not true. To be specific, Gilmour’s implication was not that women writers aren’t valuable; rather, that the literature he identifies most closely with (and thus that which he enjoys the most) is literature written by middle-aged men. Gilmour also makes clear that he would be a second-rate teacher of women writers, and that the work of recent Nobel Prize in Literature laureate Alice Munro will undoubtedly be around for the next century.
After clearing the air of the allegations, host and Writers Fest Artistic Director Sean Wilson opened the discussion about how reading impacts writing, and specifically, which books have been most influential for David Gilmour. Gilmour began by specifying that, even on his best day, he couldn’t write a page as good as Tolstoy’s worst. He spoke quite lovingly of The Great Gatsby, and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s prose style—first person, past tense narrative—as that which Gilmour has been trying to imitate for the past twenty years.
He claims that The Great Gatsby falls into a similar category as that of Bob Marley; both seem as though they were written or recorded yesterday. The “minting” of The Great Gatsby’s prose, Gilmour said, feels like it was published in The New Yorker last week.
Despite his love of Gatsby, however, Gilmour did make it abundantly clear that there are plenty of so-called classics that he doesn’t like. For example, Gilmour considers Ulysses by James Joyce to be a “punishingly dull book”, and that it would be best read during a very long prison sentence. In a brief conversation with Gilmour after the event, I discovered that we share a dislike of George Orwell’s 1984, which was a vast relief for me. Gilmour also confessed to me that he may or may not have taught 1984 without reading the entire novel.
Although I’m certain that Gilmour reads abundantly more than the average person, he admitted that he does not finish ninety percent of the books he starts. Gilmour’s philosophy is that if an author can’t ‘get it right’ on the first page, they likely can’t get it right at all. Further to that end, Gilmour believes that the true test of greatness for novels is whether you can read them a second time. There are, as Gilmour pointed out, “shadows and light on the pages” of great novels that move to reveal new things on a second read.
It is clear that David Gilmour’s approach to reading has greatly impacted the works he has produced, and his opinions about various novels are fascinating in and of themselves. Masterclass was a delight to attend.
In December of 1969, when 25-year old Denis Hayes is hired by U.S. senator Gaylord Nelson to direct a country-wide “teach-in” on environmental issues, he leaves his graduate studies at Harvard University and gathers a small gang of college graduates to plan what will become the first Earth Day. By the time that day arrives on April 22, 1970, some 2,000 colleges and universities and 10,000 primary and secondary schools join the movement. It is estimated that 20 million participate across the country, keeping alive the memory and the legacy of Rachel Carson, who is credited as the creative spark behind the modern environmental movement. Though Carson passed away just two years after her book Silent Spring was published in 1962, (she had been suffering from breast cancer and its painful treatment while also facing opposition to her work, with accusations of being a “peace-nut” and a communist) her compelling work created enough momentum to eventually eradicate the use of DDT in pesticides. But during this time, young men and women from the West begin to actively embody the phrase “to live is to participate” even outside America. Decades ago, roadside chai stalls in Pakistan and Afghanistan were frequented by shaggy and shabby Westerners along what came to be known as the “Hippie trail.” What the locals in Peshawar or Kabul or Tehran must have thought of these goras I can hardly imagine; the scene is several stretches of the imagination away from the unfortunate reality of today.
I have been reading on the phenomenon of Bohemianism for a while and am particularly fascinated by the people of the 60s for their part in a long history of dissent and their contribution to social change. So, at the Writers Festival event “Campaigning for Justice” with Jo Becker, when the Development Director of the Writers’ Festival mentions he is a child of the 60’s, I am instantly hooked, even though I was completely absentminded a moment ago and thus didn’t catch his name. That decade was a time of social upheaval and it laid the ground for several movements today. The activism of the 60’s took place, as Neil Wilson says (I catch his name when I meet him after the talk), in response to “a world that was out of whack with what we felt.” He introduces Jo Becker to the stage to discuss her book Campaigning for Justice , an examination of several important human rights campaigns and the new emerging tools employed in campaigning.
In speaking with activists, Becker finds something affirming, a fairly common element that speaks to our oft asked question, “Well, what can I do?” A number of the persons she speaks with are “accidental activists,” people who found themselves in their respective positions without ever having really known that they would be there, or how. Becker, who has been with the Human Rights Watch for the last 16 years, identifies herself as one of these accidental activists. During college, she was interested in the area of human rights, and her current work grew out of an internship position in New York. When she was asked to teach a course on campaigning for human rights at Columbia University and began to assemble a reading list, she quickly realized how much of the material on the subject focused on theory and law, but little on advocacy. I myself have seen some of this material that seeks to address those perennial issues of poverty and education in the undeveloped world through the machinations of progress.
In her book, Becker lists a number of factors or tools that give an advocacy campaign its legs—a better chance to succeed. The first one, research, is not only the starting point but, I believe, also the road you get on and stay on till the end. It’s all about knowing your facts and having them straight. In one instance, research was a critical component in the campaign against life sentences without parole for juvenile offenders, a sentence that contravenes international law but is endorsed by certain states in the U.S. The campaign uncovered that 60% of the offenders who receive this sentence are actually first time offenders, and that many of them were not even directly involved, but rather complicit in the act, at times even unknowingly.
Another tool is the advantage of broad based alliances, bringing together different voices in the campaign. The example Becker presents is that of NGOs working together with U.S. Congressional allies in the case against former Liberian president Charles Taylor. Taylor had been charged with several counts of war crimes, counts of crimes against humanity—including murder, rape, sexual slavery, and mutilation—and one count of a serious violation of international law on account of recruiting and using child soldiers. When Taylor finally steps down from power in 2003, he flees to neighbouring Nigeria where he is granted comfortable asylum. However, Interpol issues a Red Notice and the newly elected President of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, submits a request of extradition to Nigeria. The Nigerian government agrees to release Taylor but—and no, as likely as it may seem, this is not a Robert Ludlum novel, or is it?—a few days after that agreement, Taylor “disappears.” However, less than two days after Taylor goes missing, Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo is scheduled to meet with then-U.S. president George Bush. The campaign against Taylor quickly directs its strength toward pressuring and convincing Bush to deny meeting with Obasanjo until he gives up Taylor. Bush agrees, the demand is made, and less than 12 hours before the scheduled meeting, Charles Taylor is “found.” When he is finally tried, Taylor is sentenced to 50 years’ imprisonment. To make a long story short, though we need the long stories of campaigns because they are made up of continuous effort and struggle and should not be trivialized and forgotten, it is the constant deliberation and action of the campaign along with its spread-out alliances that provide it the strength to act effectively. The reference to alliances also reflects on another tool that Becker mentions, which is the use of multiple points of leverage and multiple strategies, which are important because human rights advocacy, as she mentions more than once, is not so much a science as an art.
Listening to Jo Becker speak about the case against Charles Taylor, and reading about it afterwards, begins to answer a question prompted by my reading on Bohemianism: “What happened that dampened the spirit of the 60s and the 70s?” Likewise, at the start of the event, Neil Wilson reiterates his son’s question to him: “Where are you guys from the 60s now?” Did the voices of dissent become disillusioned and turn to despair instead? Perhaps. Though we might be missing the fervour of that time, and might have more than our fair share of “slacktivists,” and often times just simply don’t know what we can do, one person I met after the event helped to turn the tide of apathy and complacency we are all liable to give in to. The lady, in response to a question I had asked the speaker, invited me to a forum in Toronto which discusses issues of activism and encourages corporations to act with social justice. I was pleasantly surprised; I had only heard of how people meet in such events and form these alliances, as Jo Becker herself had mentioned. “We’re trying to do our part” she replied, in response to my surprise. Anyone got a VW van they want to get rid of?
With Alice Munro's recent Nobel Prize for Literature, short fiction has received a boost in interest, and not only in Canada. Short story writing and reading is "in" – “finally”, and “high time”, as may long term aficionados are saying. I have to admit, I have come to appreciate short fiction only recently. With more time on my hands I am enjoying short fiction more and for a range of reasons. Canada is rich with diverse short fiction writers, as pointed out during the early part of the discussion at this Writers Festival event. It appears to be a genre that attracts more women than men, at least in Canada, though this contention deserves to be further explored (as I am just now thinking of short fiction by Joseph Boyden, Steven Heighton, and Alexander McLeod, to name a few, which has been showcased at the Ottawa Writers Festival in very recent years). Still, our panel members gave a range of good reasons why they are attracted to short story writing, ranging from particular topics and ideas that attract them to write a story to exploring and honing their writing skills and test out new ideas.
Lynn Coady, shortlisted for this year's Giller Prize with her collection Hellgoing , treated us to a short story that drew her back to her childhood, and many in the audience may well have compared her (fictional teacher) “Mr. Hope” with experiences in their own youth.
Journey Prizewinning author Cynthia Flood's new collection of short stories, Red Girl Rat Boy , from which she read the title story, addresses a wide range of human experiences. Nancy Richler, author of The Imposter Bride , says, "There's a rare honesty to Flood's writing. Her eye is unflinching, her language energetic and precise, her vision bracing, passionate and entirely lacking in sentimentality." Her book will certainly get onto my reading list sooner rather than later.
Kelli Deeth's new short story collection, The Other Side of Youth , is a collection of stories "about missed connections and unrequited desire, in which characters struggle internally and with each other over issues such as marriage, childlessness, adoption, adolescent longing, friendship, and death," according to the author’s website. She also teaches creative writing at the University of Toronto. Her description of limited time available for writing every day led to a broader discussion on writing disciplines among the panel. Each author has her own approach to time and how to organize it. Lynn Coady admitted that her energy moves in waves and depends on the subjects and stories she works on. Taking the discussion further, Kate Heartfield, herself a published writer in addition to her work as a journalist, asked what many in the audience likely wanted to know: “How do you start? What makes you decide to write a story on a particular topic? Are certain subjects particularly suited for short story treatment?" Lynn Coady explained that for her, stories tend to come intuitively, often "with a jolt". Cynthia Flood added that she doesn't necessary decide on the length of a story ahead of time. It depends. Kelli Deeth also said that it is difficult to explain what makes her want to write a particular story. This brought the panel back to the question of how, for example, do you get into the mind of a ten-year old child and capture her thoughts? This led to a broader discussion of how to capture the voice and perspective of a young person or child, a challenge that all three authors had experienced. Coady, for example, took a year to work with the voice of the girl in “Mr. Hope”, the story she had read earlier. She had to dig deep into her own memories, and at some point it became easy to recreate the voice. Flood added that all our memories exist somewhere in our brain, but we have to find ways to access them to bring them alive again.
Having discussed ideas for stories and how to begin, the discussion moved to endings. How do the panelists decide that a story is finished? What makes them decide to close at a particular point? Is it more appropriate to end "with a bang" or write a more subdued ending? Obviously, the answer varies story to story but I found interesting what Lynn Coady added: There can be a point where it is "safe" to leave the story and leave the reader with his or her own imagination. Sometimes she may have an ending in mind, but then as she progresses into the story she ends it at a different point…
One challenge for any collection is the order in which the short stories are selected for the publication. Sometimes, a chronological order is the most obvious, especially when the stories are linked in some way. At other times the stories are quite diverse and a natural order doesn't impose itself on the author. All panelists related to this challenge and suggested that at times it takes a trusted outsider, a first reader or an editor, to bring order and structure. As readers we benefit from it – or do we at times mix up the story by other criteria?
I would like to leave the panelists and the moderator with a great “thank you” for a very interesting and delightful discussion.
I believe there would have been a time—now far in the distant past—when arriving twenty minutes in advance of a Writers Fest event would have left me ample time to secure a good seat. Not so for “To Thine Own Self Be True” with Michael Winter and Joseph Boyden; alack and alas, I am resigned to witnessing the grandeur of Canadian literature at somewhat of a distance.
I admit that, as per usual, I arrived to review at Writers Fest with relatively little knowledge of the featured authors. To confess: I spend most of my reading hours deep in spiritual memoirs or young adult fiction. Surprisingly, Boyden mentioned that one of his upcoming projects is a young adult novel, so perhaps I am not as unschooled as I originally believed.
Also akin to my prior festival experiences, I count myself as extremely fortunate to have attended an event such as this one. As host Mark Medley, Books Editor for The National Post, pointed out, Winter and Boyden—whom he describes as two of Canada’s foremost storytellers—are “repeat offenders” at the festival. I can certainly see why.
Winter and Boyden have been speaking at various festivals across Canada for the past few months, and tonight’s event at Knox Presbyterian was apparently close to the most people Boyden and Winter have read to. At one point during the event, Boyden manifests some plastic flowers—likely on loan from a church display—to give to Michael as they near the end of their tour together. These two authors have known each other since 2001, a relationship that had early days marked by running with the bulls in Madrid.
Joseph Boyden, who spent a decade of his young life as an altar boy, crossed himself to open the evening, though by no means does he require forgiveness for his works. The same is true of Michael Winter, who deserves similar accolades for his contribution to Canada’s canon.
After both Winter and Boyden had read short selections from their most recent works, host Mark Medley began his interview of the authors. To direct the event back towards its intended theme, Medley began by asking whether there is a difference between being true to oneself as an author versus being true to oneself as a human being. Boyden testified that it is possible to remain true to both history and narrative. It all reminds me of a once upon a time theme of my English department: that the universe is made of stories, not atoms.
I felt a bit like I was eavesdropping on a regular conversation between these two; like I sat at just the right seat in a noisy pub and—by accident—heard bits of conversation. For example, Winter concludes that it is best to just be oneself, writer or otherwise: trying to be Cormac McCarthy results in being laughed at by one’s girlfriend.
Boyden is a firm believer that just because something is true, doesn’t mean it is interesting, but the truth of his relationship with Winter is indeed interesting. Winter and Boyden are an excellent match for speaking together. I lament for those who were not able to attend this event, as it was an excellent glimpse into both the journey of two excellent authors, but also into their long-time friendship.
Discussing failure openly with others is not a common thing for many people to do, let alone in public. Now imagine having failed in front of an audience of close to 35 million Canadians and then proceeding to chronicle this very open humiliation. This past Wednesday, as he has in previous events promoting his latest book, this is what Michael Ignatieff did in his presentation to a large and captive audience at the Ottawa International Writers Festival.
Political memoirs, as host Craig Oliver so eloquently put, are normally mind-numbingly dull and excessively self-congratulatory. In contrast, he finds Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics to be a personal and strikingly candid account of Ignatieff's time in politics. Oliver aptly added that this memoir has "personal relevancy," and "flesh and blood." This is not a book venting complaint, Ignatieff said, but strongly insists it describes what politics and loss is like when it was happening.
Ignatieff stresses these memoirs are targeted towards young Canadians, interested in politics, who can learn from his mistakes. He explained that at every speech he made during his career as Leader, he spoke to the one person in the room that he hoped to inspire to run for any Party and make Canada a better place as he tried to do. This book is for "the young man or woman thinking, I can do that… he didn't get there but I will."
With this goal in mind, Ignatieff proceeded with a purposeful and decisive talk highlighting some important thoughts and take-aways from his book. You could immediately tell he is an experienced public speaker and enjoys engaging directly with his audience in a frank and open manner. Oliver did an excellent job in keeping Ignatieff on his toes and they both exchanged clever and witty (and often biting) banter in their talk.
Ignatieff's presentation gave a strikingly candid and direct perspective of what his book has to offer in the way of demonstrating not only what politics was like for him, but what it can and should be. First, his book urges us to think about what is currently happening to our politics. Referencing a class he taught on attack ads, Ignatieff explained Canadian politics has turned opponents, or adversaries as he calls them in the book, into enemies. No compromise or understanding can occur and results in personal attacks which are hurtful and often inaccurate, Ignatieff noting that he never was "just visiting" but has always only been a Canadian citizen. Continuing in this dark vein, Ignatieff found the true battle of political life is not to write and present smart policies, but to fight for the right to speak and to be heard. He also quite strongly came out against the digital age, which he says has fragmented our attention span and led to malicious and aggressive personal attacks. Second, he hoped to explain what it is like to fail. I admired his reflection on failure teaching us the most in life. He urged others to not be afraid of failure or success, but to be fearless. Last, he aspires to show what politics can be. It's not just "show business for ugly people" but a calling and vocation to serve the Canadian public. He admires Canada's global population as well as our polite approach to life.
On the other hand, it was also quite disconcerting to hear Ignatieff explain his failure in that, when returning to Canada to run for the Liberal Party, he "didn't understand the Canada [he] was coming back to." I question if it can be as simple as a lack of understanding or the reasoning that he was under the "illusion that Canada was as it was under [Pierre] Trudeau" as it quite evidently has not been this way for a long time.
This young and politically engaged Canadian looks forward to reading the book, and greatly enjoyed the insightful and personal talk given by Ignatieff on his success and failure in politics. Having read many of his other works (I'd like to highlight True Patriot Love; Blood and Belonging; Scar Tissue; and Lesser Evil), I look forward to reading his latest, and gaining more insight into his reflections and hopes for Canadian politics. One can be glad and hopeful that, at least as an author, Michael Ignatieff is far from done.
Toronto’s sitting poet laureate, George Elliott Clarke, will release his first book of verse for children in October: Lasso the Wind: Aurélia’s Verses and Other Poems , which contains collage illustrations by Halifax artist Susan Tooke.
They will be inspiring kids in area schools this Fall as part of the Writers Festival's free Step Into Stories Children's Literacy program.
When did you first decide to become a writer, and what made you choose
writing over all your other options?
I wanted to be a rock-n-roll star. But I couldn't sing, couldn't read music, and didn't know any instruments (except trombone, which I found boring). I decided, at age 15, to write "songs"—rhyming poems of all types, some with tunes in mind, but most tuneless. At 16, I started to write poems—essentially, "free verse."
What is your earliest memory of literature (reading or writing or hearing it)?
My parents read to my brothers and I—a story before going to bed/falling asleep. We must have been age 4,3,2. I don't remember those stories, but I do remember the little picture books that we received of Mother Goose and Grimms' Fairy Tales, and the Classics Illustrated comic book versions of Wells's The Invisible Man and many, many others. In those days, reading was second only to the pleasure of dreaming.
How does teaching fit into your idea of what it means to be a poet?
Teaching gives me access to what newer generations think is important; I hope we all teach (or learn from) each other. It is also a pleasure to get to explore deeply a text or writer that one likes—and to share the enthusiasm.
What are the top three tips would you want to give a young writer or poet?
a) Write all the time;
b) Read everything;
c) Challenge yourself—and trust your instincts.
How do you think you’ve changed as a writer over the course of your career?
I've become more and more willing to write what I want to write and to say what I want to say. Those who don't like it, may very well lump it.
Can you describe an experience that you believe contributed to you becoming a poet?
After I published my first book (in 1983—30 years ago!), I took a creative writing course at Banff, Alberta, and began to write about my own life, including my feelings of trauma over my parents's divorce. When I came back from Banff, I read one of the poems to my mother, who sighed, "Oh, George, how could you have written that?" When I saw that my poem, about a family incident, had been controversial for my mom, I realized that poetry is a powerful art, and it is ever more powerful the closer that one can get to revealing the "truth" about humanity....
What do you think the the future of literature will look like?
Screens, keyboards; tiny screens and pinhead-tiny keyboards. But some of us will still want the smell of ink, the feel of paper, the heft and majesty of an old-fashioned book. (Indeed, governments can spy on what you take off the Internet; but a book—especially used—is still potentially, secretly subversive.)
How can young readers discover more about you and you work?
There are websites—and blogs—and reviews—all on-line. But I prefer that they—I beg them to—look up a volume, buy it (!), and read.
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.