Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Women's World Cup of Literature: Open Letter Books

I am so thankful that Open Letter and Chad Post work so hard to promote writing. I don't know whose idea it was but last summer during the World Cup they did the World Cup of Literature where they had battles between writers from various countries. What a great idea and what a great way to promote writing. (Incidentally, it was through this that I discovered the work of Mexican phenomenon Valeria Luiselli whose work Faces in the Crowd is a knock-out).

Brazilian writer Adriana Lisboa
They are currently running the Women's World Cup of Literature and has been really interesting to keep track of. I have to say as someone deeply involved in the world of literature, I am shocked at how hard it is to find women writers in many countries.

The Spanish-speaking world in general has only a handful of women writers publishing and if you do any search online for Spanish writing or Mexican writing or Argentine, etc., at least 90% of the writers are men. It's so unfortunate and so misleading.

Right now in the Women's World Cup of Literature there are four books battling it out:

Assault on Paradise by Costa Rican writer Tatiana Lobo


Crow Blue by Brazilian Adriana Lisboa

and at the same time:

Home by Toni Morrison  is battling it out with Nigerian Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Americanah.

I consistently admire what Open Letter does, not only are they working to combat the lack of women in the literary world, they work hard to introduce translated literature generally to the world. What a great mission.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Vaclav Havel: A Life

Slow time of year: still lots going on at the office but nothing urgent for the most part, which means we are all taking time to read, file reports, have meetings to brainstorm and all the other things we do in between Festivals.

Been reading a fair amount this June so far: an excellent biography of former Czech leader and dissident and playwright, Vaclav Havel.

When I was younger, I went through a phase where I was crazy about Czech writers: Milan Kundera and Jiri Weil and Havel and many others. Not all of these writers appeal to me in the same way now, of course, but I have enjoyed re-acquainting myself with some of their works.

But Havel's biography by his friend Michael Zantovsky was a good read. He tells us early on that it's a tricky task to write "the" biography of someone who is a good friend but though the book is hardly critical in any serious fashion, it does give us an interesting vision of who Havel was as an artist, less so as a man.

The book contextualizes Czech art and especially writing through the 60s and into the 80s and also detailed the breakup of Czechoslovakia with details I have long wondered about. Vaclav, who died in 2011, was a writer whose work I encountered (for some bizarre reason) as a young man when I worked hard to get my hands on every play he wrote that had been translated into English. His plays aren't to everyone's taste: they are absurdist and often allegorical, but they appealed to the romantic notions I had back then about writers struggling to create in an oppressive regime. When Havel was elected as President to Czechoslovakia I remember feeling so happy that I knew who he was and knew his work.

After this very interesting biography, I then turned to Milan Kundera (who has a new book out this summer) and re-read The Unbearable Lightness of Being, a book I loved in my early 20s but that I haven't thought about in a long time. I didn't like it nearly as much as when I was younger, but I did find it an interesting experience to go through the story again, much of which I'd forgotten. It was too esoteric, too many bold and sound-byte statements that if you actually break them down, were silly and even trite. ("A single metaphor can give birth to love."). Still, it was a nice nostalgic project...

Since I moved a few weeks ago, I will have to dig out some of my other old books by Czech writers, Ivan Klima, Jiri Weil, etc. and encounter their works again after many years.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Denise Levertov

A Reward

Tired and hungry, late in the day, impelled
to leave the house and search for what
might life me back to what I had fallen away from,
I stood by the shore waiting.
I had walked in the silent woods:
the trees withdrew into their secrets.
Dusk was smoothing breadths of silk
over the lake, watery amethyst fading to gray.
Ducks were clustered in sleeping companies
afloat on their elements as I was not
on mine. I turned homeward, unsatisfied.
But after a few steps, I paused, impelled again
to linger, to look North before nightfall - the expanse
of calm, of calming water, last wafts
of rose in the few high clouds.
And was rewarded:
the heron, unseen for weeks, came flying
widewinged toward me, settled
just offshore on his post,
took up his vigil.
                                 If you ask
why this cleared a fog from my spirit,
I have  no answer.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Colorless Murakami

I've just finished Haruki Murakami's Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage and I have my usual contradictory feelings about Murakami and what he does.

The book's an easy read, which can't be said for all of Murakami's novels. I find many of them positively painful (1Q84 case in point). The story doesn't delve too much into the alternate realities that Murakami is so fond of creating (well, it does, but not as much as in other works). This book is more "social" than many of recent works: he is interested in how social convention dictates certain behaviors. That feels like a new theme for Murakami (or at least not one that he's explored in many years).

The story is relatively straightforward: a group of five high-school friends decide without any explanation to expel one member of their group without explanation, the colorless Tazaki of the title. Naturally, he is scarred and all his other adult relationships are not able to progress to any "normal" level since he is so scared of being damaged again by anyone else. As is often the case with Murakami, he has to go back to the past to understand who he is as a grown man.

And yet: I don't buy it. I don't buy Tazaki's passivity. Nor his utter lack of curiosity as to why this happened to him (until much later in his life). Murakami has never been a master of character development and often his characters are rather flat and passionless. And this is the case here: I find myself not really caring that much about any of these people. That's fine: that's not a testament to whether a book is good or not. But in addition, I'm just not interested in the themes that Murakami is so interested in: young love, adult relationships that are influenced by early traumas, suicide, different existences on parallel planes, etc.

Also, as I've noted earlier about Murakami more than once, his over-reliance on Western culture references starts to grate on me: Liszt and Coltrane and Hemingway and Janacek, etc. It's like he's courting Western readers in this very open-faced way: are there no Japanese cultural icons of  note in his world? No musicians, no historians, no philosophers, no writers? Why are all the cultural references Western artists?

I'm glad the world has Murakami and if I knew nothing else about contemporary Japanese culture, I might really appreciate him more. But I often find that people who are crazy about Murakami are either new to Japan or know little to nothing about it. There are so many other Japanese writers who do more interesting things with novels. He's the accessible Japanese writer that all reviewers and critics compare every single contemporary Japanese novel to and that's terribly unfair. He has a huge influence in Asia, no question, but he reveals little about contemporary Japan. Maybe that's OK, too, maybe that's not what he's after. But if someone really wants to read good writing from Japan, they should read Yasunari Kawabata, Yukio Mishima, Minae Mizumura, Junichiro Tanizaki,Yoko Ogawa, Hiromi Kawakami, the other Murakami: Ryu Murakami or 25 other writers (Japanese crime writing is particularly interesting, I think).

Overall, I liked this one better than his last one but this'll go on my shelf and it'll be forgotten in two months beyond some vague recollections that will mean little to me going forward.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

On the Death of Eduardo Galeano

In the midst of Festival hullabulloo, I had no time to write about the death of Eduardo Galeano.

He truly was one of the writers who has had the most impact on me in my life: in the way I view injustice. In my relationship with Latin America and the developing world in general. We invited him for a number of years to the Festival, but since he was getting up there and not well, he was reluctant to travel this far (from Montevideo it's at least a 16 hour trip minimum, usually much longer).

That said, we had a couple of very nice email exchanges and I was sincerely hoping that we could have him at an upcoming Festival.

Alas, that wasn't meant to be.

Though the death of Günter Grass just a day or so before saw much more attention, Galeano to me was a stronger writer and a more inspiring political activist. He's best known for his work The Open Veins of Latin America which, though containing certain aspects that seem dated now, is still inspiring and fascinating. Because of his idiosyncratic writing style (small one page ditties), he is the perfect kind of writer to read on the go: you can sit and read 40 of these ditties in one sitting or read one here and there when you can squeeze it in.

The book was controversial though it also represented an ideological manifesto, or at least that's how it was perceived to be at the time. Now this work seems less about ideology and more about the constant and ever-bitter struggle of the rich oppressing the poor and the various ways that the poor stand up. Very du jour. It's easy to dismiss this work as one which somehow "tows the party line" (as Mario Vargas Llosa implied) though Galeano was a much more complex figure than that. Even he, later in his life, disavowed certain aspects of the work, which to me showed his ability to adapt to the times and changing political landscapes, learning new vocabulary to talk about oppression.

But his writing continued to challenge and shine a light on the lives that readers rarely hear: of the peasant women in Latin America with 12 children, of the working man, of the oppressed, those voices often lost to history.

Just one more shout-out: I'm almost sure it's out of print in English, but his book Days and Nights of Love and War is one of the best-written and most personal chronicles of life under the junta in 1970s Uruguay and Argentina. It captures the fear and terror, while mixing the inanities of daily life which continued nevertheless. Much less esoterically intellectual than Milosz's The Captive Mind (also a great work, by the way), Galeano's work captures what it's like for a writer or artist to live in fear in the most pragmatic and realistic way.

The world is a much less rich place without Galeano in it.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Highlights of the 2015 Festival

So everything we've been working for since May, 2014, finally came together and we did this whole Festival-thing.

Whew. I don't ever remember feeling so exhausted at the end of a Festival as I did at the end of this one. At our closing cocktail on Sunday, I literally couldn't follow any more conversations and I couldn't speak French at all. I was done. When I got home, I laid down at 8:30 and was out for the next 10 hours!

Gene Luen Yang at Drawn & Quarterly
Every Festival has moments which stay with us and for me, these are the standouts:

Junot Díaz at the Rialto: great conversation, packed hall, wonderful energy in the air. This was the largest show we ever put on and it was an all around success.

The Film Series wasn't as well attended as I'd hoped but since it's our first year of doing it, we weren't expecting major turn out (we find that these things take a few years to get going). Sitting in Living Stars on Sunday and hearing people laughing out loud throughout was very gratifying since I had such a personal connection to this film.

Performigrations events and their fascinating suitcase installation. Those people constantly impress
me: they were up late the night before installation, putting the finishing touches on those displays and they were absolutely fascinating.

Gene Luen Yang was such a cool dude and I love his writing even more (and I loved it before).

Oonya Kempadoo was as amazing in real life as her novels. I can't say enough good about her.

Enpuku-ji Zen Centre poetry events were packed and there was such a nice vibe in there.

Yes, every year there are a few snafus, forgotten photocopies, missed calls, etc., but we managed to handle all these issues without much trouble. The snotty authors are easily forgotten (and, yes, every Festival there are a handful of those).

We love our public: they are so supportive, kind, offering constructive ideas and criticism and being honest about confusing descriptions, hotel facilities, organization of events, and more. This is vital. And we feel so lucky that our audiences are so loyal and devoted. Each year the familiar faces is very rewarding. We love all the new faces, too!

Thanks, everyone, for making the 2015 such a raging success!

Shoes at the entrance of the Enpuku-ji Zen Centre during a poetry event

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Six Awesome Poetry Events at Blue Met 2015

This is a big year for poetry at Blue Met and on both Friday, April 24 and Saturday April 25, we have several poetry events for either lovers and fans of poetry or for those who maybe don't know a lot about Canadian poetry but want to learn more.

Our top six poetry events for 2015 include:

Don McKay and Mark Abley
Don McKay

Don McKay is one of Canada's most respected poets and his new tome, Angular Uncomformity, collects much of his long career's work into a single volume. This is the kind of book you keep my your nightstand and pull out each night to read a poem or two. I love that kind of poetry book that might take a year or longer to get through, and when you fall asleep the words are still ringing around in your head. McKay talks with Montreal poet and writer Mark Abley (who launches his own collection, Tongues of Earth immediately after).

Don McKay hasn't been in Montreal in many years, so now's your chance.

This event is on Saturday, April 25 at 12:30 and tickets are $8 (and is followed by Mark Abley's launch of Tongues of Earth at 2pm, free). Both of these events are at Hotel 10.

Jeramy Dodds
Marie Howe and Jeramy Dodds
The New York State Laureate, Marie Howe, is one of contemporary poetry's most unique talents. Author of What the Living Do and several other collections, Howe is a master of delving deep into the ways we grieve and let go, the way we weave memory in with a loved one's legacy.

I first came to Marie Howe's work via NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross and have been a fan ever since.

Howe speaks about her unique work and career with Canadian poet Jeramy Dodds (author of The Poetic Edda, a fascinating translation of Icelandic chronicles). When I was asking around to find a good host for the event, at least three people mentioned Dodds' name. Not only was he an extraordinary young poet, I was told, but he's great on stage.

Don't miss this rare chance to see two amazing poets in dialogue. Even better: it follows immediately Don McKay and Mark Abley so you can get your entire poetry fix in a few hours.

This event is on Saturday, April 25 at 3:30 pm. Tickets are only $8 and can be bought here. This event is at Hotel 10.

Annharte and Taiaiake Alfred
Our First Peoples Prize Winner, Anneharte, will discuss her fascinating work Indigena Awry, on-stage at 11:00 on Saturday April 25 at Hotel 10. I wrote a couple of weeks ago about this event but for lovers of poetry or for lovers of Indigenous Canadian writers or culture, this is a must-see event.

This one is $10 and tickets are here.

Poetry at the Zen Centre
Linda Besner
There are two events planned for the Enpuku-ji Zen Centre in the Plateau/Mile End on Friday, April 24. Both of these events are free. The first is a round-table on New Directions in 21st Century Poetry with Jeramy Dodds, Jeff Latosik and Linda Besner.. This event starts at 6:00 pm.

The reading which follows at 8pm will have readings by Marie Howe, Don McKay, Annharte, Jeramy Dodds and German performance poet Paul Weigl.

Both of these events are hosted by Carmine Starnino. And if you haven't been to the Enpuku-ji Zen Centre before, the space itself is worth the trip up. It's ideal for poetry and the evening is sure to be magical and inspiring.

Enpuku-ji Zen Centre