Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Fifth Issue of Our Literary Journal Foment

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Fall 2017: Ottawa Media Hosts

We are lucky to have fostered strong relationships with some of Ottawa's best journalists, past and present. They love to read, ask questions that get to the heart of the matter and inspire the conversation. Here's a look who is hosting this fall.

Adrian Harewood

Host of CBC News at 6 here in Ottawa, Adrian Harewood has a keen sense for politics, from the local level to international relations, and this fall he is hosting three writers whose books take on the big questions: Canadian immigration policy, the role of journalists abroad and our complicated history with Indigenous peoples.

October 22: Why 35 Million Canadians Are Not Enough with Doug Saunders

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October 22: A Reporter's Journey Into the Lives of Others with Carol Off

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October 24: Reimagining Canada with John Ralston Saul

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Alan Neal

Anyone who listens to  CBC All in a Day  will know that Alan Neal is a music and book lover, which is why we are thrilled he is hosting two Canadian musicians with new memoirs.

October 6: Measha Brueggergosman

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October 19: Alan Doyle

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Peter Robb

Peter Robb has been a friend and supporter of our festival since our earliest days. Previously an editor at The Ottawa Citizen, Peter recently helped co-found Artsfile - an online news source covering the arts in Ottawa. He's been writing book reviews about our festival authors for years and we look forward to having him host a panel of award winning writers.

Past Imperfect with Frances Itani, Ed O'Loughlin and Linda Spalding

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Canadian Politics: Moving into the Next 150

Human Rights from the Front Lines


Indigenous Stories: Looking Back, Moving Forward

Notes from the Newfoundland Literary Pub Crawl

A pub crawl.   In the aftermath of our Canada 150 celebrations, what better way to keep the spirit alive than a pub crawl with friends?   I’ll tell you one better way.   Do it with friends from Newfoundland.

That is what happened on the nights of July the 4 th and 5th on Elgin Street in Ottawa, where 6 Newfoundland authors had converged to celebrate the most loveable elements of Newfoundland life, as portrayed in their stories.   First stop: The Lieutenant’s Pump.

Deep in the interior of an establishment laid out in odd but conjunctive corners, we gathered to hear Eva Crocker, author of Barrelling Forward As a young person born into the lee side of the millennium, Eva was able to present a view of life from a youthful perspective, with all the challenges and advantages that come with it.   She read, with a sweeping poetic lilt, words that she had authored with a depth and intelligence beyond her years, but from a reservoir not unlike that of her mother’s, as we'd find out later.

A pint and some banter, and we were across the street to climb upstairs into The Cross on Elgin to listen to Edward Riche.   Edward read from his current offering, Today I Learned It Was You , with an account of a nearly realized bar brawl narrowly averted by some moral intervention.   Riche’s voice flowed with that rolling Newfoundland rhythm that is so entertaining to hear.

To end the night, we sauntered northward to Woody’s Pub, where Lisa Moore, mother of Eva Crocker, took the mike.   Her story for the night was not set in a pub, but concerned a common result of any productive pub crawl, an unplanned sexual encounter.   She described the tryst in forceful, explosive language from that reservoir that I described from her daughter’s reading.   It was the perfect end to a rollicking ride, with all the saucy conversation and sordid stories that a night on the town should have.   We all went home after finishing our drinks, knowing this was just the intermission and there was a second night to come.

The next evening, we reconvened at the Lieutenant’s Pub to listen to Bridget Canning read from her novel The Greatest Hits of Wanda Jaynes, which is a story about an average woman facing the severance of her job only to be redeemed by an random, impulsive act of bravery.   It was amusing to listen to Wanda’s ‘hangry’ thoughts leading up to the climax, but as the action took off, not a head in the room moved, so raptly did Bridget’s voice hold our attention.

Across the street again to The Cross on Elgin, it was Robert Chafe’s turn to read. Although he was a decorated playwright, his book, 2 Man Tent was his first work of fiction.   He read an account of a man out on the town with his girlfriend when they meet a flamboyant gay man to whom the protagonist takes an immediate and excessive dislike, although later the man is forced to face his own latent homosexual feelings.   Again, the audience was captivated by the raw emotions in the narrative and sat transfixed on Robert’s every word.

Lastly for the night, it was at Woody’s Pub again where we gathered to hear Kathleen Winter read from her book, Freedom in American Songs. She started with an anecdote about how she revisited shops on Bank Street here in Ottawa where she had lived as a student when she was younger, and noted how different sex shops were between here and Montreal.   Her shameless and candid story was the perfect moodsetter for her story about a farmer in Newfoundland who, usually quiet and shy, becomes much more outspoken after some drinks at an intimate get-together. Her narrative was full of everything I love about Newfoundland writing, where everyone knows everyone else, and their business, the strong sense of community woven into every paragraph like a family that one can never escape.

All in all, it was a fun literary double-header, thanks to good company and great storytelling.   As we filed out of the pub, we walked through Ottawa’s own vibrant street scene with our palates savouring the tastes that had been served so expertly to us these two nights on Elgin Street.

Tom McMillan's manifesto: discussing "Not My Party" and Conservative politics in Canada

Tom McMillan didn’t have an easy trip to the Ottawa Writers Festival. As he took the mic to talk about his first book, Not My Party: The Rise and Fall of Canadian Tories, from Robert Stanfield to Stephen Harper, he told the audience about a series of travel hiccups that occurred on the way from Boston to Ottawa, including accidentally striking up a conversation with a person who did not share his views on the current Conservative Party of Canada.

The audience laughed, and we were off to the races for a fascinating evening.

McMillan is nothing short of an expert on the history of the Tories in Canada. His 500+ page book with very small font and almost non-existent margins (an observation made several times by the author himself) wouldn’t suggest otherwise. He explained that the Party was founded in 1850 – before Canada was even a country – and was created to found, birth, and create, this country (in essence, to make Canada possible).

While he certainly had all the facts and figures, McMillan also displayed an undeniable personal passion for conservative politics in Canada.

One of McMillan’s key points was that the 2003 merger of the Progressive Conservatives Party and the Canadian Alliance Party has stripped the current Conservative Party of its fundamental values and priorities. Political correctness was thrown out the window when he called the merger “an earthquake,” and added that the Party has been “hijacked” by a bunch of “wackos.”

His book is part memoir and part manifesto. Host John Geddes focused on the memoir aspect and asked McMillan about his family’s influence on his involvement and commitment to the Progressive-Conservative Party of Canada. McMillan spoke beautifully about his father’s belief in community service, and how one’s own salvation is tied to serving others. He extended this idea to the appeal of the Conservative Party’s historical commitment to activism and unity.

Geddes also asked McMillan about the process of writing such a detailed and dense history. He answered that he immersed himself in documents of every sort: correspondence, memos, letters, and even his own personal material. It was undeniably evident that for McMillan, writing this book had not only been a deeply fulfilling venture, but it had been a labour of love.

As the evening wrapped up with a few thoughtful questions from the audience, it occurred to me that Not My Party is not a personal memoir or Party manifesto; rather, it is a love letter to Canada. McMillan was clear that he is not pessimistic about the future. Instead, he sees our current moment as a time ripe for change, growth, and restoration.


Launching and Book and a Battle: The Story of Vimy in the Canadian Imagination

“It’s easy to go to war,” Tim Cook told a full house at the launch of his new book, Vimy: The Battle and the Legend, “…it’s much harder to stop war   and pick up the pieces afterwards.”

Yet Cook has been doing precisely the hard work of making sense of war’s aftermath through much of his tenure as a historian at the Canadian War Museum. The result of that work is a book which chronicles the long history of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, from the actual events of 1917 to the much longer and more complex history of Vimy as a story Canadians have used to define their nation. In addition to summarizing the main argument of his new book, Cook also spoke about his work process; he completed the manuscript while maintaining a soldierly pace of 1,000 words a day through childrearing and chemotherapy. True to his reputation as an excellent public historian, Cook’s narrative was intelligent, timely and accessible.

Cook had the good fortune to be interviewed by Charlotte Gray (whose own book The Promise of Canada launched at last fall’s festival). Both authors commiserated about the occasionally-challenging task of being a historian in a determinedly forward-looking country. Led by Gray, Cook opened up about the relationship between his museum job and his after-hours job as a prolific historian, and the complex set of cultural and historical issues which began as a military conflict on a ridge between Lille and Amiens. Vimy has not always played a prominent role in Canadian history, Cook pointed out. Indeed, between the close of the Second World War and the beginning of the Quiet Revolution, Vimy was not particularly visible on the landscape of Canadian public history. Somehow, even Walter Allward’s massive monument, which had drawn 6,000 Canadians to France for its unveiling in 1936, failed to attract visitors during this period; the more than 10,000 casualties of the terrible four-day battle all but forgotten. Perhaps the horrors of the Second World War had overshadowed the heroism of the Great War. Perhaps everyday Canadians had other concerns.

Cook argues that the rebirth of Vimy in the popular imagination began in the mid-1960s, when Prime Minister Lester Pearson was among those seeking a powerful defining moment to serve as the “birth” of a new, modern Canada. The symbolic power of Vimy might easily have easily died after 1967, Cook pointed out. The fact that this single battle has endured as a symbol of Canada is perhaps the most interesting question raised by Cook’s research. Vimy brought the nation together, both symbolically and, in a military sense quite literally: it was the first time all four divisions of the Canadian Corps fought together. Yet Vimy could easily have come to stand only for senseless loss; for many in Quebec, the term “Vimy” is synonymous with conscription. The battle now seen as a crucial moment in binding Canada together nearly tore the country apart before bringing it together.

Many individuals in Cook and Gray’s audience had been drawn to the subject of Vimy well before the book launch. (When Cook asked the audience how many of them had visited Vimy Ridge, roughly a quarter of the room raised a hand). Yet others were skeptical of the continued pride of place given to a bloody, faraway battle. Cook handled his criticism deftly, arguing that it is as important as ever “to talk about war in all its complexity.” Political leaders frequently deploy historical events in their battles to define the present. If Canada is ever going to know what it wants from the future, Cook observed, it will have to fully understand its past.

Unapologetically Muslim-Canadian: The Muslimahs who Fell to Earth

Saima S. Hussain. Ferrukh Faruqui. Munirah Maclean. Hanan Abdulmalik. What do all of these women have in common? They are all inspirational women who are unapologetically Muslim and unapologetically Canadian.

Gracefully poised across a stage, these women gathered in front of a crowded audience on Sunday to share their journeys of what it means to be a Muslim woman in Canada. They reflected on the stereotypes Muslim woman face on a day-to-day basis and the need for recognition of the diversity found within the group. For example, some Muslim women choose to be professionals, while others choose to be homemakers. Some Muslim women wear jeans, while others choose to don the abaya. Some have roots in East Asia, others hail from North Africa.

Claiming their personal narrative, each of these Muslimahs shared their story of how they have grown up to be very much Muslim and very much Canadian. Hanan reflected on the "perceived" versus "imposed" identity of being a Muslimah and the identity politics she faced navigating different spaces as a Black, Muslim-Canadian. Munirah spoke of her spiritual journey as a British-born convert who moved to Canada after meeting the love of her life. Ferrukh spoke about how Islam is reflected in her profession as a medical doctor.

The diversity of these Muslim women, and the stories of many more women profiled in the collection The Muslimah who fell to Earth: Personal Stories by Canadian Muslim Women (edited by Saima S Hussain), is very much reflective of the diversity found within the mosaic of Canada’s population. To the attendees of this panel discussion, nothing seemed more quintessentially Canadian than an event with a group of Muslims being warmly hosted in the heart of Christ Church Cathedral; how wonderfully and unapologetically Canadian.

A Lifetime of Habit with Anita Desai

I could scarce believe that Anita Desai, that enduring titan of letters, would be in Ottawa. I wasn’t alone; festival founder Neil Wilson confessed to being jittery about whether Desai—roped in from Montreal where she was in attendance as the Blue Met Grand Prix laureate—would actually arrive and speak to us. She was a tender presence, and her soft register as she read a selection from her novella The Artist of Disappearance, transported me to my childhood in India where my Malayalee patti (Tamil for grandmother) whispered stories as I fell asleep.

I’ve never read any of Desai’s books (a situation I’m bent on remedying immediately), but when my fiction book club was in its early, amorphous days six years ago, one of our books was Kiran Desai’s (Anita Desai’s daughter) The Inheritance of Loss, winner of the Man Booker Prize in 2006. Its prose was so beguiling and self-assured that Desai the younger seemed immediately to join the ranks of bright young stars such as Zadie Smith, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Monica Ali. Within our intimate group of four, The Inheritance of Loss opened up new avenues of vulnerability and friendship and indelibly convinced me that a reading life without fiction is a thoroughly impoverished one. It formed part of my own early journey of falling in love with and discovering literature like a rustic Danish diner sampling Babette’s feast.

So I came to the evening thinking, “I wonder what Kiran’s mother is like.”

Peter Schneider of the Canada Council for the Arts, was our mediator. Schneider did a stand-up job with David Mitchell last fall, and his steady demeanour exudes both his mirth and moral seriousness towards literature, reminiscent of the respected critic James Wood. Even as they began after Desai’s brief reading tapered off, the first thing that struck me was their mutual self-restraint and maturity: it added a certain elegant dignity that only comes with time and apprenticeship to reading and writing.

You could sense this self-restraint and maturity in Desai’s confession that she hardly reads her earlier work. She described how she found her voice in Fire on the Mountain and this development was her true starting point. I could hear the inbreathed sighs from the audience at this display of humility. Desai mentioned how she was aware of a community of established Indian writers in mid-twentienth century, post-colonial India. These included luminaries such as R.K. Narayan, Mulk Raj Anand and N.C. Chaudhri. Yet, Indian publishers were not keen to give a young Indian writer a chance, preferring the stable sales of textbooks and established writers, usually from Great Britain and America.

Desai would say, “We didn’t have writers festivals, and one rarely met other writers.” But there was a rare exception - a neighbour in Old Delhi, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (as trivia would have it, the only person to have won both a Booker and an Oscar). Jhabvala was a German who had married an Indian architect, and Desai had a German mother, so it was their shared roots that drew them to each other. Desai recalls, “We discovered that we both wrote, and I remember Ruth putting her first published novel [To Whom She Will] in my hands, and I thought…it would be possible.”

Desai also gave credit to younger writers such as Salman Rushdie (she wrote the foreword in the Everyman edition to Midnight’s Children) and the brilliant observations of her peer, V.S. Naipaul in his Indian trilogy. In many ways, a colonial heritage has now become wholly adopted to Indian ends, as English is as Indian a language as any.

One of the special highlights of the evening was to hear Desai speak with tenderness towards her daughter Kiran, whose The Inheritance of Loss she termed “a profound book.” Desai also mentioned working for the inimitable Robert Silvers of the New York Review of Books, where Desai had been penning essays since the early 1990s.

There’s only so much a meagre review like this can capture and convey. But I know many years later I’ll recall with special fondness the evening where I sat and gave my attention to this thoughtful, warm woman whose “lifetime of habit” will be one that will endure.


Water & Colour: an evening with Elise Levine, Lori McNulty and Karen Connelly

“Do you think there's any truth to the idea that a writer tends to revisit the same question again and again in all their stories?” host Rhonda Douglas asked the featured authors on Monday night's fiction panel, "What You Want". It's an idea I'd heard before, and one that Lori McNulty, Elise Levine and Karen Connelly seemed largely to reject in their responses. How vaguely would one have to define a central question for that rule to hold, after all?


The thought stayed with me, though, in thinking about the three featured books: though apparently divergent in terms of subject matter and tone, there was a certain hard-to-place common ground that let them fit meaningfully alongside one another.


I was excited to hear Lori McNulty's reading. Her short stories selected for The Journey Prize Stories in recent years have been wonderful, and my hopes were high. I wasn't disappointed. McNulty's stage presence was self-effacing and warm. She opened by asking her listeners to share thoughts on places they loved to travel, before explaining that writing was, for her, the activity that came closest to the freedom of travelling.


McNulty then read an excerpt from one of the short stories in her debut collection, Life on Mars, introducing a man who, once a week, and unbeknownst to his family, dons a disguise and panhandles among the poorer downtown residents of his city. The colour of McNulty's writing, along with her compassionate, unsentimental portrayal of oddballs and outcasts, translated vividly to a live reading.


Quite a bit darker in tone was Elise Levine's reading from her most recent novel, Blue Field. The scenes she read, following two scuba divers and soon-to-be-lovers, were as dream-like as they were intense. Though it's possible it was the title's power of suggestion, I had the impression of seeing the scenes (one underwater, the next in a motel bedroom) as if through a blue-green filter – a hypnotic and oddly sinister effect.


Levine later explained that an early draft of this novel was over 600 pages long. Now, in its published form, it's quite a slender volume. Whatever distillation process she used to get to the final product, it has left her with highly concentrated, high-impact imagery demanding slow, thoughtful digestion.


The evening took another turn, tonally speaking, with Karen Connelly's reading from her new novel, The Change Room, which deals with a married woman having an affair with a female sex worker she first meets at a swimming pool. Before reading, Connelly told us there was a significant element of fantasy-fulfillment in this novel, and that the protagonist was like her in a lot of ways. I was surprised to hear her say so as readers' tendency to imagine any equivalence between author and protagonist usually seems to frustrate writers. Connelly apparently had no issue with it, in this case.


Marital infidelity aside, The Change Room is no Anna Karenina. While host Rhonda Douglas had warned the audience this was a sexy piece of writing, I didn't realize the reading would have most of the audience laughing out loud. Connelly later pitched her book as being “as consumable as a cinnamon bun,” and let us know that it was something she'd started writing mainly to make herself happy.


More than once during the discussion following the reading, the panel addressed the fact that the three featured books didn't necessarily have a lot of obvious overlap. One recurrent theme Douglas proposed was that each story dealt with moments of irrevocable character transformation – moments after which “nothing would ever be the same.” While it's undoubtedly true, it struck me that this could be said of almost all stories published, and that, for many writers and their readers, this more or less determines whether a story is worth telling. Regardless, the differences between the books weren't jarring, in my opinion – and perhaps even more could have been made of all three authors' command of evocative and poetic language, a shared feature that definitely stood out during the readings.


Perhaps the most memorable moment of the evening came when Rhonda Douglas asked the panel to share their thoughts on writing about sex. Following Connelly's enthusiastic response and Levine's thoughtful take on using sex scenes to manifest characters' deeper conflicts, Lori McNulty confessed to feeling a bit awkward talking about the subject on a live panel, and joked that she wished she'd had some wine first. Moments later, festival artistic director Sean Wilson bounded up to the stage with a glass of wine, leading her to remark, above the audience's laughter, “This is why I come to Ottawa!”