Thursday, June 14, 2018

Canadian Authors Metro Vancouver hosts June Open Mic

Twenty Readers, five minutes each. The eternal refugee spoke these poignant words by poet Lozan YamolkyYou won't find me among those little girls who have been bought and sold and traded -- spoils of war -- I am here. Help raise me...I am the child, and this is our village.

New work from Jay Bates (below) included this line: A lifetime of hurts fitted into a tiny suitcase. 

Among the other words heard: 

Briana Garelli: At Sunday mass, her mother prayed for Blanca's return. 

Susila Bryant: Tales told, lives led, pleadings pled, songs sung. 

Jay Storey: The doors were still operational, but wouldn't be for long. 

Andrew Littler: Those that knew how much they should be drinking, and those that did not. 

Karen LeeThe one thing I remember from Sunday school is that God takes a dim view of self-interest. 

Malcolm van DelstI'm not gonna lie any more, even though I'm exceptionally good at it...If you lose track of the story, you lose track of yourself. 

Tikiri Herath: His ears billowed like the sails of a pirate ship. 

Karen Schauber: He is managing quite well for a purebred...He's a quick study. 

Tara K Torme: You are an unopened Pandora's box. 

Lilija Valis: I'm taking another look at No. Yes takes all the credit...In some cultures, no is not allowed in public. Yes and No need each other, but they quarrel all the time.

Marion Lovelace: I will require a formal pose. Perhaps it will please you to come to the embassy? 

Renee Saklikar: The dance, most of all. 

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Sofie and Cecilia by Katherine Ashenburg

To write this book, Katherine Ashenburg did a great deal of research and travelled to Sweden to seek out settings and talk to locals. The novel portrays two couples: all four are artists, but in the early 20th century, both women give up painting once they marry. According to society, the real (male) artists are owed this by their wives.

The story is strengthened by the fact that both Lars and Nils, the husbands of protagonists Cecilia and Sofie, are loosely based on real Swedish artists.

In an incidental way, this story of a friendship is also a lesson in 20th century European history and society. The main tale, though, is an intimate portrait of two artist's wives, who meet through their husbands and slowly develop their friendship.

As an old woman, Sofie looks back on her marriage to Nils, thinking "Love, the bodily love...had convinced her to accept him. That kind of love had an element of destiny. The love of friendship, on the other hand, felt more like a choice."

In her old age, Cecilia, who is of Jewish ancestry, must watch the rise of Nazism in Germany, where she first studied painting. A rising wave of national fervour in Sweden leaves her feeling somewhat isolated, as her liberal artist friends ignore the impending threat. It is a bitter pill indeed that Cecilia's homeland of Sweden, where she and Lars have spent years of effort and huge sums of money to create a museum to preserve Swedish arts and crafts, is not immune from the demented ideal of national "purity." 

Monday, May 28, 2018

Wildwood by Elinor Florence

As Canadians flocks to cities, memories of our agrarian and rural roots are fading. Elinor Florence's novel reminds us of the magic and also the hardship of being tied to the land.

Lured by the expectation of money she hopes to earn by selling the land, a penniless Molly leaves Phoenix with her ailing daughter Bridget to claim the remote Peace River home she's inherited from a distant relation. There's a caveat: to get clear title, she must occupy the farm for a full year. Unexpectedly, her new life draws Molly in, helps heal the pains of her past, and improves her daughter's health.

Having spent my early life on an Alberta farm, I loved the rich linguistic memories this book evoked. From then: washboards, liquid bluing, sad irons, livery stables, stooks, grub for threshing crews, the moccasin telegraph, using a broom straw to test a cake for doneness, and batching.

From there: Hudson's Bay blankets, the Western Producer and the Family Herald (now a collector's item.) Saskatoon berries and chokecherries were powerfully evocative of place, and the farmer's familiar and laconic comment about the weather, "It's a scorcher," made me smile.

But the book also connects us to Here and now. In the small Peace River town of Juniper, the farmers are divided over fracking, the oilmen are routinely called rig pigs, and some local businesses are "in bed with the oil."

The eternal topics of cooking and home remedies made delightful reading. I also learned the correct Cree way to pick sweetgrass, and how smudge with it. It surprised me to learn that this plant, valued for Indigenous ceremonies and rituals, can also be used for basket weaving.

This absorbing story develops in multiple timelines. Molly's past traumas are slowly revealed through her reactions to present challenges and her bursts of strong emotion as repressed memories rise to the surface. After reading her great aunt's old journals, and learning about the physical and emotional challenges she overcame, the young woman finds courage to make an important decision at the end of her trial year of living on the remote farm without plumbing or electricity.

One of Molly's memorable lines describes a past love affair in a nutshell: "His office was filled with trophies, and soon I became one of them." Another line expresses the importance of learning to let go, forgive, grow up and move on. I enjoyed this satisfying moment of the protagonist's growing self-awareness, "Once again, I had allowed my past to poison my present."

Plot wise, I found this layered and suspenseful story hard to put down. I finished it in two days.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

In Their Father's Country, by Anne-Marie Drosso

This family saga affords readers intimate glimpses of a cosmopolitan and multicultural Cairo, as seen through the eyes of the Sahli sisters, Claire and Gabrielle. Though their father is Syrian-born, and their mother Italian, the girls attend a convent school, speak French to their parents, and receive no formal education in Arabic. Raised in privilege, the sisters must deal with the changes the century brings.

The opening scene of the "bourgeois" bedroom where their lawyer father lies ill includes Venetian lamps, Persian rugs, and alabaster bookends. However, this family eschews gilt trim and "the usual profusion of ornamental objects." The neighbourhood is also revealing. The apartment is "within walking distance of Groppi's, Lemonia's, the Cafe Riche, the Mohammed Ali Club, and Au Bouquiniste Orientale." The girls' father, Selim Sahli, frequents all these places.

The novel opens in 1924. While the the British hope to maintain their "special relationship" with Egypt, nationalists want full independence. Shot by assassins, Sir Lee Stack is rushed to the Anglo-American hospital, and Selim explains to his teenage daughters that Syrians, Greeks, Lebanese and Armenians are in an awkward position. He blames not only "'the nationalists who blow our distinctness out of proportion,'" but the insularity of his own community as well.

Very different in personality, the sisters continue to love each other, even as they wrangle over a changing array of problems involving men, children and servants. Young and middle-aged, they tend to argue over romantic and social matters. As they age, they openly disagree over politics.

The sisters' lives move forward against the backdrop of a rapidly changing society. Both marry within their own sheltered milieu, then bear and raise children who leave the country. As she ages, Claire becomes more frustrated by her poor Arabic. ''How," she asks her sister, "can we pretend we're informed when we don't read the Arabic papers and only read the pathetic French dailies intended for people like us?" In contrast, Gabrielle has very little interest in this problem.

Eventually, the very personal issue arises of whether Claire should accept her niece's invitation to live with her in Paris. What would be the emotional effects on her own children if she moved in with Gabrielle's daughter in old age? Can she really risk making her children feel guilty and angering her sister?

The decision of whether to leave Cairo also entails facing the question of whether to try to give up her apartment. Keeping it would require a certain amount of subterfuge, since owning an apartment in Cairo is illegal for people living abroad. This question may well resonate for contemporary Canadians. As city real estate prices skyrocket, some laws have been passed to discourage foreigners from buying Canadian homes and leaving them empty.

Yet new taxes intended to protect local homeowners against foreign investors have drawn the ire of native-born Canadians with summer homes in other towns or cities. Owning a summer place is part of a long tradition that goes back to a time when families who could afford it spent long holidays at a rural lake cottage. Kelowna was once home to such rustic cabins. There, as elsewhere, former cabins have been subsumed by the growing city. Like Claire, these people do not want to completely sever ties to old homes.

Drosso's novel evokes other contemporary dilemmas. We live in times when it's no longer a given to have a stable family home with relatives living nearby. On the contrary, it is increasingly common to have relatives living in multiple countries. This gives a special poignancy to Claire's dilemma about leaving Cairo in old age.

Another theme that echoes strongly concerns the isolation that results when people in multicultural cities maintain close ties with their own ethno-cultural communities and remain unaware of what goes on in among adjacent groups. The choice of burial vaults is telling. Claire and Gabrielle's "emotional separateness in life" is dramatized by the fact that one sister wants to be buried with her husband's people, while the other prefers to be interred beside her parents. But obviously, vault burials are not universal in Cairo. Muslims adhere to very different funerary customs. Perhaps the separateness between the sisters hints at the distance between ethnic communities in the city.

Above all, this is a story of family, the mother-daughter bond in particular. Having grown up with a rather cold mother who kept important secrets from her children, Claire decides that her daughters matter "more to her than the relationship" they have with her. She even tells her sister she can understand a mother "cutting off all ties with her child, if that were necessary for the child's happiness." Claire's thoughts on the mother-daughter bond also suggests how secrets kept by one generation can colour the lives of those who follow.

From the perspective of her very different character, Gabrielle pooh-poohs Claire's ideas about the depth of mother love, saying she doesn't believe a word of it. However, perhaps this is her way of avoiding the emotions that threaten to overwhelm those who take time for introspection. Possibly her quick dismissal is an inverted recognition of how avoidance of certain emotionally difficult challenges has been a pattern in her life.

For me, this work of family drama against a historic background I knew little about was an informative and absorbing read.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Overheard at the hairdresser

Info is a hairdresser's stock in trade, and Sue is no exception. I've long relied on her, for lore both mundane and arcane. What to do if the dishwasher soap pills don't melt? Which farm has the best raspberries and has the season closed yet? When are Prince Harry and Meghan getting married? Sue knows all.

She also knows people. While I waited for my perm to set, she chatted with another client whose hair she was trimming.

"Going to pick blueberries again this year, Alice?"

"Sure. This will be my fifth year."

As one does, they included me in the conversation. "Tell her how old you are," suggested Sue, "and how you got the job."

"I'll be ninety-five in August." I goggled as Alice continued. "I went there for U-pick berries. When I got to the cashier, she was impressed by how much I'd picked in half an hour. She asked me if I wanted a job." She smiled. "First, I thought she was kidding. But she wasn't. I thought it over and told her I'd give it a try. That was five years ago."

She was ninety at the time. Three years older than Queen Elizabeth.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Nine Continents by Xiaolu Guo

The title Nine Continents is a Chinese expression meaning the whole country, or the whole world. The title of the memoir refers to a prediction an elderly monk made about the little girl to Xiolu's grandmother: she would see it all.

Matter-of-factly, Guo describes the brutal privations of her childhood in the isolated coastal village where she spent her first seven years. Family life meant semi-starvation, no education, and almost no conversation. Watching her illiterate granddad beat his wife was "normal." At the same time, the child knew her lame grandmother loved her, and she returned that love.

This book contains shocking moments, public and private. An encounter with a Chinese embassy official in London catapults her into a new phase with jarring suddenness.

The unexpected news that her parents are to visit her in London awakens suppressed memories that underline the dismal state of the parental relationship. "I had no memory of a motherly look," and "the culturally programmed habits of duty...had made me guilty from the very beginning, as the unworthy, wayward daughter." All this "killed any natural love I might have had for my birth family." Though her father does treat her kindly, nobody has ever told her why she didn't see her parents or brother until she was seven, when they came and took her from her widowed granny.

With brutal directness, the author develops her themes of alienation and dislocation. "Masculinity for me was a kind of foreign occupation, which I could take temporarily." The aftermath was "a fearful state of confusion." More than this, "a granite hardness had grown inside me since I was a child" resulting in "a hard knot or core that couldn't be loosened."

On scholarship at film school in Beijing, Xiaolu Guo lived through a brief flowering of free artistic expression that followed the violent suppression of the Tienanmen Square protests in 1989. But, she says, "The time of underground artists is now well and truly over in China. These days, artists are either state-sanctioned, in prison, or exiled in the West."

For awhile, Guo earned a living writing TV scripts in China. She also travelled around the country with an American student who was studying Chinese. A Beijing concert commemorating the death by suicide of Nirvana rocker Kurt Cobain inspired her first book: 20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth. Originally published in China, this was reworked later and published in English.

Xiaolu Guo felt drawn to the West, and wanted to escape her birth country. She explains, "It was the culture of masculinity in China that I was revolting against, a fact that was inextricably linked to all my bad experiences with the old traditions."

After winning the International Chevening Scholarship the National Film School in London, she soon began to write again. Still far from fluent in English, she made a courageous decision, and "the desire and will to work on a first book in English propelled me through the difficulties." The result was her first novel, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers. This book was well received and widely translated.

In her memoir, Guo comments insightfully on the socio-linguistic challenges that accompanied her choice of first person narration. "In China, no one is a separate entity: either you were born to a non-political peasant household or to a Communist Party household. But here, in this foreign country, I had to build a world as a first-person-singular -- urgently."

With dispassionate clarity, she also explains the thinking that lay behind her choice of English for her first book written in the West. "I would use my broken English, even though it would be extremely difficult. And yet, more positively, I would be free from state and self-censorship...an even more significant issue for me as a Chinese writer."

She calls state censorship "an assault on our creativity," adding that, "few Chinese writers actually acknowledge the serious and endemic issue of self-censorship." This was another hurdle she had to overcome. "We in China had undergone a proletarian revolution under Mao, and yet there was barely a free thought in our heads. The layers of self-censorship we had to engage in before the official censorship came to get us had already strangled any creative work...Creativity under a Communist regime requires...all creative thoughts to be kept to oneself."

The author's unstinting self-revelation makes her story irresistible. All day I sat on the porch reading, and when the fading light drove me indoors, I couldn't go to bed until I finished the tale of this astonishing life. The book ends on a note of hope, with Guo and her partner preparing for a trip to China with their new baby. On this visit, she feels calmer, and knows who she is. "Being an artist defines who I am. Not my passport, my gender, my language, or my skin colour."

For me, the settings were especially evocative. A month ago, I saw Beijing and parts of Zhejiang province as they are now. Thanks to Guo's evocative descriptions of her homeland, I could then imagine these places as they were a quarter of a century earlier.

The book revealed information that was new to me. I hadn't realized the novel is a new literary form in Chinese. Guo's words also filled in some of the recent history and the odd contradictions of this fascinating and influential country. Today China is both communist and capitalist, progressive and conservative, and equally proud of its ancient history and post-modern lifestyles.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Douglas Todd: rational talk about controversial topics

What is real? How then shall we live? These are the great questions that guide Douglas Todd as he attempts, through his columns, to generate rational discussion about controversial issues.

Todd's column in the Vancouver Sun mainly covers issues related to spirituality, migration, and diversity. His May 9 talk to Canadian Authors covered five themes: Foreign capital, Sikhism related news, Men's issues, Ethnic Diversity and Flirting versus Harassment. He also read snippets from recent columns and invited participation from a keen audience.

To write what he does means Todd must find courage to stand up to a lot of flak. Some of his columns have generated fear and hesitation before going to press, and Todd had to learn that his skin "is only so thick."

Today, many well-meaning people think certain topics are off-limits. Just as Victorians felt it was not nice to talk about sex, contemporary journalists fear conversations about race, lest they be called racist or xenophobic. When diversity journalism is expected to cover "just the positives," writing with rationality and balance is "risky." A major factor is identity politics. Putting group identity first "divides us, and hides the common good." Indeed, opines Todd, the liberal elite has "led to strongman figures like Trump and Doug Ford."

But there's more at stake than "political correctness" or "virtue signalling." In the nineties, when the first big influx of Hong Kong real estate investment dollars arrived in Vancouver, white real estate developers pulled the racist card to silence critics of their policies. This went on "for three decades." Former mayor Sam Sullivan, now housing critic for the BC Liberals, came after Todd for revealing facts the real estate industry wanted kept under wraps. Tycoon Bob Rennie threatened a SLAPP suit.

This, in spite of Todd's meticulous journalistic accuracy, and his inclusion of opinions from varied sources. One way to protect himself is to quote local Chinese on real estate prices, and Sikhs when he discusses issues in their community. With only 1% of Canada's population, they are "hugely important politically," and currently hold 12% of the seats in Parliament. Columns have involved in-depth interviews to unearth inside views of Sikh psychotherapists about their own culture.

Long a fan of his columns, I've found them meticulously researched and eminently rational, fair and balanced. I learned a lot from his talk, and enjoyed meeting Doug Todd in person, the more so when I learned he doesn't often give public talks. From a recent column, I knew that at UBC, we had shared a favourite professor -- the late Dr. Hanna Kassis, remembered by Todd a "Canadian pioneer in Islamic Studies" who "crossed tense boundaries." I've since discovered other parallels, including the fact that like me, Todd studied Arts I at UBC.

I also learned some hard facts. Here's a fascinating example. Excluding foreign-worker-fuelled Brussels and Dubai, Toronto and Vancouver are the two most hyper-diverse cities in the world, with about half their people foreign-born. (New York has 25% and LA 30%). In sharp contrast, in China, Mumbai and Manila, only 1% are foreign born. This is interesting. What might be the implications of the fact that many of those settling here have so little experience in living with diversity?

"I want to write about things people avoid, but it gets me in trouble." Seems that's the cost of honest dissent. To find the common good for society, we need to have difficult conversations about hot issues that affect us all. Keep up the good work, Douglas Todd.