Convergences. The final day of this year’s Writers Festival, a gorgeous Sunday afternoon in late October, Granville Island humming with people who seemed happy to be there, and two participants in an event who brought with them overlapping worlds of writers, those writers’ spirits crowding in to the low-lit intimacy of The Improv Centre. “I’m glad we made the effort to come,” my wife said to me at the end of the event. I often feel like that when I leave Festival events. Schedules, busy lives, time pressures, myriad reasons for not doing things, can keep many of us from the things that matter most. After engaging with the minds of writers at the Festival, people who think long and hard about our world and share their painstakingly constructed and personal responses to it, I frequently walk away with a sense of spiritual and intellectual intensification, as if everything has simultaneously been brought into sharper focus and given greater depth.
The United States, or America as many Americans refer to their country, lends itself to panorama, the large canvas. The size, diversity, wealth, power, fraught history — the extremes routinely provided by the country — present a challenge for any writer attempting to construct an essential narrative from that magnitude. For those who try, one approach is to gather a selection of characters, locales, and storylines, and interweave these multiple threads as they play out over an extended period of time, in the hope that from this representative selection will emerge the essence of a nation and an era. During the 1920s and 30s, John Dos Passos used this method in his novels, notably the U.S.A. trilogy, and Manhattan Transfer, and as George Packer told moderator Wayne Grady and the audience at UBC’s Frederic Wood Theatre during a well-attended Writers Festival event, Dos Passos “gave me a structure” when it came to forming the mass of material that would become The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America.
What would you say if in any given year, in a small but populous island state, orange people wrote 65% of the novels published, while green people wrote 35%, and orange people bought 83% of the novels, while green people preferred books about real things, big things, like climbing mountains, and wars, and yet when it came to handing out an annual major prize for ‘the best’ among these novels, green people received the prize twice as often as orange people? In other words, green people wrote one third of the published novels, but received two thirds of the prizes. On further inspection, it appeared that over time green people somewhat outnumbered orange people on the judging panels for this annual prize, and in the event that the four judges were deadlocked 2-2 regarding which novel should be the winner, a deciding vote would be cast by the chair of the panel — 82% of the time (as of 2012), a green person. If you were an orange person, expected to smile nicely and put up with this sort of inequity year after year, you might eventually exclaim, “Bugger this! If the green people aren’t going to give us a fair share of the prizes, we’ll just create our own prize. We’ll call it the Orange Prize!”
I wonder how many in the full house for City, a Wednesday-night panel discussion featuring the novelists Rawi Hage, Mohammed Hanif, and Pasha Malla, moderated by Andreas Schroeder, were hoping for an insight or two into our own city? I know I was. And by the end of the evening, I felt I had acquired some of that insight, or at least confirmation of things I’ve been feeling about Vancouver for some time, a place that in the past quarter century has been changing in radical and bewildering fashion.
The narrator of Hage’s new novel, Carnival, is a taxi driver in a city that Schroeder characterized as “insistently not named, strategically not named,” but which could be a hybrid of Montreal, where Hage currently lives, and where he once drove a cab, and New York City, where he first moved after leaving his native Lebanon in 1984, and its brutal civil war. Of the two passages Hage read from the novel, the first was a meditation on rain, and driving a taxi in the rain, playing to the audience perhaps, in a city well acquainted with rain. Hage does weather well, using it as an evocative undercurrent for the moods and ideas running through his fiction. At the Writers Festival in 2008, he create a similar powerful effect with his description of the protagonist of Cockroach walking through the frozen dark of a subzero Montreal night.
Given the richness and scope of his life work, you might think that Bill New grew up somewhere cosmopolitan . . . Vancouver feels increasingly cosmopolitan, and perhaps it always has been in some respects, the carapace of Britishness never fitting as snugly here as it might have elsewhere. In South Hill, the working class and immigrant Vancouver neighbourhood where New did grow up, a mix of ethnicities and languages was already hinting, in the 1940s and 50s, that one could be of a specific time and place while also being a kosmopolitēs, a citizen of the world.
Journeying out and returning home, the relation of here and elsewhere, the nature of dwelling on a margin or inhabiting an interzone, have for half a century been fertile ground for New’s inquiring and generous mind — first in his large body of literary criticism, and over the past fifteen years in an increasingly large body of poetry. The title of New’s tenth book of poetry is YVR, the three-letter code for Vancouver’s international airport emblematic of the city we’ve become, the velocity that governs our lives. By taking a site of perpetual motion as a motif, the book slyly captures velocity and transience, as much as they can be captured. The accessible poems offer a version of the city at this particular moment, while revealing this moment to contain all previous moments. Much will be familiar to those who live here, and recognizable to inhabitants of other cities, or seemingly familiar, seemingly recognizable, for the poems invariably work down into those deeper levels where we ponder who we are, and the essence of our connection with where we live. As these lines from “Main Street” put it:
. . . it is the always that we dream of, living every day in change: At 49th, nearing my old neighbourhood, is it myself I’m looking for?
I was lucky to study with Bill at UBC during the latter half of the 1980s, and I’ve been luckier still to remain friends in the years since. I hope the interview conveys something of the freewheeling email correspondence and conversations I’ve enjoyed over the years, and of our shared interest in the somewhat enigmatic Vancouver.
Bill New will be appearing at Incite with Steven Price and Julie Bruck at Vancouver Public Library on Wednesday, March 7.
Tell us about your latest book of poetry, YVR.
The simplest thing to say is that YVR is a long poem about Vancouver. But that’s probably too simple. The poem does not claim that Vancouver has a uniform identity — far from it: the city, from my perspective at least, has a cumulative identity that keeps emerging from its multiple, always-changing neighbourhoods. So my challenge in writing the poem was to evoke a sense of these differences without the whole work disintegrating. I started off by writing a series of glimpses of different (maybe ‘iconic’) images of the city — but that didn’t work. While I did want to write about Vancouver, and about urban space (less common in Canadian writing that you might expect), I realized I needed to suggest a sense of time — of what I’ve just called ‘cumulation’ — not just of artifact. So I began to integrate the Vancouver I remember with the Vancouver I currently see, and the poem ended up being more personal, a kind of combination critique and love song. But even that might mislead. Recently I’ve taken to calling YVR a faux quasi-autobiography. Rather than haul some ‘ideal’ moment back to life, however, the poem comes to celebrate the flawed city as a living place. It asks: How does a community live, and how do we live as a community? In the book itself, I’ve said that the poem brings together “stories, inventions, histories, songs.” That’s what it does; that’s what the city does as well.
Stephen Osborne, Anakana Schofield, Daniel Francis, and Jean Barman
In my previous post I considered the role writing can play in self-definition, and in the often fraught question of identity. One way of framing the event I attended on the final day of the Writers Festival is that it extended these same concerns to the city of Vancouver and its citizens.
Vancouver 125 Legacy Books gathered the members of an advisory committee responsible for deciding, earlier this year, which out-of-print Vancouver books — local classics — should be republished in a project jointly undertaking by The Association of Book Publishers of BC and the Office of Vancouver’s Poet Laureate Brad Cran, and partially funded by the City of Vancouver. The committee members were historians Jean Barman and Daniel Francis, writer, editor and publisher Stephen Osborne, and writers Anakana Schofield and Michael Turner. Turner acted as moderator for the event because, as he told the audience, none of his suggested books made the final cut, although he was “pretty happy with the process” and the final results. (Maxine Gadd’s Lost Language: Selected Poems was one of Turner’s suggestions.) Cran, who just completed his tenure as city poet laureate, was in the audience and added some comments during the Q&A.
Kathryn Gretsinger, Jen Sookfong Lee, Ling Zhang, and Kevin Chong
I felt an interesting if subtle shift take place toward the end of the ironically titled Bamboo Lettering, a Saturday afternoon panel discussion involving Kevin Chong, Jen Sookfong Lee, and Ling Zhang, moderated by CBC radio journalist Kathryn Gretsinger. Two or three questions from the audience were of the writerly type: How do you come up with your story ideas? What do e-books mean for writers? What sort of research did you do? The intention of the event was to explore how Canadian writers of Chinese descent navigate the issues of identity, race, culture, family, or as the Festival program described it, “the tension between avoiding your heritage and embracing your heritage.” And those questions were certainly well aired and discussed. However, as the event progressed, and the personalities of the three writers emerged through what they read from their work, and through their responses to Gretsinger’s politely astute questions, the whole issue of “Chinese-ness” or Otherness seemed to drop away. As if the audience and the panel at a certain point had had enough of the topic and it was time to move on. And we were left with three writers discussing their work and the business of writing with an audience interested in hearing the details. Much as it should be, and as it would be with a panel of white Canadian writers.
During the Q&A at the end of Vancouver Seen, a Tuesday evening panel of Vancouver writers Dennis E. Bolen, Kevin Chong, Zsuzsi Gartner, and Jen Sookfong Lee, an audience member reiterated a couple of the questions from the description of the event in the Festival program. “What kind of literary community exists in Vancouver? What is the nature of relationships between writers?” He was probably hoping for a more substantive answer than what had emerged to that point. I’m interested in Vancouver writing, but I’d also been attracted to the event, in part, by the series of questions in the program. They’re interesting questions, not throwaways used to fill out a few lines of copy. Here are the questions, which I’ll attempt to answer — or at least mull over — based on what the authors read from their work, and on the ensuing discussion, moderated by Vancouver Magazine executive editor John Burns.
I started collecting books about my hometown a few years ago. Initially, I thought there hadn’t been much published, and if you were to take away the titles of the last ten or fifteen years, perhaps there’s an argument to be made. I wondered about a lack of self-reflection among Vancouverites, a gaze focused south to the United States, or in earlier decades, across an ocean, to Britain. As I continued to dig, I came to realize that a number of interesting books, and interesting writers, did exist.
Eight events in seven days, thirty-four writers, and judging by the way I felt the next morning, one overly late and overly liquid night spent yakking with writers and other people associated with the Festival. All of it squeezed around a full-time job. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. I told my wife months ago that this year I would pace myself. I just didn’t realize the pace would be one suited to the Indy 500. Anyway . . .
I thought I’d use my last post of this year’s Festival blog for some brief accounts of the writers, readings, or comments I found particularly memorable or resonant, while recognizing that someone else could come up with a completely different list.