Coming Home to IFOA

By Sheniz Janmohamed

When I was a kid, I used to visit my local library almost every week. I filled my book bag to the brim and looked forward to reading new stories every night. Although I’m much older and more jaded now, there is still a sense of wonder and joy that takes over me when I walk into a library.

Owen Sheers reading at IFOA Markham ©

Owen Sheers reading at IFOA Markham ©

Stepping into a library knowing that you’re going to listen to authors read from books contained in that very library—well, there’s nothing more ‘meta’ than that. After years of organizing IFOA Markham, this was the first year I listened, observed and participated as an audience member. This was the first time it was held in the presence of thousands of books. It felt right. The library was transformed—a place that I would never dare eat in (for fear of ruining a book) was lined with long tables stacked with food—from samosas to falafel to gelato. Anyone knows that the way to a writer’s heart is good food (or is that just the way to my heart?). Authors Giles Blunt, Owen Sheers and Nino Ricci circulated in the crowd of readers, chatting with young writers, librarians and community members. In fact, they were so engrossed in getting to know the Markham community that one of the event organizers had to come back a few times to escort them backstage—proof that they felt at home in our hometown.

The evening began with a ceremony acknowledging the achievements of young writers in Markham. The mayor of Markham, Frank Scarpitti, presented awards to up-and-coming teen writers who participated in the Markham Teen Arts Council’s “Word Up!” Contest. I found this to be an apt beginning for a Lit On Tour event, as it reminded us of the talent we have within our own community, and it gave young writers something tangible to aspire to.

Giles Blunt was first to read—donning the voice of an old monk, he transported us to the monastery where his latest novel, The Hesitation Cut, is located. A line that stayed with me included this one: “his robe flapping around him like a personal storm.”

Owen Sheers illuminated his reading with insights into the process of writing the book, including this gem: “When does a confession become a selfish, not an altruistic act?”

Nino Ricci closed the night with haunting passages from Sleep, describing autumn in all its glory, “…the trees flame up like an apocalypse in their autumn colours.”

After their readings, the authors were gracious enough to take questions from audience members. A young writer asked for advice on becoming a better writer. Owen Sheers had three words for her, “read, read, read”. He also pointed out that he began his writing career by entering literary competitions. Another question arose about the development of book titles and how they were chosen. Nino Ricci wanted to change his original title, but his publisher opted to keep it, whereas Owen Sheers was told to change his title but fought to keep it. They all spoke about tricking themselves into writing, or as Sheers put it, “writing from the corner of my eye.” The authors spoke about the challenge of getting stuck halfway through a novel, and how they push through the writing process. Giles Blunt confessed that after writing 100 pages of The Hesitation Cut, he couldn’t write anymore. He decided to write it longhand, as it allowed him to focus on writing first and editing later. Ricci echoed this sentiment, “Writing longhand allows for editing after not during the writing process. It allows one to release the editorial impulse.”

The conversation was lively, and the authors were genuinely surprised when the Markham Arts Council handed them gifts at the end of the night (another way to a writer’s heart: free gifts). It was an inspiring, heartwarming celebration of writing and reading and a full circle for me—the little girl who loved visiting her hometown library is still alive and well.

Sheniz Janmohamed is an author, artist educator and spoken word artist. She has performed nationally and internationally for over 10 years and has been featured at various venues, including the Jaipur Literature Festival, TedxYouth@Toronto and the Aga Khan Museum. She is also the author of two collections of poetry: Bleeding Light and Firesmoke. Sheniz facilitates creative writing workshops for writers of all ages and has recently completed her Arts Education certification at The Royal Conservatory in Toronto.

Humber School for Writers presents: How We Write

By Janet Somerville

Workshop leaders Kevin Barry, Wayson Choy, Karen Connelly, Valerie Martin and Nino Ricci appeared in conversation on Wednesday with Antanas Sileika, novelist and Director of the Humber School for Writers, and their discussion opened with their responses to this question: What should a beginning writer know?

Kevin Barry

Kevin Barry and Karen Connelly

Dublin IMPAC-winning novelist Kevin Barry began by suggesting that “books and stories come out of our fear and anxiety, out of our dark places” and that it was essential to “finish everything. You must finish the bad stories so you know what the good ones are when they come.” His other advice: “Develop in yourself a sense of patience. There’s always a glow when something is finished, and that’s when you should put it in a drawer.” Finally, he referenced Annie Dillard’s wisdom to “keep your overhead low.”

Contrarian Karen Connelly, author of The Lizard Cage, claimed, “I encourage you all to be atypical. Penelope Fitzgerald didn’t start publishing until she was 62. You have to have the courage to take your life and return it to the world. Be daring.” Veteran American novelist and Orange Prize winner Valerie Martin, whose most recent book is The Ghost of Mary Celeste, insisted she has lived and written by the motto that “art saves your life and art ruins your life.” Her sensible advice: “Be patient. Be dogged. Don’t be afraid.”

Karen Connelly

Karen Connelly

Trillium Book Award winner Wayson Choy, whose The Jade Peony is now in its 30th printing, said, “Learn about craft. Figure out, for example, how James Joyce wrote such a memorable ending to ‘The Dead.’” Nino Ricci, whose first novel, Lives of the Saints, won the Governor General’s Literary Award, claimed his delusion he had as a young writer kept him going: “You want to keep a writer writing, by not telling them the truth.” Ricci suggested also to ignore the tolling laments of “Nobody’s reading anymore” and “The novel is dead,” because “the joy of the first book that you write is a gift you will never have again. Just write. Do as much as possible. Every day.”

Responding to Sileika’s prompt, “What do you mean about writing about life in the world,” Connelly said, “I lived in Thailand and I wanted to keep moving. I wanted to live in other cultures and discover what it meant to be human in different places. It’s such a powerful and transformative experience. Where your body is is what you’re going to write about. It’s good to feel born in the wrong place, because it makes you curious and seeking.”

For Choy, “Chinatown was a place I wanted to forget about. It was a ghetto. People only spoke with each other. But, Chinatown travelled with me. Carol Shields suggested in a creative writing class that I write about it. It turns out that who you are and where you come from may be the source of your greatest material.”

About his bold use of language in City of Bohane, Sileika asked Barry, “How do you make language fresh?” His answer: “I grew up in Limerick and Cork in working class communities. Language is used and abused there. I wanted to free myself from having to hove to the actual. It’s kind of a retro future in 2053, but I wanted to give the sense that it could be 1853 or 1953, that is, another world.”

Wondering how Nino Ricci dared to go into the territory he did in Testament, Ricci said, “People don’t really care that much about Christianity anymore. As a child, I always believed that Jesus was Italian. In my novel he’s the son of a Roman soldier. And, it seemed to me that we were living such unexamined lives about religion.”

Wayson Choy

Wayson Choy

Each writer described their process. Barry said he tries “to be still half asleep when I write. You’re closest to the murky place then. DeLillo says, ‘write when you are puddled in dream melt.’ And, places where you embarrass yourself and recoil in horror, those are the good bits.” Connelly insisted that for her, “procrastination is an important part of the process. I read. I do administrative work, and then I write in the afternoon, often standing up, for two to three hours each day.” Like Kevin Barry, Valerie Martin admitted to writing best “when I’m fresh from the dream. Often I’ll start about the dream. I write longhand on loose leaf paper.” Choy claimed he begins with a ritual: “I take out all of my fountain pens and arrange them. It’s sort of zen. Now I write in transit. When I can. When I will.” Ricci lamented making the mistake “of switching from handwriting to computer” and pledged that he’d change his ways.

Develop patience. Learn craft. Don’t be afraid. Have the courage to take your life and return it to the world.

Follow Janet Somerville on Twitter @janetsomerville.

Nino Ricci discusses The Origin of Species

Nino Ricci’s first novel, Lives of the Saints, garnered international acclaim and won a host of awards, including the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction. He won the same prize again in 2008 for his novel The Origin of Species. In this clip, Ricci talks about narrative voice and his reluctance to use the first […]