Monday, October 31, 2011

Drew Hayden Taylor

Photo from Drew Hayden Taylor website

Halloween is a good time to write about the work of Drew Hayden Taylor, especially his YA novel The Night Wanderer: a native Gothic Novel. Published in 2007 by Annick Press, this book has layers for the mature reader as well as the younger one.

Drew Hayden Taylor is an Ojibwa from the Curve Lake First Nation in Ontario. He has travelled widely and worked as a journalist, playwright, script and documentary writer, comedian and more.

Taylor is an excellent performer. After hearing him at the Sunshine Coast Festival, I simply had to buy and read the book he read from. Like any good comedian, he points to unpalatable truths and then makes us laugh at them.

The blue-eyed Taylor, who describes himself as "pretty like a white boy" also has a very long list of plays to his credit. His film and television credits include numerous documentaries as well as episodes of North of Sixty and Corner Gas and much more. He has been featured on CBC a number of times and had his short stories dramatized for Between the Covers.

In addition to his theatre and novel credits, he has contributed to an impressive list of periodicals including the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, Nativebeat, Canadian Geographic and the Utne Reader. He has been Writer-in-Residence in Canada, the US and Germany.

His 21st book, Motorcycles and Sweetgrass (Random House, 2010) was nominated for the Governor General's Award for fiction. News, Postcards from Four Directions was published the same year by Talonbooks.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Nino Ricci

In June, Nino Ricci was honoured with the Order of Canada, along with journalist and non-fiction writer Malcolm Gladwell of The Tipping Point fame, Saskatchewan-born poet Lorna Crozier, and others.

Ricci was born at Leamington, Ontario in 1959, the child of Italian immigrants. He was educated at York University, Concordia University and the University of Florence.

Lives of the Saints was published in 1990. It won the Governor-General's Award and three other prizes. The Glass House, a sequel, came out in 1993 and the third in the trilogy, Where Has She Gone? appeared in 1997 and was nominated for the Scotiabank Giller Prize.

In 2004 his trilogy was filmed as a mini-series starring Sophia Loren. The first book was reissued in 2010, the twentieth anniversary of its original publication.

In 2003 he published Testament, a novel about Jesus which the Christian Science Monitor describes as "unsettling."

Ricci received his second Governor General's Award for fiction for The Origin of Species, set in Montreal. The same year he appeared in Toronto to receive an award from the Canadian Authors Association, and gave a humorous and engaging speech, in which he recalled, among other things, his school days with Stephen Harper and Michael Ignatieff. The book is reviewed by Quill and Quire.

Ricci is a versatile and accomplished writer who has also published a variety of essays and short stories as well as a book about former Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Catherine Bush

Image from amazon

Catherine Bush belongs to the current generation of writers. Her sensibility and stories are much more contemporary than those of writers like Morley Callaghan, Sinclair Ross and Margaret Laurence.

She grew up in Toronto, studied Comparative Literature at Yale and lived and worked in New York and Massachusetts before returning.

Her second novel, The Rules of Engagement (2000) got my attention. It was featured on the CBC Radio show Between the Covers. When the clip was played, I was in the car on my way home from work. The topic was amazing -- a duel in downtown Toronto.

The scene I heard was so arresting -- a refugee hopeful getting rid of her passport in an aircraft washroom -- that I went immediately to the library, borrowed the book and skimmed until I found the scene I'd just heard. Then I settled down at the White Spot and read to the end. Later I went back to the beginning and read the rest.

In 2004, Bush published her third novel, Claire's Head, an intriguing story that concerns the disappearance of Rachel. In spite of suffering from migraines, Claire looks for her sister, which means leaving her normal life and exposing herself to new people and situations.

Work by Catherine Bush has won or been nominated for several awards, and she has worked with UBC, U of A and other Canadian and US Universities as Writer-in-Residence. She has also taught Creative Writing at Concordia in Montreal and the Humber School for Writers in Toronto. Her website reports that she is at work on another novel.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Sinclair Ross

Image from Regina Leader-Post

James Sinclair Ross was born on a homestead in Saskatchewan in 1908. A master of the short story, he was of the first generation of truly Canadian writers. He was also an accomplished musician who played piano and organ in church.

He portrayed life on isolated prairie farms, and he plumbed this setting and atmosphere like no other Canadian writer. In 1933, his short story "No Other Way" won a British Literary competition and was published in Nash's Pall Mall. In 1935, he published "A Field of Wheat." Queens Quarterly continued to publish his stories for the next few years. Such stories as "The Lamp at Noon" and "The Painted Door" have been translated and anthologized widely.

In 1941 Reyal and Hitchcock published the first novel by Sinclair Ross in New York. Although that first edition of As for me and my house did not garner positive reviews, the book became a classic after it was republished by McClelland and Stewart in 1957.

The publisher re-issued in 1989 and 2008 as a New Canadian Library edition. Ross's tale of a failed minister and his despairing wife is set in a small prairie town during the Dirty Thirties has become a standard Canadian Studies text both here and abroad. His work has influenced that of other Canadian writers including Margaret Laurence.

Sinclair Ross had only a Grade 11 education and earned his living working for the Royal Bank. During World War II he served with the Canadian Army in London. Later he lived in Winnipeg and Montreal.

After retiring from the bank in 1968, he lived for some time in Greece and Spain. He came to Vancouver in 1982 and died here in 1996.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Elizabeth Hay

Image from canada.com

The first time I saw Elizabeth Hay was at the Sunshine Coast Festival of the Written Arts in Sechelt a few years back. This festival, which has just celebrated its thirtieth anniversary, is a great place to enjoy readings and get up close and personal with writers.

It was a sunny morning and Elizabeth was signing books and chatting to readers. I remember overhearing her mention a certain bakery in Toronto where she liked to buy fresh bread in the morning. It made her so real and accessible, especially as the woman whose book she was signing also knew and liked the bakery.

At the time, I was waiting to have the author sign Garbo Laughs, a title I found irresistible. I later read it while on vacation in Mexico and it made a strong impression. This book was nominated for the Governor-General's Award and recognized in the honours lists of the Globe and Mail, Macleans and Quill and Quire.

A Student of Weather
(2000) was another of Hay's talked-about books. It was nominated for the Giller and won the Marion Engel Award.

Late Nights on Air, a novel about radio, is set in Yellowknife, in the Canadian North. Published by McClelland and Stewart, it won the Giller Prize in 2007, and was reviewed in glowing terms in Walrus and is featured in her author profile in Quill and Quire. Podcasts of the story from CBC Between the Covers can be accessed on the website.

Hay's latest novel, Alone in the Classroom (2011), takes place in 1929 in a small rural school. According to the author's website, it shows the "urgency of discovering what we were never told about the past."

Elizabeth Hay has also written for magazines and worked in radio.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Michael Ondaatje

Photo: Writing Bar

His most recent novel, The Cat's Table, has been getting a lot of attention. It was reviewed by The New Yorker in May, The Guardian and The Independent in August and The Telegraph in September. Three days ago, Nick Owchar gave author and book a positive review in the LA Times as it moved to Number 1 spot on the New York Times bestseller list.

Michael Ondaatje was born in Colombo and lived in England before coming to Canada. He was educated in Toronto and Kingston and began publishing poetry in the seventies, winning his first of several Governor General's Award for the collection There's a Trick with a Knife I'm Learning to Do in 1971. In 1982 he published a memoir, Running in the Family, after a trip back to Sri Lanka (still called Ceylon when he left.)

The English Patient (1992) was a lyrical novel that garnered huge attention and won the Man Booker Prize. In 1996, it was made into a blockbuster movie directed by Anthony Minghella and starring Juliette Binoche, Kristin Scott Thomas and Ralph Fiennes.

An earlier novel, In the Skin of a Lion (1987) is an exciting portrayal of Canada in the 1920s and 1930s. It won three Canadian literary awards, and on a personal note, I used it with several classes. The paper back version has the distinction of being one of the only novels I thumbed through so much that I literally wore it out. Even though I got a new one, I couldn't bring myself to throw away the original, which is still on the shelf in my office, held together by an elastic band.

The author has also published two other novels called Anil's Ghost (2000) and Divisadero (2007) and a variety of other work. According to the British Council Literature website, Ondaatje is "one of Canada's most important contemporary writers and one of the country's biggest cultural exports."

Ondaatje is an Officer of the Order of Canada and a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

500 days of blogging dangerously

I started blogging on a dare. I wasn't sure how long I'd continue, or where blogging would take me. When I started blogging in November of 2009, it felt edgy to put my thoughts out there for all to see. What made it better was knowing I could always go back and edit.

At first I didn't commit to daily posts, but just waited till an idea flowed into my head, scribbled a note about it, and then posted as soon as I got to my computer.

My early efforts tended to be paper-oriented. Then I started to thrash out my ideas in Word documents and import them. Neither method worked very well either. Finally, I embraced the medium and began to compose in the blog space, rough drafts first which I could improve any time, either before or upon posting.

Editing a blog post proved to be quite different from editing print. Posts needed to be short, to have a visually appealing shape and more white space. Editing them, I enjoyed rephrasing to get rid of "orphans," words that were alone on a line. Illustrations helped too.

At some point, I began to wake up with ideas for posts, often on a Sunday, after a nice sleep-in. I'd go straight to the computer to enter them before forgetting.

When I noticed how one post idea frequently suggested others, I began to sketch in and schedule these ideas to be published later. In this way, daily editing became an integral part of the practice.

Sometimes my posts were related to places I'd been, or trips I'd taken, so I started to import my own pictures to illustrate my words. From writing for Suite 101, I'd learned how to add links, so when I didn't have the pictures I wanted, I found illustrations online, acknowledged their sources and linked to them. I linked to related sites as well.

The more I did that, I noticed, the more visitors I was getting. The idea that people were actually reading my words encouraged me to keep working to improve, and I began to do more research to add interesting tidbits of information to my posts.

Since beginning to track numbers in 2010, I've had hits from all continents (except Antarctica), countries large and small and about 1600 cities. I'll probably hit 20,000 page views by late November.

Of course, most visitors who read more than one page, and most repeat visitors are from English-speaking countries.

It's been an interesting journey. My current passion is a series of CanLit posts that start here. Back tomorrow with Michael Ondaatje.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Alistair MacLeod

Photo: historic cannon balls near the Plains of Abraham, Quebec City


Alistair MacLeod was born in Saskatchewan in 1936, grew up on Cape Breton Island, and was educated in New Brunswick and Indiana. He also taught for a time at Indiana University before moving to the University of Windsor in Ontario. He is now a Professor Emeritus of that school.

Prose that sings is the hallmark of MacLeod's work. One lyrical passage from his short story "The Boat" sounds in my head still. Years after, the memory of those words takes me to the quaking edge of life's mystery.

The novel No Great Mischief came out in 2001, an appropriate date, as this novel touched upon important aspects of twentieth century history including French-English tensions, as well as US involvement in the Vietnam War and the draft dodgers that came to Canada as a result. The novel also deals with ethnic isolationism among small cultural groups, symbolized by the community of Cape Breton miners he so poignantly portrays. The novel won the Impac Dublin Award in 2001. The story was later produced as a play.

The phrase itself comes from a letter written by General Wolfe, and refers to the Scottish fighters he intends to send first up the cliffs to the Plains of Abraham, saying that since he does not trust them anyway, "no great mischief if they fall."

Though MacLeod has not been a prolific writer, his work is polished, translucent and true, a precious gem of Canada's literary treasure.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Wearing another hat at SIWC

Yesterday I was sitting in the glass corridor by the Guildford Ballroom, at the the SFU Writers' Studio table.

Last night we, the class of 2011, launched the latest TWS Anthology, Emerge 2011, at the beautifully designed Woodward's campus, the Goldcorp Centre for the Arts at 149 West Hastings.

Note: this is just the official address. The main entrance is from Cordova Street, by The Charles bar.

That launch and reading was a great celebration: the culmination of a year of writing, learning and fellowship with other members of a lively and creative community.

Today I'm sitting with an editing colleague in another part of the hotel lobby. We're watching a parade sweating writers crawl by to make their pitches at the Surrey conference's famous Blue Pencil appointments. No, I exaggerate. But on the whole, writers are notoriously introverted.

I'm here as a member of the Editors' Association of Canada. Writers need us and we need them. Wait," What am I saying, "them?" I mean us. I'm a writer, with a strong editing gene.

I love writing, and I love editing too. Guess I'll be wearing both hats for awhile.

Back to CanLit posts tomorrow, with Alistair MacLeod.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Surrey Writer's Conference from the sidelines

After years of being a regular attendee at the Surrey International Writers' Conference, I've moved to the sidelines. This year I'm proud and happy to be seated at the TWS table, getting the word out about the new Southbank Writers' Program in Surrey.

I’m sitting with Katherine McManus, the Program Director of SFU's Writing and Publishing. We're at the Writer’s Studio information table at the Sheraton Guildford, where SIWC has been held since 1994.

We’re listening to people who were here yesterday, talking about the tight security measures: George Bush and Bill Clinton were here, and spoke together. Somebody remarks, "I heard it cost $600 a plate. What could they have said that was worth that?"

It’s getting on for lunchtime. Diana Gabaldon wanders by, dressed in her trademark cerulean blue, with a bright shawl. I know she’s working on graphic novels now. But has she written another book in the Outlander series? I must find out.

Katherine has to speak at the luncheon, so she has to go into the banquet room across the hall. She's going to tell the writers about Southbank. There’s a brief lull and I watch the Happy Feet lady across the way. Her client lies in a recliner, cosy in a faux leopard blanket, while Lydia does Reflexology massage on her feet.

Anne Perry is browsing along the booksellers’ tables. Does she have a new one out? I am telling three young people about Southbank and encouraging them to enter the SIWC Teen Writers Contest. While the kids look at brochures, I glance up to give Anne a wave and a smile.

She smiles back. One of the faithful writers who returns here each year, she's an excellent speaker as well as being a great mystery writer. Last year I gave her a Saje aromatherapy fragrance, because when I met her briefly the year before, she noticed the scent and remarked on it.

I figured it was the least I could do for someone who’s brought me so much reading pleasure. Sure enough, she has a new book out: Acceptable Loss (Random House 2011). It's another in the William Monk series. Maybe if I get a chance, I'll ask her to sign it.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Margaret Atwood

Ms. Atwood was born in 1939 in and is described on the British Council literature site as "one of the world's leading woman novelists."

I'm doubt she'd appreciate being called the "Other Margaret," but she is younger than the other "Other Margaret." When Laurence died in 1987, Atwood was just hitting her stride. Her Selected Poems II appeared that year, and she also had three collections of short fiction under her belt.

In addition, she had published five novels, including the sensationally dystopic The Handmaid's Tale (1985, Houghton Mifflin, Cape). The movie based on this novel would come out in 1990 and prove controversial, with people trying to boycott the theatres where it was being shown. It's still making news, as demonstrated by this recent article reprinted from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

In 1987, Margaret Atwood's Cat's Eye, which would appear in 1989 and be nominated for the GG and the Booker Prize, was already in the works. She had also produced two children's books and three works of literary criticism, as well as editing a book of short stories, one of poetry and the CanLit Foodbook (Totem, 1987), two television scripts, a radio script and several audio recordings.

Since then Atwood has enlarged her repertoire in every genre. In 2007, she published a play called The Penelopiad, (Faber and Faber). This was produced the same year and is currently under production by the Arts Club Theatre in Vancouver. Called by the Province the 'original desperate housewife story,' The Penelopiad opened yesterday at the Stanley Theatre.

Like The Handmaid's Tale and Oryx and Crake (McClelland and Stewart, Bloomsbury, Doubleday 2003), Atwood's latest opus, The Year of the Flood (same publishers as Oryx & Crake), portrays an unpleasant future. When it appeared in 2009, it was described by Jeanette Winterson in the New York Times as "strangely lonely." Yet, says book blogger Jessica Klassen, Atwood "finds a way to make readers feel at home" as they struggle with perennial human issues.

Though I'm not sure it's a label she enjoys, Margaret Atwood deserves to be called the Mother of CanLit, and not only because of her large brood of literary children. In addition to raising a variety of clever literary offspring, she has written extensively about CanLit and brought odd bits of Canadian history alive. (Think Alias Grace, a novel based on an infamous 19th century Ontario murder case.)

A moving target, this writer is ever willing to experiment and grow. And though she is busy with readings and related events, Margaret Atwood has a blog and can now be found on Facebook and Twitter. To see a crossword featuring her, check here.

Hat's off to CanLit's Mum!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Margaret Laurence

Photo from UC Davis

Margaret Wemyss (1926-1987) started writing in Grade two and began her professional writing career at eighteen by taking a summer job on a newspaper. After completing an Honours English BA at what is now the University of Winnipeg, she became a reporter for the Winnipeg Citizen.

She married Jack Laurence and the young couple spent several years in Africa, first in Somalia and then in Ghana. It was his name she used for her writing life, although they divorced.

In Africa, Lawrence worked on translating Somali poetry and prose, and began the short stories that were eventually collected in The Tomorrow Tamer (1963). She remained interested in African literature, and back in Canada, published a critical study of contemporary Nigerian dramatists.

While living in Vancouver, she published This Side Jordan, a novel set in the newly independent Ghana. This book received an award for Best First Novel by a Canadian writer. The Stone Angel, set in her fictionalized home town, followed soon after. This was staged as a play and made into a movie that became an official selection at the Toronto and Tokyo film festivals.

In 1966 she published A Jest of God and won the Governor General's Award for fiction. This novel became a successful movie, Rachel, Rachel. Paul Newman directed and Joanne Woodward starred.

The Fire-Dwellers came out in 1969. In 1970 Lawrence published A Bird in the House, a linked short story collection about the fictitious town of Manawaka. She was made a Companion of the Order of Canada in 1971. Though Laurence continued to publish for the remaining thirteen years of her life, The Diviners (1974) is her finest work. It won another Governor General's and also the Molson Prize.

Laurence's work generated considerable controversy. In 2010, Nora Foster Stovel published an essay in the International Journal of Canadian Studies, discussing the "racist or anti-racist?" nature of the Metis girl character Piquette Tonnerre in "The Loons" (A Bird in the House).

The novel The Diviners also came under fire from Christian fundamentalists who complained the book was "obscene" and pressured school boards to ban it (CBC 1985). Presumably, what they found objectionable part was the sex scene between the young protagonist and her Metis lover.

Margaret Laurence spoke and wrote not only on social issues like race and gender, she also spoke out to support nuclear disarmament and to promote literacy. It is a blot on Canadian literary history that the final years of her life were plagued by attempts to censor her groundbreaking work.

Today the house where Laurence lived in Neepawa is a Manitoba Provincial Heritage site.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Stephen Leacock and Douglas Gibson

Stephen Leacock image from literature online

Canada's first giant of humour was born in England in 1869 and immigrated to Canada as a child. I discovered his work as a young teen. Reading in bed, I nearly fell out of it laughing at My Discovery of England (1922), with its hilarious send-up of colonial attitudes, the human side of international borders and the cultural differences between British and Canadian men on a train.

Leacock's essays still demonstrate the power of words. In "How to be a doctor," he gently mocks the fear of illness, simultaneously revealing the human fallibility of the medic. "How to live to be 200" pokes fun at the man who "was ridden by a health mania," and then, in spite of his healthy habits, got some "old-fashioned illness" and died like anybody else.

Another early favourite was "A, B and C, the Human Element in Mathematics," a tragicomedy in which the characters in math problems come alive as a bully, a follower and a weakling. In another hilarious feat, he catalogues train engines and their drivers in a sonorous spoof of Homer's catalogue of ships from The Iliad.

Image of Douglas Gibson from Spur Festival

By an interesting coincidence, I just read an interview with editor-turned-author Douglas Gibson, who spoke last night as part of the Vancouver International Writers Festival. I discovered that he too fell in love with Leacock's work in high school. The melodramatic Nonsense Novels was Gibson's first discovery. His first assignment as a beginning editor? A biography of Stephen Leacock, of course.

Douglas Gibson has just published Stories about storytellers: Publishing Alice Munro, Robertson Davies, Alistair Macleod, Pierre Elliott Trudeau and others (ECW Press, 2011) It's been called a "prize read" by Alice Munro. Gibson appeared in Vancouver last evening. This one-man-show will speak in Ottawa on Sunday.

Three years after Stephen Leacock's death, a medal was established to honour him. Since 1947, the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour has been awarded annually to the Canadian author judged to have written the funniest book of that year.

Leacock was also a founding member of the Canadian Authors Association. This year the CAA book award winners were announced at the Stephen Leacock Festival in his hometown of Orillia, Ontario, where his former house is now a museum. Fans of Stuart McLean will be unsurprised to learn that he is a three-time winner of the Leacock Medal.

In 1969, the centennial year of his birth, Leacock was featured on a six-cent stamp, using a photo taken by Canada's iconic photographer Yousuf Karsh. If Leacock were alive, no doubt he would find something funny to say about that.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Morley Callaghan

Image from quotessays

Teaching academic English to students from around the world, I learn a great deal. One memorable anecdote came from an Afghani woman who had studied and admired Morley Callaghan at the University of Kabul. Until then I had no idea that Callaghan's work, much of it published in the 1930s, had garnered such international attention.

Many younger Canadians have not heard of this writer, once an important figure on the literary scene. Callaghan was born in Toronto in 1903 and attended St. Michael's College at the U of T in the early nineteen twenties.

Between 1928 and 1937 he produced a number of novels of which the most famous were More Joy in Heaven (1937) and Such is my Beloved (1934). He was also a short story writer of some note. One of my personal favourites is "All the years of her life," a tale of an immature young man who begins to grow up when he suddenly perceives the toll his irresponsible behaviour has taken on his mother.

In 1929, Callaghan spent the summer in Paris, where he was often in the company of James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis, Ford Madox Ford and Ernest Hemingway, whom he had known earlier in Toronto. In 1963, he wrote a memoir of that time called That Summer in Paris. Norman Mailer's review in the New York Times (Feb 1, 1963) calls this "a modest dull bad book." The same review describes Callaghan's boxing match with Hemingway. Timed by Fitzgerald, who also boxed, he managed to knock Hemingway down. Though Mailer had little praise for it, the book recently earned four stars in Goodreads.

Originally trained as a lawyer, Callaghan worked as a journalist and also wrote for radio. He was awarded the Governor General's Medal in 1951 for The Loved and the Lost, and the Order of Canada in 1982. He died in 1990, the same year as Hugh MacLennan.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Hugh MacLennan - the beginning

Hugh MacLennan was the first Canadian writer of fiction to attempt to describe the national character and experience of the nation. At the age of ten, he survived the Halifax explosion (1917) and later wrote a novel about this, Barometer Rising, published in 1941.

His great novel Two Solitudes (1945) is a poignant portrayal of the tensions between the French and English in Quebec. The book's title refers to a poem by the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, and afterward became a shorthand term for French and English Canada.

In 1959 MacLennan published The Watch that Ends the Night, a novel based loosely on the life of another famous Montrealer, Dr. Norman Bethune. This book portrays the intellectual culture and values of the thirties, especially through Jerome Martel, a brilliant communist doctor who leaves to serve in the Spanish civil war and then vanishes, leaving his family to pick up the pieces. His reappearance long after his supposed death has devastating consequences.

The above is by no means a complete list of MacLennan's novels, although these are probably the best known. Each of the three won the Governor-General's award.

MacLennan was not only a novelist but a respected essayist as well. In 1949 he published a collection called Cross-Country, and this and another essay collection, Thirty and Three, both won Governor-General's awards.

A Rhodes scholar, Hugh MacLennan was educated first at Dalhousie in Halifax, and later at Oxford. He won international as well as national recognition. He became the first Canadian to receive the James Madison Medal from Princeton Univesity, along with many other honours. For many years, he taught at McGill University in Montreal.

Without doubt, this literary giant has profoundly influenced Canadian literature.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The birth of CanLit

Taking my BA at UBC, I majored in English Literature, a category that in the late sixties excluded the literature of Canada. Most of my English professors, including Geoffrey Durrant (Shakespeare) and the great John Hulcoop (The English Novel), as well as Errol Durbach (Modern Drama) were British. (And male. Through my entire Bachelor's degree, I had only two women professors.)

The term Canadian Literature had yet to come into vogue, although the Father of CanLit, Hugh MacLennan, had been publishing for some twenty years. He was then teaching at McGill in Montreal, as Canada's incomparable humourist Stephen Leacock (1869-1944) had before him.

CanLit's Mother has to be one of the two Margarets. We'll say Margaret Laurence, since Canada's other great Margaret is younger, and still very much alive. Indeed, the feminist novel The Edible Woman, by Margaret Atwood, was making the rounds when I lived in rez, though not then recognized as actual literature.

Since MacLennan (1907 -1990) and Laurence (1926-1987), Canada has experienced an uninterrupted literary flowering. The arrogant prediction of Hugh Hood in a radio interview in the seventies that his generation would produce no more great writers couldn't have been more wrong. Hugh Who? You may well ask. A solid short story writer he may have been, (b 1928 d 2000) but his name has long since been overshadowed by a Pantheon of literary giants.

In the Bi and Bi era, Hugh MacLennan's work revealed the the other solitude to English Canadians (more of that later) while Roch Carrier became a beloved storyteller of Quebec tales in English Canada. A passage from his classic story, The Hockey Sweater, can be seen with its illustration of the national game on the $5 bill. Another Quebecker, Michael Ignatieff, (1947--) wrote both moving fiction and thought-provoking non-fiction, long before entering politics as the Liberal member for Etobicoke.

As multiculturalism went mainstream, CanLit began to disseminate a dazzling variety of stories by people with roots from all over the world. Toronto poet turned novelist Michael Ondaatje penned thrilling tales of early Canada as well as portraying his original home, Sri Lanka. From Brampton, Ontario, Rohinton Mistry (1952--) rocked the reading nation with profoundly moving tales set in his native India.

Women joined the fray too--of that more to come.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Getting excited about the Emerge launch

Pardon me. I'm just so excited. The launch of EMERGE 2011 is coming up in just a week and I am stoked.

Last night we non-fictionistas got together and practiced for our readings.

We timed each other so nobody goes over the two and a half minute allocation, and worked on our delivery. We gave each other support and advice to prepare us for the brief but important performance that we are each to give as our TWS Anthology is launched on October 22 at SFU Woodward at 8 pm.

It's so great to have writing buddies, to give and receive fearless feedback and help one another make our prose sing.

Yes, the launch is definitely top of mind now. At the same time, my thoughts have been all over the map, and so have my blog posts.

Bear with me. I've got another series in mind to blog about, but I'm not revealing what it is just yet.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Fall fairs -- a great tradition

The CNE, the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto, the Capital EX (formerly known as the Edmonton Exhibition) and the PNE, our own local Pacific National Exhibition are some of the bigger ones.

These summer into fall fairs are part of a long and great tradition. Originally based on the agricultural calendar, they served to celebrate the season of harvest home.

At the PNE, baking, preserving and quilting competitions have taken a back seat to massive sales of an impossibly wide range of stuff, from gimcracks to treasures. But no matter how many big shows, dance competitions and scary new Playland rides are added, and no matter which weird new foods (like deep fried Mars bars) are sold each year, the farm animals remain central.

For city people, the barns provide the rare opportunity to get close and personal with large farm animals that have been trucked in from all over the Fraser valley. It's a treat to see the teams of muscular draft horses, the prize calves, the sheep and lambs and piglets. And it's an eduction to watch the owners, often quite young, who take such great care of them.

Recently a friend told me her twelve-year-old daughter thought milk came from Safeway. Where before that? She didn't know. At the PNE, kids can watch milk cows in action, see baby chickens and ducks hatch and even watch bees in a visible hive producing honey.

In today's golden fall sunshine, I remembered my first experience of the Bulkley Valley Fall Fair in Smithers. It was a few hours' drive from our town, and my brother and I went with our neighbours. I was fourteen, and it was a spectacular adventure.

I'll never forget the thrill of that first evening, watching nervous horses being cajoled down the wooden ramps from their trailers, the whites of their eyes showing as the loud echo of their own hooves on the boards spooked them into tossing their heads and whinnying.

Now this year's harvest fairs are long over, and the PNE has been transformed by Fright Nights. The Thanksgiving weekend is past. Fall is definitely here.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Happy Birthday, Mom

Mom was born on October 13, 1913, so she would have been ninety-eight today, if she'd lived. At the time, it was only 11 years since the death of Queen Victoria. The Queen of England was of course also the Queen of Newfoundland, the colony of Mom's birth. Newfoundland would not join Canada for another thirty-six years.

It would be just one more year before World War I began. The Halifax disaster, the biggest man-made explosion to date, was still four years in the future. When those two ships collided in Halifax harbour, my mother, age four, would feel the vibrations from the explosion in St. John's, hear the rattling of bottles on the shelf of the pharmacy where she stood with her older sister. They would think it was an earthquake.

Mom didn't know it, but she would survive the great cataclysms of the twentieth century: World War I, The Great Depression and World War II, before marrying, in her thirties, a serving sailor in World War II.

Once Dad left the navy, she would leave her six siblings in St. John's and emigrate with him to the Canadian prairies, when the joining of Newfoundland to Canada was still three years in the future.

She would give birth to her first and third child in Edmonton, but I, the middle one, would be born in mid-winter in a small hospital in the town of Tofield, the closest to our farm. My parents, who had no vehicle except the tractor at the time, would rely on the neighbours to take her to the hospital.

The twentieth century is over, and the world is a very different place now. I wish you could see it, Mom. Happy Birthday.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Oslo Freedom Forums

In 2005, filmmaker and human rights advocate Thor Halvorssen founded the Human Rights Foundation. This organization held its first conference, the Oslo Freedom Forum, in May 2009.

The goal was to bring together former heads of state, Nobel Laureates and prisoners of conscience, joining them with a selection of business, political and cultural leaders and authors. Among those in attendance were Vaclav Havel, Elie Wiesel, and Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia. The second conference was held in April 2010. This time the speakers included Lech Walesa, Jody Williams and Jacqueline Moudeina.

May of 2011 saw the third Oslo Freedom Forum, featuring international speakers including Iran's Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi, WikiLeaks whistleblower Julian Assange and Canadian public intellectual John Ralston Saul.

This year one of several topics of discussion was the impact than individuals can have on society. If Thor Halvorssen's experience is anything to go by, that's quite a lot.

Calling last month's UN anti-racism conference Durban III a "weapon of mass distraction" in the Huffington Post, Halvorssen organized a parallel summit, We Have a Dream, to be held across the street involving an international coalition of NGOs. Speeches from that event have been posted on YouTube.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Speakers' corner of Hyde Park

Photo courtesy of London's Hyde Park

Since 1872, the Speakers' Corner has been a symbol of free speech. The Speakers' Corner Trust says it was "born out of the struggle for civil liberties in Victorian Britain," and calls its creation "a significant milestone" in the development of British democracy. Famous orators have included George Orwell, Karl Marx and Marcus Garvey.

The Trust supports the creation of Speakers' Corners in other UK cities including Leicester, Lincoln, Nottingham, and Bristol, and is working to create mobile ones.

Other countries, including Canada (Victoria, Calgary, Toronto), have had Speakers' corners.

In 2000, Hong Lim Park in Singapore became the designated location of a Speakers' Corner where Singaporeans may use any of their four official languages to peaceably orate on subjects excluding religion, providing that they do not use obscenities or incite violence or racial hatred.

The traditional ideal of free speech goes back at least to Socrates.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Zimsculpt at Van Dusen Gardens II

Photo: Flower for a friend, by Colleen Madamombe, Zimsculpt

Sadly, Ms Madamombe, who worked with Zimsculpt, died in 2009 at the early age of 45.

Sculptor Passmore Mupindiko, who likes doing semi-abstracts of guinea fowl, says "We kind of talk to each other, stone and me."

Artist Patrick Sephani also speaks of looking at the stone and trying to bring out what's inside it. He enjoys doing the female form, something he often sees in the stones he chooses.

Those who missed the recent Zimsculpt exhibition at the Van Dusen Botanical Gardens can see many of the works, as well as brief interviews with two artists here. In this brief video, Curator Vivian Croissette also showcases "Proud Lady," a work by Agnes Nyanhongo, one of Zimbabwe's best-known woman artists.

Five percent of Zimsculpt sales go to support the Zimbabwean charity Inter-country Peoples Aid.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Youthful friendship and long-ago days in Arts I at UBC

In 1967, I was part of the flagship class of Arts I, an inter- disciplinary program for first-year students. Among its merits was the fact that we were a small group in our own building, and thus, got to know one another very well.

In Arts I, my new friend Pat got into the theme group Love and Death, for which I envied her. I had to settle for Utopia and something else that I've no memory of now.

I first met Pat in Arts I. We discovered that we were in the same residence, Totem Park, though we lived in different buildings. After finding one another, we went everywhere together. One fine fall day, we rolled in the freshly cut grass in Marine Drive Foreshore Park, then ran giggling up to our respective rooms, dripping clippings in the stairwells.

In the spring we were more sedate. On sunny days, we spread ourselves on the lawn in the Rose Garden by the Faculty Club and read TS Eliot together. We were both crazy about his poetry, especially "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock."

"Do I dare to eat a peach?" we used to say to one another meaningly, and sometimes say even now. And laugh as we remember finishing one another's sentences during our many long conversations.

Somehow we mixed up our Eliot books (Faber & Faber edition, London). On my shelf still, never far from where I can easily pull it down, is the book I ended up with. At least half the annotations are in Pat's handwriting.

What a gift it is to develop a profound friendship in youth, when one has time and energy, and then keep that friendship for a lifetime.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Zimsculpt at Van Dusen Gardens I















Recently the VanDusen Botanical Garden hosted a remarkable exhibition of sculpture by artists from Zimbabwe.

Two artists travelled with the Harare based exhibition and worked on their creations in the gardens where art appreciators could watch them.

The many and varied sculptures looked fabulous set among the plants of the garden. Animals and human figures, natural objects and abstract shapes from tiny to huge were all part of this feast for the eye and soul. One of my favourites was Dried Seed Pod, by Albert Wachi, a piece so tall I was unable to photograph it properly.

The baboons and guinea fowl in the photos above are made of a stone that can be finished in rough-textured grey on some parts of the sculpture and polished to a high black gloss on others. Different kinds of stone are used as well.

Zimsculpt showcases works by numerous Shona artists by touring with the collection to a variety of locations around the world. In May, this collection of art was exhibited in Windsor, and then at the Chelsea Flower Show in London. In June it went to Guildford in Surrey (not our Canadian version but the British one) and in July it visited Gibsons on the Sunshine Coast.

Friday, October 7, 2011

On White Rock Beach


Autumn sun still hot on my back,
Turn at the stone bear, give his nose a pat.

Gull on one foot on the railroad track;
My naked feet relish fresh-cut lawn,
Bare toes ecstatic
avoid the cinder block promenade.

A couple walking, bird on his shoulder;
they are backlit by sun: Is it a crow?
I turn back after passing; I really must know.
A grey parrot cocks its head, says “Hello!”

The west point of land reaches into the sea:
like a horizontal ladder:
the pier underlines it perfectly,
every post visible against the evening-bleached sea.

Distant whistle: coming train shakes the track
Silvery monster rounds the bend and bears down,
looms and chuffs past,

Then the wailing whistle dwindles
Two red lights recede,
like buttons on the neat vest
of the rearmost car.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Never before, never again

Spring evening by the sea
the same as other days
yet not the same:

This bird,
this cloud,
this tree
never before never again.

Waves continuously lap the shore
soporific, rhythmic, eternal,
yet never precisely the same as before.

The sky, the clouds, the light
each moment of this unique dusk
approaching night.

Dear busy mind,
filled up with thoughts of times ahead,
of times behind.
Stand still now, in this perfect moment;
Be tranquil, make this moment mine.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Ode to the youth of Enver Creek School


Awaking, I considered what to write
To share with students of our nearby school.
Should I tell tales of poetry of yore
Or will they think this bard a doting fool?

What would they make of ancient verse and forms,
With lines that march like military men?
Each with its syllables so well-arranged
One weak, one strong, all adding up to ten.

What would I tell these youths about the Muse
Who sits and whispers in the ears of bards?
To ancient Greek this always was a man
And thus each woman from poetics barred.

How to describe each iamb as a foot?
Not foot that runs or kicks a basketball,
But mark of meter, sonorous, weak then strong
That carries listener with verse along.

What should I say of rhythm and of rhyme
These ancient pulses of the human heart
Predating even alphabets themselves
As round the campfire listeners took part?

The ancient poets used theatric form
To tell of ancient exploits of their men.
The military battles that they won
The animals they felled to feed the clan.

In memory ancients carried poetry
No written words could help them to recall
And yet they must tell tales that entertained
Must paint what others never saw at all.

Young poets of today have laxer rules
For working out the lines of poetry
Yet still old rhythms hold a sway of power
Still ancient rhymes march on their sonorous way.

And so I say to noble Enver youth
List to the Muse, pick up that errant pen.
The poets of the past stand not apart:
Go forth and carry on their ancient art.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Blue heron standing

Photo: Tigerhomes.org











Blue heron
stands alert,
white-headed,
black-cheeked

Blue heron
stands beside
dull gray-blue water

Blue heron, unmoving
framed by winter grass
bleached of all green
by cold and wet
grass turned the colour of ripened wheat.

Blue heron, hunched
stands on the dike
of the Serpentine Fen
in the fine grey mist of a wintry day.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Called to the bar

Image from criminal lawyers

"Hey, come and have a drink!"

When first I heard it, that was the image evoked by the strange phrase "called to the bar." I figured lawyers could afford a few drinks. But while working?

Later I thought it had to do with Temple Bar, an old gate into the City of London. Turns out it is marginally related, in the sense that the gate (the original was most likely a simple chain or bar, and thus the name) was next to and named for the Temple Law Courts.

Actually, the expression refers to a real bar that separates a special area of the courtroom reserved for members of the law. In the UK and Ireland, there are two types of lawyers.

Solicitors prepare cases and can only appear in lower courts, while Barristers, who serve in higher courts, wear wigs and generally look impressive behind the bar.

In English-speaking North America, Australia and New Zealand, where the judicial systems are derived from English Common Law, being called to the bar means completing the qualifications necessary to represent a client in court.

The Canadian, American, Australian and New Zealand Bar Associations represent the profession collectively, also known as the Bar. The parallel UK organization is the Bar Council.

Just to clarify: if the cellphone rings and your buddy invites you to the neighbourhood pub for a drink, you have NOT been called to the bar.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Emerge launch coming up at SFU Woodward

Photo: Bird photo by Sean Doe, cover design by Claudia Vergara Silva

We're about to emerge. Since January, I have been privileged to take part in the wonderful Writer's Studio program at Simon Fraser University. Now our time together with fellow writers and workshop compadres is drawing to a close.

To celebrate what we've learned about our craft and showcase our new work, we are celebrating the launch of the annual TWS anthology. Writers and readers of the region, we invite you to celebrate with us. Hope to see you there:

emerge 2011 Launch and Reading
October 22nd -- 8pm
Room 2555, World Art Centre
SFU WOODWARDS
149 West Hastings (entrance on Cordova St.)

Please RSVP by completing this online form For more information, check The Writer's Studio site at SFU.