The Most Human Thing About Us

A jubilation of writers at Montreal Ya! Fest

I had the great pleasure, last week of presenting at the Montreal Ya! Fest. And it really was a fist pumping “Ya!” kind of event with a diverse bunch of writers presenting to an equally diverse audience, young and old. The spirit was great and, considering that this is just their second year in operation, they sure know what they’re doing. Kudos to the Jewish Public Library and especially, the indefatigable Talya Pardo, director of the Norman Berman Children’s Library. I sat on three panels, participated in a Q and A, and was honoured to give the keynote address at the end of a very busy, enlightening and thoroughly enjoyable event. Here’s what I had to say.      

It’s so great to be here amongst such a… well, what are we, collectively? I love those collective nouns we have for animals: a pride of lions, a barrel of monkeys, a bloat of hippos, an exultation of larks, a murder of crows – one of my favourites. Recently I ran into another option: a “storytelling of crows.” So are we a storytelling of writers? Whatever, we are a whole flight of literary dreamers and doers. The two categories are not mutually exclusive — far from it. Writers are dreamers who decided to do something about it. Jeff Zentner has this great bit in Rayne and Delilah’s Midnight Matinee about that delicious kind of dream that wakes you up to the thrill of possibility. The dream that means something: “There’s something great inside me,” his character says. “Something extraordinary and mysterious and undiscovered.” 

We can all feel that. For a writer, every book starts out that way. Even if it’s inspired by a true story — historical events – the hot spring of words well up from some dream place within each of us. Those dreams — diverse as they may be — unite us, as does the upshot of the dreaming: the story that gets told. The story that starts out solely belonging to the author, becomes, through their generosity of spirit and hard work, ours, too. This is the miracle of Story. 

You write from true events, let’s say, about a young woman caught up in the ethnic persecution brought about by Edi Amin, “The Butcher of Uganda,” as Shenaaz Nanji did in Child of Dandelions; you write about children as forced laborers in a Chinese internment camp in 1945, as Monique Polak does in her latest book, The Taste of Rain. Or, to bring things closer to home, while at the same time hurling us into a dystopian future, you imagine a time when people have lostthe ability to dream as Cherie Dimaline does in The Marrow Thieves— a time and place where indigenous people who can still dream are hunted down, their marrow harvested, because it is in the marrow that the dreams grow. Frenchie, the protagonist of the story, thinks of the webs in the bone as “clotted with dreams like fat flies.” Imagine that. Imagine hunting people to steal their dreams. Because, of course, to lose the ability to dream has got to have catastrophic psychological ramifications. 

All of these stories and all the stories of all of us, written or still remaining to be written, still swimming around in the sea of dreams, have been and will be woven on the loom of dreaming. (And yes, that is a mixed metaphor.) Now here’s the corollary to the miracle of story: our ability to hear such stories, to readthem – stories from far and wide – to grasp and feel what is universal in what was originally, for the writer, highly personal. How amazing is it for the reader to see what is usin the meof the author’s story, in the she or he or they of the story. This is the miracle of empathy. The most human thing about us. 

And that’s what I’m calling this talk, today: “The Most Human Thing About Us.” 

When you look around at the state of the world, you might not immediately think that the thing we most share in common with one another is empathy. You might think the opposite. Homo Sapiens might mean “wise man” but we do have a pretty long criminal record of aggressiveness towards other species. I mean Europe was doing okay for the Neanderthals until we came along around 40,000 years ago. According to the fossil record, we didget along with the Neanderthals, more or less, for quite a while – somewhere between 2,600 – 5,400 years. That’s not too shabby. And it helps to explain why upwards of 4% of our DNA is Neanderthal. However, we did, ultimately, manage to wipe them off the face of the earth. It’s what we do. Homo Sapiens is one clever but violent critter. 

Looking at the news can be pretty depressing. Intolerance seems to be on the rise. Reversion to ultra-nationalism. Us versus Them. The ability to walk a mile in somebody else’s shoes, which is at the heart of empathy, seems to be taking a beating. You’d not be wrong in thinking that, these days, the only way some of our less compassionate kin would walk a mile in someone else’s footwear was is if they’d stolen them. Sadly, this, too, is who we are. 

Which means we have a lot of work to do. A lot of dreaming and doing ahead of us, whatever we collectively decide to call ourselves. A pain of writers? I believe with all my heart that stories heal. Stories bring us together. Maybe the only thing that works better is food. Stories feed us, as well. Stories take us into lives we haven’t led. And here’s a bit of a paradox: Stories can take us into lives we wouldn’t even wantto lead but are hardwired to want to hear about, to understand, to gain an insight into, to feel. 

You know when you hear a terrifying personal tale and say, “I can’t imagine how you got through that”? The truth is you probably can. We can. We can imagine what it would be like to lose a beloved older sister to suicide, as Kim Turrisi’s character does in Just A Normal TuesdayIn the afterword we learn that Turrisi, herself, lost a sister to suicide. This is a truth she knows. She takes us off the deep end, takes us all the way to Grief Camp. And we go there… why? Because you don’t have to have a sister to miss one. Because we all know what it feels like to miss someone, deeply. We even have the imagination to realize our most stupefying fears, something, “not of mortal flesh but of… “blood and shadows… and… two glowing eyes,” as J.F. Dubeau does in A God in the Shed.

We can imagine tragic loss because we want to. We want to feel what there is to feel. And each incident of living vicariously through some conflict or other, teaches the heart strings a new song. In Heather Smith’s Ebb and Flow, her protagonist, Jett, “The incredible sinking boy,” gets a chance to take stock of a disastrous year with a visit to his granny on the island. By which I’m guessing Smith means both Newfoundland and that other island – the metaphorical one we end up on when we slip away from the solidity of the mainland and find ourselves drifting and alone. Jett says in his initial joy at being at his Granny’s, “I almost forgot/ I was there to forget.” He also says he feels hollow “…like an egg/with the insides blown out/a shell holding air.” We know that feeling, even if those are not the words we’d have ever found to express it. 

We have our own words. And the words can be like the gentle hooks in Velcro, holding us, tight. Holding us up. I felt like that reading Kagiso Lesego Molope’s This Book Betrays My Brother.The language carried me along, moved me, urged me forward to a place I anticipated was going to be hard to take. Urged me and helped me take it and want it, wanting to feel. 

There’s a writing workshop I do on Suspense. I include a two-minute video of Alfred Hitchcock, the master of suspense, talking about how you create suspense in a movie. “There are four men sitting around a table,” he says. “Playing cards. Talking baseball. Boring.” This goes on for five minutes and then suddenly the table blows up. “What do you have?” He asks. “You have ten seconds of shock.” Nothing else. But what if you showed the audience the bomb under the table, first? He asks us. Now you have something quite different. A ticking clock. Your audience is engaged. The game, and the baseball conversation are no longer boring. You have dramatic irony – the audience knows something the actors don’t. “Now, you’ve got the audience working for you,” Hitchcock says. 

I love this definition, because he explains the mechanism by which suspense is built, while also making it clear that there can be no suspense without anticipation.  It also points to a broader issue that we as writers know instinctively: your reader has to careabout what happens to the characters. We don’t even know these four guys playing cards but we end up caring because we don’t want them to get blown to smithereens. We are capable of feeling empathy for anyone in a precarious situation. 

Suspense, obviously comes from the same root as the verb to suspend – To hover. That state or feeling of anxious uncertainty, doubt, anticipation, expectation.It’s not something you want to inflict on a reader lightly, and it’s not something you want to leave your reader feeling when they’ve finished the story. The News does that all too well. There’s a whole lot of anxiety out there, folks! Suspense is about sounding the alarm and in doing so initiating this primal and very human desire to care, to want to reach out. And as a writer you then have a responsibility: the reader is yours and they are your responsibility. 

Here’s the most important thing of all: the stories may be fiction, but the feelings of empathy that arise in us as we read the story are real. And the satisfaction – the deep sense of fulfillment we get from a book we’ve loved — having gone through hell with the protagonist and come out the other end – this catharsis is also real. A thing to cherish. A good book makes you just a little bit more human in this nourishing kind of way. 

Like it or not, we are not the pinnacle of creation. We are not lords of the earth. We can be a pretty bad lot. But we do have this quality, this goodness in us, this urge to care, to find fellowship. In Nicki Pau Preto’s Crown of FeathersVeronyka and her sister Val are ousiders, animages in a world that does not trust or value their gift of being able to communicate with animals. They live in “secrecy and squalor but with a dream,” Veronyka tells us, “A shining beacon of hope.” People often distrust things they don’t understand but one day, Veronyka hopes, “it would be safe to be an animage.” Her sister shares some of that dream but from the outset you know there’s going to be trouble because while Veronyka shares a kinship with the animals she communes with, her sister seeks domination over them. To her, the animals are mere tools. For all its fantastic trappings, Crown of Feathers takes place somewhere we recognize, all too well. A place where distrust of “the other” exists and, from time to time, runs rampant. But what the author is telling us is that it can be dreamed back into balance. First dreamt and then done.

There is this urge to dosomething. And isn’t it amazing and heartening that suddenly in our troubled world children are the ones stepping up and doing what needs to be done?  We have so many shining examples: Malala Yousafzai, Greta Thunberg, Zhan Haite in Shanghai, Kelvin Doe in Sierra Leone – teenagers all. Courageous, passionate, hard working. There are heroes in our midst. Dreamers and Doers. Shape Shifters, World Builders. 

We come to Story from a belief in the strength of words to bring about change. The weight of ink, a book title my wife told me about just the other day. Wow! The weight of ink. When we write we translate the world into words and the reader translates those squiggles on the page back into the world, but there is a transformation that happens: the reader has taken the author’s world and made it their own, the world they know. When we are released from the fictive dream of a book we’re reading, I can’t help thinking we see the world a little differently. We are translated. 

Fantasy reminds us that we have this other very human ability. Metaphor. This is a kind of super power to see the “face” of the clock or the “heart” of the matter, to “digest” a new idea. Metaphor is central to thought. According to The Oxford Companion to the English Language, “all models of existence are associative make-believe.” Let me run that by you again. “All models of existence are associative make-believe.” We’re making it up, folks. That’s what we do. And here’s what T. R. Wright has to say about this idea in his book Theology and Literature:“If narrative is the way we construct our sense of identity, metaphor is how we think, especially in areas in which we need to build our knowledge of the unknown by comparison with the known.” 

And there it is. When you can’t explain something, you find a way – you find the words. There is just so much unknown out there. There are places we will never go, people we will never be, histories that are not our own, countries in the clouds, beasts never found in the fossil record but that we know, somehow, existed if only as figments of our imagination. All models of existence are make-believe. When we read, we make belief come into existence. “In narrative we construct our sense of identity.” 

Let me end with a quote from the Marrow Thieves. Frenchie “braids [his] hair to remind [him] of something he can’t quite remember but that, nevertheless, he knows to be true.” Our identity is not simply genetic, not just something handed down to us or meted out in the classroom. It is something to be constructed. A D-I-Y thing.  The truth in fiction is what you feel and recognize to be true and those narratives you love are part of the construction of who you are. We are dreamers and doers. Humans with the ability to empathize. And that’s why it’s so great to get together with such a wild assorted jubilation of readers and writers, both the published and the still dreaming.  

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