Russell Thornton reflects on icons, art and imagination

Russell Thornton’s new collection, The Hundred Lives (Quattro Books), was a Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted book. With these poems, Thornton crosses oceans and millennia to explore archetypal themes of ritual, love and loss. His five previous books of poetry are The Fifth Window; A Tunisian Notebook; House Built of Rain (finalist for both the B.C. Book Prize and the ReLit Poetry Award); The Human Shore; and Birds, Metals, Stones & Rain (finalist for the Governor General’s Award, the B.C. Book Prize and the Raymond Souster Award). He lives in North Vancouver. Kelly Shepherd interviewed Russell Thornton for The Coastal Spectator.

There are references to icons and oracles throughout this collection. Could these poems be compared to icons? You’ve written stylized saints and Madonna figures, using vibrant colours. But beyond their surface appearances, icons are also windows between worlds, or conduits. Do you think poetry serves this kind of purpose? Or, would you equate the poet’s work with that of the oracle?

I suppose all poems are icons of a kind. If poems succeed, they’re at least partial images of sacred personages or things — and are sacred themselves. Do you know that statement by W.H. Auden? He said that the concern of the imagination was sacred beings and sacred events. If I’m not mistaken, he was commenting on Coleridge’s ideas about Primary and Secondary imagination. In any case, the statement seems right to me. Poems (great poems anyway!) depict sacred beings and ongoing sacred events. They’re icons. You might say that reality itself is a vast conglomeration of icons. Out of an unfathomable welter of energy comes the array of likenesses that we call the world — the iconos. Yes, I agree, icons are windows between worlds; they take us through the eye to where energy is entering into form and the world is being made — and where we’re helping in the making of the world. Yes, poems have similar qualities and operations: they’re verbal window-ways. It’s interesting to me that icon-makers were rigorously trained crafts-persons. They learned how to make good windows. In poetry, I’d use the word craft in its widest possible sense and include in it ideas of oracular facility. But I don’t know that I’d equate many poets with outright oracles. It’s a poet’s purpose to investigate the depths of his or her experience and at the same time explore (or be explored by!) language, and at its most powerful and significant the result, as I say, may allow glimpses of the sacred — as through a window. Still, actual oracular utterance and vision, prophetic truth telling — that’s reserved for the great oracles and very great poets, I’d say, and for Earth itself, as the oracles most often drew energy from specific locales. For me, poetry that simply works finds the extraordinary mostly in the ordinary; if the crafts-person labour that this entails is very roughly equivalent to what oracular activity involves or amounts to, then okay, on a rudimentary level the writing of a decent poem is related to an oracular performance.

I’m interested in the architectural themes in The Hundred Lives. Numerous poems deal specifically with interiors, or enclosed spaces: from domed churches to phone booths, and human mouths, and wounds, to the insides of apples and pomegranates. Can you talk about architecture in these poems, and perhaps about the architecture (the structure, or the construction) of the poems themselves?

I’ve always responded to spatial relationships and form — and to sacred spaces. Such spaces can occur anywhere. As you say, within domed religious structures, within phone booths, within apples. Or on other, invisible levels, within relationships between people. I think one of the primary purposes of poetry is to create verbal spaces, to limit or contract space in this way — in order to set up intimations of infinite expansion. This calls up William Blake, Rumi, et al, of course; it appears to be a fundamental, a creative principle. Maybe all art imitates or re-enacts in miniature some original activity that brought and continues to bring the material universe into being. In any case, I’d say that architecture, if it exists in my poems, follows from this sense of a contraction or withdrawal in order to make a special space. The circumscription, the geometry, would be the words of a poem; the space would contain experience, nameable as my own as well as otherwise.

And yes, the poems in this book have an organization that might be called architectural. I wanted the reader to be able to enter an imaginative structure and see a set of experiences from different perspectives — as if within related spaces in a building. In the first general enclosure (the section of the book titled “With a Greek Pen”) I brought together poems I wrote while living in Greece; the section ends with an elegy for someone I was close to in Greece who suffered a very early death from cancer. Then in “Lazarus’ Songs to Mary Magdalene,” I looked at love, loss and longing using the characters and plot of the Lazarus story as an imaginative base; Lazarus, Mary, and Jesus are all meant as aspects of the same psyche — the same single interior, you could say. Then in “from Book of the Dark Dove,” I compiled elaborations I wrote on lines from the Song of Songs; this section is the result of my efforts at translation and interpretation, and places the imaginative viewing room in the mythical realm. And then in “Double-Flute”, the final section of the book, I included poems I wrote about someone I was close to in my early twenties, became estranged from, and then learned had died; the poems are personal and represent a final “walking naked” perspective, to use Yeats’s phrase. The collection is meant to be of an architectural piece in this way and is an attempt to say something about romantic love and death.

You may not be recognized primarily as a “nature poet,” per se, yet much of your poetry is about dwelling in and connecting with the natural world. And of course you have been anthologized in the wonderful Open Wide a Wilderness: Canadian Nature Poems (2009). Would you describe your work as nature poetry or ecopoetry?

I wouldn’t be taken aback if my poetry was called nature poetry or ecopoetry; in a fair bit of my writing, I’m occupied with the natural world. The details I take with me into a poem as I try to write are often those of the natural world as I’ve experienced it. When I face the blank page, more often than not I’ll blacken it with images of the natural world as opposed to, say, popular culture. I’ll follow those images as I am able on the imaginative level. But I write about a number of things; also, I don’t know that I have a clearly formulated message about nature that would fit with the outright eco-poets. I take “nature” to mean not only the earth and its forms of life, powers and processes, but also the male and female in all their manifestations, and the “natural person” within the individual psyche. I can say this (well, quote this): “God save me from thoughts men think in the mind alone,” (W.B. Yeats) and “God save us from single vision and Newton’s sleep,” (William Blake). These statements are touchstones for me. I like the classic Where the Wasteland Ends, in which the author Theodore Roszac asks, “What, after all, is the ecological crisis that now captures so much belated attention but the inevitable extroversion of a blighted psyche?” And I agree with other authors I’ve read who say, essentially, that the recovery of an earlier, deeper human vision that we now know can be attempted in two ways, through deep ecology and through imaginative art. The two may be the same thing. I’d say that the imagination’s function is to correct imbalances that have come about in the psyche, to reconcile artificially imposed polarized elements; it connects the severed halves — inner and outer, self and other, male and female, life and death, human beings and the natural world. The prime elements of imaginative speech, metaphor and symbol, for me are the link, the bridge, the meeting, the marriage, the atonement — reconstructing the world as a unity beyond dualism, and enabling a flow of consciousness in which we experience and know things in full, mentally and physically at once, in a greater, enkindled awareness. Poetry can re-spiritualize nature.

Some of these poems seem to belong in collections of their own. In the future, will we see a book-length publication of Lazarus’ Songs to Mary Magdalene? Or a Book of the Dark Dove?

It’s possible, I guess. Both these sections of The Hundred Lives are excerpts from much longer unpublished manuscripts. I might get my nerve up and try to get them between covers. One day anyway.

Emphasis on facts hampers book about inequality in B.C.

A Better Place on Earth:

The Search for Fairness in Super Unequal British Columbia

By Andrew MacLeod

Harbour Publishing

256 pages; $22.95

Reviewed by Erin Anderson

In A Better Place on Earth: The Search for Fairness in Super Unequal British Columbia, journalist Andrew MacLeod presents a case for our province as one with the greatest divide between rich and poor, a divide that has grown because of the policies of our government over the past several years.

MacLeod makes a strong argument for why B.C. is in last place in Canada in terms of inequality, dismantling both the fallacy that creating jobs and strengthening our economy can solve our poverty problem and the idea that inequality is a natural occurrence, based on hard work and talent, rather than something created through policy and privilege.

He also presents our situation in B.C. within the context of inequality as a global issue, one that even business leaders and economists are beginning to warn us about. MacLeod draws on several recent books on uneven wealth distribution, including The Price of Inequality. He quotes its author Joseph Stiglitz as saying that inequality is fuelled by the government, “both what the government does and what it does not do.”

Though our government is taken to task for skewing success rates and dodging questions with rhetoric, MacLeod stays relatively nonpartisan, pointing out that no singular party or politician holds all the responsibility for our current situation. While the B.C. Liberals under Christy Clark do not come off particularly well, federal NDP head Tom Mulcair is also scrutinized for not supporting an inheritance tax, despite the success of and benefit to such a policy in the United States.

In laying out the case for existing inequality, McLeod is thorough to the point of redundancy. Using reports and data from as late as 2014, he looks at not only how we track and measure poverty but how inequality plays out in a range of contexts, from a person unable to pay for prescription medicine to an underfed child in one of the 50 per cent of one-parent homes living in poverty.

Inequality hits those with the least wealth the hardest, MacLeod points out, but it also has longterm effects: unchecked disparity would likely weaken if not collapse our economy as we know it.

The economy may not tug on many people’s heartstrings, but MacLeod seems determined within the pages of A Better Place on Earth to make his appeal for change reach as broad an audience as possible. He compiles shocking statistics and quotes from experts but even as his personal view becomes apparent in the way such facts and experiences are strung together, he maintains a detachment and impartiality.

It’s admirable that MacLeod has produced a book tackling a traditionally leftist topic – inequality and poverty – that doesn’t immediately alienate or offend those whose politics may not overlap. However, the book’s even keel approach leaves it reading more like a series of editorial pieces than a compelling non-fiction read. A Better Place on Earth lacks the fire to act as a rallying cry for supporters and the transparency of its objective makes it an unlikely choice for anyone unaware of or unconvinced by the evidence of inequality around us.

Beyond the statistics, MacLeod includes snippets from people living close to the poverty line: people on welfare, disability or minimum wage. A fair number of these inside sources comment anonymously out of fear of retribution, to the discredit of our social services and to the detriment of the book itself. Acknowledging his own inherent advantages, MacLeod speaks to people whose lives are most impacted today by policies that he believes will damage our future and, in doing so, some explanation for why those most in need and most affected by government have lost faith in politics.

Crucially, MacLeod devotes the final third of his book to solutions to these issues, noting that some policy changes wouldn’t cost the government a dime (important, as a lack of funds is often cited as a reason changes can’t be made) and others would pay for themselves with savings in emergency care, health, economy and more income-earning (and thus tax-paying) citizens.

While we all have an obligation to combat inequality, our government carries the most weight in that fight. To create a government willing to change the status quo, MacLeod argues we need to accept a certain amount of ideological compromise and to stay active and involved even when the results don’t go our way.

The information contained in A Better Place on Earth is both alarming and important and MacLeod deserves commendation for his diligence in pulling together all the facts and arguments we need to begin addressing a very real and serious issue. While his argument is compelling, this book might have a larger impact if it had a less impassive voice to make it a more engaging, persuasive read.

Erin Anderson is a marketing and communications professional who reviews books, music and theatre in her spare time.

Autistic character well-illuminated

Do you think this is strange?

By Aaron Cully Drake

Brindle & Glass Publishing Ltd.

272pp; $17.95

Reviewed by Chris Ho

Told from the perspective of Freddy, a 17-year-old boy who struggles with autism, Aaron Cully Drake’s debut novel offers a unique narrative collage.

Vancouver-based writer/editor Drake has written for newspapers and magazines. He has a wife, a son, and an autistic daughter. Not surprisingly, the novel is dedicated to his daughter, with an inscription that reads: “For Natalie. How could it be any other way?”

Despite a certain degree of linearity, Cully doesn’t present his narrative in an orderly progression. Instead, just as Freddy’s thoughts and memories are scattered, each chapter is named after whatever thought or memory that Freddy is revisiting. In that sense, the overall collection creates a beautiful mosaic that gives the reader an overall impression of the main character, and his tendency to become stuck inside of his mind and disconnected from reality.

As Annie Dillard wrote in Living by fiction, “The use of narrative collage . . . enables a writer to recreate . . . a world shattered, and perhaps senseless, and certainly strange.” Do you think this is strange? is an illustration of the world in all its chaotic, imperfect glory: there isn’t always a reason for things, and tragedy is unavoidable.

Drake’s own sympathies and first-hand understanding of autism, I think, bring his already humorous prose and poignant dialogue to a new level. No matter how strange Freddy may be to the outside world – no matter how dissimilar his mind map may be from mine or yours – he is still one-hundred-percent believable and human. Freddy is not a stereotype or archetype of the autistic; he is a teenager who happens to be autistic. Freddy, is uniquely, just Freddy.

Drake’s approach allows the reader to think about or at least acknowledge some grey areas concerning the treatment of autism. For example, to what extent should autism be celebrated as a different, rather than stigmatized as a disability? And do public schools need to be more accommodating toward autism?

I also appreciate how Drake doesn’t attempt to answer these questions, or force-feed readers his own beliefs. He simply focuses on the story, and allows the deeper questions and themes to grow organically. Moreover, the main focus of the novel is at the heart of Freddy himself, and in the challenges he faces when trying to understand a world that seems foreign to him – a chaotic world that his overly analytical mind attempts to understand and rationalize.

Freddy’s unconventional friendship with his long-lost friend Saskia, who suffers from a different sort of autism, not only adds a unique romantic element to the story, but also illuminates Freddy’s narrative web and ignites a renewed understanding of his own life: There is a web between people. The strands are the bonds that they make with each other. The stronger the love for another, the stronger the bond and the stronger the thread.”

Do you think this is strange? is a worthwhile read. Its style is colloquial and, but it is also infused with just the right amount of poetic depth to give it authority as a truly heartwarming work of art.

Chris Ho is a Victoria-based musician and writer.

Sculpture supports Ideas forum

2015 Company of Ideas Forum

May 15 to 17, 2015

Jeffrey Rubinoff Sculpture Park

Hornby Island

By Annabel Howard

Five University of Victoria Fine Arts faculty members and five Fine Arts graduate students participated in Hornby Island sculptor Jeffrey Rubinoff’s 2015 Company of Ideas forum. Rubinoff is a practising sculptor who has spent the last 40 years cultivating and curating a sculpture park of more than 100 of his own pieces on the west shore of Hornby Island. A Modernist in the tradition of David Smith, Rubinoff retreated to Hornby Island in the 1970s to escape from what he saw as the strangulating force of the art market. There he began to engage instead in a dialogue with his artistic predecessors. In several of his articles, Rubinoff writes that the creative process has led him to “insights” that have “evolved with and from the sculpture work.”

In the early 2000s, Jeffrey Rubinoff’s daughter suggested that the insights would be of interest to a broader audience. After working them into transcripts with future curator Karun Koenig, Rubinoff decided to host a symposium for further discussion and development. The first Company of Ideas was held in 2008, and its success has led an annual staging of the forum, which continues to evolve with each year’s discussions. At each forum, scholars and artists from around the world are invited to present and contribute to the discussion. This year proceedings were chaired by cultural historian and former Cambridge fellow Maria Tippet. Dr. Tippett is the author of a dozen books including Emily Carr, A Biography, for which she won the Governor General’s Award in 1979, as well as books on artists Bill Reid, and F.H. Varley.

Dr. Tippett introduced Jeffrey Rubinoff and gave a biographical account of his life. She also spelled out the discussion themes for the forum with reference to his work and its relationship to the development of sculpture in Canada. The opening dialogue was delivered by Dr. Peter Clarke, now retired as professor of modern British History and master of Trinity College, Cambridge, who gave further context with an analysis of, and introduction to, Jeffrey Rubinoff’s ideas. Subsequent presentations were delivered by Linda Goddard and Alistair Rider, both art historians at the University of St Andrews, Fife, Scotland, Christopher Butterfield of UVic’s School of Music, and Photograhper Sergei Petrov, who was raised and educated in Russia but now lives on Pender Island.

Linda Goddard addressed the creative tension between artists and writers. She argued that:

“We should consider artists’ writings not as supplementary to their visual practice, nor as a subset of an existing literary genre (be it criticism, theory or fiction), but as a category with its own – not yet fully explored – pressures and conventions.”

Her proposition extended to the way in which observers understand artists’ writings. If we read them as explanations of works of art, or even as keys for understanding, we place a limit on interpretation. Instead of seeking meaning, we should instead question why many artists’ texts tend towards aphorism and even, sometimes, deliberate obfuscation. Goddard suggested that this style of writing was (and continues to be) a response to the development and institutionalization of  “the art critic,” which began at the same time as the first great proliferation of artists’ writings in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Visual artists, Goddard suggests, use words as a complementary avenue for reclaiming meaning, or at least ambiguity, for their work. Certainly this approach made it easier to understand Jeffrey Rubinoff’s aphorisms, the most often-quoted of which states: “Art is an act of will in accord with a mature conscience.”

The second dialogue, given by Alaistair Rider, situated Rubinoff’s work within the tradition of Modernist sculpture. Rider reviewed Rubinoff’s work, which is predominantly abstract and exclusively made from steel. He analysed how Rubinoff’s sculpture relates to the environment, and showed images of some of the first Modern works removed from the studio and placed in the landscape. He referred to pieces by Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, and David Smith. The talk turned, through the relationship of the work and its environment, to  “counterpoint” – a musical term that refers to the relationship between independent yet harmonic voices. This brought the symposium to the third presentation, delivered by composer Christopher Butterfield on the subject of counterpoint itself, as well as the relationship that does or does not exist between music and sculpture. A suggestion was put forward that music and sculpture are more closely connected than sculpture and painting, because both possess plastic properties – spatial and physical characteristics that endure through time. Jeffrey Rubinoff suggested that although there are similarities, the visual arts are distinct from theatre, literature, and music because they are the only forms that can exist outside time.

The weekend’s final presentation,  delivered by Sergei Petrov, addressed the issues surrounding the photography of sculpture. In Petrov’s view, all sculpture photography should be perceived – especially by its creator – as a predestined failure. He takes this position because, in his view, sculptural photography should never aim to be art work in its own right, but only a summary presentation of the information held within the work of art. Because sculptural information is retained in three-dimensional space, a photograph – a two dimensional form – can never hope to present an accurate representation. It will, therefore, ultimately fail. One of the delegates protested that this view presented a somewhat Platonic notion of the sculptural photograph, one that suggests a single, valid way of looking. This comment neatly summed up a theme that had run throughout the talks – that to place boundaries around the work of art, whether it be the artist’s writing, the way sculpture relates to nature or music, or the way it should be captured in a photograph is, by definition, to limit its cultural resonance and the means by which it can be understood.

Annabel Howard is an art historian and critic. 

Poetry springs from everyday life in East Vancouver

By Bren Simmers
Nightwood Editions
96 pages; $18.95

Reviewed by Cole Mash

East Vancouver, like the rest of the capitalist world, is an area in a state of constant decay and repair. Parking lots are paved for the condos beside them, followed by people and their cars to fill those parking lots. Hastings- Sunrise, the second collection of poetry from Bren Simmers, gives us one full year of the everyday in the growing and crumbling neighbourhood of East Vancouver, a place Simmers once called home. She has previously published one book of poetry, Night Gears (Wolsak and Wynn, 2010) and won the 2006 Arc Poetry Magazine Poem of the Year Award. Though she muses on Vancouver, like so many Canadian poets before her, Simmers resides in the more rural Squamish, B.C.

Heisenburg’s Uncertainty Principle states that one cannot measure an object’s speed and position at the same time. A moving object cannot have a fixed position. Simmers recognizes the fluidity of the urban place and proves the exception to this principle. Distilling East Vancouver into letters, Simmers gives us a concrete world that, while fixed on a map, is in constant motion. The book moves through the year beginning in March, and each section is marked with dates alerting the reader to the season, each date accompanied by a beautifully packed sentence (moment): “Petals strung like popcorn/March 21.” Sunrise runs, crosses crosswalks and changes lanes, but it rarely sits. The book cultivates this velocity through rapid imagery describing the amassing and oscillating stimuli of a growing city, “Hong Kong Bakery, Pies 2 for $7, Keys Cut Here.” In this quotation from the unnamed first poem we have a number of signs which move the reader down the street, each sign and location packed with a narrative of their own in only one sentence.

Simmers maps the city carefully, appealing to all of our senses with crisp vignettes and a diversity of form and language. “What’ll it be today, Henry,” a barista asks among the roar of steaming espresso machines and the smell of chai and Scrabble. Most of the poems are titleless, which allows every poem to be about the time spent between two sunrises on Hastings. Many of the poems appear to sprawl across the page in a formless free-verse structure, but the enjambment of sound and step propel the reader forward over each crack in the sidewalk that Simmers brings to life. There are visual poems in the form of maps, like the table of contents which represents the streets of east Vancouver, though “not to scale” as Simmers playfully reminds us; footnotes; fill in the blanks for an hours log; and even a Venn Diagram illustrating the contrast of the busy Vancouver and the pastoral constitution of the fictional “Saska-Wollup.”

Most prominently, among the delight in form, Simmers has a lyric eye that poignantly and carefully captures and illuminates the everydayness of life. Despite being a book about a specific place, in this way Sunrise becomes universal. Simmers writes, “I still covet a fireplace, a hammock/doors we can close.” It is due to this combination of specificity and universality that I found Simmers book so engrossing. Often when I read poetry, I find myself reading a poem or two and then putting the book down to let the poems settle; however, with Sunrise, I read it almost straight through. I wanted to feel a year go by in an afternoon and be guided by Simmers through a part of Vancouver I didn’t know very well. Now, after reading the book, I feel like I’ve spent a whole life there, and it was a good one.

Cole Mash holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Creative Writing and English from UBC Okanagan. His poetry has been published in UBC Okanagan’s Papershell Anthology and The Eunoia Review.

David Suzuki talks about aging, racism and family

David Suzuki’s work as a scientist, environmentalist and broadcaster has made him one of Canada’s most recognized–and at times controversial– people. Trained as a geneticist, Suzuki found a niche early in his career in making science compelling, and understandable, to everyday people. He has published more than 50 books, including 19 for children. His 30-year career in broadcasting includes developing and hosting CBC’s long running science program Quirks and Quarks and numerous award-winning documentaries. David Suzuki spoke to Stephanie Harrington about his latest, most personal book, Letters to My Grandchildren, for The Coastal Spectator. What follows is is an edited excerpt from their interview.

In the foreword to Letters to My Grandchildren, you write that you’ve been introducing yourself as an elder for the past several years. Yet accepting that you are in the last part of your life, what you call the “death zone,” has been difficult. What does it mean to you to be an elder, and why did you decide to take on that role?

In our society, where youth and being young is so important, I was very reluctant to take on the role of elder. But the reality is, when you get to a certain age, you can’t deny it any longer. I’ve watched the elders in First Nations communities. They are regarded really as the most important group in the community and often you talk to some of the young political activists and … the elders are a constant reference point to them. As I reflected on that, I realized [that] to be an elder is something you earn by living an entire life and in fact you now owe it to society to share your knowledge. You are the living history of the community. I urge my fellow elders to stop avoiding the word elder and realize it not only confers respect but obligation. I think we’re in a unique position, we’ve lived an entire life, we’re free to speak as we wish. We can draw on our experience to provide lessons to the coming generation.

Also, my (maternal) grandparents came to Canada in 1904 and left in 1946 after they were interned in camps during the Second World War.  My grandparents never spoke English, I never spoke Japanese. We never ever had a conversation. When they left, really important questions I felt were part of my roots were gone. I feel now that I’m an elder, I don’t want to kick the bucket and to have my grandchildren say,  “I wanted to talk to my grandpa about this or that.”

You’ve written more than 50 books, but this has been called your most personal. Each chapter is written as a letter to your six grandchildren, addressing a range of topics from racism to fame to aging. The voice is intimate and conversational; the letters feel as if they should be read aloud. Was this intentional? Who do you hope the book reaches, in terms of audience?

It is a very personal letter to my grandchildren, and I wrote it that way, but it is a book that is for sale, and I hope people, old and young, buy it. I hope it triggers a response in readers to make it a personal thing and an inspection of their own priorities and experiences. It’s up to them to get out of it what they want. I didn’t think of it [as being read aloud], although it is written as if I was talking to my grandchildren. What’s interesting to me is this was a piece of cake to write because it was a like a conversation. In the reading though, it has become a very personal thing.  [In] one segment I was so emotional I couldn’t read it; it was a passage to my mother. Another couple of sections I’ve written to my grandchildren, I choked up in the reading.

It wasn’t challenging to write something personal because my whole life has been an open book. [With] most of my books, the reception is mixed: there are people who hate my guts and they’re going to tear down anything you find, but this one I was really surprised. I gave the June Callwood lecture recently (in Toronto), and people were coming up crying because they were so touched. I have been struck and moved by that response.

One of the most moving aspects of the book for me was reading about your family’s internment during the Second World War in the Slocan Valley, in what is now Valhalla Provincial Park. You’ve described this experience in another interview as bittersweet. It had a devastating effect on your family. Your maternal grandparents decided to leave Canada and return to Japan after the war ended, and your parents, born Canadians, were stripped of their rights, possessions and livelihood. But living in the Slocan Valley allowed you to experience the natural world in a way you hadn’t before. Can you tell us more about how you feel about this period in your life?

As a kid, your parents shield you from what’s going on. It only occurred to me when I was on the train [to the internment camp] that everybody on the train was Japanese. When we got to the camps, I was one of the few kids who couldn’t speak Japanese. I was in one of the oldest Canadian Japanese families at that time. The Japanese kids beat me up all the time because I couldn’t speak Japanese. The result of that is I tried to avoid being around them. I was this loner who spent all this time outside by myself in what is now a magnificent provincial park.

Yeah, I have mixed feelings. My parents were just in their early 30s. It was shattering to them. They were Canadians. As an adult, I feel angry for my parents, but as a kid [I] was torn between my experience with other kids and spending time in this magnificent park. I don’t dwell on the war in this book, but I am very concerned about the issue of racism. When people asked me what shaped my life, I say Pearl Harbour. Up to Pearl Harbour I was just a Canadian kid. Pearl Harbour changed that. I have a knee-jerk response to racism. Two of my grandchildren are Haida, and the most recent one, their grandfather is Metis. They’re going to be hurt by many bigots. I tell them it is the love of family and community that is their shield. Don’t let someone who is ignorant attack you or criticize you or hurt you because they don’t know you. They’re just speaking out of ignorance. I’m trying to get them strong enough so it won’t hurt them. A bigot who hurts you, a person who hates a gay person or woman or Muslim, those people are your enemy. Your role in life is to protest and speak against any example of someone being picked on. They might be the victims now, but you may be the victim in the future.

Your father emerges as an intriguing character in this book. Can you talk more about the influence he had on your life, specifically your love of nature?

My father, he was my hero, he was my mentor. He made me feel I was a pretty important guy. He loved me. But he was very demanding. My dad beat me physically: he spanked me, kicked me. He was a tough guy, but my love for my father overrode everything. The biggest hurt was by words, not by actions. When he was mad at me, he’d threaten to pull me out of school — that was my biggest fear, having my education interrupted. The hard part for me was worshiping my father and realizing he was a human being with all the frailties that come with that. He loved the outdoors. As the eldest son in a family of seven kids, of the eldest son in an immigrant family, he was expected to set an example. For his mother and father, that meant, you’ve got to make money. Dad worked hard his whole life, he loved camping, he loved gardening. He was a real biologist in a way that was far more profound than my biology. He loved fishing but he was constantly being berated by his parents. They’d say, “Why did you go camping with David this weekend? You could have been working.”  That only endeared him to me more. He didn’t care about money. He taught us, just because you have a big house or fancy cars doesn’t mean you’re more important. My earliest memory of fishing was at four years old. He just took me camping. Even in the camps during the war, we weren’t supposed to be fishing, but we’d go off and fish like mad and go camping in the mountains. Thanks to dad, I have a real love for nature. It was just part of who he was.

In this book I talk about my mother. She was a rock in our family. She did it without fanfare. Mum was keeping the family together . . . I say in the book, the most selfless, kindest human being I’ve ever met was my mother. But when she died,  I realized when my sister and my children die, no one will ever know who she was, and she will disappear from human memory. We hear of all these famous people but what about all the millions of people who all they did was struggle to survive? They lived, worked, suffered. I always have to struggle to live up to being like my mother, I have to try to fill her shoes, I have to do it all the time. The kids seem so impressed when someone’s on TV and they become a celebrity but they shouldn’t be. They should put it in its place. Fame of that kind doesn’t interest me at all; it’s what I’m doing now that matters.

In Letters to My Grandchildren, you write: “Acceptance of aging is part of getting older; some call it wisdom. And when we accept what we are, then we define ourselves and no longer care how others see us. Believe me, that is totally liberating and gives power to an elder who is speaking.” Do you feel free of all constraints now?

For me, one of the greatest gifts I received when I still a young man was tenure at UBC. I’d just turned 30 and I got tenure. What that meant was I couldn’t get fired because they didn’t like me. There were people on the board that constantly wanted to fire me, but because I got tenure I didn’t have to worry about it. Way back in the early 80s, the Haida were going and getting arrested. I’d done a film about it and I said to the CBC I’m going to go out there and support them. I was told the CBC will yank you off air. My grandson (Tamo) recently got arrested on Burnaby Mountain but I’m still held back because of the threat of The Nature of Things getting cancelled…

I want people to understand age brings this tremendous freedom from worrying about other people’s influence on you . . . if you say the truth and speak it from your heart and someone is offended that’s their problem, not yours. I don’t worry about pissing someone off; most people still hesitate and worry. You shouldn’t–we’re free from that.

The main thing now is my health. I know I’m in the death zone. I can drop dead any time. As long as I’m healthy, I’m going to be in there and doing what I can. It’s about my grandchildren and what their future is going to be … I can’t imagine a bigger cause than taking to task a prime minister who has wilfully ignored an issue that threatens the survival of Canada, just because he’s got an agenda based on petroleum… To this day he has deliberately ignored the climate and environment in his last budget. It’s absolutely outrageous.

Story collection grapples with loss and grief

What Can’t Be Undone

By dee Hobsbawn-Smith

Thistledown Press

200 pages; $18.95

Reviewed by Traci Skuce

The cover picture on dee Hobsbawn-Smith’s new collection of stories, What Can’t Be Undone, is of a rope pulled taut. The plies of the rope are severed and frayed, and only a single strand holds it together. And this is exactly where we meet the narrators of these stories: along that one, tenuous strand, grappling with grief or loss.

dee Hobsbawn-Smith lives in Saskatchewan, where undoubtedly the landscape inspires her work. Her poetry, essays, fiction, and journalism, have appeared in Canadian, American, and international literary journals, newspapers, magazines and anthologies including The Malahat Review, Gastronomica and Western Living. Her first book of poetry, Wildness Rushing In, was published in 2014. What Can’t Be Undone is her first collection of short stories.

These 13 stories all deal with relationships and what is lost within them. The careful, textured prose reveals Hobsbawn-Smith compassion for her characters. None come off as two-dimensional stand-ins for the questions she explores. They’re deeply imagined people, honest and true.

“Monroe’s Mandolin” depicts a woman who owns a bar. She runs the bar, the Foundry, bought it for her brother, a man who’s life is lost to addiction. “I told myself it would give Cory a refuge if he ever reclaims himself. That it had nothing to do with me, or what I want. But my life is locked into these bricks and boards. Cory’s has gone to waste. I don’t know anymore if I am looking for hope in my twin’s life or in my own.”

In “The Quinzhee,” a woman recounts the winter her brother, then 14, became obsessed building a quinzhee, a shelter made by hollowing out a pile of settled snow. He died and, decades later, she still feels responsible. On the other hand, is “Still Life with Birds”, a story of sisters. Ariana, the younger of the two, runs a restaurant and tends to the convalescent Violetta. We learn Ariana has donated a kidney to Violetta, who still lives. But it’s expected she’ll die within 15 years, and Ariana treats her with kid gloves, terrified of that impending loss.

I appreciated how place permeates Hobsbawn-Smith’s work, the landscape always varied—Vancouver streets, rural Alberta and Saskatchewan, coastal Vancouver Island—and always rendered with a poetic sensibility. Hobsbawn-Smith’s sentences read in a sorrowful cadence which echo, not only the characters’ grief, but the expansive landscape.

In “Other Mothers’ Sons,” Joanna drives along southern B.C. toward Calgary, picks up a hitch-hiker, a boy the age her son was when he died. As she drives, he sleeps: “She glanced at the boy, wondering if he looked like his mother. If she missed him. Surely. The borealis leaped from sky to windshield, the sky baroque and wild and beautiful. The boy slept on, his head rolling, unaware of Joanna beside him, her head thrown back, looking and weeping for what she could never hold again.”

While Hobsbawn-Smith’s strength is in description and character, her dialogue, I felt, often faltered. Sometimes she uses dialect, dropped g‘s, and twangy ain’ts that grated my reading ear. Other times, it didn’t feel like enough was bubbling beneath the speech, the dialogue an exchange of little more than information.

In the end, though, this collection offers an honest exploration of what keeps us in this world after we’ve endured monumental loss. How it is through our unmendable, human heartbreak that we somehow find the strength to carry on.

Traci Skuce is a writer based in the Comox Valley. She recently completed her MFA at Pacific University, Oregon.

Cop-author tells it like it is

Vancouver Blue

By Wayne Cope

Harbour Publishing

223 pages, $22.95

Reviewed by Adam Hayman

If you like crime procedurals on TV, Vancouver Blue will entertain you. If you are like me, with a case of police phobia, it helps reveal cops as real humans. Wayne Cope’s stories sound like he’s sharing them over a beer, and he pursues a good tale the way he did his police work – with a sharp eye for detail and a measured attention span.

Cope divides his book into sections: his stint on the dog squad, as a beat cop, a detective, a motorcycle cop with the traffic division, in the major crimes division, and the historical homicide unit (a handful of years on each section speaks in part to his measured attention span). His book time on the force begins in 1975 and ends in 2009. Each section is packed with fully fleshed-out anecdotes and Cope’s theories on policing. “I developed my own rule about writing tickets: leave the humans alone. So regular taxpayers got warnings. Scrotes, drunks, criminals and gangsters got tickets. And I’ve maintained that rule for more than 34 years of policing.”

Within the first 50 pages, Cope sets himself up as that overly honest uncle we all have (or wish we did), laying down the world in a black and white fashion. He frequently makes clear delineations – with little wiggle room – between a good person and a bad person with. “We have the most liberal judges in the civilized world, judges who are incapable of dealing with these repeat offenders who, in a sane world, would never be released from prison.” He also paints all drug users with the same brush and never offers any sympathy, but after reading Cope’s stories, and learning how he thinks, I’m sure he would respond, “Why should I?”

Cope’s bar-talk style of writing affects his transitions between anecdotes. In a bar, gulps of beer can be enough of a transition into the next tale, but in Vancouver Blue Cope frequently will just start a new paragraph with a sentence like, “And now for the fastest confession ever obtained.” However, while I’m not sure in what order Cope wrote his stories, the writing seemed to improve as the book progressed. By the end of the book, Cope is sharing with us his time on the historical homicide unit, cracking cold cases and organizing long undercover stings on crooked criminals. This section of the book was a highlight for me, and is perfect fodder for anyone who binge-watches crime procedurals.

For a book that is amusing, easy to read and truly honest about police work, I would look no further than Vancouver Blue. I only wish I could have heard the stories directly from Cope himself. Perhaps he should record an audiobook.

Adam Hayman is a Victoria journalist and reviewer.

Memoir revisits Red Cross work in Cambodia

Victoria resident Elaine Harvey published her first book of creative nonfiction with the North Saanich firm, Promontory Press , for Encounters on the Front Line. The press describes itself as “a traditional book publisher that doesn’t like the way the traditional industry has gone when it comes to being accessible to new authors.” Harvey describes herself as a “neophyte in the daunting world of publishing.” In looking for a publisher, she “considered everything from DIY to Smashwords to a call for new writers from Penguin Australia.”  The process kept her busy – and waiting — for two years. After hearing repeatedly that the publishing world was in crisis, she chose the collaborative model offered by Promontory because “it was important for me to be involved in the format and cover design of my book.” Harvey recently spoke with Lynne Van Luven about the challenge of wresting a narrative from her own journals and historical events.

Elaine, Encounters on the Front Line, your first book, has been almost half a lifetime in the making. Can you tell me a little about what motivated the young woman who, in 1980, undertook her “quest of the heart” to use her nursing skills for the International Red Cross on the war-wracked border of Cambodia?

My childhood dream was to work in Asia or Africa, having a sense of the world at an early age from my father. Later, nursing became a path that led to Cambodia. I am frequently asked why I was drawn to danger. I’m not particularly brave, but I was drawn to a desire to make a difference, to do something in the world, beyond my own backyard. Something that mattered and it did matter to the Cambodian refugees that we, the front line aid workers, were there. The paradox of this quest is that one gives a great deal in terribly difficult conditions but at the same time receives extraordinary gifts. One gift is a deeper understanding of our shared humanity. It keeps me curious, concerned and I hope humble.

I adjusted quickly to the realities of the refugee camp, having already travelled in the “third world,” but the dramatic death of a teenage girl on my third day at work catapulted me into front-line work. Decades later in writing Encounters on the Front Line I understood better the impact of this kind of work– the witnessing and the vicarious trauma that led to a continuing quest to find my own path, be it a worldly or a spiritual one. Front lines test how far we will go, how much we will give and how deep we will travel.     

Your book is divided into three parts – The Border (1980), Pilgrimage (2007-08) and A Greater Mystery (2009);  to write it you had to assimilate and amalgamate experiences and notes from a 30-year span of time. That must have been a daunting undertaking. What process or techniques did you use to help you organize your material and find a sustaining narrative spine?

Yes, it was daunting. My techniques, if any, or at best learnt along the way, were simple. I transcribed journals to the computer. I didn’t wander from the present tense. I didn’t wander from my lived experience. With writing The Border, memories surfaced that led to the return to Cambodia, which I envisioned as a pilgrimage.

Cambodia was a front line that slipped away into the cluttered sidelines of my life. Years later, years changed, I read from my worn blue and gold journal, a faded Red Cross on its cover: “Do not forget us. Come back.” That was a half a lifetime ago: a haunting call, a subliminal message, and an unresolved question of my heart.

There was the call of the refugee, as well as a deep curiosity about the new Cambodia. I travelled, I volunteered, I met exceptional people and I wrote. The book emerged. The narrative arc may have been as simple (or as complex) as the need to find a thread from my past and bring it into the present. The reveries give glimpses into some existential doubts, conflicts and resolutions that move the story forward.  The transition between 1980 and 2007 was unwieldy. I attempted to fill the gap with ‘the rest of my life’ but the more I tried the less it worked. Only three months after my six months in Cambodia, I went to Africa with the Red Cross, another human and environmental disaster. The narrative arc needed focus so I chose to keep Encounters on the Front Line in Cambodia.

Your subtitle is Cambodia: A Memoir and you have given your readers a timeline, maps and a bibliography to help them understand the importance of the people you are writing about. Your book is a memoir of both your own development and the changes in the country itself. Feelings of both hope and sadness pervade your writing. What is your hope today as you look back on the place that both captured your heart and (to quote one of your co-workers) “punched you in the face”?

My hope for Cambodia, as it would be for any country, is that it will find its place as an equal in the global community. With all the challenges of an emerging economy – poverty, inadequate health care and education, political oppression and corruption – this requires a radical shift in global consciousness. Global disparities aside, I encourage people young or old, to travel, to volunteer, to understand ‘the other’ as more similar than different. I would wish Cambodians the same opportunities.

Cambodia has a pervasive sorrow (mental health data is alarming) though its people can be as gracious as the lotus blooming in muddy waters. The country has a dark history but there is a new generation, educated and concerned about the future. There is hope. My life has its losses and sorrow, yet hope . . . provides the connection to our common humanity.

Can you describe how negotiated the challenging meld of fact, event, emotional experiences and memory in Encounters on the Front Line, with respect to the creative nonfiction credo of telling true stories in a dramatic fashion without straying into fiction? 

Straying into fiction never seemed an option; in fact it didn’t cross my mind. I was not a writer of fiction and was just learning the art of nonfiction. On the other hand, I was perhaps doggedly determined to tell the truth such as I experienced it. I recorded the subjective accounts of those experiences in my journals, not knowing that later in life I would write a book. My responses to the traumatic events I witnessed in a refugee camp were through the lens of direct experience, at times raw, terse or emotional. I was not doing historical research or investigative journalism; facts were difficult to glean in the midst of a disaster zone.

When I returned to Cambodia (2007 to 2009), I read extensively, but more important were my encounters and connections with the people. Cambodians shared their stories with or without an interpreter, on matters light or serious, in a straightforward manner.

“This is the way I hear the Khmer talk, the truth of their lives too hard to bear. Their stories are not embellished. The bare facts are enough.”

To soften the dilemma of nonfiction (do no harm versus telling the truth) was challenging. For the most part, I didn’t construct composite characters but wrote the stories that people willingly told me. I also knew that certain stories associated with past trauma in the Khmer Rouge era had to be told with care.

 You seem to me to be someone torn between activism and authorhood. Do you think of both roles as part of a continuum, two separate impulses or just stages in your own maturation process? 

One role of the writer, particularly in nonfiction, is to inform or educate or inspire a greater understanding of a subject. I’ve tried to understand the paradoxes within my own life and in Encounters on the Front Line, some of the paradoxes within Cambodia:

“I bridge two worlds, as travellers often do. I see both sides, living on this beautiful broken planet, its oceans and earth in danger, its global citizens living lives as scattered as the stars. My anger is under cover, like watching the news with a glassy-eyed stare, my selective filter screening out what I don’t want to hear. I care; I’m indifferent. I’m concerned; I turn a blind eye. I give generously; I hardly give a dol­lar.”

Today it is unlikely that I would work in a high conflict zone, but there are many paths to engagement in a complex world. I aspire to some sort of “activism and author hood.’’ The quest for voice becomes an evolving voice, a journey of reaching out and reaching in, not as separate but as interwoven threads of my life.

Anthology reflects indigenous concerns

Me Artsy

Edited by Drew Hayden Taylor

Douglas & McIntyre

266 pages, $22.95

Reviewed by Annabel Howard                                                                     

Me Artsy, the third in a series of anthologies (Me Funny in 2006 and Me Sexy in 2008) edited by Drew Hayden Taylor, seeks to illuminate the practice of indigenous artists. Fourteen artists, whose mediums range from film, painting and dance, to drum-making, writing, cooking, and anime, write essays as various as the art forms they represent. As editor, Haden Taylor brings his own breadth as a playwright, novelist and script writer to the collection. Its range includes the highly academic (cultural theorist Karyn Recollet’s “For Sisters”), the personal (Zacharias Kunuk’s “The Story of my Life” and Maxine Noel’s “My Grandmother’s Eyes”), and even the practical (Uncle Richard Van Camp’s “Storytelling Tips”).

Despite this diversity, strong themes emerge as a reader pores over the articles. Hayden Taylor’s introduction focuses on identity, stating that art: “shows who we are, and what is important to us.” The theme of identity is picked up by many of the authors. For example, actor and playwright Monique Mojica believes it is her responsibility to recover both a personal and a cultural identity, and to proactively transform her people’s rage and sorrow into something positive for her community. Rose Stella, actor, singer and artistic director, places the arts at the centre of the “prevailing resurgence of Indigenous confidence, health, knowledge, identity and culture.” As she says in “Let’s Get Artsy – Yes, Let’s!”

“Identity is more than where you are from, your colour or a status card. Self-identity is about a calm self-confidence, a pride and belief in who you are and who your ancestors were.”

Art, Stella suggests, offers a portal to this identity, a chance for rediscovery and rebuilding.

A parallel, although separate theme, is that of the personal journey. It is unsurprising that many of the authors take this opportunity to situate their artistic practice not only within their discipline but within their community – many placing emphasis on how their work stems from and affects local, indigenous audiences, as well as how it speaks to North America as a whole. Many of the essays begin with biographical accounts: some shed light on what life was or is like on a reserve or – in the case of Zacharias Kunuk – to describe childhood on Baffin Island, with its experiences of seal hunting from a sod house in a community where nobody owned a television. Equally interesting is drum-maker Steve Teekens discussion of what it was like to encounter his own culture as a young adult, having grown up outside his first nation. A prevailing narrative within these autobiographical accounts is the importance of local support and native role-models. Many authors give thanks to people who paved their way – that is, made a future as a native artist seem a viable possibility. It was a pleasant surprise to encounter a divergence from the typical Western artist’s account of “personal struggle.” The struggles here are big enough to overwhelm the personal: something that should give pause for thought to today’s artists who are lucky enough to practice within the mainstream.

Through its 14 voices, Me Artsy does an admirable job of throwing light on the diversity of contemporary indigenous art production, as well as conveying how important the arts are for a sense of identity in the wider indigenous community. The book incites curiosity about the work of its artists, whilst allowing the authors some agency over how their work is received and evaluated. Although many authors acknowledge the injustices of the past, their voices cohere in a book that delivers more of a sense of celebration and maturity than agenda. “Uncle Richard” Van Camp perhaps best encapsulates the book’s overall message, with the following words: “No race has a monopoly on a better way of life. Every nation has something to offer us in the circle of life.”

Annabel Howard is a writer and critic with a background in art history.