Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Lucky Seven Interview, with Shawn Selway

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Shawn Selway

It's difficult to imagine the feeling of being taken from the people you know and love and isolated in a strange and unknown place. Such was the case with the evacuation of over 1,000 Cree and Inuit tuberculosis patients from the Eastern Arctic to Hamilton, Ontario between 1950 and 1965.

Shawn Selway explores this difficult history in Nobody Here Will Harm You: Mass Medical Evacuation from the Eastern Arctic 1950–1965 (Wolsak & Wynn). There were social, technological and economic influences that created an atmosphere where the relocations were possible, as well as deeply-held racist beliefs. Shawn tracks the impact of the experience on the Cree and Inuit communities in this important exploration of a dark time.

We talk to Shawn today about Nobody Here Will Harm You as part of our Lucky Seven series, where we talk to authors about their new books, their writing process and more.

Shawn tells us about his family connection to the story, the paradoxical nature of helping and the "plentitude and pluralism" of great books.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book, Nobody Here Will Harm You.

Shawn Selway:

It’s about the consequences of a decision made in Ottawa to deal with epidemic tuberculosis in the eastern Arctic by transferring people to the south for treatment during the 1950s. This episode has been written about before, by Pat Grygier, who published A Long Way from Home in 1994, but I approach it from a different perspective, with a narrower focus and more particulars in many areas.

After the Second World War, my mother’s father brought the family to Canada from Holland. At that time some newcomers were required to work in agriculture for a period on arrival. Thus the Van Wanrooys wound up in Picture Butte, Alberta, replacing interned Japanese Canadians in the sugar beet fields. Mandatory service done, they packed up and went east, where my mother was soon working as a nurse at the Mountain Sanatorium in Hamilton. She got there shortly after the advent of antibiotics, which finally made TB curable, which in turn made it feasible for the Canadian state to bring northerners — Cree and Inuit –— down south for treatment. We had traces of the Inuit sojourn in the south around the house when I was growing up — soapstone carvings and other things — so I have always been vaguely aware of the story. Later my mother began suggesting that I look into it and write something. After 15 or 20 years of gentle prodding, I acceded.

OB:

Is there a question that is central to your book, thematically? And if so, did you know the question when you started writing or did it emerge from the writing process?

SS:

Yes, it is the paradoxical nature of helping, which can be no help at all. Or worse. We are dependent rational animals. (A great Alistair MacIntyre title.) We all need parental care when we are very young or very old, or are ill or injured, or impoverished. Or maybe become addicted and addled by something or other. Because we are rational, we build schools and hospitals and train specialists in order to mutualize the burdens of care, but then we have the problem of unwanted “assistance.” The residential school system here in Canada, for instance, which was mostly aggression masquerading as assistance. In the case of the TB evacuations, evacuation was not coerced but it was not entirely consensual either.

I knew about the question when I began, but it has become more central for me – along with a corollary problem that has to do with the technical versus the political solutions to problems.

OB:

Did the book change significantly from when you first starting working on it to the final version? How long did the project take from start to finish?

SS:

It grew in a different direction, once I had gone to Ottawa and started looking at what was held at the national archives, which was a great deal. Then I met Johanna Rabinowitz, a nurse who had gone on the ship C.D. Howe for one of the annual four-month medical patrols through the Eastern Arctic. She had a great many colour slides — now in the Hamilton Health Sciences Archives at McMaster — and provided much eyewitness detail. The book took about five years of intermittent application to research and write.

OB:

What do you need in order to write — in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?

SS:

Just quiet, to start. So that the continuous inner monologue which is waking consciousness can die down and the writing persona can begin to talk. For the rest, I like that rough yellow newsprint that is hard to find anymore. That stuff is like a prototype of paper itself – provisional, you know, like the banalities and infelicities you are going to put there while you’re getting going on something.

OB:

What do you do if you're feeling discouraged during the writing process? Do you have a method of coping with the difficult points in your projects?

SS:

Hurry up and wait. Writing is largely an autonomous, pre-conscious process. You deliver material to your brain, and it integrates it along pathways unknown to you. Or not. Of course you have to be available. You have to have the sitzfleisch. But after you have been writing for a while you come to realize that a way forward will eventually occur to you. It doesn’t make it less frustrating, but it’s not so desperate.

OB:

What defines a great book, in your opinion? Tell us about one or two books you consider to be truly great books.

SS:

For a novel, plenitude and pluralism. Proust’s novel — actually an extended personal essay — gives us a huge cast of characters: everyone from fully drawn individuals like Francoise and Charlus and Madame Verdurin to walk-ons like the customer service reps in Jupien’s brothel and umpteen others. Lolita, same thing. Though much shorter, it is densely populated. There are many miracles of compression in that book. Cameos of persons and tiny perfect evocations of places as well. For non-fiction, you have the perpetual revision and correction that goes on in every field, and occasionally someone who has assimilated all the recent contributions writes up a summary. These are the books that sometimes gain a wide readership. Among their precursors, a great book is one that offers a grand revision or re-interpretation of its field. I’m thinking of something like John Bowlby’s Attachment, about the child’s ties to the mother; or Stanley Rosen’s Nihilism, which attempts to bring Platonism into our era and resolve the quarrel of the ancients and the moderns in a way that might be satisfactory for moderns.

OB:

What are you working on now?

SS:

I have a lot of photographs gathered during the research, so I am putting up a site to make a good selection available online, along with supplementary material for the book. No, not the stuff the editor (Jen Hale) convinced me, rightly, to take out. A little of that, but mostly extra material about the period and especially about the technical ensemble that enabled the evacuation campaign. Otherwise I am fiddling with a long essay on high-rise buildings here in Hamilton. I have to decide whether to go out and start talking to some of the people who were involved in designing and building them in the seventies, but I think that might be a different project.


Shawn Selway is a millwright specialized in the conservation of historic machinery. He has a strong interest in the wobbling path of his hometown and contributes to the local municipal affairs blog. His mother, a retired TB and surgical nurse, made him write this book.

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