Reading, writing, and the power of words

Here’s where you’ll find Nelson Star columns and other writings pertaining to the 2017 Festival.

Raise a glass to the writer next door

by Anne DeGrace
This column appeared June 21, 2017 in the Nelson Star.

Leesa Dean

A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread—and Thou

They are perhaps the best-known words from 11th century Persian poet Omar Khayyam’s famous collection, borrowed countless times over the centuries. I can’t resist either: they’re perfect for the 100-Mile Opening Gala at Elephant Mountain Literary Festival, where there will be wine, food, verse—and you, I hope.

The 100-Mile Opening Gala on July 7, 7:30pm at the Hume Hotel is the continuation of a Festival Tradition. It’s where we celebrate our own fabulous wordsmiths and raise a glass—and a glass, and a glass—to good writing, good wine, and each other

Tradition dictates that local wines be paired with local authors, so we can appreciate the nose of the grape, say, alongside the nose of the writer. We can discuss the crisp palate of a chardonnay alongside a crisp turn of phrase. We can sample wines with words, and we can have a whole lot of fun doing it.

So who are these authors?

There’s Eileen Delehanty Pearkes, whose book A River Captured: the Columbia River Treaty and Catastrophic Change was released last fall. Eileen’s been writing about the land she loves for a long time, including The Geography of Memory: Recovering Stories of a Landscape’s First People, as well as the people she loves: The Glass Seed: the Fragile Beauty of Heart, Mind and Memory, about her mother’s journey with Alzheimer’s. She’s passionate and opinionated she’s not afraid to tell you—over a glass of Pinot, if it comes to that.

Emily Nilsen’s first book of poetry, Otolith, was published in spring 2017 by Goose Lane Editions. Described as carrying “the odours of salmon rivers and forests of fir; salal growing in the fog-bound mountain slopes,” a description worth of Omar Khayyam himself, her words should pair beautifully with one of the earthier vintages. Emily’s poems have appeared in PRISM, Lake, and The Goose, in the chapbook Place, No Manual.

Leesa Dean teaches creative writing at Selkirk College, where she inspires students to be the best they can be. She’s been inspiring the rest of us for some time with fiction published in the literary journals Matrix, Lemon Hound, and The Headlight Anthology, among others. She’s been a finalist for awards such as the Irving Layton Award, the Litpop Award, and now for the Trillium Award for her debut short story collection, Waiting for the Cyclone, a truly toastable achievement.

Jane Byers is the author of two poetry collections, Steeling Effects (2014) and Acquired Community (2016), both published by Caitlin Press. She writes about human resilience, lesbian and gay issues, sexism, local geography, and occasionally her kids (when they let her). Her work has been featured in journals and anthologies, including Best Canadian Poetry 2014, which is the year she won the Richard Carver Award for Emerging Writers. This year’s Richard Carver Award will be presented at the Opening Gala.

So what are these wines?

We feature four fabulous tasters from this neck of the woods: a Baillie-Grohman Pinot Noir, Skimmerhorn Marechal Foch, and from SOAHC Estate Wines in aptly-named Fruitvale, a beautiful Chardonnay and a Reisling replete with white flowers, lime pith and cucumber scents—which leaves our expert wine-pairers with something of a challenge, because every one of these authors is decidedly pithy.

Not a drinker? There’s a non-alcoholic punch as well as some lovely food to go with all those toasty words in an evening that would warm a Persian poet’s heart.

Yours, too.

 

Mythmaker and Storykeeper Lee Maracle

by Anne DeGrace
This column appeared June 14, 2017 in the Nelson Star.

Lee Maracle

Some of us—the lucky ones—are born telling stories. Coast Salish (Stó:lo) author Lee Maracle just about was. Maracle—award-winning poet, novelist, performance storyteller, scriptwriter, actor and keeper/mythmaker—is one of three authors appearing at the Elephant Mountain Literary Festival’s Saturday Night Live! event on July 8, 7:30pm at the Hume Hotel.

Maracle told the UBC Creative Writing Department author interview site Nineteen Questions that “I was a little girl and I remember lying to my granddad and him staring at me for a long time and then telling me it was a good story. After that he started telling me stories and then telling me to tell them back to him, different but the same. We played that game quite a lot.”

The grandfather Maracle refers to is multi-award-winning actor, poet, and author Chief Dan George. Aside from his memorable performance opposite Dustin Hoffman in Little Big Man, Maracle’s grandfather—like his granddaughter today—used writing to promote understanding of indigenous cultures.

Perhaps it’s a case of the apple not falling far from the tree. Perhaps it’s something much deeper. Maracle told Nineteen Questions about her conversation with her grandfather about he telling and retelling of stories as myth making, and that “when it comes to myth making, there is a kept version— somebody is the keeper of the story—and everybody else tells the sort of fictitious version or the “un-kept” version. That’s applicable to today, and I decided those were the kind of stories I wanted to write.”

Write, she did. Maracle has published seven books of fiction, three nonfiction books, and a poetry collection; add to that four collaborative books and inclusion in 16 anthologies, and that’s a substantial oeuvre. She’s given hundreds of speeches on topics related to indigenous people and served as a consultant on First Nations self-government. She has taught at several universities and now teaches at the University of Toronto First Nations House and the Centre for Indigenous Theatre.

Maracle’s early literary works include Sundogs (1992), a political awakening for a 20-year-old East Vancouver sociology student; and Ravensong (1993), set in a Pacific Northwest community struggling against a ’flu epidemic. Later titles include the story collection First Wives Club: Coast Salish Style (2012) and Memory Serves, a collection of her speeches published in 2015.

Cormorant Books published Maracle’s novel Celia’s Song in 2014, which returns to some of the characters that had appeared in Ravensong more than 20 years earlier. The story follows multiple generations of a Stó:lo family through tragedies and hardships, all witnessed by a shape-shifter named Mink. It was shortlisted for the 2015 ReLit Award and earned praise from reviewers, including Publishers Weekly, who wrote: “Maracle in no way suggests that the answers to Canada’s colonial past are clear, but she tells a fiercely honest and wonderfully compassionate story.”

For her work, Maracle has received an Honorary Doctor of Letters from St. Thomas University. She was awarded the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal for her work promoting writing among Aboriginal Youth and the Ontario Premier’s Award for Excellence in the Arts, among others.

Clearly, this storyteller’s voice has been prolific, but more than that it has resonated, bringing indigenous culture to the wider world. Maracle may have been among the lucky ones, born to tell stories—but we are tremendously fortunate to be on the receiving end.

Presenting at Elephant Mountain Literary Festival’s Saturday Night Live! event with Maracle are Joy Kogawa and Fred Stenson. All three will be interviewed after their readings by Globe and Mail Western Arts Correspondent Marsha Lederman in what promises to be an unforgettable evening of story.

 

Truth, Courage, and Joy Kogawa

by Anne DeGrace
This column appeared July 7, 2017 in the Nelson Star.

Joy Kogawa

Coming to Nelson to be one of Elephant Mountain Literary Festival’s featured presenters might feel like a sort of homecoming for Joy Kogawa. The celebrated author’s semi-autobiographical novel Obasan takes place in part in a Slocan Valley internment camp during World War II—where Kogawa herself was interned as a child.

This unfortunate passage in Canada’s history becomes art in Kogawa’s 1981 novel, which won no less than three major literary awards. The Literary Review of Canada called it one of the most important books in Canadian history.

Turning adversity into art may have cathartic benefits for the writer; for readers, a novel such as Obasan and its sequel, Itsuka (re-released in 2005 as Emily Kato) is a gift in a different way. Kogawa, who has published several poetry collections and novels for children, offers us a first-hand perspective and a window of understanding into the complex events that lead to the internment of some 21,000 Japanese Canadians during World War II.

It’s not an unfamiliar story for most Canadians, and Kogawa herself has been a part of making sure not only is it not forgotten, but that wounds might one day be healed. A longtime peace and reconciliation activist, Kogawa has received the NAJC National Award from the National Association of Japanese Canadians, and the Japanese government recognized her for her contribution to the understanding and preservation of Japanese Canadian History with the Order of the Rising Sun.

Kogawa is no stranger to the difficult narrative. After exploring internment through her novels and through the children’s book she adapted from Obasan, Naomi’s Road (which later became an opera), she tackled the family shame of her father’s pedophilia in her 1995 novel The Rain Ascends.

And yet, there were still dragons to be tamed. Her newest nonfiction book, Gently to Nagasaki, considers in sharp relief Japan’s WWII atrocities, which included the wholesale slaughter of captive soldiers and civilians, and mass rape of women and girls committed by the Imperial Japanese Army. It was horrible to write about, she has said, and yet necessary should reconciliation ever be possible.

Confronting these truths wasn’t easy for her, especially as it’s a history nobody wants to talk about. “It cost me some really good friendships,” she told Douglas Todd of the Vancouver Sun in an interview last fall. She also told him that: “Love and Truth are indivisible.”

Truth is part of the courage that is Joy Kogawa, earning her the Order of Canada and the Order of British Columbia, as well as the George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award, honouring an outstanding literary career in British Columbia.

Kogawa’s family’s original home in Vancouver was purchased by the Land Conservancy of British Columbia, which says something about how Kogawa’s work for the history and culture of British Columbia, as well as the literary merit of her body of work, is valued. The house functions as a writers’ retreat, the better for more writers to tell more truths, in whatever way they find to do it.

It’s a wonderful thing to have Joy Kogawa at the Elephant Mountain Literary Festival. She joins First Nations author Lee Maracle (the subject of my next column) and EMLF Writer-in-Residence Fred Stenson at the Saturday Night Live! event on July 8, 7:30pm at the Hume Hotel. Globe and Mail Western Arts Correspondent Marsha Lederman will interview all three live on stage after their readings for what will be an unforgettable evening in what promises to be an unforgettable weekend.

 

Does the Bear Write in the Woods?

by Anne DeGrace
This column appeared May 31, 2017 in the Nelson Star.

Fred Stenso

There is a fearless and relentless cinnamon bear that has Bonnington on high alert, and I am up in the wee hours waiting for that distinctive huff sound and worrying about my chickens. It has me thinking about writing, and about narrative tension. It has me hoping there won’t be an inciting incident anytime soon. And it has me thinking about Holley Rubinsky and Fred Stenson. Read on.

This is the second year of the Holley Rubinsky Memorial Blue Pencil Sessions at the Elephant Mountain Literary Festival (EMLF), in which ten writers learn the craft through one-on-one critique sessions of their work with an established writer. For Holley, who passed away in 2015, it mattered that writers should have opportunities to become the best that they can be. Holley offered mentorship to writers for decades, and the Blue Pencil Sessions are among her legacies.

“Established” is an understatement for the EMLF’s 2017 writer-in-residence Fred Stenson, with 19 books and 150 films to his credit. Add to that 15 years as director of the Banff Centre’s Wired Writing program and Writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta among other teaching stints—including teaching at a prison—and you have just the sort of mentor Holley envisioned.

So why has a bear got me thinking about these two?

In 2006 McClelland and Stewart released Holley’s novel Beyond This Point, but being signed by one of Canada’s top literary publishers wasn’t enough. Holley, fearless and relentless as any chicken-hungry cinnamon bear, reworked the manuscript and self-published her self-editing tour-de-force under the title Weight of the Bear in order to prove she could put more tooth to her words, towards a better book.

The story concerns five women who make their way to the Kaslo-like town of Ruth to contemplate their pasts and futures, while in the present a prowling bear is huffing at the perimeter like an ambulatory metaphor for threat and vulnerability—something every writer knows about.

When it comes to writing, threat and vulnerability are the nature of the beast, which is why a good mentor builds skill and confidence to stand up to all those metaphorical bears—or at least save the chickens. Not everyone can self-edit with true fearlessness, and Holley would have been the first to say so. It helps to learn from someone who’s tamed that beast.

Fred Stenson has, or at least the critics think so. His 2014 novel Who By Fire, was long-listed for the IMPAC Award. Other fiction titles include the historical trilogy The Great Karoo, Lightning and The Trade. The Trade won the WGA George Bugnet Novel Award, The City of Edmonton Book Prize, and the Grant MacEwan Writer’s Prize, and was shortlisted for the Giller Prize. The Great Karoo won the Grant MacEwan Prize and was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award for Fiction.

Fred wrote a guide to the writing craft called Thing Feined or Imagined. Said reviewer Curtis Gillespie: “Somebody commissioned to design the perfect writing mentor would probably come back with Fred Stenson. Stenson is wise, funny, and blessedly enthusiastic about the craft of writing.” Holley would have approved.

Of fiction, Fred himself says, wisely and succinctly, “The art of fiction is not to stand on the outside looking in; it is to get inside and look out.”

In the case of my bear story, I believe I’d rather not be on the inside.

There are a lot of great stories to get your teeth into, whether you’re writing them or reading them. I shall now turn out my light and hope I don’t become one of them.

 

A Legacy of Words: remembering Holley Rubinsky

by Anne DeGrace
This article appeared in the fall 2015 issue of ARTiculate Magazine. Each year the Elephant Mountain Literary Festival offers the Holley Rubinsky Memorial Blue Pencil Sessions, this year with Writer-in-Residence Fred Stenson.

BanffPublishingWorkshop

L – R: Richard Lemm, Alistair MacLeod, Holley Rubinsky, Sandra Birdsell at the Banff Publishing Workshop c. 1982.

In Holley Rubinsky’s 2006 novel Beyond This Point, five women find their way to the Kaslo-like town of Ruth during forest fire season.

Holley passed away in Kaslo from cancer on August 1, and in the smoky weeks that followed I thought about the novel, and I thought about Holley. As word spread in the writing community, I suspect that a lot of people were thinking about the fire that was Holley: in her writing, her energy and enthusiasm, her generosity, and her legendary straightforwardness.

In her four published books of fiction Holley displayed a talent for describing complex ideas with a remarkable economy of words. Her style was sophisticated, insightful, sharply drawn and starkly rendered. Her stories could be humorous, difficult, dark, and unforgettable.

Holley moved from California to Kaslo with her daughter Robin in 1976. By then she had won the Samuel Goldwyn Creative Writing Award, acquired a Master’s degree in education and earned her pilot’s license. In Kaslo she taught elementary school and became entrenched in the community. And she wrote.

Attending the Banff Publishing Workshop (BPW) in the early 80s, Holley rubbed shoulders with literary luminaries including Alistair MacLeod, Sandra Birdsell, and W.O. Mitchell. It was there that she met and fell in love with BPW founder Yuri Rubinsky; they married in 1984. And she became friends with Douglas Gibson, who with McClelland & Stewart would publish Beyond This Point 30 years later.

BPW “changed the face of Canadian publishing” explains Doug. “Yuri lured us all out there, where the mountains had an extraordinary effect of everyone. Just as it was wonderful to see Yuri in action, it was even more wonderful to see Yuri and Holley in action. They were wonderfully well suited, and it was exciting to be around them.”

They settled in Toronto, where Holley went on to win the National Magazine Award, the Foundation Award for Fiction, and the Journey Prize for her short story “Rapid Transits,” which became the title story in a collection published by Polestar in 1991. At First I Hope for Rescue (Knopf 1997) was nominated for the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize.

After Yuri’s untimely death, which Holley drew upon for Beyond This Point, she moved to Arizona. There she gathered the characters and setting that would inform South of Elfrida, published by Brindle & Glass in 2013. But the mountains called, and Holley returned to Kaslo where she found new ways to embrace the literary life.

Holley hosted The Writers’ Show on Kootenay Co-op Radio from 2006 to 2008, interviewing writers and publishing insiders. The list is a who’s who of literary notables, including George Bowering, John Vaillant, Angie Abdou, and Kathy Page. She hosted writing retreats at her Kaslo home, offering support, mentorship and critique, drawing gratitude and occasionally blood; Holley said what she thought. Linda Crosfield describes Holley’s retreats:

“A typical retreat consisted of five or six writers working manuscripts. We’d meet in the morning around her big oak table, share a little of our work and talk about what we planned to do over the next few days. Then we’d go to our various work places and have at it. At the end of the day we’d wind up in her kitchen, put together a communal meal, and unwind over a glass of something,” says Linda, adding that Holley was “an insightful editor and a tireless supporter of emerging writers.”

Holley worked with Mandy Bath on her memoir Disaster in Paradise. “Holley was an exacting and inspiring teacher. Her advice was clear, blunt and sometimes hard to take, but always worth following,” she says. “Our collaboration over more than two years marked one of the most fulfilling periods of my life.”

Author Rita Moir taught writing workshops with Holley, who, she says, “was as brutal with her own work as she was with others. Holley was also exuberant, full of piss and vinegar, generous, always inventing new ways to survive. She was curious, a sprite, a vixen, a hag. I mean that in all the fullness of those terms, for the best and the worst.”

If Holley demanded the best in others, she expected the best in herself. Unhappy with the published version of Beyond This Point, she reworked and self-published her own limited edition version, Weight of the Bear. Self-critical as she may have been, her work drew praise. The Globe and Mail called her writing “incendiary.”

“As with all her writing, Holley was fearless about her material and about showing the prickly, mean and miserable side of humanity,” says author Caroline Woodward. “It takes courage to write with such depth about darkness the way she did and with such clear-eyed compassion for each and every character.”

“I was struck by Holley’s fierceness in arguing for good writing,” says poet Jane Byers, and Holley will be remembered for championing the written word.

It was important to Holley that literary mentorship and critique continue. And so, thanks to a generous bequest, Nelson’s Elephant Mountain Literary Festival will host a Holley Rubinsky blue pencil intensive workshop with an established writer in 2016.

The legacy of a writer lies in the words she leaves behind. In Holley’s case, the legacy can be found not only in her own words, but also in the words she drew from others, sometimes gently, sometimes kicking and screaming, demanding always that the work be the very best. And that’s a legacy indeed.

Holley Rubinsky bibliography:

South of Elfrida (Brindle & Glass 2013)
Weight of the Bear (self-published limited edition, 2008; a shortened and edited version of Beyond This Point.)
Beyond This Point (McClelland & Stewart, 2006)
At First I Hope for Rescue (Knopf Canada, 1997; Picador (USA), 1998)
Rapid Transits and Other Stories (Polestar Press, 1990)