The Event: IFOA Readings – Boyden, Taylor, Maracle | Beaton, Knelman, Glass
“A lot of people in history die: I don’t want to spoil that for you.”
– Kate Beaton, IFOA, October 30th, 2011
Part two of my venturings through the always interesting waters of Toronto’s International Festival of Authors brings you two sets of readings events, each quite different in tone. A disclaimer before we begin: each reading included a poet, and I am supremely unqualified to comment on poetry, so I will not be spending much time with either David A. Groulx or Ken Babstock in this post.
October 26th: Joseph Boyden, David Lee Maracle, Drew Hayden Taylor, David A. Groulx
“Thanks for coming out in such miserable weather,” said host Stuart Woods, editor of Quill & Quire, on Wednesday October 26th. Indeed, the frigid autumn rain was pouring down, and the glassed-in terrace that had been turned into a stage area was not the coziest place to be.
As is the case with many IFOA readings and roundtables, I didn’t know the work of everyone I was to see that evening. I’d come for Joseph Boyden, with whom I’d fallen deeply in love after reading Through Black Spruce (with much of my family coming from northern Ontario, I enjoy orienting myself geographically in his work, and his ear for dialectical differences region to region). That Drew Hayden Taylor of Motorcycles and Sweetgrass fame was there was a bonus. I was unfamiliar with the other half of the program, Lee Maracle and David A. Groulx. It’s part of the fun of IFOA, the possibility of discovering an author without whom your literary world is incomplete.
Joseph Boyden was first up, reading two new pieces: one was fiction, one was memoir. His short story is about a 13-year-old kid from Parry Sound who wants to be gangsta, caught somewhere between tormenting his little brother by stealing his pet turtle, Island, and becoming for the first time in his life a drug mule for some local thugs. The narrator talks about how his mom “got all traditional on our asses,” and through an intriguing tale of a kid about to get into some serious trouble in way or another in small-town Ontario, focuses on questions of Indigenous identity, at-risk youth, appropriated gangsta culture, and how hard it can be to be a kid.
“Just breathe,” the young narrator tells himself and the turtle as he finds himself in a serious situation. And as we moved into the second reading, a nonfiction piece called “Driving Lessons,” Boyden said, “The idea of ‘just breathing’ is recurring in my writing for some reason.” The second was a startlingly beautiful comparison of two life-altering events: two different places, two different times, one a birth and one a death. “Just breathe,” the Boyden in the narration tells the people he is with as his life and theirs inexorably alter. “Just breathe.”
Throughout Boyden’s and Groulx’s readings, I could hear an uproarious laugh: one of those infectious, genuine belly laughs. I didn’t realize until she took the stage that it belonged to one of the night’s readers, Lee Maracle, author of First Wives’ Club: Coast Salish Style. Having heard Alan Ginsberg read Howl to her writing class, Maracle wrote a response. “I got a very good mark on this,” Maracle said cheekily, and then she began to read her poem, voiced by a young Aboriginal girl sitting atop a washing machine, ruminating on the glotally pronounced “Kanata” and how different it is from the country she is growing up in: “she understands, Mister Ginsberg, your need to howl.”
Her second piece, she said as her eyes sparkled with mischief, was inspired by the last reader of the night, humourist Drew Hayden Taylor. A piece of fiercely brave erotica, juxtaposing the sensuousness of sunlight on skin and the interplay of mental and physical desire as she sees “him” across the crowded room, as the unnamed female narrator and the object of her desire come together even as people swarm around them…it was beautiful and sensuous indeed, not to mention fearless to read in front of a gathering like this one. She ended by telling us that in her language, the words you say when you want to express “I love you” translate to English as “you are my sweet mountain air.” How evocative and sensual, she told us, grinning, to share such a feeling with someone.
When Drew Hayden Taylor took the stage, he said that he was flattered but puzzled about how he’d inspired Maracle’s last piece: “Honest, honey!” he said over our heads, and everyone laughed. Taylor is delightfully funny, and his humour strengthens the seriousness of his underlying discussion. He read from his Governor General Award–nominated book Motorcycles and Sweetgrass; he followed this with an excerpt from his play Dead White Writer on the Floor, in which six stereotypical Native characters (Indian Joe, Disney’s Pocahontas, and Tonto, for example) gather around the dead white writer who invoked them, discussing the ways they have been portrayed over the years, showing the ridiculousness of these stereotypes and this kind of cultural misuse and abuse. Very unfortunately, the IFOA bookstore was not selling copies of the play, so I’ll have to track it down elsewhere.
Each of the evening’s readers spoke to serious issues of racism, segregation, and cultural loss and appropriation in a way that made the audience both laugh and think. A beautiful night out, no matter the weather.
October 30th: Kate Beaton, Joshua Knelman, Rodge Glass, Ken Babstock
“Thanks for coming out in such beautiful weather,” said poet Ken Babstock—we really are Canadian in our obsession with the weather and our unstated apologies for either making people brave bad weather or miss out on good weather.
I came to the last IFOA event of 2011 to see Kate Beaton of Hark! A Vagrant (www.harkavagrant.com) fame without actually knowing who else was on the program. I tend toward a hipsterish attitude with Beaton: I’ve read her comic online for years, waaaay before Quill & Quire and others discovered her. I feel a bit proprietary: I knew her before she had a published book. (That said, I’m so extremely pleased for her to be reaching a wider audience now.) Beaton has a great way of finding the funny in historical and literary situations. She was delightfully offbeat as she discussed her creative process, showing us a series of comics and talking about how she tries to find her angle into them. For Robinson Crusoe, for example, Beaton related how she’d been read the book as a grade 2 student and thought Crusoe and Friday were “BFFs.” Then, coming to the book as an adult, she saw all of the issues of slavery that she totally missed as a child. So she drew a series of comics from Friday’s point of view, showing Crusoe to be a smelly, idiotic, misguided twit whose only interest is taking treasures away from the people they belong to.
The afternoon offered a somewhat strange grab bag of authors with no real links between them. I’m not entirely sure why these readers were programmed together, though I was pleased to see Joshua Knelman, who writes for The Walrus and who was at the reading to promote his book Hot Art, a look into the high stakes world of international art thievery. Though I’m not generally a non-fiction reader, this is definitely a book I’ll pick up. Knelman related a “behind the scenes” peek into his book rather than reading from it. He talked about how his initial interest in writing a small, local story about a break-in at a gallery led him to some rather interesting contacts (an art thief and an art lawyer) and entry into the shady world of art theft. “It’s all a shell game,” he said of the pieces that are stolen and then moved from buyer to buyer all around the world. “The looting of the world’s cultural heritage” is what his book examines, from Nazi thefts in Europe to archaeological heists, and the evolution of the international market for this stolen art.
Rodge Glass, author of the graphic novel Dougie’s War, also discussed his process and read a bit from his dark look at how PTSD affects a young Scottish soldier named Dougie. He drew links between Rudyard Kipling’s poem “Tommy’s War,” the comic “Charlie’s War,” and his own work, discussing how soldiers adjust to life after being trained to kill other human beings: the simple tasks such as managing money or choosing amongst all the food at the supermarket to much more difficult issues of trauma and violence.