Monthly Archives: November, 2014

The Island Means Minago by Milton Acorn

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Winner of the 1975 Governor General’s Award for Poetry or Drama

When someone thinks of PEI literature, the first image to pop into their mind would be that of Lucy Maud Montgomery and her little redhead Anne. I’ve written on this blog many times before about the development and current state of PEI literature and how the last 25 years has really been a high point for writing in the province. There was very little early (pre-1950s) PEI literature worth discussing. Lucy Maud really was the grandmother of PEI writing and her contemporary Sir Andrew Macphail was the grandfather with his masterpiece The Master’s Wife. But, PEI lit as we know it now was really founded in earnest with Milton Acorn’s 1956 self-published mimeographed chapbook In Love and Anger. Acorn was a very different voice from his contemporaries; he was a working man’s poet. A World War II veteran with little formal education, The People’s Poet spent most of his life living off a Veteran’s Affairs pension due to war injuries. Some of his titles were best-sellers in Canada and he was a superstar in the world of poetry – even marrying Gwendolyn MacEwen for a short time. The 1975 collection The Island Means Minago, his only collection to win the Governor General’s Award, is Acorn’s most ambitions treatise on his home province and contains many of his signature poems.

The Island Means Minago is a very cohesive volume, both in terms of narrative and themes. It mixes narrative poems, lyrics, prose pieces, dramatic scenes, and photos to tell the story of his people.  Right in the opening poem, Acorn’s love of his island is evident:

In the fanged jaws of the Gulf,
a red tongue.
Indians say a musical God
took up his brush and painted it,
named it in His own language
“The Island”.

In terms of narrative, Acorn takes on a number of issues prominent in Island history (honestly, if you’re familiar with these items it makes this a much more enjoyable book): the absentee landlord problem from the 19th century and Island Development Plan that began in the 1960s that would be top of mind in 1975. Acorn uses these narratives to tie together the thematic concept of this book. It is no secret that he was a far-left socialist, and that is the lens through which the author writes. He lambastes capitalism, roasts the ineffective administration of the government for not representing the people, and takes up the cause of the proletariat.

As I mentioned, Acorn was the working man’s poet. He was a big personality and it is easy to envision him reciting these poems in a pub throwing back beers and shots of whiskey. His language is accessible and free of those 20-dollar-words too often used by MFA graduates. But, that is not to say that these poems are “simple,” quite the opposite. Acorn manipulates genre and form in fascinating ways, he often uses an isolated rhyme as a narrative turning point, he creates intriguing imagery while using down-home dialect, and he is very cognizant of the sound, the music so to speak, of his poetry by doing interesting things with repetition, dialogue, and syllable structure.

An element of this book that was interesting was the collection of prose pieces. Each of the three sections has one prose piece, with each being about 10 pages in length. It is hard to classify these parts – as I said, he does interesting things with genre. These three pieces are not prose poems, but they’re not exactly stories either. They’re something of a blend of history, storytelling, social commentary, and political treatise. These prose pieces were excellent additions to the poems because they provide some historical and socio-economic context and further entrench Acorn’s socialist themes.

Finally, the actual physical volume itself is an interesting specimen. It was published by NC Press, who according to the ads in the back of the book, published the paper New Canada, that reported “on the struggles being waged across the country for independence and socialism” and was also the leading publisher of books and documents from the People’s Republic of China. So, the strong leftist overtones shouldn’t be surprising.

I’ve said before that PEI has the most nationalistic literature and sense of identity in general in English Canada. This collection was one the flashpoints for this Island literary tradition. The Island Means Minago is a great example of Maritime and PEI poetry, an excellent collection of historical poetry, an interesting political exposition, and just an overall engaging read.

Literary Award Roundup aka Christmas Shopping List

Christmas is the busiest book buying seasons of the year. The GG award announcement was actually moved to the fall many years ago to coincide with the holiday shopping rush. It’s sometimes hard finding something to buy, so literary award winners are a good place to find suggestions (at least I think so since they’re something of an academic interest of mine). This list is by no means exhaustive in any way, shape or form and is completely free of editorial commentary.

Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize: Miriam Toews, All My Puny Sorrows

Scotiabank Giller Prize: Sean Michaels, Us Conductors

Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour: Bill Conall, The Promised Land

Canada Reads: Joseph Boyden, The Orenda

Governor General’s Award for Fiction: Thomas King, The Back of the Turtle

Governor General’s Award for Non-fiction: Michael Harris, The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection

Governor General’s Award for Poetry: Arleen Paré, Lake of Two Mountains

Governor General’s Award for Drama: Jordan Tannahill, Age of Minority: Three Solo Plays

Governor General’s Award for Children’s Literature: Raziel Reid, When Everything Feels Like the Movies

Governor General’s Award for Children’s Illustration: Jillian Tamaki, This One Summer

Governor General’s Award for French to English Translation: François-Marc Gagnon, Paul-Émile Borduas: A Critical Biography

Trillium Book Award for Fiction: Hannah Moscovitch, This Is War

Trillium Book Award for Poetry: Souvankham Thammavongsa, Light

Amazon.ca First Novel Award: Wayne Grady, Emancipation Day

Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction: Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate

RBC Taylor Prize: Thomas King, The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America

Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing: Paul Wells, The Longer I’m Prime Minister: Stephen Harper and Canada, 2006

Toronto Book Award: Charlotte Gray, The Massey Murder: A Maid, Her Master and the Trial that Shocked a Country

Thomas Head Raddall Award: William Kowalski, The Hundred Hearts

J.M. Abraham Poetry Award (Atlantic Poetry Prize): Don Domanski, Bite Down Little Whisper

Griffin Poetry Prize – Canada: Anne Carson, Red Doc>

Griffin Poetry Prize – International: Brenda Hillman, Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire

Paragraphe Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction: Sean Michaels, Us Conductors

Mavis Gallant Prize for Non-Fiction: Chantal Hébert, The Morning After: The 1995 Quebec Referendum and the Day that Almost Was

A.M. Klein Prize for Poetry: Sina Queyras, MxT

Pulitzer Prize for Fiction: Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch

Pulitzer Prize for Drama: Annie Baker, The Flick

Pulitzer Prize for History: Alan Taylor, The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772–1832

Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography: Megan Marshall, Margaret Fuller: A New American Life

Pulitzer Prize for Poetry: Vijay Seshadri, 3 Sections

Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction: Dan Fagin, Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation

National Book Award for Fiction: Phil Klay, Redeployment

National Book Award for Nonfiction: Evan Osnos, Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China

National Book Award for Poetry: Louise Gluck, Faithful and Virtuous Night

PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction: Karen Joy Fowler, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

Man Booker Prize: Richard Flanagan, The Narrow Road to the Deep North

International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award: Juan Gabriel Vásquez, The Sound of Things Falling

Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction (Orange Prize): Eimear McBride, A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing

Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah Everyone!!!

The Song of Kahunsha by Anosh Irani

Kahunsha

Selected for Canada Reads 2007

Contemporary CanLit has a large and important sub-group of stars like M.G. Vassanji or Rohinton Mistry who are, in the scope of literature, Canadian only in terms of residency. Typically relocating here as an adult, these writers’ style is informed by the culture and events of their home countries. Stories rarely take place in Canada, and if they do it is often only as a reflection point in the present while the meat of the book is set in Africa, or India, or Pakistan in past times. This category of Canadian writing has been very influential on the literary scene, all of the major literary awards have been won by immigrant writers with non-Canadian settings, several have appeared on Canada Reads, and many find their way on bestseller lists. These writers greatly expand the very definition of CanLit and enrich our literary culture and canon with a variety of perspectives and experiences that the average Canadian could not even imagine.

Anosh Irani is one of those writers. Born in Bombay, India in 1974, Irani moved to Vancouver in 1998 to attend university and has since made a steady name for himself as a fiction writer, playwright, and creative writing professor. His nationwide big-break came in 2007 when Donna Morrissey championed his 2006 novel The Song of Kahunsha on Canada Reads.

Set over three days in 1993 in the midst of the sectarian riots in Bombay, The Song of Kahunsha tells the story of Chamdi, a ten-year-old boy who is forced to leave his orphanage and survive on the mean streets of the city. He befriends two other street-kids, brother and sister Sumdi and Guddi. The pair is trying to scrape enough money to survive after their father was killed and their mother lost her mind. Chamdi reluctantly joins them and subsequently falls under the control of the ring-leader, a vicious sociopath named Anand Bhai. As the city degenerates into violence, Chamdi is dragged further into this underworld, albeit unwillingly, and ultimately makes a horrific choice that will no doubt haunt him for life.

I greatly enjoyed this book. It was a nice change to venture outside of Canada and get a different perspective and set of values. While I really enjoyed it, The Song of Kahumsha is a very sad book with very little hope in it. Themes of slavery and the nature of freewill permeate the novel and, ultimately, it feels like there is no chance of escaping this desperate situation. While this is perfectly realistic, you may need to pop out some Zoloft by the time you get through the book. The one tiny sliver of light in this dark and gritty story is buried deep in Chamdi’s soul. He had a rough ride over the three days we spend with him: he has to leave the orphanage, he finds out his father abandoned him when he was an infant, he must compromise his morals by begging and thieving, he endures physical harm, people close to him die, and he is forced to make a terrible decision that is incomprehensible to anyone let alone a ten-year-old. But, throughout all of these hardships, Chamdi never loses his sense of morality; he knows the difference between good and evil and this is why his choices, even though they’re made under duress, eat at him. Jim Cuddy criticized this novel as being picaresque because Chamdi doesn’t really change significantly as his world collapses. In my reading though, this is the one glimmer of hope – the spirit of this precocious child remains intact.

Overall, this is a great book, a fast read, and powerfully written. It’s definitely worth the read.

The Current State of Canada Reads

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Wab Kinew was recently announced as the new host of the show, the fourth in its history (Mary Walsh hosted in 2002 and Bill Richardson, my favorite moderator to date, hosted until Ghomeshi took over in 2008). Coincidentally, I recently finished listening to all 13 editions of the program so I thought it would be a good time to spout some thoughts on this important literary institution.

First of all, here’s some Canada Reads facts: After 13 years, 65 books have been featured; Margaret Atwood is the most represented author with three books entered (The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake, and The Year of the Flood); only two others have had two books appear:  Mordecai Richler (Barney’s Version and Cocksure) and Joseph Boyden (Three Day Road and The Orenda); two books of poetry have been listed: Whylah Falls and Rooms for Rent in the Outer Planets; three panelists have subsequently had their books appear on the show: Nalo Hopkinson, Lisa Moore and Dave Bidini; six French language books in translation have appeared and two have won; and in terms of award winners, five Giller Winners, six GG winners (various categories), one Booker winner, and four Leacock Medal winners have been on the list. A victory guarantees No. 1 best-seller status.

In the Skin of a Lion, Next Episode, Rockbound, King Leary, and Nikolski are some of the previous winners Canada Reads; Whylah Falls, Sarah Binks, Beautiful Losers, No Crystal Stair, Rooms for Rent in the Outer Planets, Brown Girl in the Ring, The Song of Kahunsha, Children of My Heart, Icefields, and Fruit were some of the previous contenders on Canada Reads. What do these two lists have in common? None of these titles – all absolutely fantastic books– would even register on the Canada Reads radar in its current incarnation. And this is a great disservice to the Canadian reading public.

In recent years, I have been growing ever more despondent with the titles and nature of the discussions on the show. The show is no longer a civil, elevated, and respectful discussion about Canadian writing. Canada Reads has become a game show. Gone are the days when panelists compliment others’ books without being forced to by the host; gone are the days where someone votes against their own book because they were swayed by someone else’s arguments (perhaps a foreshadowing of some sort of Justin Trudeau’s political career); and gone are the days where panelists don’t take votes against their title like a personal attack against them. The show has become a spectacle where the personalities of the panelists are the star, not the books (further evidenced by the live studio audience). In the last few editions, the panelists with the most articulate, literary arguments – like those made by Stephen Lewis, Jay Baruchel, or Sara Quin – are drowned out by the more aggressive, loud, and frankly loud panelists – like Wab Kinew or Ali Velshi.

In terms of titles, the last couple years have been a bit of a letdown. I own at least 30 books that would never have crossed my radar had it not been for this show. But, the switch to crowd sourcing for titles has ensured that, barring some kind of social media campaign by an author, only “big” books that are already in the public literary consciousness make the cut instead of a mix of well known titles and more obscure choices. 2011, the first year this approach was taken, there were two new books to add to my shelf; in 2012 there were three to add but only one that I wasn’t already aware of; and in both 2013 and 2014 I had already owned every title.

I suspect that 2015, especially given that the host wants “topical” books, is going to be a disappointment. But, that doesn’t mean I’m not going to make numerous suggestions, pick a horse, listen to every episode and hope it wins. So, here are my five picks – a mix of the well know and the obscure – for Canada Reads 2015 One Book to Break Barriers:

The Boy in the Moon by Ian Brown

The Road to Confederation by Donald Creighton

Kiss of the Fur Queen by Tomson Highway

Player One by Douglas Coupland

Knife on the Table by Jacques Godbout

Fault Lines by Nicolas Billon

Fault Lines

Winner of the 2013 Governor General’s Award for Drama

Plays are often times collected together in a similar way to short stories and published as a multi-work volume. The works can sometimes be related – by setting, characters, themes, etc – but often times are not. Some of these collections have been mainstays in drama libraries and curriculum across the country (The East End Plays by George F Walker for example). Occasionally as well, these books have won the Governor General’s Award for Drama because they are better able to show off a writer’s skill and depth; in fact three of the last eight winners have been collections, including 2013 and 2014. Fault Lines: Three Plays is the first such volume that I have read. Nicolas Billon’s collection, his second published book, contains three plays, 2009’s Greenland, 2012’s Iceland and 2013’s Faroe Islands. This book absolutely blew me away; Fault Lines was one of the best books I have read all year. Full stop. End of statement.

Looking at the titles of the three individual plays, there is an obvious relation – all are northern island nations (and Scandinavian states as Greenland, for now, is still under Danish rule) with small populations and insular cultures. But, the relation of the three plays for the most part ends there. There is no character crossover, no related plot lines, and even thematically, other than some very broad ideas which I’ll get into later, there is only minimal crossover. Each of these plays has its own set of circumstances and fascinating characters. Greenland uses the discovery of a small new island by a glaciologist as a reflector of his disintegrating family situation. Iceland, set in Toronto, uses an Estonian prostitute, a bible thumper, and a greasy real estate agent as an allegory for capitalism and the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. And Faroe Islands deals with the whale hunt in that country and looks at the hypocrisy often present in the most vocal of activists. Each of these plays has its own writing and staging style, themes, structure, and its own charm.

The delivery of these works is very different from any play I’ve ever read. All three unfold using monologues. Greenland and Iceland are told through intertwined monologues by three different characters, and Faroe Islands is told by a single character. In a way, Fault Lines closely resembles a series of short stories being relayed to you directly by the characters (not simply a first person POV). There is no back-and-forth dialogue and very few stage directions. Even set design would be very minimalistic; I get the impression that any of these three plays could be staged with nothing but a stool on a stage with maybe a small blank screen to project a few pictures for context. This method allowed Billon to have much more three-dimensional characters than I typically find while reading plays and, oddly enough, the author creates some of the most unlikeable people I’ve ever come across in CanLit.

Iceland was my favorite of the three. Billon uses this monologue structure to bring together three unrelated characters into a very sad and brutal story. These three characters are also the highlight of this collection. Kassandra, the Estonian prostitute, is a very heartrending and sympathetic character – pulled into the world of sex work to help her family in Europe; Halim, the real estate agent, is an absolutely horrible excuse of human and deserves the fate that ultimately befalls him; and Anna, the young lady who is the glue of the play, is a fascinating and tragically ludicrous character. Iceland takes on a lot in only 40 pages, but most interestingly is how it deals with dreams of freedom and the nature of capitalism and capitalists.

Throughout the whole collection, there is a desire to be part of something larger than what exists now. Jonathan in Greenland yearns to be a leader in field of climate change; Kassandra in Iceland wants to live up to her mother’s expectations and take advantage of the promise offered by the revolution at home; and Dara in Faroe Islands literally wants to save the whales. This theme is the glue that holds these plays together. Additionally, as a student of English Literature and a graduate student in Island Studies, I see a lot going in all of these plays that uses the tropes of small island life and literature. Greenland uses notions of isolation and environmental vulnerability as an important part of the story. In Iceland, while no action whatsoever takes place in that country, the island is used as a microcosm of the wider world. And in Faroe Islands the idea of insularity and traditional customs being misunderstood by the outsider is central. I can easily see Fault Lines being added to small island literature courses (I would add it).

This is essential reading accessible to everyone. Even if you don’t want to delve deeply into the highly complex themes, the characters and plot are engrossing to even the most casual reader. Also, since the three plays are done with monologues, it is much more accessible than a lot of drama in that there isn’t that initial shock of confusion with who’s who in the opening scenes. Fault Lines is without question the best book I’ve read from 2013.

Hellgoing by Lynn Coady

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Winner of the 2013 Scotiabank Giller Prize

Shortlisted for the 2013 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize

An Amazon.ca Best Book ~ 2013

A Globe and Mail Best Book ~ 2013

A book of short fiction is an interesting experience. There are several universes and characters that you start to love and then you almost instantly have to abandon them. I had a severe aversion to short stories when I first began my post-secondary study of English literature well over a decade ago. I can’t put my finger on why, but I just wasn’t a fan. Even reading classic stories like “A Clean, Well Lighted Place”, “A Rose for Emily”, or “Bartleby, the Scrivener” didn’t thrill me. Over the years though, I’ve developed a fondness for the genre. Canada is incredibly fortunate to have such talented writers of short stories – Margaret Laurence, Margaret Atwood, Alistair MacLeod, Mavis Gallant, and of course Nobel Prize winner Alice Munro. That being said though, I have real difficult reviewing collections of stories. I don’t like writing up a bit on each story and it’s sometimes hard to find thematic threads to pull on that run through the whole book. After I finish a book of short fiction I always ask myself if I even want to bother writing a blog post. But, with a book as good as this one was, I felt I had no choice.

Lynn Coady has been steadily rising as one of the most prominent literary writers in Canada. The Nova Scotia-born author has been shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award, two Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize nominations, four Globe and Mail Best Book mentions, and two Giller Prize nominations with the win going her way in 2013. Coady is known for her sharp prose – beautiful yet not flowery or even poetic, her razor-sharp witty humour, and being merciless with her characters. The Giller winner Hellgoing is Coady’s second book of short stories and sixth book overall. I have to be honest, while I’ve owned this book since its Giller win, I read this book now because of Jian Ghomeshi’s mention of it in his now infamous Facebook post after CBC fired him.

This book was fantastic. Coady’s book was very reminiscent of collections by Munro and Atwood in that, while the stories are in no way linked by plot, character, or specific setting, they are bound together thematically. While character types, writing styles, and points-of-view all change, there are various common themes throughout the whole volume – most notably that linear personal influence of past to present self. But, what really made this book for me were the characters. Like a lot of literary short fiction, the stories of Hellgoing are very character driven as opposed to plot driven, so Coady made sure that her nine main characters were highly developed and very three-dimensional. The protagonists were a venerable motley crew of mostly women; a mix of the pathetic, misanthropic, pitiful, hopeful, and mysterious and were, quite often, ironically unlikable.

The quality of writing in the nine stories was absolutely above reproach. While not poetic, the prose was elevated and very literary. In a way, Coady’s writing was a throwback to older modernist authors with solid, punchy lines. In most of the stories, she integrated the dialogue into the general narration to increase the staccato effect. If I had to guess, the writing style was what tipped the Giller Jury over the top in awarding the prize to this book. Short Story volumes do not often win this award – only three previous collections have won, two of them were by Alice Munro and one was a highly connected cycle of stories that could be read as a novel.

“Dogs in Clothes”, “Clear Skies”, “The Natural Elements”, and “Body Condom” were my favorite stories while “Wireless” and “Mr. Hope” were my least favorite. This was a very emotional collection with very memorable characters and accessible themes. One of the best books of 2013, Hellgoing is a very literary volume best suited to the advanced and discerning reader.

Whylah Falls by George Elliott Clarke

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Winner of the 1991 Archibald Lampman Award

Selected for Canada Reads 2002

I’ve written on this site before about my love of George Elliott Clarke. He is a master writer, a brilliant public reader and speaker, a top notch literary scholar, a genuine nice guy, and Toronto’s Poet Laureate. His writing is a mix of down-home Nova Scotia charm and rich African-Canadian historicism – which he dubbed “Africadian”. Whylah Falls is Clarke’s second book and one of signature works. This volume is the narrative of the residents of the fictional Nova Scotia black village of Whylah Falls, focusing primarily a young lady named Shelley and her immediate family. This book has the notable distinction of being selected for the first edition of Canada Reads held back in 2002 (defended by sci-fi author Nalo Hopkinson, finishing second only to the winning title In the Skin of a Lion) and still remains one of only two books of poetry to be featured on the competition.

Whylah Falls is a book of poetry but it is a mixed-genre book; it uses traditional narrative poems, prose poems, sermons, dramatic monologues, theatrical scenes, newspaper-style articles, letters, and photography. This collection is often referred to as a novel told through poetry, but I think a better description is a cycle of stories told through poetic forms as each section focuses on different groups of characters in the village.

This has become an important and landmark book in Canadian literature and is now solidly in the canon of Black Canadian writing. I read a selection of these poems in a Canadian Lit course at Saint Mary’s University in 2003 but I had never read the whole volume from start to finish despite the fact I’ve had a first edition sitting on my shelf for years (oddly enough the first edition cover is really terrible and both the 10th and 20th anniversary editions are much nicer). I really really wanted to love this book. I recently re-listened to Canada Reads 2002 and Hopkinson’s impassioned defense ignited a desire to immerse myself into Clarke’s best known world. But. But, in the end, I wasn’t blown away like I was hoping I would be. To this reader, Whylah Falls was just ok. And here’s why.

Firstly, I absolutely adored the love poetry in the two sections titled “The Adoration of Shelley” and I loved the whole section “The Martyrdom of Othello Clemence.” The imagery in the love poems was beautiful, sensual, and tastefully erotic and the narrative in “The Martyrdom” was powerful and vivid. Overall though, I was a little underwhelmed by a lot of the book. I think the primary problem was the huge cast of characters; I was continually lost and had to keep referring back to the Dramatis Personae. Unlike a novel or a play where there is ample narrative introduction and development of primary characters, this format didn’t really allow for that, so you are simply thrown into the middle of this dynamic little town (almost the identical problem I had with Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town).

I want to be clear that my rating of “just ok” doesn’t mean that I didn’t like the book. The quality of writing was very high and the innovative nature of the volume was superb. Ultimately though, Whylah Falls didn’t grab me the way Execution Poems did. Maybe I was just the wrong audience or I read the book at the wrong time. All that being said though, this is still one of the most important books in contemporary Canadian literature and maintains an important place in African Canadian culture.

Unity (1918) by Kevin Kerr

Unity

Winner of the 2002 Governor General’s Literary Award for Drama

Winner of the 2001 Jessie Richardson Award for Large Theatre: Outstanding Artistic Achievement, Original Script

The Spanish Flu literally ravaged the planet from early 1918 to late 1920. Infections were documented from the remote South Pacific Islands to the northern Arctic of Canada. With a mortality rate of up to 20%, some estimates place the number of infected at 500 million and the death toll to be as high as 100 million people – roughly 5% of the world’s population at the time. The global pandemic was exacerbated by the end of World War I. Hundreds of thousands of troops were returning home around the globe and spreading the illness. The difference between this flu and other strains was the fact that healthy young adults were the ones dying from the virus. According to Wikipedia, “Modern research, using virus taken from the bodies of frozen victims, has concluded that the virus kills through a cytokine storm (overreaction of the body’s immune system). The strong immune reactions of young adults ravaged the body, whereas the weaker immune systems of children and middle-aged adults resulted in fewer deaths among those groups” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1918_flu_pandemic). Unity (1918) is Kevin Kerr’s Governor General Award winning dramatic retelling of the effects of the pandemic on a generic Canadian small-town – in this case, Unity, Saskatchewan.

As mentioned in a previous post, I’ve been working on collecting winners of GG for Drama; this book intrigued me much more than most of the other titles I’ve acquired lately from this list. It seemed like an interesting story idea and I had no prejudices or expectations coming in because I had never even heard of the author, other than GG lists. I was very satisfied with Unity (1918) and how it approached the topic.

The play is told in two acts with a total of thirty-five scenes, most of which are under three pages, with the longest coming in at six. Essentially there are four important plot stages: rumors and fear, panic, outbreak, and aftermath. The story largely unfolds as an ensemble piece; the characters include a trio of sisters, a young undertaker, a blind soldier who just returned from the front, two telephone/telegraph operators, and a few other supporting characters from the town. One of the sisters, Beatrice, is the closest thing to a “main character” but in reality this is the story of a town and Unity, Saskatchewan is the focal point.

What is really stunning about Unity (1918) is how timeless of a story this is, particularly how Kerr deals with the panic and hysteria that goes along with serious public health threats like the Spanish Flu. Unity tries quarantines, banning and canceling public gatherings including church services, people are required to wear masks, and, when the flu finally does arrive, scapegoating and blaming. Almost a century later, all you need to do is Google SARS, Swine Flu, Avian Flu or Ebola and you will come across the same behaviours today.

Kerr uses an interesting method of writing dialog. He uses directional pointers – asterisks and slashes – to intentionally have characters talking over each other and interrupting. Early in the book I found this very disorienting as it is not something that you come across every day, but, as I got used to it, I felt that it really added to panicked feeling permeating the story. The scenes are very short and the vast majority of lines are only a sentence or two. Additionally, there are very minimal stage directions and the directions that the author does include are free of literary indulgences – so the dialogue tells the story.

All-in-all, Unity (1918) is a great historical drama. It is an ageless story but really shines the light on one of the most difficult periods of the 20th century. Kevin Kerr employs inventive literary techniques but leaves a lot of room for theatrical interpretation and staging. Definitely worth the 2 or 3 hours.

Cockroach by Rawi Hage

Cockroach

Winner of the 2008 Paragraphe Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction
Shortlisted for the 2008 Giller Prize
Shortlisted for the 2008 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize
Shortlisted for the 2008 Governor-General’s Award for Fiction
Selected for Canada Reads 2014
Longlisted for the 2010 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award
A Globe and Mail Best Book ~ 2008

Rawi Hage himself is an interesting character; he’s a Lebanese immigrant to Canada, suffered through his home country’s civil war, he’s lived in New York, is an accomplished photographer, drove a cab, and somehow managed to end up and settle in Montreal in 1992. In addition to all of this, he has a dark brooding look that just oozes intensity. He seemed to explode out of nowhere onto the Canadian literary scene in 2006 with the now contemporary classic De Niro’s Game. Hage’s first novel was shortlisted for the Giller Prize, the Governor-General’s Award and won the 2008 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award – one of the world’s richest literary prizes and at the time, one of the only worldwide English language awards. Hage published novel number two, Cockroach, in 2008. The accolades and nominations quickly rolled in further cementing his place in 21st Century Canadian literary culture.

This was my first introduction to Rawi Hage. I haven’t yet read De Niro’s Game or his third novel Carnival. Cockroach is the story of an unnamed narrator making his way through a cold Montreal winter in an unspecified time. The narrator is an Arabian immigrant who lives in utter poverty. He recently tried to kill himself and is forced to have regular sessions with a therapist where he delves into his shady and pragmatic past growing up in his home country. In Montreal, he befriends and falls for Shohreh, a member of the Iranian diaspora into which he has been adopted. All the while, the narrator has recurring fantasies and hallucinations of himself becoming a cockroach, slithering and crawling his way through the underworld and into the homes and lives of those he admires and despises. This unnamed narrator is very gritty and dark but at the same time is very “real.” His pragmatism and survival instincts trump all else – including his better judgment.

This novel is equal parts psychological, psychedelic and Kafkaesque. Frankly, other than the flashbacks during the therapy sessions, very little happens in terms of plot in this novel. We are taken on a journey through the narrator’s exploration of the mundane and every word of it is riveting. We see the plight of the impoverished immigrant, the closed-in nature of the a diaspora in a large city, the baggage that a newcomer brings with him from his homeland, and just how far someone can go to survive and how the very definition of “survival” is entirely subjective. We join our storyteller as he collects welfare cheques, works as a busboy, smokes hash and snorts coke with his Iranian friends, and talks out his past with his therapist; we then join him through kaleidoscopic fantasies and delusions of becoming the cockroach.

The highlight of Cockroach was the quality of the writing. Rawi Hage uses a poetic language that is free of pretension that is so hard to find in contemporary fiction; it exudes elevated prose but doesn’t reek of MFA syndrome.  He uses highly imaginative metaphors and spares no graphic detail.

Rawi Hage is at the forefront and very representative of the current generation of future CanLit icons: born outside our borders, a working class background (i.e. he’s not an English professor), highly original stories that are rooted in literary tradition, and willing to take risks in his writing. That being said, Cockroach is a masterpiece of psychological fiction. This is a novel for anyone that wants to delve into the dark nether-regions of the human soul with the possibility of never coming out.

Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing by Tomson Highway

Dry Lips

Winner of the 1990 Floyd S. Chalmers Canadian Play Award

Winner of the 1989 Dora Mavor Moore Award for Outstanding New Play

Shortlisted for the 1989 Governor General’s Award for Drama

Any first year English student knows that in the broadest of senses, there are four genres of literature: fiction, non-fiction, poetry and drama – and of course each of these has their own endless lists of sub-genres. Drama is one of the most difficult genres to read and, I would imagine, write. The story is essentially conveyed solely by dialogue and it is primarily written to be performed rather than necessarily read. When reading a play, you are thrown right into the middle of the action, often with very little context and it can sometimes be difficult to get an initial grasp on the story and characters, especially with contemporary drama which tends to push the envelope. The average literature student struggles with drama more than other genres and very very few literary blogs review books of drama. With all of that being said, reading a play can be just as rewarding as any novel or volume of poetry. Canada is very lucky to have more than its fair-share of world-class dramatists: Sharon Pollack, George F. Walker, Judith Thompson, George Ryga, Catherine Banks and Daniel McIvor just to name a few. I’ve been collecting more Canadian plays lately and I’m planning on adding more of the genre to my reading rotation, starting with this selection.

Tomson Highway is one of Canada’s best known playwrights and Native writers in general and his works are frequently included in the curriculum of Canadian literature courses. I’ve previously reviewed his novel Kiss of the Fur Queen on my site. His signature work is, without a doubt, his play The Rez Sisters, the story of a group of women on the Wasaychigan Hill reserve going to the world’s biggest bingo. Today’s selection, Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing, is the companion and quasi-sequel to The Rez Sisters and takes place on the same reserve. This play uses hockey to bind several misanthropic characters together in a play that is equal parts comedy and almost unbearably dark tragedy.

Right off the bat, I have to say that I didn’t enjoy this as much as The Rez Sisters, which happens to be one of my favorite plays. But, after letting it marinate for a few days I have to admit my opinion of Dry Lips is more favorable than it was when I initially finished. It’s difficult to give this book a proper review without revealing spoilers, but I’ll do my best.

The play has a few arcs that eventually intersect and burst. We have Zachary who wants to open a bakery to bring some prosperity to the reserve and is worried about his wife finding out about his adultery; we have Big Joey who is trying to connect with his son, Dickie Bird – who suffers from severe Fetal Alcohol Syndrome; Pierre who is ecstatic to be the referee in the women’s hockey game; Spooky who uses pious Christianity as salvation from his wild youth; and Simon, a mysterious character that seems to float from situation to situation. The two acts are very well defined; the first act is very comedy heavy while the second is very tragedy filled and difficult to read in certain spots. Throughout the play, the action takes place under that watchful eye of Nanabush – the Trickster, the Christ-esque creature that is often omnipresent in Native literature.

The positives of Dry Lips were all related to Highway’s unflinching and unromanticised depiction of life on the reserve and the inherent problems that go along with it. Violence, alcoholism, poverty, fetal alcohol syndrome, and cultural decay are all taken on in a brutally unforgiving way. This is punctuated with a particularly disturbing scene between Dickie Bird and Patsy. At the end of the play, you are left with neither a pessimistic nor an optimistic feeling. Instead, Dry Lips leaves the reader with a sense of realism. Life on the reserve is ugly and there are no easy solutions.

The negatives are a little harder to put your finger on. The action of the play is very frantic and scattered at times. Obviously this can make the plot and forward momentum difficult to follow, especially since a few of the main characters are essentially reflectors and interchangeable. Also, the stage directions are very detailed and more than are typical in contemporary drama; I think this would likely leave little room for a director to leave their stamp on a production.

All in all, Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing is a good, and ultimately, important play. It takes on difficult themes, it uses language creatively, it does interesting things with the Trickster character, and it completes a mythology started in The Rez Sisters. This may not be a play for the casual reader or even a good introduction to Canadian drama. But, for the advanced CanLit reader, for someone interested in Native lit, or for someone with a deep interest in Canadian drama, it is a worthwhile, if not essential, read.

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