GREAT NEWS! MY PODCAST IS NOW AVAILABLE TO YOU — FREE!

As my faithful friends who follow this blog know, I spent a lot of time in 2017 touring my show about CANADA’S GREATEST STORYTELLERS, 1867 To Today. Yet anyone who missed the live Power-point stage show was out of luck.

Until today. Canada Day!

Now, we’re launching a series of Podcasts based on that show. There are 16 podcasts in all,  each based on a decade in Canadian literature. For most of the decades I’ve selected the best Fiction Writer, in English and in French. Against a background of music from the time, I also talk about Canadian Art in those days, as well as the major events in our history.

It’s all very informal, and friendly, and each decade’s podcast runs between 15 and 25 minutes.

I hope that you’ll give it a try.

Here’s how:

Go to the Podcast Section of i-tunes. Search for Douglas Gibson. What you want is the one with a caricature of me, running across the country. The heading is Douglas Gibson Literary Talks. It is, as I say, all FREE.
Enjoy.

If you seek a more formal direct link, here’s the URL

https://itunes.apple.com/ca/podcast/douglasgibsonliterarytalks/id1403911781

Please share widely

THANK YOU

DOUG

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RABBIT EATING SEAWEED

A new show has just opened at the Art Gallery of Ontario that is likely to travel across Canada. The title is TUNIRRUSIANGIT: KENOJUAK ASHEVAK and TIM PITSIULAK. I rushed to see the advance Members Opening last week, because I am a worshipful admirer of Kenojuak……and I KNEW HER, AND ONCE GOT TO SEE HER AT WORK.

The story begins, like all of my Arctic stories, with my friend James Houston. After he came home from the War (and interesting times studying art in Paris, until his Toronto mother got suspicious) he made a living as an artist in rural Quebec, his deliveries handled by a local kid named Jean Chretien. He was roaming around Moose Factory on a sketching trip when an emergency medical flight took him north. He was astonished to find that his new Inuit friends in Inukjuak, on the east side of Hudson’s Bay, were casually producing excellent soapstone carvings. He took a sack-full south to Montreal, where the art world snapped them up.

Soon James was back in Baffin Island, officially travelling to spread the message that being an artist could provide a good living to Inuit hunters and their families.
James was an astounding success in this art-missionary role, attracting dozens of fine artists to the new trade. He even created the Cape Dorset  Co-op, in Kingait, and encouraged the artists there to branch out into print-making. One American authority even said: “No James Houston, no Inuit art.”

He stayed in the Arctic until 1962, raising a family there. His tales of life in the Old North (travelling by dog-team, living in igloos, eating raw seal meat) were so fascinating that I persuaded him to put them down for me in a book for M&S..

You’ll find my account of James Houston’s remarkable life (perhaps it should be “lives”) in the chapter about him in my book, STORIES ABOUT STORYTELLERS. Then, in his own classic memoir of the old days in the North, CONFESSIONS OF AN IGLOO DWELLER, you’ll find out how he discovered one of Canada’s greatest artists, Kenojuak.

The chapter is entitled, “Rabbit Eating Seaweed”.

“The old trap boat came in at low tide and touched Kingait’s summer beach, a vast, dark stretch strewn with slippery, skull-sized rocks woven over in places by long fronds of seaweed. I saw Kenojuak climb out and help several of her younger children down. She had that familiar bump of another infant in the back of her parka. Two of her older children followed her out of the boat….

I continued along the beach toward Kenoujuak, a bright-eyed, cheerful woman whom I had always liked. She seemed remarkably young and healthy with a great deal of bounce considering that at that time she had already borne eight children – she was to have sixteen in all.

“Kunoipiit?” she called in greeting.

I noticed that she was carrying a sealskin bag on her shoulder. It was not unlike other bags I had seen Inuit carrying, but hers had something on it. I asked Kenojuak to show me. The bag had a dark, scraped outer sealskin image carefully cut and sinew-sewn onto the bag itself which was sealskin reversed, the inside being light tan in colour.

“What is this?” I asked, listening carefully to hear her answer.

“Okalik isumalook kikkoyuk memuktualuk. Rabbit thinking of eating seaweed,” she said in a way that she knew I would understand.

Kenojuak went out into the tide and showed me one particular kind of seaweed.  “ Mumungitok! Not good eating. Here, this kind, “ she said and gathered some. “Take this with you to Amakotak. Get her to cook it for you. It’s good. Rabbits come down to the shore to eat it.”

I wasn’t as interested in the seaweed as I was the startling image on her work bag. Why had she gone to that trouble?”

(And here, having raised the basic question about what drives any artist, Jim Houston inserts his own expert sketch of the “Rabbit Eating Seaweed bag”). The text continues:

“After Kenojuak and her family had set up their summer tent, we all went a few nights later to a large dance. It was one of their typical mid-summer pleasures where the families ate, then slept and rose refreshed and ready to start the dancing at about 11p.m., and could carry on until they tired, when the morning sun came up again.

I purposely took a pencil and two rolled sheets of paper to the dance and gave them to Kenojuak, asking her to make a drawing of her rabbit eating seaweed. She stuck the paper in her parka hood, then gave the parka and her current infant to an elder daughter when she heard the button accordion start to wheeze, then play. She leapt into the local version of a wild, Scottish whalers’ reel.

A few days later, when everyone had recovered from the muscular activities inherent in these dances, Kenojuak came to me with both sheets of paper I had given her. They were covered with pencil drawings of very different subjects. These were rolled for protection in the very piece of sealskin from which she had cut her rabbit eating seaweed….”

Kenojuak’s artistic journey had begun. It was to take her to world fame, as she became a Companion of the Order of Canada, and her 1960 print “The Enchanted Owl” became an official Canadian stamp. Now her works appear in art galleries around the world.

She is a superb artist, so this joint show with her young relative Tim Pitsiulak (a fine artist, gone before his time) is well worth seeing. You can wander the A.G.O. rooms enjoying one superb print after another.

The show itself, however, is far from perfect. It is resolutely bilingual, in English and Inuktitut. Any French-speaking visitor seeking a text to read is out of luck. In awkward English the organizers boast that the show was organized by “a curatorial team comprising of (sic) Inuit artists and creators”.  That’s fine. But I found the information attached to the exhibits rarely helpful, when I was keen to learn more. In fact, the show has the sense of being “over-curated”, with the partners apparently all too aware that they are part of “ a brave new kind of curatorial partnership”.

Usually this doesn’t matter. But in the case of Laakuluk Williamson Bathory, it allows her to take over the start of the exhibition with her “Greenlandic” oratory and hand-waving performance as her filmed self misleads the entering public with nonsense. If you think I’m being unfair, go back and watch her earnestly inform you that there was no Canadian Art before 1960.

But the excellence of the art overcomes these curatorial annoyances. It’s a fine show, and I hope you’ll get to see it.

So, you wonder, how did I get to know Kenojuak?

After James Houston died I spoke at the funeral his wife, Alice, organized in Connecticut, near his Stonington home. There his ashes were scattered. Then Mathew Swan of Adventure Canada had the brilliant idea of organising an Arctic Cruise in Jim Houston’s wake. Jim’s son John suggested that I should be added to the tour, to speak on board as part of the crew. I would travel along with others  excited to make the voyage in Jim’s honour, and to scatter his remaining ashes at a cliff outside Cape Dorset.

Kenoujuak was one of these honoured guests.

As Staff we both wore our Adventure Canada name-badges. We mingled all the time, on board or ashore. Her English was a thousand times better than my Inuktitut, but conversation was not easy. She was always cheerful (“an elfin sprite” someone once called her) although her years and her life (sixteen children!) meant that climbing out of boats or up rough slopes was a slow business, and I was among those companions whose arm she was glad to take. We became friends.

Three specific memories.

First, when we reached the Cape Dorset Art co-op at the end of the cruise Kenoujuak had been kept away from her art for several days. So she came bustling in eagerly to the desk where a sheet of paper awaited her. She tore off her coat, grabbed a pen with her left hand, and began to draw in quick, confident sweeps, as I stood gaping behind her. James Houston once asked her how she could draw so fast, and she told him that she “was just following a little blue line”, ahead of her pen. The magical blue line was apparently there, that day in Cape Dorset.

Second, when we trailed to the base of a cliff outside Cape Dorset, Kenoujuak stood proudly among an array of fine Inuit artists, all there to pay tribute to James Houston, their old friend known as Saumi, the Left-Handed One. She played a major part in scattering the ashes, while Jim’s young grandson, Dorset, played nearby, creating a little inukshuk.

Finally, on the last day of the cruise, Kenoujuak and I were in a little group relaxing before we went ashore, in my case to fly south. Both of us were wearing our Adventure Canada name-badges. I pointed to mine, and hers, and suggested that we should make a swap. She laughed happily at the idea, and the exchange was made. I suspect that the “Doug  Gibson” badge did not last long in her possession, but I was fiercely proud of her tag. It was like having a calling card from Monet, or Picasso. And when Kenoujuak passed away I cradled her card with thoughtful affection, remembering happy times.

A sad ending to this story. I made a point of showing the historic badge to the friends who visited our house, encouraging them to hold it in their hands. At some point the badge stuck to the fingers of one visitor, and it disappeared, never to return. So far…..

Finally, about the seaweed that Kenoujuak gave to James, whose wife, Allie, cooked it as she had suggested. “It had gone into the water first as an unattractive rusty brown and had emerged on the second blanching as a glorious shamrock green. It turned out to be the only Arctic vegetable we ever knew, and it was delicious!”

A CAUTIONARY TALE

Today I heard a story on CBC radio about a Canadian shocked to find Nazi war memorabilia for sale in a shop in this country.
It reminded me of an incident at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 1981. That year at Macmillan we had just published a fine non-fiction book by John Melady about German P.O.W.s in Canada in the Second World War. The title of this well-researched book was ESCAPE FROM CANADA.
I have many German friends, and once spent a high-school month in Hamburg, so decided that in my role as Publisher I should become a salesman, selling the German Rights to this book.
To do the job properly, I decided to get out of the usual English-language Frankfurt Hall (crowded with Canadian, British, American, and the other Publishers from around the world who liked to deal with major books translated from English). Instead, worriedly trying to recall my rusty German, I stepped into the very large Hall for German publishers.
I roamed around, looking for the sort of publisher who specialized in military books, like John Melady’s. In about the 40th Aisle, I found one. and when I stumbled into my introduction, the German Publisher manning the busy booth swept me into a conversation in fluent English,. He courteously agreed to consider our book, and gave me his card.
“But”, he exclaimed, with great enthusiasm, “we have a book for you! And it is being translated into English already!”
He produced a large hardcover book that was full of text and illustrations, and handed it to me.
Then he was called away to look after another urgent matter, leaving me gaping at the book in my hands. It was called the German equivalent of “The S.S.– A Celebration”
I leafed through it, shuddering, to make sure that I was not missing a shrewd satire. But no, it was an admiring look at the SS forces who had played a decisive role in the war. Instead of “decisive”, some citizens in a dozen European countries that had endured Nazi Occupation would use words like “ruthless” and “shameful”. Or given the cheerful approach of the German publisher, perhaps the correct word is “shameless”.
I remember vividly one photo from The Russian Front. A visibly terrified old woman was holding a large pitcher of milk, preparing to pour it out for five or six laughing young blond members of the Master Race; as they lined up they still had their rifles on their shoulders and broad smiles on their faces. The caption — and the gorge rises as I recall it — was, in German, “Once a mother…’
My command of the language was not up to the situation. Nor was my command of my own temper: this man really thought that I would want to publish this book, and that my fellow-Canadians would want to buy it.
My protest was mute. Instead of politely returning the loathsome book, I simply dropped it, BANG, on the floor in the middle of the booth. Then I walked away.

NEIL BISSOONDATH AND DYSLEXIA

A very long time ago, in 1985, I published Neil Bissoondath’s first book, the short story collection Digging Up The Mountains. Since then I’ve watched his international career take flight with his long and short fiction, including A Casual Brutality (1988), On The Eve of Uncertain Tomorrows (1990), The Innocence of Age (1992), The Worlds Within Her (1998), Doing The Heart Good (2001), and The Unyielding Clamour of the Night (2005). Among other titles.
Neil continues to teach Creative Writing at Laval, and is a welcoming fixture with his wife Anne for visitors to Quebec City. Recently Jane and I were yet again recipients of their superb hospitality.
We talked at length about his controversial non-fiction book, Selling Illusions:The Cult Of Multiculturalism In Canada (1994). I was unfortunately not the book’s publisher, but was well aware that the word “controversial” here is an understatement, like the word “costly” applied to the Second World War. In fact, the updated 2002 edition begins with Neil’s Introduction, which briefly demonstrates the tsunami of outrage that burst over his head when the book appeared…… and went straight to the top of the best-seller list.
I won’t try to summarize the book here. But I’ve just re-read it, and will recommend it to anyone who would like to spend time thinking hard thoughts about what it means to be Canadian. The outrage that Neil provoked included a denunciation by Sheila Finestone, the Minister for Multiculturalism in Ottawa. I think it’s clear that some of that outrage stemmed from the fact that he,  born in Trinidad, was a person with dark skin who wanted to be judged on what he did as an individual writer, and wanted to avoid being seen as a “representative” of any group, of any sort.
That is an increasingly lonely position today, but Neil makes a very thoughtful defence of it. I strongly recommend that you read his book, and see what you think.
Selling Illusions contains a story about me, which I had forgotten. As you’d expect, Neil gives a very accurate account of what happened.
“And a Canadian publisher, Douglas Gibson of McClelland & Stewart, relishes the following story. In a speech to an industry convention, Mr. Gibson, a clever and witty man, attacked the federal government’s tax on books by saying, “Those who tax reading must be people who find reading taxing.” The line was greeted with laughter and applause. But afterward, one person approached him to register displeasure. “That was a clever line,” the man said. “Many people laughed. I did not.  I’m dyslexic. It’s not nice to imply that people who have a hard time reading are stupid.”
The chapter, Diversity and Creativity, where my sad story appears, begins with the sentence “How easy it is, in life and in art, to give and to take offence.” Indeed.

PHILIP ROTH IS GONE FOR GOOD. SORT OF…

You may have missed two recent tributes to Philip Roth, who died last week.
One is in The New Yorker, by the novelist ALI SMITH. She learned to her surprise that she and this admired older gentleman both swam in the same New York pool. When she consulted him about how to keep your mind active while swimming boring lengths, up and down, up and down, he told her that he made a point of fixing on a specific year, then recalling everything he could about it. He would tackle not only the events in his own life during that year, but in the city, the state, the country, the literary world, and the world at large.
Ali Smith tells us that he swam long distances, much faster than she did, and learned from him that his recipe for a mental workout also seemed to produce good results.
As the outdoor swimming season begins in much of Canada, I’m happy to pass this idea along.

Meanwhile, I hope that you read the National Post cartoon on May 24 by my friend GARY CLEMENT. It’s an 8-panel piece that runs for half a page, headed “Goodbye, Philip Roth.” The sub-heading says simply “True Story.”
I’ve been in touch with Gary to congratulate him, but complained that it strains the reader’s belief that his encounter with Philip Roth took place “on Columbus Ave., of all places”.
He swears that it’s true.
Gary and his wife and son were in New York when they saw an older man sitting quietly alone outside a coffee shop. Gary says “OMIGOD! It’s Philip Roth!”
Urged to go and say hi, Gary objects “YOU CAN’T JUST SAY HI TO A GUY LIKE PHILIP ROTH! HE’S A GOD OF WRITING! AN IMMORTAL!”
The family goes off for a hamburger.
Then, in mid-burger, Gary abandons his family, runs back, and blurts out “I’m sorry to bother you Mr. Roth but I just wanted to tell you how much your writing means to me.”

The story unfolds as you would hope.

“Turns out.. he was a real kibbitzer.”
Roth:”Normally when this sort of thing happens, people offer me a little cash.”

Gary:”I only have Canadian money.”

Roth:” I’ll take a cheque.”

Gary recalls: “It was like talking to my Dad!”

To Gary’s surprise, Philip Roth wanted to know more about him.

Roth:” What do you do in Canada?”
Gary:” I’m a cartoonist.”

Roth:” From this you make a living?”

At the end, “Finally it was time to go.

Gary:”I look forward to your next book…any hints?”

Roth: “I can’t say. I’m just READING books now.”

The superb True Story ends with Gary’s words: “Shortly after that, Philip Roth announced his retirement from writing. And now, he’s gone for good. Sort of…”

A lovely memory of Philip Roth late in his life. I wonder if his hair was wet.

REMEMBERING CHARLIE RUSSELL , AND TOM WOLFE

CHARLIE RUSSELL, who died on May 7 in Calgary, grew up in the shadow of the Rockies. His father was Andy Russell, the unforgettable mountain man who was my friend. I once tried to sum up Andy’s life by saying that he had been “a trapper, cowboy, bronco-buster, trail guide, grizzly hunter, nature photographer and film-maker, lecturer, and fighter for the environment.”
His books, including Grizzly Country, Horns In The High Country, The High West. The Rockies, along with the later books that I published (The Canadian Cowboy, The Life of a River, and Memoirs of a Mountain Man) were hugely successful.
They meant that young Charlie and his brothers grew up on horseback , roaming through the Rockies from near Waterton Lakes through into B.C.. On foot, they were at home in the mountains. “My boys grew up able to climb like mountain goats”, Andy records in one of his books, with an alarming photo to prove it.
Charlie, naturally, drifted into the same sort of life, mixing ranching in the foothills with escorting tourists through wild, high places. And he became fascinated by grizzly bears.
He inherited that interest from Andy. I remember once visiting ” The Hawk’s Nest”. the Russell ranch in Alberta south of Pincher Creek, near Waterton. As we looked east , away from the Rockies, we could see three ( no, four!) grizzlies coming in our direction. Andy was not worried. In his life, by standing firm and “talking to” advancing bears that were charging– planning to kill him — he had faced down 23 grizzly charges.
Charlie developed great respect for grizzlies, and decided to get to know them better.
A trip with his father and his brother Dick to study , and to make a documentary about, a white sub-species of black bears on the BC coast on Princess Royal Island led to an astonishing discovery. They could never get near to any bear…..unless they left their guns behind. Charlie told The Edmonton Journal that eventually “The three of us came to the conclusion that the bears could sense that we were not a threat, that somehow they realized that without a gun, we would do them no harm.”
Charlie’s curiosity, and his belief that even grizzly bears were natural friends to humans led him in search of bears unspoiled by harsh contact with hunters. He found them in Russia, in the eastern Pacific section called Kamchatka. After much negotiation with Russian authorities, in 1996 Charlie flew in with his home-built plane, accompanied by his partner, the photographer Maureen Enns.
The result was a remarkable 2002 book, GRIZZLY HEART: Living Without Fear Among The Brown Bears Of Kamchatka. It was laced with photos of Charlie swimming with a bear friend. or walking with them, or fly fishing with a bear at his shoulder,watching, waiting eagerly for a fish to bite.
The New York Times wrote that “His conclusion that bears were not naturally hostile to people earned him enemies among hunters…..”
He once told an Australian newspaper “A lot of it is because the hunting culture needs to promote an animal so fearful that people can feel brave about killing it.”
The Kamchatka experiment ended with hunters breaking in while Charlie was back in Canada, and slaughtering the bears who had become his friends.
A personal note: When Jane and I stayed at The Hawk’s Nest a few years ago, we were charmed to find that friendship was still being extended by Charlie and his brother John and his wife Valerie to nearby bears. Outside the house was a bird bath. Right beside it was a bear bath. When we tip-toed out in the morning we were disappointed (and relieved) to find that no bear was there, relaxing happily in the big bath!

TOM WOLFE was another friend who died recently. His death in New York received a lot of attention, which is appropriate, because through his own writing, and his editing of important books like The New Journalism, he had a huge impact on writing and writers in many countries.
I knew him a little , and admired him a lot. I especially liked his work on Marshall McLuhan (“What If He’s Right?”). I’ve enjoyed telling the story of Marshall being taken to a strip club by mischief-inspired friends who wanted to see how this devoutly Catholic scholar would react. Tom reported that Marshall gazed at the spectacle thoughtfully, and then said “Ah, yes. She’s wearing us!”
Once I took Tom out for a speaking engagement at York University, York had been constructed in the 1960s at the very edge of Toronto, so was surrounded by a very bare landscape.
Tom gazed out at it and said, mildly, in the Southern accent that he retained even after his Ph.D. years at Yale, “It’s kind of like Brasilia, isn’t it?”

THIS WEEK’S TORONTO SHOW, AND A QUEBEC CITY SURPRISE

First, the surprise in Quebec. For a third time we were received at the magnificent Morrin Centre in the heart of old Quebec , by the incomparable team of Barry and Elizabeth.
The GREAT SCOTS show featured many surprising Canadian Fiction Writers , including Philippe-Joseph Aubert de Gaspe. This author of the first great Canadian novel in French, Les Anciens Canadiens, was imprisoned for debt IN THE CELLS IN THE MORRIN CENTRE BUILDING. We visited the ancient cells, and marvelled at his languishing there for over three years, able to see his family house across the street.
Before his debts caught up to him, he led a charmed life as a Seigneur in Quebec. You can roam around the old city, finding places where he once lived, like the Maison Jaquet, now the site of the traditional restaurant (where Guy Vanderhaeghe and I once dined) appropriately named “Les Anciens Canadiens”.

In the audience that day was a man from B.C. who mentioned that, like me, he had family links with Ayrshire. As I signed books and chatted, it became clear that he was a great-grandson of Robert Dunsmuir. My book , Across Canada By Story, pays tribute to the huge impact of Robert Dunsmuir on Vancouver Island:
“Logging and fishing were the staples of life everywhere on the Island. In Nanaimo there was something else. Robert Dunsmuir, as Scot from just outside Kilmarnock, was born in 1825, around the same time as my scary (“It says here you broke your leg!”) Kilmarnock great-grandfather, Robert. Who knows what they put in the water there in those days (although the town did produce Johnny Walker whisky. But we have fatherless Robert Gibson creating a tweed mill, and Robert Dunsmuir, a miner, coming to Vancouver Island, discovering a coal seam north of Nanaimo and creating a mining empire. He was another scary man. In the restrained words of The Canadian Encyclopedia: “His disregard for safety, and his employment of cheap Asian labour and disallowance of unions made him unpopular with labour.” The coal tradition lingers in Nanaimo with colourful place names like “Jingle Pot Road”.

IN TORONTO ON THURSDAY, MAY 17 AT 1.30. I’ll be giving a show at the MILES NADAL CENTRE AT BLOOR AND SPADINA. It’s based on the show I gave at Queen’s Park for the Lieutenant Governor, Elizabeth Dowdeswell, and will concentrate on our GREAT CANADIAN STORYTELLERS FROM 1967 TO TODAY.
I hope that you can come along, and say hello after the show.