Out of the Fiery Dumpster

Why is Canada getting such a bashing in the literary press these days? 

At this year’s Kingston WritersFest, Adam Gopnik, a Canadian who lives in New York, mentioned how glad he was to be back in Canada. In Canada, he said, he can breathe. He felt that for the first time in a long time, he was in a civil society. I recall Joyce Carol Oates saying much the same thing a few years ago at the same festival. Oates, who lived in Windsor for almost a decade before moving back to the States, said that when she arrived in Kingston, she could physically Continue reading

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Reading Like a Translator I: What Did Don Quixote Eat on Saturdays?

Translator: Don QuixoteDon Quixote’s woes, from the point of view of a translator, begin on the first page:

At a certain village in La Mancha, which I shall not name, there liv’d not long ago one of those old-fashion’d gentlemen who are never without a Lance upon a Rack, an old Target, a lean Horse, and a Greyhound. His Diet consisted of more Beef than Mutton; and with minc’d Meat on most Nights, Lentils on Fridays, Eggs and Bacon on Saturdays, and a Pigeon extraordinary on Sundays, he consumed three Quarters of his Revenue.

This is from one of the early translations, by Peter Motteux, published in 1700. The problem is with Continue reading

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Upon a Peak in Darién

We landed in Panama on February 10, twelve of us, for a birding trip that would take us into the Darién Gap, the only stretch of the 30,000-kilometre-long PanAmerican Highway to remain unconstructed. The Gap, which lies between Panama and Colombia, is an all but impenetrable tangle of rainforest, and one of the most biologically diverse regions in the world. There may be no true wilderness left in North or Central America, no piece of geography that is still untrammeled or untrashed, but the Darién Gap is about as close as it gets. No television, poor Internet, and only sporadic cell-phone coverage. We thought if there was anywhere on Earth we could get away from thinking about Donald Trump for a few days, the Darién Gap was the place.

We were wrong.

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Banff

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. Continue reading

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Roderick Haig-Brown

A white mist hangs over the Campbell River in the mornings. The river flows swiftly and is so shallow it kicks a lot of moisture up into the cold (by BC standards), winter air. Seabirds, mostly Glaucous-winged gulls but occasionally Common mergansers or the odd Hoodie, when they take a break from paddling are swept downstream so fast I barely have time to grab my binoculars before they’re gone. Although only a few kilometers from its headwaters in Campbell Lake to its estuary in Discovery Passage, the Campbell is an important salmon river, with five kinds of salmon and two of trout fighting their way upstream to spawn at different times of the year. It’s the end of February, and the Cutthroat should be running soon. I know because the Bald eagles are gathering: there were three of them in the Douglas-fir beside the house yesterday, two adults and a mottled, untidy juvenile nervously anticipating its first taste of trout. Continue reading

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Slavery: The Greatest Show on Earth

joice hath

In February 1835, Phineas T. Barnum launched his career as a showman by purchasing a female slave, Joice Heth, from R.W. Lindsay, a Kentucky side-show promoter working out of Philadelphia. Heth was old, thin, totally blind and partially paralyzed. Barnum bought her for $1,000, half of which he had to borrow.

 On August 10, 1835, Barnum exhibited Heth at Niblo’s Garden, one of New York City’s largest theatres, where six months earlier he had applied for a job as a bartender and been turned down. He claimed Heth was 161 years old, and had been George Washington’s nurse when the first president was a newborn. For seven months, Barnum exhibited her in cities throughout New England, in taverns, concert halls, inns, museums, even in railway houses. Audiences would ask her questions about Washington, and she would recount what Washington said and did as a child, including chopping down a cherry tree and refusing to lie about it. She sang hymns she claimed to have sung to “dear little Georgie” to get him to sleep. She talked about her religious beliefs. Barnum made $1,500 a week exhibiting her.

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Heart Of Oak

I was raised almost mutely by a father who, I am sure, loved me, but with a kind of muscle love that could not be expressed except physically. In his youth he was blighted by his birth, by the Depression, and by the war, calamities that deformed his capacity to love openly. I didn’t think I minded, it all seemed explicably Darwinian to me. A child is born, grows up, leaves home, has a child; that child grows up, leaves home, has children. What could be more natural? But then last week, my eldest daughter came to visit, with her two daughters, my granddaughters, who are four and one. Continue reading

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Figures in the Night…Passing

It’s dark outside, possibly raining. Bette Davis is alone in a big house, sitting in a large, wing-back chair so she can’t see or hear anything behind her. She looks up from time to time, as though she hears a strange sound, then goes back to her reading. Is that a thump upstairs? Did something move in the pantry?

She goes back to her reading. It’s a good book. It’s by Stephen King.

Because it’s Bette Davis, we know something bad is going to happen.

Then, of course, the power goes out. In the ensuing silence, we hear the scrape of a match. Bette has lit a candle. It lights her face, but the rest of the screen behind her remains in darkness.

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Click Home

For the past month I have been away from home. First in Vancouver, teaching a creative nonfiction summer course at the University of British Columbia, then to Moose Jaw, for the Saskatchewan Festival of Words, and from there to the Sage Hill Experience, a two-week writing retreat-slash-workshop held in a Franciscan monastery near Lumsden, Saskatchewan. A month of sleeping in unfamiliar beds – a student dormitory, a hotel, and a friar’s cell, albeit one with a closet and en suite bath. Of eating starchy cafeteria food, deep-fried fast food, squiggly foreign food, alone or with friends, or with strangers who, over time, became friends. A month of talking, of being available, of being excited, of squeezing a bit of writing time between long bouts of teaching, of seeing cities through the windows of taxis, of reading Ian Rankin and doing Sudokus in airports. Continue reading

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The Dogs Of San Miguel

Dog San MiguelThere are few cats in San Miguel de Allende. In the three years we’ve been going to Mexico for the winter, we’ve seen maybe half a dozen – scrawny, joyless creatures that skulk in the arrollos and perch on the tops of broken stone walls, out of harm’s way. They don’t look up when called to, preferring to belong to the landscape, like refugees. Their lives and ours are a palimpsest, theirs erased from the parchment but still faintly visible, and ours written over them.

The dogs of San Miguel, on the other hand, the dogs that are kept, are bathed, fluffed, powdered, clipped to resemble poodles even when they are terriers or, in one case we encountered, a cross between a poodle and a golden Labrador retriever, and paraded in the Jardin Principal at the ends of expensive leashes as though every day were Show Day. Their owners, in stiletto heels and designer sunglasses, settle on the Jardin’s wrought-iron benches, or stand in the shade of its shaped trees, talking and looking around and pretending their dogs are not sitting primly beside them, or lying curled under them. It’s like a scene from La Dolce Vita, fifty years out of date but there they still are, sunlight silhouetting their bodies through their clothes, their dogs looking blankly with tongues lolling out, imagining water. Pocket dogs, front-seat dogs, lap dogs, they are hardly dogs at all. More like fashion accessories. Continue reading

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