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Fifth Issue of Our Literary Journal Foment

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Frances Itani's Requiem

 

You are youngest, number-two son, born in the year of the tiger. A tiger may be stubborn, but can chase away ghosts and protect […] But because your time of birth was at the cusp of the year of the rabbit you are destined to be melancholy, and you will weep over nonsensical things.

 

So notes Bin Okuma’s father in the opening chapter of Frances Itani’s most recent novel, Requiem. This dubious fate is made more complicated by the wide sweep of history. Born to a Japanese-Canadian family in the years leading to the Second World War, Bin and his family along with thousands of other Japanese-Canadians are deemed enemy aliens by the government and forcibly relocated to an internment camp in the B.C. interior. There they are forced to live in primitive conditions for the duration of the war, stripped of their possessions and their freedom. 

 

A talented artist struggling in the wake of his wife’s recent death, the adult Bin continues to be haunted by both this collective betrayal as well as an individual betrayal that shattered his family. His impulsive decision to revisit the site of the camp and subsequent journey from Ottawa to the Fraser Valley mirrors his psychical journey in which he strives to reconcile grief, memory, and history; themes that are conveniently bundled in the figure of his dead wife, a history professor in life. 

 

Switching among multiple time periods, which serve to mimic the fragmentation of memory, Itani explores the short and long-term impact of the internment; both practical and psychological. While she successfully conveys the day-to-day details of camp life, the harshness of the environment seems paradoxically minimized due to the efforts of the internees as they attempt and largely succeed in forming a functional community. The hardships faced by internees are not glossed over but they make do. Still one gets the sense that from the viewpoint of another character, or a slightly older protagonist, even more hardships would be evident. 

 

Interestingly, it is Bin’s experiences in the immediate post-war period that prove most compelling and the reader is left wishing that more attention was given to this phase of his life. Indeed, this failure points to the core weakness of the text; namely, the generally dull characterization of the adult Bin who dominates the narrative. Unlike the joyful realization of Grania O’Neil, the protagonist of Itani’s 2003 bestseller Deafening, the characters in Requiem sometimes struggle to transcend the weighty themes that the author explores making for a ponderous and slow-moving first half. The repeated symbolism of rivers and continual references to Beethoven, though providing insight into the development of Bin as an artist, occasionally prove irritating, not to mention Basil the dog. Similarly some specifics about the wider internment policy might have been better left in a postscript as they pull focus from the narrative’s momentum. 

 

Fortunately a significant revelation at the halfway mark creates a much more engrossing story as the reader gains greater insight into Bin’s psyche. Seemingly secondary characters are thrown into sharp relief and Bin’s conception of himself as a husband, father, and son are more deeply enriched. Moreover in the end Bin’s fate, the fate of the tiger-born, is finally realized. 

 

Chef on a Mission

Ashbury College buzzed this past Monday night with a pre-festival event of delicious proportions. Both foodies and fans alike were neck-craning, wine-sipping, and cookbook-flipping in eager anticipation. And here, front and centre upon a shallow stage - in one of Ottawa’s oldest running schools - Canada’s hottest Chef, Michael Smith , stepped up with host Debbie Trenholm to the collective giddiness of the crowd.


Promoting his most recent cookbook Chef Michael Smith’s Kitchen , 100 of my Favourite Easy Recipes, and known for his shows Chef Abroad, Chef at Home, Chef at Large and The Inn Chef, Michael Smith is no stranger to publicity or touring. Looking relaxed with his button-up shirt and jeans, he seats himself opposite the crowd and slides comfortably into conversation. Michael’s ‘enjoy yourself’ philosophy toward home cooking (i.e. not taking the process too seriously – and no worries when the chicken burns on the grill, just flip it over) translates well onto the stage where he’s simultaneously at ease and engaged. Yet there’s more to this picture, much more. Tonight, the chef has a mission.


Sitting there from my seat in the audience (yes, I too am giddy), listening to the questions of what-works-best-with-what, it comes as a pleasant surprise when he hijacks the conversation from ‘tips on cooking’ to something far more profound. For Michael Smith, the goodness, essence, and reason for food is in the story. And as the conversation swerves in this direction, the easy-going chef of PEI transforms into a man on a mission, and he’s sharing: no matter how many questions about butter, olive oil, or cooking instruments are thrown in his direction.  

Over twenty years ago, Michael Smith was forging an international reputation. Yet deep in the concrete jungle of New York, while both head chef and hugely successful; something suddenly changed. “I wanted to meet farmers, and fishermen, and plant a garden,” he recalls.  At the time, he had no idea how this agricultural reconnection would define his journey.


And here is where we meet Fulton, a farmer in PEI. Every year Fulton browses the farming catalogue and flips the pages till he finds that tomato of choice for the upcoming season. Seeds soon arrive and Fulton plants his creations in discarded Tim Horton coffee cups, nurturing the seedlings behind a wooden stove, investing time and attention in their growth.  Then, come August, and carrying a worn crate full of ripened tomatoes, he arrives at Michael’s home to display and share the fruits of his labour.  You can imagine the pride. You can imagine the flavour. And this is just one of Michael’s many stories about connections through local farming.


Stories are connections, and connections are essential for the chef as he  develops simple recipes with local flavours. Little did he know upon embarking to build stories, that his efforts would weave into a catching revolution. The hottest trend in food these days: going local. But for Chef Michael Smith, it’s not just about visiting the nearest farmer’s market. It’s also about preparation, appreciation, and sharing of that food. Because without sharing, where’s the real value?


And bam – with the ease of a politician, Michael deflects another foodie question. Instead of going into dinner party preparation, he discusses the value of mealtimes. What’s most important? The gathering. The company. The nutrition. According to him, perfection is a damaging myth. No one’s turkey arrives at the table backlit and sprayed with oil for that extra shine. Home cooking is about the home. The family. It’s an opportunity to build relationships, have fun, and foster a healthier lifestyle through connection with our food. 


And so, blue eyes shining in the spotlight, Michael Smith presents us with a challenge. North America has some of the highest rates of obesity, diabetes, hypertension and cancer. He feels it’s time to move away from simply admiring food through television and magazines (“food porn” he calls it.). Everyone should be getting into the kitchen and forging a connection – no excuses. While people may not have a background in cooking, Michael is adamant that we’ve all got potential. 


“Every day, do your best to set an example within your sphere,” says Michael. This starts with giving yourself a break. No one needs to make the perfect meal, they just need to share with the perfect people (those they love most) – and start to create stories of their own. From visiting a local farmer’s market, to spending time with your family and connecting over dinner, that’s how change happens. For the chef, his message is clear: “Gather, prepare and share.” Michael sees reconnection with food (like the stories that sprout from a juicy, ripe tomato) as a cure to many cultural ailments. “This is about the future prosperity of Canada, your kids, your grandchildren.” Taken seriously, “we can move our food system to a better place.”


Moving beyond foodie talk (though foodie talk did happen and no, he doesn’t advocate stuffing the turkey - it’s a breeding ground for bacteria) it became clear that Chef Michael Smith is a storyteller.  Each time he gathers, shares and prepares, a rich account is being given. And if you bring that message into your home too, he truly believes we can change things for the better. 

 

This crazy time

I have to admit I’m a failed environmentalist.  I have a long history of desiring to live a sustainable life, but when faced with the hard choices I inevitably choose the easy path.  For instance, on my way into the talk titled Living our Environmental Challenge, I proceeded to drive in from Stittsville, buy fast food for dinner and throw out the packaging that was perfectly compostable, and then purchase a hot beverage in a disposable cup.  I was well on my way to seeing what a challenge it is to live in an environmentally friendly way.  

 

William Marsden was the first author to speak.  I saw him a few years ago here at the festival, when he was on the same bill as Thomas Homer Dixon.  At the time, I noticed there was a lot of cynicism in his voice as he was promoting his book Stupid to the Last Drop.  It’s hard not to be cynical when you’re writing about an issue that seems so obvious, yet so many people seem to intentionally ignore it.  This time, Marsden was talking about his soon to be published book Fools Rule.  Once again, his book seems to be an elegy to those that will never listen.  

 

Part of his new book explores how our brains are unable to fully consider long-term costs when we are making decisions regarding today.  I’ve read numerous articles and books about how people struggle when making present-worth versus future-worth comparisons but one that I know best is the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment

.  In this study, the scientists would put a marshmallow in front of a four year old child telling them that they can eat this marshmallow now, or if they wait they can have a second.  The scientist would then walk out the room, and they would then observe how the children handled this hot stimulus of a yummy marshmallow in front of them that they wanted, when at the same time they wanted that second marshmallow.  Every child wanted two, but many weren’t able to wait very long.  It’s much the same as adults – if asked, I’d be willing to bet that most Canadians would say that they want to live in a sustainable world, but it’s so hard to fight against the hot stimuli in front of us.  So, are those that should be listening actively not listening, or are they just unable to consider the alternatives?

 

Tzeporah Berman followed Marsden, and was a very engaging speaker.  I heard her about a week ago on CBC radio, and I was interested to hear how much would be repeated.  I intentionally listened to that interview twice, so I had a pretty good idea of what she would say, but she still made the material fresh and engaging.  Her message of compromise through knowledge of the other really hooked me.  Her stories of Greenpeace working deals with industry to save Clayoquot Sound from clear-cutting, but that enabled the Forestry sector to continue as a profitable business fascinated me.  Hearing about that makes me hopeful that there may be a way to somehow find a healthy compromise with the Alberta oil sands.  She explained that for this to happen though, we need enough people demanding change – both from our businesses and our government.  

 

One of my favourite stories Berman shared was an interaction with the chief forester for MacBlo.   He told Berman in conversation that “He doesn’t wake up in the morning thinking ‘How can I destroy more forests?’, but that he got into the forestry business because he loves the forests”.  The idea that this man wasn’t evil was quite a surprise for Berman at the time.  Through their conversations, they worked out a model for MacBlo to continue to work as a business, but were able to protect important ecological areas, and change the way that industry logged.  In a sense, their compromise gave the forester new tools to do his job that gave better options to everyone that had not previously existed.   Berman in her talk, reiterated that businesses have the tools and skills needed to try and address the problems of climate change, if only we could give the businesses the right incentives to change their business models.

 

The final author of the night was Chris Turner. Turner was using this night to launch his new book The Leap, a book about how as a society we can make the jump from our current unsustainable model of society to a more sustainable one

.  He shared examples of work being done all over the world, from Bitterfeld, Germany to Toledo, Ohio.  Most of the statistics and examples he shared were very encouraging, showing that there are solutions to our current environmental issues if we are willing to engage them.  What I think Turner is also trying to make clear is that these solutions are not a compromise, or even more costly, but are truly better solutions regardless of our current environment.  I was blown away by the example he shared of a town home complex that was built in Southern Germany that had solar panels installed on the roofs, and the homes themselves were designed to be as energy efficient as possible.  What they managed to create was a community that doesn’t consume power, but are net-producers of power to the point that people are making money off their homes.  I live in a small town-home, and wonder what it would be like if Domicile or Richcraft in Ottawa were willing to try some of these creative solutions that actually won’t cost any more than what they currently build?    

 

One other example Turner shared was a study done in Germany showing that they could run their modern industrial economy entirely on renewable energy sources, with the combination of wind, solar, biomass, and small scale hydro – note that Germany is a fairly northern country, where Munich, one of the most southern cities in the country is at a higher latitude than Quebec City.  Germany has managed to make itself a leader in renewable energy, and in doing so has made significant improvements in unemployment in areas of the country that only a few years ago would have made Detroit look good.  They’ve made this change with a conservative government in power, not only because the constituents demanded this, but because it’s good policy.  In making the shift from our current economy that is based on the consumption of fossil fuels, to one that is based around renewable energies, we can continue to move our society forward in the direction we want (jobs, prosperity, quality of life improvements), and at the same time do it better than we are now.  

 

I came into the night with some cynicism, and feeling that given our current Canadian political climate, there isn’t much chance of improvement in how we deal with the issue of climate change as a society.  As an individual, I try where I can, but so often it feels like I’m only one of a few willing to make sacrifices to try and make a difference.  And when I’m feeling like that, I start giving in more to the car, the disposable cups,  and start dreaming of a large home with a back yard.  It’s more and more clear that our environment can’t be saved by a few people taking the bus to work, buying local food, and living in a small house.  It’s only if together we agree that we want a better world that we can make the changes necessary.

 

I ended the night with asking Berman and Turner a question – Is the Environment and Climate Change fundamentally an issue that needs government to change its policies, or is it people who need to change?  Turner responded that this isn’t about the government changing at all, and that we may not even need them to drive the change toward a sustainable economy.  He cited an example of a company in Calgary, GreenGate - a renewable energy company.  They are taking positive action before the government has any interest in renewable energy, using all the tools available to them to make a profitable business.  Berman responded to the question, with the point that “[environmentalists] need to stop selling the plane ride, and start selling the vacation” – an analogy she used during her talk.  Far too often environmentalists focus on the need to reduce green house gases, which only focuses on the negative.  As environmentalists, they need to start sharing more success stories, where people are getting to live better lives, and have a more sustainable environment and economy.  In the end, if enough people want this change, they will demand it both from companies they buy from, and from their government.  People don’t go to the car lot looking for a vehicle that will destroy the environment.  If alternatives exist that will provide them with an equal quality of life, I’m sure that would sell.  In the present, these options exist, the technology exists, but somehow there is still a fight from businesses to prevent change.  If we as individuals were to engage to the level of demanding change from the businesses we work for and patronize, perhaps in the same way Victoria’s Secret changed the way they sourced paper for their catalogue; we could see a revolution in our modern economy and actually live better lives for it.

 

As a final note, my wife and I attended with our seven-month old child, and the volunteers and writers were incredibly gracious to us and our child, which was truly appreciated.  It’s nice to know that as parents of young children, we are welcome at events like this.   

Footnotes 

1

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marshmallow_experiment , or if you want a great review of this and the other factors that come into how we make decisions, check out Jonah Lehrer’s book How We Decide.  


2

Turner gave a quick review of how modern western society is unsustainable, focusing on the three big issues of our time – the financial collapse, energy scarcity, and climate change.  He actually drew a direct link between all three, showing that our current market structure is all based on cheap energy which is quickly disappearing, our demand for cheap energy is increasing the amount of CO 2 in the atmosphere among other environmental impacts, and if climate change is ignored until it reaches the catastrophic level it will forever change how we run an economy.

 

Psalm of Survival

 It was a Sunday, and I found myself sitting in a wooden pew, inside a church with bright red hymnals perfectly spaced apart on the shelf in front of me. I looked up and saw beautiful wooden beams, multicoloured stained glass, and black and white hymn numbers on the wall, waiting their turns to be sung. But there would be no worship here today, nor any talk of spirituality. Or so I thought, until Les Stroud began to share his life lessons. Now, when I say worship, don't get the wrong idea. The only kind of worship going on here was hero-worship, as fans young and old, male and female had all come to church to hear the King of Survival speak.

 

For those of you who are not familiar with Les, he is the creator/producer/filmmaker and host of many survival-themed television shows; and (as Rick Taylor describes), he is essentially a "19th Century Rockstar Explorer."  Not only is Les a wilderness survival expert, but he is also a filmmaker, a musician and a storyteller. On one of his OLN shows, Survivorman, Les survives harsh, remote environments and films every minute of it himself. Of Survivorman, he said, "it represents the quintessential losing of everything, breaking down to zero and trying to survive."

 

On his journey through life, Les Stroud made his way from Mimico, Ontario to following his dream as a musician, and ended up working at Much Music. How did he make the jump from music television to surviving for weeks at a time in remote jungles, forests, deserts and moutain ranges, visiting indigenous tribes and riding on the backs of sharks?

 

It all started for Les as a young boy: "I love adventure; all things wild and free", said Les. "Tarzan was my idol; Jacques Cousteau was my compass." His journey into survival didn't happen overnight, but he did have a pivotal moment while working in the music business when he realized, "I was banging on a door that wasn't the door I should be banging on." So, he packed up and immersed himself in outdoor adventure and wilderness survival.

 

These days Les is merging his many passions by creating a stage production that involves music, film and theatre based on his experiences in the wilderness. When describing his experiences filming Beyond Survival, a show in which he travels with and learns from indigenous cultures from all over the world, Les's survival lessons began to shift in my mind from advice on how to survive in the wilderness to advice on how to survive life itself. "Survival comes down to one thing: 3:00 in the morning, when the demons are at their best", said Les, referring to the dark, cold nights he has had to endure. The same can be said about life, I suppose.

 

Humble and real, Les "didn't try to become 'survival guru guy'." For him, "it continues to be about connecting to the people" through his filmmaking. Being in the wilderness can be poetic, especially in hindsight, but he also thinks you need to be prepared. When asked about the late Christopher McCandless (whose story became a book and later a film) he recognized the beauty and poetry of going into the wild, but he also lamented on Chris' lack of experience and preparedness. "Alaska doesn't care if you're charming", Les said, making the point that it takes more than wit alone to survive the rugged wilderness. Again, much like life itself. 

 

Beyond Survival involved a huge spiritual awakening for Les. He participated in 20 to 30 ceremonies with healers, priests and shamans from indigenous tribes. "That whole year for me was like one big giant vision quest", he said. As he made his journey through filming each stage of the project, each divine healer he encountered intuitively knew what stage he was in at that time. The healers at the beginning of his journey told him "I'm protecting you and preparing you for your journey", those he encountered in the middle reminded him "you're in the process", and in the end he was even accepted as a Shaman himself. "By the end of it, it felt like a veil had been lifted for me, and it took a lot", said Les. "So many of them kept calling me a bridge". Les believes he is indeed a bridge, between these cultures, the wilderness and his audience. "Where I sit in this process is right on the knife edge", he said. "[during filming] I try to be the bridge between both worlds: filming the journey and experiencing the journey".

 

 As Les wrapped up his talk, two of his messages rang out clearly to me as I readied myself to walk back down the aisle, out of the church and back into the sunshine. "Breathe into it", he said. "In all of life, I say, if somebody else can do it, I can do it." Amen to that. 

A Spill or Two Keeps Your Glass Half Full

There's got to be some irony to the fact that on one of the sunniest Saturdays we've had here in Ottawa in a while, I was sitting in a dark, air conditioned theatre listening to three authors talk about optimism.

 

Joel Yanofsky, Shari Graydon and Neil Pasricha were joined together in positivity to share their pearls of wisdom, and, let's be serious, promote their books. Over the course of a couple of hours, each author spoke about a range of things that inspired their books and their outlooks on life. Topics discussed were: parenting, marriage, aging, autism, divorce, and even suicide. Not exactly sunshine and lollipops, I know. However, when speaking about the themes of their books, each author reminded me that wrinkles, tantrums and lost loves were indeed the very things that helped polish up their shiny attitudes.

 

For Shari Graydon, author of the book, I Feel Great About My Hands, her glass half-full is described as a “face half-wrinkled approach” to life. A collection of 50 contributions from women from across Canada, Shari's book is about “women reflecting on the benefits of maturity.” With essays from the likes of Elizabeth May and Mary Walsh to compositions from women across all walks of life in our country, the book celebrates aging, wrinkled hands and all. Graydon humbly spoke about taking full credit for the book; instead she extended the praise to all of the other contributors. She didn't stop there, as she explained that all of the proceeds from I Feel Great About My Hands will go to a non-profit organization called Media Action, specifically to a project called "Informed Opinions" that works towards a fairer, more balanced representation of womens' voices in the media. 

While half-jokingly sharing the unofficial rules for writing a book, Joel Yanofsky explained, "...rules for writing a book: 1. Have something bad happen to you. 2. Be prepared to be brutally honest." Sitting there hearing these words, I noticed that all three of these glass half-full writers met this criteria. With a dry, self-depricating sense of humour, Joel spoke about his book, Bad Animals, where he writes about his and his wife's journey raising their autistic son. Joel said: “it was my attempt to make myself a better person, even if I didn’t want to be.” The book is also about acceptance: “much like my son, I had to learn everything the hard way.” With a transparency about him, still sprinkled with a little self pity, Yanofsky said, “I realized I had to become a better person, just so I could be a better character in the book.”

 

A self-described "lucky" guy, Neil Pasricha also spoke about the fact that personal tragedy helped him realign his outlook. In the span of a year, his marriage ended and he lost a close friend to suicide. Instead of succumbing to the downward spiral one might expect in such hard times, Pasricha started his blog, 1000awesomethings.com, and his two books followed, the most recent being The Book of (Even More) Awesome. Neil's blog wasn’t a cure-all though, as he explained that the process of keeping your glass half-full restarts each day:  “we get to choose our attitude every morning when we get out of bed,” he said. Although he took some hits in his 20s, prior to that Neil had a very positive upbringing, in large part due to his curious, immigrant parents. “I grew up with a sense of wonder”. In the end, his advice for a glass half-full approach is simply to consciously notice the many things around us that bring happiness, as they truly are everywhere. "The act of focusing on [the awesome things] helps us find them," he explained. And yes, in case you were wondering, I got an aisle seat (awesome)!

Even More Awesome!

I woke up this morning to a good hair day, caught the bus just as I was reaching the stop, and grabbed the first cup of coffee from a freshly brewed pot in the staff room at work. AWESOME! It's the little things that make our lives great, and Neil Pasricha is here to remind us of that fact.

 

On the heels of the success of his blog, 1000awesomethings.com and his first book, The Book of Awesome, Neil has just released a second book: The Book of (Even More) Awesome! Talk about awesome -- this self described "regular guy" has found a way into our collective consciousness by reminding us of the thousands of awesome things we experience every day.

 

Pasricha's positive message is so strong that it even reached the folks at TED, where he gave an inspiring speech on the 3 A's of Awesome.

 

 

 

To hear more from Neil and pick up a copy of his newest book, head over to the Mayfair Theatre on Saturday at 2:00 pm. Part of a panel of authors spreading positivity, Neil will join Joel Yanofsky and Shari Graydon for "A Glass Half Full".

 

I look forward to sharing my thoughts after the event, and maybe I'll even get an aisle seat at the theatre. Ahh, the simple pleasures. AWESOME!

The finish line with Douglas and Richard

The lamentable decline in a sense of history has been cried shrilly in many countries, with Canada being no exception. For a nation admitting more newcomers per year than any other, the question of passing on the narrative of a very improbable nation is no easy task. History isn’t a science. Like a careful reading of scripture or an enduring work of literature, mining it seems to array us with a variety of new perspectives, repeatedly. More than perspective even; history (or the knowledge of it) allows us to be a part of a story that began before us – one that we hope to continue. While there is no shortage of those who enter Canada unscrupulously or for its perceived largesse, I firmly believe that most newcomers want to be part of Canada’s story.

 

Last Wednesday, Vincent Lam and Charles Foran sat down to discuss the lives of Maurice Richard and Tommy Douglas. The life of a Prairie preacher and a Québecois hockey player could not seem more different (and indeed it was) but the discussion demonstrated how sometimes the mythmaking, nationalistic and borderline-jingoistic history (which the Québec sovereignty movement has appropriated) needs exactly the antidote of the nuance a broader historical perspective delivers. It is commonplace in Québec patriotic circles to imagine as if everything originated in its pristine form within its borders (as indeed Daniel Poliquin pointed out).  But it was Douglas’s idea of a universal health care system in Saskatchewan which found its way into the rest of Canada – Québec inclus.

 

Heroes, especially athletes, are often victims of being frozen in the memories of their fans. We often forget that the “morning after” can be a very disorienting time when the crowds now have others to cheer after their retirement. While Richard’s suspension in 1955, sparking the moments may have well been the watershed moment in the La Révolution Tranquille, he was largely relegated as a man who belonged to the old order of Quebeckers who were religious and subservient – thus deserving of contempt. It was also later in his life that Richard travelled Anglo-Canada outside of Canada to discover that he was a hero to British Columbians as much as Easterners. As Foran noted, Richard allowed his game on the ice to do the talking while being notoriously reticent. Perhaps athletes shouldn’t and needn’t give interviews at all.

 

Vincent Lam’s insights as a physician, delivered in his gentle manner, shed light into Douglas’s life and achievement. As a socialist Douglas was apparently very much to the right of the NDP spectrum at the time. Witness the 17 consecutive balanced budgets he delivered as premier. As with athletes, sometimes politicians are remembered (or punished) in their earlier incarnations. Douglas’s small stature belied his tenacious, witty quips and his boxing career: where he won consecutive Lightweight Champion of Manitoba in 1922 and 1923. Douglas was a rare politician who followed wherever his integrity seemed to lead – his most pointed vindication perhaps his labelling of Trudeau’s invoking of the War Measures Act of 1970 as excessive.

 

The end of the Extraordinary Canadians Series (yes I do hold hope for some encore entries) spelt a personal feeling of warm nostalgia and cold quicksand. It was exactly at its launch over two years ago that I underwent a transmogrification; as the last phases of figuring out and assimilating into this vast land ended and a veritable Canadian anew, was. I’m not one who has a penchant for definite moments denoting personal change (preferring instead the unremitting flares which form and unform our character) but if I had to pick any to clearly point out and say “I belong to Canada and she belongs to me!” this was it. Sitting in the solemn pews of St. Brigid’s listening to Adrienne Clarkson, John Ralston Saul and Margaret MacMillan was the moulting of immigrant to citizen. This is by far my favourite series the Writer’s Fest has put up. I hope this series finds a long shelf life in many homes and libraries. Now if only they’d convince Lawrence Hill to do the biography of Oscar Peterson...

Skipping the "debate" for a real conversation on Canada

Thank god for the Extraordinary Canadians - it's nice to be reminded what makes us great and what it means to be a Canadian. Last night's Extraordinary Canadians event, marking the series' conclusion (at least for now) was a welcome counterpoint to the debate many of us endured on Tuesday night. 

 

Such a treat to see so many people come out for a real conversation about Canada. (And to think - the Last time I met Vincent Lam, he was busking in the Market, playing beautiful music in a tux and raising cash for medical school. Pretty cool.)

 

I was happy to see so many notables with election related duties take the time to come to congratulate John Ralston Saul and Penguin Canada for completing one of this country's most important and most ambitious publishing ventures - a series that saw eighteen of the country's finest authors focus on twenty of history's most fascinating characters.  

 

I was especially surprised to see Paul Dewar, who somehow managed to join us in the audience for much of the conversation, arriving just as Vincent Lam was discussing Tommy Douglas and his opposition to the War Measures Act and having to race off reluctantly just before Andrew Cohen was invited to join the conversation with a look at the amazing productivity of Lester Pearson's Minority government. 

 

Saul - who had travelled many long hours to make it to Ottawa from the UK in time for the event - kept the conversation flowing. Vincent Lam was eloquent on Tommy Douglas and the kind of leadership he embodied. Charlie Foran's take on Rocket Richard touched on hockey's special place in our National imagination and how only Les Canadiens could bring all of Montreal together in celebration - rich, poor, English or French and how that adoration expanded to include the whole country (except, maybe, a few in Toronto). 

 

Add a few words on Renee Levesque and his relationship with Douglas and Richard from the brilliant Daniel Poliquin and some great audience questions and you've got the recipe for a REAL debate on what it means to be Canadian, what our country is really about, and what our history can tell us about the future.

 

 And to think - had we not been at the Festival, we'd have had to make do with the french leaders' debate! 

 

Here's a nice shot by Jowan Gauthier taken just after the book signing:

 

 

Jellyfish Underneath

It was fitting that the prologue to the prodigious Etgar Keret’s discussion on his life and literature began with the screening of his 2007 film Jellyfish (Meduzot as transliterated in Hebrew). Fitting because it softened you to listen to the man who had a hand in making a wondrous pastiche of very intimate and beguiling scenes, and even more so because a pang of envy can’t help sticking out of your throat when finally confronted with a self-deprecating (humble, even)yet versatile artist at the top of his craft.

 

Jellyfish was a film in danger of not being made. With the screenplay written by Keret’s wife, Shira Geffen, it wandered from director to director in Israel - not unlike the characters in the film - before boomeranging back to the couple who decided that they were the ones they’d been searching for. The way Keret tells it, it is almost as if he reluctantly decided to co-direct it. The rumples of less than strong acting are ironed out by a masterful camera work which breathes in an air of heightened meaning in banality. After watching it, you get a sense of gratitude that Keret and Geffen took matters into their own hands. Wonder as well in realising that it was their inaugural effort.

 

Keret began by reading both his first and last short stories. Much of the strength of his reputation lies in his being the Alice Munro of Israel. Easygoing Hebrew slang is exchanged in his prose and his characters are often very ordinary. Keret stated that he doesn’t assume that he is smarter than his reader, so he leaves the exhortations out of his fiction. “Fiction is a realm of ambiguity. I’m politically active and I can go to a demonstration and write a petition or even an essay. But when it comes to writing fiction and it has a bottom line, I write the bottom line – I don’t need fiction for it.”

 

The interview really benefitted from the preparation of host Adrian Harewood (in my opinion, his best interview yet) who delved into the family background of Keret. As a questioner from the audience would later probe, Keret’s characters in both his film and books exude friction in their personal relationships. Friction implies contact. Close contact. Where do the people who populate his art originate? Having an anarchist older brother who was convicted of paganism to an ultraorthodox sister who has not and cannot read his writings heightens one’s curiosity as to what their Seders might look like. This ability to “make something out of something” viz. using day to day experiences as fodder made me want to be a lot more observant of my own quotidian life to see the fecund confusion lurking underneath the sense of order and civilization.

 

For a writer and filmmaker seemingly taciturn about infusing purport into his oeuvre, he does so anyway. And seemingly effortlessly too.

Etgar Keret and what fiction can do

The best thing about our pre-festival events, at least for me, is that there's more time to get to know the visiting authors. Often during the Festival there's just too much going on to spend much quality time with the Writers. So it was really wonderful having Etgar Keret here yesterday and having a chance to spend time with him throughout the day. We've been trying to get Etgar to Ottawa for at least two years now, and the timing finally worked out. (Huge thanks to the Embassy of Israel for getting him here!)

 

All I can say is: it was worth the wait. 

 

The event itself was wonderful. Adrian Harewood brought his A game to the on-stage conversation, moving effortlessly between the personal and the political and Etgar was generous and open in his answers. His reading, like his writing, was unforgettable. It was the kind of night that reminds me why we do this. 

 

I was struck especially with what he had to say about the dangers of writing with an agenda. Of writing to achieve something tangible, some political or social change or to convince people of some cause or truth. Over on rob mclennan's blog, where he participated in rob's wonderful 12 or 20 Questions series, he wrote:  "When you write you celebrate your individuality . Every person writes from a different place and for a different purpose. So it is strange for me to speak about some rigid writer's "role". If anything, a writer's role is to share a part of his mind and soul with the reader, and minds and souls come in all different shapes and colors."

 

And that came through vividly during his event and during our conversations earlier in the day. By writing from such a personal and honest place, he has shared more with us about the politics and the larger culture of Israel than he could have by setting out with that goal in mind. The personal is the only place we can find the universal. 

 

Interestingly that same theme was echoed by Mike Carey in his 12 or 20 questions interview. It would be hard to find two more different writers than Etgar and Mike. But even so, there are some fundamental correlations between their approaches to writing. Both (and this is especially evident in Mike's current creator-owned series The Unwritten ) are drawn to the fundamental nature of stories as living things. Stories as living worlds where readers are connected to one another through time and space via the author's imagination.

 

Mike says: "I think stories tell us what we are, both as individuals and as a culture. We use stories as buoys marking little bits of reality or little bits of ourselves. We use them to orient ourselves.... Whatever’s in people’s minds, whatever’s being seen or talked about, all the acknowledged and unacknowledged obsessions of the moment, will make it into fictions and surface there in different forms. Fiction is a talking cure. It’s where we lay all our sick shit out on the table."

 

From comic books, to fantasy, from historical epics to surreal microfiction - whatever the genre or subject or theme - there's no better way to explore the world than through the singular imagination of a gifted author. I'm hugely grateful to Etgar Keret for showing us, once again, how important and electrifying great writing can be.

 

Plus - Etgar, whose son is also five, introduced Aidan to the Inspector Gadget iPhone game. And anyone who brings that much joy is welcome back to the Festival anytime.