For the fourth consecutive year, readings were given by those shortlisted for this year's Governor General's Literary Award (English -language Fiction category). Finalists were Rivka Galchen, Rawi Hage, Nino Ricci, David Adams Richards, and Fred Stenson. Don Domanski, winner of the 2007 Governor General's award for poetry, began the series of readings.
Rivka Galchen’s first novel Atmospheric Disturbances had an interesting premise, a man who thinks his wife has been replaced by a woman who looks like her. The man postulates what will happen if he goes home, if they will still try "appearing normal," and postulating that in seeing this false image of his wife, "it will be like losing her again."
Rawi Hage read from his novel Cockroach, hovering (whether intentionally, or not) over the microphone like a cockroach ready to descend on the podium. He read "I don’t trust my feelings any more," and about what happened "when I told that to a therapist." He said other phrases such as "the question of existence plagued me" to his laconic therapist. A very engaging and interesting-sounding novel.
Nino Ricci (who won the prize) borrowed the title to his Origin of Species. The novel is set in 1980’s Montreal, and Ricci explained that the theory of the narrative was based on evolutionary theory. In the novel (and most probably in real life), he went to "Darwin’s gloomy study," thinking of the mysterious illness that plagued Darwin. Ricci was able to successfully layer a complex series of flashbacks, and it was interesting discerning the various transitions that seem to come so easily to him.
Among the highlights of the festival, for me, was seeing David Adams Richards, my former writing mentor from the Humber School for Writers. He is from New Brunswick, and he has won the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Governor General’s award twice, for both fiction and non-fiction. He read from his new novel The Lost Highway, entrancing the audience with his engaging prose and his forceful style and with such memorable phrases as "he was a coward when sober, a bully when drunk."
Fred Stenson read from a historical novel about the 1899-1902 Boer War and a hanging that occurred prior to the war and how the people of the town, after the hanging was over, were "excited, in a dangerous way."
As would be the case with so many events planned over so many days, events were happening simultaneously and it was difficult to choose between them at times. At times I wanted to be three places at once. Events ran overtime, and I was either late for events or leaving events early as a result. There were also many days when I was unable to attend. Overall, I found it to be very well-organized, well run, and inspirational.
The 2008 International Festival of Authors (IFOA) at the Harbourfront Centre in Toronto ran from October 22 to November 1st and featured 67 events across 11 days. 135 authors appeared from 15 countries.
Andrew Westoll, the official blogger for the 2008 IFOA described the event as "the most successful IFOA ever."
Many of the events focused on Irish writers. I attended a round-table discussion on contemporary Irish literature moderated by Bert Archer with authors Dermot Bolger, Emma Donoghue, Hugo Hamilton, and David Park. Irish writer Anne Enright, winner of the Man Booker Prize for her most recent novel The Gathering, read an interesting excerpt about how your spouse "resents you" after children and then, "somehow (they) grow to love you again." There was the feeling, when confronted with infidelity, that "someone must die," and she asked: "Why not (tell kids about the infidelity)…why not rear men who can talk?"
New York Times bestselling author Sarah Vowell, while reading from "The Wordy Shipmates," paralleled the biblical story of the fleeing Israelites to the 17th Century Puritans leaving England for Boston. There was the "idea of America" and the duality of the settlers having humility under God and being chosen by God. There were diary entries of John Winthrop such as a list in Winthrop’s "spiritual diary" that paralleled the list in The Great Gatsby of "all the things I got to do."
Junot Díaz, winner of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his debut novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao explained in an interview how the US "exports violence." Rawi Hage, whose second novel Cockroach shortlisted for the Rogers Writers' Trust and Scotiabank Giller Prize, was asked in this same interview session whether his book was intended as an homage to Kafka’s Metamorphosis. He said it was not.
Josef Škvorecký, 1984 winner of the Governor General’s Award, presented his new novel Ordinary Lives. Prior to the interview, Josef spoke briefly before his translator Paul Wilson read from Josef’s new novel. Josef said in the interview that a writing technique he employs is to transcribe various reminiscences onto small cards, scattering them on the floor and then arranging them into a random series to form the chapters of a book. He remembered his first night away from Prague as having no fear of the police coming at night. He became interested in America through American films, and through Upton Sinclair and Hemingway. This is the last novel he said he will write. From the IFOA website: "For the first time, the bi-annual Ben McNally Travellers Series takes place as part of IFOA. Join host Ben McNally as Julie Angus, Dervla Murphy, and Andrew Westoll share tales from the Atlantic, the Urals, and the Last Eden of Suriname." This event started with Julie Angus, who explained in a very matter-of-fact manner how she decided to row across the Atlantic with her boyfriend. It was something that had never been done before. The trip covered 10,000 km and 5 months. They began by cycling from Siberia to Portugal, where they departed for Costa Rica. Once in Costa Rica, they met some friends who cycled with them to Vancouver. One of the worst hurricanes in history was thrown into this immense series of challenges, as well.
Dervla discussed her career and cycling across Europe, and her new book Silverland: a Winter Journey beyond the Urals about her midwinter journey from Moscow to the Russian Far East. Andrew Westoll read from his book The Riverbones, set in the Suriname Nature Reserve, the "largest tract of pristine rainforest left on Earth." It was very engaging, lucid, with wonderfully descriptive passages.
Andrew Pyper read a part of his work The Killing Circle that incorporated male "bonding" in fly-fishing and watching baseball and movies. There was the nostalgia of old drive-in movie theatres (of which there are still some, I’ve heard) and vintage posters and Leave It To Beaver. There was a man running through a cornfield, the corn stalks "slashing against his face," and his imaginings focused on an abandoned farmhouse. He wondered, as he looked at it, "what bad news came to those who lived here."
A version of this article can be found on the Broken Pencil Website (see under "Works of Non-Fiction")
Rebecca Rosenblum’s debut novel "Once," a collection of sixteen short stories, won the Metcalf-Rooke Award. Her stories have interesting beginnings: "Eva’s place is busiest in the evenings- lots of fried cheese and ass-grabbing near midnight," and "she’s watching another movie about a man who can fly sideways, kick his enemy’s skull and then land gracefully on the other side of the now dead body," and "we got the house on Elsbeth for the summer because, one sleety day in April, Leah’s stepfather backhanded her hard on the jaw."
The stories involve a variety of characters in distinctly urban settings. There are waitresses, warehouse labourers, laundry workers, office techies, skateboarders, recent immigrants, and guys who squeegee your car windshields at off-ramps. There are stories about friends made and lost growing up, romantic choices and their consequences, and stories that attempt to make sense out of murder and various other injustices. The stories feel credible and real, without much to suggest they are not. The common thread that runs through the stories is that of possibility: possibility in such things as love and career, but also the possibility that things are not as bleak as they might seem.
There is the promise, in "Chilly Girl," of a man who can make her feel warm again. This is among the best moments in this collection, a story I can only describe as possessing a sort of fantastic realism:
"Once there was a girl who was unusually cold. No one liked to hold her hand. She wore toques from October to April. She ruined picnics by wanting to go home when the sun went down. She could cradle lit candles in her bare hands and never get burned. Once she was seated near a draft at a wedding banquet and her lips turned blue. Once she forgot to wear a sweater to the movies and her teeth began to chatter. Once she looked at her cup of tea and then at the man who had bought it for her at a sidewalk café and said, ‘I wish I could be in a cup of tea right now.’ He didn’t call her again."
Her depictions of place and character are succinct and interwoven well, both evoking strong imagery, in stories such as "Kids These Days":
"Pho-Mi 99 had never had a review, or a full house, or light bulb of less than 100 watts, but truly, it was something. Beyond the purple "Persian" rugs and the Mix 99.9 ambience, there was the clearest, richest pho this side of Dien Bien, weightless glass noodles, rose-cream red tea. Of course, a lot of the diners were kids who didn’t appreciate anything, who thought congee was a funny word, fished the petals out of the red tea, dine’n’dashed. I, on the other hand, was working from home while my wife was living in a sublet and regretting my failure to love her with any certainty. Her words. So I had plenty of time to eat Vietnamese food and talk about it, or anything, with anyone who wanted to talk to me. And Koenberg (the chef) liked an audience."
Some of the stories may seem at first glance perhaps too mundane, too much like real life, not an "escape" as literature is supposed to be. But the characters and the situations resolve themselves in interesting and unexpected ways, subtly revealing something unseen in the world. And that seems to be the point of all these stories: that life, as ordinary and dull as it can be, despite its losses and persistent disappointments, is full of the wonder of possibility.