Want to write? Start with reading.

It has taken me over a week to come down after volunteering with and attending events at our recent word festival. I entered into the week slightly down and was spiraling up within a few days. If it was a test of my ability to return to regular work, this is clear evidence that my mixed state is still far from stable. But I would not have missed it for the world.

It was an absolute thrill to mingle with people who are passionate about books and listen to Canadian and international authors talk about their craft. Whenever an author was asked about his or her influences, a love of the magic of books and literature shone through in their responses. If asked about advice for want-to-be writers, the common answer was read, read, read… read widely and drink deep from the wealth that books have to offer.

The stash of books I bought at the event, not including the titles I purchased or read in advance. Volunteering in the bookstore can be expensive!
The stash of books I bought at the event, not including the titles I purchased or read in advance. Volunteering in the bookstore can be expensive!

And so there was this man I crossed paths with at various venues throughout the festival. He told me he was a writer. Patting the breast pocket of his jacket he indicated that he felt he was getting ready to pull together his work. He had a gold pass so I saw him a number of times but always alone, ordering a coffee or buying a glass of wine at the bar. He would acknowledge me and we would exchange a few words on whatever interview or panel we was waiting for. But I never witnessed him engaged in animated discussion with fellow attendees.

The solitary man at a venue where excited discussions about books were regularly erupting between strangers is an anomaly.

On Saturday afternoon I encountered him in the lobby. He was carrying a copy of Sweetland by Michael Crummey. I got the impression he was done with the festival regardless of the major authors still to come. He said, “I have decided, this is the one that impresses me. Let’s see if he writes as well as he talks.” I responded that I had recently obtained a copy of his previous work Galore, the novel Crummey described as the one he feels he was born to write and that I wanted to read that first. He looked at me with surprise and said, “You mean you have heard of him?”

Suddenly it dawned on me that this man, the self-described writer, does not read at all. I suppose he thought he he would be able to absorb all the final inspiration and direction from this one book. If he did not know one of the best known Canadian contemporary authors and poets, even if he had never actually read one of his books, I could not help but wonder how he imagined himself ready to pull his accumulated scratchings into a final product.

With a full evening and day still ahead, he had selected his role model. I never saw him at the theatre again.

Even if it left me swinging up on my attempt to stablize this recovery from my recent manic episode, I was deeply inspired by the talks I attended, delighted by the company of fellow book lovers and especially grateful to a few authors who took a little extra time to encourage me as writer. I was regularly reminded that it is never too late to start.

And I am never lacking for books. In fact they seem to multiply in my life on their own as any truly avid reader knows.

Uncovering a treasure in translation – Ondjaki

“Is that what tales from before were like a long time ago?”
“Yes, son.”
“So before is a time Granma?”
“Before is place.”
“A place really far away?”
“A place really deep inside.”
-Ondjaki

Last week I had the pleasure of reading Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret by the young Angolan author Ondjaki. This exuberant, magical tale re-imagines a dramatic event set in the community of Bishop’s Beach in the city of Luanda in the early years of Angolan Independence. The country’s first President, Agostinho Neto, has died and a curious, threatening project is rising on the beach. The Soviets are constructing a Mausoleum to the deceased President and, it is rumoured, the surrounding neighbourhood is scheduled to be demolished.

indexOur unnamed narrator is a young boy who lives with his grandmother in a community where a cluster of eccentric granmas are important and valued elders. Together with his friends Pi (known as 3.14) and Charlita, he embarks on a mission to save the day drawing on a worldview informed by spy movies, Spaghetti Westerns and Portuguese language soap operas. A colourful cast of supporting adults round out their adventure including Comrade Gas Jockey who mans a station with no fuel, crazy Sea Foam who is rumoured to have a pet alligator, the Cuban doctor Rafael KnockKnock and a Soviet official christened Gudafterov by the children as a result of his awkward use of the local language.

I learned of this book through the CBC radio program Ideas. In this extended interview, recorded live at the Blue Metropolis Festival in Montreal this spring, Ondjaki spoke of his childhood from which so much of this fantastic tale is derived. He insisted that in his early years, the socialist presence was simply a fact of life – they had a lack of electricity and running water – but it was normal and his childhood was happy. He talked with infectious enthusiasm about his family, his very early introduction to literature and fondness for Marquez, and the deeply ingrained understanding of the magical in the reality of everyday life in cultural mindset of his homeland. Within the week I had obtained and read the book. The tale was every bit as engaging and entertaining as I had expected.

But the greatest find for me personally is the small Canadian publishing house Biblioasis behind Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret. This book belongs to their small and select series of books in translation. Although he is recognized as one of the rising stars of African literature, Ondjaki’s work is not widely available in English to date. Biblioasis has published two of his novels, both translated by Stephen Henighan. I am very impressed by the results. A work like this depends so heavily on playing with language. Puns and intentional misrepresentations that work in Portuguese have to be re-imagined to work well in English and fortunately the translator was able to work closely with the author to bring the work to life with all its magical energy intact. As a Canadian I am embarrassed that I am only just discovering Biblioasis. I definitely intend to explore more of their offerings, both in their international series and in their English language Canadian titles.