When is it best to remember? When is it best to forget?
Sit with this question.
Ask yourself what memories in your life are worth keeping. Some memories we treasure for sentimental reasons, while some were part of our education, part of what made us into who we are today. But some memories are better worth forgetting.
Some memories we just want to forget because we find them embarrassing. However, there are some memories that, more profoundly, hold us back from realizing our fullest potential as human beings.
It is possible to be enslaved to the past. That’s the insight Nietzsche arrives at in his essay “On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life.” Living historically can be life-giving and can lend us towards tremendous insight into our life and times. But living with too much awareness of how our actions have repercussions can paralyze us into inaction.
I recently wrote an essay on this topic entitled “The Virtue of Forgetting: On Memory and Oblivion.” In it, I discuss how presentations made at Concordia University’s 2019 Liberal Arts Spring Colloquium last February treated the topics of memory and forgetting. The presentations ranged from Roman history, the works of Anton Chekov, and African Diaspora art. I reinterpreted the presentations in light of Nietzsche’s article, which was assigned to the audience as a reading for the Thomas More Institute’s interactive panel discussion that closed the colloquium.
Monday at the D.B. Clarke Theatre in the Hall Building on Concordia University campus, Joseph Boyden talked about his identity and origins–both as a writer and a man of mixed Irish-Ojibwe blood. He was accompanied by renowned conversationalist Kate Sterns and Globe and Mail book reviewer Jared Bland,
“Who are you?” opened Sterns, a direct question to start off the evening.
Boyden’s most recent novel, The Orenda, won CBC’s Canada Reads competition. It was up against such worthy contenders as Cockroachby Rawi Hage and Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood. His novel Through Black Spruce won the Giller Prize. The Orenda also made the longlists for the Giller and Governor General’s Literary Awards. In addition to this recognition, Boyden is an activist for indigenous rights, in recent times taking a particular focus on the issue of missing and murdered aboriginal women.
He wrote poetry before fiction. He confided to me that his unpublished poems were imagistic, reflecting the highly visual scenes that are so powerful in his novels. Much of his older poetry was also song lyrics. In fact, he used to tour with the punk rock band Bazooka Joe as a roadie, in rebellion against the social conformity of suburban Ontario.
“I didn’t want to be a writer,” said Boyden. “As a teen, I wanted to be a singer, but I was so bad even punk bands wouldn’t take me.”
Boyden began to write short stories and longer forms after entering an MFA program. He expressed having a certain anxiety leaving poetry behind. “I was scared of novels; I was scared of fiction,” he said.
One day, he hopped on a motorcycle on an epic road trip from Toronto down to the University of New Orleans, which a professor had told him had an excellent MFA program in Creative Writing. He would have gone to Concordia, he said, ” But my motorcycle didn’t have snow tires.”
He showed up to the program with what he thought would become the greatest novel since Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, without having written any short fiction yet. He was in his mid-20s. His original title for this motorcycle road-trip novel was The Tree of the Lost. Then he came up with an even better title: Motorcycle Boy.
Sterns and Bland spent some time rubbing in the fact that this embarrassing first novel of Boyden’s was now public knowledge. There is something about young male writers, Sterns said, who want to write quest or adventure novels about the glory of there being nothing but the open road. I would personally have to agree.
My first unpublished novel, Battles of Rofp, also had a quest narrative and an embarrassing title (that no one could pronounce without curling their tongue and spitting into their upper lip). There is something quintessentially adolescent about such novels–about reading them and writing them. There is such glory and naivety about first novels, especially when a writer skips writing short fiction and goes right for the full-length epic. I smiled knowingly and nostalgically at Boyden’s honesty. Wow, if the author of Motorcycle Boy could come to win the Giller, maybe the author of Battles of Rofp can too, in time, I thought.
Boyden described how his novel was received by his workshop group in New Orleans. His peers sounded like they were politely tiptoeing around more brutal criticisms, as workshopers tend to do. “[They told me,] ‘You paragraph really well and I’m glad you used 12 point font,'” he said.
His harshest critic “in a Lutheran German kind of way” but also his most constructive one, was none other than his future wife, Amanda. “She clarified for me what it meant to be serious,” said Boyden. He cut his long hair, and she encouraged him to write short stories. One of his first successful ones required him to look back into his childhood in Geogrian Bay.
“Shawanagan Bingo Queen” came from this mining of life experience, a story about childhood and growing up on a reserve. Since he was passionate about his subject matter–even more passionate than he was about motorcycles–and because he knew all about it, his workshop responded with positive affirmations. “They loved it,” he said.
“Shawanagan Bingo Queen” was later published. In fact, it was the first story I ever read of Boyden’s, since it’s featured in Robert Lecker’s anthology Open Country, which I bought for a survey class on Canadian literature during my first semester at McGill.
Writing opened new paths for Boyden and his family and friends to recognize the legitimacy of their Ojibwe cultural heritage. “It was also so exciting because I was exploring something my friends didn’t talk about,” he said. “It was a part of me I thought others wouldn’t give a care about.”
A cultural rejuvenation swept over his family as a result of his short stories and novels. One of the most touching stories is that of his mother. “She did her first Pow-wow at the age of 80,” Boyden said.
Recently, Boyden edited a limited edition chapbook that is also available as an ebook–it is called Kwe, meaning ‘woman’ in Ojibwe. He was contacted for the job and had a week to solicit authors for unpublished material that pertained to the social problem of missing and murdered aboriginal women, (although the topic wasn’t mandatory). Boyden did not expect big things, but within a week he had received submissions from authors across Canada including the inestimable Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje. Proceeds from Kwe go to Amnesty International’s No More Stolen Sisters campaign.
When discussing The Orenda, Boyden wondered whether people would care about what happened in the mid 1600s, what with Samuel de Champlain’s settling of Quebec, the Jesuit martyrs, and the Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) wars. But, as it turns out, it was a period in Canada that is highly relevant to the political, social, and environmental issues of the twenty-first century. “This speaks to everything we’re going through right now, whether it’s war, whether it’s immigration,” he said. “I trust my gut when it tells me to go back to the 1600s.”
What’s next for Boyden? Out of all things, who could expect a ballet? That’s right. No; he does not have to dance. Or sing in that punk rock style of his. The production is being staged in relation to the other initiatives of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which is trying to acquire documentation and testimonies of those who suffered in Residential Schools. Tina Keeper, a Cree activist, has asked him to write a story for the ballet.
It goes to show that Boyden’s philosophy is never to turn down an unfamiliar challenge. Advising any young writers in the audience, he said, “Figure out screenwriting, figure out playwrighting.” Writers who seek to earn a living are more and more turning towards other forms of storytelling, including television.
The biggest of Boyden’s challenges is also one of Canada’s biggest challenges: to change the way we think about and discuss First Nations issues in Canada. Even if The Orenda cannot change social problems directly, it can expose its audience to a healthier perspective on First Nations identity, instead of letting Canadians succumb to the poisonous us/them divisions that characterize the political rhetoric of the present government.
Joseph Boyden: Ojibwe activist, Canadian novelist and short story writer, ex-punk roadie, ballet writer. He has been many things and will be many more. Waiting in line to have my book signed, I hear him explain the eagle feather tattoos on his forearm to another fan. The feathers are cut at the nib to suggest a writer’s plume. On his right arm, there is a tattoo of a band that displays his Native heritage, on his left, a Celtic design of an animal that might have been dog, bear, or dragon. His Irish side.
Rawi Hage’s unnamed protagonist—an unreliable narrator—fantasizes almost as much as he steals.
A poor, starving Middle-Eastern immigrant walking the Montreal winter streets, he sees himself as a cockroach: the lowest of the low, but also crafty and able to survive. His awkwardness around women causes him to undergo what he perceives as a metamorphosis into a dirty, many-legged insect who will survive the apocalypse, when all the wealthy people in the world will die.
As he tries to romance Shohreh, the woman with whom he is enamoured, the self-styled cockroach tells his therapist Genèvieve about his life before immigration, that is, the story of his relationship with his sister and how he tried to defend her from Tony, her abusive husband. These therapy sessions were court-ordered after the narrator attempted to hang himself, and he tells his story like Scheherazade, to keep himself out of the mad house.
Eventually the narrator’s past begins to catch up with him and he must decide how to act against the powers of capitalism and religious fundamentalism. But the poor cannot be pacifists in the world the cockroach has explored. Sooner or later, in a moment of decision, the cockroach will rise from the shadows and drains of the underworld and rise against the upper world, where the sun shines so bright.
Though I once thought the narrator was a creep, stalking women and men to find their homes and steal from their basements, by some strange magic, the protagonist wins your sympathy and cannot fail to engage you. It may depend on your political views or moral expectations, paraphrasing Rawi Hage during the Concordia event, but the narrator is funny, witty, and can get away with anything. Evil and goodness coexist in the same man.
Cockroach, or so argued Samantha Bee on Canada Reads, highlights the difficulties and troubles surrounding the immigrant experience in Montreal, a hidden “underground” world that most Montrealers cannot see. But Hage’s novel is more than an informative MontrealGazette article. It is the unreliable, yet politically radical vision of a trickster whose monologues in defiance of the hypocritical and the wealthy must have delighted Hage to write whenever he stepped into his alter ego’s worn-out shoes.
I simply love Hage’s refreshing style. His long, lyrical sentences are filled with extended similes and charged descriptions that underlie the narrator’s keen observations. Take the following as a metaphor for his desire to escape the trials of the immigrant experience:
“When I entered the café, I peeled myself out from under layers of hats, gloves, and scarves, liberated myself from zippers and buttons, and endured the painful tearing of Velcro that hissed like a prehistoric reptile, that split and separated like people’s lives, like exiles falling into cracks that give birth and lead to death under digging shovels that sound just like the friction of car wheels wedging snow around my mortal parts” (10).
The narrator’s observations also help him to expose hypocrisy. Take the narrator’s following rebuke against a Jehovah’s witness, which almost reads like a slam poem:
“You are a charlatan, standing there with your magazines full of promising images like opium. Look at you, human, all dressed up. You can’t be handsome without weaving the saliva of worms around you, without stealing the wool from the backs of sheep, without making the poor work like mules in long factories with cruel whistles and punch-in cards” (284).
Another wonderful feature of Rawi Hage’s style is his refusal to write dialogue with quotation marks. The effect is that we are receiving all the dialogue filtered through the narrator’s voice, which means characters may or may not have spoken exactly as the narrator tells it. This adds another layer of untrustworthiness to his protagonist, making you question everything he tells you.
At the Concordia event “Up Close and Personal with Rawi Hage,” which I attended with my father in 2009, Hage said that he saw the lack of quotation marks in his writing as not a radical innovation, so much as a result of his own laziness. He never understood why you would ever need quotation marks. It is this kind of unconventional attitude that underlies Cockroach.
Hage’s stylistic unorthodoxy adds to the appeal of his story, like innovative directorial cuts add to the originality of a Martin Scorsese flick. Particularly, I am thinking of Taxi staring Robert DeNiro, another tale of isolation and the underworld, which culminates in an act of violence. There is even a mirror scene, only when Hage’s narrator looks in the mirror, he sees a man-sized cockroach standing behind him instead of saying, “Are you talkn’ to me?” Is it any wonder that Hage was a Montreal taxi driver and lived in New York City for a time?
Anyway, I suppose I would have to read his most recent book Carnival, which also concerns a taxi driver, to find out about this link between Rawi Hage and Robert DeNiro. In the meantime, Cockroach is a great book for Canadians and especially Montrealers to read, if they enjoy a little trip down the sink drain.
I counted it a significant turn of good fortune that I had just finished reading Rawi Hage’s novel Cockroach when it almost won this year’s Canada Reads competition (Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda took first prize). It took me 5 years to get around to reading it.
Nonetheless, this author—whose book I am reviewing Friday—has had a mythic impact on me, a presence in my life that grew during those 5 years. Allow me to explain.
In 2009, there was an event at Concordia University called “Up Close and Personal with Rawi Hage.” I was still halfway though the Liberal Arts program at Dawson College and I received a ticket from my mother, who is an alumnus. I had only read DeNiro’s Game, Hage’s electrifying first novel, but I still relished the opportunity to hear him interviewed. It was there I received a signed copy of Cockroach for my mother.
To the editor mom, Hage scrawled on the title page, after I told him she had been reading over my unpublished novel Battles of Rofp. I was there with my dad, and we got the book as a gift of thanks to her, since she couldn’t attend the evening event. I placed DeNiro’s Game, which he also signed, on my bookshelf as a talisman, my hope to aspire to become a better writer.
Hage is a photographer and graduate of Concordia’s Creative Writing program. DeNiro’s Game was his thesis. I have spent 5 years of my life yearning to study in that same program, to write my own thesis, have it published, and then maybe participate in my own little “Up Close and Personal with Matthew Rettino.”
I tried once in 2010, but failed, and entered McGill’s English literature program. After I graduated from the Honours program, I tried again in 2013 and by March 2014, this month, I have received the committee’s response. I was rejected for the second time from this program. Though this rejection makes me bitterly disappointed, it is a sign that my path to success will simply not be identical to Rawi Hage’s route. We are, after all, vastly different writers.
Concordia’s creative writing professors, for one, are in the “literary fiction” stream of writing style, rather than “literary fantasy,” which is what I was aspiring to learn to write. ‘Tis the age-old difference between literary fiction and genre, a distinction that really comes down to why people write what they write.
Literary writers write for themselves, for their characters, in an attempt to learn more about human nature and themselves. Genre writers, while they might explore character and the human condtion, write chiefly because an idea for a plot seizes them, or a situation fascinates them. Naturally, literary fiction tends to be dominated by characters, subjectivism, and interiority, whereas genre tends to rely on plot and story.
I write because a crazy or fascinating idea or situation grabs my attention and compels me to write the story. This tends to set me on the path towards genre fiction. Generally, I do not see a person on a bus and think that this or that character would be fascinating to write about, as some literary fiction writers do.
Partly, I suspect this tendency is related to my high-functioning Asperger’s syndrome, which sets up a wall in front of my ability to relate to other people easily. Since character is less of a natural thing for me to think about than plot ideas, I have this tendency towards genre, and a weakness in my writing towards character, voice and dialogue. Description and plot remain my strong points.
One way to overcome the negative effects of my Asperger’s is to introduce literary modes into my fantasy writing, to pay more attention to character and personality. Bridging the genre divide can thus be tied to my own attempts to break out socially with others—and therefore the very existence of this blog.
Rawi Hage’s literary fiction would appear at first to be as vastly different from my own, as the moon is from the sun. However, here is where Hage gets interesting.
His novels, Cockroach and DeNiro’s Game, are remarkable precisely because they fuse the plot of a thriller with the wit and reflection of a literary novel. Perhaps it is no mistake that DeNiro’s Game was the first novel of literary fiction I ever read for pleasure outside of school, and a model I looked up to afterwards. Cockroach even has elements of fantasy to smooth it all over!
If literary fiction can get away with a strong plot in a capable writer’s hands, then there is no reason a fantasy writer cannot write a work of “literary fantasy” fiction. Rawi Hage confirms this hypothesis from the literary fiction perspective just as much as a writer like Guy Gavriel Kay or Charles de Lint can.
What, then, is this fantasy that is at work in Cockroach?
Rawi Hage’s Middle-Eastern immigrant protagonist has a complex around women, which causes him to imagine himself becoming a cockroach. The metamorphosis is Kafkasque, but as Hage mentioned during his interview, it would be eurocentric to ignore the symbolism of cockroaches in other sources, such as Arabic fable books.
Cockroach is the radical story of an uncompromising thief who roots out the hypocrisies in Montreal immigrant society. His work is as literary as Dostoyevsky and as suspenseful as the most page-turning thriller—and it bears the occasional resemblance to the movie Taxi Driver staring—of course—Robert DeNiro.
Continuing on Friday, I shall tell you more about this brilliant book.