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WritersFest III: Prisoner of Tehran

So many things to catch up on – it was a jam-packed weekend, but in my non-teaching period at the Home of the Rams I can get a little posting done. (It’s a supply teaching gig, so no marking, no prep! No steady income, either, mind you. Compensations.) Saturday began with an Earth Day festival of story, dance and other artful expressions of faith in human beings (a scarce but renewable resource) and reverence for the environment (ditto). Yes, and worm-powered composts, electric bikes, grassroots community-building and off-grid power. (All of which is green and great but, I admit, has nothing to do with prisoners or Tehran.) Then we roared off to further Ridván (“Paradise”) festivities, which did have to do with Bahá’u’lláh, the exiled Persian nobleman, also a Prisoner of Tehran. But that’s not the prisoner I mean, either.

From the mid-afternoon Ridván observance, I was off and running again to catch what remained of the Ottawa International Writers’ Festival and its second-to-last day. Especially, I wanted to hear more of the story of featured, first-time author Marina Nemat – yes, I AM getting to the point of this post! – who was jailed as a teenager in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison. Her crime, apparently, was to be a young woman with opinions; she spoke up to a high school teacher, asking that the class get back to what they were supposed to be learning and not the pseudo-religious political dogma that was being spouted. Not a prudent position to take in 1982 in the immediately post-revolution Iran! Her torture and imprisonment, her spookily brutal marriage to her jailer and her eventual escape from Iran have made for a tremendous story, one that she couldn’t tell for many long years as she rebuilt her life in Canada.

Marina Nemat is a very young-looking 42 now. Over the last several years, she found the courage (and perhaps the desperate need) to write her story. “I was a volcano,” she says simply. “I had to write this.”  And in facing the inevitable survivor’s guilt, as one who found a tangled path by which to walk away from Evin when others she knew did not, she eventually decided that making her story public was her raison d’être. “I realized that I was the perfect person to be a witness to what happened to my generation in Iran. I felt strongly that…this was why I had survived,” she told us. “I had to show that they had not forced me to change my mind.”

She speaks with great dignity and directness. At one point, she was asked from the audience whether she fears for relatives back home, or for her own life. There was no drama in her answer, but the simple bravery was breathtaking. There are perhaps “some second cousins” left in Iran, so she does not worry about anyone else in her homeland being made to suffer for her candour. And as for herself, she says, “I will never wear a bullet-proof vest or have a bodyguard. I was a captive to fear for too long, and I would rather live one day freely than 20 years with a bodyguard. That is not living.” We all love our writers at this Ottawa celebration of the power of the word, but after this remarkable window into a world of fearsome oppression, the applause went on and on. It was a day when the standing ovation was not a mere artistic convention, but a symbol of profound respect. The gratitude of strangers.

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.

Cold and Bright

We woke up to minus 30 degree temperatures in Ottawa this morning, and ever since local warming ended on about January 15, it’s been crackling cold here. (We were sorry to have missed two weeks of skating and skiiing, but Guadeloupe had its compensations. More on that warm adventure is still to come.)

And because of a small obsession of mine, our Tiny Perfect Backyard Rink™ was ready this morning, and my frisky critter spent nearly an hour wheeling and falling and apple-cheeking before I dragged him in for breakfast and we ran for the school bus. Sam doesn’t know much about hockey, but he loves it. He is six. Everything is amazing except WAITING. (So should it be for all of us.)

I had a great long walk in the chill, bright sunshine, finishing my second reading of The War of Art before returning it to the library. Great stuff, and more on that to come, as well. (It will further my backsliding “don’t buy it ’til you’ve read it” resolution.) After milk and cookies with Wendy, I came home to read about another fine prairie woman, Pamela Wallin. She was Canada’s Consul-General in New York for several years, and I was struck by her assessment of Canada/U.S. relations and why we get so prickly:

We are obsessed with the Americans, and they are not obsessed with us.”

Ah. Right. There was more, but I found that pithy and complete.

High Points for LitWits

Just a few more (lately logged) comments on the Ottawa International Writers Festival, among which will not appear a re-opening of the debate about whether there should be an apostrophe at the end of “Writers” (except to say that it’s an adjective, not necessarily a possessive one, and with the ridiculous littering of apostrophes where they ought not to be, leaning toward exclusion where it can safely be justified is fine by me, so there!) (Was there ever a debate?)

• Especially for those who remember well the Air India disaster, and the Canadian implications in other explosions of religious extremism, Anita Rau Badami’s Can You Hear the Nightbird Call will be very interesting reading. It dances between Indo-Canadian communities and the murderous background of Sikhs versus Hindus in the Punjab. Sounds good.

• High school English teachers can having a writing life. Brent Leo Robillard (Houdini’s Shadow) has proved it. (Unsure whether to praise or curse him.)

• English professors can write with humour, irreverence and sauce. Randy Boyagoda’s Governor of the Northern Province skewers several Canadian complacencies, institutions and sloppily held ideals.

• While I am impatient with the partisanship and constant posturing that is built in to our governing system, I do have time for the characters in the play. Found Eddy Goldenberg (How It Works) and his discussion of his decades as “back-room boy” to former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien interesting. He tells a funny story of Mr. Chrétien’s first social visit with George Bush, where the President’s attempt at small talk (okay, do I know any Canadians?) began with his admiring view of Conrad Black, sworn antagonist to the PM who wouldn’t agree to a Canuck being allowed entry into the British House of Lords. There were several Bush anecdotes, at least one of which is getting some play in Washington (his reference to stringing the source of government leaks up by the thumbs, “just like we do at Guantanamo Bay”.) Interesting from an insider point of view, and also for the sake of humanizing a government process that can seem foggy and far away.

• I had known of Michael Redhill as the editor of Brick, a literary magazine, and as a playwright, but my knowledge of theatre is pathetic. Hearing him read from his latest novel, Consolation, has put a new entry on my must read list. (This may not be a compliment these days, but he reminded me of Mel Gibson a few months after firing his personal trainer.) I enjoyed his turn of phrase as a writer, and found his comments incisive and intelligent. And a bit of a caution: “All writers have diseased egos – and in awards season, it metastasizes”; and “Why publish? I find myself quite perplexed about why I do this.” This is someone I’d like to know.

Writers Festival Day 1

One of the highlights of my year is a big shindig of word people talking about their words, and word-ivores like me snuffling contentedly at the word trough. As a writer, libraries can be overwhelming and bookstores – especially that big used bookstore downtown, with all those dried-out husks of once-hopeful publication – can knock me down and dishonour my remains. The Ottawa International Writers Festival does me good, though.

I’m inspired by great sentences. I’m inspired, in an odd but clear way, by the ordinariness of the people. When the writers are great, I’m inspired to believe that I could be good, too. (It took me a surprisingly long time to realize the degree to which I idealized, nay deified, writers. Traces of outworn idolatry remain, but the WritersFest helps me cleanse the sanctuary.) When the writers are mediocre, a less noble inspiration turns my crankiness: if (s)he can do it, NO MORE WAITING for me!! It’s not exactly righteous anger, but it’s a deformed cousin of it. Details at eleven. (Or whenever I strap myself to the keyboard next.)

Learning Steve Earle

Folk festival patrons, at least in my city, are pretty responsible about their beer, tougher than the weather, radically considerate and likely to be sporting some grey. (Or if not, more hair than generally goes well with a power suit.) So I’d have known, even without paying attention to the program, that Steve Earle was about to take the Ottawa stage. The flushed posse of X- and Y-types – generations, not chromosomes – filed in front of my carefully selected, four-hours-earned, low-slung chaired location. They’d been in hiding, I guess, in the beer tents until the no-names had gotten out of the way. They strode, boldly and without fear of offence, to stand in front of us and help good ol’ Steve with his performance.

I’m a great believer in lost or long-shot causes, but I wasn’t going to wait for them to sit down. So I stood shoulder to beery shoulder with my new best friends. I learned some things; a few of them actually knew his more recent stuff, including The Revolution Starts…Now (and hey, it won a Grammy, I learned that) and not just “Guitar Town” and “Hillbilly Highway” from his 1980s hit-single days. (Lord knows, a lot of water and whisky and such under the bridge since then. And a lot of music, too, especially in the last 10 years.) And there was the man, with two roadies but no band, and caring little enough for stage-craft and slickness that he wore glasses, no hat for his balding head and a bit of paunch under the untucked plaid. Sure, he sang “I Ain’t Ever Satisfied” early in the proceedings, and closed with “Copperhead Road”. But in between, he determinedly sang what he wanted to, leaving power chords and drumbeats behind (at least on this trip).

It was a soulful, uncluttered performance. He’s a real songwriter, better than I’d thought, and he dealt ‘em out without much fanfare. The bellowed requests from the bar-crowd slowed down after he drawled, “You know, this is kinda like my job. I think I remember the playlist…” Was he going through the motions? I don’t think so, but I’ve never seen him live before. Certainly there was some discontent about the low-key individuality of the show, but not from the majority folkies. They were there to listen, I guess, more than to dance, and they were generally more receptive to the angry politics of “Rich Man’s War”, for example, or to the rambling introduction to a song Earle dedicated to his mentor, Townes Van Zandt, “the best I ever saw”. Because he was noodling along on guitar while telling the Townes story, one of the younger rebels-without-a-clue roared, embarrassingly, “This f—in’ song sucks!” Earle managed to ignore him. Whether through serenity or fatigue, I don’t know, but while I would’ve enjoyed a band and some rocking, I found it a better roster of songs than the 20th Century Masters sale-rack collection had led me to believe. Nice. Simple, strong, lonely and angry.

So I know Earle’s work a little better now. I have a better anecdote than repeating this deliciously nasty comment he’s said to have muttered about one of the heirs to his Alt-Country legacy, Shania Twain: “she’s the best-paid lap dancer in America”. (He’ll bite the machine that feeds him.) He’s lived and suffered and fought (not always very wisely, though he’s beaten his drug demons). He stands for causes bigger than record sales. And what might have been most most impressive, in hindsight, is that he didn’t let the show be stolen by the Canucks that preceded him on stage.

Dawn Tyler Watson and Paul Deslauriers are a superb blend: gospel/blues and the rocking kind, black woman and white man, one engaging voice and two nimble guitar hands. And just ahead of them was another eclectic pair: the young cellist Anne Davison accompanying an ukulele virtuoso – and now I believe it, there IS such a thing! – James Hill. I was astonished, my head reeling from a friggin’ cello/ukulele duo! Incredible technique and passion burst from one tiny instrument (and one chubby one) and two musicians who looked like underfed grad students. (One is — a student, that is.) I couldn’t even figure out how Hill was making those intricate and searing sounds, but at least I had a great look. My new best friends (and their good buddy Steve) hadn’t moved into the neighbourhood yet.

Here’s to Diners

Because my cluttered study is shared with wife and sons (teenaged and kindergartenish); because ‘Net-wading and inbox adventures sometimes feel like Actual Work; because laundry and dishes sometimes shout louder than my keyboard does; and because I had a nearby appointment anyway, I spent a big chunk of my work day at Ada’s Diner. I read, I ate, I planned, I ate, I wrote and I ate. Working bliss! (Today, I love being a writer.)

Over three hours, I did actually get done some decent work and some needed spring cleaning of the cerebral kind, but mostly I like diners. I discovered Ada’s a few years ago, when I was taking some supply-teaching dates at the elementary school around the corner. It’s a tiny storefront restaurant with clean floors and tables, good food and friendly people. There actually is an Ada, with a husband who bakes fresh muffins for the weekend brunch crowds and a pretty, smiling server who’s been there for several years. (Just realized that, unlike many of her customers, I don’t know her name. Not getting to Ada’s often enough!)

At Ada’s, I get the impression that my patronage is genuinely welcome. I feel like a real person rather than an object of marketing and plastic hospitality. Nobody knows my name there, yet, but it’s a cheery and homely place. Here’s to Ada!

Moms for the Holidays

Home again after the holiday trek through Ontario. Haliburton was quiet, homely and the wee traditions of the season were observed: dinner for my bride’s birthday on the 23rd ; Dylan Thomas on tape reciting “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” on the 24th (sweet stuff — “I said a few words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept”); a few small gifts and, in the evening, plum pudding (with three kinds of sauces!) on Christmas Day. Quiet dealings, no reindeer, and modest gifting, though Sam loved his Whirly-O thingy with all the fun of its “gravitational, magnetic and centrifugal forces!” Somehow, I got to watch crazy amounts of sport, two basketball games and even parts of two NFL games, thus increasing my 2005 viewing percentages by infinite amounts. On Boxing Day we drove away, waving goodbye to Mother Margery and her beloved front porch SnowTroll™.

The Haldimand County homing was sweet, even if part of it now has to happen at Mom’s residence in Hamilton. It ain’t the same, but the Ol’ Girl loves to see all of us, even if she sometimes mixes up which grandchild is which (or whose). The idea of an entertainment review for her was a beauty, though there was a lot of avoidance behaviour on the part of the granchildren. Thank goodness for Christy, whose dramatic flair with Robert Service saved the rather dull offerings that some of the rest of us made. Or didn’t! Too much food back at Big Sister’s, but the conversation was as lively and interesting as I can remember. The New David (isn’t it remarkable how often SigOthers share the same name, hair colour or laugh as their predecessors?) stirs the Howden stew very engagingly, and his curiosity and interest in people pushed the conversation to very interesting and very funny places. It’s good to have our collective conversational cage rattled in such a friendly way.

The trip back to Ottawa yesterday was a long one, partly due to freezing rain and partly due to a satisfying stopover in Toronto, where I was able to interview Adrienne Clarkson, the former Governor General (my once-upon-a-boss), and her husband John Ralston Saul. They had agreed to give me an hour each for an infant  series I’m hoping will grow up into a fine book one day. I got more than my hour from each of them, and had an altogether sweet several hours at their new Toronto digs, which are lovely and busy and almost feeling like home. And the dreary ol’ 401 got us back home safely again. Looking forward to ’06.