This year, the students in the Fiction Workshop (ENGL 2903) had the chance to attend an event at the Ottawa Writers Festival. For many, it was the first time to hear a writer read in public. Here are the very positive reviews (in no particular order).
George Bowering: Reviewed by Bailee Pegden
The Christ Church Cathedral stands tall and made of old stone. It seems archaic, like a relic of time passed. It’s solid and doesn’t flinch against the breeze. Attached to it is a modern building with bright lights and straight lines.
Inside, there are paper signs on every wall, around every corner, with arrows pointing in one direction. There’s a wide room with several rows of chairs facing a small stage. Jazz music plays softly from above and I look up. Sunlight streams through the skylight, illuminating the room. I’m one of the first to arrive. I take a seat to the left of the center rows, three from the front. It doesn’t take long for people to wander in, chatting amicably until there’s a mild buzz of calm contentment.
The number of empty chairs diminishes until maybe three quarters of the spots are full. The atmosphere is warm and inviting. There’s a sense that everyone who’s here really wants to be. Just past noon, the cameras blink to life and the projectors display their pictures on either side of the stage.
The speaker is George Bowering. He’s an older man with white hair, wrinkles, glasses, and yellow bracelets on his wrists. The first thing he says is a joke about the microphone. The audience laughs. We are receptive and we like him immediately. His voice is raspy and happy. He smiles often and waves his hands enthusiastically. His passion is clear. Sometimes he talks for so long that he loses track of the question from the host. Sometimes he says things so funny that he forgets what the point of his rant is. He speaks in voices when telling stories and he sings the first poem to us, holding the book like the hand of an old friend.
His poems are funny and relaxed, like he is. They don’t expect you to think too hard. When taken literally, they elicit chuckles. When thought about hard enough, there is potential for more to the story.
He mentions memories from Mexico and Germany. He seems worldly and wise and likes using similes. They are amusing, as I come to expect from him.
He tells us that someone once asked him what he was trying to reach or achieve when writing. “The end of the page,” he replied. We laugh.
He shares his wisdom with us through anecdotes and quotes and friendly smiles. He enlightens us to his beliefs in muses and his wonder at rhyme. He writes with the idea: “What can I get away with?” and “I wonder if this would work…” He seeks challenges. If something is too easily loved, it was too easily made.
He rambles about his passion, looking at us through his glasses and joking with and about himself. He checks his watch and finds that it’s already been an hour. The reading continues for twenty more minutes. The host, Stephen Brockwell, tries to get a word in sometimes, but Bowering is a hard man to interrupt simply because we want him to keep talking. We’re interested. We will sit here however long it takes. Only one person leaves at one o’clock and he looks like he has somewhere else he needs to be.
Brockwell eventually closes the reading and the cameras shut off. There’s a bustle of noise as people grab their jackets from the backs of their chairs and stretch their legs, whispering to each other.
Bowering’s words stick with me as I stand. He fascinates me in a way I didn’t expect when I arrived. I thought the reading would be more serious than it was. I’m glad that I was wrong and I’m glad that I came. Bowering is an example of how diverse writers can be. I may not be a poet and I may not be worldly or wise, but I am a writer and writers are all fascinating.
In Flander’s Fields 100 Years: Writing on War, Loss and Remembrance: Reviewed by Shawn Jefferies
On the last evening of the 2015 Ottawa International Writer’s Festival, I sat in the Center Town Church surrounded by students and writers, readers and veterans still steaming and damp from what would be confirmed as a record downpour. We were listening to In Flanders Fields being read over a PA system; Leonard Cohen’s voice rumbled through the gothic architecture, reverberating like a promise. It set an appropriately somber tone for soldiers killed in war, some of who were remembered on the walls around us in wood and stone and brass.
The discussion topic was In Flander’s Fields 100 Years: Writing on War, Loss and Remembrance, a collection of essays, fiction, poetry and visual arts reflecting on the impact of war through an exploration of John McCrae’s life and words. There were three speakers that evening, each a contributor to the anthology, each coming at the poem and war from different angles.
General Roméo Dallaire (ret), perhaps Canada’s most famous living soldier, used the poem as a platform to discuss the responsibility, the burden and the privilege of command. In his opening essay “Those Who Serve”, he discusses the changing face of war and the concomitant change in civilian understanding of duty. The “communal understanding of the importance of sacrifice” (8) he read from his work, has been lost in the “restless peace” of a world “rife with conflicts that are complex, messy, unpredictable and borderless.”(8) He spoke of child soldiers indoctrinated with hate and drugs. He spoke about two minutes of remembrance in a year of safety. He stressed how McCrae’s poem, if no longer binding together a nation, ties together soldiers, and speaks even more personally for the leaders who send soldiers into harm’s way. Dallaire fought different battles than McCrae, but saw and shed the same blood and his connection to In Flanders Fields is extremely personal.
Military Historian Tim Cook, CM, spoke eloquently and humorously about John McCrae. His essay “Forged in Fire” deconstructs “a man defined by his most famous poem” (17) and introduces the writer, the warrior, the athlete, the healer, the fast friend, the respected leader and a man whose joie de vivre was balanced by his duty to the dead. Listening to Cook’s passionate recitation, it became clear that if, 100 years after putting pen to paper, McCrae the author is renowned for those fifteen lines, in his life, Dr. John McCrae would have been eclipsed by nothing.
Finally, Mary Janigan reminded us that anything may be propagandized. The title of her piece “Treason to Their Memory” sets the tone for an essay deconstructing the “most divisive and regrettable election campaign in Canadian history” (75). Sir Robert Borden faced off against Sir Wilfred Laurier over the contentious of conscription – the non-voluntary enlistment of civilians to military service. McCrae’s elegy, Janigan explains, was used effectively throughout this campaign, to influence the vote; leveraging the distinction of the poem, a promise made to the dead, to threaten and coerce the living.
The discussions were equally powerful, the discourses passionate and gleaned meticulously from books and battlefields. All touched on McCrae’s work in different ways. While relating their stories, the contributors to In Flander’s Fields 100 Years: Writing on War, Loss and Remembrance, remind us not only of sacrifice and duty and loss, but also that literature is only half realized by the writer; that while the author may create, it is the reader, bearing unique experience and understanding, who will keep those creations alive for a hundred years. To hear these three speak both of their own work and the poem In Flanders Fields was a treat and an honor and one hopes McCrae sleeps well knowing that a century after his call, there are still those who hold high the torch.
The Scene of the Crime: Reviewed by Sarah Clarke
At first glance the reading room was a bright and inviting place, full of warm conversations and relaxed faces. There was coffee and other assorted drinks set up for guests while the event went on, giving the room an open, informal feel. As if setting up the theme of “the scene of the crime”, the lights dimmed when it was time for the authors to come onto the stage. Brief introductions were made for Sara Blaedel, Giles Blunt and Steve Burrows by the very humorous host, Sandra Abma.
It was Sara Blaedel who read first, bringing us an excerpt from her most recent crime novel, The Forgotten Girls. Despite her title as Denmark’s “Queen of Crime”, Sara herself was a very modest, and open person. She met the audience with humorous remarks and kind thanks once introduced and took to the stage. While she read the prologue of her new novel, the room was still, each audience member listening intently. She had a way of reading her novel which really had each of us holding on to her every word. With her novel being set in a real forest in a small town in Copenhagen, Blaedel mentioned that it was the main inspiration for this tale, there was a greater sense of realism in the character’s journey. It certainly had me on edge.
Up next to read a piece from his novel, was the “Bird Detective”, Steve Burrows. An almost strange fellow in appearance, he was quite a humorous figure when he spoke. It was clear in the way he answered Sandra’s questions, that he is fairly new to the novel writing scene, after being a birder for so many years. Yet this did not stop him from being confident in the way he read his excerpt from his new novel, A Pitying of Doves. He read with an air of suspense, with a way of describing his scenes, that kept us on the edge of our seats. I certainly found a new appreciation for the “Birder Murders”.
Finally, Giles Blunt took the stand, bringing us a new novel The Hesitation Cut. This new tale is a standalone compared to his previous series which had featured John Cardinal as the lead character. This new tale, set in New York City, already seemed intriguing simply from the first chapter read to us. Blunt had a way of creating the scene which the story is set in, beautifully described settings and characters seemed to leap off of the page. Having been a two-time winner of the Arthur Ellis award, it was clear that he had been in the writing business a fair bit longer than Blaedel and Burrows. However he still greeted the questions from both the hostess and the audience with kindness and humour. He certainly intrigued me to read some of his works.
Though admittedly I have not read many crime/mystery novels, by the end of this entertaining and very eye-opening event, I found myself intrigued by Blaedel’s work and the way she approaches her writing. At the end of the night I purchased her newest novel, and had it signed as well. The overall setting of the event was a very welcoming and pleasant one, something I believe everyone should get a chance to experience once in their lifetime.
Sweet Emotion: Reviewed by Derek Admana
This past Tuesday on October 15th, storytellers gathered together at the Christ Church Cathedral for this year’s Writer’s Festival. I entered the festival late due to confusion of the location change from Maxwell’s Bistro the night prior. I stood outside of the room of where the readings were, unsure whether or not I was too late to enter or if I had to pay. Moments later, a man opened the door and invited me into the reading for free. The room had minimal lighting. In fact, the only lighting was on stage as a spotlight for the audience to only see the reader. The room was wide; yet still an enclosed space to create a sense of intimacy and comfort for both the audience and the reader. I arrived in the middle of a chapter reading and I immediately sensed that the novel was serious and emotional through the audience’s mood engaged and silent, yet reacting to the critical moments of the chapter.
After the reading, the audience applauded and welcomed the next writer, Terry Fallis, to take the stage. He introduced his novel and discussed the chapter he was about to read. He characterized it as an influence of feminism, which immediately caught my attention. Within the first few paragraphs of the chapter, it was clear the novel was a comedy. His chapter had the audience and me laughing hysterically. After the readings, the guest speakers held a discussion of the techniques they approach to emulate these emotional reactions from the reader. This part of the evening was very engaging for the audience as well as informative. Although I only attended one day of the festival, I had a fantastic experience. I learned a lot and was able to experience live readings for the first time.
Joseph Boyden (Munro Beattie Lecture): Reviewed by John Cole
On Wednesday, October 21st at 7:00pm, Joseph Boyden spoke as the guest speaker at Carleton University’s annual Munro Beattie lecture. Joseph Boyden is a Canadian author and has written three novels: Three Day Road, Through Black Spruce, and The Orenda. We were packed into Carleton University’s Kailash Mital theater to hear him speak about his inspirations and experiences as he grew as a writer. Apparently the venue was filled to capacity, and several people were unfortunately turned away due to seating restrictions. I managed to find a seat early and made myself comfortable. The fact that so many people came to see Boyden is a testament to the popularity of his work; apparently this was the first time my other English professor, Susan Birkwood, had ever seen people turned away at the door.
After Professor Birkwood’s introduction, Joseph Boyden took to the stage. The first thing I noticed was how good a public speaker Boyden is. He has a very approachable attitude and feels very open and easy to speak to. It helped that his lecture was not so much a means of teaching or instructing people, but just the simple act of talking. I thought his three act structure with the musical interludes on harmonica and jaw harp was a nice touch. Each of the three sections focused on a different part of his life, and with each section he read an excerpt from one of his three books. Having read The Orenda for Canadian Literature this semester, I paid especially close attention to his excerpt from that novel. He delivers his writing with a clean cadence and furthers my impression that he is simply a natural storyteller. While I certainly felt an emotional impact reading the passage myself, his narration provided an extra visceral edge that really enhanced the scene.
One of the aspects of his presentation that stuck with me the most is how much of his writing is drawn from his own experiences. Basing the main character of Through Black Spruce on an old friend of his allowed him to really flesh out the character, even in the single excerpt he read to us during the lecture. Though his works are based on historical events, they remain stories first and foremost, only set against an historical background. The story in The Orenda is fictional, but the themes and factions involved within are inspired by real people. It adds a level of verisimilitude to his work, especially if you do like I did and researched the historical time periods he writes in. It allows you to have a better understanding of events, told from a new perspective.
This is the first time I have personally sat down to listen to an author discuss their work, and I really enjoyed the experience. At the reception afterwards, I had a chance to speak to Joseph Boyden in person. Professor Birkwood summed it up well in our class that Boyden really does make each person feel special, and I appreciated that he took the time to speak to audience members one on one. I would definitely enjoy the chance to hear him speak again.
Scene of the Crime: Reviewed by Laura Rawas
Let’s start off with a good ‘ole Law & Order ‘dun dun’ as we discuss the “Scene of the Crime.” It was the evening of Sunday October the 25th at Christ Church Cathedral that three notable mystery novelists were interrogated in front of a crowd of eager readers. It was a very friendly atmosphere. Many polite laughs were shared among authors and readers alike. It was also quite easy to tell who was a fan of whom, as some members in the audience became quite excitable each time the author they came to see spoke. A woman next to me laughed and nodded and commented throughout the panel, showing her affection for the books and their author quite admirably. I, on the other hand, had no previous knowledge of the present authors beforehand, which made for quite an interesting night. Though the panel as a whole was quite enjoyable, I found myself sold on only one of three authors.
Giles Blunt is known for his Detective John Cardinal series of mystery novels, however, he was there mostly to discuss his latest novel. The Hesitation Cut is a thriller about a monk who becomes sinfully tempted by a woman visiting the monastery. And while Blunt is a very emphatic reader, and entertaining to listen to, the story itself failed to capture my attention. Quite simply, it struck me as rather odd that it was this particular novel from which he read and preferred to discuss, as it was a panel dedicated to crime novels. Unless the woman turns out to be a serial killer who has her sights set on monks, or something to that effect, I can’t quite see why Blunt was sharing this particular novel in this panel. I do suspect the intention by the organizers was for him to speak mostly of his successful series of crime novels, but as any author would, he preferred to promote his latest novel.
Steve Burrows has a very unique approach to crime literature. He ties each story with birds, including the main character, who, not unlike the author, has a perplexing passion for bird watching. I had a childhood friend who loved bird watching. I never could quite understand her fervor, but her knowledge of birds was extensive and ever fascinating. It’s quite difficult to imagine someone could love something as simple as observing birds so much that they wish to do nothing else, and yet, that’s exactly the dream had by Mr. Burrows’ quirky protagonist. Burrows himself appears to be quite an interesting character, as his words were met with awe and chuckles from his attentive audience. My knowledge of his books is, of course, limited to the reading he presented and his own discussion of the series, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the Hallmark Channel followed up their Garage Sale Mysteries and Gourmet Detectives with some Birder Murders.
Sara Blaedel, Denmark’s “Queen of Crime”, stumbled a few times through her reading, which, rather than perturb me, left me with the feeling of relief as I realized I wasn’t the only one who struggled to read their own works aloud. Unfortunately for me, I don’t have the excuse of it being a translated work. As the panel moved forward and questions were asked, Blaedel became more and more interesting to listen to. Her process of creating her protagonist was perhaps the most fascinating, as what had begun as a personal escape later became a series of bestselling novels centered around Detective Louise Rick. Her use of what she calls a “Killing Board” to organize pictures and ideas involving real people and places also feeds into her writing, which she says has caused some locals to complain that she ruined certain areas, making them quite spooky!
While all three authors brought some interesting insight into the writing process, it was Blaedel who most captured my attention. Whether because her process somewhat resembles my own or that her style seems to be in line with the type of mystery I most enjoy reading, I look forward to reading some of Blaedel’s work. It was a fun night exposing myself and others to new insights into writing, and more importantly, new books to read. At the very least, it was worth the time spent sitting on ridiculously uncomfortable chairs in a decently organized space.
Condemned to be Free: Reviewed by Nick McNeilly
The writer’s festival event ‘Condemned to be Free’ was at times gripping, at times funny, but at all times an informative, intriguing experience, especially to an aspiring writer. Hosted by David O’Meara, the event featured a number of award-winning authors: James Grainger, Karim Alrawi, Owen Sheers, and Anakana Schofield. Each of these authors read a passage from a recently-written novel, and each of these passages related to the central topic of the event: freedom and choice.
James Grainger was the first to speak, reading a passage from his debut novel Harmless. In terms of prose, Grainger’s strongest weapon is the metaphor, and he easily uses them to describe a wide range of visceral emotions and situations – which is extremely important, as the topic of the novel deals with a missing child. Of interest to myself, personally, was the discussion of violence in regards to society. Whilst the current generation knows a great deal about violence superficially, through the media and internet and other globalized sources of information, we as individuals do not often have to deal with actual violence manifested in the real world. Harmless explores this dimorphism of violence by forcing a normal, everyday man into situations where they must witness real violence – not the kind they see on their TV screen. As someone who is admittedly acquainted with a superficial kind of violence but has fortunately not been exposed to its counterpart in reality, I found the talk quite relevant – especially as someone who is no stranger to writing fictionalized violence.
The second author was Karim Alrawi. Alrawi’s novel, Book of Sands, takes place in the midst of the Arab spring. The passages read to us were incredibly engaging – Alrawi crafts an excellent sense of suspense. He left me and undoubtedly many others wanting more after he finished reading his second passage, as he had built up a very tense scenario which we did not see resolved. During the discussion period, he talked about how he wanted to explore the role of women in the uprising, and how he used his own personal experiences as a basis on which to write – his novel is further grounded in actual historical events than the others we were treated to, which certainly helped to further legitimize the work.
Thirdly came Owen Sheers, a Welsh author whose book is titled I Saw A Man. Each of Sheer’s passages was told from the point-of-view of a different protagonist. The first introduced us to a sweltering day in London, right as our journalist is about to discover something in his neighbor’s house that will change his life – though we are not told what, and will likely not find out until we read the book itself. This passage touches on the theme of transgression, whereas the second – focusing on an American drone pilot – relates to as a character suffering from PTSD resulting from the consequences of a choice he made, tying us in nicely to the topic of the event.
Fourth but certainly not least was Anakana Schofield, who read a pair of passages from Martin John. These were my favorite passages, mostly because of Schofield’s unique writing style, particularly when she narrates the mental processes of Martin John himself. She takes you right into his troubled mind, and the narration takes on the rocky tempest of a rollercoaster, jumping back and forth between different causal links in memory and thought. It was rude, it was vulgar, and I loved it. All these novels touched on serious issues, but Martin John managed to do so while retaining a good-natured humour, which is something I try to do in my own novels. It certainly wasn’t the only common ground I could find with these authors – from their creative processes to the themes that interested them, I frequently saw things that resonated with me, and I would highly recommend any aspiring authors to attend at least one of the events of the festival.
Scene of the Crime: Reviewed by Sabrina Panetta
It was the night of Sunday, October 25th. Time: 8:30pm. Location: Christ Church Cathedral, 414 Sparks Street. I stepped off the bus. I was unfamiliar with the area and it was already dark out. Holding on to my phone a little tighter, I followed the directions on the GPS. I spotted the large stone cathedral and made my way towards it. There was no light in the windows, and I didn’t know where the entrance was; so I decided to go around to the back of the church. As I made my way down the small path, all the lights suddenly cut out and I sped up my pace. When I got to the other side of the church I spotted it: The Ottawa Writer’s Festival.
It was fitting this was my entrance to that night’s event: The Scene of the Crime with Steve Burrows, Sara Blaedel, and Giles Blunt. Incredibly ironic! The rest of the evening had a much lighter mood even if it was a panel of mystery and crime writers. Hosting the event was CBC’s Sandra Abma who was a wonderful host. I really appreciated that she gave each author a chance to fully answer questions. She gave them all the time they needed to speak and did not rush to get to the next question (which I’ve seen other panel hosts do).
The venue was exceptional. I’d never been to a writer’s panel before so I didn’t know what to expect. But I definitely did not expect high quality lighting and sound, and two large projection screens for ‘my people’-I mean those of us who are too short to see when sitting down in a crowd!
Abma introduced the writers as if we were all in our own mystery novel, referring to them as detectives and chiefs of the night. Giles Blunt, “one of Canada’s top crime novelists” (Globe and Mail), read the first chapter of his newest stand-alone novel, The Hesitation Cut, about a Benedictine monk who becomes obsessed with a young poet after he sees her scars of a failed suicide attempt. Sara Blaedel read the newest addition to her international bestselling series, The Forgotten Girls, featuring Detective Louise Rick who discovers the body of a woman in a local forest who was declared dead over thirty years ago. Finally, Steve Burrows, winner of the 2015 Arthur Ellis Award for Best First Novel, read from his newest novel, A Pitying of Doves, in which Detective Jejeune finds a member of the Mexican Consulate murdered beside the director of the local bird sanctuary and the only thing stolen is a pair of turtledoves.
I’d never been to a reading before, so it was an interesting experience. Giles Blunt grabbed my attention in particular. Whether it was just the writing of his charismatic and hilarious monks or the different voices he used when reading aloud, his reading was enough to convince me to pick up his novel as I was leaving. I can’t wait to start reading it!
After the readings, the authors talked about everything from the inspiration for their novels to the importance of research and setting to their feelings on protagonists. This was the most interesting part of the night. I always love hearing or seeing the “behind the scenes”, whether it’s what goes into making a movie or writing a novel. For Blaedel, setting is the most important aspect of her novels. The Forgotten Girls, specifically, is set in the forest by her childhood home in which there is an actual mental institution. Blaedel views writing as making a movie; she visually imagines her novels. It is easier for her to write about places she knows.
The second most interesting part of the night was Blunt talking about his newest protagonist. He’s written seven other novels with his protagonist John Cardinal. The Hesitation Cut is his first novel using a different protagonist. Blunt said that he made the change because his Cardinal novels were feeling tedious. Long story short, Blunt just needed a break. To all his fans, he unapologetically said he would continue to write more Cardinal stories when he feels like writing them again.
These were just two of the most interesting things I learned from the festival. There are many more, too many to fit in just a two page review. I really enjoyed the festival experience. The atmosphere was great and enthusiastic. It was different seeing much older adults get as excited over their mystery and crime novels as my friends and I get excited over our young adult novels. Mystery and crime novels aren’t even my preferred genre but I still had a great time. I would recommend anyone with a love of reading attend the Ottawa Writer’s Festival, no matter the genre.
Joseph Boyden (Munro-Beattie Lecture): Reviewed by Nicole Bayes-Fleming
For my festival review, I attended the Monroe Beattie lecture on Oct. 21 at the Kailash Mital theatre. The reading began at 7 p.m. by Canadian novelist Joseph Boyden, who divided his time into three acts, with each act reflecting one of his three books.
Since the event took place in one of Carleton’s lecture halls, the audience took up the seats already in place while Boyden stood on stage behind a lectern. Volunteers stood at the entrance of the theatre to direct attendees insides. The hall was crowded with many people and filled quickly. The audience members were diverse in age – it was clear that despite being on campus, the reading attracted more than just students. Boyden was then introduce by not one but two speakers, Sara Jameson and Susan Birkwood.
Boyden quickly established a connection with his audience through his use of humour and personal anecdotes. While he broke up each of his acts by playing the harmonica, he also took time between readings to share experiences that shaped him as a writer. He discussed his time as a desperate fine arts student in New Orleans, during which he called himself the worst writer in his class. He also explained how some of his best characters have come to him as a voice in his head, and touched on a very personal struggle with self-harm as a teen.
Boyden easily evoked reaction from his audience, both during his readings and his interludes. While reading a scene from The Orenda where the narrator severs her own finger, the entire theatre let out groans of disgust. At other times, his sometimes self-deprecating jokes had the whole crowd in laughter. While reading from his novels, Boyden’s voice seemed to take on a deeper Irish accent than it had when he spoke conversationally. He also used some hand motions. He kept a very smooth pace, which was effective in building suspense. Instead of changing his tone to reflect the emotions of his chosen passage, he kept an even tone that let his own writing do the talking.
Overall, my experience listening to Boyden was fantastic. I was immediately engaged and enjoyed both his reading and his speaking in between. I felt Boyden cared deeply about his characters, and also about those who were reading his books. It was clear to me through his personal anecdotes that he had spent a lot of time on his writing and creating a background for his characters. I think his reading was the most effective it could possibly be, because it made me think I should go out and buy one of his books.
Joseph Boyden (Munro-Beattie Lecture): Reviewed by Joshua Nadler
Joseph Boyden, a Canadian Author who was featured in the Ottawa Writers Festival, shared his insight and engaging story telling techniques to an astonishing amount of eager minds, who were lining up at the door to listen to him. This happened at Carleton University, more specifically Southam Hall, which is located at the center of campus, on Wednesday, October 21st. The talk consisted of Boyden touching on his three best sellers, The Orenda, Three Day Road, and Through Black Sprouse, followed by a brief meet and greet. The talk was split into three parts, each part containing experiences he went through in his life as well as the lessons he has learned and applied to his writing. The unique story telling ability that Boyden possesses had audience members on the edge of their seats wanting to hear more about his life and the inspiration for his books. For the amount of people that were there that night, the venue should have been bigger, as some people were turned away due to the fact that there was simply not enough seating. The venue was built for concerts and large scale lectures, so it was built to have the perfect ambience and acoustics that added to an outstanding reading. The clarity and smoothness in his voice made each and every one of his spoken word comprehendible.
The significance of ‘three’ is a common theme throughout his books and discussion. Boyden has no explanation for the theme of three, other than it just being something that he is drawn to. Boyden discusses the three lessons he learned, the three hardships he’s experienced in his life, and the order of three is what guides him throughout his readings. The idea that one’s own journey can be broken up into three parts is something that gives light to the style of writing that Boyden has. This same style of writing is what draws in his readers and goes beyond traditional styles of writing; instead of one protagonist, there are three; instead of one narrator, there are three; each having their own individual perspective and characteristics. The experience of listening to a writer like Joseph Boyden is something both rewarding and refreshing because he is a writer who is realistic, not only his writing ability, but also when he talks about his interests and what he experiences when he writes. For example, when he mentions going through a period of fear of what his critics would say, and then having to overcome that fear to better himself. It’s definitely an inspiring talk for any young writer who is looking for their muse or place to start; he gives the impression that in order to truly want to be a writer, you have to put in the time, take risks, and not care about the critics.
The general impression that was taken in from attending this talk was that it was an outstanding experience. Boyden’s unorthodox style of what can be called performing, added humor and flare that could only be understood by witnessing him for yourself. His ability to surprise and make light of his personal tragedy only compels the audience to want to hear more. If you read his latest piece of work, The Orenda, you would know that it is about the dark and passionate emotions that a young women goes through while being caught between not two, but three opposing forces; the love that she has for her new family, the fear from what will become of her and the ones she loves, and the desire to be reunited with her family who have died. This fear of change and sorrow for loved ones who were lost is something that connects to Boyden’s audiences and contents and encourages his readers to feel and build an emotional attachment to Boyden’s writings.
First Peoples, First Stories: Reviewed by Karen-Luz Sison
On Oct. 22 at 6:30 p.m., I came to Centretown United Church to find the pews were packed with people all eager to hear stories about First Nations people from Lee Maracle, Bev Sellars, and Joseph Boyden. In the aftermath of the election, with a historic surge of Aboriginal election participation, it was an exhilarating night for attendees of the Ottawa International Writers Festival to celebrate First Nations people and culture through exploring First Nations storytelling.
Hosted by CBC Aboriginal journalist Waubgeshig Rice, each author read an excerpt from their own publication.
Each writer had a different tone with their work. As a veteran writer of First Nations stories, Boyden had an empathetic, humorous tone with his reading; he shared a poignant portrait of a day in the life of a teenage boy living on a reserve. He told the story of a young boy caught in the middle of committing a crime, trying to escape, all the while unintentionally killing his family’s pet turtle.
Sellars’ reading was more solemn and heavy-handed; her excerpt reflected on her own personal childhood experience in residential school. It was brave of her to share her story out loud in front of a crowd; prefacing her reading, she talked about how her experience with storytelling as a healing endeavour. Sellars explained that her memoir was entitled “They Called Me Number One” because when she arrived at the residential school, they stripped her of her First Nations name and gave her a number as her identity: the number one. After an emotional reading, she also shared about the necessity of survivors telling their stories, how finally being able to tell their stories signified progress in reconciliation.
Reading from her novel Celia’s Song, Maracle read a bitingly hilarious anecdote of one Aboriginal family’s first meeting with a Catholic priest trying to get the daughters to come with him to a residential school. The story conveyed Maracle’s thoughts on how “racism is stupid.” While still dealing with the heavy topic of colonialism, Maracle was a lighthearted storyteller who laughed in the face of the racism she faced as a leader in First Nations circles.
After the readings, Rice invited the writers back on the stage and opened the floor to a Q&A period for the audience. The questions were activist-charged, covering everything from the role of social media in amplifying Aboriginal voices to the explosive increase in Aboriginal voters to the devastation of the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women.
One of the most resounding remarks came from Boyden, who said: “I see a change happening in this country, that people want to hear from its First Peoples. First Nations and Métis people are the anchor of this nation. We don’t know who we are, but the First Nations people do.”
First People, First Stories was a powerful and necessary event about how storytelling can often be the first step towards reconciliation with painful experiences and ultimately social change.
Joseph Boyden (Munro Beattie): Reviewed by Brittney Cooke
On October 21st, 2015, Joseph Boyden spoke at the Munro Beattie lecture at Carleton. He started around 7:15pm and spoke for about an hour. During that hour Boyden proved that not only is he a phenomenal writer, he is a great advocate of Aboriginal and mental health issues. Like any great performer, Boyden realized that just reading would not be enough (even though, truly, it could have been), and so chose to introduce each new section of his lecture with the playing of a different instrument. This was a fun and attention-grabbing way to begin his lecture, and left the audience hooked from the start. After a few short tunes on the harmonica, Boyden spoke about his past and how he had become a writer. It was inspirational because of how personal he made it, how he made his success seem achievable by anyone in the audience.
Boyden also read an excerpt from The Orenda, the part where a character named Snow Falls cuts off a man’s finger, as well as her own. Boyden read beautifully, with drama and intrigue. It was a wonderful experience to hear the author speak something most of the audience had read already, providing a new outlook into what was already written. Boyden used inflections and built up to the climax of the chapter perfectly. It created a great impact on the audience, and encouraged anyone who had not yet read The Orenda to find it immediately. Boyden also read from two of his other novels, each one just as interesting as the next.
The venue worked well for the lecture—although it did not fit the number of people that wanted to come out to see Boyden speak. Many people had to be turned away at the door, because the Kailash Mital theatre was at capacity 10 minutes before the lecture was even scheduled to start. For the lucky ones that got there early, it was a tight fit, but worth it in the end. Even afterwards at the reception, there was little room to budge, however there seemed to be less people attending the reception than people attending the lecture. The reception was enjoyable, however, because of the free snacks and refreshments accompanied by a cash bar—not to mention the meet-and-greet book signing available.
Boyden not only spoke beautifully when he read, but also when he talked about his life. He made the lecture very personal by bringing up parts of his past that were incredibly important to who he is not only as a writer, but as a person as well. Boyden spoke about his suicide attempt in his teen years and how it has affected him throughout the years, which made the lecture intimate and human. It is important to acknowledge how Boyden uses his public platform to address mental health and Aboriginal issues, through both his writing and his public talks. Much can be taken from his ability to speak openly about issues that matter, and proved incredibly inspirational at the Munro Beattie Lecture.
George Bowering: Reviewed by Fazil Muzzamil
The reading event began with Stephen Brockwell introducing George Bowering as a poet, author, editor and teacher. Bowering has written over one hundred books and even at the age of 80, he is publishing four books in 2015 alone.
Though the title of the event was about Bowering’s writing life, the focus was on Bowering’s poetry book, The World, I guess. He began by singing the poem, “Suzy,” a translation of “Suzanne,” by Leonard Cohen. The poem became a song, his baritone voice—distinctively Canadian—enabled the words to become vivid images in the listener’s mind. The cadences in the poem were clear and he emphasized particular words, hinting at their importance. The small room, well lit, and three-quarters full, was spellbound by his voice, a princely gift, bestowed by the gods.
Brockwell asked Bowering to read The Maltese M and The Big Glimmer. The Maltese M is about Bowering’s friend, the poet, Dave McFadden. “Dave believes that Paradise is here right now, all around us, and so he absorbs it and bears witness that life is not all subway noise and undersalted eggs,” (Bowering 5). Bowering has described himself as a Protestant agnostic.
Bowering’s influences include Talman and Duncan, who were two of his teachers at the University of British Columbia. They taught him to write with his senses and not with the subconscious. He said, “A great god gives you a great line; you try to continue it.” Sometimes though, these gods are dead poets. Other influences for him were Rilke, Yeats, and Ashberry. His book the Kerrisdale Elegies is inspired by Rilke’s Duino Elegies. To Bowering, the poem is the most artistic and true representation of art, not only because he has written mostly poems, and was the first Canadian Parliamentary Poet Laureate, but because of his affection for Edgar Allan Poe and Jorge Luis Borges, who were poets and occasional short story writers. He considers Poe’s, The Philosophy of Composition, as a syllabus on how to write poetry. Bowering had met Borges, who thought novels were padded with extraneous detail.
When Bowering begins to write a poem, he asks if, “I can get away with this,” which leads to story ideas and sets himself a challenge. These goals allow him to sustain a continuous creative output. He quoted Gertrude Stein by saying: “If you can do it then why do it?” One of these challenges for him was the fulcrum verse which he learned form Pablo Medina. “The middle couplet bears a discernible relationship to the first couplet and to the third couplet, but the third couplet need not be seen or heard in relationship with the first couplet” (Bowering 48). An example of a fulcrum poem he read was, the Oriente: “That frigate bird nipped that silver/ fish and lifted that duck off his/ feet from the hard wet sand, where/ Japan may reach this coming/ June, recall last year’s tsunami,/ a wharf at a time, a light bulb, too” (Bowering 57).
He read a few verses of a poem, “The Flood,” which changes structure within itself and involves the writer’s life and the work itself, which are significant themes in his work. After reading the poem, “The World, I Guess,” he repeated the sentence, “but even if you write it down, here’s the problem, you will be mis-writing, because you are mis-reading” (Bowering, 1) The images and ideas that a writer invents are only conveyed partially in writing. If someone figures out the meaning in his poems, he thinks “it wasn’t good enough; I’m happy and then angry.”
Towards the end of the event, Bowering spoke about his upcoming fiction book, The Okanagan, which narrates his experiences growing up in a valley. Sheila Watson set many of her stories in British Columbia and inspired Bowering to employ the Okanagan as a setting for his stories. He spoke of his father, a chemist, and his relationship with him. His father never said the words, “I love you,” to him but the sentiment was displayed when he took him to baseball games, which is Bowering’s favourite sport. Bowering himself prefers to write about love than to say it aloud.
Bowering, George. The World, I Guess. Vancouver: New Star Books, 2015. Print.