Guest Post – Natasha Penney: Between the Pages

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Natasha Penney

I am very pleased to introduce Natasha Penney, a friend from the GoodReads CanadianContent group, to share her post following the Halifax Between the Pages event.  These events are taking place in  Halifax, Vancouver and Toronto and are is part of the celebration leading up to the announcement of the 2016 Scotia Giller Prize tomorrow.  Please enjoy her commentary of the event all the way from Nova Scotia!

Scotiabank Giller Prize Event –  Between the Pages                      Halifax, N.S.

It was an incredible night to celebrate Canadian literature.

On Friday, October 14 the Halifax Central Library hosted the first stop on the Between the Pages: An Evening with the Scotiabank Giller Prize Finalists national tour. It is the fourth year for the tour, where the shortlisted nominees travel across the country giving audiences in select cities a chance to hear author readings, and witness a question and answer with the writers, giving them valuable insight into their creative processes. The Giller Prize is Canada’s premier literary award, which bestows $100,000 on the winner each year, as well as $10,000 to each shortlisted author. The award is named in honour of the late literary journalist Doris Giller, and was founded in 1994 by her husband Jack Rabinovich.

It was fitting that the location for the star-studded evening was the crown jewel of Novaimg_6314 Scotia’s public library system, the Halifax Central Library. Opened in 2015, the award-winning building, whimsically designed over five storeys to resemble a stack of books, attracts an average of 6,000 users daily. Enthusiasm surrounding the building is so high, the province’s public library system reported a 33 per cent increase in users at locations across the Halifax Regional Municipality, spurred in large part, by people who have newly discovered the services the library can provide.
What an enjoyable night! It was hosted by Mary Walsh, who lauded the library and Scotiabank Giller Prize committee for conducting the 4th nationwide tour with the finalists. Introduced as a national treasure, she laughed and said she was wary of being called a treasure because people usually want to lock up valuables.

She then proceeded to introduce the finalists in attendance – Zoe Whittall, shortlisted for “The Best of People”; Mona Awad, “13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl”; Madeleine Thien, “Do Not Say we Have Nothing”; Gary Barwin. “Yiddish for Pirates”; and Catherine Leroux, “The Party Wall”.

Each author came out individually to read brief excerpts from their books. That is such an eye-opening experience for me as a reader. I listen to The Next Chapter and Writers and Company etc., and I hear the authors, but there’s something so much more visceral and personal about watching them read from their books. The facial expressions, the intonations, the hand gestures – it’s a complete picture. My biggest impression of this part of the evening was that I was thrilled by Gary Barwin’s humour, his accents when reading his book, and suddenly, watching him bouncing and grinning in front of the lectern, it made PERFECT sense that his book would be about a Jewish pirate narrated from a parrot’s POV. He was genius, and displayed a genuinely rare gift for engaging his audience on giving themselves completely over to his particular flight of fancy. I came home with a copy of his book Yiddish for Pirates. Thien’s soft-spoken manner served her passage particularly well. She read about the history of Little West (a young character in her book sent abroad to study) and his grandson, Wen the Dreamer’s bookish inheritance from his grandfather. The passage also touched on Wen the Dreamer’s survival of the Great Push Forward as a member of the gentry, unaffected and in the moment, untouched by the famine that decimated half of his village. You could hear a pin drop when she began to speak.

When they got to the group discussion, Mary Walsh’s acerbic political wit was on full display. Addressing Awad first, Walsh asked if the messages of self-perception, public perception and self-loathing over body image were personal for her. She acceded, and said she has always had a book in her about the comprehensively devastating affect batting body image issues can have on women in particular – from their personal relationships, job prospects, fashion, sex, and life expectancy. Walsh then pivoted to Whittall, who also talked about the theme in relation to her book and how others’ perceptions are particularly dangerous when they are paralyzing or prevent you (or book characters) from doing the right thing. Walsh then referenced the American election, and when all the authors agreed that self-worth and perception were timely themes for those books in particular, she responded, “It’s like trying to find the needle of yourself through the haystack of someone else’s eyes.” She received a round of applause for that.

img_6319She then brought the discussion to Thien and Leroux by asking if there was personal family connection or realty-based approach to their books. Leroux said she did a lot of research, and was highly influenced by real life events. Thien just said “No.” Walsh appeared taken aback by that, and mentioned a conversation with Candy Palmater about Thien’s book and how truly great literature can lift you out of yourself and into other worlds because it exposes a lapse of knowledge about circumstances you know nothing about. Walsh pushed the issue, and Thien gave a heart-stopping answer. She said she was moved to write her new book by grief and dissatisfaction over “Dogs at the Perimeter” and the feeling that she failed readers by not effectively relating the ideas and themes she had in her head into the story that ended up being published. You could hear murmurs and the entire panel when momentarily silent.

Barwin was next, and Walsh then apologized for the generality of her, but admitted she was halfway through them because she was given them all by the Giller Prize committee less than a week and a half ago. But she said she was “swept away” by the fantastical nature of his approach to “Yiddish for Pirates”. Barwin said he is inspired, in part, to make his protagonist a young Jewish male because of his own family history and relatives who escaped persecution in Eastern Europe after the Second World War who ended up living in South Africa but still failed to have their world view broadened by their experiences. He said that drove him to explore the notion of people who had been persecuted and classified as “others” in their native countries and what their reaction to “others’ in other countries would be, and if they would be capable of empathy, or reveal themselves to be complacent in their new position of power. The author added the fantastical nature of the story in his debut novel made it necessary to keep his family history as a touchstone so he could stay grounded during the writing process.

Walsh then asked about carving the time to write out of otherwise busy and chaotic lives. Awad, who is in university in Denver working on her PhD, said she alarms the clock “super early” and writes in bed before the rest of her day takes over. Whittall, Awad, Barwin and Leroux all work at home as well, and they all told humorous accounts of procrastinating by washing windows, doing the dishes or sweeping the floor and dusting bookshelves because sometimes it’s easier to divert yourself then to submit yourself to the empty page and continue a story that doesn’t always flow easily. Whittall and Barwin joked that they know it’s time to go to work when they change out of their pyjamas, and Whittall added sometimes she walks around the block so when she gets back to her apartment, she’s officially “at work”. Thien and Leroux also both echoed the same sentiment that even on days when the writing is hard they are all – a reality acknowledged by all panel members, Walsh included – incredibly blessed to have the opportunity to write, especially in long stretches, and to be able to give themselves completely over to the creative process where they find such joy.

It was a WONDERFUL evening, and I hope I was able to convey a little of that to you all.

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