Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Party Politics

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Almost one year ago, I sat down to write the first of what would become a monthly column about Toronto’s literary scene. The piece was about book parties, of which there is an abundance in this city: have book, will drink beer and celebrate it.

A couple of months later at the House of Anansi spring launch, South African writer Kevin Bloom, in town to promote his book Ways of Staying, surveyed the convivial crowd in awe. In Johannesburg, he said, a poetry reading was by default a political event, but in Toronto a room of strangers could come together and listen to poetry as art, as the deliberate, considered placement of one word next to another, and luxuriate in the imagery and sound it created. It’s a liberty we take for granted.

Bloom’s observation sprang to mind again recently with the publication of Finding the Words, an anthology to raise funds and awareness for the work of PEN Canada, the Canadian arm of an international organization dedicated to defending freedom of expression. Finding the Words, edited by Jared Bland, contains contributions from 31 authors on subjects of words, voices, conflicts and, yes, politics. Urging us not to undervalue the importance of words as the tool through which we accomplish both the most mundane and momentous interactions, Bland writes in his introduction: “While we use language every day — sometimes gloriously, sometimes frivolously — we cannot forget that being able to do so is an essential right that must be defended.”

This being Toronto, city of book parties, Finding the Words was launched at a public event replete with literary types and frothy beer (it was held at a brewery). The room swarmed with bodies from all corners of Toronto’s book industry, I hear. Despite the seriousness of the content, it’s likely the gathering felt decidedly celebratory and not particularly political. I say “likely,” because in fact I wasn’t there.

That same evening I was hard at work, hunched over my laptop in preparation for a different pairing of politics and prose. The Writers’ Trust Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing is awarded each year at the Politics and the Pen Gala in Ottawa, a black-tie affair at which politicians and authors sup side by side and raise buckets of cash for Canadian writers. Aside from the unfortunate side effect of my attention to one scuppering my attendance at the other, I enjoyed the coincidence of these two events. It seemed perfectly apropos. In Canada we have an award dedicated to political writing precisely because we live in a society that allows, encourages and rewards that kind of open debate. Such are our freedoms when it comes to expression that even our political book events aren’t overly political: the Politics and the Pen Gala is covered by the society pages as much as by the news.

The prize, when it was announced, went to Anna Porter. An examination of four Central European countries heading towards and then away from communism, her book The Ghosts of Europe looks at regimes under which books were banned and authors censored: countries in which, as in Bloom’s South Africa, to publish was to engage with politics.

In his contribution to Finding the Words Linden MacIntyre also steps behind the Iron Curtain. Referencing the 1989 Velvet Revolution in what was then Czechoslovakia he writes of the role of ordinary people — people in fact distinguished by their very ordinariness and mediocrity — to effect social change. “When ordinary people realize that almost everyone is capable of courage,” he writes, “human circumstances change dramatically.”

While a fluke of timing meant that sensational current events thrust MacIntyre’s novel The Bishop’s Man into the limelight (in Nova Scotia, revelations echoing MacIntyre’s storyline made headlines on his novel’s laydown date), PEN’s story is never far from the front pages. To pick two examples out the air: the PEN Empty Chair at the 2010 IFOA honoured imprisoned Canadian/Iranian blogger Hossein Derakshan; a month later, PEN Scotland shipped a chair made by schoolchildren to Oslo to mark the absence of Liu Xiaobo from the Nobel Prize ceremony. As I write this piece, reports are being made of a return to Tunisian shelves of books banned under authoritarian president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. In Egypt a book fair is being planned in Tahrir Square — a do-over for the Cairo Book Fair, which was abandoned in January.

When an uncensored, freely published Finding the Words< hit Canadian shelves in mid-February, Open Book posted an interview with its editor. “Do you think that writers in Canada tend to take our freedom of expression for granted...?” OBTO asked. The answer? “Generally speaking...yes.”

A critique of Stephen Harper’s government was among the books shortlisted for the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize, a prize administrated by an organization which is funded in part by government organizations. In the same month, a political satire was voted the winner of Canada Reads, an annual competition organized (and heavily promoted) by Canada’s national broadcaster. We think of these as cultural, not political, events, and take their existence, generally speaking, for granted.

When we head out to our local bookstore/bar/theatre to see an author read, absorb their ideas, and enjoy the sound words make when assembled in a well-considered row, we’re unlikely to think of it as a political act. And why should we? But when the last thing we read in the news before leaving the house is about the rise of state-controlled media in Hungary, or a nation removing its citizens’ access to online communication, let’s at least remember that we were privileged to be invited to the party.

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For more information about PEN Canada, including current campaigns, upcoming events, and how you can become a member for $75 a year ($25 if you’re a student), visit their website: pencanada.ca

For more information on Finding the Words, edited by Jared Bland, visit the McClelland & Stewart website or buy it for $24.99 from your local indie bookseller.


Becky Toyne is a publishing consultant specializing in manuscript development and book promotion. She has worked as an in-house editor at Random House UK and Random House of Canada, and as Communications Coordinator for the International Festival of Authors. She has reviewed books for the Globe and Mail and the CBC, is a member of the communications committee for the Writers' Trust of Canada, and writes a monthly column about Toronto's literary scene for Open Book: Toronto. You can follow her on Twitter: @MsRebeccs

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