Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Fifth Issue of Our Literary Journal Foment

Download and read insightful views

Wade Davis: Photographs

“Storytellers change the world,” claims Wade Davis, a man often regarded as one of Canada’s best. Whether he is writing about Haitian vodoun or George Mallory’s ill-fated expeditions of Everest and the Great War, Davis has spent his career telling us stories of the human spirit. His impressive body of work as an anthropologist, ethnobotanist, photographer and author has earned him admittance to the Order of Canada. It’s hard to think of someone more deserving of one of our country’s highest honours.

 

The crowd at the Christ Church Cathedral swelled to one of the largest I’ve seen for any Writer’s Festival event, populated by a healthy mix of young and old, all eager for Davis to take the stage and tell them a new story, this time through photographs. “Photography means to write with light,” a teacher at Harvard once told him. “So go out there and find something to say.” Obviously, Davis took the advice to heart. There’s no time to talk at length about any of the one hundred and fifty photos chosen for his new book ( Wade Davis: Photographs ) but through brief anecdotes and descriptions it becomes clear that they were selected with care from many thousands more.

 

In his position as Explorer-in-Residence for National Geographic (a happy oxymoron), Davis tells us he tried his best not to exoticize the other, acknowledging that every culture has something to say. “Other cultures aren’t failed attempts at being you,” he tells the crowd. He set out instead to create a relationship with his photographic subjects, and to listen. The pictures on display behind him are evidence of his success in that regard. They are often striking in their simplicity, and unlike the well-intentioned photographs plastered on social media of voluntourism, there is a sense of equality to them, between the subject and both the photographer and the viewer.

 

When the time came for audience questions, Wade was asked to explain his inherent optimism. He quickly told the crowd that despair is an insult to the imagination, adding that his Buddhist faith teaches that negative things are a part of life, and his focus has always been to help, not lose hope. Another audience member asked if Davis saw a way back from colonization, to which he responded that there is no way back, but there is a way forward.

 

The last question came from a reader of Davis’s book Into the Silence , who asked him how he had separated himself and his voice so successfully from the lengthy narrative. Davis thanked him for the compliment and told the audience that he never set out to be a writer. He received his first book deal on somewhat of a whim and had to teach himself along the way. He claims he didn’t realize it at the time, but he wrote Into the Silence for his grandfather and the men like him, men who went to war, who fought and died or lived and went on to climb mountains, real or imaginary. “We’ll never know men like our grandfathers again.” It was an answer so perfect you’d be forgiven for thinking it had been a set up, due to the proximity to Remembrance Day. But it was simply a display of Davis’s skill as a storyteller. A well-earned standing ovation followed, from an audience perhaps remembering the grandfathers and grandmothers they once knew.

The Easter Rising of 1916

Despite the poor weather, the room at Christ Church Cathedral was full when I arrived for the discussion about the Easter Rising of 1916. Unfortunately, Dr. Dermot Keogh couldn’t be in attendance due to a family health matter, but his son Neil stepped in and did a fantastic job. What followed was an engaging look into the Easter Rising and its place in history 100 years later.

To start off, Neil Wilson made an introductory speech before introducing Mr. Keogh. He remarked on the Easter Rising’s importance, not just in Ireland, but here in Canada as well. He noted its impact on our own country and how it fuelled an increased hope for Canadian autonomy from the British empire.

Neil Keogh then began his talk with an unexpected but welcome reference to Blackadder, and promised to fill his father’s shoes to the best of his ability. He took the audience through a broad overview of the history of the Easter Rising and its aftermath. According to his analysis, the rising itself was a total failure but the British overreaction swayed public opinion in favour of Irish independence. He painted a clear picture of the conditions of the time that led to the rising, and eventually, Ireland’s independence. Being at a Writers Festival, he spoke on the fact that most of the signatories of the proclamation and those involved in the Rising were in fact writers and poets.

After Keogh spoke, the session turned over to discussion and questions from the audience. Someone asked for his thoughts on the decision in Ireland to commemorate all the deaths in the Easter Rising and not just those of the rebels. I thought the answer he gave was the most interesting one of the night, and definitely, the most thought provoking.

Immediately, he said it was “about time”. Paraphrasing his response, Keogh said that it showed Ireland’s maturity as a nation state. They are now in a place to step back and examine the “complexities and contradictions” of the Easter Rising from an objective standpoint. As Neil pointed out, forty of the one hundred British soldiers who were killed were actually Irish, and the forty children who died in the Rising had never been memorialised before. To me, this highlighted the human loss of the Easter Rising, which, as Keogh observe, wasn’t possible on its 50th or 75th anniversary.

It was an engrossing discussion that could have easily gone three hours instead of just one. Neil Keogh was knowledgeable and charismatic. He held the attention of the audience from start to finish. In summation, it was an interesting look into the politics, history, and literary aspects of the Easter Rising.

 

Music, Beauty and Freedom in Madeleine Thien's World


Madeleine Thien was surprised at the crowd that greeted her at Centretown United Church on Sunday evening. In her introduction, CBC’s Lucy van Oldenbarneveld told the inter-generational audience of close to 300 that Thien thought there might be “about 20 people” who would show up to discuss her book Do Not Say We Have Nothing. (It recently won the Governor General’s Literary Award, was a Man Booker Prize finalist, and has been shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, among others.)

 

Indeed, Thien seems reticent about her ascent to fame. She is petite and soft-spoken, yet her words display deep emotion and insight into the human condition. After reading two carefully selected passages from Do Not Say We Have Nothing, she sat down for a discussion with van Oldenbarneveld.

 

Van Oldenbarneveld was a superb host and demonstrated her skill in drawing out various themes in Thien’s writing. They talked about the role of music in the book as well as in Thien’s own life. Through their exchange, the audience learned that Thien’s inspiration for the book came during a vulnerable moment in her life, in 2011, when she was reflecting on her previous book, Dogs at the Perimeter (on the Cambodian genocide), and struggling with feelings of having “failed” to do the subject matter justice.  While walking in Berlin, Thien was listening to Glenn Gould’s recording of Bach’s Goldberg variations, which led her through various emotional landscapes: “joy, sorrow and everything in between.” Through that experience, Thien came up with the structure of Do Not Say We Have Nothing: the key was to start simple, and then introduce a recurring theme in increasingly complex variations.

 

When probed further about what music represented for the book’s characters, Thien said that after writing for 20 years, she came to realize the failure of language to fully capture sentiments or emotions at times. For Thien’s characters, music “expresses a very private self” that is “in flux and cannot be pinned down.” In contrast, they live outwardly in Mao’s era, where the revolutionary dogma is loud and shrill, and the emphasis is on using the correct political slogans.

 

The audience was interested to know about Thien’s writing habits and how she sees herself as a writer. In Thien’s ideal world, she would sit at a coffee shop from 7am to noon, people-watch, listen to music, and write. She sees herself not so much as a “political writer,” but a writer who is “interested in how we live” and is not afraid of political themes.

 

Given that she is situated in Canada, Thien recognizes that she has a lot of freedom available to her. While commenting that it is “unpredictable” to gauge whether change is possible under the current Chinese government (which, according to Thien, has gone to extremes to censor words such as “today,” “tomorrow,” “yesterday” and “remember” during past Tiananmen anniversaries), she remains hopeful because there has always been a place in ancient Chinese tradition for the dissenting scholar/intellectual, whose self-appointed role is to critique the government.

 

Clearly, Thien sees herself as a mouthpiece for speaking truth to power. Her open letter to her alma mater, the University of British Columbia, regarding the allegations against Steven Galloway, was brought up by someone in the audience, who thanked her for her honesty and courage.

 

Van Oldenbarneveld’s last question was about the inscription that one of the book’s characters finds at the Conservatory, from a Bach cantata: “Ah, Lord, teach us to consider that we must die, so that we might become wise.” This prompted some soul-searching on Thien’s part, which ended with a few eloquent words on the current state we all find ourselves: “We all want this just society… but we’re not in agreement on what the cost is.”

Poetry Cabaret

Development Director Neil Wilson introduced Gregory Scofield, Sandra Ridley and Stuart Ross for the Poetry Cabaret. He warmly thanked all festival volunteers, staff members and those involved with the festival for the work they put into this year’s festival.

Stephen Brockwell was also going to be on the panel for the evening to read from his recent collection of poetry, All of Us Reticent Here Together . Regretfully, he was unable to make it to the event.

The evening began with a reading by Gregory Scofield whose sound poetry is influenced by Cree literary traditions.” Scofield has been actively involved in fighting for the rights of Aboriginal people, especially regarding investigation into cases of missing and murdered Aboriginal women. Having lost an aunt and a cousin to racism and violence, Scofield’s poems also come from a personal place.

Scofield read a poem called, “Muskrat Woman,” from his latest collection of poetry Witness, I Am. When the world becomes new she will write their names on birchbark, Scofield read. The significance of naming and identity is a prevalent theme in poem. Lines such as, my name is Muskrat Woman. . . my husband will not trap me also speak of feminine strength and power.  Scofield skillfully weaves Cree traditions as well as themes relevant to a modern audience into the poem.

Ridley’s poems are full of natural images appropriate to the title of her recent poetry book Silvija. The word Silvija is related to the words sylvan, which relates to woods, or Silvia, a name derived from the Latin word for forest.

Ridley’s poetry is fragmented in its structure. She often spoke a single word, leaving it hanging in the air for a moment before jumping into the next line. Many of Ridley’s poems are inspired by difficult events such as a friend who died of a brain tumor. Lines such as, “only you are present when the heart stops,” or, “are you laughing now, weeping?” do you understand?” touch on themes of mortality and loss.

Ross read from his latest work A Sparrow Came Down Resplendent , which was launched last spring. Ross’s poems are at often humorous and strange, yet at times serious, dealing with loss and grief. “A sparrow came down resplendent from a bunch of clouds,” he read from the opening lines of “A Doxology.” The sparrow opens its beak and white string comes out, ending up in the gullet of a fireman. Similarly unusual images colour Ross’s poems making them entertaining and engaging.

Many of the poems would seem disconnected from one another except that the sets of questionnaires that link them together. Three sets of questionnaires pose questions such as, “which type of cloud do you like best, did you enjoy reading as a child, where did you get that nice sweater? How do you select produce? The answers to the question are often cryptic such as when the question “Why did you never marry?” to which the answer is simply, “yes.” At first, the questions and answers seem almost arbitrary in relation to the poetry, but to the attentive listener they provide links between the poems and the questions that are part of the fun of the poems. I found Ross’s use of questionnaires to be an interesting technique that unified the poems in a unique way.

His final poem was an entertaining piece dedicated to Oscar Williams. He joked, “Once upon a time Oscar Wiliams edited every poetry volume in existence.” Evidently Williams also haunted Ross as a poet. Why did you let that guy in mom? he inquires, only to be told he is hallucinating. The poem ended the reading on a light, humorous note.

Each of the poets had a different style of writing and reciting poetry. Scofield’s poems were more narrative, and flowed smoothly, Ridley’s were more disjointed, allowing the reader to fill in unspoken words to create the scene and Ross’s read like a collection of scattered thoughts united by the questionnaires.

Listening to the three poets read their poems was a marvelous conclusion to the Writers Festival week. 

The Ever Present Past

For the last evening of Ottawa Writers Festival week, host Peter Schneider introduced a unique group of Canadian-born authors who have spend most of their lives outside of Canada. The influence of other cultures colours the writing style of each of the writers. Schneider described them as, “a well-balanced and complimentary suite of authors.”   

Stephen Henighan has published a number of novels about other cultures. In his latest, The Path of the Jaguar, he tells the story of Amparo, a Guatemalan woman living in the late 1990s to early 2000s in the wake of 36 years of civil war. Ann Y.K. Choi’s Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety, is her first novel, and is heavily influenced by her experiences growing up as a Korean girl in Canada, working in her parents’ variety store. Author and playwright Anosh Irani’s fourth novel, The Parcel , takes the reader into the life of a prostitute in India who has worked in the red light district. 

Schneider noted that each of the novels contains strong female characters, and asked them what experiences drew them to write these characters. Irani said he grew up 150 metres from the red-light district in Bombay (now Mumbai), which made him think about how different the lives of the women there were from the women in his family.

Choi talked about growing up in a very traditional Korean family and the ways that that impacted her view of herself, and women in general, as a child. “One of the messages I didn’t realize I had internalized was that one of the ways women gained credibility was to have initials at the end of their name,” she said. She also talked about how her dream since high school was always to marry a rich white man. As a Korean girl growing up in Canada, she was heavily influenced by Western culture and felt embarrassed about speaking her own language and retaining her Korean cultural identity.

Henighan talked about his experiences in Guatemala in general, and how they influenced his desire to write about a woman. He had been planning on writing a traditional novel about a decaying bourgeoisie marriage, but it ended up not working and he wrote The Path of the Jaguar instead.

I found Henighan and Irani’s portrayal of gender interesting. Henighan writes from a female point of view of view, portraying a Guatemalan woman who is going through pregnancy and birth, and facing family tension as her husband has become mistrustful and her sister makes worrying choices. Irani writes from the perspective of Madhu, a person who identifies as a person of a third gender, neither male nor female. Irani depicts the lives of people like Madhu who feel as though they are not at home in their own body. He gets fearlessly close those whom circumstances bring to places like the one 150 metres from his childhood home. Like in Choi's novel, gender is a significant aspect of both of their books, and both male authors are able to create compelling female characters based on their observations and experiences.

Each of the authors is also a teacher. Henighan and Irani agreed that teaching and writing are separate crafts. Ann Y.K. Choi said that her students inspire her. She told an entertaining story about how she was trying to motivate a student to come to class by asking him what he wanted to do. The student threw the question back at her and she said she wanted to write a novel. Realizing that she wasn’t doing what she wanted, she signed up for creative writing classes and brought him the receipt. The student then came to class.

Given their different cultural backgrounds, Schneider asked the authors whether they have ever tried writing in other languages. For Irani, he said sometimes dialogue comes to him in Hindi and he translates it into English. Henighan said he has published in Spanish and French, though the French requires careful editing by a French editor. Choi stated that one of her biggest regrets was losing Korean. One of the biggest ways to lose your cultural identity is to forget the language, she said. One of her long-term goals is to regain Korean well enough to write in it.

For all three authors, their novels draw the reader into the distinct cultural perspective of each of the characters and the challenges they face in relation to culture, gender and society.

             

 

 

Margaret Atwood's Tempest Retelling: Hagseed

Admittedly, I have lost track of the number of times I’ve sat in a dim and cavernous church sanctuary such as this one, furiously scribbling notes in the attempt to keep up with Atwood’s quiet cleverness. This Tuesday evening, along with a large audience in the Christ Church Cathedral, I was treated to a delightful mix of William Shakespeare and Margaret Atwood.

Interestingly, this evening marked not only an enjoyable event from a Writers Festival favourite, but also the announcement of this year’s winner of the Governor General’s Literary Award, Madeleine Thien. Additionally, this year marks the 80th anniversary of the Governor General’s Literary Awards, and the 30th anniversary of the Public Lending Right Program. Appropriately so, Canada Council’s Peter Schneider opened the event with a gracious tribute and commitment to literature in our nation.

Shortly thereafter, attendees were presented with a most apropos introduction to a discussion of Atwood’s most recent publication, Hag-Seed: a rousing reading from the original Shakespearean text of The Tempest. As anyone with even rudimentary knowledge of Shakespeare will know, the work of the Bard is best understood when watched and heard rather than read, and this certainly was true of the Prospero/Caliban reading from Walter Borden and Keith Barker.

It is worth mentioning that because Hag-Seed takes place primarily in a correctional facility, Atwood’s rousing reading selection left me attempting to imagine Margaret Atwood quasi-rapping among a group of burly prisoners. Surprisingly, this wasn’t a terribly hard task after all. Once Atwood completed her own Shakespearean performance of sorts, Susan Coyne engaged Atwood in a phenomenal discussion of her history with Shakespeare and how that manifested itself through her retelling of The Tempest.

Hag-Seed is part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series, which offers additional retellings of The Taming of the Shrew, The Winter’s Tale and Merchant of Venice. As such, it was only logical to consider how Atwood came to Shakespeare in the first place. Interestingly, she recounts her first experience of Shakespeare being Lawrence Olivier’s Henry V, a result of her parents being unable to find a babysitter. Similarly, when Atwood herself wanted to see a production of Hamlet and was without appropriate childcare, she brought along her daughter and daughter’s friend and tasked them with counting character deaths.

One of Atwood’s standout moments from this evening’s event was her response to a question on how to educate teachers on instructing their high school students how to write. She made reference to Wattpad, an anonymous online platform where authors can get positive peer feedback while maintaining a nom de plume. Having been a high school teacher myself at one point, Atwood’s advice rings true: the fear of ridicule and criticism is an immense barrier to young writers.

This evening’s event was yet another reminder that Margaret Atwood has become no less than a national treasure. If her diverse canon of work isn’t sufficient proof for Atwood’s talent, her wit, charm and ability to pull off gas station skeleton gloves should certainly suffice. 

Family Matters

Family Matters was about more than just family, and there were a lot of ‘matters’ to be discussed on October 24th, in one of Christ Church Cathedral’s halls. Carleton University’s Susan Birkwood began the evening by clarifying how we could interpret the title of the event: a couple of different ways, really. We could walk away with ‘the matters, noun’ to be discussed, or the ‘mattering’ of it all, as the word also works as a vague yet powerful verb. The Ottawa Coalition to End Violence Against Women was at the event in support, and the hosts all acknowledged the potential weight of the subjects to be discussed. Matters, indeed.

 

The speakers included Zoe Whittall, whose latest book The Best Kind of People has been shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and was recently named Indigo’s best book of 2016; Katherena Vermette who was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction and the Rogers Trust Fiction Prize with her latest novel The Break ; and David Bergen, who was longlisted for the Giller Prize with his latest work Stranger . All three made for an incredibly accomplished and talented line up of writers on the stage at the event.

 

Each of the authors started off by reading an excerpt from their respective works. Whittall’s revealed the inciting action that would send the family of George Woodbury into disarray as a result of his sexual misconduct at a prestigious private school. Vermette brought us inside the wintry world of one of the many characters in The Break – Cheryl, a mother and grandmother, caught in the mystery and suspense of an act of despicable violence that has stricken her family. Bergen brought us along on Íso’s journey, traveling across the United States-Mexico border, with an unlikely companion to deal with during her high-stakes flight from Guatemala.

 

As Susan Birkwood noted, all of the readings had notes of unfamiliarity, tiredness, and an unclear version of what constituted “home.” Birkwood provided thought-provoking and in-depth questions throughout the evening, offering her own commentary and thoughts about the books and their themes.

With Whittall’s talk, it was the ‘mattering’ of it all that struck a chord with me. Whittall spoke about how she took inspiration for her book from an Ottawa support group for women who chose to remain in relationships with their spouses who had committed sexual crimes. These women are often incredibly stigmatized for the actions of their partners, and people cease to see them as human beings with choices to make, emotions to feel and consequences to face.

Additionally, in Whittall’s book, George Woodbury’s 17-year old daughter has to navigate questions of consent, as a teenager would, but to a greater degree due to her father’s actions. How do you learn trust, consent, attraction and pleasure when your own father has ruined these things for other young women?

 

Vermette spoke about how the concept of home and place tied into The Break. Her novel, which takes place in the North end Winnipeg, never specifically mentions the city by name, however all of the characters have names inspired by Winnipeg street names and historical figures tied to Manitoba’s capital, making the city a recognizable “everyplace.” Vermette’s novel also broaches the topic of home in a way that looks at how violence from inside and outside the home can affect a family. “Home is the best place to run away from,” Vermette mused as she talked about the family dysfunctions that can contribute, and stem from, that familiar sort of violence.

 

Bergen’s novel Stranger seemed to deal with the concepts of home and family more metaphorically: how can someone feel belonging when they don’t speak the same language as others around them? What if your concept of home and family is tied to one person, and that person leaves?

 

Stranger’s character Íso started off as an immigrant or refugee when Bergen first imagined her, but her existence became more complex as he wrote. Íso demonstrates disparities of affluence and poverty, tradition and modernity, inertia and volatility.


Throughout the event, Birkwood guided the audience through thought-provoking questions and interesting ways to connect these three standalone novels and their themes. Each of the three writers discussed the dynamics of family, but in different ways. Life events can affect our families and how we interact with them. Conversely, our family can also influence how we approach conflict, tragedy, fear or uncertainty. And at the end of the day, these dynamics do matter quite a lot.

Trigger Warning

Stephen Brockwell introduced the session by briefly recalling the long tradition in western culture of writing about war. There was agreement among the panelists that in more recent times, Pat Barker's powerful Regeneration trilogy (about WWI) stands out as a powerful example for many fictionalized treatments of war. Personalizing war in battle, delving into emotions, violence, hatred as an element of struggle are essential components. For Stephen, all three writers captured the personal impact of war brilliantly. Stephen, himself a highly respected poet, emphasized the exquisitely high quality of the language used in three novels, their intricate description of minute details, the visceral evocation of the physical environment.

Introducing the three authors one by one, Stephen summarized their impressive resumes to date:

Deni Ellis Béchard is a Canadian/American writer, journalist and photographer, a winner of the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Vandal Love (2007). For his new novel, Into the Sun, spending time in Kabul was essential for him to be able to write, grounding him in the reality of time and space. In fact the visualization of war has been a vital aspect for his writing. "We are conditioned by our experiences". Kabul, the place, comes to life in intricate ways.

Kevin Patterson, is a Canadian medical doctor and writer. His short story collection, Country of Cold , won the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize in 2003. In 2007 he worked for some time as a medic in Kandahar. His new novel, News from the Red Desert, takes the reader into the centre of the complexities of the Afghanistan war, beginning in 2001, when many thought the war was all but over.

Peter Behrens  is a Canadian/American novelist, screenwriter and short story writer. His debut novel, The Law of Dreams , won the 2006 Governor General's Award for English fiction. His new novel, Carry Me, takes a longer, more historical view of the impact of war on civilians. His novel is complex in structure and wide ranging in the themes it addresses. While there is a love story of sorts at the centre, the novel is much more -  a story of relationships, about grief and loss, about hanging on to dreams in the face of tragedy. The novel moves in and out of timelines, starting with World War I. and leading up to 1938. A central narrative strand is complemented by historical (mostly fictional) documents that slowly reveal the backstory to the central protagonist, a young man, growing up between the wars, without much understanding of the complex realities around him.

A very lively discussion ensued among the panelists, touching on a wide range of topics from the balance between research and writing to the importance of photographs as a means for grounding the author in the realities of the story. The three authors agreed that most research ahead of writing was essential. Each has his own approach to it, yet all agreed that authenticity is achieved when it comes from experiencing the place and the people, otherwise writing is a challenge or even impossible. Photography can help in terms of recalling mood and texture, provide details that give the reader a sense of the place.

Were there any parts that you enjoyed writing? asked Stephen. For Deni it was a difficult book to write. The theme of masculinity and male violence as a means for redemption is so false and it was important to convey the futility of violence. Writing about war and violence is very different from film, where violence is often portrayed as beautiful to watch. The reality of war is chaos. It is about malice and difficult to romanticize. For Peter the challenge was different as the events of WWI and the lead up to WII are well known. But he enjoyed writing about the (brief) period of foreboding and optimism up to 1914. Kevin wonders about how our experiences today shape our vision of war, so different from the times of Pat Barker, still considered the most powerful novels about war. 

Own Self be True

“Homophobia is uncomfortable,” opened Jeremy Dias, host of the Own Self be True panel. Discomfort proved to be a running theme for all three LGBTQ writers; Gwen Benaway, Vivek Shraya, and Ivan Coyote each shared stories about the ongoing process of finding comfort – or perhaps becoming comfortable with discomfort – in bodies, in language, in spaces, in history.

The first writer to speak was Gwen Benaway, who sarcastically remarked “You always send a racialized trans woman out front!” This wit, levity, and gravity informed the tone of her reading, weaving humour with bold and, occasionally, dark realities. Benaway shared from her forthcoming poetry collection Passages , which uses the Great Lakes to organize a meditation on Indigeneity, girlhood, and transition. The connection is perfect; Benaway’s poetry gently lilts and rolls, sweeping you along with its beauty. Yet it can also jolt you unexpectedly with its force. Benaway’s performance concluded with a prayer to honour her “second girlhood,” and a poem entitled “Goes On,” exploring the relationship between gender, bodies, and being Indigenous. It was a beautiful benediction to a quiet yet powerful performance.

Vivek Shraya launched into her performance without an introduction. Reciting from her newly published collection of poetry even this page is white, Shraya emoted through words, body, and music. Shraya moved quickly between poems, each one different in timbre and tone, but all peppered with punchy diction. Throughout each of her poems, Shraya omits pronouns and articles, leaving her speech abrupt and disjointed – exactly how we should feel about the race card (“The Truth About the Race Card”) and alienating others who challenge our otherness (“Raji”). Shraya finished her reading with an homage to the black women who shaped the music of her memories – in an outlandishly fun and impressive performance, Shraya sang a poem composed of lines from a long list of chart-topping black women singers. It was an extraordinary finale to an exceptional sharing of herself.

The panel concluded with the wonderful work of Ivan Coyote. From his new book Tomboy Survival Guide , Coyote read a letter he received from a mother whose son was in transition. Her son was struggling, and she wanted to know how to be a better parent, and if things ever got any easier. Coyote’s response was impeccably measured, alternating between humour and raw honesty. Coyote writes of his relationship with his mother, and how in a moment where she reveals an understanding of the fluidity of gender, he cannot contain or measure his love for her. He speaks about his father, and how he has slowly become a stranger to him. Coyote’s reading showed compassion and patience for those who do not know him as he is, and a great hope for the young man who is figuring out that he is not trapped in his own body. Cotoye’s reading was striking and poignant, and the room moved through laughter and tears as he shared his stylistically beautiful words.

The Own Self Be True panel provided an evening that challenged the audience to constantly check their own prejudices, revealed the complexity and richness of intersectionality, and presented discomfort as a space to grow and change. It was an evening of beautiful words and great hope.

What Tomorrow Brings with M.G. Vassanji and Michael Helm

Where are we going? It’s a question often asked by authors and readers alike. The question of what the future holds in light of today’s ever-changing world was clearly on both Michael Helm and M. G. Vassanjis’ minds in writing their latest books. Michael Helm and M.G. Vassanji both expressed that in their new novels they explore something new that is a different in style from their previous works.

 

Helm’s new novel After James consists of three sections. The first could be categorized as a gothic horror, the second a detective story and the third an apocalyptic tale all wrapped up in one intriguing novel. The three stories are distinct, but also interrelated, and it is up to the reader to find the links that unite the stories.

 

Host Peter Schneider asked Helm about incorporating high and low elements in his work.  High elements have a little more substance, but low elements are likely to sell. Helm talked about how the literature market has become saturated by popular stories and he wanted to write narrative fiction. Narrative fiction either takes you out of the world, or makes you see it in a new way, he said. “I really love language that has layering to it; where there’s more than one thing that’s going on,” he said. His work is humorous, and there are elements of a good detective novel in it, but there’s always a deeper meaning to the events that are happening.

 

The conversation turned to the blurring of the lines between real and unreal. In an age with continually advancing technology things like genetic technology blur the line that used to exists between reality and fantasy. What tomorrow brings is inevitably linked to the role of technology in today’s world as man finds himself capable of things that previous generations would have called impossible. Reality itself has become increasingly fantastical as people discover they are capable of things that have only ever been possible in the imagination. 

 

“Fourteen hundred years ago the universe appeared in time, but no predictability,” said Helm. The question of the unpredictably of life is a prevalent theme within the novel. Helm quoted T. E. Home saying that man is, “organized and liable to revert to chaos at any moment.” This inevitably leads to the question, what’s happening next?

 

“It’s midnight, the lion is out. . .” Vassanji read from his new novel, Nostalgia . Nostalgia is a piece of speculative fiction set in the world of the future. A patient comes to see Dr. Frank Sina with symptoms of nostalgia. “The past does not catch up with us, but sometimes it does because why had he come to see me? Dr. Sina asks himself. He begins to notice hints of his past in his own life and seeks to find out what they mean.

 

Set in Toronto, Nostalgia has striking similarities to Helm’s novel. Set in Toronto, Nostalgia takes place in a real world setting, but is mixed with elements of the fantastic. Both worlds contain elements of the fantastical, but are close enough to reality that the reader can imagine them happening in the real world.

 

 “Suppose one was able to forget the past,” said Vassanji. Would that be a good thing? Sometimes forgetting the past seems desirable. “The world would be a nicer place,” he said. In Nostalgia, Vassanji creates a world where people have overcome mortality. They always have the appearance of youth and beauty regardless of age at the cost of forgetting the past.

 

Can you go back? Is it desirable? These questions immediately bring to my mind the question I often asked myself reading Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, is it not the past that keeps us connected to the present and the future? As Nostalgia shows, a future that is utterly disconnected from the past is lacking something crucial.

 

Skilled storytellers as well as cultural critics, the author’s novels and conversation were extremely interesting. In the excerpt Helm read from his novel, I was particularly aware of his attention to structure as he created three distinct stories, all with an underlying theme, and the many details that bring together the work into a single work of art. For Vassanji, I was struck by his strong narrative voice. As a Canadian who was born and raised in Africa, you could hear the influence of other cultures in his writing style. Both authors weave bigger questions into the plots of their novels while retaining their own unique narrative style.