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Book Club: Ben Ghan’s upcoming novel, What We See in the Smoke

A new novel by a U of T alum on Torontonian apocalypses at the intersection of Bradbury and Bloor

Book Club: Ben Ghan’s upcoming novel, <i>What We See in the Smoke</i>

You would be hard-pressed to find a U of T student who is not painfully aware of the catalogue of accomplishments that the Office of the President shills for the now-retired Boundless campaign: our nine Nobel Prize laureates, our four Prime Ministers, and our engineering and medical marvels.

But our less marketable assets conveniently slip through the cracks of campaigns, newsletters, and student awareness. Not as many students can list the accomplishments of Marshall McLuhan, Northrop Frye, and the other name-droppable contributors to Canadian culture as easily as they can recite the now-trite laundry list of accomplishments from the campaign.

This familiar cultural issue forms the core of one motifs explored by the hand-stitched literary debut of Ben Berman Ghan: What We See in the Smoke. The book, a self-described “patchwork” of interrelated, but ultimately not codependent, stories, leads the reader through increasingly fictional and farfetched plots with the city of Toronto at its center. It is a Bradbury-esque adventure that takes its reader across time and space at the intersection of science fiction and the yearning for a better home.

The vector for each of these Torontonian escapades? Apocalypses. Big and small; banal and fundamental; at times familiar yet oftentimes not.  

The destruction of a standard becomes Ghan’s mandate. True to form, each of the seventeen ‘patches’ that form his quilted narrative eventually destroys themselves. The earlier stories, ones both chronologically and thematically closer to our present time, destruct in forms that are quite familiar to denizens of a city built upon seemingly-constant renewal and construction.

It is upon this concept of familiarity that Ghan seems to base his most successful heel-turns in character development and plot. He wields What We See’s dramatic irony so aptly that the reader rarely expects the destruction wrought in his stories. The later, more futuristic, and certainly more science-fiction-like stories, transition slowly from the familiar bounds of the city we all know, yet remain consistent in motif, providing the reader with a sense of recognizability, despite constant content shifts.

Truly, the whole novel feels like Toronto — all of its tragic and painful moments, which happen more often than expected — are caught up in cherry blossoms, major intersections, and, of course, the unassailable CN Tower.

When the reader begins the novel, Ghan seems to sell his stories short, making them almost too recognizable, too familiar. Certainly, in my first read-through of the novel, I questioned what interest I had in reading realistic stories of Toronto’s grittiness when I was faced with them in one way or another almost every day. I live here.

But that familiarity deceives. Ghan allows you to become comfortable in a surrounding you feel like you know, before making you believe that you never knew it in the first place. This happens to the point of uncanniness, where the feeling of Toronto, despite all the changes each story makes in plot and content, begin to signal something uneasy. For Ghan, there are only two certainties in Toronto: a mild-yet-still-somehow-debilitating winter and similarly enduring business development.

Despite its unique motley demeanour, What We See ends up being a novel rich in motifs that the average Torontonian can recognize and understand. A mixture of the heinous and the righteous, and a spark of constant renewal that keeps it all in flux, Ben Ghan’s debut is a solid underscoring of the Torontonian ethos.

Ghan seems to ask each of his stories, and the reader as well, what Toronto they would like to see. How would you give Toronto the identity it so desperately aches to discover?  

The only way for you to know is to pick up the book yourself.

What We See in the Smoke is set to release on June 6, 2019.

You can pre-order the novel on amazon.

Bookclub: Warlight

U of T alum Michael Ondaatje’s most recent novel is not to be missed

Bookclub: <em>Warlight</em>

How does one reconcile the differences between ‘postwar’ and ‘life after the war’? Famous Canadian writer and University of Toronto alum Michael Ondaatje attempts to answer this in his most recent novel, Warlight.

Warlight is a story of many shapes and sizes that takes place over many years. Although the novel is set in the context of siblings Nathaniel and Rachel growing up in London after World War II, the effects of that war pervade the lives of the characters throughout.

Above all, the novel is about growing up in a postwar world without the guidance of one’s parents. Nathaniel and Rachel see the world through this absence, informed by their childhood with parents who have left them for Singapore and under the care of a man they name ‘The Moth’ and his band of eccentrics. Growing up without parents is hard for any child, let alone in the shadow of a war under the care of law-skirting individuals.

Although the siblings live with The Moth, The Moth does not raise them. Told from Nathaniel’s perspective, the children essentially raise themselves. But they quickly veer off course and Nathaniel descends into London’s underworld, living a life that he would not have had if his parents were still in London. We unfortunately do not see much of Rachel’s psychology, which I would have liked to know more about. Nevertheless, Nathaniel’s inner musings are compelling enough to lead the story. His meditations on family, the past, childhood, and postwar life are filled with Ondaatje’s signature wisdom.

The story follows Nathaniel into adulthood when he gets recruited by Britain’s Home Office to wade through documents relating to the war. This section of the novel answers a lot of questions about Nathaniel and Rachel’s parents and allows Nathaniel to view his childhood and family from a different perspective.

Ondaatje’s novels like to keep things mysterious and not provide you with answers to the questions that you undoubtedly have. The same is true about Warlight. Nathaniel’s job in espionage is to discover the past, but just like in real life, the more he wades into the past the murkier it gets. Memories, like human beings, are greatly flawed and there are always many sides to a story. This is what Warlight tries to tell us by its end.

Warlight is a great novel by a Canadian master who has honed his craft to a diamond sheen and is well worth reading by fans of literary and Canadian fiction.

Book Club: Michelle Obama’s Becoming

“Becoming Me,” “Becoming Us,” “Becoming More” — what it means to be a Black first lady in America

Book Club: Michelle Obama’s <i>Becoming</i>

We sometimes forget that the people we see through our television screens have a history too. A story. A life remembered, and in some cases, lost. Some personas are so much larger than life that we even take their existence for granted.

When I first read Michelle Obama’s Becoming, I was left speechless — in tears even, at certain moments.

In this powerful and intimate memoir of her life, Michelle Obama shows us what it takes to be a first lady, as well as a full-time mother, wife, and working woman chasing her dreams. But mostly, it’s a story of a young Black girl in America, who broke all the barriers, despite the punches she took, and came out winning.

From being told by her guidance counsellor that she wasn’t “Princeton material,” to being one of the few “poppyseeds in a bowl of rice” in the Princeton University student body, Michelle Obama shares insights into the harsh realities of being Black in America.

She also considers several instances where her Blackness impacted, and, in some cases, worsened her role as First Lady — “swampy parts of the internet” questioned and derided her early life, depicting her as a typical “welfare queen” — as well as her womanhood, when a congressman ridiculed her posterior in an effort to demean her.

The best part about all of this, however, is that her reflections on these black dots in her past are humble, as if she’s almost thankful for all her struggles because they eventually put her on a path that led to the White House.

In the first section, “Becoming Me,” we see a young, competitive Michelle Robinson in the small apartment on South Euclid Avenue in the South Side of Chicago that is her world. It is there that her mother and father teach her to be fierce and outspoken, where conversations on sex are welcome, and where she struggles with the reality of being not only a woman, who isn’t always encouraged to pursue her dreams, but also a Black woman in America.

We see her journey through Princeton, where she majors in sociology and minors in African-American studies, followed by a Juris Doctor from Harvard Law School in 1988.

The second section, and my favorite section, gives us an intimate glimpse into her relationship with Barack Obama. From their first ice-cream date, to her struggles with pregnancy, to her husband becoming the first Black president of the United States of America, “Becoming Us” is a story of the highs and lows that are a part of any marriage.

The third section, “Becoming More,” finally reveals her life as the First Lady in intricate detail. It takes us through kitchens in Iowa, dinners at the White House, and ballrooms at Buckingham Palace, showing us that everything is not as glamorous as it looks.

In one particular scene, she reflects on the dehumanization of Black people in America while looking at the walls of the White House. “I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves,” she comments. It’s honest, if ugly, but it’s also pure and bold — and it’s her story full of courage.

From marriage counselling to the loss of her father, Michelle Obama lets us into the deepest moments of her life. It’s brave and it helps us realize that all of our stories weave into each other’s somehow; we’re all struggling, all passing mountains, and humanity can be cruel, but also kind.

The title reminds us that we’re always becoming something more and more each and every day. Just as Michelle Obama says, growing up isn’t finite. You don’t become something when you grow up and that’s the end. Just like her, we’re all becoming.

The New York Times hosts Art of the Book Review panel at U of T

What makes a good book review and what goes into the process of book criticism?

<i>The New York Times</i> hosts Art of the Book Review panel at U of T

In collaboration with U of T, The New York Times (NYT) hosted a panel about the art of the book review, focusing on the overall ethics and guidelines of book reviewing, as well as what makes a ‘good review.’

The event took place on November 30 at Isabel Bader Theatre and featured Jennifer Szalai, the NYT’s nonfiction book critic, and Randy Boyagoda, a U of T English professor and principal at St. Michael’s College.

Describing her experience as a book reviewer and the differences to those of news reporters, Szalai said, “There’s news value in these books and so when I review books, news value’s part of it, but it’s about reviewing the book, it’s about criticism. It’s about thinking what it is that the writer is trying to do.”

Szalai also spoke of the inner workings of being a reviewer, touching on subjects such as an embargo book, which “is a book that the publisher has decided not to release any advance copies of to reviewers.”

She also described how major book publicists and publishers try to get critics and editors to sign non-disclosure agreements, which is against NYT staff guidelines. Critics at the NYT are also not allowed to review books from current and former work colleagues.

The panelists also discussed how readership affects the process of book reviewing and how book culture remains an integral part of the industry. Boyagoda drew on his experience as an English professor, emphasizing the importance of book reviewing in contemporary literary studies.

“It is important for contemporary students of literature, of ideas more generally, to have a sense of what they’re studying in class is meaningfully connected to what’s going on in the world at large,” he said. “There’s a continuity between what’s going on in terms of a syllabus and then the kind of culture at large. And if we don’t see that… then all that matters are those [authors] that are dead already and I think a lively book culture kind of fails, and the people who are studying it today aren’t committed to thinking about what’s going on in terms of contemporary fiction and nonfiction.”

Szalai said that bias, particularly from readers, makes it difficult when giving a fair opinion. Social media makes it especially hard, as reviewers can face direct criticism for an honest review.

“I think that the main thing about the reviews, especially the reviews that run in the Times, is that you want the review to be fair,” she explained.

She acknowledged that people define ‘fair’ in different ways, “but ultimately, you don’t want the reader to think that there’s some sort of ulterior motive on the part of the reviewer, whether it’s to promote a friend on the one hand, or if it’s an enemy, to really take their book down,” she said.

During the Q&A session, one audience member asked a question about the genre bias of book reviews, mainly those of history and politics, and what would constitute any non-political book to be reviewed.

“I think it would depend on the book,” said Szalai.

“Sometimes I will notice that I’ve just done week after week after week of books having to do with history, politics, social issues, and for myself as well as for the readers, I think it’s nice. It’s helpful also for them to understand my sensibility better if I speak to a book that’s not about that.”

Boyagoda related the question to his experience reviewing a book outside his expertise of literary fiction.

“It was a great intellectual palate cleanser from, in my case, literary fiction… and I had readers… who came up to me and said, ‘It was really interesting to see you writing about this instead.’”

“That makes it a break for the reader, but it’s also a break for the critic; it’s kind of like a reset, in a way… whether it’s politics or literary fiction,” said Boyagoda.

Sam Tanenhaus, a former editor at the NYT and a visiting professor at U of T, moderated the panel. The NYT’s Canada bureau chief Catherine Porter and University College Principal Donald Ainslie delivered opening and closing remarks.

Book Club: What There There by Tommy Orange teaches us about urban Indigenous life

Storytelling and the enlightening power of art: Orange’s debut novel is a call to action

Book Club: What <i>There There</i> by Tommy Orange teaches us about urban Indigenous life

The title of Tommy Orange’s debut novel, There There, is derived from Gertrude Stein’s memoir, Everybody’s Autobiography. Upon seeing that her childhood home had vanished, Stein famously remarked: “There is no there there.”

As one of Orange’s characters observes, this feeling of despair and loss is not unfamiliar to Indigenous people. The novel’s title is perhaps better interpreted as defiant sarcasm rather than as a soothing sentiment, for the characters in There There seldom find stablilty and comfort.

During the mid-twentieth century, the United States government instated an “Indian termination policy,” which was intended to terminate tribal life and assimilate Indigenous populations into urban society. The policy forced them to move out of reservations and into American cities to find employment as full tax-paying citizens.

The Indigenous people who ultimately emerged in cities, however, were not mainstream Americans as had been imagined, but what Orange calls “urban Indians,” who had arrived there by their own volition. This is where There There, Orange’s story of modernity and tradition, of innocence and guilt, and of hurting and healing, begins.

“Massacre as Prologue” is the title of one section of There There’s introduction, as Orange proposes that the history of violence against Indigenous people in the Americas serves not only as a prologue to his novel, but to life itself as an “urban Indian.” Each of the novel’s character carries the burden of hundreds of years of subjugation.

Another character is a mother who teaches her daughters about their heritage by taking them to a protest off the shore of San Francisco. She reminds the reader of the 1969 Occupation of Alcatraz, when Indigenous activists camped out on the island for 19 months in a fight to reclaim their land and their rights.

Orange’s tragic stories of addiction, homelessness, and domestic abuse should be a testament to the fact that this fight is not over. While the novel focuses on Indigenous populations in the United States, its themes and diverse cast of characters speak volumes about Indigenous life and history all over the world.

On Indigenous identity, Orange writes about the importance of names and labels. He refers to the “blood quantum” laws which came to widely define membership to Indigenous tribes — many of which had not previously implemented such definitions — in the United States in the early twentieth century.

Some tribes still follow these membership laws. In Canada, the Indian Act grants status to individuals generationally, historically excluding Métis and Inuit peoples. In There There, Orange insists that these complicated labels and legislations can be dehumanizing, reducing Indigenous identity to “undoable math” and “insignificant remainders.”

Through Orange’s brilliant ability to write both intimately and expansively, connecting people, places, histories, and emotions, There There paints a remarkably extensive portrait of urban Indigenous life.

In Canada, the number of Indigenous people living in urban centres has been steadily growing. In fact, it was recently uncovered by Our Health Counts (OHC), a research project aiming to shed light on health and social inequalities experienced by urban Indigenous people, that data published by Statistics Canada on urban Indigenous populations has been misreported.

The OHC study of Ottawa found that the Inuit population in the city is four times larger than reported by Statistics Canada. The OHC also found that there are three to four times more Indigenous adults in Toronto than estimated by Statistics Canada in 2011.

This is all to say that there are more stories to tell — more than we think, and probably far more than we will ever know. In this view, perhaps the most impressive aspect of Tommy Orange’s debut novel is that it demonstrates the enlightening power of art.

Another part of the novel’s courage is its ability to uncompromisingly confront grim realities, as violence and trauma infiltrate the lives of Orange’s characters, particularly women.

Between 1984 and 2012, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police reported 1,017 cases of murdered Indigenous women and 164 cases of missing Indigenous women, of which 225 are unsolved. In There There, a female character recalls seeing a post “about women up in Canada” — referring, of course, to this crisis.

However, as Orange highlights in the novel, “it’s not just in Canada, it’s all over. There’s a secret war on women going on in the world. Secret even to us. Secret even though we know it.”

Indeed, the crisis is global. 

A 2008 report from the US Department of Justice found that “some counties have rates of murder against American Indian and Alaska Native women that are over ten times the national average.”

As part of a move to thrust this issue into the spotlight, the junior US Senator from North Dakota Heidi Heitkamp found that 5,712 cases of missing Indigenous women were reported in the United States to the National Crime Information Centre in 2016, and in July 2017, Indigenous women in Alice Springs, Australia marched in the streets to raise awareness about the violence against women plaguing their community. 

There There is a call to action. It is a call for storytelling, if not for one’s own sake, then in honour of those who are silenced and who have been silenced from telling their own stories.