The best of non-fiction at IFOA

By Janet Somerville

What an erudite, diverse and articulate group it was: Kamal Al-Solaylee, Modris Eksteins, Taras Grescoe, JJ Lee, and Candace Savage. The Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction Finalists appeared in conversation with host Rachel Giese on Sunday afternoon, framing their discussion around the idea of research and revelation.


Each described their book in shorthand. Al-Solaylee said his memoir “came out of anger, frustration, and fear” and he exists in Intolerable in relation to his family and the politics of the Middle East during the past 30-40 years. Eksteins charmed the crowd, claiming, “I feel like the ancient mariner in this regatta of youth that surrounds me,” and noted that Solar Dance is grounded in the enigma of Van Gogh—”a miserable failure in the 19th Century who became one of the greatest successes in the 20th Century.” For him, “history is an explanation with a question mark at the end.”

Grescoe suggested Straphanger emerged from the trauma he suffered when his parents moved him from Jane Jacobs’ ideally walkable Toronto neighbourhoods to the suburbs where life depended on an automobile.

Lee entranced with an anecdote about his violent alcoholic father whose suit he inherited, which he used “as a playground, as an autopsy, as a shadow of my father” in The Measure of a Man.

Savage wondered if “maybe big sky and big silence promote deep thoughts” and that the difficulties she experienced in her beloved prairie landscape were “not an inconvenience, but an intervention” that inspired her to write A Geography of Blood.

Research took Eksteins to an archive that turned up “a chameleon fraud artist—a dancer-turned-art dealer who sold fake Van Goghs in the 1920s.” He mused that by imposing some “truth” about history that he is a sort of trickster himself, something that he has “struggled with all along.”

Two images that thread together Lee’s narrative are the suit and the knot. Noting that even on Bay Street men have “all of the buttons on their suit jackets closed when the bottom one ought to be left open,” Lee explained that in sartorial history that open button implied a certain way of living. Those men rode horses and, ergo, were wealthy. About the knot in his tie, Lee noted he was a half-Windsor man—that “intertwined discourse between father and son showed me what it took to be a man.”  What I found curious was that he appeared on stage in a bowtie, the half-Windsor a shadow memory, a subconscious way of distancing himself from his father’s influence, perhaps.

Throughout the hour the writers exchanged smart, snappy, thought-provoking commentary that made me feel that I’d spent an afternoon in the company of the brightest and best. As Eksteins reminded us, “Great literature stirs the imagination and feeds the soul.” The winner of the 60K prize will be announced on Monday November 12th and I honestly cannot predict who that will be, such a strong list it is.

Visit for more event listings. Follow Janet Somerville on twitter at @janetsomerville or on her blog Reading for the Joy of It.

IFOA begins with Rohinton Mistry’s music

By Janet Somerville

For many years the PEN Canada Benefit has had the privilege of the opening night slot at IFOA. Its essential work defending writers, promoting literature and preserving freedom of expression makes it a natural partnership. This year the Empty Chair on every IFOA stage is filled by Eritrean journalist and playwright Dawit Isaak, imprisoned since Fall 2001.


Thursday night’s event found a robust crowd filling the Fleck Dance Theatre eager to spend an evening in the rare company of Giller Prize-winner Rohinton Mistry, a longtime supporter of PEN Canada and its mission. Billed as an evening of words and music, I wondered if the notoriously shy Mistry would break into song, accompanying himself on a ukelele.

There were no stringed instruments on the stage, but Mistry’s warm buttery baritone filled the room as he read from a new piece grounded in his father’s gramophone records and he sang in Gene Autry’s voice “Don’t Fence Me In”—”Oh give me land, lots of land, under sunny skies above, don’t fence me in.” Utterly charming.

Musing “where did it begin for me the journey from there to here,” Mistry suggested that his “long and winding road from Bombay to Toronto” started with the shellacked discs of 45s, 78s and 33s his father spun on his gramophone—that magical machine that “shouldered the weight of his dreams.” As a boy, he pressed his cheek against the polished wood and “could imagine the music becoming a part of me.” And, it has.

If you were lucky enough to share in the joy and diversion of the songs that tripped wondrously off of Mistry’s storytelling tongue, you’ll understand why he referred to himself during his conversation with Eleanor Wachtel as “the vocal Zelig.” Next time Mistry appears on stage I hope he brings his guitar and harmonica and performs Dylan AS Dylan. That’d be really something.


When asked what he misses from India, Mistry paused, then declared, “you can be homesick for the past. I miss the monsoon. It’s a grand spectacle. The breeze of the Arabian Sea, like silk upon the skin. Remembering brings with it a benediction. It brings understanding.” I know what he means.

Visit for more event listings. Follow Janet Somerville on twitter at @janetsomerville or on her blog Reading for the Joy of It.

Meet our bloggers

As part of our commitment to bring you great coverage of the International Festival of Authors (October 18-28), we’ve recruited four stellar bloggers to attend events and share their highlights with all of you. Without further ado, here they are!

Brianna Goldberg is a writer and producer from Toronto whose work has appeared in both of Canada’s national newspapers and on all three radio services of the CBC. She recently returned from two years of travelling through the Caribbean and Africa, where she freelanced on topics ranging from terrorism to lingerie trends to the general awesomeness of Virginia Woolf. Find out more about Goldberg’s work online on her website or follow her on Twitter @b_goldberg.

Corina Milic reads, writes and edits for a living. She is the poetry editor at Canada’s funniest magazine that features a simian, The Feathertale Review. Monkeys don’t pay bills though, so she also works as an online editor and community manager at, Canada’s (legitimately) largest portal. She is currently trying to read every single book in her home. Track her progress here.

Iain Reid is the author of the critically acclaimed comic memoir One Bird’s Choice, which won the CBC Bookie Award for Best Non-fiction Book of the year and sold internationally. His second book, The Truth About Luck, will be published by House of Anansi Press in 2013. He writes regularly about books and writing for the National Post. Follow him at @reid_iain.

Janet Somerville teaches literature at Royal St. George’s College, a school for boys in Toronto’s Annex neighborhood where many of the authors who appear in her courses come to classes to talk about the writing life. A former PEN Canada board member and longtime volunteer, Somerville also curates an annual event called Get Caught Reading to benefit the Children’s Book Bank. She has poems published in Calling Cards: New Poetry from Caribbean/Canadian Women, tweets about books at both @janetsomerville and @TeenBoyLitCrit, and blogs about what she’s reading at Reading For The Joy of It.

Our bloggers are looking forward to the Festival, which begins October 18. For more information about our incredible lineup of authors and events, visit

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