Friday, September 29, 2006

Reading Writers Reading: Canadian Authors' Reflections

Years in the making, Danielle Schaub's Reading Writers Reading: Canadian Authors' Reflections (Edmonton AB: University of Alberta Press/Jerusalem Israel: The Hebrew University Magnes Press, 2006) is a collection of photographs that the Israeli photographer/critic had been taking for years of Canadian writers. One hundred and sixty-five authors strong, this impressive and attractive coffee-table sized collection features photographs and brief essays on writing by Canadian writers both English and French, established and emerging, from first nations to new arrivals, and not limited to, but including authors of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, including Elizabeth Hay, Yann Martel, Ken Babstock, Jan Zwicky, Di Brandt, David Bergen, Kristjana Gunnars, Aritha Van Herk, John Newlove, Janice Kulyk Keefer, Marnie Woodrow, Alistair MacLeod, Donna Morrissey, Robert Kroetsch, Stephanie Bolster, Madeleine Thien, Gabriella Goliger and Esta Spalding. Books like this are always interesting, for readers and writers alike, to get clues and information from the other side of the writing page, and the writing life [see my review of the recent Writing Life: Celebrated Canadian and International Authors on Writing and Life (Toronto ON: McClelland & Stewart, 2006) edited by Constance Rooke, here]. Not just as suggestions on how to enter into the work, perhaps, of the individual writer (or even deeper), but how to enter into the mind of writing, and therefore reading.

As Russell Morton Brown writes in his introduction:
I began by suggesting that this book offers a collection of observations. The doubleness of that word reminds us that we slide between the imagery of words and the imagery of vision: "I see what you're saying."

The collection of photographs that accompanies these writers' words, images of these speakers juxtaposed with the imagery called up by their words, gives us a rich sense of the diverse faces of Canadian writing. Turning these pages, I am reminded of a student who once told me she didn’t like to read the books I assigned until she had gone to the library and found pictures of the writers. "I like to see who's talking to me," she explained.
Listen, as Wayson Choy writes in his "A Brief History of Reading":
In Hans Christian Anderson's fictions, the decent and the determined struggle unrelenting odds. For the first time, I sensed that I wanted to tell stories just as wonderful, as human and heartbreaking as these light-filled stories, these tales of mortals who never forsake hope, even in the most fearful of times.

Born at the end of the Depression and at the beginning of the World War II, born in a ghettoed and racist Chinatown, I already knew that the determined, the decent, were seldom rewarded. But Anderson instilled in me a lifetime of faith. Faith in storytelling. Faith in those whose eyes would finally learn to read, to sense through words qualities transcending the darkness of the world.

I thank the grade five librarian—who demanded the ignorant child that was me, the child that is in all of us: Read this.

The vivid, uncensored tales of a Danish writer led my child's heart to perceive the wisdom of a collective, mysterious humanity. Danish? Chinese? In literature, we are all one.

What I read then matters. Forever.
There, too, is Calgary writer Nicole Marcotic's opening assertion that "To me writing is an extension of reading." It's something echoed by Edmonton poet Douglas Barbour [see my recent note on him here] when he beings his piece with:
Reading is writing is reading is writing. For a writer the two are inescapably-entwined. So what do I mean when I talk about reading for writing? Is it something I always do? No and yet, yes, perhaps. Certainly, when I read poetry, I find some of my pleasure comes from the experience of learning something I may be able to use in my own writing. Not that this supplemental pleasure takes away from the central pleasure, be they emotional, intellectual, or various combinations of these, that good poetry offers any reader. But I think writers never quite forget their craft, even when lost in the intricacies of another writer's work, and so they are always learning. At least, so I think of my own reading.
Reading Writers Reading: Canadian Authors' Reflections will be launched Tuesday, October 3 in Ottawa as part of the ottawa international writers festival. For other tour dates, and a complete list of authors included, check out the University of Alberta Press website.

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