"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.