& occasionally about other things, too...

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Literature Matters - III: Solitude, Mistakes & Creativity

Edugyan (far left), Kamboureli (centre) and Solie (right)
The third annual Literature Matters – the Avie Bennett Chair in Canadian Literature Lecture Series featured Karen Solie, and Esi Edugyan, both renowned, multiple award-winning writers. Solie is a poet, and Esi Edugyan is a novelist. Smaro Kamboureli, the Avie Bennett Chair in Canadian Literature, moderated the program.

Karen Solie is the author of four collections of poetry. Her third collection Pigeon won the 2010 Pat Luwther Award, Trillium Poetry Prize, and the Griffin Prize. Her most recent, The Road In Is Not the Same Road Out (2015) was shortlisted for the Trillium Book Award. She was the 2015 recipient of the Writers’ Trust Latner Poetry Prize and received the 2016 Canada Council for the Arts Victor Martyn Lynch-Staunton Award.

Before the program commenced, the organisers had prepared a slideshow that was presented on the screen of the Isabel Bader Theatre’s stage. It contained extracts from both the poet’s and the novelist’s works, all remarkable in their pithy observations. For instance, the following lines from Solie’s poem from the collection The Road In Is Not the Same Road Out.

My unknown presence
was my weapon. I waited for him
to initiate the next stage
of our lives.

Solie’s subject was On Folly: Poetry and Mistakes. She began her talk by quoting from Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus (also known as Erasmus of Rotterdam), most famous work The Praise of Folly, where the humanist theologian and one of the pioneers of the Protestant Reformation asked: What is more foolish? The poet or the poetry? Solie’s tongue-in-cheek answer: People are generally happy when they see a tradesperson – a plumber or an electrician; that is not often the case when they see a poet.  That, she added, had to do with more people agreeing that they hate poetry than on what poetry is.

In a talk that was peppered with quotes from many poets and writers, Solie made the case that follies and mistakes are integral to creativity and that everything that a writer does is no more natural than other things in the world. A writer’s responsibility, therefore, is to remain open, vulnerable, and basically write down everything that’s inside the head on paper.

Solie observed that the definition of word folly has evolved to become narrower; in its pristine sense, it also meant delight, fakery, a dwelling place, in addition to failure or a mistake. She said fear is a necessary ingredient for good writing, and that fear, too, had many shades and connotations, just as mistakes are essential to creativity. During the Q&A later, she said that fear for her is the fear of being terrible in the many ways that one can be terrible.

Solie said poetry is about ‘and’ not ‘or’, and quoted Meena Alexander’s poem Question Time

We have poetry
So we do not die of history.
I had no idea what I meant.

Solie answering an audience question as
Kamboureli and Edugyan listen
Esi Edugyan is a renowned novelist, whose second novel Half-Blood Moon won the 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize for Fiction, and the Ethel Wilson Award for the USA’s Hurston-Wright Award and the Anisfield-Wolf Prize for Fiction. It was shortlisted for many other awards including the Man Booker and the Governor-General Award. In 2014 she published her first collection of a nonfiction book, Dreaming of Elsewhere, a meditation on the relationship between home and belonging.

The subject of Edugyan’s talk was The Wrong Door: Some Meditations. She began with the example of the proverbial person from Porlock, who disturbs Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the Romantic era English poet, while he was penning Kubla Khan (A Vision in a Dream: A Fragment).

The story goes that Coleridge, in an opium-induced haze, was writing a poem that apparently was flowing naturally and was practically getting itself written, was disturbed by this person from Porlock, who had mistaken knocked on Coleridge's door. By the time this person left, the poem has evaporated from his mind, and mere fragments were of it left.

Edugyan said every writer needs a metaphorical wrong door that intruders may knock on to disturb someone else and leave the writer alone to create. Every writer fears the sudden, thought-scattering disturbance that ruins her work. She said solitude and silence are essential requirements for a writer because only through silence can she cut out the external to hear the internal.

Losing a thought or an idea because of the din that surrounds a writer is commonplace, especially in these days of social media distractions. Edugyan quoted Rebecca Solnit (A Field Guide to Getting Lost) where she traces the origin of the word ‘lost’ to the Norse word los. Solnit says, “The word ‘lost,’ comes from the Old Norse ‘los,’ meaning the disbanding of an army, and this origin suggests soldiers falling out of formation to go home, a truce with the wide world. I worry now that many people never disband their armies, never go beyond what they know.”

We must go away to allow ourselves to perform miracles, Edugyan observed. She said even though the writer writes for everyone, she should accept that not everyone will like what she writes and that the role of art and creativity is to depict the world faithfully, even if it is unsavoury. Edugyan also emphasised the significance of privacy. She said that the role of privacy in creation is being redefined constantly, especially in this post-privacy world, a writer should realise that public intimacy turns into banality, and loss of privacy has the greatest ability to destroy the artist. Silence, she said, exists beyond the spectacle and words are within us waiting to be made whole.

A brief Q/A followed the readings, where both Solie and Edugyan stressed the need for solitude. Solie spoke of the eternal conundrum: We don’t write to please people, and yet, we want people to read what we write. Edugyan spoke of the adverse effects of being a celebrity on the process of creativity.

Read about the previous two Literature Matters here:

Literature Matters – II

Friday, January 27, 2017

‘Breaking the Waves’ by Daisuke Takeya

Daisuke Takeya reciting a poem (photo by Artur Augustynowicz)
Earlier this month, I participated in the closing reception of Daisuke Takeya's exhibition of paintings and installation at the Christopher Cutts Gallery in Toronto. 

Daisuke is a Canadian-Japanese artist who works both in Toronto and Tokyo. He calls himself an “interdisciplinary artist whose practice is comprised of the exploration of nature and plausibility in contemporary society, and hinges on all kinds of double meanings.” He has lived and worked globally, having studied art in New York.

His exhibition at the Cutts Gallery titled ‘Breaking the Waves’ was his fourth solo show. The title is from Lars von Trier’s 1996 film of the same name, which depicted a traumatic story of love, life and death. Daisuke explained that the film had resonated with him and influenced his artistic explorations especially after the earthquake-tsunami-nuclear reactor meltdown disaster of 2011 that hit Japan’s east coast. 

Earlier, talking to me during an interview on TAG TV (which is yet to be aired), Daisuke said that as an artist he evolved dramatically from realistic and figurative paintings to exploring emptiness after his five-year involvement for the rehabilitation of the survivors of that disaster.

Venice (Home to Yayoi Kusama’s
1959 No. 2) Cutts Gallery
In interpreting emptiness, Daisuke uses large canvas space to depict the sky, and at the bottom of the canvas is a thin, minuscule skyline of different cities. 

The Kara (emptiness) series of paintings force viewers to see urban space as a small, insignificant, and quintessentially artificial creation of humankind, dwarfed by the vastness of nature’s immense creation – the magnificent sky. 

The urban skyline depicted are of Toronto, Niagara Falls, rural Fukushima, the South China Sea, Jomon, the oldest known civilization of Japan; Gaylang, Singapore’s redlight district and Okawa Elementary School.

Memoirs of Fukushima
Cutts Gallery
The Kara series were exhibited in one room of the Cutts Gallery. In the other room there were two life-sized paintings: a portrait of a Lolita girl from Fukushima, and of a Canadian indie music star Clara Venice as a mermaid.

Both exuded a distinct surreal aura, not necessarily in the way they are painted (realism) but in the way Daisuke situates and contextualises them. 

The overwhelming effect they created in the exhibition space, juxtaposed as they were with the centrepiece of the exhibition, was dramatic and unsettling, and ultimately surreal.

These two paintings along with the centrepiece installation formed a part of a triptych monument dedicated to the 2011 tsunami disaster in Japan.  The installation was a smorgasbord of abstraction, realism, mixing of different media, a combination of disaster debris, neon signs, Kara paintings and figurative, realistic (as opposed to sensual) nudes

It boldly proclaimed the underlying theme of the exhibition: that manipulation of nature in the name of development and progress only results in decay, disintegration; and that all of it is almost always deliberately. 

The highlight of the closing reception was a performance by Istvan Kantor, who performed the ‘Ravaged Pieta’ in the installation space, blending in with Daisuke’s art and simultaneously transforming it. 

Istvan Kantor and Louise Liliefeldt performing the Ravaged Pieta

Kantor is a renowned exponent of Neoism and a Governor General Award winner for performing art. He interpreted tsunami to mean gentrification that has led to the extinction of urban communities in recent decades. His cry was also against what he describes as 'shinyism' of art that is controlled by corporate tastes. 

The highlight of the performance was at the climax when Kantor pushed a needle into his vein and began to bleed rather profusely much to the gaping astonishment of the audience. It was by all accounts a spellbinding act.

From the social media, I learnt that Ravaged Pieta was a mash-up performance led by Kantor, and accompanied by Lynda Cheng - Vocal/Performance, Louise Liliefeldt -Performance/Tableau Vivant, Vivienne Wilder - Music Performance. 

Louise Liliefeldt is a longtime collaborator of Kantor, and is globally known for her pioneering durational tableau vivant action/performances and installation works. Vivienne Wilder is a skilled musician/artist, lead vocalist and bass player in several bands. She has become integral to Kantor's performances in recent years. Lynda Cheng is a social worker with unceasing passion for helping homeless people. She also contributes her talents to the arts and regularly shares the stage with Kantor. 

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Review of Belief by Phil Gurski in the New Canadian Media

Novel Explores Road to Radicalization

Book Review by Phil Gurski

Belief is a novel by Mayank Bhatt, a Mumbai-born resident of Toronto.  It tells the story of the son of Indian immigrants to Canada who cooperates with terrorists to identify Canadian places to bomb, in part to avenge the death of Muslims in Afghanistan by Canadian soldiers. 
The book parallels to a certain extent the 2006 case of the “Toronto 18”, a terrorist cell that planned to explode truck bombs in Toronto and at a military base in eastern Ontario to punish Canadians for the decision to deploy the Armed Forces in Afghanistan after 9/11.
This work of fiction is billed as a look into what “makes young people give up their sheltered, secure lives and take up causes that are sure to lead to catastrophe, for others as well as themselves”. 
It does not quite achieve that goal, but does contain a good look into the effects of terrorism on a family. We see the devastating effects on the mother and father, immigrants who fled violence in India to seek a new home in Canada, but had to struggle to make a new life in a new land.  We see the anguish of a pregnant sister whose husband’s promotion may be canceled because of Rafiq’s actions.
We see a South Asian police officer, Ravindar, who tries to help the family but who is not trusted completely, perhaps because of his role as a representative of the law.
The book does delve slightly into what has often been put forward as the ‘causes’ of radicalization to violence in Canada.  There are references to the slaughter of Muslims in India and to discrimination and bias against immigrants in this country.  
Neither theme is developed in this novel. It also does not explore other reasons why individuals go down the path of radicalization.
The mastermind
Early in the novel the author includes excerpts from emails sent by the terrorist ‘mastermind’, a man named Ghani Ahmed, to Rafiq, the young man arrested and accused of participating in a terrorist plot.  These excerpts are full of the rhetoric most commonly associated with terrorist recruiters: innocent Muslims are being killed and no one is doing anything to stop it.  Ahmed appeals to the faith of Rafiq and tries to convince him that fighting back is a religious obligation.
Ahmed is an intriguing character and more could have been written about him.  Who was he?  Where did he come from?  Who else was involved in his plot?  How did he identify Rafiq as a willing participant? .
The one character who remains an enigma is Nagma Khala, a woman who runs a Muslim crèche and who had an extraordinary influence on the young Rafiq.  She is deeply religious, but it is never clear whether her faith contributed in any way to Rafiq’s openness to radicalization.
Flashbacks to India
I welcomed the introduction of two officers of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), although their portrayal is superficial and unsatisfactory. It would have been interesting to introduce a main character from CSIS and show how that person was trying to understand the scope of the terrorist plot and Rafiq’s role in it.  That may have been beyond the author’s expertise, though.
The book contains many flashbacks to life in India and provides interesting background into the lives of the protagonists, although the link between these episodes and Rafiq’s decision to become a terrorist is not obvious.  They do provide insight into the circumstances behind the parents’ choice to leave India, but these are tangential to the book’s primary plot.
Throughout the book the author seeks to present Rafiq as an unwilling dupe whose involvement in terrorism is peripheral.  While Rafiq regrets his choice, he also seems to minimize his role. 
It is only at the end of the novel, when Rafiq learns of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai (in 2008 – a real event) that he grasps the enormity of what he was part of in Canada and (spoiler alert!!) tries to commit suicide by overdosing on sleeping pills.  The author’s attempt to paint Rafiq as a character to be pitied does not come off strongly, even when he writes of the bullying Rafiq received at the Maplehurst Detention Centre in Toronto.
Overall, the book flows and reads well, with the exception of the flashbacks. These occur at times at unexpected intervals and detract from the story.
The book does a good job at showing the destruction of a Canadian immigrant family when one member becomes involved in terrorism. The emotional responses of the characters are believable and compelling. 
As long as the reader does not see this novel as an actual book on homegrown terrorism in Canada it is a good read.
Phil Gurski worked for more than three decades in Canadian intelligence, including 15 at Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), and is the author of the Threat from Within and the forthcoming Western Foreign Fighters (Rowan and Littlefield). He blogs at http://www.borealisthreatandrisk.com/blog/

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Review of Belief by Veena Gokhale in Montreal Serai

This is a novel, hot off the headlines, opening with Rafiq, a young, second-generation, Indo-Canadian Muslim being implicated in a plot to bomb public places in Toronto. His family, consisting of his father Abdul, a secular liberal and former labour leader from Bombay, mother Ruksana, a moderate Muslim who once ran a women’s centre in Bombay, and sister Ziram, who works for a settlement centre in Malton (Mississauga) and is preoccupied with her husband’s promotion and her own pregnancy, are all but shattered when Rafiq ends up in prison due to the incriminating evidence found on his computer. The scenes describing Rafiq’s incarceration are compelling.

Although it starts out as an action novel with an element of mystery – is Rafiq an innocent who refused to be drawn into a terrorist plot after a flirtation with extremism, or is he lying about his continued involvement – the main goal of the book is to plumb the psyches and motives of its main characters and reveal the tangled web of family relations with its loves, hates, loyalties and resentments, sharpened by the exigencies of immigration and the complexities of being a Muslim in the West (or for that matter anywhere).

Don’t expect literary lyricism. Bhatt writes in a no-nonsense, journalistic style (he is indeed a former journalist from Bombay) that works well for a lot of the narrative, though he could have done more “show” and less “tell” at times. Bhatt also follows an unnecessary prescription to describe in detail the physical features of each and every character, however minor.

But these are petty quibbles. The power of Belief lies in the way it penetrates Abdul and Ruksana’s family and their world, making the reader intimate with the horribly shaken lives of four multi-dimensional human beings. We see them, warts and all, and feel for them. Rafiq’s portrayal is particularly masterful: from a feckless young man to someone who reflects deeply on his actions and responsibilities.

Outside the immediate family circle is Nagma Khala who runs a daycare centre that Rafiq attended as a child. Nagma is another kind of devout Muslim, and clearly a great influence on Rafiq whom she loves as her own son. Bhatt exposes the diverse ways of being Muslim – a reality that mainstream society does not care to comprehend – another reason for the novel’s relevance and strength.

This book is an indictment of the marginalization of minorities both in India and Canada. Abdul and Ruksana leave India and come to Toronto in the wake of the terrible 1992 wave of communal violence in Bombay. But these urban, English-speaking, professionally skilled immigrants can’t “fit in” here, nor can they find work that recognizes their experience. Their working life remains a perennial struggle, and they become marginalized, living in ethnic ghettos outside the mainstream. Worse, the children born to such parents – children who have been through the Canadian education system – can’t always find their rightful place here either.

The very “dream” that drives people here – “a better future for their children” – may thus remain unfulfilled. In fact, studies have shown that systemic racism affects second generation Canadians as well.

Read this book not only to know the realities of immigrant experience from inside out, but also to understand what drives some of the headlines we read. I can truthfully say that Belief helped me better understand the phenomenon of the radicalization of young, Muslim, second-generation, immigrants of colour.

The idea that injustice must be opposed, confronted, and a better world shaped as a consequence, runs through Belief. But what means are fair, what foul? And what if one is simply thwarted from taking action, one way or another? Challenging questions with no ready answers: questions that literature is so well equipped to take on.


Veena Gokhale’s short story collection, Bombay Wali and Other Stories, was published by Guernica Editions in 2013. Her first novel, Land for Fatimah, written with a Québec Government literary grant, will be published by Guernica in 2018. She lives in Montréal.