It’s getting better

“They tell me that things will get better. I can only hope so.” With the recent suicides of five LGBTQ youth in three weeks this fall, issues of discrimination and bullying based on a person’s sexual orientation have gained prominence.

The community, faced with a suicide rate four to six times higher than in the general population, has manged to harness attention from politicians and media on continued inequalities. These struggles take place across society, including at U of T.

“It still feels […] like fighting the man,” said fourth-year student Alex Legum, sighing and shaking her head. “These are human issues.”

Legum, a member of the LGBTQ community, added that despite being a student in one of the most diverse universities and cities in North America, she continues to search for a sense of respect that remains elusive.

Steve Masse knows this struggle well. As a member of the LGBTQ community and former president of Woodsworth College, Masse advocates for increased awareness on discrimination, bullying, and respect for LGBTQ students.
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He is the first to admit, however, that many of the most vulnerable end up “suffering in silence.” According to Masse, discrimination and bullying can lead to “feeling worthless, misunderstood, or hopeless.”

Syndicated sex columnist Dan Savage started the “It Gets Better” project in the wake of five teen suicides caused by societal homphobia.

University Life Assessment and Special Programs Coordinator Melinda Scott believes “students don’t know the best way to address [suicide].” Scott explained that acts of suicide are often the result of larger issues of discrimination and hate, that the problems can appear too large to solve.

To address these problems, U of T provides a series of programs and services that support the LGBTQ community. Initiatives such as Positive Space as well as student clubs like LGBTOUT work to create spaces within which individuals can “be themselves” without shame or fear of reprisal. Additionally, the Sexual and Gender Diversity Office provides an online harassment reporting system to ensure students can report incidents of hate or mistreatment anonymously.

However, Sexual and Gender Diversity Officer Jude Tate is worried about the “increased tolerance of intolerance” that has created a culture of silence and acceptance that can reduce the number of reported abuses and conceal issues of hate and harassment towards the LGBTQ community. Issues of intolerance appear to be found in the very fabric of U of T’s communities.

This is why Legum is realistic about the merits of programs such as Equity Studies, Women’s Studies, and Sexual Diversity Studies. While these programs can be seen as progressive, in some sense, “structural issues [have] made it impossible to integrate [this information] into other classrooms.” For Legum, the presence of these programs allows LGBTQ issues to be dealt with within these specific departments while ignoring the need for broader integration.

Unfortunately, Tate further suggests that curriculum reform on a broader scale to include diversity issues and address these issues has been very tough, and obstacles remain.

“They still have a long way to [go],” said Masse, who acknowledges that universities are heading in the right direction. But even if “places of education are becoming more and more inclusive and supportive,” the fact that we aren’t hearing about the sexual and gender diversity discrimination issues on campus does not mean they no longer exist.

“We assume we are modern enough that we don’t need to have [conversations about discrimination] anymore,” said Legum.

University comes together for holiday season

The University of Toronto Students’ Union, the Family Care Office, and the Student Housing Office are organizing their ninth annual food and clothing drive to help support needy families for the holidays.

“Every year, we help anywhere between 75–100 families. It’s a rather big project, and we want whatever little bit of help we can get,” explained Marketing and Events Coordinator at the Student Housing Service, Jerry Zhuang. “Every single bit of contribution will make a huge difference.

Drop boxes have been set up across campus to collect toys and canned food. Once items are collected, UTSU Member Service Coordinator Terri Nikolaevsky explained how the goods will be distributed. “The donation of new toys will then be distributed through the campus food and clothing bank to families in need on December 10 and 17 at our site location, 569 Spadina Avenue, in the Multi-Faith Centre between 12 p.m. and 3 p.m.”

“While the food and clothing bank runs all year long, we specifically collect toys at this time of the year to ensure that our student families have a great holiday season in the face of tight budgets,” continued Nikolaevsky.

Zhuang hopes U of T will come together this season and improve upon last year’s results. “We delivered around 200 toys last year. Looking to deliver to the same number of families, maybe a bit more, it’s definitely growing.”

Despite being roughly aligned with the Christmas season, Nikolaevsky stresses that all faiths and cultures are encouraged to participate. “This year we welcome Multi-Faith groups to the fold who are actively seeking donations for our students and student families.”

“We’re doing things a little differently this year,” Nikolaevsky added. “Our efforts extend further to include an annual fundraiser for the food and clothing bank [that will] showcase […] exceptional U of T talent, a wonderful three-course dinner, and an auction.”

Jennifer Bennett, manager of the Student Housing Service, said the food drive is a very key community-building event.

“The food drive is important because it’s raising awareness and creating a community between people during the holiday time, which is such a hard time for so many.”

Cheryl McGratten believes that beyond just fostering a community, the fundraiser is a way of making those who are studying abroad or are new immigrants to the country feel more welcome. “The U of T food and toy drive is one way to help those recently separated from their countries, and share some encouragement, joy, and fun,” explained McGratten, adding that she hopes they will also enjoy the diversity and multiculturalism of this city.

“It’s a great feeling, to be standing in the middle of a mountain of toys, and knowing that lots of kids will be having a wonderful winter holiday,” explained Zhuang.

In helping promote the fundraiser, the co-coordinators’ favorite catch phrase is: “We want people to help us gift a smile.”

Students gather to present visions for next big app

Last Tuesday a lecture hall in the Bahen Centre was packed for DemoCamp2, a symposium of eight presentations by U of T students demonstrating their web developments and entrepreneurial skills.

“People were actually standing in the back. They couldn’t find any more seats,” says Reginald Tan, president of Web Startup Society, who hosted the event in partnership with the U o T Entrepreneurial Society. Over 160 guests attended, well exceeding both the expected attendance of 100 and the room capacity of 150.

“We had to start turning people away after they exceeded the room capacity,” said Nitish Peters, president of UTES.

Tan and Peters created DemoCamp2 to combat what they perceived to be a lack of entrepreneurial spirit in the University of Toronto’s technology field.

“At Stanford, it seems like every single computer science student was creating a startup,” said Tan. “But when I went to U of T, I didn’t really see anything like that going on.”

Peters attributes U of T’s focus on high GPAs as a detractor from the “startup culture” found at other institutions. “DemoCamp fosters an environment where people can define their own success and show how they are following their dreams as opposed to the stereotypical environment right now where people are very marks-focused,” he said.

It wasn’t just U of T students who attended, students from all across Ontario came for the presentations as well.

“A lot of people from Queens and York showed up and really loved it, and said they wanted to start a DemoCamp at their university, which is really cool. I’d like to see that happen,” said Tan.

In contrast with last year’s DemoCamp, which was run by WSS in partnership with Rafal Dittwald, President of Skule Webdev, this year’s collaboration with UTES focused on the utility and marketability of students’ web applications, as opposed to nitty gritty tech details.

“The audience at this one was much more focused on the startup aspect, rather than the craft of making the project,” notes James Cash, the only presenter to even mention code in his demo for the Google Chrome extension, ComicNav.

Three of the eight demos were presented by student entrepreneurs with limited technical knowledge. Danial Jameel of OohLaLa, who switched from computer science to political science, showcased a mobile app for discount student coupons.

First-year commerce student Donny Ouyang, of the tutoring site Rayku, hires developers out of his own pocket. “Donny buys websites, hires developers to make improvements, then sells them off for five times the profits — instead of flipping real estate, he flips websites,” said Tan. “Rayku was his first start-up.”

When Khaled Hashem of was asked a technical question, his response was, “I don’t know, ask the tech guy.”

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The other five presentations were given by so-called “hackers.” First up was fourth year electrical engineer Bijan Vaez with EventMobi, an iPhone application that allows users to view important details about the live event that they are attending. Next were Lori Lee and Andrew Danks, undergraduate students in computer science who developed LoveUT, a dating site exclusively for U of T students that has accumulated over 800 users. Michael Rice, a second year computer science student demoed Remember To Watch, an SMS reminder for TV shows recently featured in PC Magazine and After James Cash demoed ComicNav, wunderkind Vincent Cheung took the stage and demonstrated his massively successful Shape Collage, an automatic photo collage maker.

Cheung emphasized the value of every utility-based web startup in his presentation: “A lot of [the entrepreneurs in the audience] laughed at the ComicNav extension, but I liked it. You never know, it really could be the next big thing.”

When the event ended, Reginald Tan appeared very pleased with the results.

“Ultimately, what we wanted to achieve from DemoCamp is to glorify these student hackers and hustlers. And we did just that. Democamp UofT encouraged students to do what they do best: build great things. And the great thing about the Internet is that you can make an immediate impact on the world if you create something really valuable.”

Note: this article originally stated that Danial Jameel hired student developers with money he won from business competitions, but this is not the case. It also neglected to mention that last year’s DemoCamp was in partnership with Rafal Dittwald. The Varsity regrets the errors.

UTSC Library operating hours shortened

The University of Toronto Scarborough Library has launched reduced hours in response to recent pilot studies, stirring mixed feelings from staff and students.

Last year’s 24/7 service ran 10 weeks through fall and 13 weeks through winter. This year, the service is scheduled only during exams from December 7 to December 21, and from April 9 to May 1. This represents an almost 80 per cent reduction from the previous year. For the remainder of both semesters — after Thanksgiving during fall and after February 7 during winter — the new extended hours stretch from 8 a.m. to 2 a.m. on Mondays to Thursdays, 8 a.m. to 12 a.m. on Fridays and noon to midnight on Saturdays and Sundays.

“The library worked very closely with students in determining hours that will best serve their needs,” said Victoria Owen, UTSC’s head librarian. “We spent years conducting pilot projects, […] consultations, surveys, and focus groups to establish a schedule that is most beneficial to them.”

Since 2005, the library has been running a series of pilot projects that test the efficiency of various operating hours. Last year’s study showed that after 2 a.m., average student usage fell to 31 before exams and to 78 throughout the exam period. The numbers continued to drop until 7 a.m. when they reached an average of 17 and 50 respectively, followed by an upward trend throughout the day.

Owen explained that the changes were “designed to maximize resources and meet student demand where it exists,” but some are concerned that the library‘s current layout is still not quite meeting students’ needs.

“As a university, we aim to educate students and have them attain academic success — longer library hours will help us achieve [this] mission,” said Fran Wdowczyk, special advisor to the chief administrative officer and chair of the study space working committee advocating for the increase of 24/7 study spaces on campus.

“Some students have approached me troubled with the reduced hours,” said Scarborough Campus Students’ Union VP Academics Sulaimaan Abdus-Samad. “They just want a place where they can focus for long periods of time and not have to think of leaving at a certain hour.”

Third-year student Philip So has his own reservations. “Though a 24-hour service is ideal, we are throwing away resources by keeping the library open when less than one per cent of the [student body] is using it,” said So.

The Hazel McCallion Academic Learning Centre is the library at UTM, a campus of similar size to UTSC. It holds extended hours until midnight and also offers 24/7 services only around exam periods.

“UTSC has some of the longest hours among the U of T libraries,” asserts Owen, but Wdowczyk believes that there is still room for improvement.

“Increasing hours is a move that will propel the students towards success, and we will continue to work with the library so that the needs of students are realized.”

Conquering cancer

Cancer cells are an unruly bunch. Instead of listening to signals telling them to differentiate into specific cell types to form tissue, they ignore these signals and grow uncontrollably to form tumours.

Most cancer treatments take a brute force approach: kill all cells that are dividing. Although such treatments effectively kill cancer cells, they also kill non-cancerous cells in the process of normal growth — for example, hair follicle cells. This makes the identification of drugs that target only cancer cells critical to the effective treatment of cancer and to improving patient quality of life.

Selectively targeting cancer cells is precisely what scientists at the Dana-Farber Cancer Research Institute in Boston have reported in the advanced online format of Nature this September.

A consortium of scientists led by James Bradner at Dana-Farber has identified the chemical inhibitor of a protein that is responsible for NUT midline carcinoma, a rare cancer of squamous epithelial cells, which are cells on the outer layer of skin. The tumours produced in NMC are the product of uncontrolled proliferation due to a defect in a protein called BRD4.

Normally BRD4 interacts with chromosomes to help turn growth genes on and differentiation genes off. This interaction is tightly regulated and only occurs when cells should be growing. But in the case of NMC, the interactions between BRD4 and the chromosome are deregulated due to the rearrangement of two chromosomes and resultant gene fusion that produces BRD4-NUT, a chimeric protein.

BRD4-NUT constantly sticks to accessible parts of the chromosome, resulting in prolonged expression of growth genes, which ultimately results in tumour formation near the head, neck, pelvis, or other areas of the “midline.” At present, there is no effective treatment for NMC, and death almost always occurs within months of diagnosis. Although NMC currently accounts for only seven to 18 per cent of poorly differentiated carcinomas, many physicians suspect it is often not recognized and diagnosed properly.

Scientists at Dana-Barber used the 3D structure of the BRD4 protein to identify and create chemicals that might be able to bind the protein and potentially inactivate it, eliminating the devastating effects of the BRD4-NUT chimera.
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They tested these chemicals on BRD4 and found that its function was inhibited when combined in a test tube with the chemical (+)-JQ1. The function of the BRD4-NUT chimera was also inhibited. Patient tumors were also grafted onto mice, creating NMC models in which to test for overt toxicity of (+)-JQ1. Experiments using these mice showed that treatment with (+)-JQ1 resulted in smaller tumours, and that treated cancer cells began programmed differentiation into squamous tissue. In addition to halting growth and promoting differentiation, (+)-JQ1 had no obvious toxic side effects, indicating its potential therapeutic value for treatment of NMC in humans.

But how broadly applicable would this treatment be, considering the rarity of NMC? Perhaps one of the most exciting results of this work from Bradner’s group is the potential to identify chemical inhibitors of proteins that are similar to BRD4. According to Dr. Corey Nislow, assistant professor at the Banting and Best Department for Medical Research and the Department of Molecular Genetics at U of T, Bradner and colleagues have “opened the door to a new target set and class of proteins.”

Because there are over 40 genes in humans encoding proteins that are similar to BRD4, the potential for these proteins to be targets for drugs similar to (+)-JQ1 is far-reaching. This is particularly important because of the approximately 30,000 proteins in the human body, only a small fraction are predicted or known to be “drugable” — or in other words, can have their functions altered by chemical drugs. Nislow praised the efforts of Bradner and colleagues for identifying BRD4 as drugable, which could potentially lead to clinical treatments for NMC as early as one to two years from now.

What about side effects? If BRD4 is a protein normally needed to instruct cells to grow at the correct time, how will a chemical inhibitor affect the growth of normal, non-cancerous cells? In other words, would this treatment really target only cancer cells?

Nislow hypothesized that, because there are approximately 40 proteins similar to BRD4, perhaps one of those could ‘cover shift’ for an inactivated BRD4, taking advantage of the robustness of human protein-interaction networks. Of course, multiple stages of testing will be required before potential side effects are identified. But for now, there will be a few less cancer cells winning the battle.

What’s that in my food? — Inulin

Inulin is a fiber derived from plants such as Jerusalem artichoke, agave, and chicory. It is found in countless processed foods because of its use as an emulsifier and texturizer. It is one of the key ingredients that help make ice cream healthier, since it functions not only as a fat replacement, but also as a prebiotic.

Inulin is a fiber, and therefore cannot be digested by humans. Nevertheless, it is fermented by probiotics that live in our guts. As a result, it is classified as a prebiotic, meaning it is essentially food for probiotics.

There are many health benefits associated with probiotics. These include everything from preventing infections to increasing calcium and magnesium absorption and reducing the risk of colorectal cancer and inflammatory bowel disease. Therefore, as a result of their health benefits, food scientists are adding probiotics to foods where they are not traditionally found, such as ice cream.

You’ve probably seen ads for ice cream with just five ingredients, a marketing tactic in response to the growing number of ingredients found in ice cream. However, many of the extra ingredients in ice cream are not necessarily bad for you. Foreign-sounding ingredients such as inulin can be healthier than the whole cream and sugar found in traditional ice cream.

Thus, combining both prebiotics and probiotics in ice cream results in the production of what food scientists call synbiotics — aptly named because of the synergistic health benefits that result from their combination. Ice cream is an ideal vehicle for synbiotics because the added inulin not only functions to maintain a proper texture in the absence of fat, but also feeds the probiotics. By feeding probiotics with prebiotics, you increase the probiotic’s ability to survive, which is essential for them to exert their positive health benefits.

In conclusion, inulin is not only a replacement for fat, but even more importantly, it is food for your food. Next time you’re indulging in low-fat probiotic ice cream, you can feel less guilty by keeping in mind that you’re probably consuming extracts from dandelions and wild yams, which can potentially keep you healthy.

Is there room for U of T in the NCAA?

South of the border, American College Football is winding down its regular season with upcoming primary rivalry games and conference championships scheduled for the first week in December. Over the next five weeks, 70 teams will be playing in 35 bowl games scattered mostly throughout the warmer climates of the southern states. Wouldn’t it be great if the University of Toronto Varsity Blues could participate? Perhaps they can.

The primary topic of discussion during the 2010 American College Football offseason concerned the expansion of the NCAA’s Big Ten and its implications for all of the other conferences. The Big Ten is America’s premier Division I organization as measured by attendance, athletic revenues, and academic standards (the Southeastern Conference is currently the best performer on the football field).

The Big Ten is incongruously named as it has 11 members, soon to be 12. The conference moves very deliberately and prospective members must pass many tests to be accepted into the group. They must be a “good fit” with membership intended to be permanent.

Only one school, the University of Chicago, has left since the founding of the conference in 1896 and that was 64 years ago. Only three schools have been added since then.

The “good fit” has been described as excellence in academics, including membership in the prestigious Association of American Universities, contiguous borders with the existing geographic footprint, and competitive athletic programs.

A new member school should be similar to the current membership — a large flagship public university with an enrollment between 20,000 and 50,000. Ideally, the school’s team will command an army of television sets, as the new school should be accretive to conference coffers.

The Big Ten Network has been a smashing success and is one of the reasons that expansion is being studied.

If the right schools are added, the quality of content on the network will improve and cable TV companies will subscribe to the service at elevated fees in the new Big Ten territory. The whole experience can be improved while increasing each school’s annual TV payout over an already staggering $22 million each; the conference divides all TV revenues equally between the schools.

The Big Ten indicated that its expansion study would address adding “at least” one school and perhaps several more. Many prognosticators forecast an ultimate super-conference of 16 schools.

This past summer, the conference added the University of Nebraska beginning in the 2011–2012 academic year. The Cornhuskers are a powerhouse franchise with the nation’s largest contingent of traveling fans. What they do not add in TV sets (Nebraska is thinly populated) they make up for in cachet — improving the content of the BTN and filling all of the stadiums they will visit during the football season. They also became the 12th team, which enabled the Big Ten to move to a two-division system with a lucrative championship game.
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The primary object of the Big Ten’s expansion desire was the University of Notre Dame. However, it did not meet several of the tests described above; it is a small private school and does not belong to the AAU. But bringing the Irish on board would be a home run for the conference.

Notre Dame, which rests right in the heart of the conference map, has a national following among Catholics, many residing in major population centers, and is the only team in the sport with its own national TV contract. The Irish continually insist that they intend to remain independent in football, but developments in the sport suggest that the storied school may be joining the Big Ten mid-decade. Notre Dame’s $15 million national TV contract with NBC pays less than the Big Ten’s $22 million payout to each member.

Scheduling is getting much more difficult for Notre Dame as most teams are only playing within their conference during October and November. Finally, a playoff system may be devised whereby seeding is based upon winning one’s conference. The Irish do not want to be left standing when the music stops. It is likely that they will eventually join the Big Ten — probably after their TV contract with NBC expires in 2015.

This is where the Varsity Blues come in. They would fit into the Big Ten like a glove.

The University of Toronto boasts an enrollment of 45,000 students, is one of two Canadian members of the AAU and is a flagship institution in Ontario. The Varsity Blues would effectively add the province, if not all of Canada, to Big Ten Network territory, and would be natural rivals to several nearby programs including Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, and Penn State.

The ties that make intercollegiate athletics so compelling suggest that the Varsity Blues would be a great addition to North America’s premier collegiate athletic organization. The school has a storied tradition on the gridiron as well as the hockey rink.

Granted, the football Blue and White have not impressed for a generation. This change in paradigm may be just what is needed to bring back their championship-caliber program. It would be a great opportunity for the program to step up. It would benefit all of the school’s 26 sports and expand their competitive horizons.

There is already a roadmap in place for schools to move up divisions. The University of Connecticut moved from Division II to Division I in 2000 and enjoyed a winning record by its fourth season. It was bowl bound its fifth year and has played in bowl games the past three seasons.

The NCAA, the governing body, currently offers Canadian schools a path into Division II. Big Ten sponsorship could likely do the same with Division I. Count on a four or five year transition.

What‘s the downside? What would the Varsity Blues necessarily give up? Two words: Canadian Football, which they have been playing at the U of T since the 19th century.

For purists, this may seem like quite a sacrifice. Would the transition to American Football be worth it?

From a fan perspective — as measured by attendance and TV viewership — it’s no contest. Varsity Centre holds 5,000 fans, though they did not once fill the house in 2010. In fact, The Blues typically drew less than 2,000 fans. This is not big time football.

The Big Ten is as large as it gets in collegiate athletics. Essentially, each game is televised and the average attendance is over 70,000. If the hometown Varsity Blues simply matched the visiting Buffalo Bills Rogers Centre attendance from early November, they’d bring in about 50,000 fans per game, roughly the same as Big Ten members Purdue and Minnesota and ahead of Indiana and Northwestern.

The Big Ten season would run for 13 weeks, with 12 games played beginning the first week of September. The Rogers Centre with 54,000 seats would become the home field and would often be full with the likes of the Michigan Wolverines and Ohio State Buckeyes coming to town.

Hockey would be moved to Ricoh Coliseum (capacity 8,140) to accommodate larger crowds to see Big Ten games. The Big Ten is contemplating adding hockey as a sport, again, pursuant to BTN programming.

Five conference schools currently play in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association and Western Collegiate Hockey Association, and Penn State is adding the sport. If two more hockey teams were added, for eight total, it would likely be added as a conference sport.

If hockey is not added to the Big Ten, the Varsity Blues hockey team could take membership in the CCHA. The basketball team would move its home to Varsity Arena, until they outgrow it.

What, then, is the suggestion? That the 12-team Big Ten will simply add the University of Toronto for a baker’s dozen?

No — I expect the Big Ten will add teams two at a time. Toronto and Notre Dame could both be added for 2016 or 2017, which would give the Varsity Blues the opportunity to transition in. It would give the Irish the chance to wind up their contract with NBC and fully honor their schedules, which are largely set through 2016.

David Mitchell v. The Orcs of Infinity: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (Interview)

David Mitchell v. The Orcs of Infinity: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (Interview)

Reading interviews David Mitchell has given over the years, there emerge at least three preoccupations he has with himself as a writer.

He is in this for the long haul: he wants to be a writer for a long time and worries about one day fizzling out “as some writers can do writing variations of the same novel”; he tries to not write the same book twice.

Consequently, he is constantly pushing himself into new forms to see what they can do. He is a structure wonk in a world lonely for structure wonks, and finds many a work by other authors to be stylistically spot-on but structurally sloppy.

“I think that structure’s a little underdone,” he said at an International Festival of Authors event in October. “There’s many books where the style might be brilliant but it’s shapeless. If the five elements of the novel might be plot, character, theme/idea, style, and structure, structure’s the one that’s perhaps still a bit of a virgin territory. There’s space for new turf you can stake out on.”

All of his books use structure, in some works more overtly than in others, to try the bounds of storytelling. His chosen structure for a book will create new problems to be resolved, and in resolving them, he covers new ground. As Mitchell summarized at the IFOA event, “Why write an easy book, hey?”

This concentrated experimentation leads to his third preoccupation. All writers suffer from this, but Mitchell seems to feel it acutely, because again and again in interviews he complains about infinity: his books could go anywhere, be anything — take on the perspective of a bodiless soul, say, or write from the pen of Goatwriter, the storytelling goat — but any single book can’t be everything.

“The big enemy when you start out a new book is infinity,” he said at Harbourfront, where he was co-headlining a talk with William Gibson. “Every writer has different techniques to filter out infinity, reduce all the possible Borgesian books from the library of a book. You have to get rid of all the others to get to the one: ‘That’s what I’m writing.’ The first-person narrator is one such filter … keeping out the Orcs of Infinity. Structure is also a kind of scaffolding.”

Gibson agreed. “The appeal of structure is profound when one is embarking on a book,” he said.

“It’s like the fiddle-maker who said that he starts with a block of wood and he removes all the parts that aren’t a fiddle. Writing novels feels like that to me: the trick is to find the fiddle. You’ve just described the process of how one can do that. Once you start to have a sense of what it uniquely is, you’re able to reject all those things which are not it and really working in an infinity of things that might be it. … That’s another way of saying you need boundaries. No matter how wild or crazy your imagination is going to go, it’s going to be wasted without those boundaries: it’s like trying to boil water with the lid off the pot.”

Where does Mitchell’s latest book, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, fit into all this? Published earlier this year, de Zoet is Mitchell’s first wholly historical novel and on the surface, it doesn’t have the same whiz-bang pyrotechnics of his earlier books. There are no confessions of soon-to-be executed fabricants, though one storyline does go for a loop through speculative fiction territory. The experimentation is subtler, less showy, more controlled. As he reveals in this interview, the author views the 480 pages as “tightly disciplined,” adding, “I cut off far more fat from the book than there is left of it.”

With de Zoet the author returns to Japan, the setting of many of his earlier stories and the country where he made his home for several years. The book opens in 1799 during the Tokugawa shogunate. The country is hermetically sealed from outside influences except at the trading post of Dejima, a tiny, walled, artificial island in Nagasaki Harbour operated by the ailing Dutch East Indies Company and closely watched by Japanese authorities. The dozen or so traders on the island are as good as prisoners. Among these is Jacob de Zoet, a young clerk who has joined the Company hoping to earn enough money to marry his sweetheart, Anna, back home. But once on the island, Orito, the daughter of a samurai doctor, catches his eye.

The Varsity sat down with David Mitchell at the office of his publisher in Toronto.

I thought, ‘What have I done? Of course! It’s an engine designed to keep out the accidental. So this is why no one’s ever done a Dejima novel before.’


I heard that you visited the island.


Dejima, yeah.


Several years ago, I suppose, when you first discovered the place.


Yeah, it was ’96? Then went through again — oh, about four times I’ve been there, most recently in 2006 when we lived in Hagi, Yamaguchi. Have you ever been to Japan?


No, I haven’t.


You should go one day.


It’s on the list. So tell me what it was about Dejima that inspired you. I take it that the place itself was the inspiration for the novel.


Yeah. It’s a historical anomaly, and anomalies are good news for novelists because an anomaly is already a cliché-buster. Yes, everyone knows from James Clavell’s book and film that Japan was shut for 240 years and that’s a well known fact. But anomalously, it wasn’t quite: the door was very very very slightly ajar at Nagasaki, where the Dutch were permitted to operate a trading post. And what a trading post! Not just another one in the empire where white guys could come in and rule the local roost. They were confined on this little island. Only translators and prostitutes and merchants allowed on; they [the Dutch] were almost never allowed off. They were spied on, cheated. The arrangements were quite cut-throat and designed to keep them in a state of subjugation. And there were scholars gathered in Nagasaki hungry for this trickle of Enlightenment knowledge, rather like a UFO landing somewhere outside Edmonton containing a group of people who know how to cure cancer in an afternoon or how to solve the energy crisis or the big puzzles that perplex our finest brains — they have the answers — it’s a little like Dejima. Now, if I can’t find a halfway decent novel in that, I’m not much of a writer.


Having these characters who can never leave this space unless under very specific circumstances: did that pose issues as you were writing?


You bet! Yes, I thought, “What have I done? Of course! It’s an engine designed to keep out the accidental. Okay, so this is why no one’s ever done a Dejima novel before. Now I get it. Everyone’s spied on and they can’t speak this language at all well — what are you going to do with dialogue? The only women allowed are geisha — oh no, that’s a big bad cliché, especially in Nagasaki. Madame Butterfly, thank you.” Yeah. I thought, “What have I done? This is awful. Okay, better restructure it.” That’s why, really, only one third of the novel actually takes place on Dejima — the first third. It’s a meaty third, maybe the meatiest, but of course — how do you get a relationship going? The chance encounters that relationships, even real ones, need to ignite in the beginning, they can’t happen there. It’s designed to stop them. It’s designed to stop interaction. “Damn!” I thought, yes.

Novels need walls, otherwise they spill over. It keeps out infinity and keeps you focused on the story and the cast of characters at hand. Dejima and the ship and the weird nunnery have ready-made walls. 


The other two locales of the novel are a ship — also very
confined —


And the weird nunnery.


And the weird nunnery. Was that confinement something that you ended up just constantly having to work around? Because the story escapes the island, but you still end up in these —


Confined places.


Confined places.


Early on, I identified it as a sort of theme, because some books bring their own themes to the party whether you want them to or not, and confinement is one, almost one I can’t take the credit for. It’s like, writing about Dejima, you write about confinement whether you like it or not. Novels need walls, otherwise they spill over — even TV series need walls. Stories need walls. It keeps out infinity and keeps you focused on the story and a relatively small cast of characters at hand. So Dejima and the ship and the weird nunnery have ready-made walls. [squints, thinking] The third thing I would say is … I’ve forgotten the third thing I was going to say. Um, sorry.


That’s okay. The theme presented itself, a novel needs walls, and …


It’s almost there. [high voice] What was I going to say?

[Both laugh]

I can’t believe it. It’s jet lag actually.


Well, why don’t we talk about the nunnery, and if the third point comes to you —


Sure. It probably will. It’ll bug me now.


Shout. So Dejima has its basis in historical reality …


Certainly. Absolutely.


What about the nunnery?


Not so far as I know.




Earlier draft: Orito was just going to go there and we weren’t going to see her and we weren’t going to go inside that place. My friend said, “That’s really rich, you really put that in. The art and light, the Christian guy.” I could see the shotguns of accusations of misogyny lined up there. Also, I had to make it work. It’s got to be awful enough for us to want Orito to get out, but not so awful that the women there just end up hanging themselves instantly rather than having to submit to it. That’s a hard line to walk … [face lights up, throws arms in the air] I remember what I was going to say!



Thank you thank you: historical authenticity.




We swing around the world with our lights and our human rights and the bill of freedoms our forefathers in unions, etcetera, pried from the traditional holders of power down the centuries and we think are ours. We can go anywhere, we can say what we want and not be arrested, especially if you’re in a lucky country like the British Isles or North America. But for most of human history, not at all: we’ve led hugely confined lives. Easily nine thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine out of ten thousand of our forebears would have been indentured labourers or slaves or serfs or peasants or factory workers. You didn’t have more than the barest whisper of a say about how our lives would be conducted. Our time was not our own. Our money wasn’t our own, our labour wasn’t our own, nothing was our own, except our bodies, and very often for women their bodies weren’t their own. So what looks weird and strange and odd in a historical novel, it was simply normal, and has been normal for most of homo sapiens’ experience up to, what, the 1930s, the 1940s or so.

Rebels are easy and also quite lazy to do. But a character who you identify with as much as you might James Dean, who is not at all James Deanish in his outlook: THAT is more of a challenge. 


Also these constraints of morality and social convention.


That goes up and down. There have been times in the past — think of a few: at many points in the Roman empire, a rich, aristocratic woman in Japan, even, in the 12th century, in the time of Shōgun and The Pillow Book — there’ve been times which make our liberal, progressive era look downright conservative. So I think the progressive liberal thing doesn’t necessarily follow as smooth an identifiable track as, say, the rise of technology. It doesn’t accommodate with modernity that closely. And you can find places in supposedly very progressive, liberal North America that really make the 18th century look puritanical.


I’m thinking of morality and social convention because once you do have Jacob meet Orito, they still have this friction to the relationship that Jacob wants to start because there are certain conventions he feels he can’t trespass.


Or if he does, he knows that you have to pay a fine when you trespass.

[both laugh]

It won’t be free. Yeah! Well, he has a pious background. I wanted to write an uncool, pious character, because that’s more of a challenge than writing a casual, cool — I mean, rebels are easy to do, and they’re also quite lazy to do. But a character who you identify with as much as you might identify with a James Deanish kind of character, who is not at all James Deanish in his outlook: that is more of a challenge, that’s a harder trick to pull off. But why do anything easy? Readers know when you’ve done something easy. They know when you haven’t sweated and agonized over.


I found something in Jacob of Adam Ewing from Cloud Atlas.


Oh yeah: both somewhat naive. Possibly Jacob’s got more grit at his core, but certainly on the surface they’re both a little passive, or even more than a little passive. Fair comment.

A tricky one, language. It’s hard to get right in a historical novel anyway. Make it too authentic, it sounds like Blackadder. 


When you have these three confined spaces of the island, the nunnery and the ship, the power of translators is immense.


Absolutely, yeah.


You have these characters whose languages are Japanese and Dutch, for the most part, and you’re writing in English.


Yeah, I did my head in. And you have to keep the voices different, because otherwise people all speak the same, and do all that in English. I was crazy to take this book on.


The language still felt very natural, but every once in a while you would throw in a little phrase, you know, “so-and-so said, in perfect Dutch.”


Yeah, I remind you that we’re speaking Dutch here. Yes, a tricky one, language. It’s hard to get right in a historical novel anyway. If you make it too authentic — well, no, if you speak as we would have spoken 200 years ago, it sounds like Blackadder




Yeah, it does, and there goes your suspension of disbelief, you’re laughing, and you do when you read it. Gadzooks, you laugh! But then, if it’s littered with neologisms, if you have a word like brinksmanship in it — “Did people say that then? No, they didn’t.” So you always have to consult Webster’s Online Etymological Dictionary to find the first usage. And then there’s, say, words that didn’t exist back then: brushstroke is really late, it’s like 1880, 1890 —




Yeah! Really late, but when you’ve got Japanese people, you’ve got to use the word brushstroke, there’s nothing else — [mimes making a brushstroke on the desk] — you can do! Caligraphics? No, it’s got to be brushstroke! So you have to be wrong to be right. So every sentence you submit before the court and, like the judge, you have to weigh historical authenticity, its effect on the modern eyeball, tone, everything, everything. Really tough to get right, the language.


Is it slower to write a historical novel?


Oh yes. You bet. You have a character who’s having a shave: you’ve got to go away and discover when shaving cream was invented or, if it was, could a middle-class clerk have bought it or was it for the toffs back then or what? That’s an hour gone.


Do you generally work that way? You’ll determine what direction you want a sentence, a chapter to go, and then you’ll do a bit of research then and figure out can this actually work? Or do you do a lot of research first and then carry forward from there?


Depends on how far the deadline is.

[both laugh]

You do a big lump at the beginning so you’ve got a formed idea of the world — enough to construct a plot, anyway. And then you get to work on the plot, break that down into scenes, and scenes need their own staging and costumes and background stuff to break up the dialogue. Otherwise, it’s a film script. So if someone’s having a shave, they have to have a mirror. Fine, good, men would have needed to shave — but how? It was cheap, unbreakable copper mirrors? Or silver oxide mirrors? How much money have they got? Maybe it got broken — maybe a little bit of a mirror — probably, yeah, it’ve gotten broken easy on ships, but they’re too valuable, they’d have sold the fragments depending on size, say. Then you have to conceal the fact that you did all this research, otherwise it looks like you’re showing off and that also pricks the bubble of fiction. So the big stuff you research ahead of time, but the costume and background — just the papier-mâché of each scene, the poly-filler for each scene, you have to research on the hoof as you go through the scene, otherwise you start with a stupid, big, practical list of all the things you have to — no no no no, you can’t do everything like that ahead of time.

I don’t succeed as much as I’d like to, but I want to do that. Aspiration to omnivoracity of output as a writer: this really enhances my life.

Fastening clothes! That’s a big one. Buttons — because there’s no zippers, there’s no Velcro. Buttons cost money, they were expensive — this was before plastics. You needed wood — but then, if you’re a captain, you can’t be seen with wooden buttons, it’s got to be brass, metal, and that’s expensive stuff! Horn, ivory — interesting, isn’t it?




Really interesting. Medicine: when do people get ill? Is it the cold? How did they deal with it? Was it medicine likely to kill you? Because a lot of 18th-century medicine was. You’ve got to know all this stuff. Not for the faint-hearted, a lot if it, it’s really not.


It’s been said that each of your books is unlike those that preceded it. As the person who’s writing these books, do you find that’s true?






It’s a conscious aspiration. I don’t succeed as much as I’d like to, but yeah, I want to do that. Not sure why. [laughs]


The challenge?


Partly. It makes you a more omnivorous writer. Curiosity is a wonderful thing. It makes life great. Lack of it makes life intolerable. Omnivoracity of diet as a reader and aspiration to omnivoracity of output as a writer: this really enhances my life. I get to be really interested in clothes fastenings. It’s great.



And then you get to start something new.


And then I can write something else. Might help my chance for being able to be a writer for the long haul as well: not fizzle out as some writers can do writing variations of the same novel.


This is the first novel, I think, where you write in the third person. Is that right?


Mm-hm. There’s a bit, the Louisa Rey sections of Cloud Atlas in the third person, but yes, it was. I tried doing it in the first person at first but I couldn’t get it right.


Do you naturally go to the first person when you start writing?


Yeah. It’s safe, it’s what I’ve always done, and I know I can make it work.


Safe because you know you can make it work?


Mm-hm. And it’s an infinity filter. “Who are you?” Get that worked out, and everything will fall into place. Who is this person? What’s their relationship with work, money, sex, God, other characters in the book, childhood, language. Got to get language right: are they mellifluous speakers or are they kind of a, sort of, you know, “It’s words, innit?” It’s just like that, and then you get them to write you a letter in their own words, and then you know what they’re going to do — got plot taken care of — you know how they’re going to speak — that’s dialogue taken care of. That’s a really good way to get going. Third person, you don’t have any of that. It’s you who has to decide — you the writer, not you the character. And that’s scarier.

Only when I thought, ‘Come on, grasp the nettle. Third person, here we go!’ and I worked out my rule about thought, only then did the novel really come to life. 


How did you get around that, then?


I had some good advice. There’s a spectrum of third-person narrators. On the one hand you have the type that the great narrative sods of the 18th century would construct — so Fielding’s narrators or Sterne’s or Richardson’s: “Hellooo, dear Reader! Come into my novel. We’re going to have a nice stagecoach ride. We’re going to go on a journey, you and I. Now, I’m going to tell you a story about this chap Tom Jones … ” He knows everything, he interjects. It briefly flourished during postmodernism, actually, but it’s gotten quite rare, that.

Then there’s the other end, [up-whistles] where the person narrating is basically first, but you just say “he” or “she” instead of “I.”

You have to work out thought: that’s the big challenge. What do you do about thought? Are you going to hear other people’s thoughts? Are you going to hear this person’s thoughts and this person’s thoughts alone, or what? It’s also why it didn’t work in the first person here. I could just about work out the speech, how to make an 18th-century Japanese midwife speak Dutch in English — I could just about get my head wrapped around that and work out how I could do that. But thinking: how is that woman going to think? What language are you possibly going to represent her thoughts in? Ugh. I couldn’t do it. Just too — [reaches across the desk with one hand, grasping] — it’s just not a place I could reach and make it work on the page, because you can be right, but how it hits the eyeball is another thing altogether. That’s got to work. Otherwise, it doesn’t matter how clever everything else is. If it’s just horrible to read, then it’s a horrible book.

So only when I thought, “Come on, grasp the nettle. Third person, here we go!” and I worked out my rules about thought, only then did the novel really come to life.


So what were your rules about thought?


My rules about thought are that you have a Thought Hat, and one character per chapter wears the Thought Hat, and only the character who wears the Thought Hat’s thoughts can the reader hear. Thirteen chapters in each section. Except for the last two, which are two epilogues, really. First book: one character, Jacob, one and one alone wears the Thought Hat. Book Two: two characters, two and two alone wear the Thought Hat — that’s Orito and Ogawa, the translator. Book three: three characters and three alone wear the Thought Hat in succeeding chapters: Jacob and the magistrate and the English captain.

However, each book also has a guest: the first prologue chapter where the character who does not wear the Thought Hat in the rest of that book wears the Thought Hat. So it’s Orito in the birth scene at the beginning of the novel. Book two, it’s the Christian woman, the herbalist woman, she wears the Thought Hat for the prologue chapter. Then, for Book Three, I wanted to get a slave in, because they’re the people really off the historical record of Dejima. The Dutch were going to have to submit to all these rules of the Japanese, but they damn well weren’t going to wash their own underwear, so they brought some slaves from Indonesia. Couldn’t write, no historical record. That’s the very last chapter I wrote, actually, because I was just putting it off, putting it off, [in worried voice] “I don’t know what to do!” The only historical record you get are the best and earliest ones, the abolitionists, what was done for the abolitionist effort by American negroes from the colonies or from the Caribbean.


Why did you have the guests?


I wanted to get them in, I wanted to get their stories. The thing about the structure is it looks simple, but it goes from being a one-stroke engine to a two-stroke engine: ta, ta — then Book Two — ta-ta, ta-ta, ta-ta — then Book Three — ta-ta-ta, ta-ta-ta, ta-ta-ta — you know, it accelerates. The guests are there — the Christians: fascinating, fascinating stage of the empire when in the early 1860s Japan was embarrassed into promulgating freedom of religion and 20 thousand, 30 thousand Christians sort of emerged from nowhere! Despite — up to that point, it was the world’s greatest attempt at a totalitarian state, the Tokugawa Shogun, they invented the police state, amazingly ruthless power — even they couldn’t stamp it out.


It’s almost comparable to North Korea.


I’ve used that comparison myself often. Without YouTube footage, without all the facts we know about North Korea, without Google Earth.


There was a specific passage I wanted to ask you about. It really struck me as being different from the rest of the book. It’s this opening —


Description of Nagasaki?


Yeah, this one here.


I worked many afternoons on that.





The ninth day of the ninth month


Gulls wheel through spokes of sunlight over gracious roofs and dowdy thatch, snatching entrails at the marketplace and escaping over cloistered gardens, spike-topped walls, and triple-bolted doors. Gulls alight on whitewashed gables, creaking pagodas, and dung-ripe stables; circle over towers and cavernous bells and over hidden squares where urns of urine sit by covered wells, watched by mule drivers, mules, and wolf-snouted dogs, ignored by hunchbacked makers of clogs; gather speed up the stoned-in Nakashima River and fly beneath the arches of its bridges, glimpsed from kitchen doors, watched by farmers walking high, stony ridges. Gulls fly through clouds of steam from laundries’ vats; over kites unthreading corpses of cats; over scholars glimpsing truth in fragile patterns; over bathhouse adulterers; heartbroken slatterns; fishwives dismembering lobsters and crabs; their husbands gutting mackerel on slabs; woodcutters’ sons sharpening axes; candlemakers rolling waxes; flint-eyed officials milking taxes; etiolated lacquerers; mottled-skinned dryers; imprecise soothsayers; unblinking liars; weavers of mats; cutters of rushes; ink-lipped calligraphers dipping brushes; booksellers ruined by unsold books; ladies-in waiting; tasters; dressers; filching page boys; runny-nosed cooks; sunless attic nooks where seamstresses prick calloused fingers; limping malingers; swineherds; swindlers …


The cadence has this nursery rhyme quality to it.


Yeah. It scans, I subsequently discovered, almost the same as “Night Mail” by Auden.

Dawn freshens, Her climb is done

Down towards Glasgow she descends,

Towards the steam tugs yelping down a glade of cranes

Towards the fields of apparatus, the furnaces

Set on the dark plain like gigantic chessmen.

News circumstantial, news financial,

Letters with holiday snaps to enlarge in,

Letters with faces scrawled in the margin,

Letters from uncles, cousins, and aunts,

Letters to Scotland from the South of France

Thousands are still asleep,

Dreaming of terrifying monsters

Or of friendly tea beside the band in Cranston’s or Crawford’s

from “Night Mail” by WH Auden

It’s fun. It’s an explosion of the rule that prose mustn’t accidentally rhyme. It’s a piece of self-indulgence in what I think of as quite a tightly disciplined book. It’s baggy and long. All novels are baggy, but I cut off far far more fat from the book than there is left of it. Most important, it’s — are you old enough to have seen something for what you know will be the last time? A place?


[thinks for a few seconds]


No, probably not. It’s probably ahead of you. Or — yeah, a person who you won’t see again.




When you see something consciously for the last time, it’s like seeing something for the first time but you see how it works, you see how it works. So if it’s a person dying in hospital, you see, just with x-ray perfect clarity, the nature of your relationship. Everything is revealed. It’s a little gift in a way. When you see the city for the last time, this cacophonous, chaotic mess that is a city, you see: this is how it works.


It’s all there.


That’s why the world’s this masterpiece. It’s the only one that matters. And it’ll eat you up, too.