Monday night’s post-festival event at Southminster United Church was unsurprisingly a full house. Some attendees might argue the event’s appeal was extensive talk of sexbots (and the vast irony of such talk occurring in a church), but instead, all attention was on one of Canada’s foremost and most beloved authors, the inimitable Margaret Atwood. As host Alan Neal emoted more than once in the opening moments of the event, Monday’s event was certainly a welcome to the mind of Margaret Atwood, as sexbot-oriented as it may be.
Much of the evening’s discussion between Neal and Atwood focused on Atwood’s overall writing process, much to the delight of the budding writers in the crowd. More specifically, however, Atwood shared about the process by which her most recent publication, The Heart Goes Last, transformed from an online serial publication to a regular novel.
One of the questions Alan Neal asked during the course of the evening how Atwood went about finding or developing her characters for The Heart Goes Last. Her response? She doesn’t find characters sitting on a shelf somewhere; they grow out of the story that she tells. Despite what plenty of people may believe about the work of writers, Atwood intimated that her characters emerge during the process of creating a story; those characters don’t pre-exist. Certainly, new developments emerged for the characters of The Heart Goes Last when it transformed into a novel, but Atwood seems to imply that those character transformations were organic.
When asked about her writing process, Atwood shared that, once upon a time, she attempted to write in a calculated, formulaic way: this, Atwood said, was the Post-It note style. Specifically, Atwood shared that she tried this particular writing tactic in 1968 by using a series of filing cards and creating a formula of characters and sections. Colour coding was even involved, which sets my mildly obsessive-compulsive heart aglow, but those notes and codes certainly didn’t please Atwood.
After going through the aforementioned process, Atwood commented that she knew a lot about those characters, but absolutely nothing had happened. In the same vein, she shared advice that she gave to a friend writing a murder mystery: in the most Atwood-way possible, she suggested that this friend move the dead body closer to the front. Ultimately, Atwood shared that the writing process is akin to that of a rat searching for cheese in a maze: sometimes, you just have to throw it all out and start all over again.
One of my favourite moments of the evening (and one of a few times during which I laughed out loud) was Atwood’s recalling the helpful feature of the Microsoft Word of days gone by, wherein a small box would appear, commenting that “you seem to be trying to write a letter; would you like some help?” Atwood was, however, quick to clarify that this she was referring to a little, advice-giving box, and not the googly-eyed paperclip, the latter of which she strongly disliked. (After some quick research, I’ve discovered the aforementioned square and paperclip are more professionally referred to as office assistants. Go figure.)
One of the night’s most interesting pieces of information was that Atwood has attended ComicCon. In short, she was one of a few authors commissioned to compose an anthology in honour of Ray Bradbury. Sadly, before Atwood and her co-authors could present the publication to Bradbury at ComicCon, he passed away. (Atwood has a beautiful, long form piece about Bradbury in The Guardian for those who are interested.) Atwood and her fellow writers opted to show up in Bradbury’s honour at ComicCon anyway. Atwood shared further tales of comic-con, commented about receiving a Hobbit tote bag with which she would not part. Additionally, she shared about a connection with some Iranian filmmakers and her subsequent poster cameo in the recent cult film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night.
If her Twitter relationship with Rob Delaney, her political engagement or her deep love of birds weren’t already enough to convince you, I’m certain that Monday’s event will have attendees tip the scales in Atwood’s favour toward national treasure, peculiar as she may be.
Torrential rain and broken umbrellas didn't stop the excited audience from filling up the pews in the cozy and brightly lit Centretown United Church. This was an event that no one wanted to miss and it didn't disappoint.
The evening began with a goose bump-inducing reading of In Flanders Fields as read by Leonard Cohen. In the moment the recording played, every single person was connected and held captive by the powerful words, which continue to hold profound meaning for Canadians.
Lt. -Gen. Roméo Dallaire read a passage from In Flanders Fields: 100 Years: Writing on War, Loss and Remembrance (the anthology that all three speakers collaborated on) and provided the audience with the unexplored and emotional perspective of a commander who is responsible for other people's lives. He spoke about how the poem never hit home until the day he had to give orders to soldiers who ultimately died under his command. "The poem wasn't a poem anymore ... it was living ... the experience that this poem articulates is a responsibility for Captains. It's a responsibility to prepare soldiers to be effective and survive and a responsibility to carry the fact that those who don't come back are because of your orders." This poignant final sentence followed the tone set by Leonard Cohen's reading and added depth to the poem's meaning and our understanding of it.
Then Tim Cook began with a light-hearted anecdote about how In Flanders Fields was the only poem he had ever memorized but he noted although the poem always mattered to him, he had never thought about the man behind it until now. Cook humanized John McCrae. He was no longer simply the poet or the historical figure but "a leading young man in every sense." He was the healer who desperately wanted to go to war, the asthmatic who excelled in sports, and the humorous man who sang in a lunatic asylum "where the audience is not disposed to be particularly critical." However, he also carried the weight of the war with him and the "torch" of his poem resonates with grieving families who return to McCrae's words to soothe their scars and light the way forward.
Mary Janigan approached the poem in a different way—one that not many would think of. She spoke of the effect In Flanders Fields had on the 1917 election. Janigan admitted she initially, didn't see the connection until she read the last six lines of the poem. These lines were quoted to rally support for Sir Robert Borden who pushed for conscription.
However, the "poem was sent into battle and the enemy was Sir Wilfrid Laurier [who opposed conscription]." The resonance of the poem played a huge role in how the country almost broke up, illustrating how this poem can have many meanings across space and time.
The evening ended with a brief Question and Answer session where Dallaire, Cook, and Janigan spoke about the impact and meaning of World War I and why it's more memorable than World War II: "it affects every town and city in the country ... it's an Armageddon we can't get over that. It's the war that shook us. It changed us, it almost tore us apart ... it's the war we can't forget." Those final words bring us back to the chilling reading, which started the event and remind us of its call for remembrance and responsibility.
This evening, which was filled with different perspectives of a beloved poem, showed the audience that In Flanders Fields has many unexplored meanings. With every experience and every reading, new meanings may arise (I know I'll be reading it again with a new set of eyes). Ultimately, this poem will continue to resonate with us.
It’s miserable outside. The remnants of hurricane Patricia have thoroughly drenched Ottawa. Everything feels damp, especially the Centretown United Church. As I walk down the red-carpeted aisle looking for a seat I realize how full it is. Most of the 12 rows of wooden pews are occupied and I have to ask a group of people to move so I can squeeze past. I put down my coffee and umbrella, and settle myself into the uncomfortable wooden seat. I’m here to listen to Gwynne Dyer discuss his book Don’t Panic: ISIS, Terror and Today’s Middle East with host, Adrian Harewood from the CBC.
Harewood’s introduction includes a lengthy, laundry list of Dyer’s credentials; Ph.D. in Middle Eastern history, a member of the order of Canada, the list goes on. If the full house wasn’t enough of a clue, such an introduction shows that this man knows what he is talking about and people want to hear him.
Dyer and Harewood take a seat at the front of the church; behind them are stained glass pictures of crosses and large organ pipes that reach up to the ceiling. The discussion begins with the title of the book: don’t panic. Harewood questions whether it is truly reasonable for there to be no concern regarding ISIS, but Dyer is happy to clarify: “Well if we were in Lebanon, or Jordan, or Syria, yes panic,” extending his arms out and addressing the audience, “I mean you don’t panic!” He points out the 8,000 kilometres that separate Canada and Syria is a more than comforting barrier.
The conversation, guided by Harewood, discusses the history of ISIS, the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East, and how the West fits into everything. How a record of discontent between the treatment of Shias and Sunnis, and Western influence in the Middle East helped create the monster we know today as ISIS. It’s eye opening to see how ill prepared the West was. Entering Iraq with thousands of soldiers, but a handful of people who could speak Arabic. Rounding up everyone who looked suspicious, which according to Dyer was everyone male and under 60. This tactic gave many extremists the opportunity to network and recruit.
Dyer also discusses his support of Justin Trudeau’s stance to pull out of Syria. That the risk of ISIS capturing a Canadian fighter and publicizing some horrific torture over the Internet would not outweigh the minimal impact we’re currently making.
With the closing of Dyer’s remarks, Harewood opens up the floor to questions. Arms shoot into the air, many people eager to ask Dyer his thoughts. It’s remarkable to see the wide variety of topics people are interested in and how they are tied into Middle Eastern issues. The first to receive the microphone is a man seated in the first row. He quickly states he is more panicked now than he was before the talk, to which Dyer jovially tells him to relax. The next girl is a young lady who’s more interested in sharing how the Iraq war impacted her rather than asking a question. Another gentleman points how climate change in the Gulf has furthered tensions by moving people into urban centers and increasing unemployment. Others are concerned with the refugee crisis. The variety of questions demonstrated the complexity of the issue.
Stepping out into the puddle spotted sidewalk, I couldn’t help sharing the sentiment of the man in the front row. There was no resolution, no easy answer. I left with lots of questions and thoughts bubbling in my mind. I also left with a copy of Don’t Panic, I’m not entirely convinced the contents will be as persuasive as the title, but I’m looking forward to finding out.
Watching the man on stage, his bright eyes and engaging smile make it difficult to imagine him as a child soldier. This image develops, however, as he recounts his childhood in the Congo when, as a five-year-old boy, he was abducted from a soccer field into a life of war. As I look over the faces of the audience I am evidently not the only one spellbound by Michel's tale. Nor could I be the only one wondering how he came to stand in front of the packed gallery today.
Michel Chikwanine, a charming and eloquent speaker, holds the crowd's rapt attention while his mother and two sisters sit beaming. The focus of his talk, though, is not on his personal tragedy, but on his inspirational message. This remarkable positivity shines through the pages of his book Child Soldier: When Boys and Girls Are Used in War , a beautifully illustrated graphic novel detailing his capture and grisly initiation into a rebel militia.
With the unfolding of his story, I notice a creeping mosaic of feelings likely familiar to many westerners hearing tales of third-world plight. The first is the guilt that comes from realizing that a tragic reality I had pushed to my mind's periphery now stands before me. The next is a feeling of awe, that something so profoundly difficult could be this heroically overcome. Then comes a hot indignation that such horrors are still present today, with over 250,000 child soldiers currently spread across the world. Daunting as this picture is, the one feeling I don't experience is despair. Perhaps Michel's enthusiasm is contagious. Or maybe it's hearing about the awful trials he surmounted. Whatever the cause of my optimism, the expressions of the crowd tell me I am in good company.
In all honesty, I had envisioned a dour occasion, but almost immediately I could sense that his was not a tale of horror but a story of hope. As in his book, the fabric of Chikwanine’s speech is woven together by two equal themes: courage and knowledge. Clearly he has adopted these traits from his parents; his mother's strength emanates from the audience, his father's presence is almost palpable on the stage.
Michel's father, a human rights lawyer, made many enemies speaking up against abuses by the corrupt Congolese government. The young Michel, catching wind of the threats against his father, once asked if he was afraid. His father replied that everyone dies, what matters is the legacy we pass on to our family and to the world.
Following his father's assassination, Michel moved with his family to Canada, seeking opportunity and safety. So improved was his situation that Michel recalls feeling baffled listening to children complain about their lunch food and cell phones. Today's youth can view the scale of global problems with a helpless cynicism; the question "what can I do?" becoming almost rhetorical. Michel's first-hand experiences gives him a unique capability to offer an answer.
Michel proclaims what Africa needs above all else is a restructuring of the education system. He explains that the current model is nearly an empty vessel, with many schools still using history textbooks written by British colonialists in the 1950s. Humanitarian aid must be refocused away from creating a culture of dependence and towards educational programs helping communities empower themselves.
While all human beings share an equal capacity for courage, Michel believes that Western peoples have prospered because we are equipped with knowledge. In particular, he points to the skills of critical thinking and entrepreneurialism, referring to them as the West's most desperately needed export. The aim, he says, is not to import a foreign culture, but for Africa to complement its historical identity with 21st century dignity. Michel believes that only through the alleviation of ignorance can we eliminate poverty, and with it, the tragic phenomena of child soldiers.
Deeper than the scars of war are the marks left by his loving parents. Michel's book is an uplifting portrayal of his hard-won lessons. It concludes with a roadmap to the future and to the renewal of a continent. Watching Michel accept an enthusiastic applause I can't help but believe in the possibilities he described, and in the human ability to transform adversity into real world change.
“Well this is the strangest pairing!” Camilla Gibb laughed gently. The audience at the Writers Festival event Only Interpretations with AJ Somerset and Camilla Gibb tittered ruefully. Camilla Gibb has written five books, each most likely featured in book clubs across the country, mostly centering around female protagonists on an emotional journey. Her latest, This is Happy, features Gibb herself at the centre of an absorbing memoir about being abandoned by her wife at eight months pregnant and rebuilding her life by gathering a makeshift family of similarly broken people under her roof. Sarah Polley’s quotation follows the book through review after review: “This Is Happy broke me, lifted me up, and filled me. I can't remember the last time I read something so honest, tender, brutal and kind.” AJ Somerset’s second book, Arms , is a spittingly angry treatise on gun culture and its history in Canada and the United States. Judging from the lack of people with both books to be signed at the end of the performance, there wasn’t a lot of overlap between the readers.
Listening to Somerset, I reflected on how marginal he is: a literary gun enthusiast who hates gun culture. Somerset is a former gunnery instructor with the Canadian army and sports shooter who has permanent tinnitus from the sound of his shotgun going off while trapshooting. And yet, as a thoughtful sports journalist with left-wing values, he is enraged by the airtight identity that is assumed along with gun ownership, “And of course you are also assumed to hold a set of shared beliefs on any number of subjects completely unrelated to guns – on partisan politics and government and climate change and environmental regulations and religion and whether the war in Iraq was a good idea – as if your gun had come with a free, bonus ideological Family Pack.”
Somerset’s quest is not to problematize this identity from his unique position but rather to expound upon his hatred of gun culture with increasing frenzy. The audience was left riddled with stories of insane opinions about gun control, easily preventable tragedies and, most distressingly, the twisting of feminist ideology in support of female ownership of guns. Quoting Margaret Atwood (quoting Gavin Becker): “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” Somerset went on to describe the twisted logic that women need guns for protection from men combined with the sexualisation of women with guns. He spat out “pictures of perky blonds with pink-trimmed camouflage tank tops” with the distaste of someone taking an accidental sip of rubbing alcohol. Somerset began the evening as a pleasant, well-spoken guest and finished his lengthy reading as a wild-eyed ideologue. Devoting such energy to, as he describes it, “gurgling idiocy,” will do that to a person. Somerset noted that to further dialogue over gun control we “have to stop flinging monkey shit at each other, to come down from the treetops, and conduct ourselves like adults,” but I had the distinct impression that he had taken us into the mud and rubbed our faces into it.
Camilla Gibb does not have the luxury of such anger. Her enemy, if I can, is not a social force, but the person closest to her: her wife of ten years who somewhat scandalously left her eight months pregnant, telling her that she was no longer attracted to her. The book begins with this catalyst, but then leaves it firmly behind, only present as Gibb’s enduring sadness as she begins again. In her quest to rebuild her life, Gibb picks up people who are equally broken, drawn (I imagine) to her steadfast progress, step after labouring step, towards the home and family she wanted to have. The story is heartbreaking in its simplicity. Gibb holds up her experience as if in the palm of her hand, unornamented by judgement, blame, or literary pyrotechnics. She noted, “I was like a train driving at a wall. There was no poetry. Sometimes you search endlessly for the right metaphor, and then you can just use the word. It surprised me how simple it could be.”
Gibb’s quiet, grounded openness left a huge space for the audience to feel close to her. She chatted conspiratorially about the people who figure in the book who contacted her afterwards, revealing, as if to a close friend, that her ex-boyfriend’s father had texted her recently. She answered each question with simple warmth, prising off the awkwardness around overly-enthusiastic questions to reveal the simple exchange at their heart. I wondered how much therapy she had to go through to be able to face clumsy audiences with such generosity. For her short reading, she recounted a harrowing childhood experience with her mentally unstable father and reflected, “You know, I wasn’t sure how we were going to make a link. But then I realized…” she flashed the room audience a brilliant smile, “my story has a gun in it, too!”
The ARC Poetry Spoken Word Celebration launched the magazine’s special issue bringing spoken word to print, and it was clear in the words delivered that this was a labor of love. If writing a book is like birthing a baby, the launch must be that moment when the baby crowns and bursts forth with its own voice raised. That sense of expectancy, the hush in the room, the excitement of beginning, the rhythm of breath, that was the feel of the night at Maxwell’s on Elgin.
The drama was in four acts, led by poets Kevin Matthews, Cat Kidd, Ian Keteku, and Tanya Evanson, who also guest edited the issue, and hosted by Rhonda Douglas of ARC Poetry. For those who know spoken word poetry, it will come as no surprise that some poems were political and dramatic in their delivery, seeking to promote change in the hearts of their listeners. These presented varied narratives, from Cat Kidd’s Hyena Subpoena, a raging meditation on the misunderstood and villainized, to Ian Keteku’s rant at the members of the Westboro Baptist Church. Between all the charged ideas and the stories, though, an undercurrent pulsed. Though spoken word poets deliver performances that can seem fringe, with polarizing content, the truth is they seek meaning through the fleeting connections between their words and the audience. Many of the poems performed were as universal in theme as any art: life and death, love and loss, beginnings and endings, and dreams of a new world. This was a night about the rhythm of existence, and the meaning we find in it, fitting for the commemoration of printing work that normally is only expressed ephemerally. But it was fun, thanks to the personalities and variety of techniques employed by the poets. These four are very comfortable in their medium and the audience was set at ease; yet their mastery of words and sound kept us on the edge of our seats, alternately laughing and rapt with attention, eager to hear what would come next.
Kevin Matthews opened the evening with a poem about poetry, a masterpiece of breath and voice that resonated with those in the crowd to immediately open the evening to the right tone. The room was accepting, receiving the words and giving back laughter, applause, murmurs of agreement—this is why a spoken word poem is performed and not in print. His rhythmic the love song of Roy G Biv playfully opened the way for the rest of the night’s poetry. When Cat Kidd delivered her vulnerable Sea Peach, which examines the stripping down of fears necessary to let love win in your life, it was moving and profound. She travelled all over the space, using music and almost singing at times while using props and movement to accentuate the cadence of the lines. Ian Keteku burst out third, throwing his entertaining and scathing poems out first, but he changed pace before he left to deliver some slow and low thoughts on mortality in his poem Chalk. The room held its breath while Keteku spoke instructions for his body after death: give it to the ocean and let plankton feed on it, and when they turn to limestone, use the limestone that was my body to write my name for my children, and teach them that writing was my life’s meaning. It was a stilling moment.
The pause was followed by Tanya Evanson, whose status as the guest editor of ARC Poetry’s Spoken Word Issue made her the lady of the hour. She strode up with dignity and spoke with a presence seen in orators, but with expression marking her voice as her own. She spoke poems about her father, incorporating idiomatic snippets of dialogue and rhythm to underscore the diction. Her final poem of the evening, ostensibly about garbage, delved back into thoughts of mortality and the evanescence of human life. It is a preoccupation of these poets whose work lives only while they do, but what they do with the subject matter is not depressing; to a one, the poets bring us back to the moment of creation and show us that it is for that creation we have come, and for it we will celebrate. There is something quite beautiful in pausing to observe that which cannot last, because our lives and our memories are made up of these mere transient moments. “Happy full moon,” said Tanya Evanson, and the room cheered, “Happy hunter’s moon,” and everyone erupted. So it was—a night of celebration, and since ARC Poetry has promised an ongoing commitment to continue to feature spoken word, there will perhaps be more birthdays to come.
By most measures, modern food production mirrors the success of modern technology. Consider the growth in corn yields over the past century - In 1932, farmers grew an average 27 bushels of corn per acre; today, yields have increased more than tenfold to over 328 bushels per acre. This is a story that has been repeated across countless crops from tomatoes to strawberries and much more. Even livestock has seen similar growth; the average commercial chicken has more than quadrupled in size since the 1950s.
However, as with most other facets of life (from attention to employment), technological productivity carries unintended consequences. Artificially breeding food for size, speed of growth, pest resistance, shelf life and appearance has come with unanticipated but costly consequences; namely, the loss of flavour and nutrition. This is the subject of Mark Schatzker’s new book The Dorito Effect: The Surprising New Truth About Food and Flavor and Schatzker was on hand at the Ottawa International Writers Festival on October 26th to discuss his book and speak broadly on how seventy years of industrial farming has changed our relationship with food and health.
While aesthetically pleasing and highly productive, modern crops bred for artificially selected traits are equally notable for their blandness and lack of flavour. This is because flavour is intimately tied to the nutritional content of food and, as Schatzker eagerly conveyed, the nutritional content of food has been in rapid decline for the better part of the past century. As a result, people are now eating more calorie-rich food than ever to meet regular nutritional needs.
Of course, this is only half the story. If modern food were entirely bland and flavourless then why would we eat it, let alone in morbidly unhealthy quantities? The answer is what Schatzker refers to as the Dorito Effect. Doritos, like all other delicious but nutritionally-vacant foods, owes its popularity to the creation of synthetic flavour technology which makes blandness attractive. Highly engineered flavours, whether ‘natural’ or ‘artificial’, produce flavours to mask the blandness of the actual product.
Displaying enthusiastic familiarity with his subject, Schatzker challenged his audience to consider the consequences that hijacking the biological bias for flavour through the twin forces of flavour dilution and fake flavour has had on our society. Obesity is now our biggest health problem. Today in Canada more than 70 percent of people are either overweight or obese. Our food has become a slow acting poison.
Public health responses to the issue have traditionally focused on specific nutrients in our food as the culprit of our crisis. We put carbohydrates, or fats, or gluten, et cetera on trial before public kangaroo courts in the media. This only considers the effect of food only once it has been eaten. Instead, Schatzker asks us to consider the entire range of decisions made to support our eating habits and behaviour. To consider a relationship with food that begins with what is produced and how in order that we may better understand our health crisis.
Dark and dreary night? Check. Dimly lit, atmospheric room? Check. Three individuals with the knowledge and the know how to commit grisly murders, and get away with them? Check, check and check.
While not nearly as gruesome as the sum of its parts, the festival’s “Scene of the Crime” night highlighted the inner workings of what goes into constructing (and solving!) some of literatures greatest crimes, bringing together three celebrated crime novelists to discuss exactly what goes into their minds, when they go into the mind of a crook.
Featuring “Denmark’s Queen of Crime” Sarah Blaedel, bird enthusiast Steve Burrows and Arthur Elis Award winner Giles Blunt, the night began with passages read from each of their respective new stories. Blaedel began the night recanting a passage from her new story The Forgotten Girls , which told of a frantic trip through the woods, ending in a case of mistaken identity and murder.
Burrows chose two passages to read to the audience, in order to demonstrate the split nature of his book. An avid bird enthusiast, Burrows has built his writing career through mixing his hobby of birding with his love of crime novels. His readings came from his book A Pitying of Doves (how he was able to resist calling his book “A Murder Most Fowl” is beyond me). The first passage he read showed off the birding side of Burrows, with the main character attempting to enjoy bird watching with his wife, while the second passage made a sharp right turn down death alley, following a dying man’s last moments as he delivers a mysterious package to his wife.
While not directly crime related, Giles Blunts new story The Hesitation Cut demonstrated just how much talent Blunt brings to the literary table, telling a detailed and amusing story of a monk tempted by the world outside of his monastery.
After the pieces were read, the conversation turned more towards the art of crafting the perfect crime, with each author offering their perspective on how they create not only believable characters, but believable settings as well. All three authors admitting writing from a place a familiarity, with Blaedal going as far as to base her new story in a semi fictional version of her home town. Burrows enthusiastically admitted that much of the joy of his writing comes from his own fascination with birds, and while Blunt admits that he is not nearly as charismatic as the lead in his long-running series of crime novels, much of his writing does come from things that interest him in some way or another, be it subject matter or location.
When asked about bringing something new to the genre, each author was passionate about what they wish to say with their stories. Blunt was critical of how detectives are portrayed in popular media, shown as mavericks and lose cannons who play by their own rules, and wouldn’t last a second in real world bureaucracies. He wanted to bring to life a competent, by-the-books detective who, while not perfect by any means, was still a normal guy dealing with things the proper way.
Blaedel spoke about creating a character that evolved as she did, creating a new identity for herself over the length of the serious, changing and learning from her experiences and relationships, and allowing the character the flesh themselves out in a unique way.
“I’m just trying to find different ways to kill a person,” said Burrows with a laugh, ending off the night.
Filled with intrigue, murder and needed does of laughter, The Scene of the Crime showed the audience just what kind of minds it takes to make some of their favourite crimes come to life, demonstrating how anyone you pass on the street may have the perfect murder cooking in their heads.
It was encouraging to see volunteers pull out more chairs to seat the audience before this ‘Living History’ event. The historical fiction novels, Wild Rose by Sharon Butala, Matrons and Madams by Sharon Johnston and A Superior Man by Paul Yee imagine the lives of the lower class, the marginalized in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
As is the custom, host Susan Birkwood introduced each author and invited each to read a selection from their book. Quite out of the custom was to hear one of the authors, Paul Yee, recite an entire selection from his book without once referencing text. A Superior Man is centred in the time around and after the building of the CPR in Canada. Yang Hok, raised in a dysfunctional home in China, is in Canada working on a logging crew, a coolie. He is trying to restore respect to his family while toiling in an environment where the work is sub-human. Yee found there was little documented history about “peasants in the late 19th century” and the life of the coolies in Western Canada. At a time of social breakdown and a huge population boom in China, Yee imagines the lives of the men, who were likely “rebels, troublemakers and bitter”.
Matrons and Madams is Sharon Johnston’s first novel. The story is set in Lethbridge, Alberta after the First World War. Clara Durling, matron of the hospital, establishes the first venereal-disease clinic in Alberta, with Lily Parsons, a former schoolteacher and manager of a brothel called the Last Post. The views and actions of conservative thinkers, of prostitutes and gamblers, of union organizers are recounted. The city of Lethbridge openly accepted prostitution. The rate of ‘venereal disease’ was skyrocketing and the concept of public health was little known. It was a struggle to change attitudes and improve health, something Johnston noted that we continue to experience to this day. Johnston used her own grandmother’s experience as Matron in the hospital in Lethbridge, Alberta as a basis for story.
Wild Rose by Sharon Butala is centered on the life of Sophie Hippolyte, a young, naive Québécois woman in the 1880s. She moves to Saskatchewan to homestead with her new husband. After a few years he deserts her and their toddler son, the land is sold out from under her (the Dominion Lands Act made it impossible for women to own land) and she is left to try to make an honourable life in a time where women had few rights. In the small outpost of Bone Pile, Sophie starts a small business using her wits and resourcefulness. Several women in the town have also been abandoned and they must make difficult choices to survive. Her strict upbringing in the Catholic Church, the uncertainties of the future in Bone Pile or further west are all in play as Sophie considers her options for the future. Butala read novels of the period about life in Eastern townships to understand Sophie’s perspective.
During the panel discussion the authors spoke of how works of historical fiction provide the freedom and liberty to imagine the life of the lower class or marginalized where there is little or no documented history. Each novel, in its own way, tells of strength of character, human frailty and the impact of relationships on individuals and on communities, bringing life to history.
As Neil Wilson, founding director of the Ottawa International Writers Festival shared in his opening remarks at this event, hopefully the recent ‘climate change’ in Ottawa will be able to start addressing such issues as inaction on climate change and mismanagement of the environment. Wilson subsequently introduced the three authors speaking tonight, sharing that together, they provide an "essential overview of our most important natural resources, our economy and our very future."
First off was Andrew Nikiforuk, who has been writing about oil and related issues for some 20 years, winning numerous prizes along the way. He was one of the first to write about hydraulic fracking. His most recent book is Slick Water . Accompanied by clear and informative images, Nikiforuk explores one of the terribly important impacts of hydraulic fracturing: dramatic ground contamination.
Nikiforuk continued by introducing the audience to a central person from his book, Jessica Ernst. After many years working with the oil business, Ernst launched a multimillion-dollar court case in 2007. This court case was against one of the biggest companies in the business—EnCana—, the Alberta government and the Alberta Energy Regulator in court. One aspect of the case is on its way to the Supreme Court of Canada. Why, you ask? Because Ernst discovered the she could light the water from her well on fire due to high levels of methane gas. In her research, Ernst discovered that this was not an isolated case, but that methane gas has been escaping from hydraulic fracturing in many places and on an ongoing basis.
Cheap gas is coming to an end, and Nikiforuk commented that we had best prepare ourselves. Covering up by the oil industry, the government and regulators has to be challenged. Nikiforuk commented that mini-earthquakes are on the rise, which are partially deliberate in order to free more gas. Nikiforuk links these current problems to the history of fracking as far back as the 1860s in Pennsylvania. In those days, when miners depleted one well, they opened up another, and continued to do so over time. Jessica Ernst's work has continued on without much media attention. Nikiforuk's book brings her story and fight to a wider public.
Next during the event was Louis Helbig, who was working as an economist with the government up until 2006, when he left his position to become an artist full time. His book, Beautiful Destruction , takes readers into the air above the oil sands and the surrounding landscapes. The book project started in 2009 and with a photo exhibition in 2010 including some of the images that are now in the book. The exhibition was accompanied by a comment book in which viewers could share their impressions of the images. Subsequently, this comment book took on a life of its own, opening up space for dialogue. What makes Beautiful Destruction most unique are the essays written by diverse public figures: from First Nations' elders to oil executives, as well as many other concerned persons.
Helbig defines the ‘oil sands’ as a cultural problem, largely because people can't even agree on the term. Arguments around the issue of oil are divisive and polarizing. Helbig believes that this leaves little opportunity for finding new group, and hopes that his role as an artist can better engage people’s imaginations.
The third and final speaker at this event was Marq de Villiers, a well-known expert on water issues and an award-winning author. His new book, Back to the Well , challenges us to rethink the future of water, as there is a looming water crisis. The problem, de Villiers contends, is not that we have one big crisis, to which pollution and mismanagement contribute in a major way, but rather that the world faces thousands of smaller, regional crises.
This should make the aforementioned crises easier to address. Nevertheless, de Villiers commented, it is important to remind ourselves of important information; for example, that a child dies every six seconds due to water contamination. While stressing the severity of the issue, de Villiers also sees several paths to solutions. His newest book outlines two particular paths: desalination and cleaning processes. He provided a few particularly interesting examples, such as the surprising contaminant of the Spanish Mediterranean coastline: suntan oil. De Villiers also shared a more encouraging anecdote: that Windhoek, the capital of Namibia, recycles all of its water (an important piece of information in light of the recent drought in California).
Each of the three authors provide significant food for thought, which was certainly seen in the brief but lively discussion to conclude the event. Ultimately, this event successfully demonstrated that everything is connected, particularly when the environment is involved.