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.
Shortlisted for the 2013 APMA Best Atlantic-Published Book Award
PEI has probably the most nationalistic sense of identity in Canada, but yet our literature has had trouble getting past that annoying little red headed girl from Avonlea. What is PEI literature? The answer to this question can be applied to the wider world of Canadian literature. PEI literature is simply writing by someone with a “connection” to the Island – be it growing up here, moving here, studying here, or spending any significant amount of time here.
The real father of contemporary PEI literature is Milton Acorn, the People’s Poet – almost everyone has at some point read or heard “I’ve Tasted My Blood.” In the decades after Acorn appeared on the scene, PEI underwent a poetry renaissance. Native born and “from-away” writers like Richard Lemm, Brent MacLaine, John Smith, Frank Ledwell, David Helwig, Hugh MacDonald, Steve McOrmond, David Hickey, John MacKenzie, Anne Compton, Dianne Morrow, and Joseph Sherman among others have given PEI a rich, deep, and colourful poetic canon. But, there has been a dearth of fiction from the province. Only in recent years have novels and story collections from Island writers started to take up significant shelf space. Some of PEI’s poets and local playwrights have produced fiction, Hennessey and Lemm for instance; plus many new fiction writers have immerged – Steven Mayoff, Hilary MacLeod, Orysia Dawydiak, Finley Martin, and Valerie Compton to name a few. Riptides is an anthology of short stories from new writers on PEI, some of whom had never been published prior to this. This anthology represents a turning point in PEI literature – it is a collective cry of over 20 new fiction writers saying “there is more to our writing than Anne.”
It is very difficult to review a book with so many writers, in so many genres, and so many styles. Many stories in this book are very memorable and will give outsiders a great glimpse into Island life. There are many highlights though, so here’s a brief recap of my favorites. “The Nothing” by Melissa Carroll is a gritty comedic story of life in small town west Prince County. “The Candle Party” by Orysia Dawydiak, probably my favorite now looking back, is a heart-breaking story of illness complicating a marriage. “Dust” by Shirley Limbert tells the story of a woman trapped in an abusive relationship. “Final Farewell” by Helen Pretulak is a reflective story of family set in Chernobyl several years after the tragedy. And, the last one I’ll point out, “Watermelon” by Island poet Beth E. Janzen, is the story of the everyday foibles of family life as seen through the eyes of a young girl at a lake side picnic. This is not an exhaustive list. I adored at least 15 of the 23 stories.
Riptides is edited by one of the elder statesmen of PEI literature, Richard Lemm. He instructed the PEI literature seminar I just completed where we read this collection. What impressed me most about this book was just how “real” the stories were. There were no pretensions, no writers trying to imitate Ralph Waldo Emerson, and no writers trying to find the mystical in the mundane (which as you all know, really pisses me off). The stories go from Alberton to Charlottetown to Toronto to Poland to Ukraine. This first anthology of “new” Island fiction is just as diverse as the “new” Prince Edward Island and is a must read for any Islander or anyone who has wondered what makes us tick.
Riptides is published by Acorn Press and can be found at most independent bookstores or online at Indigo and Amazon.