& occasionally about other things, too...

Monday, June 28, 2010

Canada A Portrait

July 1 is also Canada Day; also in July, I complete two years in Canada.

Here’s a passage from
Canada A Portrait describing the glory of the land.

“As I begin to tell this, it is the golden month of September in southwestern Ontario. In the splendid autumn sunshine the bounty of the land is almost overwhelming as if it is the manifestation of a poem by Keats.”

In these opening lines from his fine novel
No Great Mischief, the Canadian writer Alistair MacLeod illuminates the splendour of a Canadian season and the richness of the Ontario countryside. MacLeod, who hails from Cape Breton, believes “you carry a landscape within you” and the truth of his ringing statement is at the heart of Canada’s story. That story begins with the land, and within every Canadian, new and old, is an appreciation of it, based on their experience of this tough, glorious, vast northern landscape.

Alistair MacLeod is just one of a long line of writers who have articulated their experiences of Canada, the look of it and the rhythm of its seasons – seasons that change like a set in a history play.

“Wait a while; you know nothing of a Canadian winter,” a neighbour told Susanna Moodie in 1832, shortly after she had immigrated to Upper Canada, as Ontario was then known. “This is only November; after the Christmas thaw, you’ll know something about cold.” Moodie came to know the winters well, and wrote of them in a book whose title could be a bumper sticker for early Canadian immigrant history,
Roughing it in the Bush.

Almost two centuries and one season later, Sharon Butala of southern Saskatchewan wrote, in
The Perfection of the Morning,

“On a warm spring day riding a horse, walking or travelling in a truck across true shortgrass prairie that had never known a plow in all its history since the glaciers, I thought I had never smelled anything so wonderful in all my life...” After the prelude of spring comes the season when, according to Nova Scotian poet George Elliot Clarke, the fields are “maddened, by chlorophyll” and we can “stray outside, bumble around a geyser of raspberries that erupts crooked from black soil.”

(Canada A Portrait Editor-in-Chief, Jonina Wood; published in 2002 by Ministry of Industry, Statistics Canada; all images from the book)

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Fiction in the age of e-books

My son Che is 13. 

He is constantly on one of his several hand-held gaming devices, playing interactive games that transport him to a world of his own and where he doesn’t require human company. 

When his friends come over to play, they do so quietly – strange for children of any age – because they’re busy playing on their own hand-held devices.

Che has an ipod; he’s clear what he wants when he ‘officially’ turns a teenager next year: An iphone so that he can start texting. He uses the laptop with a dexterity that surprises me.

He also reads. 

In the last few months, he’s read three new releases of The 
39 Clues, and the entire series of The Diary of the Wimpy Kid and a few others.  Gordon Korman is Che’s favourite author. (Sorry, I got the name wrong yesterday).

I’m sure, as he grows up, he’ll develop his own interests. I hope that he will follow the family tradition of loving books and literature.

While I'm uncertain whether my wish will be granted, I'm quite sure by the time he’s of an age when he’ll be interested in reading "serious" books, books would have changed.

He’ll read them from a hand-held device that will not only offer him a greater variety and easy access to hard-to-get books, but also make the process of reading far more interactive, immersive and colourful.

The fiction of tomorrow will be definitely produced not merely written and published – meaning there will be many more professionals involved with the production of fiction not merely the writer and the publisher.

In all likelihood there won’t be any bookstores; there will be virtual retail outlets that sell a variety of digital products – music, books, games, and what have you.

All this is not in the distant future. This will happen in the next couple of years.

Actually, it’s a reality right now; it’s just that at present books aren’t part of this digital world, and it’s inevitable that they’ll be co-opted before long.

So, should the purists bemoan the end of an era?

At a congregation of believers in the book held June 19 as part of Luminato – Toronto’s festival of arts + creativity two authors (Katherine Govier, Paul Theroux), one publisher (Sarah MacLachlan, Anansi), one bookseller (Joel Silver, Indigo) and a magazine editor (Scott Stossel , Atlantic) agreed that they were all “torn between hope and nostalgia” about the future of fiction in the age of e-books.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Two events, two stars and a good time

Both Lawrence Hill and Romila Thapar are stars and unquestionable genuises.

Hill is an authentic Canadian literary star.

Romila Thapar is an iconic historian.

On June 7 Pen Canada’s Ideas in Dialogue series had Hill discuss his childhood, boyhood, youth with another writer Charles Foran.

As with most grown men, Hill considers his father Daniel Hill to be a major influence on his life. He spoke animatedly about his life and times – a journey with his father to Washington DC when he was growing up, and surprisingly, the fact that for a brief time when he was really young, he was acutely embarrassed of his mother’s white skin.

Soft-spoken and articulate, Hill was nevertheless always careful and measured in his responses; sometimes a bit too careful and not spontaneous enough in an informal conversation.

McNally Robinson’s cavernous bookshop was brimming with an enthusiastic audience comprising interested readers and eminent writers; among the latter was the redoubtable Katherine Govier, an epitome of graciousness. She autographed my copy of her latest novel The Ghost Brush and wrote, “With my congratulations on your writing.”

I didn’t quite realise the importance of Hill’s The Book of Negroes when I read it last year, and had unfairly compared it to Roots. Joyce Wayne argued with me and educated me on its importance and provided me the background to racial exploitation in Canada, and within that context the importance of Hill’s novel.

Then on June 14, I quietly sneaked out of my office to quickly go to Munk Centre to witness a conversation between Janice Stein and Romila Thapar (India’s Past and Present: How History Informs Contemporary Narrative).

Thapar touched upon several themes that are dominating the public discourse in India today. The dissonance between the belief that claims the pastoral Aryans to be the original inhabitants of the subcontinent and the largely commercial urban civilisation in Harappa; the Brahminical underpinnings of the colonial interpretation of Indian history; the generally ignorant view that Indian civilisation lacked a sense of time; the arbitrary categorisations of different eras of Indian history based on religion.

An hour passed by. The audience listened in rapt attention.

Many years ago, Romila Thapar’s A History of India (Vol. 1), introduced me to India’s fascinating history. Thapar is firmly on the right (left) side of the political struggle against the Hindu right in India. It was, indeed, an honour and a privilege to listen to her in Toronto.


Thapar: http://newshopper.sulekha.com/ptiimages/original700/romila%20thapar.jpg
Hill: http://images.theage.com.au/ftage/ffximage/2008/10/03/Lawrence_wideweb__470x323,0.jpg

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Michael Fraser: Coffeehouse Cabaret

I met Michael Fraser about a year ago at Helen Walsh’s home when some of the mentees of the 5th round of Diaspora Dialogues met with some of the mentors.

Michael asked me who my mentor was, and was envious when I told him it was MG Vassanji.

Shyam Selvadurai was his mentor for the
program. Shyam publicly praised Michael for his writing at TOK 5’s launch last month.

Undoubtedly, Around the Way is among the better stories in the collection.

Earlier this month, I attended another one of Michael’s poetry readings – the Coffeehouse Cabaret – at the Black Swan tavern (Broadview x Danforth). Michael also manages the Plasticine Poetry series at the Central in Mrivish Village.

Evidently, Michael knows the importance of public reading and does it like a champion.

After his reading session I bought his book of poems – Serenity of Stone. Reading it over the last week, I was awestruck with Michael’s felicity with words and simplicity of expression.

The broad theme of the collection is his adjusting to Toronto as an immigrant. As a newcomer myself, I identified immediately with it, although I couldn’t possibly have written about it with such a cadence of words, sounds.

I envy poets. In a few deft lines they convey feelings that are often indescribable.

Michael’s poem Lawrence West Bus is about so many of us newcomers who commute on TTC, in perpetual wonderment at what we observe, never tiring of the sights and the sounds that this city has to offer.

Lawrence West Bus

8 a.m people draped

in walking clothed anthems
garlands of language
unfold and perch
like syncopated doves
in our armchair ears
wingless sounds
soft in flight

through shaded smog windows

each house number
is a full year
overgrown with time
how satellite dishes hold
crushed skies in grey irises
inside we are surrounded
by breathing clocks
feverish seconds eat themselves
and disappear

bus wheels peel pavement

a burnt kiss
flashed in rubber and stone
road lines open up
as a zipped dress
secured in material arms
the baby feeds itself with sleep

The other poem that leaves a lasting impression is Dog Days and his father’s “long white Thunderbird” which finds a prominent mention in Around the Way.

And a memorable line:
birds eat words from a tree.

Read an earlier post on the poet: Click here: 
Michael Fraser: