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.

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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?”

THE ICE CREAM TRUCK GOING DOWN THE STREET

Mavis Gallant died at the age of 91 exactly four years ago, on February 18. She died in Paris, an ex-patriate Canadian writer who was admired by other fine writers around the world. Yet now she is at the centre of a scandal rocking the American literary firmament, from coast to coast.

Not that Mavis has any responsibility here, or is in any way to blame. On the contrary, one side in the noisy fight claims that it is defending her against a modern author who is stealing her work.

The story begins in the pages of “The New Yorker”, the magazine that for decades published Mavis Gallant’s work. In fact, only John Updike had more fiction appear in the magazine over the years than Mavis, and the role the magazine played in revealing her genius to the world is well known. On January 9th this year, however, the magazine published a piece of fiction by Sadia Shepard entitled “Foreign-Returned”.

That is the simple heading for the story. No reference is made to Mavis Gallant there, as in “A Tribute to Mavis Gallant”. There is also no specific reference such as “Based on the Mavis Gallant story, The Ice Wagon Going Down The Street.” To the unsuspecting reader, the story stands alone.

However, in a separate interview with the story’s editor, Deborah Treisman, Sadia Shepard acknowledges “a great debt” to the Mavis Gallant Story “The Ice Wagon Going Down The Street”, which she names.

Enter Francine Prose, the well-known American novelist. In a letter that sends lightning bolts from the page she accuses Shepard of stealing from the Gallant story. Her letter appeared in the The New Yorker on January 22, is and worth reading in its powerful entirety.

To summarize, it begins with Prose noting that a few sentences into the Shepard story “I began to get the eerie feeling that I knew exactly what was coming next. And, in fact I did, because almost everything that happens in Shepard’s story happens in Mavis Gallant’s story, The Ice Wagon Going Down The Street, published in The New Yorker, in 1963. Scene by scene, plot turn by plot turn, gesture by gesture, the Shepard story follows the Gallant – the main difference being that the characters are Pakistanis in Connecticut rather than Canadians in Geneva. Some phrases and sentences are mirrored with only a few words changed.”

Prose concludes by arguing strongly that “the correspondences far exceed the bounds of “debt”, or even of “homage, or of a “translation” into a different ethnicity and historical period.”

She ends with the thunderclap: “Is it really acceptable to change the names and identities of fictional characters and then claim the story as one’s own original work? Why, then, do we bother having copyright laws?”

BANG! The debate blew up with a number of writers in the New Yorker and The Los Angeles Review of Books accusing Francine Prose (and many others who criticized Shepard’s story) of racial insensitivity. Jess Row in a letter to The New Yorker actually says “…we’re not talking about the mechanics of story composition; this is a conversation about racial and cultural power and prestige”.

So where does this leave a Canadian reader? Well, I’m far from being a typical Canadian reader here, although I made my living as a Publisher, trying to anticipate the reactions of that elusive reader. But I had the honour to publish Mavis’s work, introducing her to Canadians as one of our best writers with From The Fifteenth District in 1978. We were friends, as I continued to visit her in Paris, see her in Toronto and Montreal, and to publish her magnificent stories. The classic story in question, “The Ice Wagon Going Down The Street” appears in two of our books: Home Truths: Canadians At Home and Abroad (1981, which won the Governor-General’s Award) and Selected Stories (1996).

A Canadian reader, I think will see more than an outsider in this classic story with the distinctive title. It concerns a childhood memory shared by Agnes Bruser, who grew up, Mavis suggests, “small, mole-faced, round-shouldered because she has always carried a younger child”, in a hard-striving, large Norwegian family in a small town in the Prairies. The house was so lacking in privacy that her happiest time was to slip out early in the morning in the summer. So early that, in those days before refrigerators, she could see the ice wagon making its deliveries, door to door.

Her memory of that apparently trivial moment, “Once in your life alone in the universe”, is so important to her she remembers telling it to the other Canadian she’s assigned to share an office with in Geneva. In fact, it’s the only real conversation she ever has with Peter Frazier (of the Toronto Fraziers, descended from “granite Presbyterian immigrants from Scotland” who made the family fortune that Peter at first was able to live off, until the old money ran out.)

Peter Frazier is the central character in the story, and he has little in common with Agnes from the prairies. He has never been in the West. He has never felt it necessary to gain a university degree. Agnes is so proud of hers that when she moves into the office that she has been given to share with this other Canadian she hangs her framed university degree on the wall. “It was one of the gritty, prideful gestures that stand for push, toil and family sacrifice.” On her desk she places a Bible.

You may be surprised to learn that in the, let’s say,” parallel” story by Sadia Shepard, what is placed on the desk by the Pakistani woman, Hina, to the alarm of her new colleague Hassan, is a copy of the Koran.

The anti-climactic scene in both stories follows a disastrous party at the home of influential friends from their own community. In both cases the male sharing the office resentfully with the female newcomer set above him finds himself conscripted to see her home, drunk. In her apartment, things could go very badly, but as both stories tell us, in these exact words, “Nothing happened.” Except in Mavis’s marvellous telling, when Agnes clumsily emerges from her bathroom to embrace Peter, she is wearing “ a dressing gown of orphanage wool.” Orphanage wool!

As for the Sadia Shepard story, I’m not qualified by personal knowledge to give an informed opinion. I don’t know her other, well regarded work. I know the Connecticut where the story is set, but only through one eight-month academic year in New Haven.  I am amused by her impressions of how men who can do nothing well in the kitchen are expected to spring into action as experts beside the barbecue.  But I can’t express any informed opinion about the accuracy of her portrait of life among expatriate Pakistanis in North America today. Although I note with pleasure that Pakistanis feature in the original Mavis story, when a standing weekend invitation by well-placed Canadian friends to stay at their Swiss summer house suddenly ends. “One Sunday Madge said she needed the two bedrooms the Fraziers usually occupied for a party of sociologists from Pakistan, and that was the end of it.” Could this reference have been what inspired Sadia Shepard to write this indebted tribute?

But I must confess that I read “Foreign-Returned” very much as Francine Prose did. Paragraph by paragraph I read saying “Oh, no, she can’t do this! Surely she’s not going to have her get drunk?” I realise, as many clever readers have written, that adapting anything, however closely, will produce something new. But what would you feel about a “new” work, where its advocate says. “And then there’s this great moment, when the magic potion works, and he wakes up with a donkey’s head on his shoulders! Did you ever hear of such a thing?”

Maybe the fanciful title that I’ve given to this article might have solved all the problems of non-attribution, if the original Shepard story had been graced by it. A Publisher’s solution, which I’m glad to offer for future reprints.

As Mavis Gallant’s friend and defender, let me end by quoting Sadia Shepard. “I believe that creating new work inspired by Gallant honours her legacy and might even bring her new readers, something that Prose and I no doubt agree she deserves.” All very well. But a more definite link with the Mavis Gallant model would send more readers her way, to their great pleasure.

AMAZING NEWS ABOUT MAVIS GALLANT’S MOTHER

As you know, I was very proud to be Mavis Gallant’s Canadian Publisher.After I brought out From The Fifteenth District in 1978, we were in constant touch, and I was delighted that my suggested title, Home Truths, won the Governor-General’s Award in 1981, in my jubilant words, “truly bringing Mavis home”.
Over the years, in addition to our regular correspondence, we met and chatted in Montreal, Paris, New York, and Toronto. When she was Writer in Residence at The University of Toronto in 1983-4, we saw a lot of each other.
I thought I knew her.
Yet when I wrote my chapter about her in Stories About Storytellers, I was surprised to find how little information there was about her parents. Recently, however, I came across Stephen Henighan’s essay in the Guernica Editions book, Clark Blaise: Essays on His Works (Edited by J.R.(Tim) Struthers.
What a revelation!
Professor Henighan has researched this area with imaginative care and persistence. He writes: ” At the time of Gallant’s death in February 1914, virtually all newspapers echoed The New York Times in repeating the incorrect statement . “Ms Gallant was born in Montreal to an American mother…..”
He goes on: ” It is astonishing that none of the book-length studies of Gallant’s work, published by Neil K. Besner, Lesley D. Clement, Judith Skelton Grant, Janice Kulyk Keefer, Grazia Merler, Danielle Schaub, and Karen E. Smythe, provides the names of Gallant’s parents. Only Grant offers a more detailed, albeit not entirely correct, account: “her mother, Canadian (but raised in the United States) of mixed heritage- German, Breton, Rumanian.””
Thanks to Henighan’s work we know that Mavis’s father was an Anglo Scottish immigrant to Canada, Captain Albert Stewart Young. His mother was, apparently, Scottish. Mavis, in her semi-autobiographical Linnet Muir stories. all set in her decade living and working in Montreal, played up the Scottish connection by naming the father “Angus”.
But let’s turn right away to Mavis’s astonishing mother.
Benedictine (Bennie) Wiseman was born around 1899 , either in Montreal or Romania. In 1913, according to York University criminologist Amanda Glasbeek, Bennie left Montreal ” cropped her hair, donned her brother’s clothing, and became Jimmy”. She worked by day at a Toronto department store and at night singing at a nickelodeon, once winning a singing prize for young men
Henighan takes up the tale: “After two months in Toronto, “Jimmy” was arrested at the corner of Yonge and Queen Streets by Constable McBurney…..Unmasked as a cross-dresser, she was tried for vagrancy. Newspaper accounts remarked on her defiance in court, and her unrepentant pride at having earned men’s wages of seven dollars a week…..On being questioned about her cross-dressing she answered: ‘What chance is there for a girl?’….As a girl I couldn’t get work, and I’ll just go back to boy’s clothes when I get a chance.”…..
The Toronto World provided this report of the conclusion of Bennie’s trial:” Passing out of the door she encountered the grinning policeman who had arrested her “I am sorry for you, so sorry!” she said, at which the grin disappeared, and Constable McBurney visibly lot two inches of his five foot eleven” (‘ Boy-Girl expresses Pity”)
Mavis was to inherit the ability to employ a devastating put-down,(“I’ll Kill Him!”) and also her mother’s concern for fair pay for both sexes.
Then,in April 1921, Bennie was arrested in New York State, for living with a man, R.O. Earl, to whom she was not married. She served three months in prison in Jamesville, near Syracuse, and then was deported to Canada (proving that she was indeed not American.)
This criminal record alarmed Captain Albert Stewart Young’s father, a colonel in the British army, who opposed his son’s plan to marry Bennie. But by then Bennie was pregnant, and the marriage went ahead, Mavis was born in 1922.

ROBINSON JEFFERS WROTE THIS POEM 100 YEARS AGO

THE ANSWER

Then what is the answer? — Not to be deluded by dreams.
To know that great civilizations have broken down into
violence, and their tyrants come, many times before.
When open violence appears, to avoid it with honor or choose
the least ugly faction ; these evils are essential.
To keep one’s own integrity, to be merciful and uncorrupted
and not wish for evil; and not be duped
By dreams of universal justice or happiness. These dreams
will not be fulfilled.
To know this, and know that however ugly the parts appear
the whole remains beautiful. A severed hand
Is an ugly thing, and man dissevered from the earth and stars
and his history… for contemplation or in fact…
Often appears atrociously ugly. Integrity is wholeness, the
greatest beauty is
Organic wholeness, the wholeness of life and things, the
divine beauty of the universe. Love that, not man
Apart from that, or else you will share man’s pitiful conclusions,
or drown in despair when his days darken.

In his observation tower near Carmel, on the Californian coast, he also wrote a poem with clear lessons for today’s United States, and its benighted leader. The title is
SHINE, PERISHING REPUBLIC.
It begins…

While this America settles in the mould of its vulgarity,
heavily thickening to empire,
And protest, only a bubble in the molten mass, pops and
sighs out, and the mass hardens,

I sadly smiling remember that the flower fades to make
fruit, the fruit rots to make earth…….

A very fine poet. I recommend his work.

THE ORDER OF CANADA……..AS SEEN BY ROBERTSON DAVIES

On January 25 at Rideau Hall I had the honour of being inducted into the Order of Canada.
It was a marvellous day for Jane and me, and my daughters Meg and Katie , who joined us from Toronto. The actual event struck me as a perfect example of what Canada does best. The morning ceremony is uplifting, and makes you proud. Then, as the biographies of the other honorees are read out, you are humbled, and left wondering if you really belong with all of these remarkable people. They come from right across the country, like Vancouver’s Christine Sinclair, our superb soccer captain, or Newfoundland’s Indigenous Chief Mis’el Joe, an old friend from Adventure Canada’s cruise to Labrador. The Governor General’s staff cleverly arranged for us to sit together at the formal dinner that evening, for a happy reunion.

Thanks to Julie Payette’s warm friendliness — “Here’s Glenn Gould’s piano. Would anyone like to play it, after our two opera singers have had their fun?”– the formal dinner turned into a sort of house party, and at the end we all piled into the buses back to the hotel as friends.

When I edited MURTHER & WALKING SPIRITS in 1991 I paid little special attention to what Rob Davies had to say about the Order of Canada. Here’s what we find early in the book, as he describes a grand opening event for a Toronto Film Festival, where the Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario attends:

“He himself was resolutely democratic, but his hovering uniformed aides, and the splendour that attended his appearance, made it clear that he was indeed a grandee, though of course one who owed his place to the approval of the people — which meant, in effect, the government in office. A curious grandee, surely, for though he bore the democratic stamp of approval he was primarily the representative  of the Queen. The provincial premier was not present because he had to be two hundred miles away, warming up the voters in an important by-election, but his wife came, gracious in the highest degree but also unaffectedly democratic. Ontario wines, and especially Ontario champagne, flowed without stint, and were consumed in quantity befitting the occasion. They too were democratic — quite without affectation of superiority. The guests in the room were in evening dress, and those who possessed the Order of Canada wore their enamelled marks of distinction with pride tempered by democratic bonhomie, as though to say, “I wear this because I have been awarded it, but I am very much aware that there are many here more worthy of such meritorious ornaments than my humble self.”

AHA, you no doubt noted my use of “humble”!

Davies continues: “It was, indeed, one of those Canadian occasions where the vestiges of a monarchical system of government vie with the determination to prove that everybody is, when all is said, exactly  like everybody else. These disquiets are inseparable from a country which is, in effect, a socialist monarchy, and is resolved to make it work — and, to an astonishing degree, achieves its aim; for though an egalitarian system appeals to the head, monarchy is enthroned in the heart.”

As I said, all those years ago I paid no special attention to what Davies was doing here. But after my own happy experience in Ottawa, I heartily agree that we’ve come up with a system that “to an astonishing degree, achieves its aim”.

I’ll wear my “snowflake” with great pride.

GG05-2018-0023-161
January 24, 2018
Rideau Hall, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada 
Her Excellency the Right Honourable Julie Payette, Governor General of Canada, invested 2 Companions, 8 Officers and 37 Members into the Order of Canada during a ceremony at 
Rideau Hall on January 24, 2018.
Credit: Sgt Johanie Maheu, Rideau Hall, OSGG