Art ❤️️ Politics
Like smoke from the field of battle, political upheaval gives rise to great literature.
Stalinist Russia gave us Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago. Argentina’s Peronistas gave us Manuel Puig’s Kiss of the Spider Woman. The 1928 Prague Spring gave us Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. The onset of the Cold War gave us George Orwell’s 1984. The examples are endless.
This winter I read Mexican writers, and I was struck by how these women and men, past and present, turn for material not into themselves or their families, but to the political struggles of their “tierra”— particularly of Rosario Castellanos’ The Book of Lamentations, Nellie Campobello’s Cartucho, all of the writings of Carlos Fuentes and Elena Poniatowska.
Rosario Castellanos was Mexio’s ambassador to Israel in the 1950s. Carlos Fuentes was Mexico’s ambassador to the United States in the 1970s. Winston Churchill was a novelist (Savrola) before he became Prime Minister of Britain; absurdist playwright Václav Havel became president of Hungary.
Imagine what novels, plays, and poems will rise from our current political foment!
And imagine who might step onto our political stages. Ali Smith as the UK Minister of Culture. Teju Cole for President of the USA. Yann Martel as Canada’s Ambassador to Portugal.
Or maybe they’ll just keep writing their sharp, alert books.
“All good art is political,” Toni Morrison said. “There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.”
The Empty Bookshelf
Women make up more than half the population, they publish at least half the titles released in North America, and according to Canadian Women in Literary Arts (CWILA), two years ago women in my country finally achieved gender parity in the review of their books.
In an astonishing video that made the rounds during International Women’s Day, a young girl and her mother remove all the books without female characters; with only silent female characters; without female protagonists; without strong female protagonists who are after their own goals, not the goals of their male counterparts.
By then end, the shelf was almost empty. From hundreds of books, only a handful offered positive female role models to girls. The mother and daughter were Caucasian: if cultural diversity were considered, my guess is that the shelf would have been cleaned right off.
During a book tour in Germany some years ago, university students could hardly believe there were so many Canadian women writers. Why? they asked.
Maybe because the settlers writing home were so often mothers and daughters. From them, the torch passed to Susannah Moodie, Martha Ostenso, Ethel Wilson, Sheila Watson, Edna Staebler, Alice Munro, Margaret Laurence, Marian Engel, Margaret Atwood, Antonine Maillet, Jane Urquhart, Olive Senior, Dionne Brand, Lee Maracle, and a whole new generation today.
When you can see yourself in the past and in the present, it is easier to imagine a future for yourself.
The Canadian National Reading Campaign offers reviews of children’s books, the latest science on the benefits of reading, and advocacy initiatives to improve the reading experience for aboriginal Canadians.
The first week of May every year, the National Reading Campaign partners with a city to show what a “reading Canada” can look like. Moose Jaw, Sudbury, Charlottetown, and this year Gatineau embed reading in every aspect of their citizens’ lives over one entire week.
Imagine a whole country of Reading Towns—all year round!
2017 Holes in the Heart
Two important Canadian literary voices and one of the world’s great poets went silent this winter.
—Richard Wagamese, winner of the Matt Cohen Award, author of Indian Horse, which introduced so many to the trauma of second-generation survivors of Indian schools:
All that we are is story. From the moment we are born to the time we continue on our spirit journey, we are involved in the creation of the story of our time here. It is what we arrive with. It is all we leave behind.
― Bonnie Burnard, novelist and short story writer who won the Giller for A Good House:
I don’t like to say the words “women’s literature.” There is only human literature, some of it written by men, some by women. The best of them are writing about the human condition, about change and courage and doubt and risk, about the errors made by the human heart and the corrections.
— Derek Walcott, Nobel Laureate in Literature, St. Lucia writer dedicated to exploring the West Indies as colonized space.
The future happens. No matter how much we scream.
News from my Casita
Congratulations to two of the writers I work with who are launching debut books this spring: Leanne Dunic, author of the lyrical poem/novel To Love the Coming End of the World and Shelley O’Callaghan, with her moving family memoir How Deep is the Lake: A Century at Chilliwack.
I join them with the launch of my own Gutenberg’s Fingerprint!
You can read excerpts in Queen’s Quarterly, Profile Kingston, and Geist magazine, and pieces about the writing of the book in Quill & Quire and on The Writing Platform, a joint project of Bath University in the UK and Brisbane University in Australia.
Book clubbers! ECW has produced a Reader’s Guide and a short video. I love talking with book clubs—in person locally, and through the magic of Skype, anywhere in the world.
Kingston at The Grand Theatre, Davies Lounge, April 11, 7-9 pm
Wayzgoose BookArts Fair in Grimsby, Ontario, April 29, 10-3 pm
Toronto at Ben McNally’s Books, 366 Bay Street May 10 6-8 pm
From the Department of How-Time-Flies
Along with the birds and the butterflies, I’ve flown back to Canada for the warm months. When the weather turns cold, I’ll be following my winged friends back to the mountains of Mexico.
Please join me! Applications are now open for winter 2018 one-week writing retreats at my casita in San Miguel de Allende. Here is what one 2017 retreater had to say:
Merilyn showed me how to take a good piece of writing, morph it into something better, then take it to a level I never thought possible. My writing is forever changed, as am I.
I take one writer per month December through March. You must have a completed manuscript. Our goal will be to make it submission-ready.
Links I love
At a time when the Internet has turned from a flood to a tsunami, I fall on my knees in gratitude to sites that cull the endless flow for literary tidbits.
LitHub sees the world through a bookish lens, reminding me of the great writers who entered and left the world on each day, and a grab-bag of links to literary news from around the world.
BrainPickings: an inventory of the meaningful life has been around for eleven years, but it never fails to surprise, delight and provoke. I happily follow Maria Popova—reader, writer, interestingness hunter-gatherer, and curious mind at large—down her ecclectic rabbit holes: how poetry works its magic, Herman Messe on little joys, the art of “unseeing,” Simone de Beauvoir on Freedom and Optimism, Carl Sagan on moving beyond Us and Them, how Rachel Carson spoke inconvenient truth to power.
I happily support these labours of love that enrich my world.
Choice Indie Bookseller
Novel Idea Bookstore is the centre of literary life in Kingston, Ontario, Canada—which has a lot of literary life! Oscar Malan has anchored the corner of Princess and Bagot for decades, outlasting the big-box bookstore that installed itself across the street, and now flourishes in full glory, with excellent, hand-picked stock and a full roster of launches, readings, and events (with catering by the ingenious and skilled Joanna) that bring books to the greater Kingston community.
April is release month for Gutenberg’s Fingerprint: Paper, Pixels & the Lasting Impression of Books. To celebrate, I’m sending a free book to one lucky LitBit subscriber.
LitBits is exclusive to book lovers who sign up on my website. It arrives randomly, every few months, more often when there’s lots of news. Every issue includes a draw among subscribers for a new book: one of mine or a book that I love and want to tell the world about. Please share this with friends you think might like to sign on.
For the continuing story of books past, present, & future, see my blog, Books UnPacked.
Happy reading in the Spring sunshine!