Jan Andrews’s performance on Saturday was divided into two parts, the first being a short story, “Seal Skin”, from Sarah Maitland’s collection Angel Maker, and the second part being largely autobiographical. Coming from a theatre background, I was expecting more visual cues and physicality, perhaps a little movement, some audio or lighting cues, an acting out of a memory or experience. Initially, I have to admit, I was disappointed, but then soon adapted to the simplicity of stories being shared solely through spoken words. Andrews’s performance definitely provoked a desire to shut my eyes and just listen.
“Seal Skin” was a fictional, parable-like story of gender exploration and identity. It slowly drew the audience into a created world and into the mind of someone experiencing the limitations of their own body. Brilliantly presented as someone not only transforming their gender, but also becoming a seal (or at least that’s what I understood), it captured my imagination quite vividly. The language was poetic, all the while presented in a soothing manner Andrews. Explicitly sexual and very intimate content not usually shared aloud in a public setting quickly quieted the minds of those listening so as to hang on every word spoken. “The fear is pleasing and desire.” The switching of pronouns for the primary character from “he” to “she”, and then back again to “he” by its conclusion, was smooth and poignant. This transition was accepted with ease, without having any visuals to confirm or deny what was being communicated. This is the power of storytelling at work. “Later, he does not know if he is a man.”
The use of this short story before hearing Andrews’s story was an inventive way to warm the audience up to the relatable themes, and to better understand the nuanced and complex details of Andrews’s own journey. The honesty and vulnerability in which she took us back in time into “the secret reaches of the night” to share with us personal desires, thoughts, fears, and memories, made it easy to empathize and appreciate what was shared even more.
Andrews has a knack for rhythm, and both the personal narrative and the short story seemed to have a similar flow and certainly blended well together. The consistent use of repetition and alliteration throughout heightened my enjoyment of listening. Andrews’s use of imagery and specific examples from her youth captured a feeling that otherwise would be difficult to explain. She often repeated the phrase “safe and settled” throughout, but almost to communicate the opposite feeling. Gender questioning seemed to be a repeating theme of Andrews’s personal story, but it was not presented in a cerebral or academic way. Rather, it was accessible for anyone of any gender, with the definition of being one gender captured well by the line “It meant doing those things and enjoying them.”
The ending of the performance remained rather open ended, which I liked, not neatly wrapping up with an answer or conclusion, but rather posing more questions, honestly sharing a search for identity and gender and wondering how things would be different from a different generation, a different time and place, and with different knowledge, opportunities, and experiences. Andrews concluded, quite appropriately, “I am not a literary construct,” but rather a real person and a work in progress, like all of us. It was a refreshing perspective and a story bravely told.
This was my first time at the Writers Festival and one of the most striking features was the audience, keenly waiting for Jay Ingram. As I was speaking to a fellow member we discussed that there were people of all ages present. I believe this observation speaks for his book, The Science of Why, as it was written with everyone in mind. The way the conversation weaved into place during the event, the message that science communication should be made for the audience resonated. What does the audience want to know? Clearly, we want to know why?
Jay brought forth the story of Newton’s apple and his discovery of gravity. Though he expressed that an apple falling from the tree could not have simply inspired Newton to come up with the theory of gravity but rather the story of the apple was Newton’s gift of explaining a complex grandeur phenomena using a simple analogy that everyone could relate to. Jay shared that science communication should strive for just that, making science understandable so that the everyday person can appreciate and find importance in complex ideas, theories and evidence.
The value of scientists learning to communicate is so important as there is a demand for evidence based change in all realms of life. This demand is rooted in beliefs and emotion. Though many people may not pair science with emotion together, however, Jay explained that science communication must move in this direction. Emotion brings forth change however when stances and beliefs are strong, evidence becomes weaker or unimportant and may contribute to further polarization as he referred to the example of climate change. So, the challenge for us, as the public, is how can we change this? The way to start is to teach how scientists (and even science enthusiasts) to communicate the evidence to the public. The need to change the language to ensue passion so it can bring awareness. "Science is the root to being more aware," Jay says.
This book and what Jay conversed is about awareness. Awareness about the questions we always ask ourselves and never pursue to answer. Most of these questions ultimately start with why. Referring to Newton once more, where he morphed gravity into a simple analogy involving an apple to explain it, The Science of Why, does the same. Evoking emotion (in this case happiness and humour), while explaining the evidence in a simple yet elegant way for everyone to enjoy and later share with their family and friends.
“Everybody dies. Life is not a substance, like water or rock; it’s a process, like fire or a wave crashing on the shore. It’s a process that begins, lasts for a while, and ultimately ends. Long or short, our moments are brief against the expanse of eternity.”
This, as Sean Carroll will tell us, is a key part of “The Big Picture.” The fact that everyone dies may seem obvious to even the most casual student of the school of life; however, there is much more to this story. How did it all start? How can consciousness be explained? How do we as humans construct meaning in the cosmos? What is the nature of the wider universe?
On Saturday, April 29, 2017 a full house at Christ Church Cathedral gathered to listen to theoretical physicist Sean Carroll talk about the story of the universe and suggest scientific frameworks for contemplating the meaning of life. He began his talk with the tongue in cheek admission that despite the title of his book he was not quite able to tell us the meaning of life and how the universe began.
Having set a light hearted and accessible tone for his talk, Carroll went on to provide the audience with an intellectual tour of some of the theories of physics which can be used to attempt to explain the key forces at play in the universe and why we experience the arrow of time as moving forward. He touched on the big bang theory, quantum field theory and the differences between entropy and complexity.
One of the threads woven through Carroll’s lecture was the recognition that scientific knowledge is never perfect. He argued that despite this limitation science offers unparalleled tools for observing evidence and considering the big picture. By taking the audience down a scientific path we journeyed to a place of awe at the vastness and complexity of the universe. Life is not a miracle, Carroll says, but it is elegant and complex. Near the end of his talk he shared an image from the Hubble Telescope which allows us to peer deep into space. The image drove home the fact that humans are indeed minute in the vast cosmos.
Our lives are short. As Carroll eloquently states in his book “a person is a diminutive, ephemeral thing” — and yet, humans used their imaginations to conceive of the Hubble Telescope. In human terms we can imagine, we can care, we can have something to show for our lives as entropy increases around us and our moment in time passes. Ultimately, Carroll invites us to a conversation and provides his audience with a deeper understanding of physics and the good news that in the big picture the finitude of life lends poignancy to the human condition.
Plan 99 co-founder David O’Meara introduced the festival’s poetry showcase at The Manx Pub with a tongue-in-cheek warning about the potential raucous ahead: situated below and between several sports bars — and on a playoff game night, no less — the readings might very well be interrupted by the shouts and cheers of an audience other than their own. (And they were). Normally, one might be tempted to extract a trite and lazy metaphor from the scene — something about poets being consigned to the cultural margins by those who, like the speaker of Cassidy McFadzean’s “I’ll Be the Skipper, You Be the Sea,” only ever want to know “What is a poem for?” But the interruptions from above were curiously apropos for the likes of McFadzean, Aisha Sasha John, and Kevin Connolly: a disparate group of Canadian poets whose latest works are threaded together by a mutual appreciation for the uneventful, the fragmentary, and the anti-epiphanic.
Sharing excerpts from her award-winning debut Hacker Packer, a title which conjures images of drunken scrapbooking and haphazard collage, McFadzean led her audience through a labyrinth of museums, myths, and surrealist landscapes, where the material and temporal boundaries between antiquities and their observers are magnificently distorted. For all the temples and tombstones, however, the speakers’ odysseys never seem to offer a final catharsis. “[W]e crawled inside [the Temple of Apollo], expecting to unearth / some prophesies,” the speaker of “The Charioteer” admits; instead, “We breathed in the ethelyne, / then left in a trance with dirt on our knees.” The poet, in this case, is no oracle or diviner, but a frustrated, iPhone-wielding scavenger of surface and symbol, who can “barely [make] it up Mount Parnassus / without stopping to pee next to some cows.” McFadzean’s poems were challenging to parse in the oral format, and even more difficult to speak: the poet herself had to pause for sips of beer after long, plosive-laden strings of Greek and Latinate syllables. But, like the tapestry described in “Large Leaf Verdure with Animals and Birds,” the fact that the poems “[lack] a focal point upon which to rest the eyes” — or ears — make them no less gorgeous an achievement.
Poet/choreographer/visual artist/ all-around “multi-disciplinarian” Aisha Sasha John followed McFadzean with fragments from I have to live., a collection teeming with non-sequitur, misremembered conversation, and human excretion. After anointing the floor in an offering to her ancestors, John launched into observations of the myriad ways in which human bodies stumble over themselves in their confused pursuits of existential cohesion. “Chicken/egg,” thinks the speaker of “Hi.,” before realizing that she “need[s] to take a dump.” Questions such as “Who are people? Who are anybody?” become hopelessly entangled with concerns about breakfast choices and the minutia of English grammar, leading only to the muted confession: “I’m scared.” Elsewhere, markers of identity and inheritance give way to a panicked and playful interrogation of the “line[s]” — be they narrative or spatial, geopolitical or social — that trip up diasporic subjectivities at the same time as they offer an “index,” an “idea of direction.” John’s ambivalent relationship with linearity was evident even at the level of poetic sequence. For the first time in recent memory, she decided to write the poems down for herself in the order in which she would read them. The result? “It feels. . .funky.” But no matter. Therein lies the joy of I have to live.: Doing it again and doing it differently. And if we make mistakes. . . well, as John queried in her first piece of the evening, “Who gives a f*ck?”
For Kevin Connolly, the final reader of the showcase (and perhaps the best known), determining what does and doesn’t matter over the course of a life seems precisely as arbitary and painstaking as determining what to include in a poetry collection, and what to leave out. Setting aside some lazy periods in Connolly’s career, when he considered publishing a book composed “entirely of titles,” Xiphoid Process is the culmination of nine years of writing, scrapping, and reconceiving an extensive archive of the poet’s material. Indeed, the way Connolly reads from his collection makes it sound as if it were unearthed from a dusty, disorganized box in the bowels of a local library. In one piece, a late-career Judd Nelson begs into the void of a film exec’s voicemail to be given his call-time. In another, Connolly dictates from the Point Reyes police blotter, where citizens’ news items range from the banal, to the heartbreaking, to the absurd. The most telling detail from Connolly’s reading, though, and perhaps the key to this year’s Plan 99 showcase, did not come from his book at all; rather, it was the moment when he recalled the meandering and nonsensical way in which his personal library first took shape. Living in the small town of Maple, Ontario, the majority of his book buying took place not in a Chapters or a well-curated independent bookstore, but among the detritus of church rummage sales:
“I would read The Count of Monte Cristo and then a book about UFOs,” he laughed. “All this stuff is in your head, and it is all equally a part of who you are as a person.”
It was a happy and social crowd that convened at Christ Church Cathedral on Sunday afternoon. It was not an atmosphere one might expect at a reading concerned with the conflict in Israeli-occupied Palestine, but negativity was not going to be the theme in that room. As people filed in, Samah Sabawi and Stephen Orlov, the two playwrights who were editors and contributors for the book in focus; “Double Exposure: Plays of the Jewish and Palestinian Diasporas” mingled with the crowd, sharing hugs and handshakes. After anyone settled and the perfunctory introductions were made, the event host Arthur Milner; also a contributor to the book, stood at center stage rather than behind the podium to make his preamble, personable and up-front, setting the tone to what was already off to a very good start.
First up was a reading of Samah’s play “Tales of a City by the Sea”, featuring a passage wherein the two main characters; an engaged couple named Gomana and Rami debate whether they should stay in the conflict-riddled Gaza Strip where Gomana has grown up or leave for the safety of the United States which Rami calls home. The passage, although read by the actors from sheets of paper in their hands, was ripe with the conflict of loyalty to heritage versus self-preservation. Next, Samah and Stephen themselves read through a passage from Stephen’s play “Sperm Count”. It was exquisite to watch Samah, the Palestinian portray the Jewish woman asking for a controversial new treatment that may help her become pregnant, and Stephen, the Jewish man portraying the Palestinian doctor who is refusing it. It really solidified the whole spirit of the event.
Next the panel discussed the impetus of the project. Stephen told the audience that it was the first time Palestinian and Jewish playwrights have collaborated on a project such as this to address the conflicts happening in the Middle East. Samah added that it was wonderful to connect with Stephen through the internet, although it took some time for Stephen to catch up with the new technologies, a comment that drew some hearty laughter from the crowd. They discussed the use of diaspora playwrights in the anthology to give voices to the Palestinians who cannot return to the country that has opened its arms to another ethnic group and made it their homeland. They also illustrated the fact that those who had left the Middle East had a more worldly and subjective view on the conflict. As Stephen so eloquently put it, diaspora artists had a “diverse prism” through which to project the conflict, one that would be helpful in finding ways to create peace after years of destruction.
The panel was then asked to recount the difficulties they had with presenting their plays in an atmosphere that has been so sensitive to the subject. Both playwrights could say with confidence that the dissent they endured came only from uneducated prejudice, from people that never even bothered to see the plays. With all the controversy surrounding the topic however, Samah and Stephen were proud to explain that reception for the project has been enthusiastic. They told the audience of the positive atmosphere they encountered at a similar reading in New York, how attitudes are changing, welcoming dialogues to start and ideas to flow on how to bring about positive change. Given the open camaraderie on the stage, and the open appreciation from the crowd, it looked like they were all headed in the right direction and the message of positive collaboration was being heard loud and clear.
In the aftermath of Pierre Laporte's murder during the 1972 October Crisis, a CBC producer had the inspired idea to invite author W.O. Mitchell to address the nation on television. As Douglas Gibson points out in his presentation 150 Years of Great Canadian Storytellers, Mitchell opened his address with the words, “There's been a death in my family.” It's a message of unity that helped heal a nation reeling from the threat of violent fragmentation. Meanwhile, as we find out later in Gibson's presentation, the one man both Pierre Trudeau and Paul Rose would trust with the task of negotiating the FLQ's surrender proved to be acerbic Quebecois novelist Jacques Ferron.
It's hard to think of a more striking example of novelists taking a central role in Canadian politics and history. In the context of Gibson's presentation, however, the story comes across as almost inevitable: the richness of life in Canada, his two-hour multi-media presentation implies, has always depended on the participation of our greatest storytellers.
Douglas Gibson's enthusiasm for Canadian literature is contagious. Armed with a binder of typed notes and bedecked in his “publisher's uniform” of a navy blazer and striped tie, Gibson, like a university professor delivering his dream lecture, seemed on Saturday to be utterly delighted at the opportunity to talk about the subject he loves best.
This all stands to reason, of course. Canadian literature has been Gibson's life's work. As an editor and publisher, he worked with authors who defined the Canadian literary canon for the past fifty years. Alice Munro, Alistair MacLeod and Robertson Davies are names he speaks with the fondness of friendship as much as the admiration of a devoted reader.
Since retiring from publishing in 2008, Gibson has been at work writing books on his experience of the Canadian literary world, first in Stories about Storytellers: Publishing Alice Munro, Robertson Davies, Alistair MacLeod, Pierre Trudeau, and Others, and more recently in Across Canada by Story: A Coast-to-Coast Literary Adventure. Instead of simply reading excerpts from his books in promoting them, Gibson has opted to craft multi-media stage presentations he can take on the road.
It's the right choice. Not only is Gibson an engaging, personable storyteller, but the multi-media format lets him re-imagine his books' content in light of the demands of public presentation – a liberty I wish more authors felt free to take.
His most recent “show,” 150 Years of Great Canadian Storytellers, takes on the ambitious task of presenting a highlight reel of the major Canadian authors who've written fiction since Confederation. “It's an arrogant thing to do,” Gibson admitted in his first minutes on stage. To curate a list of Canadian authors (English, French and Indigenous), particularly one condensed enough to explore over the course of two hours, makes exclusion and omission a feature of the presentation.
That being said, throughout most of the two hours, what struck me most was, delightfully, Gibson's enthusiasm for literature of all sorts. Limiting himself to two or three writers per decade lets him share (often very personal) stories about each writer, as well as providing some timely cultural context through art, photographs, headlines and music. In Gibson's accounts, Robertson Davies is a man who “looked like God,” while Stephen Leacock's restored cottage gives the visitor a “'Goldilocks feeling' that the owners will return at any moment.
Notably – and refreshingly – Gibson has made a point of centering francophone literature in this English-language presentation: 14 of his roughly 30 featured works were originally written in French. I'd argue there isn't nearly as much cross-pollination as there could be between anglophone and francophone literature in Canada, and it was wonderful to see one of our star bookish taste-makers celebrating our two official literary traditions side by side.
In the midst of this exuberant and jam-packed presentation, the demand for selectivity did make me reflect on how we build literary canons – that process of selection and, inevitably, exclusion. This struck me most in light of Gibson's decision to feature writer Joseph Boyden, whose work and public persona has been the subject of increasing criticism by Indigenous communities over the past year. After praising Boyden's work, Gibson drew attention to this controversy, adding, “Is Joseph Boyden really an Indigenous writer? I don't know – it's not for me to say.” He then followed this with an affirmation of the role of Boyden's work in fostering broader awareness of aboriginal narratives in Canada.
It struck me that it is difficult to acknowledge the impact of Boyden's work without letting the noise of that impact muffle other Indigenous voices. On the one hand, a discussion of 21st century Canadian literature that omitted Boyden's work would likely seem ahistorical. On the other hand, I'm certain many audience members were previously unaware of the criticism Gibson alluded to, and while it's possible they left feeling the need to look into it, it seems equally likely that Gibson's gentle, diplomatic framing of the controversy allayed their concerns rather than arousing them.
In this presentation (as in the prioritizing of one's reading list), including one book means saying “no” to another. The editor's skill of paring the fat from a story is one Gibson has mastered over the course of a long career, but it was moving to see that in conversations about books, he seemed disappointed by the need to leave anything out.
There was a moment at the end of Gibson's presentation when he invited the audience to suggest storytellers he unjustly omitted. It's an excellent idea, and it's a part of the session I was really looking forward to. Sadly, in this case, the session ran out of time before audience could make their suggestions.
Despite this, I was grateful for everything that fit in the allotted time, particularly Gibson's personal stories about writers like Alice Munro. Though it's an account I'd heard before, I loved hearing him recall his conversation with Munro early in her career, when she felt that, since everyone in publishing was telling her she should stop writing short stories and focus on novels, she ought to listen. All of Canada (and the international literary community, no doubt) owes Douglas Gibson a debt of gratitude for telling her, “If everyone is telling you to write a novel, then everyone is wrong.”
Having a champion like Douglas Gibson is an absolute game-changer for an emerging writer. The whole, broad spectrum of Canadian storytellers (and their readers) deserves more of them.
Claire Cameron and Barbara Gowdy inspired knowing smiles, laughter, and a spirit of contemplation in their captivated audience on the festival’s second evening, celebrating women in writing. CBC’s Alan Neal guided a delightfully meandering, dance-like conversation between the two beloved Canadian novelists, whose disparate backgrounds and approaches to their art nonetheless resulted in works that summoned similar questions and themes.
Cameron, best-selling author of The Bear and staff writer at The Millions, instantly endeared us to her with her honesty about her writing struggles and her outspoken admiration for Gowdy, an internationally acclaimed and award-winning novelist and short story writer, whose The White Bone reenergized Cameron’s commitment to her latest novel, The Last Neanderthal, and inspired its opening line. Cameron mused that in a way she sees herself as a “chip off Gowdy’s block.” That sentiment, in fact, became a strong theme of the evening: how are we shaped by our experiences, the people we encounter, and, most mysteriously, those we may never meet? And is this method of self-discovery via ‘other’ perhaps a way of responding to the Delphic maxim, “know thyself,” to which Gowdy made reference?
By nature, we seek belonging, the sense of inclusion a family provides, and so we embrace and cling to the familiar; in the path of discovery, it is necessary to make distinctions, to allow the mind to both separate and unite, and thus it is important to seek out the unfamiliar, as Cameron and Gowdy challenge us to do. In their novels, both women take us to the limits of this possibility, to not just the unfamiliar, but to the never-truly-knowable. Both Cameron and Gowdy write about women who develop a fascination with another woman whom they will never meet. In Cameron’s novel, the object of fascination is a Neanderthal separated by millennia, while Gowdy imagines, in Little Sister, a world where the female protagonist supernaturally enters the body of an unknown woman, whose physical and emotional states she is permitted to share. And when it comes to self-knowledge, as both women reflected, this is all the more necessary. As Cameron spoke for all for us, “It is easier to know someone else. It is hard to be self-aware.” Encounters with others will little by little reveal aspects of ourselves, shape who we are, or directly inform us, if we are but willing to listen and be moved. Gowdy comically illustrated this when she interjected to provide the psychology behind Cameron’s confessed taste for the macabre by suggesting that her relationship with her even-tempered, relaxed, Californian husband liberated her to explore places that perhaps one with a brooding and dark New Yorker could not. Cameron agreed.
Flannery O’Connor, the great short story writer of the 20th century, claimed that “the type of mind that can understand good fiction is not necessarily the educated mind, but it is at all times the kind of mind that is willing to have its sense of mystery deepened by contact with reality, and its sense of reality deepened by contact with mystery.” If this is true, then a fortiori, fiction writers must be willing to do the same. The interplay of reality and mystery is woven into both story lines with a foreign faraway world at the characters’ fingertips, as in Gowdy’s line “the farthest thing you can imagine is closer than you think.” But it was above all a treat to hear about the reality of the authors’ own lives, most notably their fondness for nature and wildlife, and how their daily experiences guided them to ask the bigger questions, such as what it means to be human, what true empathy is, and what the bonds are that unite us. In the end, these celebrated women leave us with an impression of what they personally hold most dear. After recounting pieces of her career and personal life, Gowdy, who enchanted the audience with her regal presence and old-soul wisdom, reflected, “what seems to matter way more now is the people I love,” harmonizing with a line in Cameron’s latest novel, “It is the things that don’t fossilize that matter the most.”
It was a packed house on Friday night to see Heather O’Neill and Mary Walsh at the Christ Church Cathedral—and well worth the short wait in line.
O’Neill, known for her brain-ticklingly gorgeous writing, is a veteran of the Ottawa International Writers Festival and easily warmed up the crowd with a few anecdotes before her reading. (I’m not kidding about the brain-tickling gorgeousness, by the way. If you haven’t read her books yet, fix that immediately.) She noted that her inspiration for writing The Lonely Hearts Hotel came partly from her dad, who was one of nine (!) boys raised in Montreal single-handedly by her grandmother after his father passed away. Since those boys came of age during the Great Depression, “they, naturally, turned to crime.” Her dad was rather talented in the field of crime, as it turned out, and he lamented the fact that he didn’t pursue it as an adult. He had missed his calling, but he did have lots of bedtime stories for O’Neill that were filled with 1930s gangsters. Her novel, which is set mostly between World War I and World War II, is infused with the spirit of those bedtime stories. In fact, she noted that Rose, the female protagonist in the book, is essentially a cross between a 1930s gangster and Simone de Beauvoir.
Walsh, who has kept Canada laughing for decades, was at the Festival to promote her first novel, Crying for the Moon . Known for her characters and for creating the CBC’s This Hours Has 22 Minutes , she surprised the crowd by saying that she had actually wanted to write a novel since she was eight years old. She joked about being a month away from collecting her CPP (Canada Pension Plan), and said that she had a moment before she started writing the book when she had to ask herself, “If not now…when?”
Dr. Susan Birkwood, the moderator for the evening, led the discussion smoothly and touched on the various imagery and influences in both novels. Both O’Neill and Walsh talked about how a first novel almost inevitably includes more autobiographical details than subsequent novels—as O’Neill noted, “You have a treasure trove from your childhood, so you use it”—but both authors emphasized how much research still goes into the writing process, even if the times and places in the novel reflect some of their own experiences. “There are also themes that you get stuck on, and the novel radiates around them,” explained O’Neill as she joked about how her editor pointed out that she was once again creating motherless characters. “I was just like, ‘Ahhh, I forgot to give them mothers!’” she laughed. (O’Neill was raised by her father and added that “your autobiography can come through [in your writing] from the strangest perspectives.”)
After a fascinating discussion that included comparisons between childhood and war, insights into abuse and escape, and links between oppression and language (which I will not spoil here and will instead use as a marketing ploy to encourage you to read these books!), the audience members were invited to ask questions.
Asked about how her lifetime in the performing arts had influenced her approach to writing a novel, Walsh emphasized that she needs to do it “out loud.” She prefers to write by hand, and then she reads the text to an assistant who types it up for her. “It gives me the chance to edit as I read it and hear it out loud,” she explained. “Plus, I can read [her assistant’s] face. If she pulls a face, I think ‘hmm, was that an undigested piece of potato or was that a bad line?’”
O’Neill writes mostly about Montreal, and she was asked if she thought she could ever write about another city in the same way. While she said that she could see herself writing about a different city, she knows that it wouldn’t be the same. “It wouldn’t have the same intimacy,” she explained. Given her own history there—and her family’s lengthy history there—Montreal “feels like my story to tell.” She also noted that she felt she could say things about Montreal that she wouldn’t be able to say about other cities, much in the same way that we can say things about our own families in ways that we would never tolerate coming from someone else. “I also get to move buildings,” she joked, “because in my Montreal, this street would be better off here . If I did that with another city, I’d be told that I was bad at geography.”
As the session wrapped up, I imagined a practical stampede to the book signing (I had to leave, but I heard lots of excited chatter about getting books signed as I dashed out the door), and on another night I would have been the one leading the charge. I am a huge fan of Heather O’Neill, so I will happily attend any and all future Writers Festival events that feature her, and I sincerely hope that Mary Walsh—despite the immense relief that she described upon finishing her novel—will also return for more books and more laughter.
Having grown up loving the folk and fairy tales of my father’s own Irish childhood, and then later, transitioning to reading some of the literary greats of that country’s notable array of authors, poets, and playwrights, I was particularly excited for Friday’s noon hour session on “Children’s Literature from Ireland”. I was looking forward to being inspired by these three descendants of an artistic culture that is known for its knowledge of the classics, for its easy sense of familiarity with and occasional irreverence for Western tradition and culture, and for its darkly hilarious cynicism bred of a combination of enduring survival and cultural vibrance in the face of poverty, starvation, and oppression. Needless to say, I had great expectations.
The event was conducted as a conversation with three authors: Deirdre Sullivan, a YA writer and award-winning author of
, among others; Oisin McGann, an outrageously prolific YA author specializing mostly in science fiction and fantasy; and Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick, a children’s book author and illustrator. Unique to an event profiling those who write for young people was the palpable sense of enthusiasm and desire to support and love whatever it was that these authors had to say – stemming from the widely-held belief that, in a world saturated with devices and virtual activities that compete and often win the attention of young people, whatever gets them reading books must be a good thing.
And what sorts of ideas and tactics do these particular authors deem best to draw in their young audiences?
Sullivan was asked about her book relying on the tradition of fairy tales (the pre-Disney, horror-filled, cautionary ones, that is) and responded, saying that she tries to build upon the difficulties that are actually being experienced by teens today in her writing, in the belief that sharing experiences is a key way to build empathy. And empathy, as all of the writers agreed, is a key purpose of fiction. Fitzpatrick, speaking about whether the ideas in her children’s books are conceived for the parents or the children reading them, pointed out wisely that adults reading the books can only look back and remember what it was to be a child, while children can only look forward, and thus each will perceive the books in quite different, but hopefully equally enjoyable, ways. McGann spoke about the storyline of his recent book Ancient Appetites, that in some ways, seemed to follow the entrancing horror of in-group sacrificial murder bound by complex rules made popular by Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games . Speaking as he did later about writing being a craft, and imitation being the best way to perfect this craft, McGann himself would likely not resent this comparison.
Although hearing selections from each of their books was enjoyable (particularly Fitzpatrick’s wordless delight
Owl Bat Bat Owl
), when each author was then faced with the question of how they viewed their role as a contributor to forming the ideas and worldviews of young people and to cite this with one or two main points that they hoped to communicate through their work, their answers were more lacklustre than anything. Sullivan faltered a bit, and then relied on the ever-popular but culturally damaging and, not to mention outright falsehood, of saying “I write for me”, following up with a mention of hoping to nurture teens through the difficulties of their lives through her writing. Fitzpatrick admitted (perhaps disturbingly) that she hadn’t really thought about the question before, but came up with ultimately the most satisfying answer of the three by saying that in all of her books she focused on moments in which small children overcame fear and loneliness. And McGann ignored the question entirely, instead stating that in YA fiction, it was important to get rid of the parents and any other adult authority figures in order to “give children the ability to solve their own problems”, this perhaps being a reactionary overcompensation for the helicopter-parenting of today’s culture. However, pitting parents and adults as the bad guys who hold teens back from doing what needs to be done? This seems hardly healthy or logical.
“Usually when I write something I don’t think about how it will feel to read it in front of 180 people,” says Scaachi Koul before launching into an essay on oral sex and body hair from her debut book of personal essays One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter. But she feigns no shyness, recounting aloud the events that led to her first knuckle-shaving attempt at age eleven (a boy from her class who was a “Hollister t-shirt personified” asked why she was so hairy) and reflecting on the politics of female body hair in 2017 (when Lena Dunham does it, it’s a rebellion, but when a woman of colour does it, it’s a mutiny). The reading set the tone for the evening - equal parts discomfort, vulnerability, and hilarity – kicking off one of the most rousing literary events I have personally ever attended.
Koul is known for her wit and her outspokenness, usually online and usually on matters of race and feminism. Depending on who you are, this makes her either a hero or a villain. In person, she’s as admirably antagonistic, smart, and clever as she is online, giving CBC’s Lucy van Oldenbarneveld a run for her money when it came to the interview portion of the evening. When Oldenbarneveld asked her how she made her book relatable to a wide audience, for instance, Koul was quick to point out that this question is typically only asked of non-white people and women. She also admitted that she had not given relatability much thought when writing, that her book was primarily for “brown girls”, and that if other people liked it too, that was fine. While some interviewers may have gotten defensive at a moment like this, Oldenbarneveld was as good humoured as ever. She retorted, “Well I mean, I read this book and liked it and I’m not young and cool like you,” to which Koul laughed, “I’m not cool. This is my bedtime.”
Though Oldenbarneveld and Koul covered a wide range of topics, the theme of the night seemed to be anger. Take Scaachi’s relationship with her parents (“I get my anger from my dad…the immigrant experience creates pathways of anxiety”), or her writing process (“this book was written on rage”), or even her online persona (“there’s this sense of women having less of a right to be angry about men”). Naturally, this led to a discussion of the one major time in Koul’s life that anger wasn’t enough to protect her. She made headlines last year when, as Buzzfeed Canada’s senior editor, she tweeted a request for pitches from only women of colour, drawing the ire of online trolls led by Ezra Levant, Milo Yiannopolous, and Ottawa’s own Scott Gilmour (who accused Koul of committing a human rights violation). When the trolls finally went as far as to threaten her life and her family, she removed herself from social media for a period of two weeks. Speaking emotionally to Oldenbarneveld, she said the experience felt like a loss of safety and access: “I can’t play on the Internet like I used to.” She says now she never posts pictures of her family online, never has location services turned on, and only picks fights that “seem fun.”
Ultimately the evening was fun and full of laughs, but Koul and Oldenbarneveld also did an exemplary job of discussing uncomfortable topics like race, gender, and sex openly and honestly in public. There was a refreshing, no bullsh*t air about the entire event that more literary panels and journalists, especially in Canada, would do well to take note of.