Undoctored: How You Can Seize Control of Your Health and Become Smarter than Your Doctor

by William Davis, MD, HarperCollins 2017

Undoctored is an exposé of the medical establishment, particularly as it operates in the United States. It is intended for the general public, although scientists will certainly find it well documented. The author, Dr. William Davis, a cardiologist by training and now a bestselling author, completely demolishes some very well-established medical practices (if not myths) that still permeate the industry. For, as Dr. Davis contends, medicine as practiced in industrialized countries is an industry, and a very profitable one at that. This statement includes Canada. The only difference, the author explains, is that the American system is privately managed (at least at the time of writing this review), whereas the Canadian system is publicly funded and centrally managed. Also, the American system can lead to personal bankruptcy, whereas the Canadian model offers protection against such catastrophes. Otherwise, the author categorically states that “Health care is a business built on increasing revenues, whether in Los Angeles or in Toronto.” In Canada, “reimbursement fees may be capped by policy, but nothing stops a doctor or other players in the system from churning more people for more procedures.” In his note to Canadian readers, Dr. Davis states:

“the same pharmaceutical and medical device companies that market aggressively and encourage overuse operate in both countries. The heavy-handed tactics that account for $6.3 billion annually in US statin cholesterol drug sales account for $2 billion annually in Canada.”

Also, gastric bypass operations are more profitable than taking time to discuss dietary methods for weight control. This explains why Costs to fund Canadian health care have grown 53% over the last decade, eclipsing the growth of Canadian income. Yet more statistics: Americans spend a total of $3 trillion nationally on health care ($9,523 per person) or 17.5% of GDP, compared to 10 to 12% in other developed countries with healthcare systems that match or exceed the United States in quality.

Undoctored, as the title suggests, is a call for greater individual control of one’s own health in partnership with doctors, laboratories and other professionals. It is also a rejection of the grain-based diet that came about with the development of agriculture. Grains are bad for you, Dr. Davis contends. This is particularly true today since genetically modified grains are difficult to digest, causing inflammation that in turn leads to a host of problems such as auto-immune diseases, certain types of cancer, and particularly diabetes and obesity. Dr. Davis also advocates a low-calorie diet as the secret for longevity and good health.

But enough of that. This review will concentrate on the unholy alliance between the health care establishment and the medical and pharmaceutical professions. Hence Chapter 3, “With Friends Like These…” will be the central focus of this article.

“A doubtful friend is worse than a certain enemy.” Aesop’s Fables

With this quote, William Davis warns readers that agencies that are supposed to help citizens with sound medical advice might actually be doing us greater harm than good. He then goes on to explain how many public service organizations such as the American Heart Association, the US Department of Health and Human Services, the Food and Drug Administration and the US Department of Agriculture (to cite a few), while doing plenty of good and starting off with good intentions, mutate “into something entirely different, all falling victim to the same disease of doing and saying things for money.” An egregious example of this is “the huge and almost entirely man-made problem called type 2 diabetes.” The statistics are sobering. Drugs to control blood sugar total nearly $9,000 per year for one person. The major oversight, in Davis’ opinion, is that Type 2 diabetes is a disease of lifestyle and poor food choices, and to a lesser degree, inactivity, nutritional deficiencies and other modern disruptions, made worse by the advice of agencies that pose as health advocates.

Where do unholy alliances come into this picture? Many advocacy and charitable organizations are funded by pharmaceutical and medical equipment companies. Government agencies are often staffed by former pharmaceutical company executives who can enact regulations that benefit private corporations and then, in a revolving-door process, implement such regulations by subsequently working for private enterprise, for their own benefit. And the list is endless.

The ADA (American Diabetes Association) advises patients with diabetes to “cut total and saturated fats, reduce cholesterol, and eat more grains and carbohydrates.” In other words, explains the author, they are advised to “follow a diet that everyone knows will raise blood sugar, and then adjust medications to bring blood sugar back down.”

In the author’s opinion, Big Food companies are equally culpable:

“The Hershey Company, Kraft, Post, PepsiCo, and Coca-Cola, were also among the ADA’s most generous supporters. But the ADA turned them away in 2006 because of increasing criticism, especially when it caught flack over a several-million-dollar contribution from Cadbury Schweppes, the world’s largest maker of candy and soft drinks.”

How’s that for an unholy alliance!

“Corporate sponsorship,” explains Davis, “has also managed to infect the educational process of dietitian and continuing education required to maintain certification.” And he continues: “The AND’s (Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics) love-fest for industry has created some even stranger bedfellows.” The organization received funds from Elenco, manufacturer of antibiotics for livestock, for dietitian education about their use to accelerate the growth of livestock. Past issues of their publications have included articles with the following titles: “Adult Beverage Consumption: Making Responsible Choices,” with the Distilled Spirits Council. The crassest example of such unholy alliances is a fact sheet titled “What’s a Mom to do: Healthy Eating Tips for Families,” sponsored by none other than Wendy’s.

The above examples of collusion between the health care industry and government with Big Pharma and Big Food are reason enough to keep reading what the author has to say. Undoctored is an honest, well-researched, clearly written indictment of an unholy alliance that affects each and every one of us.

 

No Is Not Enough:  Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need
by Naomi Klein, Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2017

 

Naomi Klein’s No Is Not Enough is the logical continuation of the award-winning journalist’s No Logo (2000) and The Shock Doctrine (2007). In this well-researched and incisive book written at breakneck speed (to match the speed of Donald Trump’s sharp turns in the White House), Klein makes it very clear that Trump’s rise to power is not an aberration, but rather the inevitable culmination of neoliberal politics in recent decades. In fact, she goes on to state that the US government is not going through a transition towards corporatization, but that it has already suffered a corporate coup. She analyzes how Trump got elected as a “brand” – and an empty one at that – and how he is employing “shock tactics” to undermine the public sphere and enlarge the private one. Trump is imposing corporate hegemony, the author explains, by means of an unholy alliance between corporate interests and public office. As a case in point, she cites the example of senior appointments held by people who do not believe in the mission of the departments they head and are actually out to destroy them. Rex Tilleron, Secretary of State, former CEO of Exxon Mobil, the largest oil company in the world, and Steve Mnuchin, Treasury Secretary and former chairman in the “foreclosure machine,” are just a few examples. Klein cites other strange bedfellows, but warns her readers that by the time they read her book, the cast of characters might have changed.

Klein’s book is divided into an introduction, four expository parts, a conclusion and a postscript.

Part I explains how Donald Trump won the elections by presenting himself to an uneducated public as a brand with wide visibility. Here the author partly excoriates the press for having aided and abetted in the process by reporting his antics rather than discussing policy issues. This brand extends to his whole family including Ivanka, “whose products have notoriously been hawked by tax-payer funded public employees, including her father via Twitter, and his adviser Kellyanne Conway.” In “The Mar-a-Lago Hunger Games” chapter, Klein denounces the collusion of the press by treating Trump’s hosting of foreign leaders as “a reality show” or “infotainment.”

Part II touches upon a miscellany of subjects such as Trump’s denial of climate change and his collusion with polluting industries, his disrespect of women and the unholy alliance between Trump and US union leaders who publicly declared their allegiance to Donald Trump after he took them on a personal tour of the White House. Klein explains how economic populism was able to fill a political vacuum through the politics of division and separation.

Part III is a warning that things could certainly get worse. It is here that Naomi Klein recapitulates the shock doctrine. When the people don’t understand where a crisis is coming from and have no time to react, they turn to strong leaders. Klein explains: “shock-drunk leaders and their funders usually try to follow Machiavelli’s advice in The Prince: ‘For injuries ought to be done all at one time, so that, being tasted less, they offend less.’” Some examples cited by the author are wars, economic crises, terrorist attacks and incidents of xenophobia. In the case of New Orleans, it was a natural disaster that allowed corrupt government officials and contractors to disperse and take over the land of a vulnerable population that was allowed to die.   

Part IV is visionary and inspirational. Naomi Klein is adamant when she says that rejection has to be followed by resistance. She laments that President Obama missed his chance during the financial crisis. He could have made the banking system and the automotive industry integral components of a unified vision for reviving the economy while fighting inequality and climate change at the same time. However, Klein views this not as an act of collusion but as a failure of vision and courage.

Naomi Klein concludes on an optimistic note. She believes that through solidarity, a change of attitudes (resisting our “inner Trump”) and greater political participation, we can resist the dystopian society in which we live. However, she is short on details regarding strategies for achieving radical change.

The postscript, which contains “The Leap Manifesto, A Call for a Canada Based on Caring for the Earth and One Another” [https://leapmanifesto.org/en/the-leap-manifesto/] could well be the inspiration for a new book by Klein, perhaps titled: “Political Action for Winning the World We Need.” That would be a welcome and most holy alliance.

 

 

(The following piece is based on the author’s musings and reviews of a novel, its sequel and its adaptation into a film.)

 

Someone is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe

A first novel by Nan and Ivan Lyons, published simultaneously in New York and London by HBJ in 1976. You might wrongly assume that most of the events occur in London or somewhere in Europe.

Who is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe? A Delicious Mystery

A 1978 film by Canadian director Ted Kotcheff. “Delicious” it is, not only for the chosen tone of comedy, but also for the exquisiteness of the recipes. Released in 1978, it became an immediate success.

 

Someone is Killing the Great Chefs of America (1993)

A sequel by the same authors. Many of the characters and events are borrowed from the first novel.

In order to avoid “spoilers,” I will use material from my previous writings to explore some comparative aspects of the adaptation of literary works to the cinema. After writing for half a century, I now find it difficult to avoid talking about myself. (One of the greatest French novelists declared that a good writer tries to make believe that he never existed.) Having to write in English (my fifth language), I feel more at ease talking about myself because I realize that the first person pronoun is always capitalized. Would that be characterized as imperialism?

Who is (are?) the actual culprit(s?) in both books and in the film? Please do not consider my initial question as a provocation, but as something to be taken literally, although ironically so. It could not be otherwise. Before deciding what to expect of a screenplay adaptation of famous mysteries – material previously read as literary text – many film fans might bet that some aspects (e.g., the perpetrators of the crimes, or their methods) would need to be modified. Sometimes accomplices are added in the film, and the dynamics are different. Sometimes the surprise consists in following the original text literally – but that is dangerous and should be done only once in a lifetime by an experienced director.

No matter what, my opinion will remain that of a dilettante. Although I have written books, articles and film reviews, organized and directed film societies, attended film festivals (the Mostra Internazionale d’Arte Cinematografica started in 1932 and the new Palazzo del Cinema was inaugurated in 1937), I was unable to find a reason for the special retrospective I myself witnessed at the age of eight, in the summer of 1938, held in the open air garden of the Excelsior Hotel at the Venezia-Lido. Who organized it and why there? I remember watching Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion. There was a second feature: Extasis by Machaty. A few years after, Luchino Visconi chose the same hotel to film Death in Venice based on the novella by Thomas Mann.

Who or what predisposed me to become a film fan at an early age? Undeniably my parents, since they both cherished films and opera. Every fortnight there was a lyrical drama, and there were ample opportunities to watch films, even on weekdays. My first collection of reading material was libretti for opera, issued periodically with a red cover, and I was in charge of cataloguing them. My mother was enamoured with Pirandello’s works, while my father puzzled over mysteries. Those came with a yellow cover, a colour so attractive that it became the designation for the genre. It is very rare in Italian for an adjective to be transformed into a noun that finds its way into all the dictionaries.

No one will deny that at the root of every film there is a text, which may be a short treatment, a fully developed script, a novel, a play, a story, etc. There are a few exceptions that confirm the rule. The most notorious is Andy Warhol, incessantly filming a building overnight in New York – he makes his point. Avant-garde movements all have to break the rules. In France in the 1950s, Isidore Isou and Maurice Lemaître systematized that practice, and the latter persists in doing so bravely to this day. Not everyone agrees on the literary importance of the script. Ingmar Bergman, one of the great filmmakers of those times, declared that cinema had nothing to do with literature. Visconti writes: “The author of a film is an author in his own right. The script is only a point of departure.”

One of my first articles about the literary origins of cinematic endeavours was written in Portuguese upon seeing Antonioni’s Blow-Up. I was so electrified that for the first time in my life, I felt nailed to my seat of that Rio de Janeiro movie house, compelled to watch the film twice in a row – a very rare occurrence. I now can’t resist narrating what appears to have been the conversation between the filmmaker calling from Rome and the Argentinian writer residing in Paris. Carol Dunlop, a very intelligent Canadian writer, picks up the ringing phone and tells Julio Cortázar that Antonioni wants to talk to him. Julio thinks that she’s pulling his leg, and doesn’t move. At her insistence, he finally complies. Antonioni explains to Cortázar that he was fascinated by the mechanism of blowing up images, but that he would do a different film. Julio, who is already a sincere admirer of Antonioni’s previous films, bows and approves. After the release of the film, Cortázar is interviewed and asked if he sees himself reflected in the film. He answers enigmatically: “we meet somewhere in the clouds…” but adds almost immediately that the film was magnificent. Indeed, Antonioni alters as many aspects of the short story “The Devil’s Drool” as he possibly can: the location of events – London instead of Paris; the characters – a mature gentleman and a younger woman seemingly married but not to one other, instead of an adolescent boy and a go-between for a predator of young flesh waiting patiently in a nearby parked car; and a professional fashion photographer instead of a Sunday-only amateur, etc. Moreover, Antonioni adds to his plot a crowd of characters that are non-existent in the written text. I analyzed the film in at least two academic papers that later became articles, in the hope of proving that Antonioni did the most intelligent thing he could in adapting Cortázar to the screen – instead of illustrating by sticking to the letter, he stuck to the spirit of the book.

As far as I am concerned, it is not up to me to conclude if I succeeded in convincing my listeners and my readers. The question can be reopened at any time, and here is the bibliographical data:

  • “Blow-up from Cortázar to Antonioni,” Literature/Film Quarterly, IV, 1. (Winter 1976), 68-75;
  • “Antonioni’s Interpretation of Reality and Literature,” Forum Italicum,  XIII, 1, (Spring 179), 82-93;
  • “Nouvelles perspectives comparatistes: Le Ciné-roman. Vers le ciné-roman et au delà,” Neohelicon (Budapest) XVII, 261-271. In it, Antonioni is quoted when commenting on his last book, Techniquement douce: ‘I was so involved in it that I thought that I had filmed it” (p. 34 of the French text, translated by me). The same article serves also to confirm my bias in regard to Marguerite Duras’ much more radical point of view than mine, when she describes issues pertaining to Le Camion and some of her own films.

The time has come at last to deal with the real crux of the subject. This long preamble was not incidental or a digression, for it gave me the excuse of showing how the great masters of the past have dealt with the problems of adaptation. Let’s begin with the book.

First of all, a mystery implies suspense, and that starts immediately and is constantly present. The authors should be commended for fulfilling this delicate and important task so brilliantly. Secondly, they chose to mix comedy and mystery, and one invariably laughs at every page.

The only cause for astonishment is the quality of language employed in the descriptions, contrary to the courtly vocabulary of British essayists who banned any allusion to sexual matters from their dissertations. But since both authors are Americans, they did not feel compelled to moderate their tone or hold anything back. How free we are from Victorian conventions on this side of the Atlantic, in allowing ourselves to indulge in violating old moral codes with very detailed incursions into anatomical items!

The characters are well developed and believable, despite some obsessive quirks.

The common obsession is with food, as the reader can tell from the title of the novel. The authors are generous in their haute cuisine recipes. One may even try out some recipes if s/he has time, patience, talent, and is able to find the ingredients. I don’t think I would spoil anything if I said that the authors devised a very original way of killing the chefs (whether they died or not), inspired by their own gastronomic specialty.

Here comes the film, and one cannot help but notice that the script is entrusted to Peter Stone, a veteran of Hollywood screenwriters, already famous for Charade, rather than to the two authors of the book (the point of departure for the screenplay). Ivan Lyons majored in film writing at the N.Y. Film Institute. That decision may be a coincidence associated with production, or a deliberate and significant choice. While the book exudes intelligence (diabolically so), the film director replaces that with human sympathy. The crimes are illustrated in a very vivid iconic manner, which increases the enjoyment. Driving the film are Jacqueline Bisset and George Segal, playing, alternately, a married then divorced couple. As they also produced the film, they obviously had first choice about the length and extent of their contribution. But already in the novel, Bissonette’s character plays the role of the easy nymphomaniac (motivated by revenge?). The fact that Jean-Pierre Cassel speaks English with a French accent when he is supposed to be Austrian remains puzzling.

A case of total miscasting was that of Stefano Satta Flores. I am sorry to have to express a negative view on a very excellent actor whom I happen to respect, and who died of cancer prematurely at the apex of his career – an actor whom I have applauded on the screen and on TV, and one who was at ease in any kind of a role. He is not to be blamed, but whoever chose him for his role did not know an old proverb describing the inhabitants of the three sub-regions that form the Republic of Venice. I will quote and translate only the first part, although the entire text applies to all the other regions. “Veneziani gran signori” implies being refined, polite, generous, intelligent, magnanimous, courteous, educated, appreciative of good food and of all arts and sciences, elegant, definitely trustworthy, scrupulous – a Renaissance man. Tall, without extravagance, treating women as ladies (even when they are not) and naturally charming. Since pinching ladies is considered extremely vulgar by the gran signore, he instead engages in appropriate bowing and well-choreographed hand-kissing.

The second novel features some of the same characters and some new ones.

The suspects are also some of the same. The traditional duty of avoiding spoilers prohibits me from disclosing the stroke of genius that inspired the authors to hide a new-old character and a new-old suspect. Let us add that this is not the only pleasant surprise that happens in the book; many other extraordinary new developments are introduced, all meaningful and unexpected. The authors themselves become characters, in a rather uncommon and very clever twist. The readers will uncover soon enough the enigma, and figure out what dictates the authors’ behaviour. They frequently prefer not to say things openly, relying instead on suggestion or inference. For example, they have studied and travelled abroad extensively and are well aware of culinary terminology. Yet they do not write a single sentence in Italian, French, German, Spanish, or Japanese without including some mistakes. They do this on purpose, to caricature the ugly American tourist with a fake Hawaiian shirt hanging down over inappropriately long shorts, sun eyeglasses, binoculars on his beer belly, attempting to order lunch in a foreign restaurant. The fact that the language is replete with four-letter words does not shock anyone any more, since that has become the prevailing style.

The authors are masterful at creating fast-paced suspense, and the moral of the two novels is a hymn to the couple. In fact, the husband seems to forgive his beloved wife and overlook her erratic sexual adventures. Is she telling the whole truth?

 

 

 

The Precariat. The New Dangerous Class, Guy Standing, Bloomsbury Academic, 2015

Precariat is a neologism made up of the words ‘precarious’ and ‘proletariat.’ Guy Standing, the author of The Precariat. The New Dangerous Class, hailed by Noam Chomsky as “a very important book,” takes great pains to define its meaning. He explains that it is not the lumpenproletariat of Marxian theory nor is it a class as such. Rather, he elaborates, it is an emerging class that does not have a unified identity, and hence is often at odds with itself. Standing is quite clear when he says that the precariat is “the undertow of globalisation.” He also blames globalization for the fragmentation of class structures into the following: 1) elite, 2) salariat, 3) proficians (combining professionals and technicians, 4) shrinking core of manual employees and 5) a growing precariat, otherwise known as the unemployed or the dregs of society. He makes his point in great detail in the following seven chapters.

I –The precariat 
The precariat is at the mercy of market forces and tensions that pit different groups of people against each other. Many of its members are attracted to populist and neofascist messages which “is why the precariat is the dangerous class and why a ‘politics of paradise’ is needed that responds to its fears, insecurities and aspirations.”

2 – Why the precariat is growing
The precariat is growing because “there was a crude social compact in the globalisation era.” Workers were required to accept flexible labour in return for job stability. Living standards were maintained through debt, which led to the crash of 2008. When people’s incomes fell below levels required to pay the mortgages they were encouraged to take, a new layer joined the precariat.

3- Who enters the precariat?
The author mentions several groups: women, youth, old-agers, early-retirees, migrants, ethnic minorities, the disabled and the criminalized. This complex chapter merits a careful reading.

4 – Migrants: victims, villains or heroes?

Standing does not hesitate to state that migrants have become the new denizens of society, as distinct from citizens. This category includes temporary and seasonal migrants as well as long-term migrants. He calls this group “the light infantry of global capitalism.”

5 – Labour, work and the time squeeze 
In this chapter, the author defines the nature of work and the tension between work and leisure. He bemoans the fact that the precariat is under time-stress, and hence is practically unable to do creative work, or engage in political activity. “The workplace is every place, diffuse, unfamiliar, a zone of insecurity.”

6- Politics of inferno
Standing says it all in this scathing statement: “The neoliberal state is neo-Darwinist, in that it reverses competitiveness and celebrates unrestrained individual responsibility with an antipathy to anything collective that might impede market forces.”

7- Politics of paradise
Chapter 7 is perhaps the most important chapter in this book. The author calls for revisiting the trinity of liberty, equality and fraternity in developing a progressive agenda with the precariat in mind. In order to achieve the freedom and basic security that the precariat craves, Standing calls for making denizenship fair, recovering identities, rescuing education, commodifying labour fully, reinstating occupational freedom, re-establishing workers’ rights and combatting workfare and conditionality. He also asks for associational freedom, a basic income, redistribution of security as well as of financial capital, and the ability to control time. Above all, recovering the commons and leisure are important elements in a politics of paradise.

Guy Standing concludes his incisive and cogent book by stating categorically:
“The precariat is not victim, villain or hero – it is just a lot of us.”

 

 

 

[June 15th saw the Montréal book launch of Durga Chew-Bose’s book of essays Too Much and Not the Mood (Harper Collins, 200 pages) at Canada’s graphic novel siege social, Drawn and Quarterly (211 Bernard Street, Montréal). The space was overflowing with young readers, writers and fans of Chew-Bose’s writings in Rolling Stone, Interview Magazine, Hazlitt, Guardian, etc. She has been in Montréal for over a year after living in Brooklyn and thereabouts as a freelancer for more than a dozen years. Haley Mlotek, a writer and editor based in New York whose works have appeared in the New Yorker, NY Times, Hazlitt, Globe and Mail and other publications, was in conversation with Chew-Bose. Aliya Varma, a recent CEGEP graduate and an aspiring student at Concordia University, felt wired and connected enough to the emotions in Too Much and Not the Mood to do a review of Chew-Bose’s book of essays.]

 

Too Much and Not the Mood by Durga Chew-Bose provides insight into how mundane everyday events can cause an uproar in a person’s life. In these essays, Chew-Bose describes the simplest things in the most detailed manner, making me feel as though I were examining the moment or object right in front of me.

Chew-Bose invites us to meander with her through her thoughts and live with her reflections on a wide variety of subjects touching on relationships, art, movies, music. The essays are like short journeys; they evoke the same sense of excitement that you feel when discovering a new place. The quick snippets of vulnerability that she offers in her writing also add a sense of ease and closeness for readers, drawing them into the folds of her experiences and her observations. It feels like you are in conversation with the author.

One essay that particularly spoke to me was “The Girl” – the way Chew-Bose describes how the “girl you want” is not perfect even though she shares her appetizers, and is in fact quite simple, like most girls who seek solace in familiar objects and people. That girl is also relatable. The essay struck a chord with me, echoing how I describe situations in my own journal.

Some of the essays allow us to peer into Chew-Bose’s childhood. The essay “Miserable” explains how pronouncing the “b” in miserable eluded her as a child, and how the meaning of the word changed as she grew up. Most of her friends started using “miserable” to describe a cold or to depict people. The author’s example of how an introverted student can be “miserable” during orientation stood out for me. Once again, Chew-Bose finds a way to make an extremely personal essay relatable. With great tact, she finds a way to expose readers to personal moments of her life, and make them feel included.

The essays are compiled like parts of a journal offering glimpses into the author’s innermost thoughts. It also reminds us of all the things we might ponder on a daily basis. There is something heartwarming about the book; a sense of comfort is found in each page. The words are strung together simply, but the emotions evoked are intense. Each essay sets a different tone and mood that everyone can relate to. The compilation of essays is intriguing and riveting, yet calming. It’s the perfect book to read during the summer or whenever you want to immerse yourself for a quiet moment of reflection.

 

American Candide or Neo-Optimism, by Mahendra Singh, Rosarium Publishing (2016), 200 pages.

 

American Candide is a 21st-century version of Voltaire’s 18th-century Candide, complete with black-and-white drawings by writer and illustrator Mahendra Singh. While Voltaire documented the effects of the Seven Year War and the Lisbon earthquake on Candide, Dr. Pangloss and Cunegonde, his main protagonists, Singh describes their misadventures in the face of all the ills that beset our century. These ills include suicide bombers, neoliberalism, illegal aliens, the American Dream, global warming, torture, the war on drugs and more. The main setting is Freedonia, although far-away Funkistan and south-of-the-border Costaguana figure prominently in the story line.

This slim novel is a welcome revival of the picaresque novel best represented by Cervantes’ Don Quixote and Voltaire’s Candide. If you’ve read the original Candide, you will be delighted with this modern-day version. If you haven’t, you might be inspired to return to the classics. Mahendra Singh is a highly original satirist with the sharp bite of an Ambrose Bierce. It would be futile to attempt to paraphrase his humour, so I will just go back to tending my little community garden. Although Mahendra Singh might not completely agree:

“War on drugs is hell,” announced Candide to his friend. “Someone’s always trying to rip off your grow-op. They better learn to cultivate their own garden if they know what’s good for them.”

 

…………

BLURB

Voltaire’s most famous literary creation, Candide, is now rebooted for 21st-century America.

… From the jungle slums of darkest Africa to the lily-white McMansions of American suburbia, the human condition wreaks havoc upon Candide and his friends as they search for an American Dream being held against its will in an undisclosed location. College-boy sissies will call it a Juvenalian satire upon America’s penchant for mindless optimism and casual racism but Candide says it’s really ‘rage against the rage, Voltaire-dude!’

https://rosarium.bookstore.ipgbook.com/american-candide-products-9780996769211.php

 

The Invention of Wings

by Sue Monk Kidd, Penguin Books, 2014

http://www.penguin.com/static/pages/features/sue_monk_kidd/?CMP=OTC-SMK

The title of The Invention of Wings is inspired by ancient black folklore which maintains that Africans were able to fly before they lost their wings when trapped into slavery. This is the story of Hetty “Handfull” Grimké, an urban slave in early 19th-century Charleston, South Carolina, and the parallel story of her counterpart, Sarah Grimké, the idealistic daughter of a wealthy slave-owning southern family. The story is narrated in alternating voices, which allows the reader to fully penetrate these parallel realities. Whereas Handful’s character is loosely fashioned after a slave, Sarah’s character is based on a historical figure who, together with her younger sister Angelina, spearheaded the abolitionist and suffragette movement before the American Civil War.

The story starts when Sarah is gifted 10-year-old Handful as a handmaiden for her 11th birthday. This explains why Handful and Sarah share the same family name, as slaves were often given their master’s surname. It ends after 35 years of struggles, both jointly and severally. It must be remembered that while Sarah and her sister Angelina (“Nina”) were documented as some of the finest feminist thinkers of their times, Handful is a composite account of the dismal lives of slaves before the Civil War.

With this solidly documented and heartfelt novel, Sue Monk Kidd has clearly made the point that two dissimilar women – one an upper-class white slave owner and the other one, a black slave – were able to overcome the constraints of class, race and gender by giving each other the invaluable gift of friendship, solidarity and sustenance. With proper sustenance, cossetted southern belles can be empowered and black slaves can grow wings.

Après Satie: For Two and Four Hands
by Dean Steadman
Brick Books (London, Ontario) 2016

 

I opened Dean Steadman’s collection hoping for something rich and flavourful, and I was not disappointed. Après Satie: For Two and Four Hands challenges and surprises, just as Satie’s composition did. Absurdism is a signature element of Erik Satie’s writing, and Steadman has listened to his mentor.

Why would Satie, who lived at the turn of the 20th century, be a mentor in this present era? Satie was responding to many different political and social pressures, all quite subtle and yet characteristic of his sensitivity. The same thing can be said about the times in which we find ourselves now, and Steadman has responded by throwing out lifelines of absurdism to distract us, but also to remind us that this has happened before – darkness and light, ugliness and beauty, love and hate.

In language reminiscent of a medieval nursery rhyme, Steadman rocks us, soothes us. “Backwards a goat to the Sabbat she rides, / To the Sabbat on a she-goat rides she. / Her leathery paps are wet with suckle, / The spewed suckle of the babe on her knee.” (“Spirit travel,” 71) Steadman invites us to chew and chew on sounds, so words take on an afterlife as symbols only: “Amaryllis belladonna, naked lady, shades of night, /The Sabbat frees the sacrifice of the properties of light.” (“Spirit travel,” 71)

Erik Satie had a tortured adolescence, was considered to be a lazy student, untalented. Still he persisted. His first real breakthrough came with the publication of his Gymnopédies. I was a 14-year-old piano student when the Gymnopédies found me. Simple and yet winsome, they suited my limited talents and lonely heart. I’ve loved Satie’s music ever since.

Steadman’s deft imaginings accompany Satie’s most famous and beloved pieces. He opens the collection with Theme and Vexations in which he alludes to Satie’s own vulnerability and heartbreak, “exposed without a tonal centre / …denying adieu, Bonjour Biqui, Bonjour!” (1). Biqui is the name Satie gave his great and only love, Suzanne Valadon. When their intense six-month long affair ended, Satie wrote Vexations, a miniature composition of a mere thirteen bars, but which he instructed must be repeated 840 times. Performers reported finding it a painful, exquisite, meditation on loss.

Music has power and Steadman’s poetic fables invoke the music. In Gymnopédie No. 1, he imagines a couple who meet at a train station, her bag is stolen, her only clothes hang in the closet during the entire weekend tryst, not needed until a piano playing on the radio brings a memory into the room and its accompanying sadness breaks the spell. All that remains is the woman’s “nakedness on the hanger where over the next week it faded away.” (24)

Après Satie is filled with delicious mouthfuls of vowels and consonants, fairy tale phrasing, and spicy turns which fully satisfy. Consider the prose poem En Habit de cheval. “A beautiful woman, with a figure so slight she could be carried on the wind…” She’s wooed by a young man who’s “a stallion in bed. His seed could sire champion show hunters.” Fricatives knock up against plosives and we feel the heat of this couple, the weight of their potential. Does the promise come to pass? Does the young stallion succeed? Not in Steadman’s world, where “her plan is to win the heart of a widower whose wispy white hair resembles the head of a late-summer dandelion nodding in the early evening breeze.” (7) The whispery image of the old man is a complete, yet tender contrast.

Satie was not a satirist, but he eschewed convention. His limitations became his strengths and his unusual traits created an aura of unexpected specialness that became attractive. Steadman captures this paradox in his lightness of tone combined with a grotesqueness of image. For a sample, try Sea Change. “The waves …channelling / some little salvage back / to the primal cunt of sanctuary / before the piracy of egg, / the plunder of womb.” (37) Or try Premier Menuet: “An Easter moon silenced her. Slit her tongue. Then her throat.” (70)

Descriptive details dance with fierce emotions until we’re swept up in a whirlwind, off balance, reaching out for something to grab onto and, thus, open to experience what it is that Steadman wants us to feel. In the dirge poem, Sunday visit, the mourning for a dying grandparent is given physical weight through absurdist images, “her heart a pounding waltz of bush elephants.” The family chattering in a “prevailing din of help and hospice,” likened to monkeys. The dying grandmother offering an explanation to a silent visitor, “Lumbering beasts, this herd.” “It’s our great ears, you see. Perfectly senseless.” (16)

Satie died without knowing his impact on history. Steadman’s Après Satie: For Two and Four Hands reminds us that there are only moments of choice, moments of living one day to the next, as they unfold. Readers will leave the world of Steadman’s surrealistic poems having experienced a pageantry that pays homage to a great man.

There is perhaps only distance after all,

or something remote and mathematical, in another day (111)

 

 

 

Evan Goldenberg, Erik Satie’s Vexations – From flickr under creative commons license: Attribution, NoDerivatives.

Cycling to Asylum

by Su J. Sokol

Deux Voiliers Publishing, 2014

https://www.deuxvoilierspublishing.com/cycling-to-asylum

http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/22228463-cycling-to-asylum

The beauty of fiction, when it works well, is that it reveals complex particularities of human experience in ways that resonate emotionally and intellectually. Speculative fiction is particularly adept at exposing the consequences of a dysfunctional world. In these days of state actions aimed at closing borders and the denial of refuge to those in desperate need, stories of dystopia resonate. The evidence: George Orwell’s novel, 1984, is back on best-seller lists along with Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, The Handmaid’s Tale.

Su J. Sokol delivers an Orwellian prescience in Cycling to Asylum. Set in the near future and structured into two books, the novel tells the story of a family and their fraught journey from New York City to Montréal, or, in some respects, from the dangers of dystopia to the refuge of utopia.

Book One opens in hostile territory. Laek, one of four main characters, is cycling through Brooklyn. Climate change is running its course: “it’s only 91 degrees,” which Laek considers not too bad for an early morning in March. We catch glimpses of holo-boards and phaser rods. When Laek arrives at his school in Red Hook, where he teaches history, he passes through the distortion field of an “elliptical security booth.” Soon we learn of new anti-immigrant laws. All is not well in this tech-driven, futuristic world.

Sokol’s finely crafted prose pulls us into the story. Early on, it’s clear the stakes are very high. Laek is on a collision course with a regime bent on enforcing national security at the expense of individual freedoms. The specifics are frightening: mandatory iris scanning for students as young as twelve, high school dropouts forced to do military service, and “duty to report” proposals that would oblige teachers to turn students in to Immigration. When Laek is cycling home in the evening, he is pulled over and assaulted by a cop. We soon understand that Laek has a complicated and mysterious past that requires him to stay off the government grid. The suspense accelerates, as thrilling and dangerous as a midnight bike ride down a steep, creviced road.

The chapters are narrated alternatively in the first-person voices of each of the four family members. This clever structure propels plot, develops integrated plotlines and heightens immediacy and tension. Hearing the parents’ voices interspersed with those of the children varies the perspective. Simon, aged nine, is the voice of innocence, while his sister, Siri, at twelve, is a counterpoint, expressing an adolescent frustration (later morphing into rage) at what first appears to be the typical constraints of a middle-class family. These characters are supported by a cast of friends and colleagues who play key roles, including Philip, much loved by Laek in particular, whose heroism comes to light later in the novel. There’s also the nefarious Al, an all-powerful apparition from Laek’s dark past whose presence presages disaster.

After experiencing Laek’s point of view first hand, we meet his partner, Janie, a few weeks later. She is a lawyer in legal services, defending tenants who are facing eviction from the now-privatized projects. Janie senses something terrible has happened to Laek and chafes at his refusal to tell her. When he finally does, she is furious that Laek was assaulted by a cop on Broadway in full view of passers-by who did nothing to help him. If Laek is the voice of resistance colliding with despair, Janie is the voice of reason, clouded occasionally by her ferocious love. In a marvellously lyrical passage, Janie caresses Laek, sensing how his “body is like a mirror to his nature,” particularly his naive goodness and his “remarkable strength and resilience.”

Laek’s resilience is soon shattered during a demonstration. He skirts the police presence and moves through the streets towards Battery Park. Sokol brings the chaos and danger to life. Taking in the scene, Laek observes it’s like “some sick hunt. People have been lured inside, trapped and surrounded. Now the hunters are closing in with their nets and weapons.” When Laek recognizes two of his students being threatened by the police, he intervenes, creating a diversion. While the students run off, the cops turn on him, attacking Laek with a phaser stick.

This is a pivotal scene in the novel, a near-death experience made intensely real for the reader. When Laek wakes up in the hospital, there is a possibility that he might not survive or, worse, that he would not want to survive.

Janie, during her bedside vigil at the hospital, sees that Laek is not only delusional but also suicidal. And while he had mentioned the possibility of fleeing before, she now grasps the urgency: leave Brooklyn or die. His healing requires the actualization of his dream, an envisaged “New Metropolis” to which he mentally escaped during past traumas. In reality, that place becomes Montréal.

A wrenching process ensues. Sokol captures the complexities of preparing to leave home and uproot a family, a process that, to escape detection by the authorities, has to be clandestine.

The prescient qualities of Cycling to Asylum surface in Book Two. The family bravely set out for Québec on bicycles. As the border guard verifies their documents via screens and scanners, Laek panics. His future and his family’s are hanging in the balance. The prospect of being rejected almost crushes him. But Canada is a more benevolent state and eventually they cross the border and cycle to Montréal, where a new world awaits them, epitomized by a nude cycling event that happens to be taking place in the port just as they arrive. Laek and Janie gamely join in. Stripping down, they metaphorically leave their New York identities behind. In the novel, Montréal is already a self-designated “sanctuary city,” foreshadowing the declaration made by the city in early 2017 to ensure undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers have access to public services.

The drama and suspense escalate in the final chapters with flashbacks revealing Laek’s past, a kidnapping, and further border crossings. Without giving away the ending, it can be said that in the dark world depicted in Cycling to Asylum, hope resides in the inherent goodness of individuals like Janie and Laek. The novel’s prophetic qualities blur temporal lines. Elements of the present are recognizable in a near future that is neither completely hopeless nor bright. As for the distinctions between utopia and dystopia, Laek, in a final passage, concludes: “They can spy on us. Jam our communications. Arrest and punish us. They can try to divide and isolate us. But they can’t keep us apart. Our solidarity and love slip right across their borders. Like those lines aren’t even real.”

The multiple technologies of the near future, such as the iris scanners and holo screens alluded to in Cycling to Asylum, conjure both fear and hope. Laek’s movements and very existence are impeded by the interests of a ‘Big Brother’ whose focus on national security tramples on citizen rights. Much like our present day technologies, the devices also offer infinite possibilities to connect humans in a positive way. Simon’s magic translation glasses help him make sense of his first impressions of Canada. Sokol seems to suggest that, yes, technology allows us to share experiences, build solidarity and resist evil, but beware when it empowers the state to control and monitor our lives.

Sokol’s novel evokes the works of author Ursula K. Le Guin, an ardent defender of the fantastic who sees the imagination as a subversive force. In her fiction, Le Guin crosses the boundaries between science fiction and literature. Sokol is a writer of interstitial fiction, meaning that her work also defies rigid classification. The ‘in-betweenness’ of the form and content of Cycling to Asylum extends to its exploration of the metaphor of crossing borders, the shape-shifting senses of time and place. Most of all, Sokol earns the comparison to Le Guin in terms of both the craft of her writing and its intelligence.

Sokol, a lawyer and activist, is originally from Brooklyn and has lived in Montréal since 2004. This background helps to ground the novel so that the fantastic is believable, created from a deep knowledge of the settings and subjects, including details of New York and Montréal known to its residents and the legal complexities around immigration and rights.

Cycling to Asylum was published in 2014, well before the influx of refugees into Canada, many entering on foot. In hindsight, the book is, more than ever, a political novel. Orwell maintained, in his 1946 essay Why I Write, that “political purpose” was one of the great motives for writing prose and that, with the rise of totalitarianism in Europe, it was “nonsense” to avoid writing of such subjects in “a period like our own.” Without coming across as didactic or preachy, Cycling to Asylum reveals the consequences of a state hostile to individual rights and evokes the desperate risks and human costs involved in crossing borders and seeking refuge – burning issues in “a period like our own.”

Shimmer Report
By Brian Campbell
Ekstasis Editions, 2015, 93 pages

https://briancampbell.ca/writing/books/shimmer-report/

 

There is a lively presence in Shimmer Report, the third collection of poetry by Brian Campbell, which he dedicates to his wife, Jocelyne Dubois. It is her lively presence, an artist whose painting graces the cover of the book with an abstract beauty and intense turquoise colour. This original painting entitled “A World of Glass” represents the transparency of what this couple shares, a seasoned love, no saccharine here, but the shimmer of a deep bond, erotic, creative, ultimately healing.

In the humorous poem “For All That,” Jocelyne (names are used, adding to the autobiographical quality) nicknames Brian “doctor” as the poet has had the skill to remove her painful ingrown toenail. The antiromantic interplay of voices in the collection is reminiscent of theatre of the absurd or the whimsical dialogue between two people discovering each other in a Woody Allen film.

Human loneliness is here relieved by talk, by jokes, by the deepest revelation. “Deadpan” is all dialogue, an intimate discussion that most couples perhaps avoid: what are their wishes and fantasies for burial. It has a twist of humour that makes it bearable.

Campbell also addresses illness and death in a gentle elegy for his late father-in-law, “Joe Dubois 1929-1996,” who loved “his manic daughter,” a woman who had attempted suicide.

A dedicated musician and songwriter, Brian Campbell has performed his music in many venues, and released a CD entitled The Courtier’s Manuscript. In his ode “Guitar,” he evokes the bliss he can feel as he plays:

“I come alive

to her colours’ jive

deep bass mauves    blue white trebles

echoing through her velvety mouth

 

swift riffs   chord accords

slanting up and down the frets

as on my rosewood woman

the music plays itself, plays me”

 

Montréal is another lively presence in this collection. In the 2013 anthology Language Matters: Interviews with 22 Quebec poets, edited by Carolyn Marie Souaid and Endre Farkas, Campbell explains why he moved to Montréal from Toronto in the early nineties:

“To find inspiration… Because I was excited by French culture, fashion and architecture… Because I was sick of my native city, which seemed – and is – very much a wasteland. Because going to Montreal seemed like going to another country.”

The bilingual life of the city is added to the je ne sais quoi of the collection. As a native of Montréal, I appreciate the authentic evocation of the bohemian spirit and unique landscape that includes Mount Royal, a centering presence in “Mountain.”

“Brocanterie” describes the eclectic café the poet frequents to write and observe the patrons, including a certain Mademoiselle “Right Look” who airily reads her Cosmopolitan while he frets over what he reads on the internet about the bombings in Iraq.

Inspiration comes not only in the city but in the forest, lakes and small towns in the Eastern Townships outside Montréal. “Tree: Versions” is a four-part meditation that includes a prose poem and an imagist poem that recalls W.C. Williams. “Emblem” has echoes in my mind of the late Montréal poet Irving Layton. On a holiday at a cabin in the woods with Jocelyne, the poet has gone in ankle-deep into the lake, “prickly slime between his toes.” He stares at the marvelous play of insects on the water and suddenly sees himself as a “colossus,” frightening nature.

Good poetry has an autobiographical source, and in this collection, there is no chronological order, which creates an intriguing tension. For example “The Arrow,” a brilliant lyric about the spark-less first meeting between the future lovers is set at the end, just before “Wedding in Blue,” a song of celebration:

“Here we are in shades of blue

turquoise, azure, lapis, indigo

subtle melancholy-mystic hues

hands now joined in marriage:”

 

Brian Campbell’s “Shimmer Report” is a mature book that espouses a vision of love and harmony as a possibility in our discordant fearful everyday world. It is a book that possesses valuable insight and true poetic richness.

 

Agitate! Anarchist Rants, Raps, Poems, Norman Nawrocki, Illustrated by Mathieu Chartrand, Les Pages Noire, 2015, 80 pages

http://books.prettyfamous.com/l/634361/Agitate-Anarchist-Rants-Raps-Poems-Norman-Nawrocki

The Legend of the Rat King, Norman Nawrocki, Illustrated by Ivan Radenkovic, Les Pages Noire, 2016, 72 pages

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/34015741-the-legend-of-the-rat-king

 

Feeling overwhelmed by Trumpism? Trudeau trying your patience? The Québec mosque killings and the rise of racist attacks getting you down? Melting Arctic ice making you nervous? Winter blahs have wiped the smile off your face?

Do not despair! There is a powerful antidote to these “poisons.” It’s Norman Nawrocki. The acclaimed (though given his dissenting voice he has not been decorated with conventional literary trophies) cabaret artist, author, actor, musician and educator pricks your conscience with these two volumes. He will get you out of your armchair, searching for the next protest march.

These books were my introduction to this Montréal legend who has written dozens of books, cut many CDs and performed in a number of bands.

In Agitate! Anarchist Rants, Raps, Poems, Nawrocki cuts a wide swath with his words, taking on capitalism and class violence, police brutality, extreme marginalization leading to crime, prison and death row or just plain misery, gentrification of his Mile End neighbourhood, the impact of corporate globalization, migration, militarization, the destruction of nature and more.

While none of these topics is new — in fact they have sadly become mundane — Nawrocki’s searing, often mocking voice, his vivid images, his direct, unadorned style and deft personalization of issues make the injustice, the waste, the hypocrisy, greed and stupidity of the ruling classes, and the oppression of the masses palpable, real and raw.

As for the form of this book, the author says it’s not poetry. OK, so what is it? It’s this, it’s that: rants and tirades, songs and raps, short fiction, dreams and delusions, and yes, some poems. Further along in the book, in “My Job as a Poet,” he states, “My job as a poet/ is to whisper weird dreams/ tall tales and musings/ into the unplugged ears of the unsuspecting… is to help butterflies/ and slugs/ tend the gardens / of rebellion/ the ones you forgot to water.”

Though he is a chronicler of injustice, misery and the need to oppose the status quo, you don’t feel weighed down while reading Nawrocki. His humour energizes. In “Your Baby is a Potential Terrorist,” he lists the tell-tale signs, including: “Does not drink alcohol… Never shaves… Walks on hands and knees (practicing a prayer position)…”

Equally, he valorises the brave, such as Kurdish women fighters, Louis Riel and sailors who go on a strategic strike and win. He does not shy away from machismo and male chauvinism, addressing a couple of poems directly to men. There are also quieter moments — portraits of a helpful old woman, a young tree outside his window, and an invitation to join the author to sip beer and meditate on what course of action to take next.

Dubbed an “anarchist,” in this volume at least, Nawrocki champions more straightforward street-level protest, and only in a few instances does the anger convert to violent imagery.

The second, more recent volume, The Legend of the Rat King, was originally written and performed as an urban Gothic rock opera by Rhythm Activism, a theatrical, cabaret rock ‘n roll band Nawrocki founded with guitarist Sylvan Coté.

It tells the story of Robert S, a death-row prisoner. After he dies, the Angel of Death takes him to the Devil. Refusing Hell, Robert lands back on Earth, or rather Hell on Earth, on the rundown streets of an inner-city neighbourhood where he hears stories of two other inhabitants, who help him. Then we are rather suddenly introduced to The Rat King who looks out for the beaten and broken denizens of this ghetto.

I found this book compelling, but I was aware of missing the performance that had animated the words many years ago. As well, I’d have liked a note from the author giving some context about the character of the Rat King. The illustrations by Ivan Radenkovic help complete the book. They are strange and utterly marvellous, bringing to mind Expressionism. Radenkovic’s bio at the back of the book says that he is a painter, illustrator and tattoo artist based in Belgrade and Montréal.

The earthy, evocative illustrations in Agitate! are the work of Mathieu Chartrand, a Québécois artist who describes his style as a mix of digital technology and ancient techniques of famous engravers.

The book also includes photos and sketches of men the author met in Vancouver’s inner-city downtown east side, the impressive bio of Nawrocki’s band, Rhythm Activism, as well as a note on the publisher, Les Pages Noires, a Montréal-based non-profit, volunteer-run, multi-media publishing, recording, production and distribution project dedicated to dissident, freedom-loving, anarchist-inspired culture that promotes social justice.

Nawrocki recommends that you read or even shout his words out loud! They were written to be spoken and, ideally, addressed to a group. He invites readers to make them their own.

Thlen, 19/06/12 – From flickr under creative commons license: Attribution, NonCommercial, NoDerivatives.

He recently launched a CD entitled “Displaced/Misplaced,” donating the proceeds of the event to Montréal’s Solidarity Across Borders and the Immigrant Workers Centre.

Does the man inspire? In one word: tremendously!

Check out Nawrocki live on Youtube:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UHuc4y4C9ig

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AVA-V9Mlz2U

A Propaganda System

A Propaganda System: How Canada’s government, corporations, media and academia sell war and exploitation

By  Yves Engler, Red Publishing/Fernwood Publishing, 237 pages

“Canada has seldom been a benevolent international actor. Rather it’s been close to the centre of a hierarchical international economic, political and military system that is particularly exploitative of ordinary people in the most vulnerable areas,” writes Yves Engler in his Introduction, adding that many who attend his talks are astonished when they come up against this reality. This is primarily due to Canada’s sophisticated propaganda system – the subject and title of Engler’s book released at the University of Winnipeg on November 2, 2016. The release was very timely, followed closely as it was by the US presidential elections that turned the deliberate dissemination of propaganda, hoaxes and misleading disinformation into burning issues.

The title and subtitle that introduce the book’s feel and timbre are apt, becoming progressively clearer and more evidently valid as one reads on. The content is powerful and presented convincingly. For example, in a chapter called “Owning the Media” Engler writes: “Various factors explain the media’s biased international coverage. Most importantly, a small number of mega corporations own most of Canada’s media. These firms are integrated with the leading internationally focused Canadian companies and depend on other large corporations for advertising revenue. Less dependent on advertising, CBC relies on government funds and has long been close to the foreign policy establishment … A great deal of the international news Canadian media disseminates is produced by US sources.”

It is well known that in the US, financing news operations tends to be directed toward profit-based re-hashing of information for re-display rather than for investigative reporting. That motive seats N. American journalists squarely on the lap of business interests, sometimes with interlocking directorates. This was amply proved by media reporting on the Maher Arar case and on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, in recent memory.

US political journalism has collapsed to the point where politicians are positioned to manipulate the coverage of campaigns; we observe that its citizens are ill-equipped to participate meaningfully in their elections. The negative relationship of America’s media with the American people should not be allowed to infect Canada, but that is what is happening today.

As UK-based John Pilger points out: “Many journalists now are no more than channelers and echoers of what George Orwell called the ‘official truth’. They simply cipher and transmit lies. It really grieves me that so many of my fellow journalists can be so manipulated that they become really what the French describe as ‘functionaires’ [sic], functionaries, not journalists. Many journalists become very defensive when you suggest to them that they are anything but impartial and objective.”

Academic institutions have not been immune to this virus. In the chapter called “The Academic Connection,” Engler writes: “In 2011 multi-billionaire David Azrieli gave Concordia $5 million to set up the Azrieli Institute of Israel Studies … The Israeli-Canadian real estate magnate asserted that ‘I am a Zionist and I love the country’ and he was an officer in a largely Anglo-Saxon Hagganah Brigade responsible for a number of massacres during the 1947/48 war in which 750,000 Palestinians were ‘ethnically cleansed’ from their homeland … The institute is designed to erase Palestinians from their historical connection to their homeland.”

The book is exhaustively researched with an extensive bibliography and endnotes. There are chapters on the roles played by the military, academics, media, and others who toe the government’s disinformation line to suit their own financial interests.

The author’s purpose is to describe how “The idea of a benevolent Canadian foreign policy may be intellectually hollow, but it’s well-grounded in structures of propaganda.” He adheres to this thesis consistently, and accomplishes his purpose masterfully right through until the very last page.

The book is well organized and convincing, with simple chapter titles that may be read in any order, according to the reader’s preference. The writing is formal, appropriate to its subject, and the wording easy for the ordinary seeker of truth, calling for little effort on the latter’s part.

The author is well qualified to research this book, having published eight other books on the Canadian situation. He uses the analogy of a “hype-generating and self-consciously influence-peddling NHL team PR department” as a foreign affairs equivalent at various points in the narrative: “Just as the Montréal Canadiens are in the business of moulding everything written about the Habs, official military historians have shaped foreign policy consciousness,” using similar techniques.

 

 

 

A second com

A Second Coming, Canadian Migration Fiction
Edited by Donald F. Mulcahy, Guernica, 348 pages

One of the best stories included in the twenty-four chosen by Thomas Mulcahy, editor of this intriguing anthology, has the chilling title, “Mephisto in the Land of Ice and Snow.” Written by Eileen Lohka who was born in Mauritius and who teaches French and Francophone literature and cultures at the University of Calgary, the story vividly captures the running theme of this anthology: that there is an emotional and sometimes physical consequence for emigrating, for leaving behind the familiar home country.

Canada is a land of opportunity, a multicultural space that welcomes immigrants, though the more financially comfortable life they may build can come with a cost. Kamla, the narrator of the story, arrives in Alberta as an 18-year-old from her native village, after reading a want ad for schoolteachers. She proudly becomes a Canadian citizen and changes her name to Camilla. Eventually, the “frozen prairie” becomes her inner landscape, and she remembers her village nostalgically: “I catch myself dreaming about cascading bougainvilleas, pulpy lychees, sensuous mangoes, turquoise seas and the spicy aroma of the Grand Bazaar we call the Port Louis Market.” She reflects further: “Memories assault me, paralyze me. I wonder why my children seem so bland to me, so much like everybody else. Why they never ask about my childhood.”

This kind of feeling of not being at “home” even with one’s children or relatives seems to be a shared experience with some of the characters in the stories of this anthology. Although the longing to be reunited with parents, grandparents, cousins and the original place of birth overwhelms the characters, it does not defeat them.

Another story that stands out is “Fantastic Falafel” by Veena Gokhale, a writer from Bombay who came to Canada on a Journalism Fellowship in 1990, and eventually settled in Montréal. The main character, Keshav, a retired engineer living in Mississauga with his wife and daughter, bumps into Vaman, an old friend who is also a retired engineer, while having his morning coffee at Tim Horton’s. They renew their friendship, and Keshav is flooded with memories of his childhood in India. Though Keshav is satisfied with his life, he finds that his born-in-Canada daughter, Veena, tires him as she criticizes his old ways. He wonders if she is a product of the Canadian education system that promotes critical thinking. Eventually his old friend Vaman reveals a secret to Kheshav that makes this story touching.

A more spare and haunting story is “Leokadia and Adam” by Ron Romanowski, a writer and poet from Winnipeg. Leokadia’s son is at her deathbed with his father Adam and his sister Basia and brother Wojtek. He reflects on his mother’s life and how she had published a book of poems in college back in Poland, but in Canada, had put aside her dream of being a poet in order to earn a living for her family. She had become the owner of a Winnipeg deli that sold kielbasa and sausage. In her last moments, her son recalls the Polish mystical legend of the snow white mountain goat, the Bialy Baran that appears only to the dying to ease their passage to the other world.

“Nick and Francesco Visit Canada” by F.G. Paci, author of 13 novels, is a humorous story that relates how a retired Canadian teacher with a smattering of Italian from his childhood in Italy, agrees to shepherd two eccentric men from Italy, invited to appear on a CBC game show. How they react to Canada is part of the whimsy of this story.

Other interesting stories are “The Motorcycle” by Licia Canton, previously published in an Italian journal, Rivistalunaspecie; and Michael Mirolla’s quirkily nightmarish tale “Above El Club El Salvador” that appeared in an issue of the literary magazine, Event.

Mucalhy explains in the Introduction that the anthology was also meant to include essays, memoirs and creative non-fiction on the subject of emigration/immigration. However, the abundance of material available made it a necessary to create two volumes: this anthology of fiction and a companion volume of non-fiction, also edited by Donald Mulcahy, Coming Here, Being Here.

Settler Education by Laurie D. Graham (McClelland & Stewart)

Laurie D. Graham’s second collection, Settler Education, is a historically informed book of poetry. It roams through Canada’s past, focusing on the destabilizing impact of colonialism, particularly on the indigenous population of North America, but also on European settlers. Poem titles zoom in on formative historical moments or famous personages: “Frog Lake,” for example, refers to the North West Rebellion or Resistance of 1885, while “Mistahimaskwa / Big Bear” gives voice to the powerful Cree chief of the same era. In order to maintain a sense of historical accuracy within the fluidity of the poetic genre, Graham includes lengthy direct quotations from recorded speeches and journals, as well as archival photographs and maps; she offers informative endnotes describing the material she writes about. Following her debut, Rove, which also deals with regional identity and growing up in homestead in a colonial prairie settlement, Settler Education continues to navigate ways of being on a map of politically fraught geography. As she queries incisively, “am I supposed to claim I know this land, that I know where my limits are placed” (24)?

Although Graham’s primary sympathy lies with displaced indigenous peoples, she approaches the complexity of settler history in Canada from different perspectives throughout. “The assumption is you’ll pick a side / then doubt it. The goal is the truth made plain and singular” (63), she writes sardonically. Instead of maintaining a clear critical thesis, she illustrates, on the one hand, how indigenous communities were systematically forced to surrender their land, language, beliefs and integrity, while on the other hand, contrasting a retrospective gaze with the contemporary experience of coming to terms with ancestral crimes, the grand question of how to exist in Canada today.

There are four things you will not learn in school.

The name of the people. The name of the treaty.

The name of the nearest reserve. The name of the closest school.

This is where you are from.

The school well off the highway and protected. The reserve not yours.

The treaty taught as history, if at all. The people,

nehiyaw and Métis, who live close and speak your language

you won’t even register as different from you (70)

Graham lays her finger on a significant double bind. It may seem important to remove the sense of otherness when integrating cultures that cohabit a continent. Not registering someone from an unfamiliar background as different could be interpreted as a positive gesture of interpersonal acceptance. Yet clearly, obtaining this nominal acceptance only through an uninformed negation of identity, through a failure to recognize and appreciate cultural difference is, to the contrary, an act of violence and suppression. Articulating, analyzing and framing a creative project with such exceptionally current and cutting questions, is one way for Graham to attempt a reconciliation of diverging political concerns.

Supplementing the political content of Settler Education with personal experience, the collection is bracketed by train rides; the opening poem “Number One Canadian” – the name of the train running from Toronto to Vancouver – links to the final poem “The Train Back.” In both poems, the speaker travels through the Canadian landscape, observing the country systematically pass by her train window. During her voyages, the present is overwritten by the past; the present tense natural beauty of the landscape merges with its past, the stage for history to be remembered and revisited. Graham describes: “Through tree scenes, tableaux in the dome car, / the soldiers, the settlers […] A train car neat with men and their rifles. / Outside, threads of campsmoke…” (3). Canada’s colonial history is a hallucinatory presence, an all-pervasive judgment that insists to be acknowledged and looked squarely in the eye.

“Inauthentic is me reading it out of books, but it’s / where I start, it’s where I sit, walking around alone, saying, to / you, here, in writing, that it existed” (104). Graham does not skirt her own settler identity, nor does she seek absolution for her ancestry of guilt. Instead, she presents intelligent observations with wide political reach in poetic language, both pared down and generous. Whether a scholar of Canadian history or a lover of literature, Settler Education promises to unsettle its readership, to draw in and enthrall.

 

Belief by Mayank Bhatt – Mawenzi House, 2016, 200 pages

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.

A Clearing by Louise Carson, Signature Editions, 2015, 84 pages

In these difficult, divisive, often overwhelming times, all of us crave a clear, quiet space, where, as Louise Carson’s title poem would have it,

… the old can sit, the children play,

where the wild fruit grows,

where we spread our clothing to dry.

To clear. Clarify.  Make clear.  In a way all stories and poems do this — make a clearing out of the tangle of our lives, distill an essence, lead us to certain if problematic terms.  In Carson’s collection, our attention is drawn by the very first poem to the play of imagination and language in space, to the forming of “meaningful shapes” out of words that “lie on the page/and hang in the air.” In both senses, however, of lie.

Carson’s is ostensibly a quiet world. The poet lives quite alone in the outskirts — west beyond Montreal’s West Island, to be precise — in a house surrounded by fields of grass and trees, with an extensive garden in the back. A motif, especially in the first section of her book, is passing things repeatedly on solitary walks — a fox seen twice (the same fox? or different?), a turtle seen four times on the same day.  The effect is of slowing time down.  Worthy subjects are things that stand out in the stillness: a muskrat diving.  A yellow bird. Daisies.  Tulips.  A petal, which becomes “an inward slit-eyed glance/a holy tongue of fire.”  Feathers in a tree.

A number of these poems achieve masterful concentration.  In this fourteen-line poem (a kind of sonnet?), a cactus becomes emblematic in the affirmation of its flowering amidst all its prickly ungainliness:

About the epicactus

Who knew that this irregular, no,

gangling frame, its intermittent arms

attenuations punctuated with hair,

and with no claim to beauty

save its dull green, its weird silhouette

doubled, dark against a yellow wall,

in form a thin vegetable scream,

 

had hid such a sun of a flower,

a blend of orange, white, gold and cream,

to blaze one day, one night, to a depth

of daring, glowing, open lust,

at which we stare, creation’s door ajar.

And then the slow wilt, the drop, till…ah…

the green vein stops at a calloused scar.

Lest we gain the impresson, however, that Carson is primarily a nature poet, it bears pointing out that a number of her significant poems bring in urban, even menacing atmospheres.  In McDonald’s, 32nd Avenue, Lachine, she vividly describes a drive-by world of cars, motorcycles, white women who “examine prospective customers” (serving women? women of the night?), black kids lounging, a sultry air ripe with sexual adventure:

I turn the key to check the time and the headlights play

on the thighs, smooth and hairless, of a girl on rollerblades.

Passively she glides.

 

Her boyfriend on his bike smiles,

his arm around her waist, and tows her

back to their place.

The collection A Clearing is organized into three parts.  The first part, with the exception of one poem that mentions snow and skiing, is summery in its atmosphere; the second part takes us through a more wintery, lonely landscape/mindscape; the third continues on this sombre drift, in pairs and triplets of thematically related poems, towards a partial, if uncertain, redemption. A number of poems speak of long, lean years of penny-pinching survival — “living freelance, untenured, unpartnered,/…wrapped in layers of wool / found at church basement sales.” Hard realities are bravely evoked and confronted: single motherhood, abortion, personal abandonment; an excellent eulogy for a piano student who died far too young; three “old man” poems that deal with, as one would expect, aging and mortality; the Rwandan genocide; Anne Frank, and Superman; and a number of ironic, fiercely acerbic poems addressing topics as diverse as Barbie dolls and God.

There is, though, redemption: a dream of various lovers that leaves the poet “relieved…to have finished acting.” And in the final poem, a sense of grace and amazement at a “brief, mad day, worth anything” — and for the reader as well as writer, the rewarding realization of a number of hard-won, luminous truths.

 

 

The Measure of Darkness, by Liam Durcan, Bellevue Literary Press, 2016, 251 pages

The Measure of Darkness, as the title might suggest, plumbs the darkness into which a man has fallen after emerging from a brain injury. Acclaimed architect Martin Fallon is hit by a snowplow as he drives to the Eastern Townships in Québec. When he awakens from his coma, his caregivers, family and colleagues realize that he suffers from “neglect syndrome” which makes a person unable to perceive the left side of his visual world. Martin, like other victims of this deficit, is unaware of his condition. However, as the weeks in a rehabilitation centre unfold, he slowly realizes the extent of his existential losses: he has lost his professional licence; his colleagues have ousted him from the company he founded; his two ex-wives have disowned him; one of his daughters has turned her back on him, and his other daughter hasn’t quite found a way to approach him. The only person who stands by him, ironically enough, is his estranged elder brother who returns to nurse him after a thirty-year absence.

Martin’s thoughts move from present to past, with side-detours into fantasy, portrayed with a deftness that is a credit to the author’s skill as a writer and his deep understanding of the human brain/mind connection as a neurologist. It is from Martin’s paranoid meanderings that we learn that he landed in Montréal as a draft-dodger; that his elder brother fought in Vietnam and returned a broken man; that his own parents abandoned the marginalized minorities that had sustained them in Detroit, when the going got rough, and that he himself had, in a sense, abandoned his family for his career. In his post-trauma life he tries to cope by drawing a parallel between himself and his mentor Konstantin Melnikov, a renowned Soviet-era architect who retreated into obscurity after being disowned by Stalin.

The pared-down clinical precision of the author’s prose serves as a foil to the narrative complexity of the novel. By providing the reader with insights into a mind defeated by nature and… lack of nurture, Liam Durcan has succeeded in producing a work of Dostoyevskian proportions. For this tour de force, he was awarded the Quebec Writers’ Federation 2016 Paragraphe Hugh McLennan Prize for Fiction last November. The Measure of Darkness, a novel about how what was disowned wreaked havoc in a man’s life, is as disturbing as it is compelling.

the-happy-marriage-book-cover-by-tahar-ben-jelloun
The Happy Marriage by Tahar Ben Jelloun

Translated by André Naffis-Sahely
Melville House, Brooklyn~London, 2016. 320 pages

If we are to believe that this novel is indeed the story of couple who lived happily ever after, then it means that we have never heard of Leo Tolstoy or Ingmar Bergman or Nagisa Oshima or any of the other intellectuals who keep our paraplegic protagonist mentally occupied. For this novel by Moroccan writer Tahar Ben Jelloun, winner of the International Impac Dublin Literary Award and possible candidate to the Nobel Prize for Literature, is the story of a marriage in decline and the reasons that will inexorably lead it to its fatal conclusion. To be fair, let the reader find out whether the marriage ends or is salvaged at the end of the book. Let the reader also decide who is to blame: the famous, refined, literate, high-class philandering Arab husband? Or the rough-hewn, self-taught, down-to-earth, fiery, superstitious Berber wife? Or, for that matter, is anybody to blame? Author Nagisa Oshima tells our protagonist that “Cruelty between a man and a woman is essential.”

The novel opens with a quote from Give Me Your Eyes, by Sacha Guitry: “Every sacrifice is possible and tolerable in a couple until the day when one of them realizes that there were sacrifices to make.” It then continues with a long soliloquy by The Artist, who is confined to a wheelchair after a stroke, and is unable to paint or even look after himself without assistance from his caregivers. For most of the novel, the reader is subjected to an unremitting indictment of his wife’s character and her many failures and shortcomings. The Artist, however, is man enough to admit that he has betrayed her with his numerous love affairs and acts of matrimonial dereliction enacted during luxurious solo trips abroad. But then again, in true patriarchal style, he feels entitled to his indulgences and doesn’t even bother to name his wife, merely calling her “the woman.”

It is only towards the end, when the reader gets a chance to become acquainted with her version of events, that we get to find out that she has a name – Amina – and that she is all of the things that her husband has called her, that and much more. We learn that she was devalued as a girl in the goat-herd society she hails from, that her father denied her an education, and practically sold her off to an infertile French couple who in turn provided her with some education and a ticket to France where she met her future husband. We also learn The Artist’s name: Foulane, which is the moniker she gives him, and which in Arabic means “any old guy.”

We may wonder why Tahar Ben Jelloun doesn’t name his main protagonists, but the answer is pretty obvious. It is the author’s way of saying that The Happy Marriage is the story of matrimonial dissolution in general attributed to the intersection of class, gender and tribal politics.

 

Maya Khankhoje reviewed Ben Jelloun’s The Sand Child for Montréal Serai before we went digital. It is the painful story of how the 8th daughter of a respected Arab man was raised as a boy so as not to bring “dishonour” to her family.

 

Executor
Executor, by Louise Carson, Signature Editions, 183 pages, published in 2015

A mystery novella, this book deals with important and topical subjects – Canadians adopting girl children from China, and “the dark world of transplant tourism” and organ trade in that country and its links to Canada. Even as I was reading Executor to write this review, members of the Falun Gong were on a cross-Canada tour to raise awareness and garner support for condemning the practice of harvesting organs from their members who have been arrested and executed, reportedly since the late 1990s.

A story (http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/world/report-alleges-china-killing-thousands-of-prisoners-to-harvest-organs/article30559415/) in The Globe and Mail published in June 2016 points to a new report released by David Matas, a Canadian human rights lawyer, and David Kilgour, a human rights activist and former Canadian MP. Mr. Matas says that 80 per cent of the organs used in China come from prisoners of conscience, although “in the presence of total cover-up and the absence of total access to data, that’s just an estimate.” Carson includes earlier books by Kilgour and Matas in her author’s note as sources she used to do her research.

Executor is the story of Peter Forrest, an academic-poet, whose inspiration has run dry. Father of Jenny and Liza, two girls he adopted in China with his homemaker wife, Jan. Leading a busy and purposeful life in the rural Toronto suburb of Dunbarton, growing vegetables in his garden and coming down the 401 to his city job, Peter is all set to adopt another orphan girl from China.

Then he gets an unusual request: he is asked to become the literary executor for poet Eleanor Brandon, who recently committed suicide (or so it seems). Peter was once a student and lover of Eleanor, who was also a social activist, speaking on behalf of Chinese dissidents. Agreeing to take care of Eleanor’s unpublished poetry manuscript but shying away from her activism, Peter goes to China and ends up with a baby girl, Annie, who does not look like the girl in their file picture. Other fishy things happen, including a stranger in a park giving him a USB with English translations of what seem like personal files of detained and dead prisoners labelled Falun Gong, Tibetan, Uighur or Christian.

Back in Canada, people known to Eleanor start getting murdered, detectives Smith and Smythe from the Toronto Police enter the picture, tragic facts about Annie’s health come to light, and the plot thickens, splashing mud on Peter, the proverbial innocent bystander. The dramatic events inspire some poems, and in the last few pages, Peter confronts the murderer in what is the best scene in the book.

This is a genre bender that contains a lot of domestic detail. Carson coasts casually through her plot, using a matter-of-fact tone. Her prose is competent and she takes on big, really big themes, but doesn’t fully plumb their depths. I liked that Carson was trying, in a number of ways, to write an unconventional mystery. I believe such efforts should be encouraged and indeed pushed to greater heights. This book is a pleasant read.

 

Veena Gokhale’s short story collection, Bombay Wali and other stories (http://www.guernicaeditions.com/title/9781550716726) 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.

9781627793810_WhoRulestheW_JK.indd
Who Rules the World? by Noam Chomsky, Metropolitan Books, 2016, 320 pages

Noam Chomsky needs no introduction. A professor emeritus of linguistics and philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), he is also widely known as an acerbic critic of U.S. foreign policy. As Chomsky himself has stated on numerous occasions over the years, it is his duty as a citizen of the United States to speak out against the atrocities committed by his country on foreign shores, especially when it is responsible for 2% of such atrocities in the world. Who Rules the World? is the author’s latest effort to do precisely that in the dispassionate and lucid manner that characterizes his writings. This brilliant analysis of the current international scene has been published as part of The American Empire Project,[1] a series of books challenging the concept of “empire, long considered an offense against America’s democratic heritage.” Chomsky contributes to this project by denouncing this imperialistic trend that “now threatens to define the relationship between our country and the rest of the world.”

This book is divided into an introduction and twenty-three chapters, with a wealth of annotated references at the end. The following are some examples:

The Responsibility of Intellectuals, Redux, is a call for intellectuals not to serve government or corporate masters but to purely serve the truth as they understand it. As examples of intellectuals who did not toe the official line, Chomsky mentions Bertrand Russell, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, not to forget Zola, who was sentenced to prison. He also denounces the assassination, “as the Berlin Wall fell,” of liberation theologists in Latin America “defeated with the assistance of the U.S. army.” Another example of U.S. violent involvement in international affairs is what in Latin America is often called “the first 9/11,” when democratically elected President Salvador Allende was ousted and General Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship installed. Chomsky points out that the first 9/11 was much more devastating than the second one, considering “the economic destruction and the torture and kidnappings” that ensued.

Terrorists Wanted the World Over: In this chapter, the author outlines how the horror of the hijacking of the passenger liner Achille Lauro and the brutal murder of Leon Klinghoffer, a crippled American, “was a retaliation for the bombing of Tunis ordered a week earlier by Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres. Among other atrocities, his air force killed seventy-five Tunisians and Palestinians with smart bombs that tore them to shreds… Washington cooperated by failing to warn its ally Tunisia that the bombers were on the way…”

The Torture Memos and Historical Amnesia: This chapter is a reminder of how American imperialism “is often traced to the takeover of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Hawaii in 1898.” It also explains how “over the past sixty years, victims worldwide have endured the CIA’s ‘torture paradigm.’” It also states unequivocally that “Obama did not shut down the practice of torture… but ‘merely repositioned it.’”

The Invisible Hand of Power explores the link between U.S. energy requirements and the fate, for better or for worse, of any country that has the resources to meet such needs.

American Decline: Causes and Consequences: This chapter is a tacit recognition “that the United States…is in decline, ominously facing the prospect of its final decay.”

Magna Carta, Its Fate, and Ours: In this very important chapter, Chomsky points out that in only a few generations “the millennium of Magna Carta, one of the greatest events in the establishment of civil and human rights, will arrive. Whether it will be celebrated, mourned or ignored is not at all clear.” He also highlights a companion charter, the Charter of the Forest, which demanded the protection of the commons from external power. “The commons were the source of sustenance for the general population: their fuel, their food, their construction materials, whatever was essential for life.” On a note of optimism, Chomsky celebrates the current struggles of indigenous populations in India as well as in Bolivia, Venezuela and other Latin American countries, to protect the commons. He notes the irony that the poorest countries are doing the most to protect natural resources while the richest countries are hastening their destruction.

The Week the World Stood Still refers to the nuclear crisis of 1962. Chomsky urges us to heed the warning of Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein: “that we must face a choice that is stark and dreadful and inescapable: Shall we put an end to the human race; or shall mankind renounce war?”

The Oslo Accords: Their Context, Their Consequences challenges the notion that “meaningful Israel-Palestine negotiations can be seriously conducted under the auspices of the United States as an ‘honest broker’ – in reality a partner of Israel for forty years in blocking a diplomatic settlement that has near-universal support.”

Nothing for Other People: Class War in the United States is a denunciation of NAFTA and other “free-trade agreements” that protect the rights of corporations, not of workers.

Whose Security? How Washington Protects Itself and the Corporate Sector is Chomsky’s take on what he terms “the appeal of plundering the poor.” No security is provided for the general population.

The U.S. Is a Leading Terrorist State is perhaps the most provocative chapter in this book. The names of countries such as Angola, Nicaragua, and Cuba are invoked as examples of what global polls show: “that the United States is regarded as the biggest threat to world peace by a very large margin.”

Obamas Historic Move refers to the establishment of diplomatic ties between the United States and Cuba. Obama’s “historic move,” notes Chomsky, was no doubt influenced by domestic opinion, although the public has been in favour of normalization for a long time. “The imperial mentality is wondrous to behold,” Chomsky notes wryly.

Masters of Mankind, the final chapter of the book, poses a question in addition to the title of this book:  “What principles and values rule the world?” Chomsky suggests that this question should be foremost in the minds of “the citizens of rich and powerful states, who enjoy an unusual legacy of freedom, privilege, and opportunity thanks to the struggles of those who came before them, and who now face fateful choices as to how to respond to challenges of great human import.”

 

[1] A Macmillan series of books in which leading writers and thinkers “mount an immodest challenge to the fateful exercise of empire-building” and “explore every facet of the developing American imperium, while suggesting alternate ways of thinking about, confronting, and acting in a new American century.” http://us.macmillan.com/series/americanempireproject

 

 

 

Maya Khankhoje, Montréal Serai contributing editor, likes to share the insights she gains by reading books such as the one reviewed here.

Le Partage des Mémoires by Djemaa Maazouzi, Classiques Garnier, 2015, 487 pages

Photo credit: Le partage des mémoires de la guerre d’Algérie. Littérature-Cinéma-Web (Facebook page).

Montréal in 2016 is a vital mosaic of neighbourhoods, ethnicities, events and people. This urban variety encompasses many outstanding individuals, and one of them is a woman named Djemaa Maazouzi. With a doctorate in French literature, she teaches French at Montréal’s Dawson College and her background includes both Algeria and France.

Djemaa Maazouzi’s research in universities in Canada and France has centred on collective and individual memories of momentous events, and in particular, the Algerian War of Independence (1954-1962).

She draws on academic work developed over the last generation that makes a distinction between historical analysis and the restless energy of recollection, which she says is ever-present, dynamic, and more highly charged emotionally. Her recently published book is entitled Le Partage des Mémoires, which roughly translates as “The Sharing of Memories.” The plural is important here, because Maazouzi believes that traumatic events like the Algerian struggle with France leave behind what she calls a “polyphonic” and dialectical interaction of many different memories intersecting in various explicit ways that are nonetheless unconscious and invisible.

Maazouzi’s goal is to bring these patterns of recollection to the surface of our consciousness in the aim of furthering solidarity among those she calls “bearers of memory,” enabling even former antagonists to see what they share in common.

To illustrate this process of recovering a deeper sense of the past, Djemaa Maazouzi looks at the work of three creative artists in France: Zahia Rahmani (born in 1962), a passionate writer and art critic whose father was a “harki” (a term used to describe Algerians who were in the French Army during the Algerian War); Mehdi Charef (born in 1952), a screenwriter and film director of Algerian descent; and Tony Gatlif (born in 1948), a filmmaker and writer whose mother was a member of the Rom minority in French Algeria and whose father was Algerian.

Le Partage des Mémoires is a powerful book that draws together all kinds of experiences – tragic, haunting, terrible, poetic, stark, searing and loving. Djemaa Maazouzi provides close textual readings and examines films, plays and videos on the web – all to create a vibrant, collective membrane of memory extending out to various dimensions. At one point in her book, she asserts that on the web there are constant and quickening pulsations of memories reverberating together in what she calls a “hypermemory,” which has been stirring French society for a number of years right up to the present time. All one has to do is Google terms such as “the Algerian War” or “pieds noirs” to feel the energy of this surge of recollection.

I tested this assertion of hers by typing in a few words on a search engine, and indeed found myself immediately visiting a variety of sites. CLICK – there was a website highly critical of the French forces in the Algerian War. CLICK – another praising the notorious parachute regiment that carried out much of the terrible torture during the conflict. One thread of memory led to another, just as Maazouzi claimed, and during a lengthy session of web searching I finally found myself looking at an interview with 92-year-old Henri Alleg (1921-2013). He was the famous French-Algerian communist and journalist who in 1958 published La Question, a book that documented the immensely cruel interrogation techniques used against Algerian freedom fighters by the French Army. There on the web you find an intelligent, decent and humane Alleg explaining that he still believes in his life-long ideal of a world without oppression.

In Le Partage des memoires, Djemaa Maazouzi mentions figures such as Alleg, but concentrates on her three principal creative voices – Rahmani, Charef, and Gatlif.

Using a legal metaphor, she shows that these artists are “bearers” of memories that mark particular phases: the trial of the father (often one’s own father); an encounter with the Other; and a subsequent “return” that often involves reconciliation with the land and history of Algeria.

Maazouzi begins with the writer, Zahia Rahmani, and her highly praised prose work, Moze.

Moze (2003) is a fierce book that tells the story of Zania Rahmani’s father, an Algerian Muslim who was part of the French Army – a “harki.” Rahmani remembers growing up in France with an intense sense of shame, since her father was considered a traitor by the new Algerian government after the war. He and others like him had been promised French nationality, yet when they and their families arrived in France, they were treated like utter outcasts and could only acquire citizenship after a slow and painful process. Her father’s name was Mohammed, but Rahmani gives him the cryptic made-up name of “Moze.” He was an immensely sad man who hardly spoke when he lived in France, and on Remembrance Day, Nov. 11, 1991, he visited a war memorial and then committed suicide. When her family first went to France, her father locked them all up – the mother and the two sisters – huddling with fear in their new place:

“In the beginning we lived in the dark. He locked the doors and the windows… He said to us, ‘You are nothing. Not exiles, not immigrants. You are nothing. You are not going to be French. You are nothing. Nothing. To be a harki is to be nothing… to live as this piece of nothing!’ He taught us to live with his pain.”

In the book, Rahmani judges her father and comments, “Is it not so, that colonialism feeds on the remains of humanity and mangled citizenship?”

Djemaa Maazouzi uses Moze to depict how, for people like Rahmani, memory is invoked to judge the father and find him guilty, but the crimes he is tainted with extend far beyond him. And Maazouzi the critic argues that in the novel, the trial of the father then also becomes the defence of the father, and the “trial” turns into the prosecution of colonialism itself. This dual trial, as Maazouzi describes it, is heart-wrenching and disturbing. Moze exhumes and resurrects the father in order to expose the costs of historical oblivion and bring to light the unspoken subtext of an entire community – “the unspoken (underlay) of French society,” in Rahmani’s words.

It is an extraordinary fact that for more than three decades, France never officially acknowledged the Algerian War. Described instead as “events” or “rebellion,” it wasn’t until June 15, 1999 that an act passed by the French National Assembly referred to it as “the Algerian War.”

Le Partage des memoires uses Moze to bring the invisible out of the shadows and into daylight. From there, Maazouzi goes on to examine the work of writer and filmmaker Mehdi Charef, and more specifically, his autobiographical film Cartouches gauloises (2007).

Charef is the son of an Algerian man who emigrated to France in order to work. Charef himself experienced the sorts of difficulties often encountered by creative adolescent immigrants in Europe. His deep love of cinema stemming from his early childhood in Algeria gave him a way to define and structure his world. His tough but compassionate outlook allowed him to connect with others and, through his truth-telling, to imagine what a real encounter with the Other might be like. Charef comments on the pieds noirs before independence, saying that “the Arabs were hungry, and they [the pieds noirs] saw nothing.” Yet he also explains that since his time in France, “I have discovered things in them (the pieds noirs) that we share, that have touched me and moved me.”

Djemaa Maazouzi uses Charef’s work to illustrate the type of encounters that are and are not possible between different kinds of memory – encounters that fail to take place and yet might succeed. Maazouzi suggests that these tensions that arise in telling, re-telling and communicating lie behind all of Charef’s films and writing.

The last person that Maazouzi uses to bring her own account to a close is the very well-known Rom film-maker, Tony Gatlif, the son of an Algerian father and a French Rom mother who lived in Algeria. Maazouzi focuses on the movie Exils (2004), which tells the story of a young man and woman who leave France to effect a “return” to Algeria. The culmination of the film is a Sufi-inspired trance that seems to be a metaphor encompassing the Mediterranean as a whole, all its memories drawn into a common vortex where binary distinctions disappear and merge into something far more basic, and universal.

Le Partage des memoires itself searches for clarity and energy that reveal various partial truths in an effort to move beyond them (or perhaps through them) to a broader solidarity. Djemaa Maazouzi ends her book with the assertion that “to lend words to personal experiences is a way of making the fragments of our own lives – fragments that we consider significant – both visible and comprehensible to ourselves and others.” Le Partage des mémoires does just that.

 



Good as Gone: My Life with Irving Layton, Anna Pottier, Dundurn Press, 2015, 336 pages

In her recently published memoir Good as Gone, about her marriage with internationally renowned Canadian poet, the late Irving Layton, Anna Pottier boldly asserts that “modern Canadian poetry was born in Irving’s living-room” in his “tiny house” on Kildare Road in Montreal where he lived with his third wife, Aviva Layton, in the mid-1950s. This informal gathering of local poets took place every Friday night and Leonard Cohen, then in his early twenties, dropped by. He immediately impressed the well-known Layton with his early poems.

Pottier, in a chapter entitled “The Golden Boy,” describes her meeting with Cohen, a close friend of Layton, on June 7, 1984. She wants to set the record straight on literary myths such as Layton having been Cohen’s mentor. This irritated Layton, she writes, because it was not the truth. And this is what Pottier wants to reveal in her passionate account of the twelve years she shared with Layton, years that she admits have marked her deeply, irrevocably.

Pottier, born in the Acadian village of Belleville, Nova Scotia, dreamed of becoming a writer, not a doctor, as her parents wanted her to be. In 1981, as a twenty one year old student at Halifax’s Dalhousie University, she attended a poetry reading and met Irving Layton who was famous, married, and forty-eight years her senior. They began a correspondence, and when Layton separated from his fourth wife, Harriet Bernstein, two years later, he invited Pottier to move into his Niagara-on-the-Lake home as his housekeeper. She agreed, thrilled that he took an interest in her poems and encouraged her to write.

Pottier began this memoir soon after the death of Irving Layton in January 2006. She defines it as “my homage to and thanks for all that he lavished on me: his absolute trust, an Ivy League education taught at the table, during long walks, and in the pre-dawn light as he challenged me like the extraordinary teacher that he was, all imbued with unconditional love.”

In Good as Gone, Pottier, who now lives in Utah, is remarried, and is a painter in demand in art exhibitions, writes with candour about her relationship with Irving Layton. Since the beginning, she kept personal journals that were very detailed, included verbatim conversations, and notes about Layton’s views on life, death, and the poetic process.

Pottier (her birth name was Annette but Layton preferred to call her Anna, which she agreed to) was as meticulous in her journal keeping as in her work as assistant in preparing the poet’s later books for publication such as his childhood memoir Waiting for the Messiah. Pottier remembers laboriously typing draft after draft on a typewriter, PCs not yet widely in use. Among the interesting selection of rarely seen black and white photos, is one taken by Pottier in May 1985 at their house on Monkland Avenue in the NDG area of Montreal. It is of Layton sitting on the sofa, gazing into the camera, his look bemused and exhausted, the final manuscript pages spread around him on the cushions and coffee table. As she notes in the caption, they had little time to relax as they were bound for Athens.

Some of the best chapters are those that describe the couple’s trips to Italy, a country where Layton’s poetry won deep respect in large part due to the brilliant scholar and translator Alfredo Rizzardi, who promoted Canadian Studies at the University of Bologna. In fact, Italy would nominate Layton’s work twice for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

In an uninhibited voice, Pottier recalls how she accompanied her husband-to-be to the International Festival of Poets, where he had been invited to give readings:

“Landing at Fiumicino, I had to pinch myself. Barely one year earlier, I had come through Rome as a nearly penniless hitchhiker, solitary, hungry, and barely distinguishable from millions of other backpackers. How very, very different for me now, stepping out into the Roman air, warm with oleander, refined perfumes, Marlboro cigarette smoke, and testosterone, on the arm of a poet who was soon to be received like a rock star.”

Pottier also found that Italians accepted their age difference, and this freed her of self-consciousness, being looked upon as the youthful muse of a famous aging poet. One of the happiest of the anecdotes from Italy is in “Lunch with Ettore and Fellini,” when Layton meets and entertains the great filmmaker of 8 1/2, Amarcord, La Dolce Vita, and she finds herself in Fellini’s Mercedes.

Not her family’s rejection, or the complications with Layton’s ex-wives and adult children, could undermine their solid marriage, but their age difference eventually did.

Accompanying Layton on worldwide cultural trips as he aged became traumatic. In 1992, a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease and the beginning of Alzheimer’s, confirmed Pottier’s unspoken fear that she might be incapable to assist her beloved husband as he lost control of body and mind.

With harrowing honesty, Pottier relates how being the caregiver eventually led to burnout. Tears became frequent between the couple rather than the laughter that had bound them. Pottier began an affair with a younger man than herself, and sought the counsel of one of Layton’s lifelong friends, also her friend at the time, Musia Schwartz, who agreed that she should separate and offered to care for Layton.

In Good as Gone, Pottier vividly captures the impersonal cruelty of aging and conveys the love and creativity of their marriage. She writes how she still misses the man and poet who had made so many of her days extraordinary, the memoir a heartfelt testimony to this truth.

 

 

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Mural by feminist guerrilla artist, MissMe, on Park Avenue in Montréal https://www.facebook.com/missmeart (Photo by Jody Freeman)

 

Nelly Arcand, Breakneck, Anvil Press, 2015, 223 pages. Translation by Jacob Homel

 

Nelly Arcand was a shooting star in Québec’s literary scene. Between her first novel Putain in 2001 (Whore, 2004) and her fourth and last novel Paradis, clef en main in 2009 (Exit, 2009), less than a decade elapsed. Her third novel, À ciel ouvert, published in 2007 (Breakneck, 2015), is a vivid and troubling account of lives lost in the maze of contemporary Western culture, where women’s bodies are literally torn apart and reshaped to meet impossible standards of beauty designed by men for men.

Through the prism of a loveless love triangle between Julie O’Brien, a bright documentary screenwriter, Rose Dubois, a proficient fashion stylist, and Charles Nadeau, an up-and-coming studio photographer, Arcand focuses a harsh light on the self-destructive lifestyle of trendy young urban professionals living it up on Montreal’s Plateau Mont-Royal.

It is no coincidence that the action starts – and ends – on the high-perched, sun-drenched terrace of a loft apartment building on Coloniale Street. Set in an age “where success shouts from every rooftop,” the novel hints at the collapse of a “world that was bursting into flames all across the planet,” by exposing the collision between three lost souls.

 

Lives already dead

Left heartbroken by a short-lived relationship and “tormented by the climate and temperatures that were no longer just conversation, but daily experience, worrisome in the long term because behind them hid a surge and a charge towards destruction,” Julie is going through life like one of the walking dead: working out to keep her body in shape, while destroying her soul with alcohol and drugs. Soulless and numb, “her existence was no more than armour against life, against the world and all it contained.”

Rose – “a true beauty, but in a commercial, industrial way” – lives as one woman too many in a man’s world. Conscious that her work as a stylist consists “in the sculpting of others, participating in her own disappearance,” she in turn has her own body sculpted by plastic surgery, “torn asunder by medical technique and its ability to recast.” Living as “Charles’ excrescence, the shadow of his eye, the slave who organized, brightened and showcased other women’s beauty before exiting the frame, where no one could see her,” Rose is a woman without an existence of her own.

As for Charles, he appears to be an average man who, exposed to and attracted by so many pretty young women, “had slowly developed resistance to his own tastes.” Behind this facade he hides “a few defects in his soul,” inherited from his father: a schizophrenic butcher who raised his son with misogynous paranoid theories about “murderous and mutant female assassins” and about “the treachery of women.” This childhood trauma left Charles, the butcher’s boy, with a fetish perversion for sadomasochist gore pornography, a secret sickness that Rose, in her self-abnegation, came to accept without questioning.

 

The eye of the storm

It is on the cursed roof of the building where she just moved in with Charles that Rose finds herself involuntarily pushing Julie, who happens to be the couple’s next door neighbour, onto Charles’ path. During this meeting that seals their fates – and Charles’ – in inevitable doom, an act of God testifies to the irreconcilable enmity between both women: lightning striking the guardrail of the terrace where Julie and Rose are standing. It is as if the tragic events set in motion on that summer day were commanded by “the power of mighty nature throwing back mankind’s arrogance in its face.”

Rose’s mistake inevitably brings Julie and Charles together, and pushes Rose herself out of the life of the man she had devoted herself to and into the arms of the plastic surgeon who had been moulding her for Charles. While Julie attempts to cure Charles of his sickness by indulging him in his vicious perversions, Rose intends to sacrifice what’s left of her body in a desperate attempt to get Charles back.

With the reluctant help of her surgeon, Rose has her most intimate flesh carved and sculpted to become the very image of the ideal women Charles had spent his life fantasizing about. Using her body as a weapon – butchered by another man – Rose “was plotting to win Charles back, or just destroy him,” whichever way it turned out.

 

When images are cages

As the story develops, Rose and Charles become the subject of Julie’s next documentary project where she wants to talk “about images as cages, in a world where women, more and more naked, more and more photographed, covered themselves in lies.” This project looking at “the aesthetic obsession that Julie had long considered a Western burqa” echoes directly the author’s own thoughts on what she called a Burqa of Skin (the title of Arcand’s posthumously issued collection of cultural critiques): “It was a veil both transparent and dishonest that denied the physical truth it claimed it was revealing, in the place of real skin it inserted skin without faults, hermetic, inalterable, a cage.”

This is where, behind the third person narration of the novel, we find glimpses of the auto-fictional nature of the work. As it is, the underlying themes of the novel – manufactured beauty and death – are the same ones that seem to have obsessed the author throughout her brilliant but short career, which ended abruptly when she committed suicide on September 24, 2009, a few weeks before her last novel was published. Whether or not it’s the writer’s own suicide that is foreshadowed in the book is left for the reader to ponder.

What is clear however is that the book depicts a very real world – Arcand’s world which is, whether we like it or not, also ours. Breakneck is the unbearable story of a world where patriarchy’s rule continues to oppress women, forcing them to disappear altogether inside themselves, and where a lost sense of beauty leaves only a trail of death, suffering and solitude.

 

 

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[Melissa Bull, rue, poems, Anvil Press, 2015, 104 pages]

 

I was handed a copy of Melissa Bull’s debut book of poetry, rue, less than a week after a meaningful exchange with a writer friend. Under late September lamplight, we walked along rue Jeanne-Mance in Montreal and I asked my friend about the impulse or intuition that fuelled his poetic endeavours. Why does he write? He struggled to answer and for five slow blocks we tried together to put our finger on it. How do words come to contain worlds? How do the associations that bind words to one another (in other words, meaning) bring about a sense of order and coherence in the vast unco-ordinated mass of experience? By what mysterious process do language and memory congeal as the idea of me? At the crossroads of word and thought, we pondered over equal parts literary and philosophical, recognizing that in these questions lay a sort of unknowable door leading to an even less knowable essence: the essence of what it means to be human.

My mind still full of the questions from my earlier exchange, I immediately noted a resonance between what my friend and I had discussed and Bull’s poems. I discovered in her lines something of an answer to our question.

Although answer is the wrong word. Rue offers no answers, does not presume to. Its authorial voice surfaces gently from a descriptive language sprinkled with neologisms (“Cheese curds fatsmear my agua de panela. Fatsmear fatsmear fatsmear”) and stylistic play that explore ways to convey most directly and spontaneously the encounter being retold, the sights, sounds, smells and impressions that form the basic ingredients of experience. The narrator never says “this is what this means.” She lets the connotations of the words, their inexorable tendency to reach out beyond themselves in search of connection, do the work for her.

The collection is divided into three parts. Brood offers fragments of the author’s parents and youth. In Skirting Petite-Patrie, poem titles are place-markers along a haphazard course through Montreal neighbourhoods, Boston, Bogotá, Saint Petersburg. Eloquent Areas grieves a father’s illness and death. Apart from the loose thematic structure of the three parts, little effort is made to connect the individual pieces. Each piece is instead left to stand on its own, a self-contained impression of places and people. Even the style fluctuates from poem to poem: from the abstruse alliterations and assonances of “Recipe” to the autobiographical narrative of “Bleeding Hearts” and “Claremont, Apt. 45;” from the evocative minimalism of “Fuse” to the verbose irony of “Nevsky Prospekt;” from the gentle rhythm and rhyme of “Arc” and the all-caps refrain of “BATTERMEDOWN!” to the matter-of-fact prose of “Scaffolding” and “Valentine.” The collection’s stylistic diversity is carried forward in Bull’s language, which although predominantly English, floats seamlessly into French on occasion (with a bit of Spanish), the transition marked only by the use of italics. The author is equally comfortable in both languages, both styles, both modes of engagement. Rue, a persistent undertone of bitter regret that marks the collection as a whole, is also rue: a city street, an exploration of memory and place.

Indeed, rue feels like a searching. A poet searching for her voice. A moment searching for the right word: the word that will capture it, convey it, recall it so vividly as to bring it to life again in the reader’s mind. Each new moment requires a new word, a newly affirmed level of engagement, an ability to listen. The eclectic diversity of rue is a testament to the author’s engagement and ability to listen. Its search is as much a search for a voice truly its own as it is a search for the right word, the word subtly beckoned by each new encounter.

Upon reading rue initially, my impression was that of a jumbled assortment of poetically rich sketches. There was no identifiable thread, no apparent consistency among the pieces. It was only once I had finished reading the book and put it aside, letting its contents sit for some time, that the poetry began to take effect, revealing itself as the complex portrait that it is. Rue is a portrait of a life, of an individual becoming. Its seemingly unrelated (and at times mundane) parts come together to form a me, a me more real than any consistent structure or style could ever achieve. Rue appeared before me not as an answer but as a testament to the questions my friend and I had pondered as we walked the streets of Mile End a week before. How do language and memory congeal as the idea of me? Like so. Rue doesn’t tell, it shows.

Underlying the heterogeneous feel of rue lies a restless unity, a thread of searching that evokes something profound, shared, human. Authentic. Melissa Bull’s artistic sensitivity and exploratory style have yielded a vivid portrait of a person, of the places and people that make up a person. Like all poetry, it demands much of the reader: time, patience, attentiveness. But for those willing to grant it these things, rue has a great deal to offer in return.

 

 

 

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This is an adaptation of the presentation I gave at the launch of the English-language edition of Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois’ book, In Defiance. It was translated from the 2014 Governor General’s Literary Award winner for nonfiction, Tenir tête (Lux Éditeur).

When asked to speak at this book launch, I gladly accepted. As soon as the book first came out in French, I bought it and read it right away.

Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois is a strong political commentator. He speaks with authority in a clear language. Unlike many politicians, he doesn’t use double talk (langue de bois). He wants to inform. This should be a common quality among all communicators and media personalities, but it isn’t.

During the printemps érable, the so-called Maple Spring of 2012, as Nadeau-Dubois became a lightning rod for government and media attention and scorn, personifying all that was dangerous and evil during the “social crisis,” he never flinched and was never apologetic about the positions he was defending. He behaved with dignity and never wavered from his progressive approach. In my opinion, he was the only person on any side of these events who came out looking good and sounding credible.

Since then, as a regular critic on Radio-Canada‘s morning show, debating the news of the day with other (generally slower) commentators on a variety of topics, he always comes across as well prepared, remarkably well-read and capable of extracting teachable political points from complicated situations, while others rely on knee-jerk reflexes. He is mature and responsible. We are lucky to have him in our community.

I want you to read this book. I read it twice: first in French when it first came out, and then again this past week in English. I enjoyed it both times.

Some chapters are exciting play-by-play descriptions of certain events in 2012, replete with colourful commentary and a personal analysis:

  • the first of the student strike votes, at the CEGEP de Valleyfield
  • his visit to the SQ (Québec provincial police) headquarters on Parthenais Street – a surreal adventure. He was there at the invitation of the SQ. The police were aware of death threats against him and wanted to discuss how to protect him. On his arrival, he was taken to an interrogation room from which he couldn’t leave; he realized he might be subject to intimidation or blackmail, or might be asked to become an informer. When the police were later questioned about this incident, they claimed not to remember.
  • watching from the visitors’ gallery at the Assemblée Nationale as the infamous Bill 78 was being adopted; the debates proceeded “often with scant regard for grammar,” and were far poorer in content than any of the student meetings.
  • the public reaction to Bill 78: nightly marches in many neighbourhoods, beating pots and pans as an act of civil disobedience. For Nadeau-Dubois, a profound respect for law and democracy is what explains and justifies protest against those who abuse it: the civil disobedience of 2012 was not contesting the existence of laws, but the transgressions of those who enacted them. In this sense, civil disobedience is a profoundly democratic activity.
  • the contempt-of-court procedures brought against him by a non-striking student, alleging that Nadeau-Dubois did not comply with the terms of an injunction. This raises the question: does a student’s individual right to attend class trump collective rights of a political nature when a majority has democratically approved a strike? Nadeau-Dubois cites a well-known decision of former Québec Superior Court Chief Justice Jules Deschênes in a case involving the Montréal transit corporation (STM), where the judge held that contempt-of-court proceedings were not an appropriate remedy for the courts to use to settle social issues. (The decision of the Superior Court, that Nadeau-Dubois was in contempt of court, was overturned in 2015 by the Court of Appeal. An appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada should be heard in 2016.)

In other chapters of the book, Nadeau-Dubois presents an extensive social and political explanation of the student protests:

  • The effect of the tuition fee increases on accessibility to higher education
    • Not only will a fee hike affect accessibility in the short-term, the fear of long-term debt associated with increased fees will deter potential students from continuing their education. The purpose of the student strike was to guarantee access to higher education.
    • Problems stemming from increased tuition fees in the US include an enrolment imbalance among certain disciplines (as students fearing higher debt avoid humanities, social sciences or arts programs that could lead to lower-paying jobs); a higher rate of attrition among faculty members, a proliferation of managers, attacks on academic freedom, lowering of academic standards, etc.

 

  • The role that the fee increases play in the government’s intention to change the role of the university
    • The government’s message that each “must pay his fair share” characterizes indebtedness as a personal investment, where individuals must share the costs but do not share the wealth; it sees higher education merely as a lever for personal gain rather than as an asset to society as a whole.
    • Nadeau-Dubois explains that inexpensive education has been responsible for the creation of Québec’s middle class since the Quiet Revolution. A generation later, those now in control want to deprive the next generation of the same benefits. It is becoming increasingly difficult to stay in the middle class.
    • It is false to pretend that lower taxes ‒ with students forced to assume a greater part of the costs of education ‒ will benefit the majority; workers’ standard of living is maintained through high-quality public services; lower taxes lead to fewer public services and to a lower standard of living for workers.
    • The university’s striving for “excellence” implies an abandonment of its role to serve the local community. Universities must become “engines of economic development, centres of intellectual entrepreneurship” (according to Judith Woodsworth of Concordia); higher learning “must coincide with the needs of business” (according to Guy Breton from the Université de Montréal). Universities should become agents of just-in-time delivery to the market place.

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This discourse is accompanied by a privatization of knowledge itself (e.g., patents which are sold by universities to the private sector). There is a trend for universities, financed by the public and students, to assume a greater proportion of research and development on behalf of private corporations. The concept of the university solely as an economic development machine, Nadeau-Dubois argues, is insidious.

  • The dismantling of the Quiet Revolution and the re-engineering of the state
    • The current attack on public services (education is but one example) was launched in 2003 by the Liberal government of (former Conservative) Jean Charest, aimed at rolling back the gains of the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s and 70s, put into place by a very different Liberal Party at the time.
    • Dictated by a corporate agenda, this “user-pay” model, which has already resulted in significant increases in fees for electricity, day care, health care, etc., is revoking the principles of solidarity and accessibility developed over a generation. This “revolt of the rich,” the war on taxes, amounts to a war against what those taxes pay for: education, public health services, pensions, culture, etc.
  • The role of media in attempts to isolate and delegitimize the protests
    • Those who see politics as little other than the defence of private interests would logically see the student strike through that filter and be unable to fathom the concept of solidarity between students and the rest of society.
    • The mainstream media was substantially hostile to the student protests. The protesters’ arguments weren’t given any serious treatment or criticism; the students were regarded as illegitimate. “This is a confrontation between reason and madness… It’s hard to engage in a debate with pots and pans” (Alain Dubuc in La Presse).
    • CLASSE, an expanded coalition around ASSÉ, the radical student federation, was often taken to task by the media for its slow response time, its idealism and its (time-consuming) democratic procedures.
    • The media tried to “impose” a role of “leader” on Nadeau-Dubois, who refused the label, explaining that he was a spokesperson for the democratic student bodies; much of the media was unable to accept that such a spokesperson would refuse to make unilateral decision on behalf of the protesters;
    • Nadeau-Dubois explains the difference between his approach and that of Léo Bureau-Blouin, the president of another student federation (and soon afterwards a Parti Québecois candidate and elected member of the Assemblée Nationale) who ended up playing into journalists’ expectations and proportionately lost influence and support amongst students. Nadeau-Dubois saw himself walking a difficult line, often displeasing both sides. “I could have left my position as spokesperson to become a star, like Paris Hilton, representing no one but myself.”

The student protest, understood at the beginning to be about tuition and other student fees, grew into a broad-based political protest against government policies, exacerbated by Bill 78. In October 1970, to justify the imposition of the War Measures Act, the government of the day invoked the concept of likely or imminent insurrection (“apprehended insurrection”) following a political rally of (merely!) several thousand supporters of the FLQ. In comparison, in 2012, a quarter of a million people deliberately engaged in civil disobedience; hundreds took part in “illegal” nightly demonstrations week after week; 400 lawyers, dressed in their courtroom cloaks, marched in protest against Bill 78.

Naomi Klein, in her introduction to the English edition of Nadeau-Dubois’ book, says that the greatest danger to a government is people’s belief that change is possible. The response of the governments (both provincial and municipal) in 2012 was to unleash the police on the protesters. A report by the Ligue des droits et libertés showed that the majority of the more than 3,500 arrests during the protests took place during mass “kettling” operations, i.e., indiscriminate, non-targeted police arrests, which were unquestionably a violation of the protestors’ freedom of speech and freedom of assembly.

In the end, the Liberal government called a snap election, which it lost.

In Defiance is not the definitive history or chronology of the events of 2012, nor did Nadeau-Dubois intend it to be. As I have said, it is a combination of selected personal memoirs with a description of the social and political background, to make the events intelligible to an outside reader.

Still, there are several aspects I’m sorry were not included in the book:

  • We learn little about ASSÉ itself, which groups were its members, and why and how it differed from the other student federations;
  • While Nadeau-Dubois speaks of intensive political debates at different instances of ASSÉ, there is little information on the content or even the topics of these discussions;
  • There is hardly any mention of Jeanne Reynolds, the other co-spokesperson with Nadeau-Dubois during the protests. The one time I heard Reynolds speak, which was on completely different topic, she was easily as dynamic as Nadeau-Dubois. (At height of the media hysteria about the irresponsibility of student protest, a small article mentioned that Reynolds had just won a provincial prize for the highest marks in a particular subject.)
  • How did Nadeau-Dubois see the role of union federations? During the Maple Spring, unions offered material support to students and at times, some (welcome or unwelcome) advice. The extent of union participation in supporting the protests, especially after Bill 78, had an important effect on the ongoing events. But this is not discussed at all.

Maybe Nadeau-Dubois will deal with these issues in a future book.

I welcome the English translation of this book, for English-speaking readers inside and outside Québec.

The book explains many aspects of the protest and the roots of 2012, which may already be familiar to Québec anglophones who read French and follow political affairs closely. It is particularly important for anglophones who rely on the mainstream English media, as they were very badly served in 2012.

It took a long time for the English media to realize that something was going on – students protesters had set up a small tent city in front of the Education Ministry offices in Montreal as early as the summer of 2011– and to start covering the protests. Probably because the English media were not particularly interested in what French CEGEP students were doing, it missed the first of the votes and strikes around the province. For a long time, the fact that English CEGEP and university students were also voting and taking part in the protests did not make the front pages.

In terms of providing background information and editorial comment in the mainstream media, the dozen or so major French-language dailies with regular political columnists offered many opinion pieces, which were for the most part one-sided.

In English, however, the Montreal Gazette, a second-rate paper at best, had little in the form of commentary and opinion to edify its readers. Whatever it did muster generally characterized the protests taking place across Québec  as simply the misguided work of self-interested, irresponsible, anti-democratic, greedy students.

A notable exception, though clearly not part of the mainstream media, was the student television station at Montreal’s Concordia University. CUTV, broadcast on the Internet, did an excellent job of covering the protests. Night after night, its crew, portable cameras on their shoulders, walked the streets with the demonstrators, interviewing students and other protesters and passersby, in English and French. They showed and described the police tactics. Sitting safely in front of my computer screen in another part of the city, I could follow, on any night of the week, the tear-gassing, the kettling, the arrests of the protesters. No other media was doing an equivalent job; often, they weren’t even present. CUTV deserves recognition for its contribution to information access and human rights during the protests.

Nadeau-Dubois’ book will finally let English readers understand much of what happened in 2012. The experience of student protests in English Canada might be somewhat different than what we have experienced in Québec. Widespread post-secondary education in Québec is relatively recent: high schools in rural areas were not common until the early 1960s; CEGEPs weren’t in place until the late 60s and universities did not exist in much of the province until the 70s and 80s. These institutions contributed to the economic, intellectual and social development of contemporary Québec. An attack on the role of the universities and their accessibility may have provoked a greater reaction and resonated more widely in Québec than elsewhere in Canada, and this book will greatly contribute to understanding this phenomenon.

 

 

In Defiance, by Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois

Translation by Lazer Lederhendler

Foreword by Naomi Klein

 

Paperback / softback, 190 pages

ISBN 9781771131827

Published June 2015 by Between the Lines

 

 

Resilience and Triumph book cover

Resilience and Triumph: Immigrant Women Tell their Stories (Second Story Press) is a collection of writings by over 45 women from diverse cultural, linguistic, religious and national backgrounds. Edited and compiled collectively by a group of seven women, it is first in the series published by the Feminist History Society to “document and preserve women’s stories and activist history in the time frame of the second-wave feminist movement in Canada (1960s to the present).”

Rashmi Luther, retired academic (Carleton University) and member of the Book Project Collective, writes in her “Introduction:”

“The stories present us with an opportunity to enhance our understanding of feminism, recognizing that it is not a single movement, but plural and varied, informed and shaped by a mixture of gender, culture, religion/faith, and historical context. In many respects, feminisms are shaped and expressed by being grounded in and challenging the ideas beliefs, and values of the culture from which they originate, as well as by exposure to other societies and belief systems.”

Monia Mazigh (author and human rights activist), another member of the Book Project Collective, writes:

“These authors, referred to as ‘brown women,’ ‘South Asian women,’ and more recently ‘racialized women,’ live in an ongoing dilemma as their strong attachment to their roots confronts their discovery and burgeoning love for their new adopted country, Canada. Everywhere they go, they are faced with inner conflict and sometimes guilt: Will they forget their home country? Will they really forget who they are? Can they forge a new identity that melds their home and Canadian cultures?”

Other members of the Collective include Ikram Ahmad Jama (educator and activist), Yumi Kotani (practitioner of equity and inclusion), Lucya Spencer (Executive Director, Immigrant Women Services Ottawa), Dr. Peruvemba S. Jaya (Associate Professor, University of Ottawa), and Dr. Vanaja Dhruvarajan (Adjunct Professor, Carleton University).

The book is divided into the following five themes:

  1. Arrival: Losses and Gains,
  2. Integration or Assimilation
  3. Identity: Women’s Journeys to Becoming and Belonging
  4. Exploring Feminisms
  5. Activism: Shaping Our World.

In many ways, the publication is as much about the development and writing of the book as about the stories themselves from some remarkable women.

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Yves Engler’s latest book, Canada in Africa: 300 Years of Aid and Exploitation, continues this author’s relentless work not only of speaking truth to power, but also of telling Canadians the truth about themselves.

Near the end of his latest compilation of research, Yves Engler sums up the narrative he has brought to light. The story of Canada’s governmental and business dealings in Africa, he says, “is one long (mostly unbroken) line of exploitation by Canadians of African people and resources.”

It is a sordid history that begins with the British Empire and graduates of the Royal Military College here helping successive British governments pillage African lands. Then, in more recent times, Canadian officials became loyal followers of the American Empire, putting their political loyalties to NATO and anti-communism before any real concern for Africans and their daily dilemmas. Along the way, Anglophone protestant missionaries and Francophone priests in Africa conveyed their “civilizing mission” to the “savages” that they spoke of in their letters when they reported back home to kith and kin in Canada beyond the sea.

Engler’s account shows in accumulated factual detail how that imperial heritage has, in the last generation, spawned a whole new era of grotesque neo-colonialism centred on Canadian business activity in the mining and energy sectors. The prize is to extract, manage, and sell the resources of a whole continent in which most people live on less than $2 per capita per day. In case after case, Engler shows how Canadians have cheated Africans through a carefully organized web of tax evasion, bribery, bad faith and outright violence. The environment has suffered enormous depredation; small farmers and workers have lost their livelihoods; labour unions have been castigated and sovereign governments gravely weakened. It is amazing to read Engler’s pages and find the names of Canadian public figures who are still respected, and yet who have been drawn into the morbid lust for easy loot.

Like the renowned Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, Engler likes to compile detail upon detail in order to build his story. His main method is to catalogue the facts, but the result is not a Homeric type of catalogue, which is typically a long list of the gloriously brave. Canada in Africa is a catalogue of dishonour.

Engler says that he uses voice recognition software to write, so this latest work is indeed a kind of recitation, and the author-cataloguist takes quite a time to get going. Chapter 10 – “Mining Conflict” – is when the story really starts moving, with detailed reports about Canadian business in a host of countries: Burkina Faso, Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Eritrea, Guinea, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Western Sahara and Zambia. At the beginning of the chapter, even Engler confesses how tiring the process of gathering the research data has been. He forewarns us that the “information that follows may be exhausting, but it is not exhaustive,” and explains that he has assembled his data “to illustrate the scale of Canadian mining activity and its effects.”

Canada in Africa describes a system of business activity with terrible structural consequences, and he wants his fellow Canadians to know about this behemoth.

First, there is the pre-eminent role of Canadian mining enterprises. By 2011, Engler stresses, Canadian mining investment in African economies “had surpassed $31 billion,” and he underlines that “Canada, not China, is the leading international resource investor in Africa.”

Secondly, the scale is vast: “With mines in at least 35 African countries, Canadian companies operate over 700 mineral projects across the continent.”

Thirdly, these companies have their shares traded on Canadian stock exchanges, since “Canada is home to half of all internationally listed mining companies operating in Africa.”

The essence of this system is that a select group of well-known people in Canada own, control and manage the one financial element that Africa lacks – capital. Through connections with national and international agencies, an elaborate number of pressures are used to mould the behaviour of African politicians and partners. Typically, lenders of capital and aid insist on privatization of a resource, and often the Canadian experts who engineer the credit and insist on the conditionality of loans are the same people who reap the profits from consulting fees and resource extraction.

Finally, the immense amount of money accumulated enters the off-shore network of bank accounts in places such as the Cayman Islands to ensure that neither African governments, nor the Canadian government, will tax these already inflated profits. It is no accident that royalty fees in Africa are much like what they are in Québec – below 5%. Our absurd mining regime has been successfully exported and turned into an all-Africa scheme to churn out money for the few – here – at the expense of the many – there. And all at the expense of the African environment as well.

Little wonder, then, that Engler points to the judgement of the director of Global Financial Integrity, Mr. Raymond Barker, who calls this off-shore financial system in African mining “the ugliest chapter in global economic affairs since slavery.”

That is the shaming message of Canada in Africa.

 

 

Yves Engler is a Montreal writer and activist. Canada in Africa: 300 Years of Aid and Exploitation (Fernwood Publishing, RED Publishing, 2015) is his eighth book, two of which have been co-authored. Perhaps his best-known works are The Black Book of Canadian Foreign Policy and The Ugly Canadian: Stephen Harper’s Foreign Policy.

 

 

 

© Marie Thérèse Blanc
© Marie Thérèse Blanc

 


Cope, Karin.  What We’re Doing to Stay Afloat. Pottersfield Press, 2015. 96 pages

 

  1. Persephone in Canada

Karin Cope, a poet, blogger, photographer, videographer, activist, and sailor works in Halifax, where she teaches, and lives several miles outside the city’s limits on a large property facing the ocean.  Her first collection of poems, What We’re Doing to Stay Afloat, is promoted on the back cover as the interweaving of, among other things, “melancholia and surrealism,” monologues that “become dialogues,” and “want ads and Facebook posts” that are “recycled into intimate domestic conversations,” which gives readers the impression of a postmodern assemblage of found poetry and texts that might tell us “where we are . . . gives us light to row by, perhaps long enough to sight an approach to the next harbor.”  The description is accurate, as short conventional poems succeed amusing, elliptical narratives, which precede a well-crafted, self-administered interview, itself followed by a complex layering of voices in a long poem titled “Blind.”  Cope is thorough about the influences and voices that inform her work, all of which are documented in the book’s notes. This proliferation of genres and sources is one of the manifestations of postmodernism, and nowadays it is prevalent, yet Cope’s collection of poems lends itself just as well to a less fragmented reading.

As poems rooted in winter, ice, and darkness herald a thankful ascent towards warmth and light, Cope’s implied persona in What We’re Doing to Stay Afloat might well be that of Persephone, the maiden abducted by Hades, king of the underworld.  Subjected to spending six months below earth and six months above, she personifies harvest or nature itself, retreating in winter to shoot forth again in spring.  Despite its nautical title—a metaphor for our need to survive life’s precarity—solid ground is present in the poems as often as not, and speaker after speaker, trapped in winter, waits for sunlight to appear, for fog to disperse, for ice to melt.

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What Cope makes clear from start to finish is that staying even-keeled in today’s world isn’t a given: the book’s title itself suggests that leaks and all kinds of brokenness are inevitable.  The labour needed to avoid the shipwreck of a life is defined throughout the book, for the speaker in each poem cannot lie: life as we know it, life in a world gone unstable, where the weak keep getting more vulnerable, is as occasionally wondrous as it is, well, hard.  The exotic delicacy of a “doe’s nose” and of “otter prints at the water’s edge” coalesce with cabin fever and disconnection.  Cope, who hails from Ohio but has lived in Canada for a little over two decades, isn’t shy about adopting the tropes that have made Canadian literature what it is: those of Northrop Frye’s garrison mentality and of Margaret Atwood’s sense that our literature is above all about survival. Wintry, Nordic withdrawal leads to temporary madness, lurks on the periphery of several poems, attacks the speakers’ brain and tongue, leaves them and us waterlogged, wind-battered, and frozen.  But none of this occurs without moments of euphoria and a will to—as William Faulkner liked to put it—endure and prevail, something that Atwood once deplored was missing from our literature.

What We’re Doing to Stay Afloat, which I read here as a Persephone-like quest, begins with a poetic epigraph that refashions a friend’s letter to Cope written upon hearing that she was devising a book of poems.  “[C]an we be patrons?” her friend writes, amused, as she proceeds to list a number of sensual requests: she would love to read poems about lines crossed unawares, picked berries and warm pies, meditations on music and chocolate.  Cope obliges her patroness, but does it her way. No berries or pie here, no chocolate; instead she launches into a series of poems in a language at times less optimistic than that of her expectant patroness: that of a persona who struggles every day against the slow and worried sinking that life commands of those who try to escape the grind but find that it is part of the human condition.

Her patroness’ call for a poem about lines crossed without realizing it, for instance, generates an oddly satisfying narrative that seems culled from a news story or a state trooper’s retelling. It features three characters: Piper, his childhood friend Tek, and Piper’s wife, all of whom hurt and shoot one another dead or are shot over a period of roughly twenty years in one dumb, thoughtless moment after another as the law, which has the last word, comments on both their lack of judgment and its own impotence with a dumbfounding lack of self-awareness. Not once, however, does Cope sacrifice poetry and rhythm to the altar of the absurd. When, “for a lark,” Piper ties Tek to the hitch of his truck and drives off, “rivulets of stone rake [Tek’s] pretty face  twenty feet of gravel rub him raw.”  Cope’s ear is faultless.  Likewise, “Unfreeze (not quite a valentine)” describes a domestic quarrel that takes place as the sea is “covered in ice” and cars are encased in “brittleness.”  Incongruously, a chair is “flung down / bounces and does not / break.”  Ice here does not melt; furniture fails to fracture and end the tension.  The line between the quotidian and sudden violence is almost invisible.

© Marie Thérèse Blanc
© Marie Thérèse Blanc

 

Yet as each wintry poem files past our eyes, mind, and spirit, we begin to understand that Cope’s implied persona is on a quest of sorts, a poetic one for another horizon she can explore, one that will finally yield radiance, warmth, freedom, and desire. Her journey is accomplished cyclically, again and again throughout the collection.  Darkness and light chase each other to the end as the imperious patroness’ wishes are minded, but always with an element of surprise. Where the latter asks for a poem about a “world in / black and white,” the embattled speaker offers a stunningly sensual poem titled “In the company of painters,” which lists the “names of colours,” insisting: “let us repeat them (Blue Phtalo, Venetian Red / Burnt Sienna).”  Yet Cope nonetheless abides by her patroness’ rules in listing the phrases painters tend to utter: “(Gather your whites)” or “(Don’t scatter your darks).” As she knows, her persona’s very quest is etched in the blacks and whites of winter as well as in the colours of other seasons.

Persephone’s voyage into winter soon meets its mandatory initiation in the savagery of the subterranean world.  In “Hurt birds (on the politics of blame),” perhaps the most startling poem of the collection, the speaker dreams of small birds huddled on a table. “I’ve been plucking feathers from their / wings,” she confesses. “I don’t know why I do it” (but we do, of course; it is because she herself is still forbidden flight from Hades, so why would others be allowed to fly off or flee?).  She tries to blame the cat for her own graphic dream, as she half-believes she has been channeling its sadistic fantasies, but in a final moment of affecting lucidity, she forces herself to name her own heartlessness.  This sense that we are all responsible for the pain that is in the world, which is a reflection of our own, is one of the lessons Persephone brings back from her cold underworld and it finds an echo in “Blind,” in which one of the many voices weaving their way through it cries out in a moment of terror as she attempts to rest, but can’t because news of the world assails her conscience. For a while, it seems as if staying afloat is impossible.

The poet’s patroness might be her guide through this mythical journey, even if her demands appear to be arbitrary.  Still, they seem to remind the author’s persona of the difference between her immediate needs and her dreams of freedom from winter or from the necessity of survival.  The invitation to a verse about chocolate instead produces “Pocket full of rusty nails,” a short poem in which the speaker’s drained voice hopes that on the other side of a pocket full of rusty nails and grocery lists that engender “mouldy pears” will be a different mouthful, “round & full” this time.  Hope, then, is present, but for desire to dare speak its name, it must first confront the reality of daily routine and “endless lists of tasks.” In “When last I died,” an interview the author inflicts upon her poetic persona in the manner of artist Sophie Calle, the implied Persephone describes her life as one of established unemotional deprivation: “I wear others’ castoffs, and can hardly remember a new pair of shoes,” she states plainly.  Survival isn’t a catwalk. Accordingly, she trains her mind against the longing that might weaken her endurance.

Anticipation, however, grows bit by bit. “Nothing lasts,” we are told, not even the cold or the wind.  In another poem, the sun “comes and goes like emotion,” and in “When I last died,” Cope’s persona completes the interview by listing joyful estivate yearnings: “[p]eaches. The scent of dog’s paws,” for “desire is everything.”  And suddenly, spring arrives and sparrows appear; Persephone is almost ready to emerge from her frozen domain. Earlier, she dares imagine the feeling as being akin to flying and competing with an eagle for airspace. ”I’d stare her down,” the speaker dreams, feminizing the eagle in a moment of sisterly bravado conveyed through one of Cope’s many happy enjambments, “I’m here: don’t bother me. Go / find your own air.”  Cope’s persona suffers an important and defining setback, however, as she wonders what madness makes one forget that “with heat, comes fog,” and the sublime long poem, “Blind,” launches Persephone back into a Hades of fog, shadows, and braided voices, from which she finally arises on her way to transformation.  Cope’s last poem, “When first you set out,” reminds us of her questing predilections but also of the lessons learned. “Why are some days so full of light?” she asks, now alive to the splendor of ordinariness, and “[w]ho cares about perfection?”

What We’re Doing to Stay Afloat provides us open-handedly with something we must all learn, the poet first of all: to be trained in the lessons of modest grace, of everyday endurance, of imperfect triumphs, of a beauty we may only seize in passing, instead of summoning it. Cope’s poetry reflects this hard-earned understanding.  It is perhaps the secret to staying afloat, and it makes one wish to go back again, like Persephone into Hades, to revisit Cope’s version of winter and face it with greater fortitude now, the sinking back into the underworld of ice and waiting surrender at last.

 

2.  Red Boats

I hesitated to add this second part to this review, but a more personal perspective on Cope’s work as well as on her reviewer might shed additional light on What We’re Doing to Stay Afloat. Hailed as a brilliant young mind with degrees from Yale and Johns Hopkins, Karin Cope was hired at McGill University to teach English in the early 1990s.  But what happens when on the face of it you have it all, and then one day you decide to pack up and leave?  In 1998, Cope did just that.  At a crossroads in her life, she left the profession for terra incognita both professionally and geographically.  She landed in Nova Scotia, where she began to write poetry, winning the Antigonish Review’s Great Blue Heron Poetry Contest in 2002, and engaging in a new life as a visual artist.  She also returned to teaching, as Associate Professor at the Nova Scotia College of Arts and Design (NSCAD) this time, where she mentors students in how to think about and write for the arts.  This past fall, her photography and video exhibit, Flows (Given Water), opened at the Anna Leonowens Gallery in Halifax at the same time as What We’re Doing to Stay Afloat was published by Pottersfield Press.

In many ways, Cope’s poetry collection answers the question above—a version, perhaps of the question we ask ourselves at one time or another:  what if there were more to life than this? What if I left my job and joined the circus or became a waitress at a diner in Reno, Nevada, or settled in Paris or a couple hours outside of Halifax and started again? And what if, instead of the perfect new life I’d hoped for, everything is as it was before, complete with victories and trials, except just slightly different? “Who can bear how winter clings and stops us / at the root?” Cope asks. “Colour is something memory finds / a gap, an aching loss.”  And so what if, instead of acquiring a shiny new life, I unwittingly realized that living requires that we serve some serious time in darkness?  What then?  What We’re Doing to Stay Afloat is also, perhaps, about such meanders and turns.

I suspect this to be so because I know Karin personally.  I was one of the doctoral students who registered and sat in her Modernism class in winter 1998, just before she left McGill.  Though she was my teacher and I her student, we are of roughly the same age and became friends several years later as we began corresponding, her insights always vibrant and inspiring. Little did I know that, in my own way, I gave her pause for thought.  It was a surprise to me that I feature in What We’re Doing to Stay Afloat as her poetic “patroness”: “A poem about” borrows my words in an email I’d sent her upon learning that she was going to write a collection of poetry.  She refashioned my “orders” into a poem that became her book’s epigraph.  Perhaps the reason she did so is that my playful requests, very much like her poems, are wagers we all make as we create our path amidst corrupt governance, ham-fisted contractors, old age, the price of eggs, and Canadian winters.  Every day, the choice is there: to sink or to stay afloat by reaching for bliss, affect, greater self-determination, principled conduct, love. Every day, something reminds us that we find ourselves through adversity as much as we do through pleasure.

Similarly, we all feature in Karin Cope’s “Red boat haiku”:

Thin skim of sea ice –

The small red boat rocks at dock,

Tethered to summer.

Karin may be partly wrong when she writes that “[n]othing stays; nothing lasts.” What characterized her in the years I knew her in Montreal and what characterizes her now in What We’re Doing to Stay Afloat are the exact same qualities: a discerning mind, a gentle sense of humour, an immense generosity in providing the solidarity needed when there is little strength left to remain buoyant.  None of that has changed, and our world remains buffeted by harsh winds.  And so may you too find the spirit to tether yourself firmly to summer after you read Karin’s finely wrought words.

 

© Marie Thérèse Blanc
© Marie Thérèse Blanc