Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

These Questions Three: It was Thirty Years Ago (and Three)

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October 8th: Eighth Post

Some thirty-three years ago, I lived in a large, dilapidated Victorian house on Bute Street in Vancouver. It was a dynamic household, a bevy of twenty-something feminists, representative of a larger Vancouver network of very talented women, many of whom have gone on to have vital and divergent careers.

A good friend to our house, for example, was artist, cultural critic and new media expert, Sara Diamond, currently Dr. Diamond, President of the Ontario College of Art and Design. As for the housemates themselves, Pam Singer from Winnipeg landed in London, England, and worked as a pioneering union activist fighting for women’s rights in the train driver’s union, from which she was recruited as an activist-trainer for the national Trades Union Conference. Our housemate Linda Grant returned to England to become the Linda Grant, author of seven books and winner of the Orange Prize. Heather McLeod, the only one of us from B.C., worked for the NDP, became the principal of Canada’s most northern school on Elsemere Island and now as Dr. Mcleod, teaches Arts Education at Memorial University in Newfoundland.

I asked Heather my first set of These Questions Three:

1. When you look back at our hopeful naivety in the Bute Street days, in retrospect, do you feel a sense of fate, or in other words, could you ever have predicted what became of us?

Of course, like many people at age 21, I believed that we could change the world. Thus, the fact that we did achieve significant records of leadership and made intellectual and cultural contributions wouldn’t have surprised me. I suppose it’s only now in middle age that one realizes how relatively unusual that is.

I recall one morning sitting around the kitchen table at Bute Street, drinking filtered coffee (a new phenomena at that time) and earnestly asking something like, “If we don’t marry and have traditional relationships what will we have when we’re old?” and Sara responded with, “We’ll have each other”.

This has stuck with me over the years. It seemed to mean that the thinking, experiences and relationships we were developing then would continue to hold value for us over time, as well as that we were responsible for constructing our own lives. And I’ve found truth in that - one of the useful intellectual insights I’ve carried with me from those days is the notion of looking beyond ‘either/or’ options. For example, at that time we weren’t content with either the social status quo or the existing alternatives, so we worked to build new creations.

2. You focus in your work on the value of creativity and on using the Arts to address issues of Social Justice. This issue is something I see so common to all of us who lived together long ago. Can you explain how it informs your work?

I have an image of the ferment at Bute Street so long ago; several young women each creating a pair of spectacles crafted so as to help them ‘see’ social justice issues. I’ve found these lenses very valuable over the years. My aesthetic interest comes first and then the connection to social issues develops. For example, I recently completed an extended investigation into the history of my house in Victoria, BC. The impulse that drove me to begin the work was visual engagement with the structure and the stories I could feel but didn’t yet know. In the process of the work I met two families of Chinese heritage who had lived there. To help me understand their experiences I read extensively about the history of the Chinese in Western Canada and became more knowledgeable about the shameful social injustices that had occurred. Now both my art and text about this research speak, in part, to those issues.

Thus, for me it’s about engaging in a creative process and then making sure to investigate and respond to the social issues that become apparent, which is somewhat different that beginning with a social agenda. However, I don’t think one approach is necessarily better than the other.

3. Can creativity be taught? And if so, is there something uniquely creative about the experience of the Rock that has recently produced so many suburb literary voices such as Lisa Moore, Wayne Johnston, Linden MacIntyre, George Murray, Chad Pelley, Michael and Kathleen Winter?

Creativity is a loaded word in contemporary Western culture, and it can be worthwhile to ‘unpack’ what we mean by the term. In terms of arts education, yes, I think that processes of exploration that facilitate creative production can be structured to help students achieve more complex and elaborated outcomes. For example, in one assignment I ask that learners explore many ideas before they move on to elaborate a particular one. Avoiding early closure on a solution can encourage synthesis of various notions and result in superior work.

As to the link between the Rock and strong literary voices – I think that there’s a unique historical, physical and cultural environment here, which can nourish writers. Indeed, in her 2011 Pratt lecture, Jane Urqhart, a ‘come from away’ like myself, commented on how she found the domestic architecture and sense of community in St. John’s particularly stimulating. It seems to me that in an era when urban environments are becoming increasingly similar across the globe, this city provides rich visual food for the imagination. That said, Wayne Johnston recently noted that he can’t write about Newfoundland from here – he must be away from it to do so…

Thank you to Dr. Heather Mcleod for this well-guided trip down memory lane, one which neatly side-stepped the Gorge of Eternal Peril.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Dorothy Ellen Palmer

Dorothy Ellen Palmer is the author of the novel, When Fenelon Falls (Coach House Books). She lives in Toronto.

Go to Dorothy Ellen Palmer’s Author Page