Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Azure Scratchings: The End

Just a note to say that I have resigned my post as Director of Programming at Blue Metropolis after six Festivals. What an amazing six years it's been: our Festival attendance has massively increased and I've traveled the world, meeting amazing writers from every corner of the globe.

But! Time for a new challenge now - I've accepted a job in Toronto, doing something similar to what I've been doing at Blue Met but at a higher level in a bigger market.

Change is never easy but Blue Met will be better than ever...

Thursday, April 7, 2016

The Battle in Seattle and its Legacy: Sunil Yapa

I was living in Asia when the Battle for Seattle suddenly took over the news. This was 1999 and the WTO were holding their semi-regular meetings there. There had been smaller problems at past WTO meetings, in Berlin in 1989, but this protest - 40,000 young people taking over huge parts of downtown Seattle - took the media, the government, the city of Seattle, by surprise.

Today in hindsight it might not seem that revolutionary since we have been mired for years in anti-government, anti-globalization, neocapitalist arguments. But this was new in 1999. Again, I wasn't in Seattle but I had moved from Seattle to Shanghai where I was living currently and I had many friends involved in the protests. What struck me at the time was the discord between what the media reported and what my friends would actually tell me in emails they'd send about what was happening: the police brutality, the official government response, the notion that it was a bunch of stoner kids.

But these protests really set the stage in many ways for the situation we find ourselves in today: the outrage to revelations just days ago that wealthy people are hiding hundreds of billions of dollars offshore to avoid taxes is a legacy of WTO 1999. Fury at police brutality and shooting of unarmed young black men is, in part, a legacy of WTO 1999. Occupy Wall Street, the 1%, Thomas Piketty, etc., all have to varying degrees an important link to those protests.

Yet the new Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal has also been the result. Widening economic
equality has been the result. Government salesmanship has also been the result since most Western governments now realize that they have to "sell" these kinds of deals and economic realities to their subjects in ways that they never had to do previous. And they're getting good at it with media often lining right up to do the government's bidding.

American writer, Sunil Yapa, is the first writer to really look at this situation - these protests - in a fictional form. He's less interested, I think, in the legacy of the protests and more in the human story: who these protesters were, what motivated them. But oddly, the book isn't meant to be a diatribe. It also shows the "other side": WTO insiders trying to come to terms with the reality they see out of their shiny conference windows. Government hacks. And corporate America for the first time on the defensive.

The book, Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, will be the topic of conversation with the writer, Sunil Yapa, at Blue Met next week on Saturday, April 16 in the evening.

Yapa was recently on Late Night with Seth Meyers and talked about writing the book, growing up with a Sri Lankan father and Montanan mother, and the kind of power that comes from being "the voice" of a generation, particular a generation that was so tied to challenging corporate and government power.

There is so much in this book that is of relevance to young people today - and not just young people - with daily stories of economic inequality, fighting to keep our environment habitable, corporate power run amok, police brutality, so many issues that surround us today.

Come check out out Sunil Yapa and hear about why he wrote the book and what he envisions for our near and long-term future. Tickets are $10 and the event is on Saturday, April 16 at 5:30pm at Hotel 10 in downtown Montreal. Get your tickets here.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Blue Metropolis Premio Azul: Valeria Luiselli

I was very happy when Blue Met's Premio Azul was awarded to Mexican writer, Valeria Luiselli. I'd been trying for years to get her to come to Blue Met and this prize was the perfect way to entice her.

Currently in its fourth year, the prize is given to a writer whose work honours some aspect of Hispanophone culture. Often the prize is given for a work written in Spanish but there have been exceptions.

Junot Diaz won the prize last year and did an event at a sold out Rialto Theatre.

Luis Alberto Urrea won the prize in 2014. Nicaraguan writer, Sergio Ramirez, won in 2013.

Luiselli is one of Mexico's best-known and most talked about writers. Many critics called her fascinating book, The Story of My Teeth, one of 2015's best, and her earlier work, Faces in the Crowd, in my view, is one of the best novels written in the last ten years.

Everyone is always looking out for the next Marquez or the next Bolano and if that is anything worth doing, then keeping an eye on Luiselli's career can't go wrong. She's only in her early 30s and has already made a huge mark in the translated fiction world and even her first book to be translated into English, Sidewalks, explored the life and history of contemporary Mexico City via walking (introduced by Cees Noteboom) in a way that's fiercely intelligent, innovative and charming.

Luiselli will be given the prize on Friday, April 15 in the evening, interviewed by none other than Scott Esposito, editor and founder of The Quarterly Conversation and one of today's most respected young literary critics. Tickets are $10 and available here.

Luiselli will also be doing an event (#66 on page 56) on Mexican Modernism with Daniel Saldana Paris (another fantastic young writer to keep an eye on) as well as an event at Drawn & Quarterly with Anakana Schofield and Taras Grescoe. This event is called London, New York, Mexico City, Shanghai (#75 on page 57) and you can get more information by checking out the Blue Met 2016 Festival brochure.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Stories are All We Are

I've never really been able to understand how people who don't read books negotiate life. Yes, it's true today we have to carve out time, we have to shut out distractions, but books and the world of books has been such a vital and affirming way to negotiate the world for me - and many people I know - my entire life.

And it's not news but science backs up the notion that reading helps us understand and empathize with people. It's no surprise that people who don't read generally (IMHO) don't know as much about the world. And while on the one hand, reading anything is better than reading nothing, I still think that it's important to read novels, at least some of the time.

This fascinating story in The Atlantic about writers writing on solitude really struck a chord with me. We learn so much about life, about politics, about culture, through the reading of novels, not even overtly political novels. When I think about the current election, for example, all the hyperbole and bluster and media-shaping and outrage laid to the side, I'd much rather have a well-read leader than one who's made a billion dollars on some business deal.

But I suppose I am in the minority.

All of this to say that we try hard at Blue Met to bring writers in who appeal to all kinds of readers: we have short-story writers like Danielle McLaughlin (Ireland) and Ayelet Tsabari (Canada/Israel). We have non-fiction writers who look at gun culture (A.J. Somerset) and writers like Gabriella Coleman who wrote a fascinating book about Anonymous and hacker culture. We have big sweeping novels that explore generations of women (Christine Dwyer Hickey), books that make the political personal in funny and moving ways (Carmen Aguirre & Sunil Yapa), books that are edgy and experimental and give us new ways of thinking about what a novel actually is (Valeria Luiselli's latest book in English) and poetry that tells stories in the shape and form of a novel. Almost (Anne Carson). We have First Nations stories and migrants to Canada stories. We have stories by young women still trying to figure out their place in the world and we have told from the perspective of animals that teach us what it means to be human. Stories on others' lives, stories about childhoods and growing up different, stories that show us how to live in a world that wants to ridicule, even when greatness is the result of that difference. Stories that explore new histories, whether personal or public, and stories which are simply funny.

For those who love reading, there is so much on offer, new stories to help us continue to  make sense of the world. For those who used to read more and want to get back into it, there are plenty of new writers to explore. Check it all out at our website and block off your calendars: April 11-17 get ready for a whole new set of stories.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Anne Carson wins 2016 Blue Metropolis Literary Grand Prix

When The Autobiography of Red came out, this book traveled from friend to friend in my little circle of poetry nuts. Almost like a novel in verse form, the poems retells the myth of Geryon (which sounds far more precious and intellectual than the book actually is). This book changed my entire view of what poetry could do in contemporary society and it's often cited - even amongst my friends - as one of their favorite books, even people who don't consider themselves fans of poetry.

I immediately remembered this book and some of its lines when it was announced a while back that Anne Carson had won our Grand Literary Prix for 2016. I was excited because Carson has this amazing fan base: 22 year olds lover her, 75 year olds love her. This in itself is extraordinary but just about anyone who knows anything about American, Canadian or English-language literature knows her. This kind of writer, of course, is ideal for a Festival: she is a serious writer but one that is immensely popular.

The Autobiography of Red has been followed by many books that challenge our notions of what poetry can be, but also what art can be and how it can fit in our lives today. One thing I appreciate about the art of Carson is how she pushes form, she takes chances, she doesn't sit back and coast on reputation alone. She's published Fragments of Sappho, Decreation, Red Doc> (her titles tell one very little about the power of her work) and many more.

The themes she covers range from the nature of desire to grief to the nature of language and words. There is a cult-like aura about Anne Carson.

Carson will do two big events at the Festival. On Saturday, April 16 at 4:00pm, Writers and Company's Eleanor Wachtel will interview her on stage at the Grande Bibliotheque. She will receive the prize that night as well. Get your tickets here.

Later that evening, at 8:00pm at the Contemporary Art Museum, Carson will also be present at a staged reading of Antigonick, her highly entertaining and contemporary translation of Antigone. Get tickets here.

Blue Met's Grand Literary Prix is in being awarded for the 17th time this year and has gone to an illustrious group of writers from Carlos Fuentes to AS Byatt to Norman Mailer to Joyce Carol Oates to Colm Toibin. Carson joins the six other Canadians who've won the prize.

2016 Blue Metropolis Grand Literary Prize-winner
This year our Festival runs April 11 to 17 and a few Festival passes are still available online.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Blue Met announces its 2016 Festival lineup in Montreal

This morning we announce our entire 2016 lineup for the Blue Met 2016 Festival and wow are we excited! For one thing, an amazing roster of Canadian and international writers are here for the seven days of the Festival, but particularly from Wednesday, April 13 to Sunday, April 17 when the majority of our events take place. Highlights include:

Also coming in 2016: 
The entire 2016 program is online now: check it out and get your tickets soon! The Festival runs April 11 to 17 at Hotel 10 downtown. More than half of our events are free; ticketed events range from $5 to $17.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Art and our Fears: The Witch and Bus Stops

I saw two events last week that  both seemed to explore our fears as a society but from very different eras and it's been something on my mind all week.

The first piece was the big high profile movie, The Witch, which has been playing for a few weeks. No fan of hardcore horror, I was a bit reluctant to see it but the setting - 15th century Massachusetts - was appealing. It's a very interesting movie though not really a horror film at all in most ways and the way it was marketed was very misleading. The film tells the story of a family - parents, two boys and two girls as well as a newborn baby - who are kicked out of their religiously oriented village for heresy (the father is preaching his own brand of Christian doctrine) and are exiled to the wilderness. They set up their farm there, isolated, next to the woods and things continue until one afternoon when the newborn simply vanishes. It's assumed that a wolf came out from the woods and took him away but there are suggestions of something darker.

What struck me about this film is how we forget today how the word evil used to represent an actual thing: actual spirits or the devil himself. For us, the word evil is used more metaphorically to suggest almost always a person who acts in selfish or incredibly self-serving ways that somehow cause harm to others or society. So we say that a serial killer or terribly manipulative person or someone who exploits the poor, etc., we say those people are evil. It's more about the lack of social empathy or the fact that the person can't act in a way that we accept as normal social behaviour. But in the world of 15th century America, evil was an actual thing that existed. It had little to do with social interaction or being selfish or not understanding how to act in accordance with mores of the day. Evil actually resided deep inside the forest, was a thing or a person that simply meant to cause disorder in the world.

It also struck me that it's so surprise why forests have long been so frightening to people. Today,
forests are almost like the last remnant of the nature we have managed to tame and control. But 500 years ago (and throughout most of human history), forests were terrifying places: full of wild animals and very easy to get lost in. People probably very often did enter forests and never return simply because they were so vast and dark.

The Witch is a good film but it's not a horror film and anyone who goes expecting this will be disappointed. It's a film about evil but also about the fears that we as a society cultivate: in our children, in each other.

I then saw Bus Stops at the Centaur and though the pieces on the surface are very different, they both share commonalities in terms of showing us what we fear. This play, translated from the original French, was written by Marilyn Perrault, and simply shows a collection of various urbanites all killed in a terrorist attack on a public bus in Montreal. The story is framed from the point of view of a coroner trying to piece together what happened after the fact via her imagined interaction with several of the victims, trying to separate the public hysteria from the facts.

The acting was spotty at times  (I saw the opening show so maybe it's gotten better: some players are solid; others were less so) but the play is good, the writing is interesting and engaging and the production itself is innovative and entertaining. But again, the play shows us what we fear as humans: we fear the "unknown" terrorist. Evil. But this kind of evil operates in a vastly different way to the evil in The Witch: this is social evil, people who act in selfish ways that harm others for some bigger political or personal axe to grind. It also gets at another fear: the tendency we have to scapegoat people for crimes because of racism or prejudice.

The Witch is playing downtown for the next couple of weeks and is worth a couple of hours though it's not a fast-moving film in many ways. It's dreary and sad but also scary. The script, too, is written in a very dated English so it's not always easy to follow the dialogue. But it's a good film and gets at the heart of what evil used to represent.

Bus Stops plays at Centaur through March 27 and is a very engaging story about our modern contemporary fears of evil.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Blue Metropolis 2016 lineup announced March 22

Some really exciting stuff coming up in April as we finalize the details for the 2016 Festival. As usual, we are at Hotel 10, on the corner of St-Laurent and Sherbrooke and on March 22 at 11am, we announce our entire 2016 Festival program including:

  • Our Grand Literary Prize (past winners have included Mavis Gallant, Richard Ford, Norman Mailer, Joyce Carol Oates, A.S. Byatt, among many others)
  • Our Premio Azul for Spanish-language writing (past winners: Junot Díaz, Luis Alberto Urrea, Sergio Ramirez)
  • Our First Peoples Literary Prize (last year's winner was poet Annharte)
  • Our Words to Change Prize, a prize which honours a writer whose work connects communities (last year the winner was Gene Luen Yang of superman fame!).
We also have a long list of big name writers coming in from 10 countries, exploring all kinds of fun, smart and engaging topics.

The Festival runs April 11 to 17, 2016!

Stay tuned for March 22 when tickets go on sale!

Open Door by Iosi Havilio

Though he was at the Festival a few years ago, I came across Iosi Havilio's novel (translated into English in 2011), Open Door, which is such an excellent read.

The book is set in Argentina and gives us a glimpse into an unnamed narrator who returns home after a jaunt out in a northern village to visit a sick horse (she's a veterinary assistant), meets up with her girlfriend who suddenly disappears. The women are clearly having problems but when Aída goes into a shop in La Boca to buy cigarettes and never comes back out, a mystery of sorts opens up. In the short time after Aída goes into the shop, a person (maybe a man, maybe a woman) is on a bridge high above, surrounded by police and others trying to talk him or her down. A crowd gathers to watch and goad and click their tongues and when it seems that the person is, in fact, being talked down, suddenly the individual jumps and falls to a presumable death in the water. The central question is: was this Aída or not?

To call this book a thriller would be wildly misleading and, in fact, the best part of the book is the muted emotional response of the protagonist who goes on with life with almost no emotional reaction. She loses her job, and then without any explanation, returns to the village up north where she'd been visiting the sick horse the week before. There she falls in with an older man named Jaime and she becomes obsessed with a local teenaged girl who lives in the village.

It's such an austere story in many ways, mainly due to the lack of any kind of emotional response from the protagonist: she never reflects back on her life, her past, we know little to nothing about her childhood, her parents. All she does is push through life with no particular impulse driving her except sex (and even that is relatively infrequent). Occasionally, a phone call will come in from Buenos Aires, asking her to return to identify a body that's washed up but our heroine constantly ends up shaking her head. Where is Aída?

Sometimes a writer will come to the Festival and though I try to read as many Festival books as I can (I did read this 2-3 years ago), I will read it quickly without really revelling in it. Mainly that kind of reading is "trying to get a sense" of the book so that I know how to use the author. But it's in the months or years after the Festival that I will have time to read for the story, to revel in the language, to enjoy it.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

El Club by Pablo Larraín

Saw this Chilean film, El Club, and wow. One of those films that you find your heart racing and you're on the edge of your seat. It's not suspenseful. The violence is fairly muted (hardly a horror film) but yet after it, I felt worn out and kept asking myself: What the hell just happened?!

The film centers on a house in a remote village along the coast of Chile where five priests live with a nun. Early on, it becomes clear that the priests are there as a form of punishment/exile, some have been there for decades, and as the story unfolds we learn about their shocking, appalling crimes.

So many themes to think about: repentance, social class, defying your nature, what it means to forgive, what it means to forgive yourself, scandal, being an "other"... When a new priest arrives, he upsets the delicate balance and more priests arrive to investigate.

The final 20 minutes of this film are some of the most riveting and electric minutes I've ever seen in any film. Though the story itself is rather tepid, bleak, depressing even (not a good film to see on a dreary winter day as I did), the psychological drama that beats at the core of this is absolutely thrilling.

Don't see this if you're feeling sad or low or sick of bleak winters. Do see it if you love good and complex film.

Pablo Larrain, the film's director, also did the film 2012 No with Gael García Bernal but wow what a different energy he brings to this one.

El Club plays at Cinema du Parc in Montreal all week.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Claude Jutra: scandal vs achievement

Allegations in an explosive new biography of Claude Jutra suggest the master filmmaker was a pedophile. It is, perhaps, hard for those not familiar with the film world of Quebec how damaging the allegations are for a man considered one of Quebec's most exportable "true" artists.

It's impossible to underestimate the importance of Jutra to Quebec: not only are the major prize awards for film here named after him, there are squares in his honor, streets, parks, a house in Montreal (where he once lived) that's designated as an historic building because of his association with it.

Jutra made some extraordinary films. His best-known, Mon Oncle Antoine, marked a watershed in Quebec's cinematic history as it really became the first big international Quebec hit (not mainstream hit but a critical masterpiece and still widely discussed in the film world). And many others followed, films which in Quebec are part of our cultural literacy.

I've always found Jutra an essentially tragic figure and whenever I find myself walking through
Square St-Louis (where he lived and worked), I feel his ghost there. He committed suicide at age 56 by jumping off the Jacques Cartier Bridge into the St-Lawrence River, doing so because he felt that he was developing Alzheimer's disease.

For now the allegations are not proven and the biographer claims that his book is not about pedophilia (he claims that Jutra liked boys in their mid-teens) but this has still rocked the film world with committees being formed to explore the allegations and whether they are true.

To me this gets at the age old question: does a "great" artist actually have to be "great"? Even if the allegations are proved to be true, do they circumvent all his artistic achievements? I say they do not. Of course, naming parks and streets and squares after someone who did abhorrent things is problematic, but they are not named after him because we all assume he was a saint or even a particularly "good" person. They honour him because of his (in this case) artistic abilities, influence or merit. Just as politician might be honoured for his contributions to a city or province or country, even while doing terrible things in his personal life, we are often unable to hold contradictory or even complex portraits of people in our collective consciousness, especially of artists.

A great artist & a creep. The two aren't mutually exclusive
I want to argue that there is an immediacy to this kind of question that doesn't exist for more historical figures (many of whom were horrible people) but then I can also come up with examples of places or dorms at universities being renamed once it becomes clearer to the public what kinds of things those people did, even if that person lived hundreds of years ago.

It's so complicated: what kinds of crimes are unforgiveable (I don't mean legally or morally unforgiveable here)? What kinds of sins do we shrug at and move on from (there was a time when being gay was looked at as enough to strip someone of all his achievements) and which are simply too appalling to be looked past - or indeed, not even looked past but acknowledged as being part of a complex,messed up and contradictory person.

Then again, generations and generations of women were never acknowledged in any similar way (their achievements were ignored or the vast majority of them were simply never given any opportunity to achieve in the formal way we most appreciate).

I don't know if what the biographer says about Jutra is true. Either way, it won't change the way I feel about his films. It won't make him a less tragic figure for me, wandering those streets of Montreal as his mind was slipping away. But I didn't know the man. He didn't have any personal influence on me because I don't know a thing about him as a man; all most of us have is just a glimpse into his artistic vision. Is it possible to honour that without assuming we are honouring the man himself?

I don't have any answers. I just find this entire topic so very sad...

Friday, February 12, 2016

Random Friday Links: Carole King's Tapestry, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, New Canadian Kids Books, Cheapest Places to Travel

Cartagena: home of Marquez (cheap in January)

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

On Mean Writers

I've been thinking the last several days about what it means to be a mean writer in the context of a literary Festival.

People often ask me for "gossip," for which writers are nice, which are awful, and the truth is that most writers I've dealt with throughout the years are kind, lovely people. I can think of many who stand out as particularly kind.

Some are kind on the surface but say horrible things to other people or treat other members of the
staff badly. Unforgivable.

Some are just plain horrible people.

No I'm not going to name names, as much as I'd like to!

But it intrigues me how someone can travel for hours by plane as a guest and then be awful: rude, cutting, patronizing or just plain mean.

I get that people have bad experiences. People don't like hotel rooms. Flights get delayed. People might be having personal problems that are interfering with their professional lives. I get all that.

But some people are just plain mean. And why is it that these are the writers I remember: the very small number who were unpleasant.

One writer threw a fit because she hates Laguardia and insisted that she didn't want to fly through it. Since I don't control airlines and since Air Canada tends to fly almost all their flights through LGA, I tried to explain to her that we don't have a private jet to fly her to the Festival. Still she arrived, strumpy and furious and complained non-stop about everything from beginning to end. She had not a single nice thing to say about anything. She hated the weather, the hotel, her events, the food, the neighborhood we were in. I was so happy when she left.

I can think of several like this...
Another writer insisted (before he even arrived in Montreal ) that he couldn't possibly spend a free afternoon in town and wanted to fly back home as early as possible. When we explained that Montreal had New York flights early in the morning and in the early evening and almost none in the middle of the day and that perhaps he might head out of the hotel and explore the city for a few hours, have lunch, see a movie (he had like 4 hours to kill and he could have even stayed in his room if he'd wanted), he smiled and said OK that's fine. Later, I found out he called everyone in his class scheduled for Sunday morning, asked them to come in early (only a few of whom could), met with them very briefly, rescheduled his flight and left. WTF?!

Not to say that we're allergic to complaints: sometimes people do have legitimate things to gripe about. We sometimes mess something up. With 200+ events and 200+ writers coming in, we mess things up every single year. No question. Again, 95% of people are kind and forgiving and understanding when this happens. One writer complained to me after his event that the producer didn't show up and that his event went off terribly and no one seemed to be in charge. That happens. Understandable once in a while. But what I felt horrible about was how it made him feel: it was his first book and he said he felt like we just didn't care about him, that he was unimportant and not even important enough to plan his event properly. Ugh. Words like that kill me because I never want any writer to feel that way.

Still: that writer didn't throw a fit or act rude or scream and yell. He was professional. He told me (after some prodding though he did tell several other people and I heard about it later). We chalk that one up to lesson learned and try to do better.

One other thing about mean writers: if you're mean, you get a reputation. There are writers I would
Inspired by Meanness
never invite back because they were so awful. I wouldn't read their book. There have even been a few writers whose work I liked a lot but after they left, I had to bring their books into my office because I couldn't stand my eyes falling on their book at home and remembering how horrible they were. And Festivals know this: there are writers who are known to be horrible, who are known to cancel at the last minute, who are known to show up drunk or high.

But it works the other way, too: writers whose work I didn't necessarily like that much until I met them and found them so charming and kind and friendly and then became a fan. These writers also get a reputation and I'd rather have 25 kind nice and unfamous writers at a Festival than 25 awful boors. Always.

One thing I've noticed: generally the big writers are nice. I think it's not a coincidence. If you're nice, word spreads and other Festivals invite you. I get far more pitches than I can possibly handle each year and if I have to choose between two books or writers and one is known as being unkind, forget about it.

I am not much on trite one liners or self-help maxims. But one thing is true: Being nice is always a good idea no matter what line of work you're in. Maybe some people think being unkind makes them seem smart or better than everyone but it has the opposite effect. People might kow-tow to your face or you might get what you want, but people remember being disrespected and that comes back to haunt you sooner or later.

Be nice!

Monday, February 1, 2016

Cristina García: The Agüero Sisters

Cristina García is one of those writers whose name I've heard many times but whose work I'd never read myself. Since I am in Colombia currently with wonky Internet access and limited English books available, I have been picking through the small corner in the bookshops devoted to English and coming across some odd choices I never would read at home. The other day I discovered this old 1997 novel from García, The Agüero Sisters.

I've read about half of it so far and I'm enjoying it. It tells the story of two Cuban sisters, long estranged, one still living in Cuba, becoming disillusioned with the revolution, the other in Miami, wealthy and terribly unhappy. Both are coming to terms in their own ways with the deaths of their parents and the way that fate determined the circumstances of their lives.

The story is told from multiple perspectives: from each sister, from their children, from their parents. It skips around in time. There's a vague allusion to a plot to overthrow Castro (or at least it's vague so far, the book is set in the early 90s) and it's certainly written from a Cuban exile's perspective (I'm intrigued with how negative portrayals of Cuba often are when written by exiles as opposed to work by Cubans themselves which tend to be more subtle and complex).

What is subtle and complex here, though, is the emotional lives of these characters. The complexities of their memories, of their relationships.  And the writing is gorgeous, colorful, rhythmic, long sections could be read aloud and performed.

I've written before on Cuban writing and how amazing much of it is, but this is a new world for me: the entire world of Cuban exile writers. They tend to be a conservative lot which puts me off a bit, but then again, they know more about the situation in Cuba than I do so I certainly have no right to speak as an expert when my entire relationship with Cuba is through the news and its literature (and the odd movie now and then).

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Hanif Kureishi at Hay Festival Cartagena

One of the greatest things about going to literary Festivals is having the chance to become reacquainted with writers whose work I used to know and read. Yesterday, I saw British writer Hanif Kureishi on stage and the conversation started around his early work (a screenplay in this case), My Beautiful Laundrette. I was so crazy about Kureishi when I was in my early and late 20s. The entire world he created was a new one to me: contemporary London, Pakistani migrants, skinheads. It was a movie I saw several times with various groups of friends.

The conversation yesterday centred around this early work and not much else was said about his later work (a little about his excellent novel The Buddha of Suburbia) but not a single thing was said about his new book, The Last Word. Odd to invite a writer halfway across the world and talk only about his career from 20-25 years ago.

Still it was good to hear him talk about the screenplay and a bit about Buddha. I also found that the details about the reception the film had was interesting: because there are themes of homosexuality in the book and the two protagonists share a kiss, the film was picketed in New York when it opened in 1985. His last book seemed to get very little buzz (I heard nothing about it until I googled him and looked up his recent work on Amazon).

Kureishi is in a unusual position in many ways: he's quite famous in the writing and literary scene but people rarely talk about his work except Laundrette and Buddha (maybe inside the UK it's different). And he's a good writer. The thought occurred to vis a vis a recent post: how do writers like Kureishi make money? He talked about his house in London, etc., which clearly means he has somehow managed to do OK though it's not clear if his money has come from his writing or somewhere else (his family, etc.). He teaches creative writing, sure, but owning a house in London?

Not that it matters but the thought does occur to me frequently since it is so hard to make money from writing nowadays. And when I hear about writers who live in Manhattan (even Brooklyn to some extent), London, Paris or Vancouver, I wonder: how on earth do they survive?!

Kureishi mentioned this in passing, how London was a city of the very rich and the very poor. That practically no middle class people live there. And this is my sense of New York, as well, especially Manhattan. How that must change your perception of life, of traveling, of immigration, of a working life. If everyone you know is wealthy and all you see are chains of huge corporations, you have an odd view of the rest of the world perhaps...

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Neil Gaiman: The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Trying to finalize the 2016 program in Colombia, catching some literary events on the side at Hay Festival - Cartagena, and I managed to read all my books brought along and so headed out yesterday to try and find something (anything) in English to read.

I was surprised at the terrible selection of English books. Nothing local (why not stock translations of Colombian writers somewhere in a big Colombian bookstore in a town full of tourists?!) and mainly just crap. Twilight, romance, bad crime fiction. But among the crap, I spied something of interest: Neil Gaiman's book The Ocean at the End of the Lane.

A good little read, something that I did today in between bouts of emailing, writing event descriptions and scheduling events. The novel is structured as a flashback, a middle-aged man returning home for a funeral and being suddenly struck by a childhood friend and experience that he'd almost wiped from his memory.

The book is magical: scary, mysterious, exciting, adventurous, involving a magical trio of women (grandmother, mother, daughter) with special powers and insights into the invisible worlds all around us.

Typical YA story of a child triumphing over evil and learning about the true secret nature of the world but told in a captivating and engaging way.

I'm a big fan of Gaiman's work - this isn't one of his strongest but it felt like he was in it, much more so than his other works. It felt personal.

In any case, a great read on a hot Caribbean day in the sun. Perfect kind of book to give to an early adolescent for a gift.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Philip Pullman is wrong (though writers should be paid): Oxford Literary Festival and Paying Writers

Phillip Pullman has resigned as patron of the Oxford Literary Festival because, he argues, the Festival doesn't pay its writers My first reaction is that Pullman clearly has little to no understanding how the Festival system works.

Pullman: Money money money
First off, Blue Met pays all its authors. I know many Festivals who proudly say "we've never paid an author," but for me this isn't something to shout about. What these Festival people are actually saying when they make this boast is that their Festival is so important that writers WANT to do it and are willing to do it for free. I've never been convinced that this is true. In fact, I know it's not true because writers who attend these Festivals often complain to me about it.

We Are Not All Stephen King

Some writers don't need the money. Stephen King probably doesn't care about the $300 you're going to pay him to do an event, even the $5,000 you might pay him (though he'd probably be more in the $30,000 range honestly because it's his agent who manages this part of his career). But the truth of the matter is that very few writers are Stephen King and very very few writers make money from their writing. They might have a good year. Or a good month. They might have extraordinary luck and do well for a few years. But writing a best-seller doesn't mean that writer is wealthy. No, the money doesn't just start pouring in. I could literally name right now the writers (literary writers) who make a living from their writing and nothing else. Very very few. Even huge names most people know rarely make enough from their writing to live on. That's why most big name writers teach at universities. Writing isn't enough.

Especially in Canada where a best-seller may not even mean that much money.

Case in point: a writer I know has had a book that garnered a ton of attention here in Canada. Her book was featured in most every newspaper and magazine. It was covered in the US (in some of the biggest publications there as well), nominated for several very important prizes. She has toured the world, literally, with this book. But she still hasn't made back her (very modest) advance. Her book is about as successful as a book can be in this country and yet she still hasn't earned enough to pay rent for even a month from the sales of the book.

And in the US, I imagine it's even harder as there is a lot more competition.

So writers do deserve to be paid to speak at events. "Promoting" their book is not enough.

We Are Not All the Jazz Festival

However, there is another side to this. Festivals don't make money either. We eek by every year. We are a staff of four and we put on between 200-300 events each year. None of us is getting rich in the Festival business either. We work 50 or 60 hours a week much of the year. I'm not complaining because many of us like our jobs and there are many exciting opportunities that come with working here. But our Festival barely survives each year with just enough to cover our bills, fly in writers, pay the hotel, pay for the photocopier, the phone bill, the graphic designers, the printers, the office rent, the posters, the paper clips, the furniture, the computers, the research, and all the countless things that all come together to make a literary Festival.

And keep in mind that we are one of the biggest literary Festivals in North America. There are countless other, smaller Festivals that don't have the same financial stability or resources that we do.

Yes, we pay our writers though we don't pay them much. Also, we don't provide all our writers meals
All that paper costs $$
because we pay them (most Festival provide all the meals in lieu of payment; we opt for the opposite arrangement though we do cover some meals).

If I had my way, we'd pay writers more, provide all meals, let everyone who wants to stay a week stay for a week, cover all their expenses while here. But we'd soon be out of business. Again, each year we have a small surplus (very small) that means we're not in the red but this is thanks to the huge amount of work that we all do to ensure that we meet grant deadlines, dazzle sponsors, charm funding bodies, etc. It doesn't just happen magically.

Festival Organizers Should be Invisible

In many ways running a Festival is a thankless task: you only notice us when something goes wrong (the room is too hot, the schedule is wrong, the writer is late).

When things go right and you're here at an event, enjoying yourself, listening to a writer pontificate on something relevant and brilliant in a comfortable room, you're not thinking about the Festival organizers or the countless hours of work and stress that go into every single thing which led to that event being so interesting. That's how it should be. We don't want to be noticed.

But Mr Pullman should use his ample resources and connections to find solutions to the problem that he identifies. Instead of just resigning, he should tout for a company to sponsor writer appearances or use his name recognition to convince someone to donate the cash that is earmarked only for writer appearances. Just walking away and bitching about something you don't like shows a lack of commitment and a serious lack of understanding of how a Festival works. A missed opportunity for him but also for the Festival who should have spent their resources convincing him to help find a solution. Walking away with a parting shot like that doesn't really help anyone, much less any writer to get paid.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Refugee by Pierre Nepveu


This takes place in another time, he lands here, his face still congested
by the blue sky that sucked him out of hell and made him regret, for
a moment, the sweet herbs and the women of his country. But some
things are not forgotten long, a bloodied garden, a street ringing with
the hobnailed boots of destiny. For one whole night the bullet-riddled
houses prayed in silence and in the morning there was the black smoke
of identification papers and family records, while in the distance, tail
to the wind, an orphaned donkey brayed, stranger to the lamentations
of the women trying to mend the puzzles of the shirts and vainly
smoothing their sons' hair. So much cold light welcomes this fugitive
to the air terminal that it sticks to his skin and chills and frightens
him, as if a world that washes its wounds it cannot know had something
of the monster or the tyrant -- and even as he washes his hands in the
spray of disinfectants, he's still thinking: white, white, glacial purity,
chasm where whirlpools of blood are lost, where misfortune itself is
sluiced down the drain -- and what can the colour of the earth here

                                      -- from Mirabel by Pierre Nepveu (translated by Judith Cowan)

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Most Anticipated International Books of 2016!

As we wrap up our reading for the 2016 Festival planning and now get down into the nuts and bolts of creating events, it's time to look ahead and see what is coming out this year. It might seem geeky, but I actually plan my reading by first taking stock of what will be published and what will be buzzed about. Here are the books that are (so far) on my list for 2016:

The Happy Marriage by Tahar Ben Jelloun. The Moroccan novelist (the book was originally written in French) tells the story of a disentegrating marriage in contemporary Casablance, alternating between his and her point of view. Jelloun is a writer whose few works I've read have deeply affected me.

I Saw Her That Night by Drago Jančar. The Slovenian writer's latest translation into English tells the story of a young woman who mysteriously disappears during the war. In doing so, Jančar explores the legacy of the war on contemporary Europe and the long shadow it continues to cast, influencing the way we think about society.

The Past by Tessa Hadley. British writer Hadley is one of these writers who many people have suggested we invite to the Festival. We've tried is all I can say. Her short stories are dazzling little gems that are endlessly fascinating (a cursory search online will link to a few New Yorker pieces she's published in recent years). Her new novel explores one of Hadley's consistent themese: the role of a young girl within a family.

The Heart by Maylis de Kerangal. De Kerangal was at our Festival a few years back and all she'd had translated then was one book. But her nomination for the Goncourt (France's biggest literary prize) and her general booming reputation as one of France's most engaging writers has ensured that some of her works, at least, are on publishers' radar and lined up for translation. In typical De Kerangal style, this one tells the story of a heart, an actual heart, as it makes its way from one body via transplant to another.

Spill Simmer Falter Wilter by Sara Baume. As has been noted by several commentators and literary journalists, Ireland is going through a short story and fiction renaissance and Baume is one of the writers leading the way. Her stories are rich, deep and moving. Her new novel, too, got rave reviews when it came out last spring. It's not being released in North America and it's at the top of my list for this year as well.

Dinosaurs on Other Planets by Danielle McLaughlin. Like Baume, Danielle McLaughlin is considered one of Ireland's rising voices in short literary fiction. Her collecion of stories isn't out in North America until the summer but it's one that will be worth the wait. Her piece in The New Yorker last year, and several other pieces published online, have made her a short story writer to pay close attention to.

Also writers with books out in 2016 include Edmund White, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Don DeLillo, Louise Erdrich, Anne Tyler and Javier Marias.

Going to be doing a LOT of reading this year!

Monday, January 4, 2016

The Last Kingdom

Over the holiday break, I watched most of the Netflix series, The Last Kingdom. I enjoyed it. It's full of swashbuckling adventure, the acting is good (David Dawson, who plays King Alfred, is phenomenal) and while the drama feels a bit manufactured now and then, it still manages to seem like real drama that medieval warriors and royalty might have faced. The series tells the story of a young Saxon boy who is orphaned and then kidnapped by Norsemen (Danes) and raised as one of them. As an adult, he's not sure where he fits and this tension between his Saxon English identity and his Norse Danish identity is one of the driving forces of the series.

People are often comparing this series to Game of Thrones though I've never seen that one or read any of those books. I do like these medieval period pieces for various reasons (since coming back from Scotland a couple of years ago, I got into medieval Viking sagas and the history of the Celts, etc.) and for me the one that sparked my interest was the show The Vikings. This one is good (I only saw the first two seasons) but I did kind of start to lose interest in it when it became a bit too modern (the fact that the hero is such a proto-feminist seems very unrealistic, even though Norse women did have slightly more rights than European women broadly, these were not moden people in any sense of the word: I am no historian or even an expert on this subject so it's just my impression).

In any case, I went out to the bookstore and picked up a copy of The Last Kingdom over the break
and started reading this, too. I'm enjoying it. This is not the kind of book I would typically read (though I fully admit it's a kind of prejudice, when someone says "fantasy" or "science fiction" I have a negative visceral reaction, probably because so much of this writing, in my opinion, is badly written) but I find this one pretty easy to read and the writing's not grating on me (so far). This one is written in first person but that makes it a fairly straightforward story and it helps to have watched the series on Netflix beforehand. Of the writer, Bernard Cornwell, I know nothing but what is written on the book: he's a former BBC journalist and lives in the US. But he's a good writer and I think the book is full of historical detail which shows a good deal of research was done.

I still have yet to view the final two episodes of Season One (there is no Season beyond, at least not at this point) so I will watch them this week but luckily there are several books in the series which may keep me occupied for some time.

(That sad feeling of watching a Netflix series you're enjoying and knowing it's going to end soon).