Our Hero Disbelieving

Our Hero Disbelieving

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Saying goodbye to my friend Victor Ramraj


Earlier this month at King’s College in Nova Scotia, one of my grad-student writers, a woman who had spent some years in Kenya, pointed to a passage in one of my Arctic books and said: “Did you study postcolonial theory?” I took a beat and said, “No, but you’re right. The influence is there. My best friend is a leading postcolonial thinker.”
I was speaking of Dr. Victor Ramraj, a renowned scholar originally from
Guyana. He spent the past four decades as an English professor at the University of Calgary. His books include Concert of Voices and an early study of Mordecai Richler.
Today, in Calgary, I served as a pallbearer at Vic’s funeral. His death was unexpected. He died suddenly at his home last Monday night.
The dean of arts at U of C rightly described Vic as a “distinguished expert in postcolonial studies and Canadian literature” who was “internationally recognized,” and whose round-the-world ramblings found him giving a state lecture in Guyana last June. Sponsored by the prime minister of that country, it focused on and celebrated the work of Alice Munro.
I myself attended plenary lectures Vic gave at literary conferences in Canberra, Australia, and Colombo, Sri Lanka. The latter featured a focus on Caribbean writer Sam Selvon, and Vic got me included by publishing a piece I wrote on Selvon in the literary magazine he edited for years, called ARIEL.
To tell the truth, ours was a four-way friendship, Vic and Ruby, Ken and Sheena. After those conferences, we rambled around Australia and Sri Lanka. We hung out, as well, in Singapore, where “young Vic” was a law professor on his way to becoming  head of the law faculty at the University of Victoria.
The photos here, with Sheena behind the camera, find Vic and Ruby in Dawson City, Yukon. They came for a visit during my stint as the Berton House writer-in-residence. I gave Vic a scare by falsely claiming, after he left, that I had finally downed a Sourtoe Cocktail after all, and had the paper to prove it.
Ah, but the Perhentian Islands off the northeast coast of Malaysia. They are magical, but so difficult to reach that we thought Vic and Ruby would never manage to join us there. I vividly remember my joyful astonishment when they arrived, with Vic hauling a small, wheeled bag determinedly through the sand. That night, at the only outdoor pub serving alcohol, we sat under a canopy of stars laughing and talking and knew we would remember this moment forever.
We kept in touch after Sheena and I moved back east, though not as closely as we should have. In Halifax recently, while reading back issues of the London Review of Books, I came across a piece on Derek Walcott, a favorite of Vic’s. When I got home to the Centre of the Universe, first thing I did was pop it in the mail with a short note.
Today, Ruby told me that mine was the last letter Vic received. He read her passages from the article and pronounced it, “Not bad.” That piece was sitting on his night table when he passed. I don’t know why,  exactly, but I feel good about that.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Creative Nonfiction: University of Toronto takes it online

He's back! In response to a raucous clamor for stand-alone treatment, the Dr. Jekyll in me has beat his way free to announce an online course in Creative Nonfiction. It's called The Art of Fact: An Introduction to Writing Nonfiction, and it's available through the University of Toronto. We launch one month from now on September 22.  And the 
particulars look like this: "The hallmarks of Creative, Literary or Narrative Nonfiction are truth and personal presence. The genre includes subjective and objective streams, and encompasses memoir, autobiography, biography, history, adventure, travel, and true crime. The writer of nonfiction employs memory, imagination, analysis, and research, and adapts literary techniques from fiction, journalism, and the essay. This craft-oriented course aims to enhance your ability to tell true stories." You can find out more at the link above.  In the past, folks have "attended" from as far away as Japan and Uganda. Oh, and we do have a favourite text: Textbook: The Art of Fact: A Historical Anthology of Literary Journalism, edited by Kevin Kerrane and Ben Yagoda. (Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, ISBN 0-684-84630-6). 
Wherever you are, come on out.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Our Hero contends that the wicked need no rest

Wow! Just back from Nova Scotia. And, yes, I am reeling from an extraordinary couple of weeks at University of King's College in Halifax, teaching in the new master's program in Creative Nonfiction. All the best stuff has been placed under a Cone of Silence. But if you were not there, here's the good news (he said unblushingly): I'm offering an online, 10-week course in Narrative or Creative Nonfiction through University of Toronto starting September 22. In the past, most registrants have come from Ontario, but we've also had people from Seattle, Japan and Uganda. Think about it.
Just before that launches, on Saturday, September 20, I'll present a two-hour writing workshop for the Creative Nonfiction Collective. This will be the CNFC's first writer development workshop in T.O., and will run from 11:45 to 4:30 at the Bloor/Gladstone Library. I'll share the presentation load with the redoubtable Susan Olding. Details will soon be posted here.
Two Saturdays after that, on October 4, I'll give a slideshow presentation at the Centre for Scottish Studies in Guelph. It's part of a fall colloquium that looks like fun. Title of my talk: Canada's New Celtic Ancestors: How the Scots and the Irish Gave Rise to a Postmodern Nation. As for the photo above, Sheena Fraser McGoogan took it last October, during a Toronto book launch for 50 Canadians Who Changed the World. The trade paperback edition will surface from HarperCollins Canada in September. In short, the photo is only marginally relevant, and constitutes a cheap ploy to attract your attention.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Creative Nonfiction micro-readings underway at King's College MFA


Micro-readings are the only way to go. We saw that again tonight at University of King's College in Halifax. Writers involved in Canada's only MFA program in Creative Nonfiction took the stage at the University Club. All right, it was in the pub downstairs. Five minutes each, that was the rule. And it worked. Ten readers came and went, paf, paf, paf. And so we ended another marvellous day, this one featuring guest writer Andrew Westoll, author of The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary. The MFA program has doubled in size this year, from 19 to 38 students, and from four to eight mentors. Yes, Our Hero is still one of them. In the photo above, taken by Sheena Fraser McGoogan, I am giving away a copy of Fatal Passage to a grad student who has correctly answered a skill-testing question from the table of contents in 50 Canadians Who Changed the World. Maybe you had to be there.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Saying goodbye to Chapters in downtown Montreal


So here, in a single image, is what we're losing. OK, fair enough: here is what, as a Canadian writer, I'm losing. Sheena took this shot of Our Hero at Chapters in downtown Montreal last November. Faithful readers will recall the VIA-Rail, Cross-Canada, Ocean-to-Ocean, Book-Tour Extravaganza? Montreal provided highlights, notably a fantastic
books-and-breakfast event organized by Paragraphe bookstore, the best in the city, and one of the best in the entire country. But also I signed books at Indigo and here at Chapters, on Ste. Catherine Street at Stanley. Now we learn (see link below) that this 35,000 square-foot store will close on October 4. And about that I feel sad. Obviously, if this had happened last year, I would have signed (and sold) none of the books pictured here. But also: check out the second photo. I apologize for not recalling the name of this Chapters staffer. But I tell you this: he was wonderful. He raced around the store collecting copies of 50 Canadians, and piled them neatly,  and provided a pen . . . all with enthusiasm and great good cheer. For me, he provided a classic bricks-and-mortar moment.  Some people knock the chains. But I, for one, feel sorry to say goodbye to this particular Chapters.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Arctic Explorer John Rae nears Westminster Abbey



A recent flurry of newspaper reports made it official. They appeared in The Scotsman, The Orcadian, The Glasgow Sunday Herald, and The Times (Scottish edition). Arctic explorer John Rae is soon to be recognized in Westminster Abbey.
David Ross, Highland Correspondent for the Herald, produced a quote from the Dean of Westminster, the Very Reverand Dr. John Hall. Following discussions with Alistair Carmichael, who is Secretary of State for Scotland and MP for Orkney and Shetland, Dr. Hall said:
"I have agreed that a memorial should be placed to Dr John Rae of Orkney in the Abbey near that to Sir John Franklin. I plan to dedicate a ledger stone to the Arctic explorer in the Chapels of St John the Evangelist, St Michael and St Andrew to the west of the North Transept on September 30." See for yourselves by clicking here.
Another excellent piece, which appeared in The Orcadian, drew attention to The John Rae Society website, which is conducting a fund-raising compaign.  
Many of you know all this. I highlight it here to put it on the record. The Forces of Darkness (those who, having a vested interest, continue to undermine John Rae) are with us still. As we approach Westminster, we can expect a flurry of denial, distortion, and obfuscation. Nobody familiar with the three books illustrated here -- Fatal Passage, Lady Franklin’s Revenge, and The Arctic Journals of John Rae -- will be surprised. John Rae lives!

Monday, June 16, 2014

James Joyce turns up in Dublin to celebrate Bloomsday


James Joyce is alive and well today in Dublin. He has surfaced in multiple incarnations and numerous places to celebrate the 110th anniversary of Bloomsday. That’s the day -- June 16, 1904 – during which the action of Ulysses unfolds in what Joyce called “dear, dirty Dublin.” Rambling around the city today, everywhere we went, we encountered people tricked out in Edwardian gear, playing characters in the novel – Leopold and Molly Bloom, Stephen Dedalus – but also looking like Joyce himself in middle age, when he wrote his masterpiece. The James Joyce Centre has been celebrating all week, running Joycean walking tours and talks, marking the 100th
 
anniversary (also this year) of the publication of Dubliners, and – would you believe it? – sponsoring a Joycean Literary Pub Crawl. The main photo on the front page of today’s Irish Times features two women participating in an egg-and-spoon race as part of a Bizarre Bloomsday Brunch, and on Page 7 we discover another   page-dominating colour photo from the festivities, this one deriving from a street event mounted by the Here Comes Everybody Players from Boston, Mass. At that point, we’re shading into Finnegans Wake (no apostrophe), which features a Here-Comes-Everybody refrain that is beginning to look prophetic. The Times also reveals that dancer Michael Flatley, the Irish-American star of the original Riverdance, owns the bronze medal won by Joyce in a singing competition in Dublin in 1904. 
An urban myth had him throwing it into the River Liffey in a fit of pique. As we wandered from the James Joyce Centre to Davy Byrne’s Pub, checking out bookstore displays and sundry shenanigans, Sheena Fraser McGoogan snapped photos.