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 It’s like a scene from La Dolce Vita, fifty years out of date but there they still are, sunlight silhouetting their bodies through their clothes, their dogs looking blankly with tongues lolling out, imagining water.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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It’s All About The Climax

A few nights ago, we watched the first episode of Homeland (we binge watch, which, according to a recent Netflix poll, is how 76 percent of viewers prefer to get their TV fix), which is pretty sexy, and it struck me how much we rely on sex as a shorthanded way to tell a story. You may remember the plotline: Nicholas Brody, a U.S. Marine, is freed after spending eight years in an al-Qaeda prison in Iraq. The first thing he wants to do is phone his wife – who, at that exact moment, back in the U.S.A., is having exhuberant sex with his best friend. She has a clamorous orgasm, sinks exhausted to the bed, and that’s when the phone rings. A few scenes later, when Nicholas is home, he and his wife have sex. Neither of them seems to enjoy it very much. Oh-oh, we think, this isn’t going to go well at all. The sex scenes have told the story.

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Who Do We Think We Are?

I was talking to the great Trinidad-Tobago novelist Earl Lovelace a few weeks ago (if I can’t drop a name or two in my own blog, where can I?) at the Vancouver International Authors Festival. Earl and I and Merilyn Simonds and a group of other diehards tended to gather in the festival’s hospitality suite in the Granville Island Hotel after a thirst-making day of readings, panel discussions and on-stage interviews (I interviewed the American writer George Packer about his book The Unwinding, which is another blog altogether). Continue reading

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So Much Jazz

My essay, “So Much Jazz,” about the  inspiration for the musical elements in Emancipation Day, has been posted on Retreat by Random House. To read it, and to listen to a playlist of the music mentioned in the novel, please click here.

So Much Jazz

Music is about dreaming, and for my father, his trombone was his magic wand to a better life. In 1943, he was an eighteen-year-old African-Canadian trombone player in Windsor, Ontario, light-skinned enough to be playing in the Sea Cadets’ marching band (known as the All-Whites because of their white uniforms, but also by implication because Continue reading

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Discovery

It’s not always possible to pinpoint the exact moment when a book is conceived, when the germ of a discovery meets the seed of an idea and a little curly thing that may or may not become a book is formed. But in the case of Emancipation Day, I can recall the climactic moment as clearly as though it was last night. I was sitting at a wooden microfiche desk in the Windsor Public Library, spooling through the 1901 census records for Windsor, Ontario, my native city, looking for my great-grandfather. Continue reading

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Tiresias

DCF 1.0I have written fourteen books of nonfiction, and now I have written a novel, and recently I was asked to compare the two experiences. What was the difference? Which do I enjoy more?

It seems to me there is very little difference in the actual writing. Writing is writing, whether I am writing fiction or nonfiction – much as a musician might say that playing music is playing music, whether you are playing classical or country and western. Where the difference lies, I think, is in how I feel about the outcome. I feel that the experience of producing a nonfiction book is different from that of having produced a novel.

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Resurrecting the Dead: Or, Writing About Family

“But dead people persist in the minds of the living.”

–Margaret Atwood, Negotiating with the Dead.

My current work-in-progress rebelled after about ten drafts. It had started out as a work of creative nonfiction – a book about my parents, along the lines of Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family, which he calls “not a history but a portrait, or ‘gesture.’” I was going to call mine a “fictional memoir.” But after I had assembled all the characters (my parents), chosen a starting point (1943), and set a few actions in motion (the Second World War, their marriage), the book changed its mind. It didn’t want to be nonfiction at all. It wouldn’t be confined to what my parents had actually said and done, it had already been there and done that. It wanted to be free, it wanted to explore new possibilities, new motivations, even new territories. It wanted, it said, to be a novel.

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Writing True Stories

I’ve been invited to take part in La Sombra del Sabino, a Canadian literary festival that takes place in Tepotzlan, Mexico, next month (February 22-25). This is the fourth year for the festival, and each year the program is composed around a theme; this year, the theme is “the journalist’s journey from fact to fiction.”

As a writer of nonfiction, and a former journalist, who is about to publish my first novel, and as a teacher of creative nonfiction, I have thought a lot about the difference between nonfiction writing and fiction. But I haven’t really thought of it as a journey, with the kind of inevitability that the term implies (from the Spanish jornado, the distance between water in a desert, and therefore the minimum and maximum one must travel in a day). I thought I was making a leap by writing a novel, but is it really inevitable that a journalist eventually wants to write fiction? Continue reading

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Back to Blood

We learn in Tom Wolfe’s recent novel, Back to Blood, that in Miami, Florida, white Americans refer to Cuban immigrants derogatorily as “Canadians.”

As a Canadian from Canada, I am curious as to why this might be. The suggestion is that Cuban immigrants escaped an oppressive regime in their homeland and have fled to America, the land of freedom and opportunity, in the same way that, a hundred and fifty years ago, African-American slaves escaping from oppression in the Deep South sought refuge in Canada, thereby becoming Canadians. Canadians are the ones who got away. Continue reading

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