October 28, 2014
I’ve been thinking not just about the accusations circulating now but the way we respond to such accusations. I notice again and again, especially in the frenzy of first response, how people use accusations to tell their own stories, not always consciously. Our narratives about ourselves become the lens through which we respond to accusations against others, whether we’re rushing to defend the accused or support those making difficult accusations or struggling to figure out how to respond. Our stories about ourselves shape what we want to believe. We do this all the time, see others through the stories we tell about ourselves, but it becomes amplified when accusations are at stake, especially sexually charged accusations. I don’t know that we can help doing this. I can’t help doing it. I wrote a novel about this. But it seems to me a good thing to acknowledge that we’re doing it, offer up this attempt at transparency.
September 24, 2014
I marched in Toronto’s People’s Climate March on Sunday along with a whole lot of other people: younger, older, a woman with a green heart of tufted fabric attached to her shirt, a couple with a baby in sunglasses, a family with a puppy, a man wearing a knight on horseback costume, thousands of us. I’m thinking about the climate and its disruptions a lot these days. I’m in the midst of a new novel, my fifth. It’s a contemporary adaptation of Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest, in which the Prospero figure is a scientist who focuses on Arctic climate. Set upon by climate-change deniers, he is cast out of his university position and takes flight to a small island in the North Atlantic with his daughter. There he begins to plan a rogue geo-engineering experiment that will also be a way to lure his ideological enemies to the island.
There’s a particular curve on Highway 400 north of Toronto where the novel began. I was on my way to a funeral with my mother and sister, listening to my sister talk about being present at IPCC meetings and the global problem of how we determine who gets to use what energy. Beneath every footstep I take beats the question, How do we live now? Climate change exists and not talking about it in life and in novels creates a different kind of fiction: a false world in which this reality isn’t acknowledged. I’m interested in how we create narratives that make space for this reality without ending up in the realm of cliché. How do parents talk about climate change with their children? How do children respond? How do we make the not-talked-about feel present? How do we create narratives that are not about despair? Flannery O’Connor says, “People without hope do not write novels … and what is more to the point, they don’t read them.” And so, how to write from hope, into hope. I love working with the frame of Shakespeare’s play. On the one hand, I think, How dare I? On the other, I love the constraints the play imposes: in terms of timeline (the play takes place in a day, I’ve given myself two days), and also character. I’m not the first to say that confronting constraint is a great way to rupture habit and find something liberating but it is.
September 19, 2014
The short answer would be: Because I have to. Because I want to. Because I believe reading and writing novels offers us a way to transform ourselves. And I write novels primarily. The paperback edition of my fourth novel, Accusation, has just come out. It follows a Canadian journalist trying to untangle the truth of allegations made against a man who founds a children’s circus in Ethiopia. Those who speak or write about an accusation and pass it on give it as much life as the accused and accuser do. I wanted to explore this. You can read more about my novels here.
Why write a novel at all? And why write another one? Every novel begins for me in desire and emotional and ethical conflict. In mid-August, I attended the Climate Engineering Conference 2014 in Berlin, an international gathering of scientists, social scientists, philosophers, consultants, artists, and others who came together to debate the problem of how to respond to climate change and what part engineered solutions might play in our response. (I was there researching my new novel and delivering a paper on a panel of artists and humanists.)
By engineered solutions I mean things like Solar Radiation Management: sending tons of sulfur particles into the atmosphere in order to keep global temperatures lower (while doing nothing to lower carbon levels) and potentially affecting global precipitation patterns and causing who knows what other unknown effects. The debate was passionate, polarized, galvanizing, terrifying, four days spent discussing the fate of the world. So far there have been no climate engineering field experiments because the risks of taking even a first, real-world step towards intentionally altering the earth’s climate are so fraught. Experiments may make application seem normal, possible, instead of full of real and moral peril. And yet. What of the dangers that the world and future humans may face if we do nothing? The man in the seat beside me, an expert on the Arctic, who has been a consultant to Presidents, cries under his breath, The Arctic is dissolving, before leaping to his feet to argue for the need to carry climate engineering research forward because we need as many responses as possible in our tool kit. From the back of the room, a man from the Philippines bursts out in pain and fury, The problem is very simple. So is the solution. The industrialized west must cut back its emissions. An artist, who sends up weather balloons and condenses vapour from clouds, offers up glasses of cloud water for us to drink and asks if we feel more like a cloud after we do so. Can we be altered and actually become part of the atmosphere? A journalist takes us up imaginatively into the stratosphere to feel its cold, clear darkness. So many different truths and urgencies. A novel sets them in motion and makes them collide. A novel asks us to consider others’ truths and desires by living inside imaginary bodies and feeling through these hearts and skins. It can seem like a big ask these days. And yet I insist: a novel is a crazy, pleasurable, complex way of seeing the world anew.
September 19, 2014
Have you heard of the Writers’ Blog Tour? (Google it, and you’ll see all the various writers on the Tour.)
Each writer tagged to join the Tour posts answers to the same four questions on their blog. They might post answers all at once, or one at a time, whatever suits. They also provide links to Authors on the Writers’ Blog Tour2
I’ve been tagged to join the tour by the wonderful Lauren B. Davis, author of The Empty Room, and Our Daily Bread, among other novels.
I read Lauren’s insightful and forthright answers before beginning to write my own. I like the sense this gives of our answers being in conversation with others.
In turn, I’ll invite two more writers to join the tour, who will each invite two more writers … who will invite two more writers. All the writers will—if possible—post to Facebook and Tweet. (The Twitter hash tag is #writersblogtour.)
September 1, 2014
The other week I had my study repainted. Afterwards I re-shelved the books that had been packed away in boxes. While doing so, I pulled out the small hardcover in which my first published story appeared (First Love: an anthology of new poetry and prose, Stewart, Tabori and Chang, 1986), opened it up and read the piece for the first time … in many, many years. It’s a strange little story. It didn’t make me cringe as much as I expected. I found myself still fond of its strangeness.
Three Fries, Ten Burgers
I say our number is 18. Cal says it’s 11. We’re already in line past the cashier. Three fries and ten hamburgers, flat little squares like stamps on mini buns, you know, not like anything else anywhere. You never listen to me, Cal says. The man ahead of us ordered a dozen to go. That’s what makes it special at White Castle. The girl behind the wire grid flips these small squares in the white bright light. Blips of hunger or excitement start going off inside me. You never believe me, Cal says. The rows of tiny boxes rock me with amazement. Believe, I say, what’s believe got to do with it? I open up my boxes. Don’t yell, Cal yells. The burgers are the size of buttons. The french fries are like toothpicks; the burgers are like bottle caps. I pick one up. My fingertips tingle; my hands tingle. I swallow. Everything’s fizzing, all the way down my throat, all the way down my arm to the tiny wooden prong. Cal’s yelling something else. He splats his hand on the counter. I’m saying, you’re crazy, you’re crazy. My fries are shrinking smaller than threads; the hamburgers are no bigger than pills, than spores. My stomach pings and aches. Things disappearing right before your eyes, that’s what love is. I know it’s real because it hurts.
October 31, 2013
Last night I heard Anne Carson read at the International Festival of Authors in Toronto. I’ve never heard Carson read and the particularities of her presence and language held me rapt. She read first from an essay on Hegel and what she calls “snow standing,” which is pretty much exactly what it says. You go out into the world and stand in the snow. You pay attention: to the snow, to squirrels’ toe nails. But first, Hegel. When he said Reason is Spirit, he didn’t mean that reason equals spirit, Carson read. Hegel’s purpose was speculation, to put reason into relationship with spirit.
You might say he wrote as a poet might, his purpose associative and metaphoric. You put one thing beside another and a new thing is created.
Carson also read a fictional interview from a speculative TV show that she’s created called Krapp Hour (no network has yet picked it up, she told us), in which Samuel Beckett’s Krapp, of Krapp’s Last Tape, interviews people from history, in this case Helen of Troy. You say ‘yes’ a lot, Krapp says to Helen, who says ‘yes’. Then she tells a story about having to choose between the life of her dog and the lives of the women of Troy who have been deemed by the Greeks not beautiful. Her words become a devastation.
At the end of the evening, Carson, who also read from Red Doc>, fielded a question about using the interview format in her work. She said she uses it because she often doesn’t know what she thinks about things. An interview allows her to see what two voices think in relation to each other. Out of that relationship something new springs.
All this put me in mind of an interview I did with Anne Carson some time ago, just after Autobiography of Red, Red Doc>’s precursor, came out. Though I knew Carson a little, it was an odd interview. Carson’s answers were often very brief. Yet not uninteresting. Commissioned, the interview was never published. Nevertheless there’s something of her incorrigible spirit (and reason) in it.
October 25, 2013
Accusation has just made it onto the Top 40 list. Yes, it’s a popularity contest but also a way to reach new readers. You can vote now on which novels will be the Top Ten.
The theme of the current Canada Reads is What is the one novel that could change Canada?
Accusation examines the effects that accusations have on all of us, whether they are true or false, and asks us to examine our own judgments and prejudices while telling a gripping story that links a journalist in Canada to a children’s circus in Africa and a group of asylum seekers in Australia. Sara Wheeler attempts to uncover the truth of accusations made against the Canadian founder of the circus only to find truth difficult to discern even as her own actions alter the story. This is a novel about the lives that accusations have regardless of truth and the difficulty of figuring out how to do the right thing. It brings lives in Canada into relation with lives in other parts of the world and probes questions of how we judge across race and culture, and how we attempt to see each other across the unknowable zones between us. It invites the reader to turn a lens upon herself and to navigate the complexity of lived truth.
There are such important conversations to be had about accusations both in a private and public context. We’ve all been accused, accuser, and witness to accusations against others. And so many situations are not black and white, and it’s important to bring people imaginatively into these in-between and more difficult zones in the way that good fiction can do.
Individual readers can make a difference. Please consider Accusation for your Canada Reads vote. You can vote for up to ten books and there are some fantastic novels on the list.
October 3, 2013
Last week the air was filled with noise about the teaching of certain books by certain kinds of writers and not others and teaching only what you love. The question of loving (or not loving?) what you teach preoccupies me. What does love mean in this context? Surely it depends on the kind of love. If it’s a love that only permits you to take in things that look like yourself then the nature of the love is a problem. If love means believing that something matters, then we who teach the writing and reading of literature or anything at all need to love what we teach. We need to teach books because we believe that they are an urgent matter, that the art of reading literature and responding to it is an urgent way of being alive. Otherwise, why do it? Love as altruism and an attention to the world beyond us. (There’s tenderness in attention, a stretching towards something, from the Latin tendere, that is surely required to truly take in something or someone other than ourselves.)
All the noise steered me back to a story I hadn’t read in a long, long time, “The Blank Page” by Isak Dinesen, from her Last Tales. It’s available online here. It’s a story about storytelling, and life, and reading, but not imprisoned in self-referentiality. It’s too mysterious for that. All the storytellers in it are women. It’s mostly narrated by an old woman who makes a living as a storyteller, whose grandmother admonishes her while giving her a kind of professional advice.
“Where the story-teller is loyal, eternally and unswervingly loyal to the story, there, in the end, silence will speak. Where the story has been betrayed, silence is but emptiness. But we, the faithful, when we have spoken our last word, will hear the voice of silence.”
I don’t want to try to summarize the story because I want others to read it. I want you to read it. It’s not long. Read it out loud if you can. The story itself, within the story, is passed from voice to voice or hand to hand. It asks us to pay attention in unstraightforward ways. It tells of journeys through time and space, of different lives, of nuns and princesses, of flax made into the finest linen and sheets woven of it that are stained with the blood of women from their marital beds and hung in frames on the wall of a gallery to be viewed by others. Viewers read lives into each sheet. There is one framed sheet that remains blank. Which might have been left out but wasn’t. Out of loyalty, which is perhaps another kind of love. What happened to cause its blankness? We aren’t told. The blank sheet is the one that strikes its viewers dumb — and makes them think.
The blank page is not noisy with event. It gestures to what isn’t there, what isn’t spoken or can’t be spoken or speaks through silence and is nevertheless felt as a presence. The best writing invokes such a silence. The strongest words have silence on the other side of them. The words shape themselves around what isn’t there even as they summon up what is. The loyalty that is demanded of storytellers is also asked of readers: pay attention, pay attention to the absences, which are their own heart beat.
October 3, 2013
There’s such pleasure in having a beautiful book: cover, paper, font, all these things matter. And Goose Lane has made Accusation a very beautiful book. I have to call attention to these endpapers. Open the book and you discover these. There’s a juggler in the novel and it’s as if the papers bring his juggling to life. They’re almost like a circus.
October 1, 2013
The night before I had to give my first reading from Accusation, the book newly in my hands, I had a dream in which I was walking naked through the streetscape of my adolescence. The dream itself felt clear in its self-revelation. Bringing a novel to the world is pleasurable — and yet also, oddly, shameful. There’s an inevitable vulnerability in the risk of self-exposure, or in the risky self-exposure. Humiliation rises among a sea of other emotions. We don’t talk much about the place of shame in publication but I’d wager most writers touch it to some degree. We long to disown what we’ve written, to cast it off in case it embarrasses us, or because it embarrasses us, because we’ve put everything of ourselves into it and that’s embarrassing, because the disowning is necessary in order to move on. We don’t know what we’ve done. We don’t know how to think or speak about what we’ve done. Writer Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer has written a paper about it — well, about the relationship between publishing and shitting, and the weird commingling of pleasure and shame as something … comes out of us. After having been turned so far inward, it’s strange to face outward. All our actions on the page become visible. Moments before, in the same dream, I was clambering over a ladder stretched across the depths of a vast, dilapidated building, trying to navigate a tricky journey. No more disappearing into the text, it’s time to slip on a vulnerable body and hit the streets, the book itself a form of nakedness whatever I’m wearing.