Winner of 2017 Giller Prize

Winner of 2017 Giller Prize
Michael Redhill for his novel Bellevue Square

Sunday, December 10, 2017

A story about story

Tammo Geertsema muses about writing stories in the ancient Anishinaabe and Cree traditions. Thank you Tammo for letting me post this very interesting reflection on story. Joan


~~ A musing ~~ 

I am busy putting the finishing touch to a story I have been writing on for the past week and which will be up very soon. The story, a love tale inspired by a dream I recently had, emerged in reciprocity with the process of “instinctual” association in combination with an intangible but powerful concept that’s often defined as manidoo-minjimendamowin or “spirit memory”; the ancestral (genetic) and spiritual connection that I, as a storyteller, feel with my People’s language, songs, and teachings. 

The narrative is presented as an old, traditional tale but is really a modern extension of longer Anishinaabe en Cree storytelling tradition and told here fully for the first time. I shaped the story in the form of a frame story: a story within a story. In this case a mixture of several different aadizookaanan, or metaphoric narratives of a traditional, sacred nature that I integrated in the larger aadizookaan. 

I like to refer to these narratives, passed on by many generations of Anishinaabe and Cree storytellers, as miinikaanan, or seeds; the miinikaanan become dibaajimowinimiinikaanag - seeds alive with story - as soon as we start (re)telling them. When passed on - and listened to - the miinikaanan that initially inhaled become alive again; the seeds start to exhale, and their life blood flows through the roots of the multiple-stem, multiple branched tree that grows out of them. 

Thus, throughout time and generations of storyteling, the miinikaanag grow into an ever-growing, multiple-stem and multiple-branched dibaajimowinimitig (story tree), firmly rooted in the fertile soil of manidoo-minjimendamowin. This tree, through generation and regeneration, grows high and its top reaches the Sky World so that even the spirits that dwell there may hear the stories told. 

So what can you expect? In a nutshell, the aadizookaan I will soon share with you is a reciprocical combination of my personal memories and dreams and the miinikaanan/miinikaanag, the stories and the collective memory and dreams, of my People. The narrative, which emerged like the fog and the sacred kettle stones rising from Lake Huron, is rich with metaphors and multiple layers of personal and Anishinaabe symbolism. It’s also a strongly autobiographical account of my own spiritual and relational path. And what else is it? It’s a heart-stirring tale of human and celestial connections, a magic teaching parable about a quest of love, about a man’s courage and determination, about overcoming obstacles, and about purity of heart. It's a story that's settled in my blood and that I love to tell. Atayaa! I hope you will enjoy the read as much as I liked writing it! 

- Illustration: Children Under the Ojibway Story Tree - acrylic on canvas by Miskwaabik Animikii (1987) 

Visit the website to read my stories:

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Silences by Roy Blomstrom

Silences: A Novel of the 1918 Finnish Civil War will be launched on Sunday, December 10, 2017, from 2:30 to 4 p.m. at the Viking Lounge (formerly the Hemmet Room) at the Scandinavian Home Restaurant on Algoma Street. 

Roy will speak briefly and read at 3. Books will be available for $15 at the launch. More information about Roy's book and the publishing company, Shuniah House Books, is available at

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Wuthering Heights Reviewed by Margie Taylor

Wuthering Heights always creeped me out. It is such a powerful book. In fact there is no other like it. Emily Bronte's only novel is dark, beautiful and unforgettable. Margie Taylor,  inestimable book reviewer, takes on the challenging task to do the book justice, and succeeds. (Joan Baril)

The Unnatural Beauty of Wuthering Heights

It is a compound of vulgar depravity and unnatural horrors.”
So wrote an American critic in 1848 upon publication of Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë’s first and only novel. He was not alone. Shock, disgust and bewilderment were the most common reactions, with one reviewer even suggesting the book should be burnt. Published under the pseudonym Ellis Bell, this dark, imaginative tale of the power of love to transcend the grave challenged almost every Victorian ideal of morality, justice, and heroic behaviour.
Had readers known the author was a woman, the reaction would have been stronger. But by the time the truth was revealed, thanks to a second edition published in 1850, Emily Brontë was dead of tuberculosis at the age of 30. Two sisters and a brother had died before her, and another was quick to follow. Her older sister Charlotte, the author of Jane Eyre, was left to mourn her sisters, and retrieve their public reputations.
While Charlotte believed her sister was a genius, she felt compelled to explain the book and its characters to outsiders – those readers who knew nothing of the author or the people who inhabited her part of the world. In a preface to the second edition she writes, “To all such people…’Wuthering Heights’ must appear a rude and strange production.”
But her sister, she says, was not “rude and strange” – she was unworldly, reclusive, and shy:
“My sister Emily was not a person of demonstrative character … [her] disposition was not naturally gregarious; circumstances favoured and fostered her tendency to seclusion; except to go to church or take a walk on the hills, she rarely crossed the threshold of home. Though her feeling for the people round was benevolent, intercourse with them she never sought; nor, with very few exceptions, ever experienced.”
It was this very isolation that nurtured Emily’s romantic nature and gave birth to the wild, romantic and otherworldly tale set in the place she knew well – the bleak and beautiful Yorkshire moors.
The story begins in November 1801 when Mr. Lockwood, a rather vain and pretentious gentleman, rents Thrushcross Grange, a large house situated on the edge of the remote moors of West Yorkshire. On arrival, he decides to pay a visit to his landlord, who lives four miles away in the ancient manor house known as Wuthering Heights. The visit is not a success; the landlord, known only as Heathcliff, is dark, surly and unfriendly, with a temper that verges on violence. He does not welcome visitors and only reluctantly calls his dogs off when they attack. In spite of this cool reception, Lockwood pays a second visit a few days later. This time he meets the other occupants of the house: Hareton Earnshaw, a good-looking but coarse, quick-tempered and illiterate young man; Catherine Linton, a beautiful but deeply unhappy young widow, and Joseph, an old servant who speaks with an almost indecipherable Yorkshire accent.
A blizzard prevents Lockwood from making the trek back to the Grange – reluctantly, Heathcliff agrees to let him stay for the night, and he’s locked into a room that is never normally used. During the night he discovers a diary written years ago by Catherine Earnshaw, a young girl who seems to have a special relationship with the young Heathcliff. He falls into a troubled sleep and wakes to the sound of a tree branch brushing against the window. Still half asleep, he forces his hand through the glass, determined to remove the branch, and finds himself grasped by the cold, icy hand of a young woman, begging to be let in. In an effort to free himself, he rubs the ghostly hand against the broken glass till the blood runs onto the sheets. His terrified shouts finally alert his landlord, who enters the room, cursing him for the disturbance. But when Lockwood tells him the room is haunted, Heathcliff rushes to the window, calling out to Catherine, begging her to return. Lockwood decides that, storm or no storm, he’s had enough of Wuthering Heights for one night. Heathcliff escorts him back to the Grange, where the servants are delighted to see that Lockwood is alive, having assumed he was lost in the storm.
Back in the safety of the Grange, Lockwood learns that his housekeeper, Nelly Dean, knows Wuthering Heights very well. She lived there as a child and grew up with the children of the house. He prevails on her to tell him the history of the manor and its strange inhabitants; she agrees to do so, and Lockwood writes the story from her recollections.
As she tells it, Heathcliff – whose origins are unknown – is found abandoned on the streets of Liverpool and brought back to the Heights by the kindly Mr. Earnshaw. His own children, Hindley and Catherine, don’t take to the “gypsy” child but gradually Heathcliff and Cathy form an attachment – an attachment that grows to the point where they become inseparable. They spend their days playing out on the moors; the greatest punishment for either of them is to keep them apart. Mr. Earnshaw, too, loves the boy – more so than his own son, which fosters even greater resentment on Hindley’s part and strengthens the bond between Catherine and Heathcliff.
The break between them comes when Catherine chooses respectability over passion. She marries Edgar Linton, whose father owns Thrushcross Grange and who, although weak and tiresome, loves her and will make a “good” husband. The marriage doesn’t last long: Catherine dies giving birth to a daughter – the Catherine Linton mentioned earlier – and Heathcliff is plunged into a dark well of despair verging on madness. Near the end of the book, he confesses to Lockwood that he is haunted by his lost love every minute of the day:
“[H]er features are shaped on the flags! In every cloud, in every tree – filling the air at night, and caught by glimpses in every object, by day I am surrounded with her image!”
In Catherine, Brontë created a heroine who was the embodiment of nature itself – tempestuous and pleasing by turns, afraid of nothing, living by her own rules. As Nelly describes her, “A wild, wick slip she was – but she had the bonniest eye, and sweetest smile, and lightest foot in the parish”. You could not help but love her.
How different is this from the quiet, painfully shy author of the book – who lived within the bounds of a strictly religious household, the dutiful daughter of a parish curate? In her innermost heart I believe she nurtured a free-spirited creature – a child of nature unfettered by convention. Catherine was that creature.
It’s telling, I think, that Brontë, the daughter of a curate, saves her most contemptuous descriptions for the character of Joseph, the old servant who sermonizes and preachifies at every turn. At one point she has Nelly Dean describe him thus: “He was, and is yet, most likely, the wearisomest, self-righteous pharisee that ever ransacked a Bible to rake the promises to himself, and fling the curses on his neighbours.” As curates and other men of the church were their only suitable male companions, Brontë and her sisters likely knew them well. We can hope they were not all as “wearisome” as Joseph!
But it’s the character of Heathcliff that fueled the moral and critical outrage over the book, and continued to do so for half a century. While he’s as handsome and tormented as befits a romantic hero in the Gothic tradition, he’s unremittingly cruel, sadistic and, quite frankly, evil. His behaviour is particularly hateful towards his son, Hareton, whom he’s raising as an illiterate farm hand in revenge for past wrongs. Right to the end Heathcliff is dark and unrepentant; there is something almost ghoulish – vampirish – in the way he looks forward to the time when he will be dead and buried, reunited with his love, Catherine. Strong stuff, this, even for modern readers.
In her preface, Charlotte assures us that if Emily had lived longer “her mind would of itself have grown like a strong tree, loftier, straighter, wider-spreading” … in other words, she would have matured to become a better writer. Still, she concedes the “very real powers” of the novel:
“Whether it is right or advisable to create beings like Heathcliff, I do not know; I scarcely think it is. But this I know; the writer who possesses the creative gift owns something of which he is not always master – something that at times strangely wills and works for itself.”
It’s regrettable that Emily Brontë didn’t live to write other novels but I don’t believe she could have written anything better. Wuthering Heights contains within it that unnatural beauty of expression few writers ever achieve. I hold it dear to my heart.

Friday, November 24, 2017

A Love Story to Remember.

 Days to Remember Days to Forget
by Bill and Cathy MacDonald
Love letters from a writer in Paris
Available at Fireweed

Bill and Cathy met the last week of July, 1960 at Silver Islet. There was instantaneous love. They both came from dysfunctional families, so meeting someone they loved dramatically changed both of their lives.
Cathy left 5 weeks later to resume her job in Toronto. Shortly after, Bill left for Paris for 10 months to continue his studies in French. They kept in touch by letters, since there was no email, no Skype. Bill described the French bureaucracy, the effects of the Algerian war, and adapting to a different culture. The letters between them were not always a smooth ride.
Cathy went to Paris for 10 days at Christmas. As Bill said, he wondered if she wanted him as much as ever after 10 days with nothing but him all her waking hours. She did.
Bill and Cathy were married soon after he returned from France. Most of the book consists of his letters to her, since her letters had been destroyed.
The book describes their married life, his writing, their travels, and the ups and downs of life.
Quote from the book

“Living with an alcoholic father warps your view of happiness. But when I met Bill, I finally knew what happiness was. I don’t think I could ever have been happier.”
Cathy MacDonald, co-author

Monday, November 20, 2017

That incomparable book reviewer, Margie Taylor, talks about Les Liaisons Dangereuses.

When is the last time you wrote a letter? Or received one?
I’m not talking about messaging someone on Facebook, having a chat on Whatsapp, or even exchanging emails – which, by the way, are going the way of the dodo. Teens have pretty much abandoned email in favour of texting while the rest of us pretend we’re too busy to read them.
But no. I’m talking about putting pen to paper and writing an actual letter. Or getting one in the mail that’s not from your bank, your landlord, or Canada Revenue. My grandmother set aside time every day to write letters to friends and family. It’s something I used to do every week. Now I don’t.
And I miss it. I miss actually looking forward to checking my mailbox. I even miss getting those Christmas circulars I used to deplore, telling me all the brave and wonderful things my friends have been up to all year. Now, there’s no point: I can read about it every day on Facebook.
I bring this up because Les Liaisons Dangereuses, the tale of seduction and revenge by Pierre-Ambroise Choderlos de Laclos, is written as a series of letters – 175 in all. If Laclos is to be believed, the French aristocracy did little else but write letters when they weren’t attending the theatre, the opera, or the ballet. And if they were as morally bankrupt and politically corrupt as depicted in this novel – well, heads deserved to roll.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Thunder Bay's Diane Schoemperlen

A Lifetime Achievement Award. Diane Schoemperlen has been honoured by the Writers' Trust of Canada with the Matt Cohen Award In Celebration of a Writing Life. Schoemperlen is the author of novels, short stories and a wonderful memoir. Congratulations Diane!

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Poetry Bonanza in November

Poetry wordsmiths, there are 5 poetry nights in Nov! 

1. Shaz rap poetry Blessed in The Study Thurs 16 @5pm; 

2. Northern Feminisms found poetry cardmaking thurs 16 @ 7pm 106 Cumberland St.; 

3. Spoken Word & open mic @ LU Faculty Lounge Fri. 24 @ 7pm; 

4. ONWA Poetry, Intl Day to Eliminate Violence Against Women Sat. 25 @ 7pm @ ONWA; 

5. New Constellations Tues. 28 7pm. @ Polish Hall Court St

6. Poetry Soup at the Urban Abbey Wednesday, November 29 7 pm

Monday, November 6, 2017

Joe Fiorito's Unforgettable Workshop on Writing Memoir

He Taught Us Memoir with Memoir

We hung on every word. Joe spoke in parables, most taken from his own life. His tapestry of tales gave us information about writing memoir, along with a context to help remember it.

He spoke about his time in the arctic, his early days at Lakehead University, his loves, his heartbreaks, all so personal and revealing that we, the listeners, just sat there, forgetting to take notes, our mouths hanging open. Soon we understood we were learning about memoir from Joe’s spoken memoirs.

Joe related stories about his childhood in Westfort, his family, his early writing days, his column in the Toronto Star, his books, his first publisher.

Joe told us about the career criminal, Ricky Atkinson, the leader of the Dirty Tricks Gang. Atkinson’s rough memoir became a book with Joe as co-author.

Joe went round the circle asking the participants about their writing.  Many were writers or poets or playwrights. Others planned to be. The woman who sat beside me was a painter with a good idea. She wanted to write the story of each painting. What a book that would make!

Joe used these introductions to set up questions to answer later.  Joe speaks slowly, softly, thoughtfully and also bluntly. The Westfort kid is still as tough as ever. When it was my turn, I said I wrote a few short memoir pieces, but to do so, I had to open a vein. He agreed. For him, it felt like slashing open an old sore on his arm, over and over. Joe rolled up his sleeve and pointed to the place where the ghost sore festered.

Memoir is not for the faint of heart.

I cannot retell his stories here. Too personal. They remain in that room. But I did make a few notes that I’ve tried to put in some kind of order.  Of course, each participant in a workshop picks up what is personally relevant to them. I admit I spent a lot of my time jotting down side ideas that related to stuff I’m working on now. No doubt, others have a quite different set of notes from mine.

Become an observer. Carry a notebook all the time. Go to places where people hang out and take notes. Go to the mall and watch. The patterns change over time. Annie Proulx hangs around her local bus station. You can too. There’s lots to see for a sharp observer. Hone your observation skills. Joe described spending an entire day on a Toronto street corner just observing. That day became a book, Rust is a Form of Fire.

As a child, Joe was the watcher. Luckily for him, he came from a family of storytellers and became a storyteller himself. I believe he was a story collector from a young age. As a columnist, he talked to people to tease out their stories. He reads the obituaries, hunting for those true-life vignettes that stand out from the banal sweetness and obvious flim-flam of many death notices. (My note. In my opinion, the Winnipeg Free Press has the best obituaries.) Certain obituaries capture one’s imagination. You wonder what it felt like to be that person. Analyze why you’re attracted. What details move you?

There is no such thing as writers’ block, says Joe. If you feel blocked go for a walk or go to the mall and observe deeply. Or write yourself a letter. Describe the problem. And most importantly, if you are blocked, you probably need more research.

Writing. Keep the sentences short, one thought per sentence. Use clear, simple language. It must have cadence. Read it out loud. Read it out loud with a finger in your ear. (Why this works, I have no idea, but try it anyway.). You can teach yourself to recognize cadence just as you can teach yourself many elements of the craft. Read the King James’ Bible, a book swimming in cadence. Read or write poetry. Poets are a step ahead here because they are well acquainted with the beat and pulse of language.
Start your piece with your best shot, the incident that you remember the strongest, the item that is the most memorable, that has the greatest punch.

Joe says the New Yorker magazine taught him to give information clearly. He also likes cooking memoirs. A recipe is a model of concise and accurate writing. His goal is always accuracy and precision with laser-sharp details.

Joe mentioned a technique called “squeeze and release.” You cannot keep the writing at a high pitch all the time. You must slow down, ease off, to give the reader a pause or a break. A reader can’t take too much power writing for long stretches.  

The question of dialogue came up. If you can remember it, use it. If it is in your notebook, all the better. If you can’t remember it, don’t make it up. It’ll sound phony. Never put modern phrases into the mouth of a historical character. Dialogue must be authentic to the times.

Readers. What happens when we read? We follow the story by making pictures in our minds using out imagination.  Therefore, as writers, we must aim to capture our reader’s imagination. Why do we read memoir specifically?  Many reasons. Perhaps because we want a good story, or to learn something. Maybe to find out, “what it was like.”
            But readers can be our enemy. They get bored easily. They’re faithless. They sense when the writer is holding back, fudging the truth, skipping over information. The writer has to be fearless. The reader expects a point to the memoir. Otherwise they say to themselves, “Who cares?” There has to be a purpose that is clear and a resolution.

Observation while reading. Everything you read, whether it be newspapers, advertising or books, is a teaching object. Be aware of how the piece affects you. Pause. Note your own reactions. Why did you get interested here, bored there?  Mark the place where it happens. Analyze the section. Note the emotion or lack of emotion the writing evoked in you? Perhaps you sensed the author was  faking it? If something works, try to figure out how it was done. If it doesn’t work, figure that out too and, as an exercise, rewrite it to make it better. Joe said he often rewrote the poems in the New Yorker to teach himself to be a poet.

Detail, precise detail, is important but you can’t overload your work. There has to be space for the reader to imagine.

By studying writing, you can become your own editor. It is hard to judge your own material but you can learn to do it. Do not surrender the task to anyone else. Do not give away your power.

 Getting to the Truth. You have to use journalistic methods. You must know that one person’s  experience of the past may be different from your experience. Nevertheless, that does not invalidate your experience. You can use old photographs, diaries, cards such as condolence cards, and family letters. You can interview those who were present at the time. You can learn about the historical period. You can go back to the old house or visit the cemetery. Go to the sources.

You are the Narrator. But who are you?  You are the point of view in the story, the “I.” You are the focus. You have to be shameless, put yourself out there. The reader wants to connect with you. The reader will soon sense an inauthentic persona.  You have to know yourself. Not always easy. You have to show your emotion. You cannot hide. When Joan Didion writes, she is the chief character in her book. Joe, as child and adult, is the main character in his award winning memoir, The Closer We are to Dying. He admits it was not an easy book to write.

Joe’s Suggested Reading
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. (in Brodie and Waverley libraries)
Toast by Nigel Slater.
Stet by Diana Athill. (in Waverley Library)
The Way of a Boy: A Memoir of Java by Ernest Hillen. (in Brodie Library)
Night of the Gun: a reporter investigates the darkest story of his life. (Brodie Library)
The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White. (get the recent edition)
The New Yorker magazine. (available at Chapters and in the libraries)

Books by Joe Fiorito
The Closer We Are to Dying (memoir)
Rust is a Form of Fire
The Song Beneath the Ice (fiction)
Comfort Me with Apples: Considering the Pleasures of the Table.
Union Station: Love, Madness, Sex and Survival on the Streets of the New Toronto
The Life and Hard Times of Ricky Atkinson; Leader of the Dirty Tricks Gang by Ricky Atkinson and Joe Fiorito.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Governor General's Award Winners.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Margie Taylor Writes About Barbara Pym's Novel Quartet in Autumn

A Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym. Reviewed by Margie Taylor.
“There was something to be said for tea and a comfortable chat about cremation.”
It’s lines like this that cause Barbara Pym to be referred to as the Jane Austen of the 20th Century. I mean, how perfect is that? Doesn’t it just conjure up a certain type of middle-aged woman at a certain time living in a certain place? It does for me, anyway. I love it.
The poet Philip Larkin called her “the most underrated writer of the century”. While I wouldn’t go quite so far, there’s no doubt she was dismissed by the critics in the 1960s for being out-of-date. In spite of her early success and the popularity of six previous novels, she was turned down by her publishers and retreated into obscurity. It wasn’t until 1977, with the publication of Quartet in Autumn, that Pym regained her public following. Quartet was highly praised and nominated for the Booker Prize – as a comeback it was an enormous success.
The book was somewhat of a departure for Pym. Previously, she’d been known for comic novels, somewhat in the style of E. F. Benson’s Mapp and Lucia. There is a lightness about Quartet, and the characters are certainly “types”. But its underlying sadness is, I think, likely due to her own years spent floundering in the literary wilderness. There’s nothing like a decade of rejection slips to foster a writer’s sense of isolation and despair.
Letty, Marcia, Edwin and Norman work side by side in an office somewhere in London. They all live alone – they are all approaching retirement. The nature of their work is unspecified, but we’re given to understand it’s pretty boring, and not all that important: when they retire, they’re told, they will not be replaced.  
You might think four people who’ve worked together in close quarters for years would become friends. You might assume they would socialize, at least occasionally, outside working hours. You would be wrong. This is a story about a certain type of Londoner who lives alone in a bed-sitting room, fiercely guarding his – or her – privacy. Edwin is the only one who owns his own home, but none of the others have ever been inside. They wouldn’t expect to beinvited and would be shocked if they were.
In the meantime, retirement is looming. Aside from Letty, none of them have any definite plans for how they’ll spend their leisure years. Letty has a long-standing agreement with her widowed friend Marjorie that she’ll move to the countryside when the time comes and share Marjorie’s cottage. When Marjorie unexpectedly makes plans to marry the local vicar, Letty is left out in the cold. To compound her misfortune, the landlady of the house where she boards sells the place to a priest of an African religious sect, as Edwin describes him. Loud, exuberant worshipping now takes place the basement of the house on a nightly basis.
“How had it come about,” Letty wonders, “that she, an Englishwoman born in Malvern in 1914 of middle-class English parents, should find herself in this room in London surrounded by enthusiastic, shouting, hymn-singing Nigerians?”
These are not people, I have to confess, that you’d care to dine with. Or spend more than five minutes talking to at a party. Norman in particular is an argumentative, “angry little man whose teeth hurt”, and whose spirits are lifted by the sight of a wrecked car on the motorway.  Edwin, large, bald, and pink, is obsessed with the rituals of the church; outside of work he attends services throughout the city, craving liturgy and incense like an addict in search of a fix.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Readings at Mary J. Black Library, October 19, 2017

Holly Haggarty read two poems in memory of her father who died recently. The poems are "Encircled by Him," and " Case History of John." Very moving and beautiful poetry.

Roy Blomstrom read an excerpt from his novel Silences which takes place during the Finnish Civil War of 1918 and in the Lakehead in 1955.

Charles Campbell, treasurer of the Northwestern Ontario Writers Workshop (NOWW) shows off the NOWW magazines and its latest publication Twenty Years on Snowshoes.