Easily Fooled, by H. Nigel Thomas
Guernica Editions, 2021, 293 pages

 

It does not matter how sharp and on top of things we are, we have been duped and hoodwinked too easily at some point in our lives – be it by siblings, by neighbours, by family, by lovers, by priests, by religions or by ideologies.

Whatever grabs us as extraordinarily sensuous, comforting and reliable is a toss away from possible disappointment and ultimate disillusionment. Easily Fooled is about this, and about the source of our being fooled: the double-talk in all branches of theology.

This novel is also about the savage cruelty dispensed towards homosexual love. Its exposure enables Thomas to condemn the sepulchres, mausoleums and walls of holy books erected by religions – to wield the wrath of God and commandeer social norms and social acceptability.

In the first twelve pages of Easily Fooled, we are introduced to a dozen and a half characters who play a significant role in the novel, not to mention St. Paul (often referred to as Paul) – the chronic fabricator of twisted tales, in my opinion. It is quite a swarm that the reader has to deal with, and it might be wise to take notes so as not to miss out on the meticulous writing, set-up and editing informing this novel.

Having said that, the reason why there is a “swarm” is that Nigel Thomas needs his readership to understand that he is originally from the island of St. Vincent, where right now there is an active volcano… But if there were no ashes and rocks showering down on villages and towns, there would be folks pouring onto the streets and speaking up from balconies and playing Rasta on porches – jiving, hollering, badgering and teasing people, lying and spreading unwarranted rumours.

It is a fairly boisterous atmosphere we are drawn into at the outset – and it comes in welcome sharp contrast to that trend of moody psycho-sexual novels about two or three lonesome people in downtown high-rises or sitting on rock cliffs in lonely coastal fishing towns. I mean, it’s okay to ponder over just-released criminal pedophile uncles in isolated towns, but there is a world outside worth talking about as well, and that is what makes Thomas’ novel invigorating, intelligent and persistent about the original sin of religious doctrinairism.

Millington, a practicing and celibate Methodist preacher who is well-respected, honoured and a tortured soul, flees St. Vincent and his “celibate-osis” to settle in Montréal – an escape that is facilitated by his marriage to another St. Vincentian named Jay, who had a crush on him during their school days together and is now a Canadian citizen.

Doris, girl, I gotter be running. I know is delicious Bajan coo-coo you gi’ing the reverend today. I done smell it. Like you scheming to turn he into a real Bajan.

That is Horton – Millington’s one-time fling, a wicked palm-tickling, crotch-beholding, double-life-leading shadow man, patois-ing his way through life and now talking teasingly to Rev. Millington’s housekeeper, Doris, and suggesting that Millington never gets down! Meaning, he is too serious!

And yes, there are pederasts, too, in this novel, as there are in a lot of other Canadian novels! Thankfully there are no exotic exiles peddling incense furiously. And yet Nigel Thomas slices and dices in life in and around McGill University in Montréal and back into the streets and boroughs of St. Vincent and Barbados, through the eyes, voice and thoughts of Millington. Thomas has honed Millington as a trained parish priest, a very believable, polite, dignified intellectual who has had homosexual desires since his early childhood.

He has been parroting the Lord’s prayer and the Apostle’s Creed since he was four. Woe to the mother whose child couldn’t.

The chance encounter with that skin that seduces so smoothly, is so difficult to look away from – never mind touch – and may very well have been masked, is the deception that leaves Millington hiding behind a facade of inscrutability. The suffering itself from self-doubt makes him a refugee. Makes him travel away, after he defrocks himself intellectually. It is that skin, that bearer of the cross, that pain and suffering of hiding away, which Thomas conveys deftly, holding our hands as we navigate through this life.

Thomas uses a single incident with Horton as a long, curving, cantilevered bridge transporting us from St. Vincent all the way to Montréal, through the somewhat dubious arrival of Horton’s wife, Gladys, the bearer of his two kids. Her objective is purportedly to carry on her own theological studies. Thomas takes us back and forth between the two countries to document and portray the life of the tormented Millington, arriving in Montréal “penniless and dependent,” and gradually sharpening his convictions in his beliefs and the need for rationality in the human soul. Flat-earthers beware!

While Millington’s torment about his sexual preferences could be central to the novel, it is the deeper torment about the disingenuity and “original word” doctrinairism of his commitment to the Wesleyan Orthodox Methodism (AMC – the Authentic Methodist Church) that carries the book through.

There is an extraordinarily infectious array of characters that sweep through this novel. Halfway through it, the following description captures the essence of the story and the stylish literary cadence of its author. I will end this review with that segment about a group of religious discussants that Millington had joined while still in the Caribbean.

When Millington joined the group, they were five. Membership was by invitation only. Before Millington’s time, three members had left: Ezra, a rabbi he had met briefly—a short man with olive complexion, squarish build, and uncommonly black and thick eyebrows—had wanted meetings to be reflections on theology; Bennet—an ash-coloured Moravian, a palm-tree of a man (at least seven feet) with large teeth, an orange-sized Adam’s apple, and a booming bass voice that all envied—had left because Horace had called Christ’s resurrection story a primitive Middle-Eastern myth. Sacrilege for Moravians. Christ’s resurrection is the foundation of their theology.

An intense and well-written novel indeed, for the times we are living through!

 

H. Nigel Thomas at Montréal Serai’s 32nd-anniversary celebration – Photo © Brian Campbell

 

 

One Madder Woman, a novel by Dede Crane
Freehand Books, 2020, 360 pages

 

The year is 1858, the place, a Parisian suburb. A family of five is having breakfast. There is Papa, M. Morisot, the patriarch, a chief advisor in the finance ministry, his much younger wife, and their four children: Yves, the eldest daughter, 21, followed by Edma and Berthe, two years apart, and Tibby, the 10-year-old baby brother.

The manservant, Thin Louis, brings M. Morisot the mail. After reading one of the letters, M. Morisot laughs. Sent by Joseph Guichard, Edma and Berthe’s art teacher, it says: “…If your daughters are to continue under my tutelage, they will be in serious danger of becoming real artists. And in your social circle… this path would be catastrophic. I trust you understand my words and intention and heed my warning.”

Early in her accomplished novel, One Madder Woman, Canadian author Dede Crane deftly sets up its central conflicts: the difficulty that Edma and Berthe will face trying to establish themselves as professional painters in an art world where there is no place for women, and their struggles to define themselves as something other than wives and mothers.

But there is more to the scene described above. Here Crane also establishes the unequal power balance not only between Papa and the rest of the family, but also between Berthe and her elder sister, the beautiful, assured, and ambitious Edma. Berthe adores Edma; in fact, she wants to become Edma. Papa also chooses to love Edma over Berthe.

Soon we meet the hero, Édouard Manet, whose provocative and inventive paintings are panned by critics and spurned by buyers. Manet appears to be swayed by Edma’s charms, while ignoring or belittling Berthe. Berthe hates him. As well, Manet is married.

The plot moves forward on twin tracks. The author develops the love triangle between Edma, Berthe and Manet, and later, the multi-faceted affair between Berthe and Manet. This love story forms the spine of the book. The strong bond between Edma and Berthe is also central to the narrative. Alongside, Crane tells the story of how Edma and Berthe develop as artists, focusing particularly on Berthe. These strands are interdependent. Berthe is influenced as an artist by Edma and Manet. Manet as an artist is also somewhat influenced by Berthe.

 

Eugène Manet and His Daughter in the Garden Of Bougival, by Berthe Morisot (1883), via Wikimedia Commons

 

In the first of a series of beautifully written scenes about the art of painting, we have Edma and Berthe, chaperoned by their mother, walking through the woods carrying the tools of their craft, stopping to untangle their voluminous skirts from the brambles. They have moved on from their earlier teacher, Guichard, to no less a figure than Corot (Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot), after Edma has asked “for a teacher of the new Barbizon school, one who painted en plein air, in natural light.”

They step out of the woods and wait a long time, Berthe’s impatience mounting. Then the sun rises to reveal river, trees, sky, grass and tiny wildflowers, as never before. “Can you feel them?” asks M. Corot. “These were my teacher’s words. The question less jarring than the fact that I could feel them, the colours, of course, because what else could he mean?” thinks Berthe.

The die is cast. From here, Berthe embarks on a tumultuous journey of self-doubt and discovery, turmoil and ecstasy, to become a uniquely gifted Impressionist artist. Underrated in her day (and even later, in my opinion), she would nevertheless blaze a new trail for artistic expression and for women artists.

One Madder Woman is an ambitious work. Crane dares to write in the first person, and in so doing, puts the reader inside Berthe’s skin. Her aim is to recreate the life and the incredible times of Berthe Morisot. She does so in brilliant detail, with sensuous imagery, engaging dialogue and well-developed characters, fleshing out a web of relationships. The inner world of the principal characters is also revealed through the intimate correspondence between them, given that it was the norm to write letters at that time.

Crane covers the Parisian art scene as well – the salons, exhibitions and artistic trends, and the squabbles and debates. She gives space to two major political events: the Franco-Prussian War (in which the Prussian army took Paris), and the other extraordinary event of those times, the Paris Commune in 1871. Under the Commune, Paris was ruled by a radical socialist, revolutionary government until the French army put an end to it. According to the book, an estimated 25,000 commoners were killed.

This brutal turn of events devastates Morisot, driving her into a state of depression. She finds her way out by painting, fully embracing Impressionism:

I tried to paint a leaf as it spiraled to the ground. The very instant I believed I could capture the action, I lost the quality I chased. My brush made swift stabs and feathery dashes… More intimations than objects. Temporaneous living things… The attempt to fix an image killed it dead. Movement was life… The fan was not so much a thing but an action. Life too was an action, perception, a fleeting moment of engagement… Teetering on the edge of sloppiness, carelessness, I painted the fragile, transient movements before me, their furious, hopeful colours and shadows full of grief.

Crane’s Berthe is moody and feckless, as well as questing; a woman consumed by her passion for Manet, and also defiant. She is flawed. The novel is an accomplished study in character development. Berthe goes from being a dependent sister, someone not particularly ambitious, a woman madly in love, to a principled, humane and courageous woman, devoted to her craft. This is a study of how an artist is shaped by her environment – physical, emotional, social and political. Crane also gives Manet, Edma, and the other characters their due.

Having read thus far, you may ask: how true is the book to Berthe Morisot’s life? The back of the book reveals that Crane has done her research. That said, I believe that fiction offers a world that is complete in itself. I judge this novel on the strength of its artifice alone.

It’s a thrill to encounter the now-famous artists – Degas, for example – as flesh-and-blood characters. It is also pleasurable to look up the paintings that Crane writes about in the book. (She provides a handy reference list.) One is, after all, reading in the age of the Internet.

Like Morisot’s paintings, this book is a veritable feast.

 

The Sisters, by Berthe Morisot (1869) National Gallery of Art, Washington, via Wikimedia Commons

 

 

Memorial Suite by Jocelyne Dubois, Shoreline Press (2020), 82 pages

 

Jocelyne Dubois’ latest book of poetry, Memorial Suite, is a beautiful, haunting work, written in a style uniquely her own. In some ways, it can be seen as a complement to her novel World of Glass, which followed the struggle of a young woman with bipolar disorder as she sought to extricate herself from a world of alienation, pain, terror, medication and mental health facilities, and return to the joys of normal life, tranquility and love. While the novel deals with the structure of this long and difficult path, however, the poems zero in on particular moments, people, moods, and sensations from a more intimate and immediate point of view.

Dubois deftly uses everyday language to reveal the transcendence of human experience, exploring the power within the details of life. Maxianne Berger and Carmelita McGrath, whose insightful commentaries grace the back cover, point out the lyricism of her “clear,” “spare” lines, written in a direct, objective language that goes right to the core of each poem. Dubois’ work is fundamentally autobiographical, but what difference does it make if the characters are actual people or are fictions in themselves? The symbolism that emerges from them may have been lived or invented, but it is real in every sense.

Reading these poems, I was reminded of the transparent, informal style of William Carlos Williams (a physician himself), which often contained many more subtleties, connotations and ambiguities than more florid works of the time. Dubois’ lead poem, “Hot Summer Night,” is a delicate mosaic of action and feelings, with an oblique, suggestive eroticism — “My body perspires, I desire” — that lets the reader draw the connections rather than point them out directly. The eloquent last three lines of the poem then move into a moment of revelation that uses the images to take the poem far beyond, to an existential realization, giving them the impact of the final stanza of a Renaissance sonnet, which in fact the structure of the poem resembles: “I cannot wash off what is perfect, what/ shines like crystal, something more than wind/ stronger than rain, more solid than stone.”

Dubois is an expert at powerful end lines, often with a final word or image that flips the objective body of the poem onto an unexpected, ironic plane. The speaker in “Reproduction” lets her pregnant sister take her hand and pass it over her curved belly at the same time as she is eating salad, and comments that “when I leave    I leave hungry” (space intended). In “Words,” a woman speaks of her difficulty in returning from the numb realms of medications and psychiatric wards to the world of conversation and connection so that she can “know precisely/ what not to say.” And in “The Lady Upstairs,” the speaker’s neighbour, an elderly Slovak woman who lives alone, shows her photos of her family, children and grandchildren who live in Texas and whom she calls every few days: “‘They say I love you, I love you’/ she tells me,” and the last stanza: “Christmas card from her family/ propped up on her kitchen table/ unsigned.”

Jocelyne Dubois is also an accomplished visual artist, who has exhibited her work in several galleries in Montréal.  She specializes in palimpsests of painting, cloth, leaves or other mixed media, and designs of coloured pebbles, all covered in transparent varnish that holds things in place. The remarkable cover of Memorial Suite, with its intersecting and broken lines of stones, is one of her works, and all three sections of the book begin with black-and-white reproductions of other paintings, each of which is a reflection on the text, from the pearly aspect of “Hot Summer Night,” to the vertical rows of stones like corn kernels in “Memorial Suite,” to the swirling, free flow of forms in “A Second Chance.” These three sections chart the path of her life, from her early years on her own, through her breakdown as she struggles with bipolar disorder, and on to healing, falling in love and marrying.

Many poets, such as William Blake, have been painters, and many painters, such as Francis Picabia, have been poets, though perhaps it’s better just to say that they are artists who express themselves in several mediums. Dubois’ visual work has interesting parallels to her writing: the stones, arranged in different forms and chosen in particular colours, bring to mind the people she describes, always elevating the common to artistic recombination and a search for meaning. In the poem “Colours,” the speaker writes of her intention that “When I die/ I will donate them to a psychiatric hospital/ where walls are eggshell & bare/ […] to bring sun/ to those locked up.”

The title of the book undoubtedly alludes to many memorials, but principal among them is the Allen Memorial psychiatric hospital, perched on the side of Mount Royal, originally the home of a shipping magnate who named it “Ravenscrag,” and known in the 1960s for the clandestine CIA experiments in mind control that took place there. Dubois opens the second section of the book with a poem about it, contrasting the building’s 19th-century wealth and finery with the plastic chairs and styrofoam cups of the patients waiting there a hundred years later. The individual poems, several of which are titled “Jocelyne,” are portraits of patients, nurses and doctors: bare-boned word sketches of isolation, powerlessness and loneliness, in which her observations are like brushstrokes in a zen painting.

The author’s realism is kind, but doesn’t include either false hope or patronizing clichés: each person is unique, with their own hopes and delusions, stuck in a mental paralysis between illness and medication, or ill-tempered from working there too long. Writing is her liberation. It carries her through her isolation and finally into the gradual, longed-for recovery of the last section of the book, in which rigidity and loneliness fall away as she reconnects with people and the natural world, where colour, music, laughter and pleasure return, giving her a renewed life of surprise and serenity and filling the reader with joy and relief.

As I finished reading Memorial Suite, I was reminded of the words of Allen Ginsberg’s mother, who struggled with mental illness and confinement, in his poem Kaddish: “The key is in the sunlight at the window.”

 

 

Dog Poems by Louise Carson (Thornhill, ON: Aeolus House, 2020), 107 pages

 

A Review of Louise Carson’s Dog Poems and Carolyn Marie Souaid’s The Eleventh Hour

Louise Carson and Carolyn Marie Souaid are two Montréal-area poets who as far as I know have never met. Both are women who have seen a fair share of life and written multiple books of poetry and prose. Both have published collections of poems in the last year that treat themes of nature, mortality and reckoning as their final season approaches. So why not have them meet on this web page?

Louise Carson’s Dog Poems concern the poet’s largely solitary life with her dog and cats in the countryside near St-Lazare, Québec. One feels the weight of prolonged solitude in the often-slender lines and spare imagery of these poems; however, the poems are also leavened by a bemused, often deadpan humour. Quite a few of the poems are inspired by the rhythm of her dog walking, trotting, loping along, and its sniffing, pawing, snuffling manner of exploration. Some are deliberately shaped to evoke that simple, instinctual life and the way the constant companionship of that dog shapes her.

She does-
n’t walk
she al-
most al-
ways trots.
She looks
for food
and whines
when I
refuse
to let
her cross
the road
for Mc-
Donald’s
or Tim’s
sacks, cups.

She pulls
against
the leash
unless
I cop-
y her
and trot.

(“The dog walks”)

 

Carson’s poems about her dog are almost all brief, and myopic in scope to suggest the dog’s elemental nature, with titles like “Each day I brush the dog,” “Alone with the dog,” “Dog … and cat poem,” “No bad dogs,” “The dog’s name is Mata,” “Barrel, stock, muzzle.” Interspersed with these are honest, direct poems about aging, difficulties of writing, the death of the author’s mother, reconciling oneself with past abusive relationships, living on limited means, and the challenges of living alone:

Living alone is bad for your health.
Fuckbuddy wants me.

Women are more likely to be assaulted by someone
   they’re living with.
My ex assaulted me at the beginning
   and end of our relationship. Neatly bracketed.

Sitting for more than four hours is bad for your health.
Sitting writing for the last twelve years, I gained
   weight but was able to survive the last twelve years.

(“Proposition/Observation”)

Amid these short poems is the powerful and courageous “Cancer Suite,” which concerns Carson’s harrowing experience surviving lymphoma. But also to be found are poems celebrating the joys of writing, Carson’s loving relationship with her daughter, and the simple pleasures of a good day.

Are these poems great? There is awesome reckoning in “Cancer Suite.” And the rest of the poems – all, as I said, short, or pretty short – do what they want to do, are written with knife-like concision, and have cumulative effect. Carson’s ironic awareness of her own limitations disarms with bittersweet charm. As the introductory poem, “One dog more,” puts it,

(These poems are humble, like a dog,
and, like a dog, are also thieves,
and bad actors.)

 

 

The Eleventh Hour by Carolyn Marie Souaid (Victoria, BC: Ekstasis Editions), 73 pages

 

In The Eleventh Hour Carolyn Marie Souaid, like Louise Carson, concerns herself with aging, dying, and other limiting realities. But Souaid gives greater focus, as her title suggests, on the urgency of little time left; indeed, her keen sense of mortality heightens an anxiety-edged but ecstatic awareness that this is it. Light is a common image and metaphor, in all its mystical, ethereal implications.

I awoke to handfuls of light,
the cool wind pressing through a window.
Undulating curtains.
My blood sugar spiked, energy pumped
through my body’s meridians.
I was as open
as new life blinking into the sun
for the first time,
a blank slate, ignorant
of our long, dark, collective history:
sooty traces of the Industrial Revolution
coating our lungs.

(“And So, the Wind”)

Strolling by the river in a halo of light
I notice a dozen flies swarming
around death.
I am contemplating vantage points.
The bird’s head is crushed velvet,
blue and iridescent.

(“Amplitude”)

Countering this vision are frankly observed, constraining realities, in all their banal concreteness. Souaid’s dying father is the subject of several poems, poignant, elegiac and at turns humorous, such as this straight-forward but nevertheless complex portrait entitled “Pre-Op Checklist”:

Wheeled to the elevators
he is asked for the last time
before surgery what he has to declare
besides a watch and underwear.
Pills, nope.
Dentures, nope.
Cane, pace-maker.
Nope, nope.
Heart attack?
At his age, they expect decline.
A startled mouse not a full-scale carnivore.

This description would suggest he’s still a fierce customer, and undoubtedly he is; yet at the end of the poem, gentler qualities emerge, again bathed in light:

He is less engrossed in things than he was,
say, yesterday or the day before,
or a lifetime ago
on the Isle of Capri with his youthful bride.
The world that makes him happiest now
is a square of sunlight,
where Mother prepares his ham sandwich
the way he likes it, on a sesame bun
with mustard and lettuce.

Similar poems – similar in how affirmations are salvaged out of the foibles and obstructions the everyday throws up against desire – are “Exercise in Stillness,” “Their Death Projects,” “This Finite Moment,” “Still Life With Slippers,” “This Ordinary Life,” “Northern lights, Kangiqsujuaq” and “Timeline.”  Notable also are a couple of poems concerning the Ethiopian Airlines Boeing Max 8 flight, downed in 2019. Souaid’s cousin’s 24-year-old daughter was killed on that flight. Unforgettable is the irony of the Exit sign on the crashed plane.

A favourite poem is the final one, “Arthur,” which in its graceful way is emblematic of the charms and preoccupations of this collection. An old sparrow lands on the ledge by the window beyond the writer’s desk. It’s a repeated occurrence, and she affectionately comes to call him Arthur.

He’s like a nervous man in a tweed coat,
scurrying across the street
with a newspaper under his arm

but in all his ordinariness, arriving “gently on the wing of dawn,” he becomes a symbol for a mysterious transcendence beyond death:

… I believe
that long after my ashes have cooled,
that dear bird will find me again
wherever I am, in the web of silence,
the way he finds me now,
with my sleeves rolled up
and some tea in a pot, steeping.

The Eleventh Hour is a favourite collection of those by Carolyn Souaid I own and have read. They show a seasoned poet at the height of her powers.

 

 

 

When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through: A Norton Anthology of Native Nations Poetry, edited by Joy Harjo with LeAnne Howe, Jennifer Elise Foerster, and contributing editors (W.W. Norton and Company, 2020), 496 pages

 

[Reviewer’s note: This review adheres to the terminology used by the different authors in this anthology.]

 

The term Norton Anthology brings to mind something good to come: a literary collection chosen with clear intent and annotated with solid scholarship. When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through: A Norton Anthology of Native Nations Poetry does not disappoint. It is that and much more. It is a celebration of the oral and spiritual traditions of the first poets of what today is known as the United States of America, a nomenclature which leaves out the tribal nations whose communities cross current national borders into Canada and Mexico. For this, executive editor Joy Harjoy apologizes and points out that state borders within the United States do not adequately define tribal areas.

This first-of-its-kind anthology is divided into five sections representing major geographic areas, partially following a traditional counter-clockwise Native orientation: Northeast and Midwest; Plains and Mountains; Pacific Northwest, Alaska and Pacific Islands; Southwest and West; and finally, Southeast. The need to include Alaska, Hawaii and other Pacific Islands skewed the traditional round configuration – but then again, colonization tends to interrupt the natural order of things.

In her introduction to this hefty anthology, Joy Harjoy contends that the commonality shared by all tribal nations in North America is the knowledge that the earth is a living being and that “Poetry, in all its forms, including songs, oratory, and ceremony, both secular and sacred, is a useful tool for the community.”

 

NORTHEAST AND MIDWEST

Kimberly M. Blaser introduces the first section with a bilingual and multidimensional dream song of the Anishinaabeg, arising “from an intimacy with the water landscape of the region.” This and other poetic forms also address major historical events, such as the Oka standoff in Québec and the war in Vietnam.

Gegwejiwebinan, an Ojibwe poet whose name translates into English as “Trial Thrower,” allowed ethnologist Frances Densmore to record his song with the help of an interpreter, sometime between 1907 and 1909.

Kegēt’
Indábunisin’ dangûg
Bīnes’ iwug’
Ekwa’ yaweyân’

Surely
Upon the whole length of my form
The water birds will alight.

Jim Northrup (Chibinesi) (1943-2016), Anishinaabe, of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior, was sent to a residential school, and served as a marine in the Vietnam War. He helps veterans heal from their traumas by teaching them verbalizing skills. The following first and last lines of this poem carry the message that healing takes hard work:

Shrinking Away

Survived the war but
was having trouble
surviving the peace

That’s when I realized that
surviving the peace was up to me.

Colonialism and other dark subjects are tackled by Alex Jacobs (Karoniaktanke) (1953–), Akwesasne Mohawk, in his epic poem Indian Machismo or Skin to Skin. There is a short but powerful stanza that deplores colonization:

IT’S HAPPENED EVERY DAY FOR 500 YEARS!
But i bet you be there in your buckskins when politicos
celebrate Cristofo Mofo Colombo in 1992 & make him an
honorary Cherosiouxapapanavajibhawk too! Aaaiiiieeee-yahhhh!

 

PLAINS AND MOUNTAINS

Heid E. Erdrich lets us know that generations of Indigenous people lived on vast expanses of land under very harsh conditions and yet produced lyrical and often witty poetry. Many Indigenous communities suffered harsh repression, such as the Wounded Knee massacre in 1890. Some poems make historical references to conflict and resistance, and celebrate respected figures such as Sitting Bull while expressing rage towards despised figures like Custer. These poems help in understanding the history of the country.

Elsie Fuller (1870-unknown), Omaha, was educated in English at a boarding school, to the detriment of proficiency in her mother tongue. However, she did not lose her native wit:

A New Citizen

Now I am a citizen!
They’ve given us new laws,
Just as were made
By Senator Dawes.

Just give us a chance,
We will never pause.
Till we are good citizens…

N. Scott Momaday, Kiowa (1934–), author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel House Made of Dawn, and Oklahoma’s sixteenth poet laureate, writes life-affirming poetry:

The Delight Song of Tsoai-Talee

I am a feather on the bright sky.
I am the blue horse that runs in the plain.
I am the fish that rolls shining, in the water.
I am the shadow that follows a child.

You see, I am alive, I am alive.

Unfortunately, not all is light in this part of the world… there is darkness as well, and James Welch (1940-2003), Gros Ventre and Blackfeet, mourns it:

Harlem, Montana:
Just Off the Reservation

We need no runners, here. Booze is law
and all the Indians drink in the best tavern.
Money is free if you’re poor enough.

Women find time to assert themselves, even in difficult times. Suzan Shown Harjo (1945–) Southern Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee, Congressional liaison for Indian Affairs under Jimmy Carter and winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, never forgets that she is, first and foremost, a woman:

The Song Called “White Antelope’s Chant”

…Clouding Woman had a song
it was a Tsistsistas song
it was her song
because she sang it

 

PACIFIC NORTHWEST, ALASKA, AND PACIFIC ISLANDS

Cedar Sigo introduces this chapter by stating categorically that “Native people of the Northwest had no choice but to live in relation to poetry from the very outset of creation.” As simple as that. Gloria Bird confirms this sentiment when she says:

We are like salmon swimming against the mutation of current to find our heartbroken way home again, weight of red eggs and need.

Diane L’xeis’ Benson makes it clear that for Native people, Alaska is not a land of gold, but rather “an eternal connection that runs through their veins cycling through the generations.” She also points out that “the reality of loss, cultural disruption, and the effort to reconcile cultural existence in a continually colonizing and commodifying world” is central to Alaskan poetry.

Brandy Nālani McDougall makes the astonishing statement (which should nonetheless not surprise us), that the United States currently controls one third of the Pacific Ocean through different colonial subterfuges, such as associated territories and so forth. Given the diversity of cultures, languages and histories, it is best to let the poets speak for themselves.

Chief Seattle (1786-1866), Suquamish and Duwamish, is remembered for his leadership skills and conciliatory language. In one of his speeches, he stands up to the White Man

Your religion was written on tablets of stone by the iron finger of an angry God, lest you forget.

He then talks about their differing world views:

Your dead cease to love you and the land of their nativity as soon as they pass the portals of the tomb; Our dead never forget this beautiful world that gave them their being.

John Dominis Holt (1919-1993), Kanaka Maoli, was recognized as a Living Treasure of Hawai’i in 1979. You can see why.

Ka ‘Ili Pau
Give me something from
The towering heights
Of blackened magma
Not a token thing
Something of spirit, mind or flesh, something of bone
The undulating form of
Mauna Loa

Jamaica Heolimeleikalani Osorio (1991–), Kanaka Maoli, was invited to perform her spoken word at the Obama White House. She might have declaimed the following lines:

There is a culture
Somewhere beneath my skin that i’ve been searching for since i landed here
But it’s hard to feel sometimes
Because at Stanford we are innovative
The city of Macintosh breeds thinkers of tomorrow
and i have forgotten how to remember

 

SOUTHWEST AND WEST

Deborah A. Miranda introduces this section by saying it “feels like writing a love letter about a collection of love letters.” It is easy to understand why. The poems in this chapter are about endurance, reaffirmation of Indigenous knowledge, two-spirit Indigenous experiences and resistance. It is also about totems and the seasons.

Georgina Valoyce-Sanchez (1939–), Chumash, Tobono O’odham and Pima, describes a relationship between a human and a dolphin.

The Dolphin Walking Stick

He says
sure you look for your Spirit
symbol — your totem
only it’s more a waiting
watching
for its coming

Adrian C. Louis (1946-2018), Lovelock Paiute, doesn’t hesitate to tell it like it is:

Skinology

I have known
some badass Skins.
Clichéd bad-to-the-bone
Indians who were maybe
not bad but just broke,
& broken for sure.

Anita Endrezze (1952–), Yaqui, writes about a very current subject, but with a poignant slant:

The Wall

Build a wall of saguaros,
butterflies, and bones
of those who perished
in the desert. A wall of worn shoes,
dry water bottles, poinsettias…”

Cassandra López (1978–) Cahilla/Tongva/Luiseño, wants…

A New Language

My words are always
collapsing
upon themselves, too tight
in my mouth. I want a new
language. One with at least
50 words for grief

and 50 words for love, so I can offer
them to the living…

 

SOUTHEAST

Jennifer Elise Foerster starts off her introduction to this chapter by boldly stating that “Southeastern people have long been writers.” She is most probably right.

Ruth Margaret Muskrat Bronson (1897-1982), Cherokee, sums up the history of colonization:

Sentenced

They have come, they have come,
Out of the unknown they have come;
Out of the great sea they have come;
Dazzling and conquering the white man has come
To make this land his home.

We must die, we must die,
The white man has sentenced we must die,

Louis Little Coon Oliver (1904-1991), Mvskoke, pays homage to the resilience of the women in his community, particularly the older women.

Mind over Matter

My old grandmother, Tekapay’cha
stuck an ax into a stump
and diverted a tornado.

There was power in that twister.
There was power in my grandmother.
Those who doubt, let them doubt.

The pain caused by displacement runs through most of this poetry. LeAnne Howe (1951–), Choctaw, expresses it pithily.

Ishki, Mother, Upon Leaving the Choctaw Homelands, 1831


Right here there’s a hole of sorrow in the center of my chest
A puncture
A chasm of muscle
Sinew
Bones…

Displacement might be territorial or cultural, but for Kim Shuck (1966–), Cherokee, a sense of place is fluid like water.

Water as a Sense of Place

The water I used to drink spent time
Inside a pitched basket
It adopted the internal shape
Took on the taste of pine
And changed me forever.

LeAnne Howe, in her outroduction to this inspiring anthology, reminds us that “This collection of poems, born of these lands, is not an end nor a beginning.” I’m convinced she is absolutely right. My only regret as a reviewer is that time and space constraints do not allow me to profile many other wonderful poets and their luminous words.

 

 

Reflections on Stephen Morrissey’s A Poet’s Journey: on poetry and what it means to be a poet (Ekstasis Editions, 2019)

 

By the time you read this, the first wave of the pandemic will hopefully be over and we will be reaping the harvest of our collective and individual reactions and decisions.

When I took on this project, I purposely ignored the poet’s biography and bibliographical information at the end of the book. I avoided reading any of his poetry other than what appears in this book. I wrote this book review in early mornings and on rainy days beginning at the end of March and finishing in early May. One or two cats slumped on my lap; the dog asleep on the couch next to me; vanilla hazelnut coffee at my elbow. Wondering if today would be the day my daughter would bring CV-19 home from her part-time cashier job at Provigo.

A Poet’s Journey is a collection of book reviews, essays, memoirs and poems plus a selection of concrete poems, all by Stephen Morrissey. As a fellow poet, I was especially interested to read the essays about poetics and practice, eager for insights. In one entitled ‘Continuing Continuation, On Louis Dudek,’ Morrissey chooses as his epigraph this quote: “… remember/ the paltriness of worldly claims,/ and the immensity/ that is always now.” – Louis Dudek, Continuation III. In plague-day-speak, don’t sweat the small stuff (such as running out of vacuum cleaner bags, how to get tax papers ready, driving on winter tires in the summer).

The brilliant essay that in many ways forms the core of the book is part two to ‘Reading Louis Dudek’s Continuation: An Introduction to a Major Canadian Poem.’ Here are the poetics of one of Canada’s most important poets, filtered, condensed and presented by his friend, mentee and colleague, who sums the work up by naming it “radical” as it goes to “the roots of poetry and language.” This is a bold statement that I have no way of refuting, as I haven’t yet read Dudek’s Continuation.

Morrissey concludes this essay beautifully when he writes about the last poems of Continuation III written months before Dudek’s death. “In these final poems, Dudek returns repeatedly to the concept of time as infinity, he envisions an ultimate ‘shining’ that illuminates the darkness of ignorance with a kind of mystical perception of life.” And this concept is one Morrissey says has guided his own work.

The other major piece in A Poet’s Journey is the essay of the same name. Much in these fifteen or so pages resonates in me in reflecting on poetic practice. Points to consider include: Morrissey’s voluntary youthful self-isolation in order to survive; his definition of form as a container for content, with the two working together (Yes!); and confessional poetry, which he defines (quoting Frank Bidart) as being “… concerned with ‘the making of the soul.’” This is the definition of confessional poetry to which I ascribe.

Morrissey also makes a point of honouring the ancestors. His communicate most in winter in dreams or as ghosts. As do mine. Since early March, both my dead parents have been hovering around and my friend Dan, five years dead, appeared in a dream only to leave on an errand for me. So like him.

One of the few false notes (for me) in Morrissey’s system of poetics appears in this essay when he discusses male/female relations. “Marriage between a man and a woman – the expression of male and female energy – is a basic archetype of life. To deviate too far from the archetypes is to lose touch with what connects us to humanity, wisdom, and the eternal.” Huh?

I wish he’d given a wider interpretation of “the expression of male and female energy” to include individuals who see those energies in persons of the same gender as they, or as mingling and balancing satisfactorily in one individual. And, as a long unpartnered person myself, who saw her creative energies explode once freed of being partnered, we must agree to disagree not only on the definition of traditional marriage but on the whole concept. Or even (could we?) leave gender out of the equation altogether. But there it is.

Besides the poetics, I also enjoyed the concrete poems scattered throughout the book. “Regard as Sacred” takes the phrase “regard as sacred the disorder of my mind” (Rimbaud) and stutters its words into a cityscape above and reflection of same below by scrunching letters to form skyscrapers. Lots of depth here.

Another two poems – “amorphous space 1” and “amorphous space 2” – arrange the letters from sun, moon, stars and space into blocks that are arranged then carved out, leaving, yes, space, where the reader/viewer can wander. I like them.

Morrissey’s concrete poems were created in the 1970s, as was his essay “The Purpose of Experimental Poetry.” Here’s what engaged me from that piece. That experimental poetry communicates changing times while remaining timeless. That experimentation with form must come without preconceived notion. That “… poets don’t have merely one voice or style, but several over a lifetime …”

Towards the end of the book is “Believe Nothing,” an author statement in point form. “I have lived the nihilist’s life: anonymous, introverted, and appalled.” “Believing anything makes people stupid.” Yeah!

There are other essays on craft: finding voice; confessional poetry; poetry as the voice of the human soul; visionary poetry. All are interesting to read. And in some of the memoirs and eulogies we find traces of history of the poetry circle(s) in Montréal over the last few generations. (For those of us who were not members of those groups.)

After spending a good number of plague days steeped in A Poet’s Journey, I now want to seek out more of Stephen Morrissey’s poems. Perhaps you may wish to do the same.

 

 

Run J Run, by Su J Sokol, Renaissance Press, 2019

 

Run J Run, Sokol’s latest novel, was published in May this year by Renaissance Press, a publishing company whose roster features writing that doesn’t fit into a standard genre, niche or demographic and which hopes to uplift marginalized voices. Sokol’s beautifully detailed and poignant writing fits perfectly into the mandate that Renaissance has established.

Sokol describes herself as an “activist and a writer of speculative, liminal, and interstitial fiction.” She immigrated to Canada with her family in 2004 from New York City, where she was a legal services lawyer. She now makes Montréal her home and it is here that she practises both her art and her activism. In addition to her writing, Sokol works as a social rights advocate for a Montréal community organization.

Cycling to Asylum, Su’s debut novel, was long-listed for the Sunburst Award for Excellence in Canadian Literature of the Fantastic. Her short fiction and reviews have appeared in a number of magazines and anthologies. Su also curates and participates in readings and literary events in Canada and abroad.

On her web site, Sokol describes the novel as “a riveting tale of friendship, love, and chosen family. Using the tools of psychological drama and erotica, it presents a compelling critique of both the treatment of mental illness in our society and the false boundaries we construct in our personal relationships.”

We follow three principal characters who are close friends, as they navigate the challenges that life presents to them. Jeremy, a high school English teacher, grapples with a failed marriage and the loss of his brother. Through the processing of this grief he unexpectedly falls in love with his best friend, Zak. Attractive, wildly unconventional, seemingly happy in an open and loving relationship with his partner Annie, Zak seems to embody everything missing from Jeremy’s life. The arrest and death of a marginalized student at the Brooklyn high school where they both teach trigger Zak’s mental breakdown and slow descent. Jeremy and Annie are compelled to cross boundaries, both external and internal, in a desperate attempt to save him. Run J Run celebrates the day-to-day heroism and the humanity of ordinary, flawed individuals faced with trauma, loss, and marginalization.

I really liked the depiction of a non-traditional family in a way that honoured their journey. We learn of the struggles that face them, from daily challenges to the ongoing fight with mental health issues. In addition to all this, as individuals and as a family, they suffer the attitudes of society and are marginalized simply because of their family structure. The novel explores how society can react to marginalized identities, both individual and collective, in ways that are not accepting or are even oppressive, and how we can sometimes internalize such oppressions and turn them on ourselves. The lesson emerging from the story is that family structures and the relationships that characterize them, whether traditional or not, are fundamentally human, and hope lies in our individual and collective search for our authenticity and our compassion at a human level.

While not articulated expressly, the social and political conscience that emerges from the story is perhaps best represented through the character of Annie. Her individual narrative, her reassurance, the compassion and the quiet strength she brings to the challenges that her family is confronted with, ultimately help us identify and understand the structures and values that exist beyond those that patriarchal and hetero-normative societies impose.

As someone who lives in a non-traditional family structure myself, the story resonated in profound ways for me. Such eloquent narration and representation of the story of this fictional family provide valuable images and models that are not broadly expressed or represented. This narrative, these images, legitimize and celebrate the triumphs of this non-traditional family as it navigates through the maze of life overlaid with the additional challenges of mental illness, depression and a desire of one of its members to take his own life. The story leaves us with hope and the sense that if we are to evolve, it is the attention to our humanity that will move us further, and compassion is the light that will guide us along this path.

Brilliant and compelling with moments of rare beauty, I found this novel hard to put down. Highly recommended!

 

Radius Islamicus by Julian Samuel, Guernica Editions, 2018

 

“The radius islamicus is the farthest distance a camel part is thrown from the blast centre.”

The narrator of Julian Samuel’s second novel is a “stateless” leader who supposedly spent more years of his life around airports than in any one country. An intellectual, he is now in his eighth decade, living close to former teammates who, under his direction, had conducted multiple projects including “the flash and bang in London” where the calculated radius of damage stretched to several metres. He was the “organizational brains behind it all,” and whereas his teammates from “various cellular backgrounds had been given an understanding of Islam,” he their leader, had helped them understand “a white fist in the face.”

Then, all of a sudden, they grew old and landed at the same residence in Pierrefonds. Perhaps it had been designed that way so that he could keep an eye on them and prevent them from making “death bed confessions,” either due to regrettable feelings of guilt or through the ubiquitous dementia.

Some of us, when we get older, feel bad about what we did and want to talk about it. I’m here to die as well as to make sure that there is no flow-out.

Who are these people? What are their names? What countries are they from? Where have they lived except at airports? Anver or Imran, Dr. Joseph Mcleod (as the narrator almost always calls himself), Gorgana or Usha, Tatjana and Nurse Linda with her five o’clock pills flow back and forth on Joseph’s memory screen, as do the lists of satire-filled names such as Fazool Samundur, Ms. Lal Chout, Imran Zindagee Ultaa, Kala Bazee, Safade Makudma and others. Descriptions of past and present life happenings are confused renderings of the failing mind of one reading from his diary, the “Radius Islamicus.” He relies heavily on pills to stabilize his memory, and describes himself as “decaying in Montreal” with “a fatal disease called old age:”

I’m a terrorist – non-convicted, thus innocent, thus a free citizen, thus a near-free citizen swaddled in the white cloth of occidental tyranny. Who these days isn’t a terrorist? One man’s terrorist is another man’s old folks home friend; one man’s terrorist is another’s transit lounge passenger.

Characters racked by sagging skin, limp penises, vascular diseases, diabetes, osteoporosis, cognitive impairment and a past buried under lost memories speak lines that flow like poetry:

I pull her into my arms. I notice that she has had a partial mastectomy…. Also, I see a small scar that a lumbar puncture has left. She is flesh, and she’s warm. She likes me. The tips of my fingers find the healed scars. We fall into a coma.

There is reference to Eliot’s Wasteland as “Muharram in Québec is the cruelest month.” Indeed, I myself have often thought how near impossible it might be to grasp the cruelty of the month from the plains of Sialkot. There is poetry in greying colours and wrinkles:

The magazines of nude young women have a beauty as well, but age produces a body with a different set of late wrinkle harmonics, a different sexual aggression antagonized by a flesh that yields, or not at all. We’ve developed together. Her toes, painted, shyly shine through the suds on the floor of the bathtub. Her bowl-shaped hips, now near-translucent folds of flesh, fall everywhere; her buttocks hang down in triplicate, white, creamy terraces seen only on faraway planets.

At one point, Joseph offers a deal to alter metro station names for “better cultural integration:”

I am sure not even a cheap copycat knapper would knapsack stops with Moslem names. Imagine Javid Chambers or Anver Ahmad knapping a metro stop with a name such as Hussain Hussaine. The current Prime Minister is thinking of changing Russell Square to Mohammad Ali Jinnah just for this reason. It is the only choice he has.

Finally, who writes our history? Is there a “view of the River Ravi from Pierrefonds?” Should there be one? Islamic culture in duffle bags? There is an ironic sting to it:

Islamic intellectuals translated the Greeks for Europe. Europe wouldn’t have TGVs or particle accelerators if the Arabs hadn’t translated Socrates for them. From Iberia, the Islamic scholars carried these old translations to the British Library in duffle bags.

Julian Samuel’s speculative novel shocks the reader while making her laugh and cry all at once. It is irreverent, sardonic and brutal, with body parts being blown to unrecognizable pieces. Nothing is sacred anymore. There are no gods except made-up ones for terrorists. Whatever smiles are there are the smiles of the near dead. It does not matter who falls as long as the donkeys are intact. All is fair as long as there is no disclosure during the “whimper” at the end – the one last blast before the final take off.

I would recommend this unusual novel to readers. I found it always clever, sometimes brilliant, beautiful and musical in parts.

 

Land for Fatimah by Veena Gokhale, Guernica Editions (Canada), 2018

 

Veena Gokhale’s second book but first novel is a bridge spanning cultures and languages across South Asia, Africa and Canada. It is about the separation of vulnerable populations from their ancestral land through bureaucratic systems set up to work against Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). The ubiquitous forms, documents and multifarious “schemes” add a legal veneer over the rights of those who belong “to their land, not the other way around,” and for whom the buying or selling of land is an incomprehensible “abstraction.”

Regardless of whether it is a small slum in Andheri (Bombay) or Fatimah’s village of Ferun – the Aanke people’s family farmland in the fictional country of Kamorga (Africa) – the decisions made by Bombay’s district municipality or Kamorga’s central government are irrevocable. Shanty huts are bulldozed to build colonies, and ancestral land is taken over for cocoa production. Promises for compensation are made and broken as a matter of course. Hopes are built and shattered, filling generations with powerlessness: “When land is abundant . . . communal rights can exist more easily. But as it becomes more scarce, individual rights advance.”

And flowing stealthily beneath is the deep animosity of the Kakwa against the minority Aanke people displaced from their land into the settlement of Madafi. Originally from West Africa, the Aanke do not belong, not in Kamorga, one of the many countries “collapsed into AFRICA.” Among all Kamorgans, there is an unspoken code: “support your own people against a foreigner.”

Working to relieve some of the stress within this environment are well-intentioned multinational non-governmental organizations (NGOs) such as HELP (Health, Education and Livelihood Skills Partnership). These organizations are tightly bound by complex protocols that clearly identify the “regulars” with identity cards who can be served, and the “irregulars” who are supposed to be turned away. Although exceptions are made for IDPs, HELP offices in Toronto and Kamorga can never agree upon recognizing the Aanke people as IDPs since they are believed to have received compensation for their land. HELP staff therefore do their best to serve the “irregulars” who show up “the day after and the day after . . . lining up on the verandah, spilling up into the sun-roasted compound, waiting patiently for hours and days on end.”

The list of names at the beginning of the book helps the reader in keeping track of the slew of characters. To name a few: Anjali Bhave Bhagat, acting Executive Director of HELP’s African regional office, who provides a central perspective to the novel; hard-working Mary Iwu (Anjali’s maid) and her son, Gabriel; Elizabeth, Anjali’s loyal assistant; Fatimah Ditta and her immediate and extended family of Aanke farmers; Grace Madaki, the iron-fisted chairperson of HELP; and Hassan, the charming and unforgettable contractor hired by HELP. The fictional language they speak is Morga, Kamorga’s national language.

Whereas on the one hand, Land for Fatimah is about the poor and the dispossessed, it is also about the plight of foreign or local NGOs: “Community Based Organizations, Charities – linked to religious groups or otherwise, organizations spun from trusts, organizations linked to universities and other institutions” that do not amount to more than “drops in an ocean of need.” Forced to categorize people, they end up helping some while ignoring others. Although a few of these organizations become corrupt, “some wrong-headed, others merely inefficient,” almost all of them are “well intentioned.” In actual terms, there is not much that they can change, but it is difficult to imagine life without them.

Land of Fatimah provides a rare insight into the day-to-day challenges faced by these organizations. Set against the backdrop of busy city streets with swarming Matatas (privately-owned mini-vans) and the all-consuming dust of African countryside, this novel makes a great read.

“high density settlement – view from gilbert hill, Andheri Mumbai” (CC BY 2.0) Madhav Pai

Curry: Eating, Reading and Race by Naben Ruthnum

Coach House Books, Exploded Views Series, 2017.

When it comes to word association, some words are more potent than others. Like curry.

“Curry isn’t real . . . .  It’s a leaf, a process, a certain kind of gravy with uncertain ingredients surrounding a starring meat or vegetable . . . but it’s also an Indian fairy tale composed of cooks, Indians, émigrés, colonists, eaters, readers, and writers.

Fuck off, my ideal reader might be saying right now. Of course it’s real, it was on my plate and soaking into your naan last night. And you’d be right, sort of. But even if the flavour is real, and delicious, it’s also become a crucial element of how the story of South Asian cultural identity is told . . . .”

So begins Toronto-based writer Naben Ruthnum’s dazzling and long essay, which successfully marries erudite, penetrating socio-cultural and literary analysis with a personal exploration of eating, reading and race.

Ruthnum’s parents immigrated to Canada from Mauritius. Trying to grow up “Canadian” in Kelowna, British Columbia, he visited Mauritius just once, at age 9. While he proudly claimed the “curry” made at his home as authentic and defended it as part of his cultural identity, he rejected “curry books.” These were books authored by people with Indian names, with stereotypical fonts and images on their covers.

“There was an acceptable authenticity in what we ate, one that I felt counter to the books with various brown hands, red fabrics, clutched mangoes, and shielded faces that turned up on our shelves . . . .”

In the book’s first section, “Eating,” Ruthnum deconstructs food writing, including recipe books, bringing in his own experiences of making and eating curries. Myth making and romanticism abound here, with memories of grandmothers’ and mothers’ kitchens. But cooking “authentic family recipes” comes hard to the second generation, given the imprecision of the recipes handed down from relatives! And some then resort to buying cookbooks by Indo-British cooking celebrity, Madhur Jaffrey.

Ruthnum acknowledges briefly that Indian food is as hard to define and encompass as curry, given the incredible regional variety. He writes that myth making and attempts to pin down authenticity expanded further when it came to curry books. Through the 1970s and 80s, “South Asian literature” became mainstream, and the “disconnected-family/roots-rediscovery page-turner” became a sub-genre within that larger genre. These books, both fiction and nonfiction, typically contrasted “the pure-if-backward East with the corrupt-but-free West,” and were largely “nostalgic, authenticity-seeking reconciliation-of-present-with past family narratives.”

There are of course more subtle and nuanced curry books, very much part of great South Asian literature. Ruthnum details a number of authors and books of this kind. But since the somewhat problematic success of curry books, which after all pander to stereotypical views rather than exploring new ground, South Asian writers in the diaspora started getting a strong message on what kind of book they should write. There is a growing Western and diaspora audience for such books, and the sub-genre includes Western writers like Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray Love).

There are ironic and lighter moments in the book like Pakistani-American novelist Soniah Kamal’s “mango” dilemma. Not wanting to pander to an “orientalist Western gaze,” she mulls over the issue, finally allowing her characters to eat the fruit in a summer scene set in Pakistan! Tropes reflect real circumstances, says Ruthnum, who feels some sympathy for the affirmation of alienation that makes (some) readers turn to curry books.

Ruthnum’s last chapter on race is his most powerful. Here he deconstructs many homogenized, sanitized, “banalized” concepts and realities, including the South Asian diaspora:

“A poisonous, crucial element of this imposed expectation is that brown people and their books should look back, into a past and a place that may never have existed.”

Despite all obstacles, Ruthnum demands multiple narratives spanning many genres from culture (not just literature) about and by brown people, and finds South Asian stand-up comics already taking this on.

I took courage from these words:

“The realities of racism and the white majority dominance of life in the West defines how brown people are seen, how they must act, and what they are allowed to achieve – but this doesn’t need to limit our imagination of ourselves, or lessen the distinctiveness and individual nature of experience, especially as expressed in art…”

He has set aside his first novel, with some curry book connotations, for now, and will be publishing a thriller instead (Find You in the Dark) in 2018. The book will be published under the pseudonym Nathan Ripley. A copout? In “Curry” he offers a convincing argument for why he chooses to go this route.

 

(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?

 

 

[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.

 

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.

 

 

 

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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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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