The Shortcomings of Adrian Tomine

For someone who reportedly hates being labelled an “Asian hipster Woody Allen,” cult graphic novelist Adrian Tomine sure fits the bill. Hanging out at his hotel room before his highly anticipated International Festival of Authors appearance (Tomine visited the festival three years ago, sandwiched between two political novelists), all the signposts of a serious New York artist are present—the thick-framed glasses, the sweetly meditative work about a self-obsessed youth in a distressed, long distance relationship, the jibes about West Coast culture. Tomine is a recent California expat, and his move from Berkeley to Brooklyn (spurred by a marriage to a longtime New Yorker) is the undercurrent to his first long-form graphic novel, Shortcomings, in which thirtysomething Bay-area resident Ben Tanaka must confront his friends’ and lovers’ “total hard-on for New York.”

“It’s on my mind a lot,” admits Tomine. “Especially as I was mulling over the decision to move. I kept going back and forth on these trips where I’d visit New York in the summer and think, ‘Oh my god, the weather here is awful and I can’t stand the humidity,’ and then travel back to Berkeley and complain, ‘Oh, there’s only three restaurants that I like to go to here.’”

“It’s an observation I’ve made from living in the Bay Area for so long. There’s always been this idealization of New York there, it seems to be the place where most people from the Bay Area go on vacation or want to move to, but then again, New York has always been the most mythologized American city. It’s made up for people like me, who’ve spent their childhoods seeing movies and reading books about it and have this fantasy version of the big city.”

Tomine began his particular brand of sharply outlined, intimately personal novella-like renditions of tortured relationships (both real and idealized) when he was 16, mailing copies of Optic Nerve to Montreal’s prestigious Drawn and Quarterly Press (publishers of Julie Doucet, Chris Ware, and Seth). The press ignored his letters for years before printing a small run that eventually grew to an exclusive contract with the artist. His mini-comics offered glimpses into the lives of protagonists you didn’t want to admit you (desperately) related to. Take Hilary Chan in Optic Nerve’s “Holidays in the Sun”—a pessimistic Delia’s mail-order operator who begins placing hateful phone calls to strangers as a kind of vicious entertainment. As a critic from Time revealed, “I worry about Hilary Chan in a way that I don’t worry about other fictional characters.” Said a fan in the next issue, “Poor Hillary…what a sad little bitch she is.” Now Tomine is illustrating full-page covers for The New Yorker.

Tomine’s portrayal of compromised humanity continues in Shortcomings. Ben Tanaka pursues his harbored fetish for white women once his Japanese girlfriend leaves for a New York internship. (Asks one woman: “Don’t you think is this just a sublimated form of assimilation?”) For Tomine, labelled a “Twinkie” by his Asian dorm-mates at Berkeley, he’s just speaking honestly on obvious racial issues that others would rather sweep under the rug—including an unfair stereotype about Asian penis size.

“For as long as I can remember, my work has always had a strangely polarized response… People either seem to say, ‘I fucking hate this! It’s garbage!’ or ‘It’s so great! I really loved it!’— and I’m always freaked out by either response. After ten years of this, it was really good preparation for how this book would be received…

“I first published this story in a serialized form in Optic Nerve, so I’ve received a responsein- progress—which isn’t always a good way to finish a work. There’s been a whole range of responses, really. Especially with Asian- American readers, people have come up to me at signings and said really negative things. No one is having an idiotic response; they think my take on stereotypes is at least…interesting. But instead of saying, ‘you’re a racist, Adrian!’ or even, ‘You’re an idiot!’ they’re asking, ‘Why did you even bring that up? Isn’t it better just to push it aside and not even address that?’”

Tomine spent four years creating Shortcomings, from illustrating Flatbush Avenue in twopoint perspective to sketching out the pages in stick figure form to making sure it would fit the page count. During this time, Adrian’s life changed immensely—including a move to New York, a marriage, and adjusting from his introverted “vampire” hours to his wife’s nineto- five work schedule, so he can’t help that the novel encompasses his own shortcomings, as much as those of his fictional character.

“Especially in the world of alternative comics, every step of the way is made by the same hand, and that is perfectly suited to the world of very personal storytelling. I mean, sure, other people have managed to convey very personal stories in other media, but to me it seems that the more hands that touch something, it can’t help but be compromised or diluted. The way someone experiences a comic is very personal, more so than sitting in an audience with a hundred people watching a screen…

“There are enough autobiographies strewn throughout my work. No matter what I do, people seem to read it as a straightforward autobiographical story of my life. A lot of people have approached Shortcomings that way—that I’m Ben Tanaka and that’s it. But it’s my own thoughts and personality that are spread out within all the characters, even the more minor ones.

“I certainly don’t abide by the saying that these characters started to write themselves and took on a life of their own…There was really specific ground of who Ben had to be, how he had to move within the story. But the Alice character was definitely inspired by friends of mine, especially the relationship she has with Ben. I’ve always had female friends that are much more outgoing, much more open, and often had better luck with girls than I have. It’s definitely a dynamic that I’m familiar with.”

The write stuff

“I think there’s something funny about abject misery,” Daniel Handler told Kenneth Oppel in a darkened auditorium last Saturday while readers of all ages listened in, keen for glimpses at fantastic worlds of imperilled orphans and outcast bats. Handler, author of the popular series Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, and Oppel, best known for the Silverwing trilogy, appeared as part of the 28th annual International Festival of Authors at Harbourfront.

“Misery can build and build and build,” Handler illustrated, drawing a steep slope with his left hand before letting it fall, “and there’s a place where it’s suddenly not miserable anymore.”

“Yeah, sometimes there’s just death,” quipped Oppel.

Too maudlin for kid lit? Not on your life. The authors pooh-poohed the idea that children’s fiction should be cheery, light, and pedagogical— standards that certainly don’t apply to adult literature and art.

“No one says, ‘Michael Ondaatje, you really need to put a more profound moral in The English Patient so people can know how to live their lives.’ When you’re young, you’re given completely idiotic examples [of right and wrong] that will never happen in real life,” said Handler.

The best-selling authors offered insights for would-be writers.

“The early stage of the creative process—I call it daydreaming—is a total avoidance of work,” Oppel admitted. “Then comes the planning.”

Handler offered up the real tricks of the trade: eavesdropping and plagiarism. “I steal a lot from other books. I believe it’s called inspiration.” But, he cautioned, “The thing about eavesdropping is that you should come up with an excuse before you are caught. Because you will be caught and you want the excuse ready.”

Oppel demanded a demonstration.

The key, explained Handler, is to weave a story with the aid of an object. “The first thing that I’d do is knock over that glass of water,” he gestured. “And then I can say, ‘What happened to it? I’m so clumsy! If you could get a towel, I believe you were just saying they’re in the closet …’”

Oppel, successfully diverted, wondered aloud at the aversion to endings. In reply, Handler argued that finishing a good book “is like taking a small child out to the backyard and shooting it.”

“If you’re honest with yourself, you want the very best for your heroes,” said Oppel, who nonetheless killed off the main character of Firewing, his third book. “You want them to get their heart’s desire, you want order restored—that’s what every reader wants.”

“And the question is, does the story deserve that kind of ending? You feel cheated if the world that you had been immersed in didn’t allow for that kind of ending.”

Respectable Radio

Eric Bogosian’s Talk Radio is an inside look at the narcissism of late night talk-show host Barry Champlain (played by the talented Alex Champlin) on fictional Cleveland radio station WTLK, and the spiritual void of his callers.

The show opens at the end of a call-in business show hosted by Sid Greenberg, (Kat Letwin in a bright yellow, shoulder-padded blazer). This taste of the 80s is one of the great technical achievements of the show. As Letwin leaves the stage, the “Night Talk” crew arrives: ex-hippie producer Pam Noonan (Emma Baasch), station manager Dan Woodruff (Andre Havrylyshyn), and Barry’s assistant and sometimes lover, Linda MacArthur (Sophie Patterson).

Finally, Barry himself arrives. Champlin exudes his characteristic presence. His performance, however, took 30 minutes to really take off. While Champlin may be the most talented actor currently at U of T, this show, unfortunately, does not deliver his full potential. There are moments when his natural ability shines through, usually in the acerbic comments he makes to callers, but the character of Barry off the air was not differentiated enough to make the character as compelling as it could have been. This has more to do with the direction Champlin received than a deficiency in his talent— the entire show felt overacted. The tortured, dissatisfied Barry I had been waiting to see for the entire show finally comes out to full effect during his final monologue.

As the show progresses, each character turns to the audience and tells of their relationship to Barry. Havrylyshyn delivers a naturalistic monologue that represents some of his best work, and was one of the few moments in the show that wasn’t overacted. Patterson, who was the brightest light of the whole show, constantly caught the audience’s attention with her superb “on-air” reactions to callers and her chemistry with Champlin.

The callers were another high point: Pippa Leslie, Alex Rubin, and Mika Rekai mastered the Midwestern accent, and demonstrated great timing in their delivery. Their timing reflected what I thought the mood of the show should be: understated absurdity. The script is such that if all the characters were to take themselves seriously, the overall comedic effect would be great.

First-time director Tim Lindsay’s strong technical background was evident with good overall design work. He lacked the same prowess in his direction. The sound design by Lindsay and TCDS veteran Emma McKee was a huge compliment to the show, especially the pre-recorded callers. Both Champlin and the sound operator made this challenging idea work very well, and the audience never knew if the callers were live or pre-recorded. Lindsay made a very respectable showing for a first-timer, but the show could have benefited from a seasoned assistant director to work exclusively on character development. Lindsay should have trusted that the show is funny in itself, without pushing the actors to overdo it. That being said, taking into account that the whole show was produced in about a month, Talk Radio is a solid piece of theatre.

Falun Gong makes noise

Over 500 demonstrators blocked the right lanes of St. George, Bloor, and Yonge streets on Sunday to protest the Chinese Communist party’s treatment of Falun Gong practitioners. Organized by the Global Human Rights Torch Relay, an international campaign created to draw attention to China’s poor human rights record, the rally aimed to push the Chinese regime to improve its human rights policies before the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The HRTR lit its flame in Athens on 9 Aug. 2007, the start of the one-year countdown of the 2008 summer Olympics. In 1999, the Communist party’s leader, Jiang Zemin, banned Falun Gong in China. Since then, severe persecution of Falun Gong practicioners has raised international alarm and a push for human rights. Protest organizers claimed that 66 per cent of torture victims in China are followers of the Falun Gong movement.

In 2000, Amnesty International released a statement the regime’s campaign bears “an eerie resemblance to the horrifi c attacks against the Jewish people in Nazi propaganda.” The Human Rights Walk-a-Thon began after a press conference at the Toronto Chinese Consulate on St. George St. set off, leading marchers, cheering “Free free Falun Gong!,” all the way to Dundas Square, where an open concert was performed until evening, at the time when an open screen movie, Good and Evil, was shown.

Several guests also spoke out against the crimes committed against the Falun Gong—including the Honourable Consulate General of Estonia for Toronto, Laas Leivat.

“We thought that exposing human rights violations in the Soviet Union eastern bloc was a difficult job. It was much much easier to do that than this today,” said Leivat of the battle against China’s regime, and making reference to his incomparable involvement in the Soviet Union.

Included among other speakers was Dr. Gerry Koffman, a Toronto family physician, and the Canadian coordinator of Doctors against Forced Organ Harvesting. Koffman spoke about the Chinese government’s collecting organs from executed Falun Gong practitioners, often selling them to desperate transplant seekers.

In 2006, a Canadian MP report confirmed that Chinese state-run websites were advertising organs for sale for up to $160,000. International observers allege that China’s state-run hospitals are killing practitioners for their organs.

The Coalition to Investigate the Persecution of Falon Gung was also brought up, which sent letters to China’s communist leaders, asking them to stop the execution of Falun Gong practitioners, and to allow the CIPFG to enter China and investigate the persecutions.

Philip Pullman breaks down fundamental particles

Philip Pullman picked up a pitcher and poured some water into a glass. The prolific children’s author then spent the next hour discussing what he had just done, in a far-from-dry lecture that united physics and fiction.

Fundamental particles of matter, from atoms to electrons, neutrinos, and quarks, are constantly redefined as new discoveries break through. Pullman is more concerned with fundamental particles of narrative, which he identified as the smallest events we can find— journey and separation, pouring from one vestibule to another.

“There is an overwhelming Niagara Falls of information pouring into our eyes,” he said, and templates, patterns in sensory experience, help us make sense of them.

Pullman presented a series of visual art that, unlike language, don’t have the advantage of sequential displacement to evoke a story’s temporal action.

From New Yorker cartoons to Rembrandts, from a rotund Prohibition- era man tipping homemade moonshine into his coffee to a haunted figure pouring lamp oil to bring light, the action of pouring held a piece of the narrative puzzle.

Children used to be considered empty vessels into which knowledge was poured, like plants that had to be watered in order to grow, said Pullman, moving from literal actions to symbolic significance.

Dismissing publishers who clamour for the next “hotter than Potter” children’s book, Pullman advised young writers to write what they want.

Technology for the comic strip existed by the fifteenth century, but not until the nineteenth century did they appear, said Pullman, illustrating his point that invention is based on prior ideas as well as new territory.

Positing himself as the literary Muhammad Ali, the author took a line from the boxing great: “I read like a butterfly and write like a bee.”

Tricksters treat tots

Halloween, for many, is a ghoulish night of dressing up, staying out, and, most importantly, stocking up on free candy.

But, other children—who make up 41 per cent of food bank recipients, according to the Canadian Association of Food Banks—go hungry.

This All Hallows Eve, get ready to embrace your inner child and once again bang on your neighbours’ doors for victuals, and for a good cause.

The Trick or Eat food drive will have costumed students roaming university neighbourhoods, collecting nonperishable food and raising awareness about how communities can help feed those in need.

U of T’s Trick or Eat event is organized by the Hart House Social Justice Committee and Meal Exchange, a student-founded charity that tackles local hunger. Their other programs include collecting points from student meal plans to purchase food and gathering clothes for local food banks, shelters, and drop-in centres.

“A lot of people don’t understand what it would be like to be hungry while going to class,” said Pratima Arapakota, HHSJC executive and Trick or Eat coordinator.

Trick or Eat has collected over $1.5 million’s worth of food on 50 campuses nationwide since its 1993 launch, according to its website. Half of this year’s donations will go to the U of T food bank, with the other half benefiting the Scott Mission, a non-denominational Christian street mission.

So skip the grown-ups’ bash for a couple of hours—you can party any day of the year. Strap on that old Ghostbusters gear lurking in the back of your closet and banish a real-life bogeyman—hunger.

To volunteer, email or show up at Hart House on Wednesday, Oct. 31, starting at 5:30 p.m.

Book Review: The Upside of Down

Thomas Homer-Dixon’s latest book is the story of what happens to societies that grow too big for their britches. Through constant and clearly relevant use of metaphor backed up by vast amounts of empirical data, Homer-Dixon—who holds the George Ignatieff Chair of Peace and Conflict Studies at the Trudeau Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies here at U of T—masterfully sketches a picture of our civilization as a complex system— a sketch that is as much a call to action as it is a layman’s primer on society itself.

What could otherwise be cynically viewed as an attempt to cash in on the recently burgeoning cottage industry of climate cataclysm books, Homer-Dixon transcends this genre by linking human life with “the economy”—a term that other writers all too frequently use as if the economy exists outside of space-time, with its own rules inapplicable to normal reality—in a way that makes the subject matter as real as it is pressing.

The key focus to The Upside of Down is energy. Energy is harnessed by our civilization not just as electricity, but also as food powering human labour. In order for a civilization to grow, it requires greater and greater amounts of highyield energy, that is, energy that produces far more work than is spent in acquiring it— a concept of profit that should be familiar. The trouble with what we’re doing, Homer-Dixon argues, is that over time our depletion of the non-renewable resources such as oil will decrease their returns as the most accessible oil fields give way to less accessible ones, which in turn give way to scrambles for untapped fields and new (energy-intensive) technologies to extract more and more of the stuff, as is evident in the Alberta tar sands.

Targeting what he sees as the fallacy of unlimited and ongoing economic growth, Homer-Dixon weaves an elaborate indictment of our present unsustainable situation that seriously brings into question many of the central tenets of liberal capitalism. In this area, the book is rather scant on positive proposals for change, and Homer-Dixon gives the impression of holding back rather than not having an opinion. Indeed, in the spirit of building the more resilient, broad-based social networks he so firmly espouses, Homer- Dixon ends the book with a call to action of sorts: a reevaluation of the very existential values that shape how we perceive ourselves and our societies. He certainly provides plenty of ideas with which to start.

Rating: VVVVv

Muslim fashion makes a statement nationwide

On Thursday, Oct 5. Muslims and non-Muslims alike were seen with their hair covered in headscarves of various shades of pink. In fact, women all over the country donned the veil in a fight against Islamophobia and breast cancer.

The women were taking part in National Pink Hijab Day, which saw similar events across North America raising money for the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation’s mission to eliminate breast cancer, and raising awareness about the culture of the hijab.

“The primary objective of the event was to raise awareness of a disease that affects all women, whether they are Muslim or not,” said Canadian Islamic Congress VP Wahida Valiante.

Some, however, disagreed.

“Very often people attempt to kill two birds with one stone: promote their religion while they attempt to do something good,” said Justin Trottier, president of the Freethought Association of Canada.

Trottier added that, while breast cancer was a terrible disease, prostate cancer is just as deadly and gets one-quarter of the research funding.

Carlotta James, a student of International Relations and Acia Pacific studies at U of T, was one of many first-time hijab wearers who gathered new perspectives about the garment.

“It felt strange at first, but now it’s cool,” she said.

Like several others, James initially associated the veil with a subordinate role of women in society. “But I’m certainly getting strange glances.”

Event organizer Sajda Khalil said she was very pleased with the overall response of the community.

“There was a non-Muslim this morning who said that she had never worn the hijab before but might consider starting to wear it,” said Khalil.

After the main event outside Sid Smith, many participants went to an open discussion over (halal) pizza to talk about their day in hijab. The conversation turned to negative media portrayals of the hijab.

“Especially after 9/11 it was this Western thing of critiquing Islam and it would always be women’s rights and it would always be pointing to the veil and they would always be showing…it just serves to perpetuate the image of Islam that they wanted to perpetuate,” said Khalil. Everyone in attendance seemed to agree that the hijab was being singled out due to the current wave of Islamophobia in the West.

“Women’s hair is a part of their sexuality,” said Khalil. “The reason for the garment is to conceal one’s modesty.”

“I found that a lot of people looked at me kind of confused, like they just didn’t know, they were inquisitive but you could tell that they were scared to ask,” said Zarie Lorne, a third-year.

The event was well received by other groups on campus as well, including Abby Ralph, president of U of T’s chapter of Hillel. “At U of T we are always talking about intellectual dialogue, and this was an opportunity for it to actually be put into practice,” said Ralph. “It was a really positive experience for me, meeting new people, you know, and speaking with them.”