Post-mortem: Canada Reads 2014

I thought Sarah Gadon took some cheap shots with her feminist perspective.

I thought Donovan Bailey would have rather raced the 100m again instead of sit around the table with the other panelists.

I thought Sam Bee was crazy thinking all Canadians would want to read Cockroach. 

ImageThis year’s Canada Reads debates were particularly difficult. It was the first time I had already read 4 of the 5 books when they were announced as contenders. Over the holidays I read Cockroach by Rawi Hage, and with that I was set for the debates. The only problem was that I was going to be in Vancouver for work when they were happening. 

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Gorgeous view from my friend Kate’s condo

I was thrilled when I got to the airport Monday morning and while lazily checking twitter and waiting for my flight, I saw everyone talking about the debates. I couldn’t believe my timing! It was tough having to only stream on my phone without watching twitter and participating with the conversation, but alas – can’t win ’em all.

When I woke up in Vancouver on Tuesday morning with a jet-lag hangover, I was happily realized that the debates would be running from 7am-8am Vancouver time, finishing up just in time for me to get to my 8:30am meeting. Luckily, Wednesday was the same. Thursday my flight was at 10am so I was desperately hoping the Sky Train wouldn’t cut off my LTE and it didn’t. Yes, I cried on the Sky Train in the midst of rush hour. I clung to my phone as I witnessed Wab Kinew deliver his final plea; The Orenda should be the book to change Canada. I was flooded with relief when it was.

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Last year, I had some issues with the debates. Though I really enjoyed the panelists and most of the books chosen, I thought that it was tacky and somewhat useless to have the theme of the competition to be “Turf Wars.” Though some books have a geographical stamp on them, it doesn’t make them better than any other book. When it was announced that one of Canada’s regions was “Prairies and North,” I knew that it wasn’t worth the argument. I was, however, really pleased with the quality of the debates and brought to tears by the fierce passion of Jay Baruchel when he championed for Two Solitudes and ultimately lost to Trent McClellan’s defence of Lisa Moore’s February

This year, it was so exciting to see the theme of Canada Reads actually strive to mean something. Yes, the book that could change Canada is a hugely lofty, unattainable goal, but at least its aim was to get the conversation started around important issues affecting our nation. Discussions touched on racism, reconciliation, immigration, the environment, and intersexuality. 

These are heavy issues. It must have been a weighty week for these panelists, knowing that they were representing large groups of people who are affected by the worlds in which these books have been built. They rose to the challenge, however. Well, Donovan Bailey tried. I found he was quite out of his element (there’s always one on the panel) but he kept his spirits up, and took the debates seriously. 

Sarah Gadon really surprised me. When I first met her at the Canada Reads announcement back in 2013, it was clear that she adored Kathleen Winter’s Annabel. I loved on the first day of the debates where she described coming back to Canada for the debates after being in Europe. She said that usually when she’s away for work, she feels a sense of relief, excitement, and homecoming as she flies across Canada. After having read The Orenda, however, this time she said she felt uneasy. I so related to that, and after having recently flown into Vancouver, it was still really fresh in my mind. 

ImageSarah’s criticism of The Orenda, however, I found to be flawed. She claimed that it didn’t have a women’s point of view.
A) One of the three narrators, Snowfalls, is a woman.
B) It should not be a book’s job to represent all possible points of view unless it is a text book.
Why does Boyden have to write in a woman’s perspective at all? He’s the author. He chooses what story he wants to tell. The same thing happened last year when people complained that the protagonist in David Bergen’s The Age of Hope was too depressed, too unhappy. Hello? That’s because he wrote her to be that way. Sam Bee heard some similar criticism towards the protagonist in Cockraoch and defended it really well by saying, “I’m not one to rewrite an author’s work.” 

Unfortunately Sarah was at the wrong end of some pretty strange and dogged criticism of Annabel. The first comment of Winter using the term “hermaphrodite” instead of “intersex” was understandable had she written a book that took place now, but for a book that was set in the 60s, was a pretty small complaint. Now, more on Annabel but first…

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The pregnancy in Annabel. Apparently it would have been physically impossible for Annabel/Wanye to become pregnant. I believe that. Sarah argued that the pregnancy was merely a metaphor; a situation created to represent a bigger part of the story. Stephen, Sam and Wab all took great offence to this. They thought that it was misleading Canadians and offensive to intersex people to have this “lie” “ruin the end of the novel.” Wab said that yes, it’s fiction but Winter set the situation up as a true story. Again, I take offence to this. It would have been one thing if they had made the point once, but to harp on it over, and over and to have that be one of the facts that tipped the scales in the book getting voted off, was a real shame. Annabel is a beautiful, gripping book that opens eyes and hearts and would have done a lot for Canadians, I think, had it been chosen as the book that could change Canada. 

The last thing that really stood out to me in the debates was Stephen Lewis’ issues he found with the violence during the torture scenes in The Orenda. I’ve already spoken to how I felt about those scenes, and I was unsurprised that a panelist would bring them up in a negative light. It was Wab’s defence of Stephen’s criticism that I found so compelling. He said that it’s not easy for Westerners to view the torture scenes in The Orenda from anything other than a Western point of view. He spoke of torture being a ritual that honoured other warriors, but he also spoke of his own spirituality and his experience with Sun Dance ceremonies. These dancers fast for days, then dance for a four-day period in the hot sun without food or water. The section of that debate is available on the CBC Books site and I encourage you to watch it. Wab is so measured, confident and intelligent. It’s very powerful to watch.

Click here to view [6 minutes 10 seconds] 

These debates filled me with a lot of passion and a lot of hope. I learned so much, and I have continued to read more books by aboriginal authors (Medicine Walk by Richard Wagamese) and about First Nations in the 1600s (Fathers and Crows, by William T. Vollman). It’s always so exciting to talk about books with friends, but this year was something really special. Don’t know how the CBC Books team will top this next year. I wish them luck… 

Oh, and #WabKinewForPrimeMinister

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