Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Fifth Issue of Our Literary Journal Foment

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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. 

Bernard Schlink: Erin's favourite author

I woke up this morning thinking about my friend Erin Johansen. She's been gone for years now, and I never know when her absence will strike.


Today, maybe it's because I caught myself listening to the same song over and over again (Caught on Video by the Hilotrons) the way she did.


Maybe because its the kind of clean winter day where I wouldn't have minded walking to the store for her. Or maybe because we are finally hosting her favourite writer, Bernard Schlink. We shared a lot of vices, me and Erin. Reading was one of them. I think she'd have enjoyed this year's Spring Edition, I really do.


I've just finished the rough draft of the text for our Spring Festival, so it's all swirling around in there. All the great fiction, the Big Ideas, the poetry and music and the science. I can't believe how lucky we are, yet again, to be hosting so many brilliant imaginations. There are so many fascinating people coming, so much talent and insight and possibility.


I have to admit - this is one of my favourite times of year: just over a month to go. Last year's financials are off to the auditor, the OAC grant is ready to go, all but one of our authors are confirmed and the text just needs another run through before we are good to launch this new website.


And at least right now, at least this morning, the line-up looks pretty darn good. It feels right somehow.


But missing Erin makes it bitter-sweet.


And yeah, Erin, Bernard Schlink is finally coming. I wish you were here to share it with.



Welcome to our new website

Welcome to the Writers Festival's new website!


We're thrilled with the amazing work  Brian Pirie of Sensinct has done to update our online presence.


You'll notice right away that we've made big changes to our online ticketing that should speed things along at our events: no more waiting in line to claim pre-purchased tickets, just head right in.


Do let us know what you think of the new site as we want to keep improving things.


If you want to stay connected to the Festival, drop me a line to join the email list. We've also got an active Facebook community, Twitter feed and a YouTube channel so there are lots of ways to keep in touch.


We'll be playing around with the Blog here as well, so stay tuned!


All the best,