Kids in pods? Virtual reality glasses beaming math problems into children’s eyes? Whose idea of a bright future was this, asked Kelly Gallagher-Mackay as she glared at a magazine cover blaring the headline “Future Schools.”
If you, too, feel horrified at this techno-dystopian vision then you’ll feel glad of the alternatives discussed by authors Nancy Steinhauer and Kelly Gallagher-Mackay in their new book Pushing the Limits: How Schools Can Prepare Our Children Today. Both authors appeared on stage Saturday evening with adept moderator Julie Garlen, associate professor and co-director of Child Studies at Carleton University.
Together, Steinhauer and Kelly Gallagher-Mackay explored crucial questions being increasingly asked by the Canadian public. In a world of rapidly changing technological, economic, and social conditions, how do we prepare children for the future ahead? More to the point, how can we equip people for challenges we can’t even imagine?
In confronting these questions, both authors are armed with a wealth of knowledge and experience. Nancy Steinhauer has worked for the Ontario Ministry of Education; she also received Canada’s Outstanding Principals Award. Co-author Kelly Gallagher-Mackay is a lawyer who also holds Ph.D. in Education Policy. Together, Steinhauer and Gallagher-Mackay wrote Pushing the Limits as a way of addressing the deep public hunger to understand how schools can ready us for life in the 21st century. Their book is a timely call to find answers that are badly needed.
Our nation is riddled with social problems, not the least of them being unemployable graduates. It is past time to ask “what are schools doing?” We can of course expect the usual stock answers, such as "Preparing children for life.” But these slogans are now offered meekly, as if in fear that the listener may laugh.
As with all our institutions, political, judicial, and medical, education must be based on first principles. Schools are a profound moral imperative, as their only legitimate purpose is to create human welfare. Now, we must stop to ask if schools are really maximizing human welfare through reading, writing, and arithmetic. Here, Kelly Gallagher-Mackay assured the audience that she is not opposed to reading and writing, only the idea that these traditional endeavors should be the sole goals of public education.
Gallagher-Mackay continued by pointing out that many of our provincial curricula were first articulated over a century ago. Back when Canadian public schools were first formed, our society was just stepping out from the Victorian age, and women were not allowed so much as a vote. Safe to say the era held an limited view of what it means to be human. This has since produced our current impoverished view of education. At present, the schooling system is the echo of a darker past. It is not so much broken as obsolete. There is an old maxim about the pointlessness of training soldiers to fight the last war. It conjures up the picture of fighting the dangers of cyberspace from horseback with sabres.
And so modern parents find that, far from strengthening childrens’ minds, schools are infantilizing them, leading to a childhood extending well into adulthood. Clearly, test-taking is not a character-building skill.
Progressive educators regularly face indignation from those protecting the status quo. Yet even more frequently, the authors find the desire to break through the barriers of a stagnant system to create something new. Fortunately, a growing number of schools are experimenting with different curriculums.
Nancy Steinhauer explains that Ottawa contains more schools with programs of choice than anywhere else in Canada. She has also been involved with “Measuring What Matters,” an initiative designed to help define the skills and competencies needed in the 21st century. These include social and emotional skills, citizenship values, and even digital citizenship; the latter is an under-appreciated yet increasingly vital part of education.
Pushing the Limits offers hope for the future of public schooling. Authors Kelly Gallagher-Mackay and Nancy Steinhauer step onto the ideological battlefield to bravely face the entrenched status quo. Their book provides optimism and guidance for those looking to join the steep fight ahead. The battle for education cannot be left to a policy of wait and see. It is a war for the future itself. From a previous battleground we find a sentiment resounding deeply from Abraham Lincoln. “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. . . As our case is new, so we must think anew.” That's pretty much the heart of it.
"Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid." – Raymond Chandler
The line-up was not the usual suspects. Three of Canada’s top murder mystery authors sat before the crowd, ready for interrogation: Ron Corbett, Barbara Fradkin, and Amy Stuart. The accusation? Writing suspenseful, thrilling, violent mysteries. The point of the inquiry? How can such lovely, seemingly normal people, write such grisly heinous crimes?
In hot pursuit of the craft of writing, participants in the Ottawa International Writers Festival embarked on an intriguing investigation into the chilling secrets behind the minds which generate Canada’s best mystery fiction. With Daniel Bezalel Richardsen as lead detective, a night of sleuthing commenced. Each author read a brief passage from their work and then joined together on stage as Richardsen unearthed the most devious and foolhardy tricks of their trade.
Accused No. 1, Barbara Fradkin, began with an admission that her friends often question how such a caring healer of souls can write about murder. Pleading not guilty, Fradkin said that the point of her writing is not violence. Instead, she argued that crime writers are always trying to set the world right. Her protagonist Amanda Doucette was born out of the headlines of “today’s modern chaos.” When Fradkin read news reports about the Boko Haram kidnappings, she asked herself: what is the story behind the story? What about the parents, the children, the aid workers? What happens in their lives after the headlines disappear? The character of Amanda was born. An aid worker on a cross-country charity tour, Amanda is trying to find redemption and a new path in life. Fradkin said her villains are ordinary people, not psychopaths. “I want to deal with us folks. What drives us to desperate ends?” There is a fine line between a hero and a villain said Fradkin. She wants her readers to ask: "What would I do in that situation? There but for the grace of God go I!” she told the audience. “We could all step over the line, but we could all step back too.”
Accused No. 2, Amy Stuart, also denied the charges. Stuart doesn’t see her books as violent. Her books are about normal people facing challenging situations. When writing, Stuart delves into the psychology behind her characters and explores what it means to love, to be lost and to lose, how we behave when we are afraid. She used location as a device in her best-seller Still Mine to place her protagonist Clare in difficult environments where the she felt lost and her sensitivity and reactions became heightened. Stuart’s books ask questions: how far would you go to protect the people you love? How far would you go to defend your values? Belief in today’s world is a moving target, claims Stuart. If a person believes something is true, they can be motivated to do terrible things in the name of that truth. In her writing, Stuart explores how far people will go and what happens when two people see or remember a “truth” differently. The lines of right and wrong are often heaped in complexities she pointed out. “I have three kids.” She told the audience. “What would you do to protect your kids?” she asked. Her answer, “There’s not much I wouldn’t do.”
Finally, Accused No. 3, Ron Corbett shocked the crowds when he outright pled guilty. “I like violence,” he said point blank to the onlooking crowds. His hard-boiled admission had them glued to their seats like a fist to a bloodied mug. Corbett began his admission of guilt: “I wanted to write a violent story. . . I wanted to write a gritty and unabashedly violent story.” But what were his motives? From where did Corbett learn his art of plotting? What were the sources for his gripping Frank Yakabuski mysteries about squatter’s cabins, fishing guides, and infamous biker gangs? Corbett said he takes his cues from his years as a journalist in Ottawa, as well as the pages of Canadian history books. “This country should own noir,” he told the captivated audience. By way of justification, he recounted the 1608 beheading of Jean Duval for plotting against Champlain. Heads were hanging on the gates of Quebec he told the audience. “This is a country that is made from violent stories,” said Corbett. “Nobody talks about it.”
Case closed. Guilty as charged.
How do you talk about a story without revealing the ending? This was a particularly difficult question for Mclean's John Geddes as he engaged Craig Davidson and Iain Reid in conversation on Monday evening. Both Davidson and Reid have written tension-filled, propulsive stories that build toward revelations which change the reader’s understanding of their respective narratives. Geddes handled the discussion well, building the audience’s interest without revealing any spoilers.
Craig Davidson opened the evening with a reading from his new novel, The Saturday Night Ghost Club. The passages which Davidson had selected showcased the strengths of his book, especially its narrative tension and profound sense of place. Memory – its malleability and fallibility and, most of all, its power – lies at the heart of this book. Davidson’s well-chosen passages immersed the audience into his narrator’s past.
Iain Reid read from the opening of his new novel, Foe. The tension and unease that run through much of the book were evident in his reading. Immediately, the audience was introduced to the main characters, Junior and Hen, whose marriage is the centre of the story. For those in the audience that hadn’t yet read the book, this small taste surely left them wanting to know more.
So what can you talk about then, if you can’t talk about plot? Well, quite a lot, actually. Both Davidson and Reid discussed their approach the writing process. Davidson talked about the evolution of his narrator. In the finished book, the narrator, Jake, is a brain surgeon but in the first drafts he was “just Jake.” As Davidson’s fascination with surgeons and the brain deepened during his research, he decided that the protagonist of The Saturday Night Ghost Club would be a neurosurgeon. Reid talked of how he had started Foe from a single image of a rural couple living in separate rooms. He wrote his way into the story, using no outline.
There is lot of common ground for these writers. Davidson’s first book, the short story collection Rust and Bone, was made into a film and both of Reid’s novels will find their way onto the screen. (The screen version of I’m Thinking of Ending Things, Reid’s first novel, will be written and directed by Charlie Kaufman. Foe was optioned for film before it was even published.) Both Davidson and Reid view the film versions of their work as happy surprises. As pleased as they each are to have their writing translated to film, neither writer tries to exert creative control over the movie versions of their books.
Geddes, Davidson and Reed were pleasingly at ease with each other and each author’s adept anecdote delivery made the hour on stage move quickly. Want to know what happens in these books? Better get a copy!
The Manx Pub on Elgin Street is a beautiful space for a poetry reading, at once intimate and comforting. The Manx also holds a special place in the heart of Ottawa’s poetry community. Instead of the usual bar-side televisions, the Manx boasts large bookshelves stuffed with the works of those who have read at the pub. Changing displays of works by artists like Alootook Ipellie fill the walls. And, as poet Paul Vermeersch tells the packed audience on October 28, it’s the bar where he and his wife went on their first date. The Manx is more than a bar, more than a well-loved basement pub; it’s a metaphor for the poetry community in Ottawa as a whole. Here are familiar faces, but new faces, too—a room so packed that latecomers stand quietly in vestibule, or sit on the floor. This is the annual poetry night presented by Plan 99 in Ottawa, hosting Vermeersh as well as Deanna Young, Julie Bruck, and Hana Shafi.
Deanna Young takes the microphone first, reading from her newest collection Reunion. “Before I came tonight, I wasn’t sure what to read,” she says by way of introduction. “And Paul said, ‘Don’t worry—just shake it up.’ So I’m going to read poems I’ve never read before.” Young's voice has a soothing cadence, matched by the indelible rhythm of her poems—work which builds a tapestry of myth into and around everyday life. Her poems are brutally honest, refusing to shy away from bone-deep fear, blooming into vibrant imagery of damnation and salvation, transformation and stagnation, hope and murder. Life, she seems to say, is full of darkness; there are cruelties, both internal and external, which must be reconciled. “The shadows among us—How will we embrace them now?” she reads. Hanging on the wall behind her, one of Ipellie’s images frames a face reminiscent of Dante’s Inferno—a cavernous mouth split open in a laugh or a scream.
Julie Bruck reads next, and her poems, too, attempt to reconcile darkness with hope. The poems she selects are a series of portraits, as gentle as they are sorrowful. One piece is a confession of unkindness towards her mother, who suffers from dementia—a eulogy-in-progress not of her mother, but of their relationship. Another is a portrait of a young man in the wilderness asking her for directions, which, by the end of the poem, we are to understand, direct him in his quest for his own death. Other poems are more whimsical and sentimental but mourning, still, in their own way—odes to the twin fear and hope of raising a teenager, to outdated analogue technology and the lost, remembered sense of film winding or unwinding between the hands.
The last light of the day has long since been coaxed through the small windows of the bar by the time Hana Shafi begins to read, but the soft light of the bar gleams pleasantly up and off the warm copper tables. Shafi has a comforting energy, like the sort of person you feel you can tell anything, and the way she leans into the microphone makes the audience lean forward, too. It’s as though she’s about to give voice to a secret. In a way, Safi does reveal secrets—laying bare anxieties large and small, the sense that she both belongs and is rejected from her own skin, her own neighbourhood, her own art. “Who is going to love us?” one poem demands. “The severe women? The women made of thunder?” Shafi is anything but severe, but the thunder of her voice and her presence ripples through the room, her humour tempered by grief and rage.
Paul Vermeersch, the last reader of the night, is charming in a way that seems almost unreal—standing before a packed room in a teal blazer which somehow lends him both whimsy and gravitas. His poems, from his newest collection Self-Defence for the Brave and Happy, are intended, he says, “to offer a grim hope”—and so they do. He includes nursery rhymes redacted like government documents, fables which warn us away from darkness, from wilderness, from the unknown, and above all insist they transmit information designed to keep the reader safe from danger—whether that danger comes from within or without. “Only stories want us to live. The wolf lies in wait to devour us,” he says, gravely, as though for our own good. “The sun already wants to burn you. Do not provoke it.”
Taken together, these poets and poems remind us of the darkness of our times—murder, danger, violence, and anxiety. But they also remind us of kindness, of human connection, of the ways in which we can and do come together against the dark. Young, Bruck, Shafi, and Vermeersch are quick to frame their poems as cautionary tales—against cruelty, against hopelessness, and against terror. And yet the overall tone of the night convinces us, against all odds, that neither these poets nor their listeners are truly solitary in their quest for a better world. This conclusion alone is a worthy cause for hope.
Last Sunday night, in a warm conversation led by Peter Robb of Artsfile, Alix Hawley and Natalie Morrill shared wisdom that their writing has helped them to uncover. (Wayne Grady was unfortunately unable to share the stage and to discuss his most recent novel Up from Freedom because of a family bout of flu).
Both Morrill and Hawley traced their novel’s conception to images from their own childhoods. Morrill remembered being lifted by her parents to see overtop a glass shard lined cement wall in Vienna. Suspended and held there for a few moments, she saw the neglected and overgrown Wahring Cemetery, an eighteenth-century Jewish burial ground. That memory stayed with her as she grew up and came to understand why descendents were not caring for their ancestors’ graves, ultimately laying the groundwork for her first novel, The Ghost Keeper. After completing her short story collection, The Old Familiar (2008), Alix Hawley found herself remembering a pen-and-ink drawing of a man carrying his son’s bleeding body. The desire to identify that image, as well as help from a librarian, brought Hawley to the drawing she remembered in a National Geographic article about Daniel Boone. The image of Boone with his son inspired both Hawley’s first novel, All True Not a Lie in It (2015) and this year's sequel, My Name is a Knife.
The mysterious pull of those remembered images fueled the creative process for both authors. As they heard and answered the image’s questions through both research and imagination, their narratives unfolded. Both authors read aloud from their works during the evening’s presentation. Morrill had a selected a passage where her protagonist Josef watches and cares for a stealthy fox which moves about the graveyard. Hawley read a section from All True Not a Lie in It which describes Daniel Boone coming home to his wife in the dark. In each of the readings, it was easy to sense the authors’ search for the humanity that lives inside their stories, perhaps inside every story, including those unfolding in our present world. In Morrill’s selection from The Ghost Keeper, a man tries to make sense of himself and of his and his people’s past. Morrill’s character Josef stands transfixed by the complexity of the story he wishes to tell, knowing there is not one single path or person to follow in telling it with justice. According to Morrill, Josef is presented in keeping with Emily Dickinson’s advice to “tell the truth/ but tell it slant.” Morrill gives Josef a second voice, a third-person narrator, to help him tell his story. Hawley too explores truth in complexity “from the side” by giving both Daniel Boone and his wife Rebecca a voice to tell the story of their lives together. In Hawley’s selected passage, the audience heard a woman trying to make sense of both her husband and of herself.
Both Morrill and Hawley spoke of knowing instinctively that stories and characters have something to teach us as readers when we enter fictional worlds to seek truth. Hawley suggested that the novelist’s job is to take what can be known through research and to fill in the holes, or to “imagine ourselves in the gaps.” Morrill spoke of a “huge responsibility to be faithful to the facts,” as well as of the need to imagine oneself in the world of a real person. For both writers, thoughtful historical research always guides the creation of a character’s experience. Hawley discussed her need to “confront the ugliness” in her novel’s time period, while Morrill stressed her desire to shine light on both humanity and tragedy during the 1930s and 40s. In their readings and in discussion, both Natalie Morrill and Alix Hawley illustrated the importance of reading with empathy, understanding complexity, as well as the duty of combining imagination with truth, fairness and respect.
Mothers are strong influences on the page, as in life—that’s one of the striking similarities between the memoirs by Darrel J. McLeod, the author of Mamaskatch: A Cree Coming of Age and Tom Wilson, the author of Beautiful Scars: Steeltown Secrets, Mohawk Skywalkers and the Road Home.
McLeod’s mother, Bertha, had a personality larger than life. “She was the most doting mother,” McLeod remembered, referring to his early childhood. Later, home life grew chaotic and unstable, as his mother took up drinking. McLeod’s mother was a residential school survivor who managed to hold tight to her Cree heritage. In turn, she instilled a deep sense of cultural pride in McLeod.
Meanwhile, Tom Wilson writes about his two mothers in Beautiful Scars. There’s the only mother he’d ever known, Bunny Wilson, who would turn out to be his adoptive mother. And then there’s his cousin, Janie Lazare, who would turn out to be his biological mother (or as Wilson lovingly refers to her—his “cousin-mother”). The discovery of his complex parentage also sheds light on Wilson’s Mohawk roots, which ran in deep contrast to his “Steeltown” Hamilton upbringing.
When Wilson started his book, he was angry with both mothers and his adoptive father too. However, the process of writing Beautiful Scars allowed him to channel his anger and move past it. As he told the audience, his negative feelings began to dissolve as he wrote. “The love that I had . . . started to come out. It was completely freeing. And it allowed me to write honestly and truthfully,” observed Wilson. It also saved him hundreds of thousands of dollars in therapy, he joked.
McLeod echoed Wilson’s reference to psychiatry —he’d already spent tens of thousands of dollars on therapy before he had started Mamaskatch. Thankfully, McLeod’s therapy enabled him to begin his book as a labour of love. Indeed, McLeod wrote Mamaskatch to help those like him, who have endured trauma.
“I didn’t want to mask the challenges and the hurt and the trauma I went through,” said McLeod. The reading McLeod shared was raw with emotion and humanity. Seamlessly interweaving English and French dialogue, he read aloud a passage from Mamaskatch in which he was a young man working as an orderly and psychiatric worker. It was particularly moving to hear of McLeod’s experience with Philippe, a psychiatric patient who had been placed on suicide watch after surviving gunshot wound to the head. In the exchange with Philippe, McLeod related the story of his sister, Debbie, who committed suicide. Later, the audience learns that three of McLeod’s siblings committed suicide. The McLeod family tragedy magnifies a national crisis: the suicide rate of Indigenous people is four times that of non-Indigenous people in Canada.
Unquestionably, these memoirs both delivered on their promise of revealing intimate details about the authors, their lives and families. For Wilson, the discovery of his adoptive history outlined in his memoir was preceded by sharing his family secret on CBC radio. Penguin Random House Canada reached out to the three-time Juno-winning Canadian musician to write his memoir after the broadcast. Wilson’s first reaction was to say no. How would he write 70,000 words when, as a musician, he was accustomed to communicating in three verses and a chorus? “That’s like going from a Fiat to a Cadillac Escalade,” noted Wilson. But Wilson brought his lyrical talent to the page, interweaving poetry with narrative. True to form, Wilson read and sang during the OIWF and Ottawa Public Library-sponsored event.
At their most basic, memoirs are life stories. But sometimes, memoirs are a glimpse into more life yet still to live. “The book is a journey I’m still on—the story is in complete motion right now,” says Wilson. Other times, memoirs have a life of their own before an author breathes them new life on the page. “It was giving life to something that already existed. I was just the channel,” says McLeod of his memoir, a finalist for the 2018 Governor General's Literary Awards. It took up the better part of six years to complete, but after two years he knew he had something special.
“How did you break free?” That’s the final question of the night to Vivek Shraya, the author of I’m Afraid of Men. Where was her book when he was making his transition, the audience-member wonders aloud, acknowledging he has transitioned into a “safe version” of himself, one the world around him could, perhaps, more readily accept.
Hand over her heart as the audience member poses that question, Shraya is visibly moved. And the room is too – we are collectively quiet and concerned.
“Own the parts of you that you don’t want to sacrifice for either side,” Shraya offers. As a gender nonconformist, she draws attention to her unshaven legs.
“I love my hairy legs and chest,” she adds before offering a cautionary closing message to the crowd. We can all be complicit in policing ourselves or others, she offers, but we don’t have to buy into the so-called gender rules.
So why do we do it then? Why do we create expectations for ourselves and others of what it means to be a man, woman, masculine or feminine?
Shraya offers this reason – because we too often deprive ourselves of diverse viewpoints which show us that an alternative is possible.
That’s one of the reasons Shraya wrote I’m Afraid of Men. As a racialized, trans, gender-nonconforming woman, she felt compelled to write a book that shared her experiences.
My job as the artist is to imagine possibilities, observed Shraya, noting that people are often stuck in the way things have always been done. I’m Afraid of Men is intended to help readers visualize gender identity in a more open and inclusive manner.
Vivek Shraya’s story is filled with stark realities and realized possibilities.
“My fear was so acute it took me two decades to undo the damage of rejecting my femininity,” says Shraya. But here she is: a powerful stage presence in song and spoken word. I snap a photo of her as the light catches her bindi.
During her spoken word performance, Shraya tells us that the saddest part of her night is when she removes her bindi. It’s the last part of herself she sheds, letting the wind catch it from her fingertips. It’s all part of the routine of dressing down into an outfit that won’t risk too much attention. The only time she gets to make choices about how she wants to live or act without judgement is inside the confines of her apartment. That’s when she thinks about how she’ll have to do it all over again tomorrow.
And so, Shraya challenges us to widen our lens on gender. She puts forward a challenge for publishers too, underscoring the importance of opening access to trans and queer writers who have important stories to share with a broad audience.
Strong female characters and the ordinary lives they lead are at the centre of both Gillian Wigmore and Helen Humphrey’s novels that were discussed at Monday evening’s Character event. In Gillian Wigmore’s novel Glory, the main character Renee is struggling with isolation in a small northern British Columbia town. Helen Humphrey’s novel, Machine Without Horses, features the life of a woman in a remote Scottish location who becomes famous for creating lures for salmon fishing.
Location and geography play prominently in both novels, and the relationship of the women to the location was integral to both of them. Wigmore discussed how she wanted to write about women of the North and to address the difficulties they face in the small, isolated towns that whittle away at the character and define them in many ways. “There was a match between the [physical] landscape and the emotional landscape,” said Wigmore.
Humphrey’s latest novel has a different approach. The first half of Machine without Horses is about the writing of the novel, while the second half is a fictionalized account of a woman who learns at a young age to make lures and becomes famous for it. “Women’s lives get boiled down,” said Humphrey. “If you don’t marry, and have children, you are labelled eccentric.”
Both authors are also known for their poetry, and Humphrey said she is now less restricted by genre and “likes to mix it up more and more.”
Writing strong characters can be challenging. Humphrey observed that when she first starts to develop a story, she thinks about the motivation of the main character, what they want and what they are driven by. Wigmore said that in writing her book, at one point she thought she was getting too far away from the protagonist, and had to introduce new characters to stay true to her original idea for the main character.
Anther common theme of both novels is the walking that the main characters do and that is built into the story. Wigmore said it was a survival tactic for her while living in a small isolated town, and Humphrey admitted that walking is important in both her life and her character’s life.
The idea for Humphrey’s novel came from an obituary that a friend had sent her about a famous fly dresser. She was cleaning up her study to get away from the extreme heat one summer day and came across the obituary. “The beginning of a life is often the start of the story,” Humphrey declared, reading from her book.
Wigmore said she decided to write her novel since she wanted to explain what a woman in a small northern town faces, especially someone who experiences postpartum depression. She admitted that there were elements of her in the main character, but it wasn’t all based on her.
In both novels, the characters are shaped by where they are living. In Glory, the isolated town creates a character who is both independent and resourceful. In Machine without Horses, the main character is resilient since she lives in a small cottage with no electricity or running water.
Each author had a different reaction to completing their novels. Humphrey found that she missed her character, and it was hard to let her go. Wigmore, in contrast, claimed that she was happy to say goodbye to some of her characters.
Words matter. This is what CBC’s Adrian Harewood reminded the crowd as he opened the evening at Christ Church Cathedral. Considering the tragic events in Pittsburgh earlier that day, Harewood took a moment to reflect on the immense power of language, and the shared responsibility that comes with that power. His message resonated throughout the evening. As he welcomed renowned poet, novelist, and activist Dionne Brand, he admitted he found distance between friends and colleagues difficult. Harewood and Brand have a long history of working together on the literary scene in Canada, and it was this history that shaped the evening, not as an interview, but rather as a moment of reflection between two old friends.
Brand began by giving a reading from her latest work of poetry The Blue Clerk. It was evident that Brand’s words resonated heavily with the literary crowd listening on as she declared “I have withheld more than I have written.” This is quite a statement for Brand, who has produced numerous volumes of poetry, several novels, anthologies, and documentaries over in the last forty years. Throughout her career, Brand has used her voice to speak up on matters of political justice, and especially on topics pertaining to gender and race. Brand was awarded the Governor General’s Poetry Award in 1997, and just last year was appointed to the Order of Canada. How can she have left anything unsaid? Her reading questioned this as well: “What is withheld?” As Harewood inquired into the origins of Brand’s latest work, she expanded on this idea, which forms the backbone of her latest volume. Brand explained that “writing is a negotiation between what is written and what is withheld” because it is “too precious, too raw, too embarrassing, too rough, or perhaps unfinished.” Her most recent work imagines these unsaid things as an entity, the blue clerk, who manages the ever-growing inventory of unshared pages and is in constant battle against the author who chooses, from amongst the unsaid things, what is acceptable to share. Brand identifies herself as both characters, a metaphor for the struggle between things said and unsaid. We all have a clerk, Brand explained, who holds things back for any number of reasons. Writing the work, she said, was an exercise in coming closer to truth. This is a thought-invoking confession from an author who once wrote that “no language is neutral” and who has devoted her entire life to speaking up and out about her truth. Even for her, she admitted, the clerk filters, withholds, and worries.
The conversation delved deeper into Brand’s relationship with language as she reflected upon the stories her grandmother used to tell her on the veranda after dark. During these conversations, Brand began to recognize words as a powerful tool against ignorance. She described writing as “an act in the world,” after which there will still be ripples and reverberations. In light of how Brand has used her voice over the years to speak for the marginalized, it was moving to hear her explain that at 25, a friend of hers asked her if she believed there would be freedom in their lifetime, and she didn’t even question another answer except for “of course.” Now, some forty years later, Brand confessed that she is not as sure of her answer, but that this makes her all the more vigorous and insistent. When an audience member brought up the notion of black excellence, Brand emphatically asked: “the exercise of exemplary is to prove to whom that we are human? We are simply human.” She argued that in an ordinary society it is important to raise good people, not excellent ones. It is such a simple, yet empowering notion, during such a turbulent time: ordinary people raised to be good and working every day to get closer to their truth. As people collected their things and began to line up to get their books signed, undoubtedly inspired by Brand and Harewood, they must each in turn have heard their "blue clerk" whisper to their “author”: these words are yours - what shall you do with them?
Tim Cook is the author of nearly a dozen books on military history. However, his latest book, The Secret History of Soldiers, stands apart from the others. That’s because the new book is told from the perspective of soldiers in the trenches, exploring what connected these men as a brotherhood during the Great War. Cook draws on their diaries, letters and other media—many surprising in their own right—soldiers created in or near the trenches. Cook integrates the soldiers’ songs, poems, cartoons, newspapers and art as he explores the hidden culture behind the lines.
This is a book that’s “saying something quite different about this generation that hasn’t been done before,” says Cook, the Great War historian at the Canadian War Museum and an adjunct professor at Carleton University. The culture in the trenches was largely the makings of a kind of secret society – a society that came together out of necessity which helped soldiers deal with the physical and emotional challenges of their jobs.
“This is a book about what brought people together at war,” Cook told his audience. The Secret History of Soldiers is a book that reveals who the soldiers were, and it is particularly poignant as we celebrate the centenary of the First World War. The image people most often have of soldiers in the trenches is seeing them in the firing line, at the height of warfare, living their lives until they are suddenly wiped out by a shell, Cook observed.
“How could there be laughter on the Western Front?” asked Cook. But as it turns out, there was plenty of it. Trench newspapers like The Listening Post and The Dead Horse Corner Gazette shared cartoons, poems and other features – often daring to poke fun of the colonel or sergeant major. High Command not only endorsed these efforts, but encouraged them – seeing the good they brought the soldiers.
Military society was vulgar and masculine, Cook found, and this reality was reflected in the soldier’s jokes and language. Slang and swearing were so prominent that Cook devoted a full chapter to the topic. However, word choice was a particularly difficult section to research, as solders weren’t exactly writing to their mothers about their use of expletives. Cook’s written sources revealed how important swearing was as a coping mechanism. For example, soldiers would often swear nonstop during hellfire bombardments.
Another outlet for many soldiers was the act of creating art. Given the limited access to materials in the trenches, soldiers sometimes used found objects like shell casings to create anything from cutlery to teapots to models. Soldiers would often send their art back home, hoping to be reunited with both their families and their material creations. The process of making this unusual pieces, observed Cook, was “ a bit like going to hell and getting a postcard.”
The torturous atmosphere of the front also led to a “death culture,” wherein soldiers were regularly forced to consider their own mortality and of those around them. There was an overwhelming appearance of spectral beings among the soldiers, perhaps a result of trying to handle the intense stress of the war. Soldiers who did survived often had survivors’ guilt, haunted by the memories of friends were buried on the western front.
Cook’s decision to share his deeply intimate portrayals of soldiers’ lives in the trenches offers a rare glimpse into the war not seen before. “This is not the Oprah generation. They’re not there to confess to other people,” concluded Cook.