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Authors 4 Indies

messy-freelance-writer-desk-540x303That messy desk isn’t mine, but it comes close. It happens that this very busy writer is trying to do too many things at once — work on a novel manuscript, revise a batch of poetry, plan publicity for an upcoming book — so I’m afraid that The Thoughtful Blogger has become Blogger on Hold. But — wait!

It’s Spring at last, and hibernation’s over!6a00d83451f05a69e20168e8ac6bc5970c-800wi

Have you heard about Authors for Indies Day? That’s May 2nd — and it’s a Canada-wide chance for writers to come out and support some of our best friends, the independent bookstores which stock and sell our (sometimes obscure, always wonderful) work! We’ll be chatting up readers, talking about books that have thrilled us and, hopefully, selling loads of these! There’ll be readings, too, and refreshments. And FYI, here’s where I’ll be:

1. Another Story Bookshop @ 315 Roncesvalles, Toronto, from 11-12pm.
2. Book City @ 2354 Bloor W, 2 blocks west of Jane, at 2pm. Drop by and here me read from my new fall release, Here Comes The Dreamer.

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It’s going to be a great cross-country event! And if you’re in Canada, you don’t have to be in Toronto to take part. Your local independent bookstore has authors coming, too. To find a store near you, check out http://www.authorsforindies.com/.

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Thank You

Thank you to all my fellow writers and friends who commented or emailed after reading my remembrance of Jack Scovil. Most of you are writers who knew him; some of you — writers or not — had no connection.  Wherever you fit, you’ve taught me some important lessons. What a sense of loss for all of us — but  your company was solace as we honoured one of those rare individuals who understood and encouraged our vulnerable calling. What a relief to read your stories, to look into them as mirrors in which I saw reflected the truth of my own experience, multiplied by all of yours. Our time with Jack was a wonderful moment that passed through our lives like a current switching on a string of lights. The lights remain. Thank you.

Curious, I visited your blogs and websites and I saw a fantastic array of talent — mystery writing, TV writing, personal memoir, literary fiction — and it brought home to me what I too often forget: that even as a solitary soul, I’m one of a tribe of hard-working people who nurture and love what they do. It reminded me once again that this work isn’t about being famous (although acclaim is wonderful when it comes) or rich (although an income is always more than welcome). The writer who hits the jackpot is as rare as a supernova, but it’s rarity that makes news, and that news sometimes defeats us. Yet in discovering  your work, I started to realize that writers live by different rules. We’re farmers growing tender shoots, toiling in the vineyard for the day when fine wine’s ready to be poured. Farmers don’t make headlines, but their work hums under the surface of life and makes a whole life possible. So it is with writers.

We’ll never replace Jack, but we honour him in our writing. So thank you all for the seeds you plant and grow.

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A Classic Arabic Novella

Most novellas are either lighthearted or extremely potent, like a shot of vodka swallowed in a gulp. I’ve just finished one of the hundred-proof variety and I’m knocked flat out.

My research tells me that Men in the Sun by Ghassan Kanafani is a classic of Arab literature and that its author is right up there in the Arabic literary canon, something like the Hemmingway of the Middle East. Kanafani was born in British-mandated Palestine in 1936. His novels, stories and plays were published in sixteen languages. He was active in the movement for a Palestinian homeland, but he lost his life during the civil war in Lebanon in 1972. For all his political engagement, it’s to Kanafani’s credit that it’s his art, rather than his political convictions that drives this story to its devastating conclusion.

Published in 1962, it’s told from four different points of view, all of them Palestinian men fleeing the Arab refugee camps to which they were consigned after the Israeli-Arab war of 1948. Although they’d lost their homes, they weren’t allowed to settle in Arab countries. Yet these men are determined to make it across the Iraqi desert and into Kuwait where there was work and a chance to start over. One of the men, Abu Khaizuran, is a smuggler, the victim of a war wound that’s ruined his life; for a fee, he’ll take the men through sweltering heat to their destination. Each of these men has a story to tell — Abu Quais, an older man, who’s sat around the camps for ten years, hoping to get his land back; Assad, whose uncle has given him the tidy sum of fifty dinars so that he could get a start in life and marry a daughter who doesn’t interest the young man at all; Marwan, a teenager who wants to support his abandoned mother. Off they go on their desert journey, but there’s a hitch: Whenever they pass border guards, the driver Abu Khaizuran has to conceal his three passengers for several minutes in an empty water tank at the back of his truck, its lid slammed shut as they roll along under the broiling sun. This happens twice on a heart-thumping journey, a story told with a sure command of plot and pacing, and punctuated by numerous flashbacks, and time-shifts that disorient the reader — much as the unfortunate men in the back of the truck would have felt in the scorching heat. Worse is a mean twist of the knife as a customs official’s smart-alec remarks to the driver dig right into  the suffering that the man embodies — and that so many Arab men felt at this moment in history. The novella’s only  fifty-three pages long, and if I say any more, I’ll spoil the impact of its dead-on insight and honesty. (Several short stories are included in this volume, most of them early work that lack the technical sophistication of this novella). Men in the Sun is a remarkable work, and an open door to a missing part of our world.

Men in the Sun and Other Palestinian Stories by Ghassan Kanafani is translated from the Arabic by Hilary Kilpatrick. It was published in 1999 by Lynne Rienner Publishers in Boulder, Colorado and London, England.

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David Grossman’s To The End Of The Land

Usually I avoid using this space to feature authors who don’t need the publicity. Yet David Grossman’s latest novel is so haunting and deeply felt, so rich in insight about a troubled part of the world that it’s a must-read. It’s a long work, and at close to six hundred pages, it builds up powerful resonance between the lives of ordinary people, sporadic violence and the strength and fragility of the natural world. Its intricate weave of storytelling is well worth your attention.

The novel’s central character, Ora, is a complex creation — passionate, conflicted, and driven to protect the life of her son, Ofer. About to be released from his army service in Israel, Ofer re-enlists for a major offensive. Distraught, Ora decides to set out on a long hike through the Galilee region, leaving no word behind of her whereabouts, so that no one can bring her dire news about the fate of her son. It’s magical thinking, but she’s convinced that by leaving home for a long-distance hike, she will somehow protect Ofer.

Ora’s just separated from her husband, Ilan, and so she cajoles her former lover Avram to come on the hike with her. Ora, Avram and Ilan were old friends from their army days, but Avram, once a brilliant and creative artist, was shattered by his wartime experience, having been captured and tortured as a prisoner of war in Egypt.  Yet as they continue on their hike, Ora keeps her son Ofer alive by telling his story to Avram. The powerful rhythm of her family tale takes on its own life and Avram — at first reluctant to listen — begins to rally and to claim the story for his own. Yet the engine that drives this novel’s intricate machinery is the walk itself — step by step, its wonderful physicality pushing words forward, connecting Ora’s tales to the strength of her body and  the land. The entire novel seems to grow up out of the earth. Ora’s passion for her country and her ambivalence about politics are sometimes spoken, sometimes not. Yet her sensuality, her alertness to nature and her commitment to the life of her son pierce through the texture of this novel and bring it to life.

Grossman is deft in his use of time-shifts and changes in point of view; his technical skills never get in the way of the story, never break the steady rhythm of the tale. For anyone who’s been to Israel, he evokes the surreal and disorienting aspects of the place; the novel’s juxtaposition of ordinary life with an undercurrent of anxiety is a feverish, unsettling reminder of what the country’s like. In fact the title To The End Of The Land is a play on Ora’s recurrent fear that Israel may cease to exist. Yet Ora is like Scheherazade, the Persian queen who saved her own life by enchanting her king with stories. Her passionate storytelling speaks to the power of life in ways she’d never imagined, and in so doing, it speaks to all of us.

To The End Of The Land by David Grossman is translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen. It’s published in the U.S. by Random House and in Canada by McClelland & Stewart.

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Christina’s Story

Fiction tries to embrace the world. Yet when the power of real-world events overtakes us, we writers of stories pause inside a necessary silence. We now contemplate six innocent dead whose stories were taken away from them in that savage Arizona shooting. The power of this loss is chastening. It asks us as writers to question how we proceed — not in order to paralyze us, but to make us understand what stories can and cannot do.

A nine year-old child by the name of Christina Green was shot dead in the January 8th massacre. Her brief life, by all accounts, was filled with energy and delight. She was her parents’ treasure, a stellar student who loved politics and baseball and animals. Her life also had a tragic narrative arc. Born on September 11th, 2001, she knew herself to be a sign of hope, and then she, too, was attacked by a fanatic.

Were you to write this true and dreadful taking of a life as a work of fiction, it would seem implausible, too tidy, too contrived in its irony and horror. Fiction leaves life room to breathe. This is what stories do. A story that ties up every loose end seems false, somehow, as if the author’s controlling hand had refused to let it live.

An individual with a loaded gun put an end to Christina’s story. Its cruel narrative arc was imposed on her. The horrendous symmetry of her brief life mocks life. It breaks the heart.

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Echoes From The Other Land: Stories from Iran

When most of us think of Iran, what comes to mind is the image of women covered in black chadors who move like shadows through a strict, puritanical society.  All of this is true, of course, but it’s also true that Iran is a modern, developed country, and in Ava Homa’s first collection of stories, Echoes From The Other Land, we’re faced with a jarring combination of realities that co-exist side by side in her homeland. In these seven stories, veiled women use cell phones, buy CDs, are good with computers, and, along with their husbands and boyfriends, party on into the night in stylish western dress, reminding me of the hidden world of our Nineteen-Twenties speakeasies during Prohibition. The friction between strict laws and customs and the realities of modern life makes the sparks fly in these stories.  In “Fountain,” the dissonance is surreal as a young woman, Anis, gets bullied and bossed around by Ali, her unemployed husband, who’s asserting his traditional authority over her while she’s  trying to write a computer program. Just as potent in these stories is a kind of resonance that’s set up between parallel situations — different types of oppression, for example — in which one form of imprisonment amplifies the other, allowing the entire story to hum along on a single clear note of perception. For example, in “A River of Milk and Honey,” the narrator, Sharmin, a girl set apart by a facial deformity, observes the equally restricted world of her mother, her aunt, and a beautiful young woman who’s chased by men and whose parents find her the wrong husband. This same resonant effect is equally powerful in the story “I am One of Them.” Two voices pound away at young Sana who’s locked herself in her room: her mother, angry that she’s broken up with her fiancé Zanyar, and her friend Susan on the phone who’s also upset with her. The back-and-forth of these voices is intense and claustrophobic.  In “Glass Slippers,” the story is told in the second person, as the narrator addresses herself. She and a friend, Sara, are hiding in a basement, trying to get a glimpse of her husband’s lover. What the wife discovers about her husband may be far more devastating than adultery, and the effect is amplified by the intimacy of the woman conversing with her turbulent inner self. And in the final story, “Just Like Googoosh,” we learn that headscarves — not usually worn around the house — may serve to hide something painful — in this case the loss of Fermisk’s hair, quite possibly because of chemotherapy.

What makes these stories work is the simplicity and directness of their telling. Homa suggests much and states little outright. Maybe this approach is, in fact, the true “echo from the other land” — Iran — in which much is unspoken and cannot be said, in which there’s no doubt a vocabulary of signs and signals and coded words with layers of meanings and suggestiveness. This elusive approach to storytelling is subtle and powerful, haunting the reader with the silence between the words. I’d only add that these characters are all quite youthful, and in future stories, it would be interesting to see what Ava Homa might do with a greater variety of characters at different stages of life.  That said, take your imagination to Iran with this story collection, and you’ll be rewarded with much insight and fine storytelling.

Ava Homa’s Echoes From The Other Land is published by Tsar Books in Toronto.

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Book Review: Mary Swan’s The Deep

Like many of you, I’m behind in my reading, but the book I’ve chosen this time is only eight years old, rather than a century or two. That book is Mary Swan’s The Deep, winner of the 2001 O Henry Award, and it’s a brief but exquisitely told tale of two young women who volunteer for canteen duty in France during the First World War. Esther and Ruth are twins — and on that fact, the weight of this story rests. They think and function as a single being, and to emphasize this fact, the author tells their story in the first person plural, a technique I’ve never before run across in fiction. Yet Esther and Ruth are not the lone narrators. There are ten points of view in this novella — yes, you heard that right. This is a book that isn’t afraid to push the limits of the novella form, which almost never deviates from the single perspective of one character. Yet this chorus of voices is vital to understanding what becomes of these two quiet, well-bred, mysterious women.
As the story opens, we sense that Esther and Ruth are dead, no doubt as casualties of war. Gradually we learn about their past, of a mother chronically depressed and ill since their birth, a malicious brother, a kindly but distant father, a teacher who inspired them to serve their country, the soldier Hugh who lost his best friend in combat. As their story unfolds, the variety of voices — a supervisor, former classmates, a doctor, a military sentry — and their distance from the twins suggest that their fate was more complex and ominous than we might expect, an event that begs insight from anyone who’d ever known them. A disturbing ending unfolds with silent grace and spare eloquence through the chorus of voices that weave this story together. Fascinating also is the skill with which the author entices us with incomplete information. For example, Swan introduces the voice of a sentry, who we place on the battlefront, so that his observations allow certain conclusion about the twins’ deaths. By the time we meet him again, we know more, including his actual location, which changes everything he sees. There’s lots of these shifts in this wonderful feat of fragmentary storytelling which never loses its unity of focus in the powerful image of the twins who share one mind and soul. The dramatic tension builds, and the pages turn, because we sense that each of this multitude of voices knows more than we could guess about the story’s end. The Deep has a beautiful consistency of tone that evokes both its time and its two main characters. And since we never seem to learn the lesson, it speaks to us yet again about the tragedy of war.

The novella was published in 2002 by The Porcupine’s Quill.

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