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New Blog Post | Taking The TestPosted on November 5, 2016
Shortly after I discovered that my father was of African-Canadian ancestry (both his parents were African-Canadian) but had denied his black heritage and passed for white, and that therefore I was African-Canadian, my wife Merilyn gave me a gift: she presented me with a DNA test kit that would enable me to find out just how African-Canadian I was. The company promised me a percentage: I would learn if I was five percent, 10 percent, 25 percent. It also would tell me what part of Africa my ancestors were most likely to have been (taken) from. I would be able to retrace the route my genetic forebears had taken from Africa to America and eventually to Canada. The kit contained a cotton swab, which I was to rub between my teeth and gums, seal in a plastic bag, and send back to them.
I sent in the swab and waited. In due course, I received an email with a hyperlink to the company’s website, where, upon registering, I would be given the information I had requested.
I have never gone to that website…read more.
Previous Events | Writers Emerging Intensive Workshops
Banff Centre for Art and Creativity
Walking up from the Banff townsite to the Banff Centre for Art and Creativity one evening, I saw movement on the path ahead of me. It was going on six-thirty p.m., and this far north and surrounded by mountains, it was dark. During our orientation session, we’d been told to “be aware of bears,” which, we were told, should be hibernating by now, “but some might not be.” I was dressed in black – black jeans, black sweater, even black socks and toque – except for my outer jacket, which was a soft, fawn colour. In the dark, downwind, and from the point of view of a near-sighted grizzly, it occurred to me I could have been mistaken for a mule deer.
I stepped off the path into the shade of a tall evergreen tree and waited. After a few seconds, a huge elk appeared on the path, sauntering down from the Banff Centre, moving so slowly towards town it was as though he’d been sent down to scare townspeople but wished he didn’t have to go. The path was iced over and slippery, so perhaps he was just being careful of his footing. Tall as a horse, dark hair on his front- and hindquarters and a grizzled, greyish-white on his back and around his belly, he had the largest array of antlers I’d seen, at least six feet across, or so it seemed on the four-foot-wide path. When he saw me standing under the tree, he moved slightly to the far side of the path, like a transport trailer on the Trans-Canada making room for me to pass in my little Toyota Prius. Maybe he thought I was a mule deer. I stepped back onto the path and, walking as slowly as he was, continued up the hill.
I passed him close enough to touch his antlers, but it was too dark for me to see into his eyes, or even whether he was looking sideways me at me, which was a pity, I thought, because I was reminded of John Berger’s essay in Ways of Seeing, in which he visits the London Zoo and writes about meeting the eyes of a caged gorilla. He suggests that the real purpose of zoos is not that we can go there to see wild animals, but that we can go to be seen by wild animals. The experience of that gorilla looking into Berger’s eyes is so profoundly thrilling to Berger – he doesn’t presume to guess what it meant to the ape – that he is certain it took on a primal, ancestral significance for humanity. To be seen by a wild animal, to meet its gaze, is both to share its existence and to encounter an equal. Its wildness animates our own forgotten, inner wildness, stirring that part of us that Freud said could lead to a psychotic break.
I am in Banff to teach a writing workshop, part of the Writers Emerging Intensive, the new name for the Writing with Style program. There are thirty-two students taking ten-day workshops in creative nonfiction (me), poetry (Elizabeth Philips), the novel (Madeleine Thien), and the short story (Saleema Nawaz). After my encounter with the elk, as we gathered in the Writers’ Lounge in Lloyd Hall for our regular evening get-together, someone asked our moderator, Meghan Power, if it was safe to hike the trails above the Banff Centre, in particular up Tunnel Mountain. Were we likely to encounter wildlife?
“The bears should be hibernating by now,” Meghan said, repeating what we’d been told earlier. “In any case, they’ll be higher up in the mountains.”
A few years ago, when Merilyn and I were writers-in-residence in Whistler, B.C., we were given a house on Alta Lake, which we could reach only by parking our car half a kilometre away and walking in. It was November then, too. We learned that in fact at this time of year the bears actually come down from the mountains to fatten up before hibernation. There is more to eat down here in the valleys. Every day, when we walked out to our car, we passed a fairly soporific female black bear sitting under a wild apple tree, gorging on windfalls. I didn’t mention this to our Banff cohort, maybe Alberta bears behave differently.
“But there are other animals around,” Meghan said. “Deer and elk, wolves and coyotes, so it’s a good idea to be prepared.”
A decade or so ago, when I was writing The Nature of Coyotes, I came to Banff to spend a week in the park going to coyote den-sites with the park ranger. At one site, situated close to the golf course attached to the Banff Springs Hotel, we found a cache of some twenty golf balls, which the adult coyotes had evidently carried back to the den for the pups to play with. Unless I was carrying a pocketful of golf balls, I thought, I didn’t think the coyotes would bother me.
One afternoon during that trip, when I was driving along a side road, I came upon a female coyote sitting on her haunches beside the pavement. I slowed down and stopped, and saw that she was sitting beside the body of her mate, a big, dark-haired, beautiful animal that had evidently been hit by a car. He was slightly farther down in the ditch, which is why I hadn’t seen him at first. I got out of the car and walked to within a few feet of the female. She didn’t move. She didn’t do any of the things a domestic dog might have done; she didn’t shuffle her paws, or wag her tail, or whine, or stick out her tongue and pant. She just sat there and looked at me, composed, indifferent, withdrawn into herself.
But our eyes met. There is no human word for what I saw in hers. For all she knew it might have been my car that had killed her mate, it was certainly my kind who had killed countless of hers, but she was far from afraid, or even angry. She simply wasn’t going to move. I wasn’t important enough to her to make her leave her mate.
But having read John Berger’s essay, I wondered what she saw in my eyes. I hope it was grief. I hope she saw an apology. I stood still for a long time, holding her gaze. She looked away from time to time, then back at me, as though surprised I was still there. I got the message. I returned to my car and left her, aware that I had experienced one of the most deeply emotional moments of my life.
A few days later, on my way to a morning workshop, another male elk was sitting in the grass outside the Kinnear Building. I stopped and looked at him, and he looked back. As with the female coyote, and the black bear on Alta Lake, his unconcern at my presence was a kind of relief to me. Not because it made me feel safe, but because it made me feel insignificant.
New! Writers Retreat in San Miguel de Allende
In winter 2015, Merilyn Simonds and I are offering weeklong, face-to-face intensive editorial coaching for writers with a manuscript close to completion. That dreaded second-to-last draft in Mexico! Includes one-on-one daily sessions and a private casita. For photos, fees, and more, visit Merilyn’s Book Coach site.
My essay, “Tragedy Postponed”, about the detective novel as a work of classic comedy, appeared in the May 2014 issue of Numéro Cinq, the online magazine edited by Canadian novelist Douglas Glover. The May issue is a remarkable gathering of goods, which also includes essays and stories by and about Lydia Davis, W.G. Sebald, a rescuscitation of the unjustly neglected but wonderful poet, Adrien Stoutenburg, and a lot of other enticing writing. Definitely worth a double click.
Writers Blog Tour
My ticket for this virtual train came from Merilyn Simonds; like her, I don’t know where this journey started or where it will end, but I am happy to have been invited aboard. The idea is to get a whole lot of writers to write blogs, three of us per week, in response to four questions about writing, post them on our websites on four consecutive days, announce that we have done so on our Facebook or Twitter pages, should we have them, and provide links to the other writers’ blogs that have appeared on the train. The result will be a virtual anthology of what a wide variety of writers are writing at the moment, why they are writing it, how they go about writing it, and how they think their work differs from that of other writers.
It’s an exciting opportunity. As writers, we are constantly asking ourselves these four seemingly simple questions, but we don’t often sit down and articulate our responses, let alone publish them. And it is also interesting to realize once again that there are no simple questions. “What am I working on?” looks like a straightforward question, but it is, as they say, complicated. Very few of us, I suspect, work on only one thing at a time. There is a thing that I am working on at this very minute, there is another thing on my desktop that I am working on when I need a break from working on the main thing, there is a thing tickling the back of my head that I am impatient to get to, there is a thing that I started working on a few months ago and stopped but now have a few fresh ideas for, and there are things (like this blog) that I have been asked to write and have put everything else aside, for the moment, to write because I thought it would be quick and easy, forgetting that, when writing, nothing is ever quick and very little is easy.
So each day for four days, starting today, I will post my answers to each of the four questions. I have chosen, for this first question, to write about only the work I am writing at his very moment, and not about the myriad other works that are milling around on my desktop and in my brain. It is a truism that writing about what one is writing about is harder than writing the actual thing. And also that if one could adequately write about what one is writing, there would be no point in writing the actual thing. Be that as it may, I hope that in the course of responding to the four questions, I give some idea of what it is like to be a writer at this point in the process, at this point in my career, and at this point in history.
Blog Tour Posts:
Blog Tour Post #1: What I am working on, July 4, 2014.
Blog Tour Post #2: Why is my work different? July 5, 2014.
Blog Tour Post #3: What is my writing Process? July 6, 2014.
Blog Tour Post #4: Why do I write what I write? July 7, 2014.
Delighted to say that Emancipation Day has won the 2013 Amazon.ca First Novel Award! Please go to THE NEWS page for more information about the award.
Emancipation Day has been shortlisted for the Libris Award for Fiction Book of the Year. Please see THE NEWS page for more details.
Emancipation Day has been named in two round-ups of the best books of 2013. The first in the National Post, in Phil Marchand’s list of his favourite books of the year, and the second in the CBC list of the best 10 books of 2013. To read the citations for Emancipation Day and the year’s other big books, please go to: National Post – Philip Marchand’s column with his favourites of 2013 CBC Best Books of 2013
October 1970 in the News:
October 1970 has been voted by Canadians to be one of the top 10 novels that can change Canada. Find out more about the CBC Canada Reads contest by clicking here.
October 1970 has also been declared one of the top 100 books of 2013 by Amazon.ca editors.
More Emancipation Day News:
Both Emancipation Day and my translation of Louis Hamelin’s novel October 1970 made the Scotiabank Giller longlist!
Emancipation Day made the Globe 100 Best Books 2013!
Amazon.ca picked Emancipation Day as a “Best Book of July”!
Indigo Books named Emancipation Day a “Heather’s Pick.”
Chatelaine magazine named Emancipation Day its Book of the Month in the September issue!
Open Book Ontario asked a number of writers, including me, to write about the role of “place” in their work. My essay about “place” in Emancipation Day can be read by clicking here.
Check out Hazlitt, Random House’s online literary magazine, for my response to their questionnaire, the first question of which was: “What three words do you associate with your first relationship?” Yikes.Wayne Grady