WritersFest: A Paranthetical, Not to Say Apologetic, Remark

I spent a little less than my usual night-haunting, all-day-Saturday-slouching-from-venue-to-bathroom-to-venue, inspiration-sucking hours at the Ottawa International Writers Festival this year. However, I do have some discoveries and some mental meanderings to report.

(Disclosure alert: For those of you who live in the Ottawa area, of COURSE I know that the Fest finished two weeks ago. It’s Slow News, like the Slow Food Movement, linger over the pleasures of life, “the purpose of life is not to increase its speed”, slow is good, “literature is news that stays news”, I want a man with a slow hand…)

(Nota bene: For those of you blissfully ignorant of subterranean artistic currents in Canada’s capital — that is, you don’t live in Ottawa — this is HOT OFF THE PRESSES! LATE-BREAKING NEWS! IT’S WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW RIGHT NOW!)

(No more parantheses.)

This was the 12th annual WritersFest. It’s a father and son story, two stubbornly bright men who didn’t know back then that what they wanted to do made no sense and would never get off the ground. Well, it does and it has. Here’s to Neil and Sean Wilson, and all the believers in their absurd, delightful and ever-more-substantial dreams.

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.

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.