At 12:00pm ET, “I Write Canadian” videos starring CANSCAIPers launch on Bibliovideo https://bookcentre.ca/resources/bibliovideo
Fevzi Yazici is an artist. Until his arrest, he was design director of Turkey’s now-closed Zaman newspaper. He is also a prisoner, one of 47 Turkish journalists in jail, according to a 2019 Committee to Protect Journalists report. This account from the Washington Post shows how his arrest and confinement have led him to create image after image, each evoking an emotional state, each reaching for something both within and transcending that state. Yazici’s drawings and writings from prison have occasionally been published as ‘Free Notes of a Prisoner.’
“Against seven defendants, who had pens in their hands, in the courtroom, there were seven armed soldiers. You know security is very important. I did not have the chance to ask them but was curious who they were protecting from whom? I had no idea, maybe they were just part of the decoration.”
Pen, ink, brushes, and cut paper give Thao Lam the voice of her wordless picture book. It is a journey of shifting perceptions. The delicacy of the cut-paper art makes for incredibly moving images and invites the eye to linger on the frames. Fear is conveyed through gesture and the directions of tall grasses, the uniformed soldiers crouching low to the ground, the dark skies and the grey palette. Meanwhile the ants embark on their own journey in the titular paper boat folded by the girl.
The artist’s mother’s story, imagined here in pictures, invites young readers into a heartstopping journey made possible by the exchange of a singular gift. The quest for freedom, and a lesson in kindness.
A couple of months ago, I posted about Gyo Fujikawa’s work and how her bright, inclusive books, created all the way back in 1963, contained a subtle call to the world to become kinder and better, to treat all children alike.
Consider the title. It Began With a Page: How Gyo Fujikawa Drew the Way.
It began with a page. That is how the book opens as well:
Look to the right and the eye falls on little Gyo, five years old in 1913 and sketching away as her mother writes a poem, rendered in sweet bare-toed concentration by illustrator Julie Morstad.
It’s a dual kind of looking–back in time to the story’s chronology, yet capturing the immediacy of the child’s reaction to the events of her life. Yet somehow, in the space between image and word, the book manages to leap forward as well, showing by example how art can heal and illuminate. At the same time, it recognizes the family’s aspirations and disappointments and the enormous tragedy of the prison camps that incarcerated Japanese Americans during World War II.
And then it shows us who that child grew into, and what imagination looks like:
At the library and bookshop, it was the same old stories–mothers in aprons and fathers with pipes and a world of only white children.
Gyo knew a book could hold more and do more.
It Began With a Page is a rich evocation of a life that offers direction in our own challenging present and reminds us that equality remains an urgent cause. As Maclear puts it:
…babies cannot wait.
British Columbia writer Nafiza Azad locates her debut novel, The Candle and the Flame, in Qirat, a land located somewhere on the Silk Road. It’s peopled by royals and commoners, Shayateen who thrive on chaos, Ifrit who seek order, and humans with all their flaws and failings, joys and griefs. Qirat is a place of great beauty but what really drew me into this book is how much its cultures coexist. Deepavali lamps celebrate the Hindu holiday. The Azaan summons Muslims to prayer five times a day–in fact this is probably the best fictional rendering I’ve seen of those recursive calls of the muezzin. Rather than feeling imposed, they take on a kind of temporal force through the story, not to mention that the handsome muezzin turns out to be the love interest in an amusing subplot.
In the novel, the land of Qirat has been severed in two, the result of compromises following a terrible attack by the demonic Shayateen. It’s a backstory that feels subtly infused by the history of the Indian subcontinent itself, creating in the process a kind of aspirational mirror of the real world. The female characters are interesting and complex, sometimes pawns in a bigger game, but often engaged in a struggle for agency in their lives and for justice in their world. Fatima is the one we keep our eye on, but they’re all subtly drawn.
I found it interesting that the fractures in this world are not along religious or linguistic lines. Rather, they are rifts caused by the misdeeds of demons and people. Azad’s immaculately crafted prose weaves in the words of many languages—Urdu, Hindi, Arabic, Persian, Punjabi—seamlessly and mercifully bereft of italics.
Read in e-galley.
The Africville of this heartfelt and beautiful picture book no longer exists as it did for 150 years just north of Halifax, Nova Scotia. That community, largely consisting of the descendants of Black Loyalists migrating north after the American Revolutionary War and Black Refugees fleeing American slavery, was torn down in the 1960s and its inhabitants forcibly relocated. Few know that Halifax itself was built with the labor of enslaved people.
Africville’s history is the background and context for Shauntay Grant‘s lovingly crafted picture book, illustrated with Eva Campbell’s lustrous oil and pastels on a textured canvas background. The graininess of the canvas gives the characters shadowy edges, blurring the borders between past and present. Imagining the community as it must have been many years ago, the young narrator leads the reader through details of landscape and sensory experience, from hill to field to pond and to the ocean’s shore. Infused with the tenderness of family and community, conveying the sense of stories kept alive, the book simultaneously embraces today’s child reader.
Africville may no longer be the thriving town it once was, the book suggests, but feel the stubborn love that kept its stories alive. There is much to this history. The residents of the community paid taxes but got no services. A railway extension cut through the village, destroying several homes. But wait. The story also includes an admission of racism, an apology rendered by the Mayor of Halifax in 2010, a replica of the orginal church built to house a museum, part of a compensation deal. Lyrical and healing, this picture book offers a window into a little-known past and suggests it holds deep relevance to the present.
What might America look like, I wonder, if healing from the past’s wounds could ever be made a priority? What would that mean for America’s children of every color? Compensation? Apology? What a concept!
Writer and author of books for young readers Robin Stevenson asked if I’d like to moderate a panel she’s putting together. Unfortunately, I couldn’t make that date, but the panel is in a cause that’s worth writing about and somehow it seems right to publish this post on September 11.
I asked Robin to tell me more about her forthcoming event. Here is what she wrote:
Like many Canadians, I got involved in refugee sponsorship back in 2015, when the refugee crisis was headline news. Since that time, media interest has waned, but the number of refugees worldwide has continued to grow. Canadians have a unique opportunity to help: by joining with others to form sponsorship groups, we can help more refugees resettle in our communities. I’ve been a part of two groups sponsoring wonderful families who are now living here in Victoria, and I have started a third group—this one to sponsor an 18 year old girl who fled persecution in her country two years ago, and has been on her own as a refugee since. She is highly vulnerable in her current situation– we hope her case will be processed quickly so she can start a new phase of her life here in Victoria.
Part of the commitment of a sponsorship group is financial: the group commits to supporting the refugee for their first year in Canada. So we are fundraising. And because I am a writer who loves working with other writers, I am working with author and sponsorship group member Kari Jones to organize an event that combines our interest in refugee justice with our love for all things literary. It is called Pathways to Publication: Finding a Home for Your Children’s Book or Teen Novel, and it will take place Saturday October 27, in Esquimalt.
We will have two panels: one of successful authors— Susan Juby, Mahtab Narsimhan, Ria Voros and Laurie Elmquist–and one of professional editors of picture books, middle grade and young adult novels. There will be opportunities to ask questions and chat with the panelists. And there will be door prizes! You could even win the chance to get a chapter of your own manuscript critiqued by a published author.
Tickets are available on EventBrite. (link: https://www.eventbrite.ca/e/pathways-to-publication-tickets-49233930010) I hope to see you there! And if you can’t come, but want to support this young refugee, please consider donating through our fundraising page. (link: https://chimp.net/groups/victoria-young-refugee-sponsorship-group) Every dollar gets us closer to our goal. Thanks so much!
And thank you, Robin, for those important thematic links of community and home–for writers, for the work they care about, and for these young people who have endured horrific circumstances and whose future now depends on the help and goodwill of strangers.
[Arushi] More often than not, these artistic choices emerge when I realize the story I want to tell, in a pretty organic, or intuitive way. Some of this choice traces back to my growing up in South Africa, living with the narrative instability of a place that had just come out of apartheid and the diverse, often conflicting perspectives that different racial groups, genders, had in South Africa in the late 1990s. I grew up in a time when South Africa, and its people were trying to make sense of what, indeed Mandela’s “Rainbow Nation” would be, and what to make of this country’s traumatic past.And so no story I could tell of South Africa, could have one “true” narrator. At every point Jack, Zanele, Thabo and Meena’s perspectives interact, conflict, and grow from eachother. The plot, if you look closely, is solely based on the characters interactions from eachother, and the tensions between their different perspectives.
[Arushi] I learned about the Soweto Uprising in Grade 10 History class in Johannesburg. At that time, that was maybe what I needed, understanding the facts, the first hand accounts, trying to put the timeline together, connect it with our school visits into Soweto, the Apartheid Museum. At the same time, however, non-fiction can have the affect of distancing us from the story. We are concerned about facts and objectivity – but sometimes these aspects cannot be experienced or felt. We are not following the path of a living, breathing person, in the way we typically access non-fiction. There are some exceptions, of course. Fiction, though, is very freeing. I am not trying to stick to the facts, only, to be objective. Instead, I’m trying to hit on a far more difficult thing – the emotional truth of the story, of the different stories and points of view that are in this story. How can I come to this emotional truth, with the tools I have in my hands?
[Arushi] Thank you so much, as a writer yourself, for showcasing and supporting other writers. Its a small but mighty world, and I so appreciate your time, thoughtfulness and perspective.
[Arushi] For me, one of the most magical things that happened when I got published, was getting to meet other writers, and experiencing the kindness and generosity of writers, particularly children’s writers. I cannot even count the number of authors who have shared so much of their time, and supported me through my debut year. Some shout outs would include: RJ Anderson, Robin Stevenson, Adwoa Badoe, Rachel Hartman.What I realized, really early on, is that writers are the best support for writers. And there’s a business rationale for this too: we live in a world where the literary marketplace is shrinking and consolidating. There are now a smaller percentage of diehard readers who read a lot. There are fewer publishing houses. You realize very early (particularly if you’re with a small publishing house) that other writers are going to be your biggest supports, your encouragement, the ones that shout out your work. In this way, they draw their readers to your work. As a collective of writers, we’re trying to get everyone to buy and read more books, not to compete for a reader’s specific attention. The advice I give to writers who haven’t published yet is to build that support system of writing friends early on.
When I told my friend and former VCFA colleague Sarah Ellis that I was moving to Victoria, she gave me a copy of The Book of Small by Emily Carr. In her introduction to this 2004 edition (the book was first published in 1942) Sarah writes:
One of Carr’s greatest accomplishments in The Book of Small lies in her ability to express the visceral and transcendent joy of a small child, “boiling over like the jam kettle.”
Of the city itself, Emily Carr wrote:
Victoria stood like a gawky girl, waiting, waiting to be a grown-up city.
I enjoyed my first reading of the book, its droll commentary and the clever device by which the writer fictionalizes her own life. But it has taken me some time to read it as a story map of a place I am learning to call home.
Now the landscape is starting to glimmer through for me. The nine o’clock gun at Esquimalt. Fort Street and James’ Bay and Dallas Road. They’re all still here but now that I know them a little better I can see glimpses of their past as well. Childhood perspectives on people and events give the book its sense of a deeply felt yet impulsive reaction to the world.
The house was the wide, sitting sort. Vines and creepers tied it down to the ground.
Passages like that allow The Book of Small to rise above its occasionally archaic viewpoint. A few chapters read awkwardly through a 21st century lens—“green little Chinese boys for servants…” Shuffling Chinamen and squatting Indians. The elusive Oriental. The sort of thing gets under my skin but I have learned to set it aside when I’m reading across the borders of time.
Her overall perceptions remain remarkably astute—now I see what she means by that little aside on the gawky city. A city with a small-town feel to it, still torn between past and present, and still, perhaps, waiting to be grown-up.
Karen Rivers is a friend and colleague, a neighbor, and a fellow writer who teaches. She is the author of The Girl in the Well is Me, which Kirkus, in a starred review, called “a brilliantly revealed, sometimes even funny, exploration of courage, the will to live, and the importance of being true to oneself.”
Before We Go Extinct has no easy answers. Rivers’ characters are complex – sometimes cruel, and other times child-like in their innocence – and she does not condescend with a tidy conclusion that ties up all the plot threads.
Here’s Karen talking about the main character’s journey and the process of writing the novel.