“Ordinary citizens,” asserts Vicki Heyman, “have kept the US-Canada relationship alive for centuries.” Returning to Ottawa for the launch of their new book, The Art of Diplomacy: Strengthening the Canada-U.S. Relationship in Times of Uncertainty, Vicki and Bruce Heyman only barely qualify as ordinary citizens. A long-time financial advisor for Goldman Sachs, Bruce Heyman served as the United States’ Ambassador to Canada from 2014 to 2017. Vicki Heyman, an experienced cultural leader and philanthropist, also comes from a background in finance. Both Vicki and Bruce Heyman became major supporters of Barack Obama’s 2007 presidential bid. Energized by the excitement of meeting ordinary people on the campaign trail, both continued their engagement with the Democratic party, and both were delighted when Bruce Heyman was nominated for the Ambassadorship which brought them to Ottawa. Together, Bruce and Vicki Heyman redefined the role of the American ambassador’s office in Canada, opening the ambassador’s residence to a record number of guests, sponsoring new arts events, and travelling the Canadian provinces with the enthusiasm of a young couple on a college road trip. Their enthusiasm for their new home was contagious, and they were able to forge a startling number of new alliances between Americans and Canadians. Now based in Chicago, Bruce Heyman and Vicki Heyman returned to Ottawa for a conversation with journalist Evan Solomon.
With the changed political context, it may seem tempting for ordinary Canadians to scale back their American engagements. After all, it is just as easy to book a vacation to the Caribbean as it is to Florida, and American trading partners can sometimes be replaced with others. Yet now is the time when America needs Canada most, stressed both Bruce and Vicki Heyman. Trump won’t be hurt by your boycott of the States, both Heymans reminded their listeners. As tempting as it may be to re-direct your spending and business relationships outside the States, such behaviour will only hurt American innkeepers, restaurant workers and other ordinary people who have a great deal to learn from their Northern neighbors. Part memoir, part manifesto, and part apology, The Art of Diplomacy is intended as Bruce and Vicki Heyman’s joint “love letter to Canada.” Speaking to a highly-engaged multi-national audience, Bruce Heyman told his listeners, “don’t be a bystander.” There are as many as 600,000 eligible American voters in Canada today, he explained; it is crucial that each of these expatriates vote in the next American election. Vicki Heyman stressed the importance of Canada as example as a North American democracy where private enterprise flourishes alongside single-payer healthcare, relatively successful gun control, and less acceptance of the dramatic income inequality which has come to define American society in the twenty-first century. Both Bruce Heyman and Vicki Heyman felt that simple acts of conversation between travelling Canadians and their American hosts, for example, could go a long way to change the current political log jam south of the border.
Lee Smolin strode onto the stage to face his audience, a man on a mission. His posture suggested it was a mission he did not expect to see completed in his lifetime. Smolin is a renowned physicist in pursuit of a holy grail of physics. His goal is of both quantum and cosmic proportions — a theory unifying the very small with the very large, as expressed in his new book Einstein's Unfinished Revolution. The event was hosted by Stephen Brockwell, a man uniquely skilled at steering conversation away from dense thickets of terminology. But for the occasional jargon, Smolin’s tale was elegant and accessible. His tranquil voice belied a fiery passion to solve one of the toughest problem in intellectual history: unifying quantum mechanics with general relativity. This challenge is a nut that Einstein himself had failed to crack, leaving it to be resolved by future generations of scientists. While much progress has been made, a final theory eludes us. Smolin believes he can tell us why.
Einstein’s revolution began with his theory of general relativity — a theory governing the very large. Shortly after scientists began developing theories of the very small - that of the spooky quantum realm. Here, Smolin has a bone to pick with theories of phenomena that depend on the presence of an observer. Considered mind-dependent, he calls these theories “anti-realist.” Smolin believes such theories should be exchanged for ‘realist’ views, like those we have of the atomic world. This view of realism has been criticized, with some voices arguing that science should only be evidence-dependent. Regardless, scientists agree that a grand theory of everything still waits to be discovered. Opinions differ on how to arrive there.
In Einstein’s Unfinished Revolution, Lee Smolin proclaims he has found the pieces of the map, hidden within the history of physics. When pieced together, he says, they will guide our way to the final treasure. Smolin recognizes that this will take unconventional thinking. He calls on fellow physicists to remove their anti-realist blinders and move past their theoretical entrenchment.
As much as Smolin departs from mainstream science, he is in line with the history of scientific thought. There was a time in the history of every modern idea when it once seemed daring and unconventional. It has been those who set sail from familiar thinking who opened new continents of thought.
Whether one agrees with him or not, Smolin stood on stage with an intellectual bravery to be admired. The history of progress has been marked by such deviations from the norm. It is an intellectual heritage that Einstein knew well as he advanced ideas that forever changed the direction of thought. How fitting it would be if completing Einstein’s revolution meant once again turning the world on its head.
The launch of Missy Marston’s second novel, Bad Ideas, at the Manx Pub was definitely a good idea. The packed house included friends and fans of Marston’s award-winning debut novel of 2013, The Love Monster. At the May 5th event, Marston talked about the genesis of Bad Ideas. Growing up in a small town on the St. Lawrence Seaway, Marston related, it was impossible not to hear about the Mad Canadian, Ken Carter. Carter spent three years preparing to jump a mile-wide segment of the St. Lawrence River in a rocket-powered Lincoln Continental, but was replaced at the last minute by an American, who only made it about 500 feet across.
It was also impossible to ignore the aftereffects of Inundation Day, July 1, 1958, when more than a dozen towns and hamlets of less than 1,000 people were flooded to create the St. Lawrence Seaway. Seaway construction wasn’t disruptive just because entire towns were moved or lost, but because the massive project saw 20,000 men, all young, mostly single, and far from home, flock to the area for work.
Bad Ideas explores the consequences of these two events from the point of view of its seven characters in the fictional town of Preston Mills.
Marston read excerpts from the four main characters.
Claire, a mother at 17 and a grandmother at 34, is a romantic who fell in love with and had two daughters by one of the married Seaway workers and continues to pine for him. “Inside Claire’s head was a running narrative, telling her story. The story of a princess abandoned and forgotten, mistaken for a scullery maid, biding her time, awaiting the return of her prince.”
Tammy is Claire’s younger daughter, pregnant at 16 but, like, the rest of Preston Mills, is in denial about many things, and abandons her daughter. Trudy, Claire’s older daughter, works the night shift at a local linen factory. Trudy is the kind of person Marston finds impressive—someone who shoulders huge responsibility at a tender age. Trudy works the night shift because her mother is working the day shift and the two of them have ended up raising Tammy’s daughter Mercy. And then there’s Jules Tremblay, a Montreal daredevil, who, like Ken Carter, dreams of building a ramp to jump the St. Lawrence in a rocket car, and who seems like a very bad, but absolutely irresistible, idea to Trudy.
With her characteristic wit, warmth, and humour, Marston explores the lives of people slowly drowning, those who didn’t manage to escape the confines of their tiny towns and whose dreams, perhaps small to begin with, are still bigger than their ability to realize them. As Marston pointed out, the flooding may have begun with a big bang on Inundation Day, but the water levels rose very slowly over the course of several days, and the consequences continued for months, as dead animals and the occupants of graves that hadn’t been relocated surfaced and floated to new locations. As Mercy says, “This day at the fair didn’t turn out the way she thought it would. Sometimes it’s like that.”
Last Saturday, Ziya Tong led a riveted audience through some of the questions that have been circling her mind throughout her remarkable career as a science journalist, producer and award-winning broadcaster. Tong, who anchored the Discovery Channel’s Daily Planet from 2008 to 2018, has recently finished her first non-fiction book. The Reality Bubble: Blind Spots, Hidden Truths and the Dangerous Illusions That Shape Our World will be available in bookstores on May 14th.
Throughout her talk and subsequent discussion with host, John Geddes, Tong revealed an intellectual curiosity which runs through all her work, even confiding that she has a question-mark shaped tattoo on the back of her neck mark as a symbol of her inquisitive nature. Geddes praised The Reality Bubble for its density, praising its scientific data as well as its anecdotes. He also asked Tong to elaborate on some of the challenges she faced in her research. In her responses, Tong was approachable and charismatic, and when she described the process of writing this first book, she quoted Yoda of Star Wars. (It was May the 4th, after all). She described it as a process of unlearning all that she had previously learned.
The unlearning process is also a useful metaphor for the experience of reading The Reality Bubble. While few people had the opportunity to read the book before her talk, Tong explained that it is not an “environmental” book. She does not want people to approach it with preconceptions or a sense that they know what will be written on its pages. Instead, Tong hopes to convey all that we take for granted as humans; all that our collective understanding fails to appreciate of the world and of other species. For example, she conceded that many animals understand our language: Coco the gorilla responds to thousands of signs; whales and dolphins follow commands to jump and play in marine parks; dogs grasp the meaning of hundreds of human words. But what do we understand of other species’ communication patterns? For the most part, nothing at all. We pat ourselves on the back for building airplanes, landing on the moon and communicating abstract ideas, but we’ve also come to a point where our most common encounter with ‘nature’ is in the supermarket.
Geddes and Tong discussed the fact that the book pivots around metaphors of blindness and invisibility in the human-animal relationship. One could feel a collective intake of breath in the room when Tong stated that we’ve made slaves of our domesticated animals. But she explained that this has come from commodifying nature to the point where we’ve placed a price on almost all species on the planet. Tong explained that this realization hit her as she wrote under a Baobab tree. At that moment, she fully understood the absurdity of the concept of ownership, especially with respect to these majestic trees that outlive us by thousands of years.
In conclusion, Tong asserted “life can’t be owned by anybody. Life belongs to life.” Yet this review is being prepared the same week that the United Nations released a report on biodiversity, claiming that extinction looms over one million species of plants and animals. When Geddes asked Tong about how she grappled with sad themes of climate change and species loss, she admitted that she had considered writing a piece about scientists when they are faced with the realization of what is to come. (Tong has met many crying scientists). But the conversation remained hopeful, in particular when Tong spoke of epiphany, wonder and awe, and the joy that we can find in being near animals. She reminded us that animal videos are all over social media, for better or for worse, almost as a salve for the stress of our misguided human lives.
Some questions from the audience touched on metaphysical interpretations of reality; others asked about Tong’s future projects. Listening to Ziya Tong, I felt anxious about the future of our planet, but also experienced a hopeful, delightful feeling - that feeling when one is in the presence of a person who can demonstrate the limits of our knowledge while inspiring us to learn more. Hopefully we have time to appreciate the fact that our human perspective of the world may not be as solid as we presume it to be. Listening to Tong may be just what many of us need in order to reevaluate our reality bubble, and to unlearn all we have learned.
Human societies are fundamentally good. So argues Nicholas Christakis, author of Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society. Trained as a palliative care physician and social scientist, Christakis now directs the Human Nature Lab at Yale University, where he is also Sterling Professor of Social and Natural Science. His new book Blueprint interweaves aspects of sociology, medicine, evolutionary biology, and ecology in an intense study of the human condition. At a time when truth and evidenced-based research are facing challenges as never before and dangerous half-truths rage on social media, Christakis’s carefully laid out, factual book offers an optimistic view on where humanity is headed next, grounded not in wishful thinking but in a what Christakis argues is a mountain of evidence-based truths.
The facts paint an optimistic picture, says Christakis. The fact that humans have evolved to live in society suggests that our being social carries evolutionary benefits. Influenced by the philosophy of Philippa Foot, who said, “In moral philosophy it is useful, I believe, to think about plants,” Christakis says that like plants, human societies need good roots to thrive. Human good is located in the roots that lead to human flourishing over time. While it is tempting to hone in on the horrors of human history and get pulled into the pathos of hate, Christakis argues instead that human good and our propensity for cooperation are overwhelmingly engrained in us, socio-biologically.
Christakis and his team studied thousands of societies, intentional and non-intentional, across different times and places. They found that certain common features are salient across all of them. Christakis calls these nourishing principals the “Social Suite”: identity, love, friendship, networks, cooperation, in-group preference, mild hierarchy, and teaching. All of these functions arise out of our inter-individuality; i.e., our identity formation through our social interactions with one another. The Social Suite is what makes us essentially human.
These principals form a blueprint for the formation of human societies that is deeply, even genetically, ingrained. The attempt to suppress any of these instincts, such as engineering a society that suppresses love or freedom of association, as for example is undertaken by authoritarian regimes, cannot be engineered successfully, at least not forever. Christakis speaks from experience; he was just a boy when the military dictatorship was overthrown in his native Greece. Human society may be flawed says Christakis, but despite centuries of hatred and violence Christakis believes that society fundamentally leans towards the good. He backs this by science. He is optimistic about our common future because the long arc of our evolution says that the societal behaviours that will thrive are those that nourish us. Malice and vitriol will not last.
The horizon of humanity offers hope.
Some years ago I interviewed the late British crime writer P.D. James, and we discussed the distinction often made between literary and genre fiction. She dismissed it rather decisively, noting that the distinction seemed to be of much more importance in North America than elsewhere, and cited successful crime writers who were also winners of major prizes for literary fiction to buttress her point.
Since then various crime writers have validated her view. One of the most conspicuous is the featured author at last Fall’s OIWF event, Ian Rankin. And this Spring, I’m delighted to say that two more writers at the OIWF festival offer further evidence that quality fiction is not a matter of genre.
After years of covering social issues as a journalist, Stephen Maher comes across as a thoughtful observer of the human scene. In his latest novel, Social Misconduct, Maher relates the terrifying tale of Candace Walker, who works in the pressurized advertising world of internet marketing, yet suddenly finds herself the target of a vicious smear campaign on social media. The perpetrator is unknown to her, but when the attack spreads like wildfire Candace is forced to abandon her former life, even discarding her cell phone to prevent others from tracking her. She takes refuge in a rented storage locker as she attempts to discover who is behind these assaults, and why. It is an excellent tale, well-told, and offers a cautionary note about the times we live in.
In conversation with Peter Scheider and Ausma Zehanat Khan, Maher revealed that his latest work has been very much a learning process for him. His earlier novels, Deadline and Salvage, were largely character-drive tales, but in Social Misconduct, Maher wanted to cast his net wider and deeper. He noted that enduring novels such as Pride and Prejudice, Madame Bovary, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? can be seen as literary tools which help us to understand our changing world. In order to research the background for Social Misconduct, Maher talked with many people in media, law enforcement, as well as people who simply lived in Brooklyn and took the L train to work every day, Then, when he began writing, he sent the first half of the book to fifteen friends. Along with the draft, he sent a questionnaire, asking them whether certain elements were too obvious, or too subtle. If they filled out the questionnaire, Maher told his friends, he would send them the second half! So including his first readers, his agent and his editor at Simon & Schuster, it’s been a collaborative and in-depth process that dozens of people have had a hand in, and his book, Maher acknowledged, is all the better for that.
A Deadly Divide is the fifth book in Ausma Zehanat Khan’s intriguing crime fiction series featuring detectives Esa Khattak and Rachel Getty. Working in the community policing section of a law enforcement agency, Khattak and Getty undertake cases which bring them into minority communities where they must navigate the competing tensions that exist in marginalized minority groups, not just in Canada but around the globe.
A Deadly Divide tells the timely story of a mass shooting at a mosque in Quebec. It seems to be a hate crime, and the police focus their attention on a young Muslim man. But the detectives sent to liaise with the community aren’t certain it’s that simple. Khan vividly portrays a community in which powerful and conflicting forces are at work, masking layers of fear, distrust, and hatred.
Although each of the books in this series are certainly crime novels, Khan points out that each book is also deeply rooted in a global human rights issue that reflects her own passion to engage, and then transcend, the differences that divide us. So far her books have encompassed the topics of genocide, the international refugee crisis, the plight of political prisoners in Iran, global terrorism, to name a few.
Khan notes that at least since the American election campaign of 2016 we find ourselves in a world that is increasingly hostile to Muslim identity. She acknowledges that she likes to write books about intersections in time, in history, in language, and in culture, in which readers are encouraged to engage the darkness that we see all around us. Fortunately for her readers, Ausma Khan has an exceptional ability to see, the world around her. Khan is also extraordinarily adept at expressing her view of the world. As a result, her books help us understand some of the prevailing social dynamics of our turbulent times.
Coming from very different backgrounds, both Ausma Zehanat Khan and Stephen Maher are living proof that quality fiction transcends the bounds of any single genre.
A review in the form of a sketch.
Artistic Director Sean Wilson opened Monday’s evening’s Writers Fest session by asserting that “our history is shamefully untold in the classroom.” It certainly didn’t remain so for the rest of the evening. Rising strong through creativity, Alicia Elliott and Terese Marie Mailhot delivered picturesque literary accounts of families, mental illness, and what it means to be Indigenous in a world that lacks respect and hope, compelling the audience to acknowledge the unedited past of shame, pain, and hurt.
Mailhot’s Heart Berries is a memoir about teenage pregnancy, heartbreak, motherhood, post-partum depression, father-daughter relationships, and ultimately, forgiveness. The memoir weaves together a rhetoric about the smallness, and parallel but unacknowledged greatness of Indigenous peoples. As Mailhot indicates, it is the Indigenous people who came from this land and named its mountains, rivers and lakes but tragically can’t see themselves as fully part of it. Her book is a materialization of a public grief and realness, necessary and beautiful at the same time. Most of all, Heart Berries is an example of life translated into art form. The moving memoir is the product of a deep revision process that began with the process of unpacking clichés and untruths, ultimately leading to acceptance and authenticity.
Elliott’s book of collected essays, A Mind Spread Out on the Ground, asks readers to dive into the book seeking answers, and asks them to emerge even more curious. Her writing points out the dangers associated with repressing pain and shame, of pushing through in times of weakness and postponing grief instead of coming to terms with it. Elliott reminds us that Indigenous people care about more than just their identity; they value vulnerability, craft, story-telling, and playing with structures. For Elliott, creative non-fiction has been an outlet for talking without worrying about the immediate reaction or judgment from the outside world and without having the conversation turned against her. The most powerful thought that she left me with at the end of the night was her observation that “we live in an abusive nation-state that uses gaslighting mechanisms to keep itself propped up.” I recommend we all mull this one over.
Through the act of writing, both authors re-examined the people in their life and gave voice to shame, usually a powerful silencer. Elliott and Mailhot each approached their projects with love and authenticity rather than resentment, in so doing, directed their readers’ attention to the importance of healing, empathy, and compassion. Their stories are relatable and told sincerely; they validate the suffering of those who may be afraid to stand up and lean into their pain. They give courage to us all.
Yousef Bashir grew up in the Gaza Strip. He was only eleven years old when the second intifada broke out in 2000. His family home, the land his ancestors inhabited and farmed replete with lush date trees and crops for over 300 years, stood next to an Israeli settlement. When soldiers tried to evict the Bashir family from their ancestral home Yousef’s father Khalil refused to leave. “Khalil, take your children, they aren’t safe here,” the soldiers warned him. “If my children are not safe in their home, they are not safe anywhere,” he replied. Overnight, the Bashir home became a microcosm of the Israeli occupation. Soldiers entered the family household and occupied the top floor of the building. They divided the house into sections and strictly controlled movement and access to the building for the next five years.
Speaking at the Writer’s Festival, Yousef conveyed the pain experienced by his family throughout these difficult years. His voice was calm and extremely peaceful, echoing the legacy of his father in his tireless advocacy for peace. Growing up under occupation Yousef didn’t always agree with his dad. “One day you will understand,” his father reassured him. Yousef says that his father taught all of his children the meaning of peace by modeling it for them. “No matter what you do, I am not going to leave,” said Khalil patiently to the soldiers occupying his home, “no matter what you do I am not going to hate you.” Palestinians were born to be peaceful, Yousef’s father insisted.
Khalil Bashir’s outlook was continuously challenged on multiple fronts. The soldiers gradually encroached more on the family home. The men and boys had to be accompanied even to the bathroom, and the door had to remain open. Women and girls were permitted to close the door, but not to lock it. At night, the family would be rounded up on the first floor and locked in while soldiers occupied their bedrooms above. The upstairs floor of the house became an open toilet, with smells gradually seeping down to the lower levels. Soldiers destroyed the greenhouses that had provided the Bashir family sustenance and a living for many years, and they uprooted trees that had stood on the property for centuries. Once, the soldiers even targeted Khalil’s bedroom, showering him with gunfire, and shattering the room’s windows and ceiling. The elder Bashir had to be rushed to the emergency room in order to have pieces of glass taken from his head. In hospital, CNN journalist Ben Wedeman asked Khalil if these actions had made him ready to give up on peace, Khalil’s answer: “No. These actions make me believe in the need for peace even more.”
Still, young Yousef struggled with his father’s stance and often challenged him. This changed however one fateful day in 2004, shortly after Yousef’s fifteenth birthday. The family was receiving visitors from the United Nations. Shortly after giving permission for the UN visitors to enter the household, the Israeli soldier in charge changed his mind for no apparent reason and told everyone that they had to leave. Khalil and Yousef accompanied the UN delegates out to their car. As they approached the UN vehicle, Yousef heard a single resounding shot. He crumpled to the ground. The soldier had shot him in the back. “I went to the hospital,” Yousef said, “and I felt pain.” The pain told him he was still alive.
Yousef was rushed to a hospital in Tel Aviv where Israeli doctors healed him. He recounted how the doctors showed him a scale of happy faces and asked him to choose the level of his pain. Over the next year Israeli nurses patiently restored the paralyzed child back again to health, they made him believe in himself and helped him regain the ability to walk once more. The Israeli hospital stay led to cognitive dissonance for Yousef. He had only known the Israelis through the lens of the occupation, from the soldiers inside towers and later inside his home, from the settlers living warily across from him, but he had never had such a human connection with Israelis.
Human connection, realized Yousef, is what is needed most. Over the next months and years, Yousef would transform his views to become his father’s son, carrying on his legacy of being a spokesperson for peace. He says that forgiveness, like peace, is a process. It is a process that every day he wakes up and chooses to forgive. He chooses to forgive the soldier who shot him in the back as a child. Although his body is still racked by the pain of the bullets that entered his spine, still he chooses to follow the advice of his father and put his faith in peace, after all, as his father said to him, “you are a true Holylander, and that is what a Holylander does.” Building partitions and walls that destroy connection does not bring peace, says Yousef. The solution for peace is to respect the other as as a human being. This means respecting the inherent right to live equally, as a human being with dignity, to understand that ultimately both sides are connected to the land and to one another, and like his father, to have the courage to choose peace, over and over again.
Ottawa book lovers who chose to come inside on a beautiful Sunday afternoon to attend Guy Gavriel Kay’s talk were not disappointed. This was Kay’s sixth visit to the Writers Festival, and the packed room was evidence of his continuing popularity.
Brandon Crilly stepped up to introduce Kay, leading in with a preview of Kay’s latest book, A Brightness Long Ago. Crilly described how Kay manages to take a complex historical story, in this case from fifteenth-century Italy, and give it a quarter turn toward the fantastic.
As Kay approached the podium, he slid his reading glasses onto his nose, and began by saying that his sincere goal in writing was to reduce the gap between what was in his imagination and what ended up on the page. Kay read from an early scene where the character Adria Ripole first approached the chambers of the Beast. The room was silent as Kay spun his tale. Just as the intensity was rising, Kay chuckled saying, “and because I’m a really mean person…” and he closed the book. The audience breathed a collective sigh and laughed along with him.
In the interview between Crilly and Kay that followed, Kay responded with candour to questions about his process and the struggles he faces as a writer. He has a horror of being bored by his own writing, which challenges him to reach for the uncertain and to write about different historical periods. Research being so important to him, he often takes three or four years to publish a new book, and he thanked the audience sincerely for their patience. (As a side note, he spoke of the pressure on writers to publish a new book each year).
Speaking of the research process which preceded A Brightness Long Ago, Kay explained how thrilled he had been to discover examples of Renaissance women who were unwilling to accept the role foisted on them by society. He wanted a protagonist who was historically accurate, not a twentieth-century protagonist thrust into a historical setting. Kay highlighted his fascination with the many parallels which can be found between the past and the present, noting at the same time how strange the past can be. Thus, Kay often introduces an element of the fantastic in order to put the reader right smack in the middle of the world as they understood it in the past. He quoted the oft-repeated aphorism, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.”
Kay spoke with humour as he finished up his talk, saying how he was “brutally at the mercy” of his own self-consciousness, and that he did not know what was next. He spoke to writers in the audience, candidly discussing his constant anxiety during the writing process and his fear that he wouldn’t be able to portray all that was in his head in a way that was meaningful to the reader. He did admit, however, that in this case he’d done a fine job. The audience laughed with him again.
It was a special privilege to be able to purchase “A Brightness Long Ago,” ahead of its release date of May 14th. Many of the audience lined up to have him sign their books, this reviewer included.