"Let me keep my mind on what matters
Which is mostly standing still
And learning to be astonished"

~ Mary Oliver ~

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Truth and Storytelling, Vancouver Writer's Festival

Panel -- Gary Geddes, Andrew Westoll, Alexandra Fuller
Moderator -- Barry Callaghan

Barry Callaghan

"What is important is the story.  Because when we are all dust and teeth and kicked-up bits of skin -- when we're dancing with our own skeletons -- our words might be all that's left of us."

From SCRIBBLING THE CAT by Alexandra Fuller

A very entertaining and varied afternoon it was at the Vancouver Writers' and Readers' Festival.  Each author read an excerpt from one of their non-fiction pieces, and then a meaty discussion led by Callaghan inquired into questions of truth in storytelling -- whose truth, how much truth, is truth held in laughter, is there an ethical line over which truth should not cross?  As well as calling upon the three guest authors for readings and opinions, Callaghan inserted himself into each of the questions, sharing from his work, his travels and also his relationship with his famous father, Morley Callaghan.

Alexandra Fuller
 Fuller, from England and Rhodesia, writes memoir about her days growing up in Africa.  Her latest book is Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness. She was a White child of a wealthy farmer, whose mother was a crazed woman that doted on Alexandra's sisters, but not on Alexandra.  She was a creative woman who drank, carried an Uzi, and held all the ideals of powerful, rich and white upper class society, a racist, who roared around Rhodesia in a Land Rover, with several dogs, the three girls and two women servants.  A son had died and was never mentioned in the family home.  Alexandra grew up thinking her mother mad, wild, and uncaring.  She feels compassion towards her, she says, but hasn't changed her opinion.  Her sisters had completely differing points of view regarding Alexandra's memoir.  Perspective certainly plays into what is considered "truth."  One sister, illiterate until she discovered the world of talking books, said that Alexandra's work was too tame, that their lives growing up in the book seemed like a fairy tale compared to reality.  The mother refused to speak to Alexandra after reading the book, saying that the way Alexandra portrayed her was absolutely abominable, totally unrelated to "truth."  Alexandra, herself, said she had to draw the line in spots as she couldn't bear for her father to have to speak about her lost brother, something that filled her father with tears of grief, so completely out of character it was for him to talk on that subject, even today.  Some of the truth, then, is still missing.

Andrew Westoll
 Andrew Westoll, author of The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary wrote a moving report on his summer spent with 13 chimpanzees rescued from biomedical research facilities and zoos across North America.  The sanctuary is located near Montreal.  Andrew's stay changed his life forever.  He felt immense fear upon his arrival there, fear that emanated from the animals, the staff and the place itself, as well as an overpowering sense of fear within himself that he described chillingly as "fear running up my spine like a silverfish."  The animals were so damaged that they behaved very strangely, often aggressively, and there was a red line drawn on the sanctuary floor over which no guest or volunteer was permitted to go because of the immense risk.  He told a story about approaching a woman whose back was to him, she, folding laundry, towel by towel, suddenly turning her head and freezing in fear.  As he approached, she finally realized that it was Andrew and not one of the chimps creeping up behind her with murder in mind.  In the process of learning the heart-rending stories of the chimps from Gloria, the manager of the sanctuary, Westoll crossed the line from journalist to advocate and never looked back. He said that he wrote his truth in a much lighter vein than the actual truth of the sanctuary's reality as he felt that the dark truth would have been unreadable.

Gary Geddes
 Gary Geddes, award-winning poet and author, writing for a long period now on a huge number of human rights issues, said that we need to recognize that at some level all writing is fiction, not "truth."  When, as writers, we put feelings and impactful experiences into words, it is like a sun's ray shining on a prism.  What comes out the other side is different from what went in.  His recent book, Drink the Bitter Root: A Writer's Search for Justice and Redemption in Africa is a deeply engaging investigation of trauma, justice and the redemptive powers of imagination.  Among the many places and issues addressed, Geddes' search took him first to the International Criminal Court in The Hague.  In Rwanda and Uganda, he attended grassroots criminal courts and encountered rescued street kids, women raped and infected with HIV during the genocide, and victims mutilated by the Lord's Resistance Army.  He shared two of the stories with us, obviously very moved by what he had witnessed.  His book is considered a masterful blend of history, reportage, testimonial and memoir, a condemnation of the horrors spawned by greed and corruption, and an eloquent tribute to human resilience.

Callaghan himself read a story from the introductory chapter of one of his older books, the topic of which was "truth."  He introduced the afternoon with that story -- of a Russian immigrant from Galicia who had suffered unbearable conditions in Siberia, being placed with a dead man in a locked cabin for an extended period.  Once freed, the immigrant never really spoke his truth.  When he arrived in Saskatchewan, as he told Callaghan, he never looked back.  "Memory," says Callaghan, "is just the beginning of a story."  Truth is shaped.  It's subjective and formed by perception and perspective.  Callaghan married the immigrant's daughter, Nina.  The couple's views on their own truth were totally different from each other.  In later years, Callaghan wrote a piece about his father, the famous Morley Callaghan, while Morley wrote a piece about Barry and his relationship with the Galicianer's daughter.  Their perceptions of truth were their own, not the other's, but each allowed the other his own view, neither ever commenting on those two stories.  Callaghan's memoir, Barrelhouse Kings, is one which tells his own story of growing up and, of course, includes his father.  He mentioned another of his other books, Raise You Twenty: Essays and Encounters 1964-2011, Volume Three, which follows on the critically acclaimed Raise You Five and Raise You Ten.  As a man of letters, Callaghan has a very long list of books to his credit.

Reflecting on the afternoon and the passion expressed by each of the writers, it was evident that the three guest authors had all become activists in their own right -- Fuller, who now lives in Wyoming, a State with more "roughneck" deaths than any other, wrote her Legend of Colton H. Bryant, showing her deep concern for the "roughnecks."  "Like all Westerns, this story is a tragedy before it even starts because there was never a way for anyone to win against all the odds out here."  The stacked deck belongs to the oil companies, and the lesson learned from Colton's life and death is that human life is small change; protecting it isn't in the best interest of profit.  Fuller speaks up on a governmental level about the inhumanity of the oil companies, among other US policies, the War in Iraq, and so on.  Because she is not liked for her frank and outspoken words, some of her books have suffered in American reviews and sales.

Westoll is an activist fighting the cause against animals being used and abused in research labs.  And Geddes is extremely active, exposing through his travels, interviews and writing the horrific human rights crimes taking place in various areas of Africa.  Callaghan, of course, ever remains the storyteller, always using humour to tap into the truth of the human condition.


Monday, October 10, 2011

David Abram, Becoming Animal

August 31, 2011  Speaking engagement at the Centre for Peace:

I was first taken with David Abram, anthropologist, philosopher and sleight-of-hand magician, during the course work for my Masters degree.  The Spell of the Sensuous, his 1997 book, truly cast a spell on me, as the writing was a proliferation of evocative and sensual language and an embodiment of his topic – the dependence of human cognition on the natural environment and, in particular, the sensual foundations of language. In my thesis, I quoted many of Abram’s ideas, mainly to do with animated text and the differences I saw between oral and written stories.  Through his connections to native lore, Merleau-Ponty’s work in phenomenology, and his own experience, Abram made me take a look at my earlier notions that only oral story-telling could embody the lived experience, with its gestures, inflections, tonality and expression, to speak directly from heart to mouth, and recognize the possibility, or perhaps I should say the necessity, of looking at written work as also emanating from the animate, living world, expressing the Earth through living letters.

When he arrived to speak in Vancouver about his new book, Becoming Animal, I was able to pick him out in the crowd immediately.  He walked in with a leaf dangling from the back of his right shoe, and I jotted in my notebook – “He is earth, tree, outgrowth of the soil.”  From the side, he’s a dead ringer for Woody Allen, and when he began to speak, he moved just as he writes – hopping bird-like, tiptoeing, lunging, pouncing, to illustrate his points.  He demonstrated before our eyes what he sees as the strong and celebratory human connection to nature, i.e., our animal nature as human beings. 

Abram took it further yet, connecting us not only to animal life but to the earth itself.  He asked us to view this connection as if it were “Eros,” to see the “allure” we hold for the ground, rather than the physical laws or force of “gravity.”  We hold the “allure” just as the moon and oceans hold this strong “attraction.”  We need to recognize that we are part of the old and powerful mystery, says Abram, and learn to speak differently about who we are.

We are part of the earth, part of its face, just as the clouds are part of the earth and move with it.  We are in it, in the earth.  There is a commonwealth of breath, the air between us thick with meaning, mystery and enigma.  We breathe this planet and it breathes us.
Abram spoke of the mind as something we can’t see and can’t grasp, yet something we can’t get outside of.  Like the air.  We are bodily embedded in mind as in air.  Strangely, he explained, the ancient Greek word origins for wind, mind, breath and animal are all related and similar.  We need to see all as interconnected, part of the same thing.  The quality of air is like the awareness of mind.  Foggy, rainy or clear days can be seen as different moods of the earth that we all inhabit.  Changes in climate are the earth talking back, the return of the repressed.

The earth, then, according to Abram, is my real body, ours, the coyote’s, each of us experiencing it differently, uniquely, with our own senses.  The world shows itself to us when we are “creaturely” present.

Ah, not to be cut off,
not through the slightest partition
shut out from the law of the stars.
The inner -- what is it?
if not the intensified sky,
hurled through with birds and deep
with the winds of homecoming.

Rainer Maria Rilke

Sometimes we need mediators, magicians, shaman, who can play an important ecological function, he says, by mediating between the human world and the "more-than-human" world that we inhabit. 
He then spoke of language and communication in relation to his way of looking at humans as animal.  “Language is shaped breath,” he says.  Our lips, tongue and teeth vibrate in certain ways.  Our breath travels to communicate.  The air itself is the real medium of communication, and we must accord the earth its primacy.  We must remember that the virtual world is rooted in the real one and that people who pray are people talking to the world.  Old or new, ritual or inventive, all modes of communication call us into connection.  Even initiation practices in various cultures connect us to the cosmos, adding yet another layer.  In relation to the animals, plants and mountains, we become part of the wider conversation.

Although our sense of the animate was interrupted by the written word (alphabet), writing became a new form of magic.  Ideographics were closer to the visible world, but the alphabet necessitated that only sounds could speak.  It was a huge move away from the visual, visceral world.  And it is exclusively human.  We need to remember the written word’s connection to oral stories, which live in the land and are utterly necessary for the healing of wounds of the earth.  The native peoples are closer to this than most of us are, and there is much we can learn from them.

Because you did not have the privileged experience of listening and watching David Abrams as I did, I will close with a quote that will give you the flavour of the man and his work.  It’s Abrams’ last paragraph in Becoming Animal: an earthly cosmology:

The stars glimmer in the solstice dark, their faint light mirrored in glints off the crusted snow.  Far below these blanketed fields, deep beneath the bedrock, a lustrous power slumbers, fitfully, like a bear in its cave.  The resplendence it carries by day is now subdued and smoldering – a slow burn, crackling within its hearth at the heart of the Earth.  As this power sleeps, it dreams.  The dreams roil and flicker and seethe, curling back upon themselves and sometimes flaring, scorching the walls and scattering sparks.  A few sparks embed themselves like seeds in the enfolding dark; others wink out and vanish.  Meanwhile, the power sleeps, pulsing like a muscle, its vigor radiating outward in waves through the viscosity of molten metal and the slow solidity of rock ... percolating outward as magma or propagating upward through the density of basalt and granite, rising later through thickets of feldspar and quartzite and the stratified soils near the surface, channelled outward through stems of dandelions and trunks of sequoias, through cattails and sugar maples and the upright backbones of smooth-skinned primates, finally fountaining into the open biosphere through blossoms and budded leaves and through the craft of our fingers, through the gleam in your lover’s eye and the fluted music upwelling now from the beak of a blackbird.