As the article in the Weyburn Review Saskatchewan Foundation for the Arts Award says, I received an award to be used toward completion of my novel and efforts to finding an agent/publisher. This kind of recognition is validating to say the least, and taken together with SAB and Canada Council grants I’ve received, makes me feel that I am on the right track in telling this big, crazy, difficult story.
As part of the journey, I plan to blog a little about Indonesia and the novel’s characters and themes. As well, bear with me if I indulge in some musings about how the writing happens. There. I’ve said it out loud. Now to just do it……..
Some writers create a playlist to inspire, reflect or accompany the writing they are doing at any given moment. In my case, I don’t have the technical patience to do a list; for me one song is enough, and Get Home, by Bastille is the song that speaks to, or for, my writing at present.
“How am I gonna get myself back home?”; the ultimate question for more than one character in my new work, Mengeti.
I don’t know how many times I’ve heard both my parents talk about the importance of being ‘home’ during the occupation of Holland in WWII. A teenager at the time, my Mom insisted on riding her bike to her babysitting job, but could think only of home when she found herself in a crowded basement, cradling the toddler she was charged with keeping, huddled there with others while planes dropped bombs over their heads. She was safe there, but she ran out of that basement and crawled along the ditches, toddler in tow until she got away from the shelling and could run home because that is simply where she needed to be to feel truly safe.
My Dad, who was eventually picked up by the Germans and interned in a camp, then sent to work on a German farm, recalls his own trek home. He didn’t even know the war was over, was simply told by the farm woman to go home. So he did. Walking across a bombed out Germany to get there, ‘borrowing’ a German horse and cart, simply going home. He was eighteen. He speaks of another young friend who did the same. Sick, wasted away with disease, starvation and the effects of being worked nearly to death, this friend too, walked hundreds of kilometres to Limburg to be home. And promptly died. But he died at home.
Later on my Dad was a soldier himself, sent by the Dutch to Indonesia to reclaim the colony. Home never left him, but I wonder if his sense of it changed because of what he learned about himself over time and as a man who held a gun. Soldiers from all the wars, the ‘greatest pretenders”, their faces brave, their hearts needing home. Perhaps?
“We are the last people standing
at the end of the night.
We are the greatest pretenders
in the cold morning light.”……….
“The birds are mocking me
they call to be heard.
The birds are mocking me
they curse my return.”
What is this drive, this need for home? What indeed, is home? And why, always, do we want to get there? I know Bastille’s song is about the band keeping their sense of themselves, who they are, their metaphorical ‘home’. But I guess that’s what people in war are trying to do as well. Enjoy.
Okay so that title is a shameless attempt at self-promotion. And to be honest, there were a dozen or so other people with us, including fellow writer Shelley Banks who also takes great photographs like the one here. Still, I was so fortunate to be invited to spend two days with Atwood and her partner, fellow writer and decorated conservationist, Graeme Gibson touring Grasslands National Park and the PFRA community pastures in Southwest Saskatchewan. The pair, along with other representatives of BirdLife International were invited by the group Public Pasture-Public Interest, an affiliation of ranchers, conservationists, First Nations people, scientists and naturalists hoping to convince governments to keep the community pastures under some form of public management. They believe it’s the only way to save the ranchers who graze their cattle on them and the 32 species at risk that call them home. The issue is a complicated one, and I won’t say too much more about it because I’m doing some magazine work regarding this aspect of the tour.
What I can say is Atwood and company came to Saskatchewan to learn. They were gracious, asked many questions, and listened with real interest to the answers. What was most gratifying to me as a writer, was watching ideas bloom in Margaret Atwood’s face, and how she shaped them into analogies that would appeal to a broader audience. For example, when the cattlemen who spoke to us explained they were expected to put together business plans with complete strangers, and to do so with incomplete information, and within only a few months, her on-the-spot response:
“Ranchers have been given a Cinderella plot: the wicked stepmother says, ‘sure you can go to the party, but first you must complete these impossible tasks in two hours’. And the only reason Cinderella is able to do that is, one, she’s got a fairy godmother and, two, she’s got a lot of friendly mice and birds to help her. (she smiles) Without human help on this, the ranchers can’t do it.”
Or, in response to fears that binders of research outlining the ecological health of the pastures will simply gather dust on a shelf somewhere, while the professional pasture managers have been handed pink slips:
“Why are we throwing away the medical records of the land and taking away the land doctors?”
She’s very good at this.
At the Harvest Moon Café in downtown Val Marie (population 350), Atwood explained the relationship between writing and activism.
“I think writers can be activists because we don’t have a job. We can’t be fired. I can be disregarded — no sorry I can’t have a meeting with you because I’m washing my hair and will be washing my hair into the foreseeable future — but they can’t send me a notice saying your employment is terminated. Others are afraid to speak out whether they work for government or somebody else whose political opinion they might run afoul of. That’s how it works and why totalitarian governments line up artists and shoot them. They would much rather discredit you than listen.”
“What they don’t understand,” she adds with a slow smile and mischief in her eyes, “is that I’m under the protection of the great pumpkin so it’s likely to backfire.”
I dare say, she’s probably right.
It was a real pleasure to meet both Margaret Atwood and Graeme Gibson and, at the end of it all, to have Atwood’s blessing upon my novel Dollybird (Coteau Books, fall 2013).
“Good luck with the novel,” she said.
Doesn’t get much better than that.
Thanks to Trevor Herriot, co-chair of PPPI for the invitation. More on the interesting people of the southwest in future. Stay tuned.
Years ago I wrote a weekly column for a newspaper in a small community located in the hills and bush between Edmonton and Jasper. Readers response varied from an agreeable nod of the head to “I will never read your newspaper again.” My editor would simply shake his head and tell me to keep writing.
You might wonder what I could say to the 7000 souls of Edson Alberta to bring on their wrath. What you have to understand is this was the heart of the Yellowhead riding during the early days of the “Reform Party of Canada”, (can’t you just hear him saying it?). Preston Manning was hawking his version of the country, and MP, Joe Clark, held the foreign affairs portfolio. Oh there was a lot could be said. In that true blue place, with its true blue sentiments, I dared call Joe Clark a Red Tory.
I mean seriously, was he not at least bordering on pink? Especially when it came to foreign affairs? He was the first politician of any stripe to question Israel’s handling of the Palestinians, he led the world into Ethiopian famine relief despite its being a “marxist” state, he helped formalize sanctions against the apartheid regime in South Africa even as others hesitated, and he spoke out against American intervention in Central America. Hello? Red Tory or what?
It was not my intent to offend anyone by describing him thus. In fact I thought it was a bit of flattery. That some would disagree was not a surprise. What caught me off guard was the “I won’t read you anymore” reaction, the notion that our disagreement on the nature of Joe Clark’s true political colour meant we could not even have a conversation about it. I had always assumed a certain generosity of mind, a willingness to read and contemplate the opinions of others without feeling threatened by them.
It’s the beauty of written language. We can linger over it. We can question our biases in the comfort of our own mind. We can change without having to admit it to anyone but ourselves. At the tender age of idealism, it was a sad realization that many have no desire to be enlightened. They seek only confirmation of their biases, surrounding themselves with people and information of their same ilk to the almost complete exclusion of others.
It’s not a left or right phenomenon. I know people on the left who wouldn’t be caught dead with a business magazine tucked discreetly between copies of Mother Jones and the Utne Reader on the back of their toilet tank. And too many on the right dismiss the breadth of opinion available on CBC as somehow tainted pink by its being a publicly funded entity. Both attitudes are absurd and small and prove a lack of confidence in the ability to maintain and defend a position in the presence of new or conflicting information. Too often if you push for more, ask the simple question: why? the response is a snort, a shake of the head, gestures universally interpreted as “you’re an idiot”. You don’t agree with me, ergo you must be stupid.
While it doesn’t matter so much in the case of Joe Clark and his true colours, least of all to him, it does matter in the broader political arena. If our leaders eschew any thoughtful comment outside their ideological platform as not only a nuisance, but in fact stupid, it becomes …well…it becomes at best our Canadian parliament’s present credibility problems, and at worst Donald Trump. How can anyone understand and represent the country if they don’t understand and represent the country in its broadest sense, in all its diversity of culture and geographics AND opinion?
I ramble on, and I suppose in writing this I’m giving an opinion, even a strong one. But I would welcome a conversation about it, would in fact reconsider Joe and that question of colour, if someone presented a stimulating argument, a new insight, a reasoned comment. That would be real debate, that would be a nice change.