Saturday, September 30, 2017

Kingston Writers Festival

Melanie Fishbane
This past week I had the pleasure of being part of The Kingston Writers Festival. I can't tell you how excited I am when my home town is turned into a mecca of literature. So far I've heard Adam Gopnik and Michael Chabon speak, met Melanie Fishbane of Maud fame, and ran into my favourite Kingston writer Sarah Tsiang. I got to meet the amazing author, editor and teacher, Shelley Tanaka who hosted the panel I presented at, and introduced a class I taught.

The highlight of the festival was presenting for teens with the author of Saints and Misfits, SK Ali. The festival puts the panel together and it's always a gift to find out you are going to present with someone you don't know, but who turns out to be a special person, and a fantastic writer. 

SK Ali
SK Ali is a Toronto writer, and her book, Saints and Misfits, is about a Muslim teenager, Janna, who faces a variety of challenges as a teen. Some of those challenges are the kind that all teenagers face: tense family relations and social media bullying. Janna is also dealing with the fact that a guy from her mosque, who everyone thinks is a saint, has attempted to sexually assault her. 

I loved the multitude of nuanced characters in this book. Ali creates a complete world for Janna, full of friends who provide multiple glimpses into Janna's Muslim and non-Muslim world,  and the tension Janna feels between her religious and secular worlds. I especially loved reading the voice of a young woman who wears a hijab, and gaining access to a world I know very little about. Can you name another book about a hijab-wearing young Muslim woman? According to Ali, the only other YA book is the Australian author Randa Abdel-Fattah's Does My Head Look Big In This?

For all of it's differences, many of the themes of Saints and Misfits are things I've written about, or know about from my own adventures in the religious world. I know what it's like to be in love with someone outside my religion. I know what it's like to balance religious and secular life. Janna participates in a quiz game called The Fun-Fun-Fun Islamic Quiz Game, that reminded me of the many years I participated in Jewish youth group activities.

If you are interested in diverse YA books, Saints and Misfits, is not be missed. 

I am heading back to the festival tonight to hear Diane Schomperlen, Karen Connelly and others read at the Saturday Night Speakeasy. The KWF website says its already 73% sold out, but tickets are still available. 

Monday, September 25, 2017

Booker Long List

I didn’t intend to read through the The Booker Prize Longlist this past summer but when I saw I’d already read several of the titles on the list, I felt I had a manageable task. I’d heard of several of the books already through Eleanor Wachtel’s Writers and Company.
Zadie Smith’s Swing Time is my favourite book on the list so far. Its the story of a young British black woman who works for a famous singer, Amy. When Amy starts doing volunteer work in Africa, the narrator (unnamed in the story) is forced to think about white privilege and how well-intentioned work can quickly morph into a new kind of twisted colonialism. It was refreshing to read the voice of a Black woman. Other books with black female narrators I enjoyed are Ayobami Adebayo’s Stay With Me and Ya Gyasi’s Homecoming.

Colson Whitehead’s book, The Underground Railway is one woman’s journey escaping from slavery. This slave narrative is jolted into a new form by the steampunk arrival of a literal underground railway. Cora, a runaway slave, journey through the states allows us to see the varieties of slavery, from a seemingly safe model city in South Carolina, to the burning of a black community in Oklahoma.  Although the book is rife with violence, the possibility of Cora moving (yet again) lends small glimmers of hope.

Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West also uses a supernatural device as a metaphor, this time, for the immigration experience. In an unnamed Muslim country two young people, Nadia and Saeed, begin a relationship just a as a military regime takes over their country. With the help of a fixer, they open a door from their country and arrive in another. They travel first to a refugee camp in Greece, then to England, and finally to the US. The doors expedite the story, but also replicate the sense of immediate change immigrants experience as they find themselves in radically different places. While the book is about the tension of being an illegal immigrant, it is also about the tensions of migration. Hamsin writes, “… for when we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind.” This made me think of my grandparents leaving Russia and the families they never saw again. Exit West is short, lyrical and will stay with me for a long time. (It also has a really pretty cover.)  
Next on my list is Solar Bones by Mike McCormick and Lincoln in the Bardo. I love George Saunder’s short stories and I’m sure Lincoln won’t disappoint.
My only qualms with the Booker List (other than Zadie Smith didn’t make the short list) is that Hari Kunzu’s White Tears is not on the list. While I really enjoyed the other books and would recommend them highly, White Tears is the only book this year that I read twice, sought out author reviews, insisted my husband read and tried to foist on my neighbours. I loved this book because I was confused by this book and it made me think, and think again.
The novel is about a young white man named Seth from a modest background whose wealthy friend Carter collects black music. When Seth records a man singing in New York on the street he thinks nothing of it, but when Carter fixes it up to sound like an old record and then puts in on the internet under the name Charlie Shaw, Seth’s world starts to implode. A blue’s collector claims that Charlie Shaw was a real person and Seth is drawn into the world of the black south where depression-era indentured prisoners endure a slave-like existence.
The book's characters start to blur in ways that suggest the violence done to the black community eventually comes to harm the white community too. Yet I'm still not sure what it means when an author of colour writes a book called White Tears? Is he being sincere that this white protagonist is really crying for the legacy of hurt against black people, or are white tears tongue-in-cheek? I still don’t know, and I don’t want anyone to tell me either.