WritersFest II: Men’s Night

There was a superb collection of brainy and passionate literary warriors last night in Ottawa. (I was there, too!) Session One of another evening at the Writers’ Festival was titled “Canada: The Imagination of Place”, and it took the often-banal national navel-gazing to a level of intelligent feeling that we don’t often don’t come near.

B.W. Powe discussed and read from his (again) newly revised A Canada of Light, which examines the philosophy and perception underlying the country. He is not without self-confidence, and describes the book as “my ‘Leaves of Grass’, my attempt to do for Canada what Walt Whitman did for the United States”. Or maybe he just meant that the centre of his life and thought is right there, and he keeps going back ‘til he gets it right. (Did Whitman do the same?) “We should celebrate the solitudes and the strangeness of this country,” he says, “because Canada works very well in fact, just not in theory!” Canada offers to the world, he argues, not a mirror but “a new premise, a new ethic” based on what he calls, oxymoron intended, a “radical rootlessness”. Yes, he invokes Innis and McLuhan, and has something of the wild-eyed romantic about him. Powe, eloquently and forcefully, puts forward a poetic vision of the country, one that opposes the ever-present forces that subvert hopefulness and joy. He wants us to understand what is in front of our faces right now, to “face the present! For the future is implicit in it.” Powe is passionate and lyrical about our country, its place in an evolving world, and would like for all of us to see it more clearly.

So would Andrew Cohen, whose While Canada Slept bemoaned our loss of moral (not to mention military and diplomatic) influence in the world, has now come out with The Unfinished Canadian. He examines the Great Northern Project from a more historic and political viewpoint — our collective choice of evolution over revolution — and his urgently practical manner was an interesting counterpoint to Powe’s visionary urbanity (“Beware! Beware! His flashing eyes, his floating hair!”). Substituting as he was for Roy McGregor (who was puck chasing with Sidney Crosby and the Senators), Cohen told a hockey story to illustrate one of his strongest points. After the hail of criticism that fell on the Canadian women’s hockey team (and the women’s game itself) as they stir-fried their opponents at the Torino Olympics, star Cassie Campbell had to wonder. “Just what is it about this country that we get slammed for excellence?” Ah, the tall poppies. They must be cut down to size! Cohen decries our poor grasp of our own history, and our reflexive anti-Americanism, dismissing the recent bestseller Fire and Ice precisely because it panders to our desperate urge to see ourselves not only as separate from the Americans but, well, better than them. While there are real differences, Cohen finds it rather unbecoming to “protest too much” (and so inaccurately). He’s an unabashed nationalist, however. To the charge that nationalism is so 19th-century, such a violent albatross from the past, he responds with a call for civic nationalism: pride in our institutions, in the ethics and practices we have evolved and the good things Canucks have made and done in the world. It is, on the other hand, the ethnically based nationalism, he argues, that is limiting and has such rich harvests of bigotry, war and misery. It was all good stuff.

Next up was the third of the Writers’ Festival’s “Writing Life” series, featuring two men I’d never heard of and a third I’d never read. I find writers sharing their work unfailingly interesting, but I was particularly impressed last night. Neil Smith read from his debut collection of short stories, Bang Crunch. Having been a student in Montreal when the 1989 massacre of 14 women occurred – and with Virginia Tech reverberating in every mind – Mr. Smith read from a disturbing mass-murder tale of his own invention. He has an unusual reading voice and style, and was quite compelling. I’ll be paying more attention. C.S. Richardson is another first-time author, after a distinguished and ongoing career in the visual arts and design. (He was the designer of Smith’s book, for example.) What an engaging person and writer: his character descriptions flow beautifully, unpredictably, in his novel The End of the Alphabet. Because of what he selected, I have little idea of the plot, but sign me up – this is a novel I want to read.

The third writer, Lawrence Hill, has made a sensation with his newest novel, The Book of Negroes. It is a shameful omission that I haven’t read him before. For one thing, he’s from my neck of the southern Ontario woods, but his background couldn’t be much different – intellectual American parents, a white mother and black father who came to Canada to escape bigoted attitudes (and laws) toward racially mixed marriages. He has been writing the stories of his own family, of the African diaspora and especially the North American experience of it. His reading from Negroes was outstanding. He has told this story of many stories in the voice of an African woman, from her youth in what is now Mali, her enslavement and her release from it after the American Revolutionary War, a Black Loyalist move to Nova Scotia and one of the first back-to-Africa voyages ever made by a black community. At the beginning of the novel, and again at the end, we listen to her as an elderly woman in Britain at the height of the movement to abolish the slave trade. With this year marking 200 years since that epochal change, Hill’s timing is excellent but, more importantly, he has the story and he has the voice. It’s funny: I’ve never read the man before, but one night in his company has made me a big fan. He is gracious, enormously eloquent, and there’s a quiet fire burning in all that he says and writes.

Chalk up another great night for the wordwatchers. And somehow, the Senators managed to defeat Sidney and the Penguins without me frozen in front of the tube.

Writers Festival Highlights

I read Andrew Cohen’s While Canada Slept about a year and a half ago. He’s an Ottawa man, so though his book isn’t new, he’s here and his book is even more relevant. Questions about Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan keep growing with every young man (and one woman) that we bring home to bury. Are we returning to a time when Canada “punches above its weight” as far as international influence goes? Cohen recommends it, from a military but especially from diplomatic and development perspectives. This is a smart and eloquent guy. If he was more prone to performance and less to dispassionate analysis, he’d be a big star in the punditocratic constellation. Punditocratic. a. describing those who make their living by entertaining us with their knowledge. Word of the day. Word to your father. You’re welcome.

Steven Manners has the look of a stubbornly loyal but chronically disappointed pro sports fan. (The Cubs. The Leafs.) He makes Cohen look like a sharpie, a vaudeville showman, but his wryly detached delivery began to grown on me as he discussed his Super Pills: The Prescription Drugs We Love to Take. I enjoyed his historical reminders of how root beer and Coca-Cola starting out as tonics, in the great tradition of Ayer’s Sarsparilla and Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound. (For example, only when the forerunner of the American Food and Drug Administration began to investigate why Coke “contains neither coca nor kola” did the company begin marketing it as a mere beverage.) Mainly, though, his book addresses the modern phenomenon that has been called “cosmetic psychopharmacology”: the avid search for and consequently ready supply of meds designed to make us “better than well”. Valium. Prozac. Ritalin. Viagra. The list is long, and the stories around them are a caution. We do love our magic bullets.

After Mr. Manners, I hustled over to fancier digs at Ottawa’s famous Chateau Laurier ballroom to hear my Ol’ Boss, former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson. Her memoir Heart Matters is monstrously important for me and all my former colleagues, and is making a predictably big splash in Canadian newspapers and bookstores. Many in the large crowd, I’m sure, were anxious to hear the “state secrets” she has been admonished in some circles for telling. She was not a big fan of Prime Minister Paul Martin, it is now publicly clear, but she dismisses any idea that she’s broken a sacred code. In any case, she didn’t share anything from that part of the book. What she did read was fine storytelling, much of which I hadn’t heard before, about her family’s harrowing refugee experience and growing up an immigrant in a then very white Canada. She is a superb performer, of course, but she read far too long and the subsequent delightful conversation with host Ken Rockburn was far too short. (Yes, she simply cannot do without me. Ahem.) But then again, the line of book buyers eager to have it signed went on and on. I was in it.

The “Big Idea” series continued Monday night with Stephen O’Shea and his book Sea of Faith: Islam and Christianity in the Medieval Mediterranean World. I was not familiar with O’Shea, but he’s impressive and I’ll read his book. He’s a journalist writing history, and made a point about the importance of being in the place where great events occurred, and not merely consulting texts in libraries. This was perhaps a gentle critique of academic historians and also of our frequent tendency to give greater weight to abstraction and reference than to direct and felt experience. O’Shea devotes much of the book to countering a pervasive fallacy: the idea that war and conflict is what defines the course of history. Most accounts of medieval relations between Christianity and Islam focus on the great battles (“if it bleeds, it leads”), but O’Shea gives considerable attention to the long periods of peace and productive interaction between the two faith communities. He coins the term “Islamochristian civilization”, and terms the historic relationship as “a sibling rivalry, not this dangerous shibboleth of the ‘clash of civilizations’”. And as for “East is East, and West is West”? O’Shea argues, very convincingly, that “the twain did meet, and mingle, and marry”. He eloquently expresses his dismay at the contemporary toxic rhetoric that mixes politics and religion, and especially the West’s ignorance of Islam and its ongoing “fear of the Turk” – a renewable resource, it appears. “Religion, for all its solace, will always be a ready hand grenade for those who wish to make war,” he said. And I liked the following example, thrown off during questioning after his thoughtful and appealing talk. It’s a good conversation starter (or ender!), and rattles some of the slack-minded impressions of Islam into a new context. “Osama bin Laden is as much a Muslim,” O’Shea stated, “as David Koresh and the Branch Davidians at Waco were Christian…” This guy is good. (I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and listening about Islam lately. If you’d like a sample, start here.)