Literature Matters with Karen Connelly and Tanya Tagaq

The Avie Bennett Chair in Canadian Literature in the Department of English at University of Toronto, presents the annual Literature Matters lecture on Wednesday, October 16 at the Isabel Bader Theatre.

Poet, novelist and creative non-fiction writer Karen Connelly and singer, avant-garde composer and author Tanya Tagaq discuss the value of literature and share their views about their creative process. Challenging stereotypes of culture and genre, Connelly’s and Tagaq’s work offers inspiring, provocative and timely ways of thinking about human rights, the environment and the legacy of colonialism.

Admission is free though registration is required. For full details and to register, visit

The history of the future: how science fiction has evolved across time

The visionary genre has grown from humble beginnings

The history of the future: how science fiction has evolved across time

Science fiction is worthy of praise. After all, who would have thought that two words with such contrary definitions could be combined to form such a powerful and popular genre?

Science investigates reality through physical and natural observations, experiments, and conceptual theories, whereas fiction writing fabricates events and characters from the imaginary through creative mediums. Science fiction somehow manages to reconcile these two endeavours.

In an interview with The Varsity, Dr. Bart Testa, an associate professor at U of T’s Cinema Studies Institute, explained that it is a “fantasy literature that reduces its fantasy on the basis of speculation with respect to the cosmos or technology.”

When and how did science fiction begin?

“Science fiction began, as we know it, in the nineteenth century during the industrial and technical expansion and innovation,” Testa said. The industrial revolution, which began in the late eighteenth century and continued through the nineteenth century, describes the period when the manufacturing process shifted from the home to the factory.

This shift had increased production scales, product varieties, and the standard of living. However, we cannot have all these ups without some downs, right? Industrialization led to labour-intensive jobs in factories, which in turn frequently resulted in poor working conditions for their employees.

Testa mentioned that “a lot of science fiction writers like to refer back to [the industrial revolution]. They saw the industrial world flourish around them and started to fantasize and speculate about what might happen, and sometimes, these fantasies became real.”

How practical is reading science fiction?

According to Testa, science fiction has always “had a big audience,” and has been very popular among people studying science.

“Perhaps science fiction went into their imaginations — what was possible and what was impossible to do,” Testa continued. He explained that science fiction has helped mould three generations of technicians and scientists. 

Consider what Testa mentioned — it’s pretty amazing, isn’t it? The fact that a mere genre of literature has had such a huge impact on the path taken by scientists — to reach the summit of technical advances in the present age — seems unbelievable.

But how did science fiction manage to do so? It cleverly masks real-world issues — be it environmental, ethical, or societal — as problems affecting a different reality. This allows readers to engage with these issues from a new viewpoint, which often results in a deeper understanding of the author’s conception of these challenges. 

What, if any, are the limitations of this genre?

From its humble beginnings in inexpensive pulp magazines, science fiction authors had to abide by strict limitations.

“The editors of these magazines, by all records, were dictatorial,” said Testa. “They told writers things they should and must say and shouldn’t and must not do.”

In fact, science fiction was mostly centred around science, big governments, and technology because those editors were usually pro-science, pro-big governments, or pro-military technology, according to Testa.

However, science fiction writers did not allow this tyranny to continue, rebelling against the genre’s norms along the way.

An iconic figure was Isaac Asimov, a science fiction writer and biochemistry professor at Boston University. According to Testa, Asimov was a member of a rebellious science fiction group who believed that pulp magazine editors were too narrow-minded to be invested in literature.

The golden age of science fiction directly followed the publishing of science fiction in paperback. Testa described this age as “the period when limits were, to some degree, removed.”

The golden age mainly focused on broadening the scientific aspect of writing. “Much of what we pick from science fiction comes from that golden period,” said Testa.

Now, moving on from the golden age, science fiction experienced another period of border expansion — one with a decidedly less optimistic take on the future.

Testa exemplified this by referring to a novel written by J. G. Ballard called The Drowned World, which he described as “an apocalyptic novel where the world is covered largely in water.”

Three inventions inspired by science fiction. HANNAH BOONSTRA/THE VARSITY

Science fiction in perspective

All in all, it is clear that science fiction, a genre so impactful on scientists and the advances of the modern world, did not develop in the spur of the moment.

The genre felt various forms of pressure, yet it managed to not only survive them, but also to overcome the obstacles thrown its way. The diligence of writers and readers who stood by this genre and won its freedom allowed them to present the world the true worth of science fiction.

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.

My secret life as a ghostwriter

Authorship for a bargain

My secret life as a ghostwriter

Every so often Instagram has a new hashtag, a trend that suddenly transforms into an international movement, or maybe it’s the other way around. Who knows?

From influencers, who receive tens of thousands of likes for a picture of breadcrumbs, to those whose followers barely number in the three digits, all post some visual content pertinent to the trend. One of the latest trends is the #10yearchallenge, and it really is quite self-explanatory: post two pictures of yourself in the same frame or post, one taken recently and the other from 10 years ago.

I’m not quite sure what to make of this challenge, but as I go through old albums and scroll through past photos with people who I am barely in touch with anymore, I am seized by a lasting feeling of disenchantment.

Ten years ago, I would have sworn on my mother’s life that I’d never sell my authorship cheap.

Ten years later, I’m a ghostwriter penning personal statements for suckers too rich and vain to get into college by themselves, and I have been selling my writing for a bargain.

It takes precisely 10 years for me to navigate from point A to point Z, and I don’t see a chance in the next 10 years for me to alleviate my predicament. I am as hopeless now as I was hopeful 10 years before, and I’m slowly but steadily coming to terms with my utter disappointment.

Coming to terms with my disappointment is really just me accepting that there has never been a day where I was near point A. So while I may not have climbed many rungs on the ladder to my American dream, a few steps back from X to Z is a lot less of a bummer than the skydive we take as we gear toward 30 and are still just as miserable.

Not many of us can afford the disappointment to begin with. And if we’re being real, I didn’t become a bestseller. True. But I’m still writing. I don’t get to sign my name under the title. Also true. But at least I get paid per word.

So, if you know anyone who still believes in the myth of the college degree, send them my way. I just lit my last joint and turned the grocery money I made off my last client into a puff of smoke.

Book Club: Hillary Clinton’s What Happened

More like nothing happened: 500 pages of disappointment

Book Club: Hillary Clinton’s <i>What Happened</i>

Hillary Clinton’s New York Times bestseller is little more than 500 pages of disappointment. Being her seventh book with publisher Simon & Schuster, Clinton has written extensively in her 71-year-long lifetime without showing much of a learning curve. That is, unless she hired a ghostwriter whose understanding of prose matches that of a 10th grader. In signing yourself up to read through some 500 pages of her qualms, self-congratulatory notes, accusations, and name-drops, you are signing up for a test of self-resilience.

Resist against the urge to call it quits on the 30th page. Yes, I know, this is the novel everyone pretends to read — it’s a little like George Orwell’s 1984 in your high school classroom, but you must make it through this $39.99 CAD hardcover, for you paid three hours of minimum wage for it. If you borrowed it from the library, you have less of an obligation to push through.

My copy of What Happened came from a bartering platform on Bunz. I traded away cryptocurrency worth four-fifths a bowl of soup at a subway station last week. Feeling the book in my hands, I felt a slight elation. The cover is beautiful, as is the typeface. The effects of the type face reminds me of Gotham, which is a fan favourite font, as seen on Barack Obama’s campaign materials and an endless array of movie posters.

Once I hopped onto my train and started reading, however, my elation flattened into disappointment. It reads like a self-pitying statement right off the bat. You’ll have ridden on an emotional rollercoaster with the ex-Secretary of State by the time you reach the 20th page. Her sentences do not flow from one to the next. Her writing reads like a jot note report, leaving little room for insight or elaboration.

Clinton feeds you a bit of everything in her life, though not in chronological order. Where is the allure in reading an autobiography that tells readers little more than what they already know? She is sure to lose politically disengaged audiences whenever she name-drops without explanation or elaboration.

Furthermore, she constantly darts back and forth along the chronological timeline that many authors and journalists swear by. Clinton’s narrative style includes a pattern of making factual statements about events, promptly mentioning her disdain for Donald Trump’s performance that day, and reminding readers of how she truly believed she would win, only to recognize her digression and march forth with the event she was speaking about five lines ago.

To transition between topics by insisting that ‘that’s not the point here’ is analogous to writing a literary essay on Oliver Twist, word-vomiting an out-of-place memory of what you had for dinner last night, and then starting the next paragraph with, “I am sorry for having gone off-topic. Let me talk about Dickens’ argument again.”

What Happened is a physical representation of an incredibly long Rick Mercer-esque rant saturated with names we need not learn. It’s not that I don’t want to learn about her four stylists and makeup artists, but I feel no use in just learning their names. Clinton likes to name-drop, but leaves readers with little more than the names of these people whom she’s worked with. She speaks little about the personal experiences she has shared with these people who were important enough to earn a spot in her book.

Clinton chops her autobiography into six parts: “Perseverance,” “Competition,” “Sisterhood,” “Idealism and Realism,” “Frustration,” and “Resilience,” with each part containing two to five chapters. While these are all very interesting concepts, each part reads similarly. In “Perseverance,” there are already ideas about competition, sisterhood, idealism and realism, frustration, and resilience.

Instead of offering a neatly organized catalogue of ideas like most bestselling authors, Clinton’s book reads like a disorganized jumble of thoughts, ideas, regrets, self-congratulatory notes, and sneers.

Many people were asking “what happened?” after Clinton’s loss against Trump in the 2016 US presidential election. They also wanted to catch a glimpse of her life outside of the spotlight after her devastating loss. Aside from the occasional recommendations of yoga and staying at home, Clinton shares very little about her personal life in the autobiography. In fact, most of what she wrote in this novel could already be found on the internet.

Clinton has led an exciting life — one worthy of many autobiographies. I just wish her latest offered a more intimate look into her past. But she is a politician, after all. She needs to seize the opportunity to defend the Clinton Foundation — which has recently found itself in hot water over shady finances — her decision to run, and her lacklustre interviews. Clinton has a public image to maintain, and she’s spent her lifetime maintaining that persona. Maybe I’ll find a more introspective and cohesive version of What Happened in the form of a “Reporter at Large” article in The New Yorker.

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.

Is lit culture dead?

Memes killed books and I’m jaded

Is lit culture dead?

The premise of the novel being ‘dead’ first arose during the rise of nihilism: the denial or lack of belief in meaningful aspects of life.

Though many have claimed that this was an exaggeration, with the rise of social media has come an entire generation that has been removed from literary culture. Our most well-known creative outlet is now YouTube.

YouTube is both a blessing and a curse. Watching a world of Californian YouTubers and their lavish lifestyles easily leads down a rabbit hole of random videos about ‘Twitter beef’ or ‘tea’ that apparently needs spilling.

Along with this new cultural phenomenon comes the unfortunate decline of time being spent on ‘traditional’ hobbies. What I am referring to is the kind of thing that your parents would say if they saw you binging Netflix for hours: “When I was your age we had to spend our time doing something offline. Do something else! Go outside, ride a bike, or read a book!”

Literary fiction once dictated popular culture, but with the rise of the digital age, the hunger for new stories has been satisfied by movie adaptations and audio books.

The sponsoring of YouTubers by companies like Audible has greatly increased in popularity. Audio books are considered to be easier to ‘read’; people can experience ‘reading’ a book while doing other tasks at the same time. This has resulted in fewer purchases of hard copies. In turn, many book stores, particularly independents, have had to shut their doors.

Personally, I find that listening to a book does not give you the same feelings as picking up a new book and experiencing that euphoria of ‘new book’ smell does. It truly is a sad moment every time someone tells me that they have not even heard of some of the greatest books of all time, never mind having read them.

Literary culture has dwindled down to sappy Wattpad stories of a girl reading in a café or a park and meeting the boy whom she will later marry. The days of literary puns and classic English literature are long gone. Every so often, a book series will send popular culture into a frenzy, leaving behind a whirlwind of heartbroken teens and fierce fandoms, but for the most part, literary culture is slowly being lowered into its grave.

Even when speaking to friends of mine, many say that they “love the idea of reading” but can’t stay focused on a book long enough to finish it. Honestly, how can I, or any other book lover, blame them? This generation has been trained to be accustomed to the fast pace of social media and its continually growing collection of memes.

All that remains of literary culture is what hipsters have made from romanticizing the idea of reading in a café and having revolutionary ideas. The sad truth is that, in a world in which the novel is so out of sync with a society molded so heavily by meme culture, the idea of someone reading could actually be seen as incredibly intellectual.

Reading is no longer associated with leisure. Novels have now become intertwined with academia and schoolwork. The automatic instinct for many children, teens, and adults is to grab their electronic devices and play games, listen to music, or use social media rather than immerse themselves in a story beyond themselves and the world around them.

Reading is now looked upon as an acquired interest rather than a common hobby. It seems like reading has returned to being a refined art form, and the glory days of being ecstatic when your parents took you to Chapters or the local book store are no more.

The traditional novel is obsolete beside ever-advancing technology. Literary culture, to most people of this era, is dead or dying.