Monthly Archives: August 2014

BWS 10.09.14: Nora Gold

Nora Gold - photo (in Jpeg) (482 x 546) (2)

 

Nora Gold is the Writer-in-Residence at the Centre for Women’s Studies, OISE/University of Toronto; the editor of the online literary journal, Jewish Fiction.net; the organizer of the Wonderful Women Writers Series, and an activist. Her recently-published Fields of Exile received enthusiastic praise and excellent reviews in Canada, the U.S.A., the U.K., and Israel, and her first book, Marrow and Other Stories, won a Canadian Jewish Book Award as well as praise from Alice Munro.

Here’s an excerpt of recent interview Nora did with Tracy Kyncl of The Puritan, (reprinted with permission). Opinions expressed are the interview participants’ own.

Interviewer’s Note: Nora Gold’s debut novel Fields of Exile, published by Dundurn in April, 2014, looks at the preponderance of anti-Semitism, in the form of anti-Israelism, in academia. Dr. Gold’s novel artfully examines the necessary costs and risks of activism.

Tracy Kyncl: Your novel Fields of Exile outwardly critiques anti-Israelism in academia, and there are many professional similarities between you and your protagonist (working in Israel with developmentally challenged youth and returning to Canada to complete a master’s degree). Could you elaborate on the motivations behind writing this book?

Nora: In the early stages of this book, if you’d asked me what it was about, I would have said I was writing a satire about academic life. It was only as this novel evolved that the hypocrisy and intellectual sloth I was describing became increasingly focused on the issue of anti-Israelism. Let me define straight off what I mean by anti-Israelism. Anti-Israelism is not just criticizing Israel. As I make clear in Fields of Exile, it is obviously entirely legitimate to criticize Israel’s government or policies, just as one would critique the government or policies of any other country. But anti-Israelism is something else. Anti-Israelism (otherwise known as “the new anti-Semitism”) is a form of anti-Semitism where hatred of Jews masquerades as legitimate criticism of Israel. One can see examples of this wherever criticisms of Israel are interlaced with classic anti-Semitic stereotypes and tropes, such as, “All Jews are rich and powerful, they control the banks and the media, they’re plotting world dominion, etc.”

Anyway, as I said, I didn’t set out to write a novel about anti-Israelism in academia. But in retrospect, it probably wasn’t surprising that this is what I ended up doing. For over a decade before starting this novel, I—like many Jews—had been very disturbed by the increasing anti-Israelism in both academia and the world at large. I was concerned about the most overt manifestations of anti-Israelism, like the rallies that later morphed into Israel Apartheid Week, but also about the gradual normalization of Israel-bashing in classes, in faculty meetings, and at conferences.

I responded to this phenomenon, in the years before beginning this novel, by conducting academic research on anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism and by engaging in pro-Israel activism (one part of which ultimately resulted in a new Toronto-based organization, JSpaceCanada). At a certain point, though, because I was so distressed about anti-Israelism, I also began writing a novel about it. The pain I felt because of what was happening around me was like having a fishhook in my stomach. I tried moving this way and that, but whatever I did, it was still there. So at some stage, I figured that the only way to get it out of me was to write it out.

TK: In light of recent debates surrounding the lack of minority representation in Canadian publishing, do you think that writers could do more to stay politically informed and motivated when writing?

NG: Yes, definitely. I recently had a very surprising experience. An intelligent and quite well-known Canadian writer told me that until reading Fields of Exile, he hadn’t known about either anti-oppression or anti-Israelism. I could hardly believe it. To not know about anti-Israelism is one thing, but to not even know about anti-oppression seemed extreme.

From my point of view, I feel obligated, even though I am white, heterosexual, middle class, and able-bodied—or maybe because I am white, heterosexual, middle class, and able-bodied—to educate myself about racism, homophobia, classism, ableism, and more. I see it as the responsibility of all Canadians—including writers—to do the same, and as part of this, to educate themselves about anti-Semitism in all its forms, including anti-Israelism. It really isn’t difficult. One can make serious headway on this in just one day of reading. One place to start is my novel, Fields of Exile, which lays out all the main issues. Alternatively, there are hundreds of essays and articles on this topic.

In terms of writers being well-informed politically, I can always tell, when reading a book, whether or not the writer who wrote it has political/social awareness. It’s like that saying about love in a marriage: If it’s there you can’t hide it, and if it’s not there, you can’t fake it so it looks like it is. When a writer has social/political consciousness, it’s palpable in her or his work. And when it’s absent, this is just as palpable. I hope that in the next few years we will all see much more of the first kind of writing from our Canadian writers.

TK: Do you believe that writers have an obligation to engage with political discourse?

NG: Yes I do, if you mean “political discourse” in the broadest sense. I think that writers have an obligation to engage with the issues of their time and place, and to be aware of—and struggle against—the injustices and oppressions in their society. This obligation applies, of course, to all Canadians, but I think there is a particular onus on Canadian writers. We are privileged. Unlike writers in many other parts of the world, we are free to write whatever we want, safe from the risk of imprisonment or worse. As such, we have the potential, as public intellectuals, to help shape both Canadian society and the world around us. We must use, and not waste, this power.

TK: I often get the nagging feeling that our culture suffers from unwillingness or a lack of desire to engage. Do you think writers and readers have stopped believing in the power of literature to inspire real social change?

NG: I think many have. One of the responses to my novel, from the well-known American Jewish writer, Thane Rosenbaum, was very flattering but also surprising to me. He wrote that Fields of Exile restored his faith in the possibilities of the novel. I think this implies that he and many others have lost faith in the possibilities of the novel. They no longer believe that literature can accomplish anything in the real world. In fact, many writers actually believe that literature shouldn’t try to accomplish anything in the real world. They take the Oscar Wilde quotation, “All art is quite useless,” as a kind of credo. I don’t agree with that, of course.

TK: It seems like the definition of “engagement” has somehow been consumed by the idea of engaging somebody’s interest.

NG: Yes. You’re told to get a good opening for your story because that is what “engages” readers. Engagement as seduction, rather than participation or involvement. I think social engagement is very important. This isn’t surprising, since I’m both a writer and a social worker. I have one foot in each world. I enjoy many different kinds of writing, but I definitely respond deeply to fiction that has, at its core, some kind of social vision.

This interview is available in full in the latest issue of The Puritan, click here to read more!

Nora Gold visits the Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, September 10, 2014 — full of beans Coffee House & Roastery, 1348 Dundas St. W., Toronto (7pm, PWYC) — along with Ghadeer Malek, Cathy Petch and Ray Robertson. Come early, too (6:30) for Degrassi: The Next Generation writer and producer Matt Huether’s special talk, “Anyone Can Be a Screenwriter: Here’s How”!

Advertisements

2 Comments

Filed under Writers & Performers

BWS 10.09.14: Cathy Petch

Cathy Petch-musical saw

Today on the blog, a guest post by Cathy Petch  playwright, spoken word artist, haiku deathmaster and musical saw player for The Silver Hearts. Cathy has several handsome chapbooks and most recently published her poetry book Late Night Knife Fights with LyricalMyrical Press. Her work has also appeared in Descant, The Toronto Quarterly and Joypuke. Cathy is part of The Dildettes, a queer spoken word/comedy troupe along with Regie Cabico and David Bateman, and was a member of the 2011 and 2012 Toronto Poetry Slam Teams. She is happiest onstage.

So I play a musical saw during some of my poetry pieces.

A what?

A musical saw: literally a handsaw played with a bow. The sound has been called “ghost-like,” “eerie” and “like that other weird instrument,” a.k.a. the theremin.

Both the theremin and the musical saw are often mistaken for novelty instruments, and though I’m currently wracking my brain to say what a “novelty instrument” is, in reality I have appreciation for anything that can make a sound or a beat, no matter if it’s for your toddler or the London Philharmonic.

The saw is a heart-breaker of an instrument. Sometimes when I’m playing a solo — (I play in a band, The Silver Hearts) — my soul seems to dance down the tines. It becomes my tears, my love and all the sweet things I’ve ever heard whispered in my ear. Like any instrument, it is an extension of emotion. It is poetry, and it is brain waves and history revisited.

The origins of the musical saw predate World War I. It started in farmers’ kitchens and was said to have started its slow climb to recognition as a classical instrument before the war effort hit. You cannot cut wood with your musical saw, for this ruins the tone. And in a time when every inch of metal was being enlisted for the Great War, for a household to have two saws — one to play, and one to use as, well, a saw — playing the instrument was considered treason. The saw only found its way back through Vaudeville and thank goodness it did.

My first saw was bought at Home Depot. A 26-inch Stanley Sawtooth, it joined my band and travelled all over Canada reminding the world of its beauty. Currently I have a 33-inch Stravaridis from Long and McQuade, as I was determined to play “Un Bel Trombador” from Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly” and lacked the extra octave. At the 10th annual Musical Saw Festival in New York City last year I saw 40 different saw players from all over the world playing 40 different saws in 40 different ways.

Like poetry, most musical saw learning happens in solitude. You must have an ear and a total love for your instrument. When you play it, you use your feet, your legs, your arms, your ears; it is a dance, it is magnificent.

I cannot wait to play some saw poems for you all. See you in September! xo

Cathy Petch visits the Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, September 10, 2014 — full of beans Coffee House & Roastery, 1348 Dundas St. W., Toronto (7pm, PWYC) — along with Nora Gold and Ray Robertson. Come early, too (6:30) for a special talk by Degrassi: The Next Generation writer and producer Matt Huether on getting started in screenwriting!

4 Comments

Filed under Writers & Performers

BWS 10.09.14: Ray Robertson

Ray Robertson

Ray Robertson is the author of the novels Home Movies, Heroes, Moody Food, Gently Down the Stream, What Happened Later, and David, as well as two collections of non-fiction: Mental Hygiene: Essays on Writers and Writing and Why Not? Fifteen Reasons to Live, which was short-listed for the Hillary Weston Prize for non-fiction and long-listed for the Charles Taylor Prize for non-fiction. His most recent book, the novel I Was There the Night He Died (Biblioasis), has just been published. Born and raised in Southwestern Ontario, he lives in Toronto.

The Q&A below is courtesy of Biblioasis.

More Alive Than When He Started

Biblioasis: I Was There the Night He Died reads like a battleground of addictions: it’s strewn with weed, booze, sugar, caffeine, speed, gambling, writing, self-mutilation, music. Some addictions are positive, others clearly not. Yet of them all, music seems to be the drug that heals more than it hurts. Do you believe that? What is it you think music can do?

Ray: “It’s the best drug I know—alternatively uplifting and pacifying, always there when you need it, and you never feel like dying in the morning. On the contrary, you feel more alive. Berthold Auerbach wrote, “Music washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” We all need our daily musical dousing.”

B: Speaking of music: I think it’s time to let the cat out of the bag. The character of Sam Samson isn’t the only one working on a book called Lives of the Poets (with Guitars), is he? What’s it about? When can we expect it?

Ray: “In I Was There the Night He Died, Sam is, yes, writing a book called Lives of the Poets (with Guitars), a collection of twelve biographical/critical essays that takes its inspiration from 18th-century prefaces to the selected works of what were then viewed as the greatest English poets (a project that Samuel Johnson agreed to undertake in 1777 at the urging of three British booksellers, the result of which we know today as his Lives of the Poets). Except instead of 17th-century and 18th-century English poets, in his essays Sam is writing about some of the 20th century’s most underappreciated musical geniuses (popular music division), people like country-folksinger Townes Van Zandt, gospel singer Sister Rosetta Sharpe, and bluegrass visionary John Hartford.

And, yes, coincidentally, I’ve also written a book called Lives of the Poets (with Guitars) that is remarkably similar. It should be out in the fall of 2015.

B: A follow-up, going back to I Was There: why write a book that’s partly about writing a book that you’re already writing?

Ray: Although Sam is a well-established Canadian novelist, he’s also a musical fanatic. Also, and what’s important to the plot of the novel, the above-mentioned music book he’s writing is in place of the novel he doesn’t want to write—not yet, anyway—about his wife’s relatively recent death in an automobile accident. In other words, he’s writing to avoid writing. One of the things I Was There is about is the interplay between creativity and psychic release.

B: You’ve had a couple invitations to read from I Was There the Night He Died at high schools and colleges, even though the novel could be said to support a teenage girl’s decision to smoke pot. Were you surprised that teachers wanted to present it? Why or why not?

Ray: The book never advocates pot smoking; in fact, Sam doesn’t even like it and is pretty convincing about why. Not that I’m necessarily anti-drugs (or pro-drugs for that matter). The bottom line is that Samantha, the 18-year old girl you refer to, is a pot smoker as well as a “cutter.” These are her choices and her life. I respect my characters’ individuality. They are who they are, just like people in everyday life. Smart teachers know that kids are too smart to believe that real people don’t struggle with real problems. And one of the ways to survive those problems is to face them honestly.

B: In the background of your novel is Sam’s father, who, in the late stages of Alzheimer’s, has forgotten most of who he was. The rest of your characters have had more than their share of loss and rotten luck, and seem to be trying to forget who they are as hard as they can. How does Sam’s father’s Alzheimer’s help him come to terms with the other kinds of grief he feels?

Ray: Death—and the loss of personality that comes with Alzheimer’s is psychic death—is the ultimate philosophical starting point. As terrible as it can be, it can also be the ground zero for serious contemplation for what’s really important and what isn’t.

B: Most of your readers will never have been to Chatham, Ontario, and I think it’s safe to say your novel won’t have them lining up at the tourist bureau. Would Sam have felt the same about any city under those conditions?

Ray: Everyone’s hometown is filled with ghosts—“James Joyce” were dirty words for generations of proud Dubliners. I’m no harder on my birthplace than most people are.

That said, I was born and raised in Chatham, Ontario, my parents still live here, and many of my novels are set there either wholly or partially; if it and Southwestern Ontario didn’t continue to confound and captivate me, that wouldn’t be the case.

B: Let’s talk about names for a minute. We’ve got Sam, his last name is Samson, and his new smoke-up buddy is Samantha. What’s up with that?

Ray: I think, beneath their various, very obvious differences, they’ve got a lot in common : for example, their pain, their attempts to deal with it, and their potential for positive change. Other than that, you’d have to ask them.

B: Imagine a reader just as he or she is finishing I Was There the Night He Died. He reads the last sentence, closes the book, puts it down. What do you like to think he’ll do next?

Ray: Feel more alive than when he started it.

Ray Robertson visits the Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, September 10, 2014 — full of beans Coffee House & Roastery, 1348 Dundas St. W., Toronto (7pm, PWYC) — along with Nora Gold and Cathy Petch. Come early, too (6:30) for a special talk by Degrassi: The Next Generation writer and producer Matt Huether on getting started in screenwriting!

2 Comments

Filed under Writers & Performers

Brockton Writers Series 10.09.14

BWS presents our penultimate reading of 2014 on Wednesday, September 10, at full of beans Coffee House & Roastery (1348 Dundas St. W., Toronto), featuring more super-ultimate writers:

Nora Gold, Cathy Petch and Ray Robertson!

Plus, come early — 6:30pm — for a special talk on getting started in screenwriting by Degrassi: The Next Generation writer and producer Matt Huether!

The reading is PWYC (suggested $3-$5) and features a Q&A with the writers afterward. Books and treats are available for sale. Please note that while the venue is wheelchair accessible, washroom facilities are not.

Many thanks to the Ontario Arts Council for their support.

Print

As always, watch this space for more with each of our writers in the month to come!

AUTHOR BIOS:

Nora Gold is the Writer-in-Residence at the Centre for Women’s Studies, OISE/University of Toronto, the editor of the online literary journal, Jewish Fiction.net, the organizer of the Wonderful Women Writers Series, and an activist. Her recently-published Fields of Exile received enthusiastic praise and excellent reviews in Canada, the U.S.A., the U.K., and Israel, and her first book, Marrow and Other Stories, won a Canadian Jewish Book Award as well as praise from Alice Munro.

Cathy Petch is a playwright, spoken word artist, haiku deathmaster and musical saw player for The Silver Hearts. She has several handsome chapbooks and most recently published her poetry book Late Night Knife Fights with LyricalMyrical Press. Her work has also appeared in Descant, The Toronto Quarterly and Joypuke. Cathy is part of The Dildettes, a queer spoken word/comedy troupe along with Regie Cabico and David Bateman, and was a member of the 2011 and 2012 Toronto Poetry Slam Teams. She is happiest onstage.

Ray Robertson is the author of the novels Home Movies, Heroes, Moody Food, Gently Down the Stream, What Happened Later, and David, as well as two collections of non-fiction: Mental Hygiene: Essays on Writers and Writing and Why Not? Fifteen Reasons to Live, which was short-listed for the Hillary Weston Prize for non-fiction and long-listed for the Charles Taylor Prize for non-fiction. His most recent book, the novel I Was There the Night He Died (Biblioasis), has just been published. Born and raised in Southwestern Ontario, he lives in Toronto.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized