Thursday 27 September 2012

Concordia's Cinema Politica has grown from a small nucleus of film buffs to an international network

In 2003, a small group of Concordia University film buffs got together and decided they wanted to see some alternative, non-commercial documentary films. They started out in with small screenings every couple of weeks, says Ezra Winton, BA 05, MA 07, co-founder and director of programming for Cinema Politica (CP).

Word of the film series quickly spread and “it wasn’t long before it was standing room only and people were sitting on the floor. Students were hungry for alternative media and perspectives, for the under-represented stories,” explains Winton.

CP moved to weekly screenings, the group incorporated, and the idea began to spread. Today there are 90 CP chapters (they like to use the union term “locals”), 20 of them international, though only one is in the United States.

The Concordia local holds weekly screenings Mondays at 7 p.m. in the Alumni Auditorium, Room H-110 of the Henry F. Hall Building (1455 De Maisonneuve Blvd. W.). Attendance averages 400 people; screenings are free or by donation, and open to the public. This year’s offerings were chosen for the theme ‘resistance tactics.’

Winton says they receive hundreds of film submissions. Local organizers suggest titles and, if the interest is great enough, the selection committee gives its approval.

The films are by independents, not large studios, meaning “the artists have a lot of control. The narratives and perspectives are those that are often invisible in the mainstream media.”

A couple of the 2011-2012 season's films were about people who have gone to prison for their activism. If a Tree Falls: a Story of the Earth Liberation Front is “a sympathetic portrait of the values and motivations behind actions” – spectacular arsons committed against businesses the ELF accused of destroying the environment – “that can seem pretty extreme.” The film also raises important questions about what is and isn’t effective when it comes to social protest, says Winton.

One film Winton was particularly excited about was The Interrupters, which held its Canadian premiere on Monday, September 26, 2011. The film, directed by Steve James of Hoop Dreams fame, showcases the work of (which changed its name in 2012 to, a group of community organizers who fearlessly insert themselves into the cycle of youth violence on the streets of Chicago.

Find the 2012-13 program of CinemaPolitca films

Article originally published at ConcordiaNOW Sept. 28, 2011.

Monday 24 September 2012

Of book clubs and Fifty Shades of Grey: readers are horses and EL James holds the reins

It happened again the other night, this time at book club meeting. The book was pretty wonderful, but I was there as much to see my friends as to discuss the book (the way I imagine most book clubs function), and we were also celebrating the hostess’s having been given the green light to go back to work after a year off to deal with round two of breast cancer. So a lovely prosecco was the preferred initial libation, and it lubricated our group in a most satisfactory way.

The book under discussion that evening was Half of a yellow sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and everyone enjoyed it immensely. Here are some review snippets from

"We do not usually associate wisdom with beginners, but here is a new writer endowed with the gift of ancient storytellers. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie knows what is at stake, and what to do about it. She is fearless, or she would not have taken on the intimidating horror of Nigeria's civil war. Adichie came almost fully made."
Chinua Achebe

"Vividly written, thrumming with life, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Half of a Yellow Sun is a remarkable novel. In its compassionate intelligence, as in its capacity for intimate portraiture, this novel is a worthy successor to such twentieth-century classics as Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart and V.S. Naipaul's A Bend in the River."
Joyce Carol Oates

Author Chimamanda Adichie. Watch her TED talk here
“At once historical and eerily current, Half of a Yellow Sun takes place in the forests of southeastern Nigeria 40 years ago, and honors the memory of a war largely forgotten. Adichie’s prose thrums with life. Like Nadine Gordimer, Adichie position[s] her characters at crossroads where public and private allegiances threaten to collide. Half of a Yellow Sun [has] an empathetic tone that never succumbs to simplifying impulses, heroic or demonic . . . . Reaching deep, [it] speaks through history to our war-racked age not through abstract analogy but through the energy of vibrant detail, [and] a mastery of small things.”
—Rob Nixon, The New York Times Book Review

“Instantly enthralling . . . Vivid . . . Adichie weaves [her] characters into a finely wrought, inescapable web. The book sustains an intimate focus and an epic backdrop. Half of a Yellow Sun is not a conventional war story any more than is A Farewell to Arms or For Whom the Bell Tolls . . . . Powerful.”
—Janet Maslin, The New York Times

Meanwhile, back at the book club...

I’d have to say that my "women of the book club" are well-educated, professionals (mostly), well-read, and appreciate historical fiction as an easier-to-digest entree into politics, war, and social events that we know, sadly, that we haven’t heard enough about. We were into Indian work a few years back; now it’s more about Africa (we read Little Bee last year). The warm writing, the way that the author immerses us in worlds so different from our own and yet populates them with characters we can relate to…those are the gifts we seek in the fiction we read.

But somehow, as often happens when women meet to talk about books these days, the subject of Fifty Shades of Grey came up. I think it was when we moved to considering what we might like to read next, what we’d been reading recently…and one of our number (also recently treated for breast cancer—it’s a function of age, I know, but at some point, who can help not starting to view her own body as a traitorous walking time bomb?) segued into a book she tried but absolutely could NOT stand…and it was Fifty Shades of Grey.

Let’s see: it was poorly written, poorly plotted, the sex scenes weren’t in the least a turn on…and on and on it went. And so, off I went, once again defending it. It’s a fairy tale, a classic romance, I began. “The heroine is graduating university, she’s 23, and a virgin. Not only is she a virgin, she’s never even kissed a man.”

There was some general squawking: “Twenty-three and never even kissed anyone? In this day and age? Gimme a break…”

Yes, it’s a fairy tale. But, frankly, did anyone ever promise it was anything else?

So what makes Fifty Shades of Grey a compelling story, so much that 10 million American women bought it over six weeks earlier this year?

Well, here’s the way I tried, once again, to explain it:

--obviously, it’s partly the sex. But I don’t think it’s the BDSM as much as it is, to me, the notion of the forbidden, the envelope-pushing. How far from your personal comfort zone would you be willing to go to please your beloved? That, to me, is one of the essential hooks of the story, and EL James plays it like a pro.

--then, there’s the motherhood angle. Christian Grey is a damaged child. His backstory is ladled out in dribs and drabs. That is the other humungous hook: the damaged little boy that our heroine (us, in proxy) must connect with, and heal. Will she do it? Well, just in case we hadn’t noticed, it’s a friggin' romance (not to mention a romance about friggin')—which means HEA (happily ever after) is de rigueur.

--but here's the rub: everyone who hasn't read the book thinks it's Kate who is tasked with deciding how far she's willing to go to please her beloved. But those of us who actually READ the book(s) know that it's really Christian, after a decade of his depraved Dominant existence, who must decide if he's willing to give up his addiction to BDSM sex for the love of a good woman (who loves Austen novels, let us not forget, ergo a woman of quality…just like us. Women who wouldn’t be caught dead reading such laughably written smut…say what?). Again, the classic swoon-worthy love conquering all.

And that, perhaps, is the pleasure of reading something that, as a writer, I can recognize as derivative on so many levels. The dialogue, holy cow, is ludicrous. Ditto the star struck descriptions of Porsches and luxury villas, not to mention billionaire twenty-eight-year-olds. And the third act is so hokily ludicrous even I can't believe I read it (not to mention paid for it!).

Still and all, I enjoyed them.

In the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, readers are horses, and EL James rides us bareback, with sex and motherhood as the reigns. She pulls us this way and that as we gallop wildly along the bridlepath (bridalpath?). The thing is, the rider is really at the mercy of the horse, who is blind to this truth, or simply accepts it, deriving pleasure in serving her master.

Assuming the master, like EL James, knows just what she’s doing. And exactly where she’s taking us.

Friday 21 September 2012

The Meaning of Children: Latest interview, at Inspiration Forum UK

From Inspiration Forum UK, September 2012

Thank you, Fiona McVie!

Those books aren't just going to read themselves, you know...
Our Interview with Beverly Akerman 
Name Beverly Akerman

Age North of 40, south of 60. Okay, you win: I’m 52.

Where are you from? Montreal, Quebec, Canada.

A little about your self ie. your education, family life, etc.
Born and raised in Montreal. In fact, I’ve never lived anywhere else. Sometimes I feel a bit bad about that, like it’s a character flaw or something. I have three kids well on their way to being grown-up. One moved out of the house to live on his own just this summer…and it was my middle guy, the one who’s always been easiest to get along with and the most helpful. (Or maybe it just seems that way; hindsight, rose coloured glasses and all that. Still, he was the only one of the three who used to point to his bed at night when we’d be rocking him in the rocking chair. He did like his sleep!) My husband is still here at home with me. I’m happy about that, actually. He worked in politics for many years, while our family was young. So I worked full-time, mostly, and single-parented it half the time.

I was busy and exhausted, so over-programmed that I don’t have all that many memories of that period. Why do we do this to ourselves? I suppose you’ve heard the saying, “Of course women can have it all: just not all at the same time.”

I have BSc and MSc degrees in biology from McGill University and worked for over 20 years in molecular genetics research. But I’d always known I’d be a writer some day. (At least, I’d always wanted/intended/hoped to be a writer some day…)

Fiona: Tell us your latest news?
I just had my longest ever giveaway on Amazon for the e-version of my award winning short story collection, The Meaning of Children, and it went really well. Over 4300 downloads, which I think is amazing for literary fiction. And the reviews—from periodicals as well as “real” readers-- are absolutely incredible as well. Words like “luminous,” “illuminated,” “haunting,” “a life-altering read,” “profound,” “a book of rare sensitivity and masterful creative writing”…You’d have to look on the book page to see them (it hasn’t quite caught on yet in the UK, I’m afraid) and on my blog.

Here are some links:

Fiona: When and why did you begin writing?
I'd always thought I'd be a writer some day. My first publication was a poem that won an honourable mention when I was nine and a half years old, something I wrote about in The Rampike last year, in the creative nonfiction piece "Aversion Conditioning, or Why I am Somewhat Conflicted About Poetry.” But I guess my imagination-my self confidence?-failed me because I could never seriously picture myself as a writer. So I put it aside, joked about needing to live life first in order to have something to write about (though maybe that isn't a joke), and tried to prove something (though exactly what and to whom I'm not quite sure) by distinguishing myself in math and science, the subjects everybody else seemed to think were the hardest.

I'd been keen on genetics since first learning about it in high school and in grade 10, when we were offered testing for Tay Sachs disease carrier status and one of my friends tested positive, I was well and duly hooked on DNA.

I majored in biology (human genetics) and went on to graduate work in genetics, where one of my most cherished delusions was that, once I finished the residency requirement and no longer paid by the credit, I'd be able to take all the English and creative writing courses I'd always dreamt of.

Guess how much time I had for non-science courses while pursuing a research degree in genetics?

That's right: none.

By 2003, I'd been in science for over two decades, mostly in McGill-affiliated labs. I'd been fairly successful, writing or co-writing 19 papers, mostly on mutations associated with several rare diseases. I also had a life--three kids and a husband who made a career in politics. But a funny thing happened as I waltzed through the genomes: the work had started to lose its meaning for me.

Something was wrong, I just couldn't put my finger on what, exactly.

And then my father-in-law, Gerry Copeman, died of lung cancer.

Gerry and I didn't even get along that well, although we'd made our peace, especially after the grandchildren arrived. But when he died, it affected me deeply, beyond the sadness of losing someone so close. For the first time, I understood-emotionally, as opposed to rationally or intellectually-that my time on this earth was finite, and that I'd better use it doing something I'd always dreamed of doing.

Which turned out to be, once I spent some time trying to figure it out, writing fiction.

So I switched gears, started taking writing workshops-the Quebec Writers' Federation has been stellar in providing learning opportunities for someone like me, unsure if she wanted to go back to university (and, more importantly, not convinced it would be helpful to have roomsful of young strangers tear up her work). I've been writing and submitting like mad ever since.

My first stories were published-online and in print-in 2006. Within a few years, I'd published more than 20 stories-in anthologies like the Aesthetica Creative Writing Annual 2012 and Best New Writing 2011, as well as literary journals and won or placed in a slew of contests. Links to my stories available online are on my blog. But let me direct you to a favourite of mine (and of my readers), “Pie.” It’s about love and loss, motherhood, baking, childrearing, and war.

And you can read it here:

Fiona: When did you first consider yourself a writer?
I’ve probably always considered myself a writer trapped in a non-writing body…but I remember when I won the Fog City Writers Fiction Contest…I opened the email and screamed. Hubby came running, thinking someone had died. But it was just that I’d won a $1,000 prize. I think that was the moment when I thought, “Okay, it’s not my imagination, this really is good work.” That was October 10th, 2007 (I had to look it up).

Fiona: How did you come up with the title?
I’d read somewhere that bestsellers were typically titled “The noun of noun” and so I played with that. The thing is, when I sat back and looked at the pile of stories I’d writing, the theme of children wasn’t hard to spot. I also realized, after submitting the collection for a while and getting nowhere with it (I am extremely impatient about such things) that I needed to have an overall structure to the book. So I thought about it some more and realized I could divide the book into “beginning”—stories from a child’s point of view—“middle”—about those in the child bearing years--and “end”—about older people, or stories that take the long view of life. And pretty soon after that, it was accepted for publication in Canada by Exile Editions.

Fiona: Is there a message in your story collection that you want readers to grasp?
You know, I think about that from time to time. There are 14 stories and I’d say that each of them has its own message and meaning, which may differ from reader to reader (and reading to reading). That’s what makes them literary, I guess.

I think one of the overall messages of the collection is about noticing those small moments of growth and insight, and that being a kid can be hard. Being a grown-up can be hard, too. And being a parent, a mother…well, let’s just say I wanted to shine the light on some feelings that are deep but not that much discussed. And they aren’t all dark, but some of them are.

Fiona: How much of the book is realistic?
Much of the book is quite realistic but I do have one story, “The Woman with Deadly Hands,” which, as you can tell from the title, is a bit of a fairy tale. But it’s a fairy tale for grown-ups. There’s sex in it, homosexuality, a deep dark secret, and a HEA ending (for happily ever after). Many of the themes, in fact, are similar to those in Fifty Shades of Grey, which is one of the reasons that trilogy appealed to me, though I don’t write soft porn. Probably more lucrative if I did!

Fiona: Are experiences based on someone you know, or events in your own life?
I tell everyone that the book is fiction. My kids always roll their eyes (or smirk, or both!) at that. So I’d have to also say some of the stories are based on real events in my own life, or those of people I know. But if real life is the basis of a story, I still take it and move it beyond the quotidian. Something has to happen to that interesting character, IMHO. Or it’s not really a story.

Fiona: What books have most influenced your life most?
As a writer? Mordecai Richler’s Barney’s Version is pretty much perfect, in my view. It’s largely about Montreal, it features characters brash and larger than life, it’s a book about the love of a man for his wife and children, it’s poignant and moving and very, very funny. A writer at the top of his game. If I could write something that had all that—humour, love of family, poignancy—I’d consider myself a success.
One of the things that means the most to me about it is that it’s about the love of a Jewish man for his Jewish wife…which is a kind of long story for me. Let’s just say that most male Jewish authors do not write about lovely and lovable Jewish women. If you like, you can read up on that here:
and here (because that was one of the few changes in the story when it was turned into film)

Other books that are important to me: Morley Callaghan’s The Loved and the Lost. I was very young when I read it and it impressed me immeasurably because it showed me my own home, Montreal, could be the setting for an important novel.
Then there’s the usual: Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, both of which I re-read recently. The latter astounded me: these are books that are usually required reading for pre-teens here in Canada. So to discover that To Kill a Mockingbird was as much about parenting as about racism was a real eye-opener.

More recently, I’ve really enjoyed Lionel Shriver’s fearlessness in We Have to Talk About Kevin, and Michael Chabon’s tour de force The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Klay.

Fiona: If you had to choose, which writer would you consider a mentor?
I don’t think I could choose just one…there’s Colleen Curran, a playwright I’ve been studying with for the past few years. She is just incredibly motivating and supportive, and a wonderful all round bubbly person. She is a sucker for comedy and happily ever after (see her play Cake Walk or her novels, e.g. Something Drastic) but she has also written much more serious work (El Cladavista, Sacred Hearts).

Then there’s Neale McDevitt; I took writing workshops with him for about 18 months. He has a wonderful book of short fiction, One Day Even Trevi Will Crumble, quite a prescient title because I recently read that the fountain was out of commission for awhile after several chunks of it had broken away. Other writing teachers of who really stand out in my mind: Luis Alberto Urrea, and Nancy Zafris.

Fiona: What book are you reading now?
Right now I’m reading Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie for book club and really enjoying that.

Fiona: Are there any new authors that have grasped your interest?
All of them. Martin Crosbie, author of My Temporary Life, for example. Poet Samuel Peralta who is new to me, anyway. I’m learning so much on this indie experiment of mine.

Fiona: What are your current projects?
I’m still trying to figure out how to write a novel. I know how to start them, no problem. It’s keeping them going…that’s what I have to work on. I also have a couple of plays on the go.

Fiona: Name one entity that you feel supported you outside of family members.
Oh, there are many of those! An entire alphabet soup of initials: PWAC, for the Professional Writers Association of Canada, which helped me earn a (bit of? Modest?) living as a freelance writer; the QWF (Quebec Writers’ Federation), which made all the lovely writing workshops available for modest fees, the WFNB (Writers Federation of New Brunswick) for running the David Adams Richards Prize Contest, and; my Canadian publisher, Exile Editions.

Fiona: If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in your latest book?
Yes: I wouldn’t have worried so much about no one wanting to publish it. I wouldn’t have said “yes” to the first offer; I would have investigated what a publisher was willing to do for me. I would have had more faith in my own talent.

Fiona: Do you have a blog/website? if so what is it?

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Sunday 9 September 2012

What NOT to say about a Montreal shooting

Photo Credit/Caption: 
Richard Henry Bain, 62, is the PQ election shooting suspect. Canadian Press

Welcome to Montreal. Another decade, another nut with a gun shooting up the place. 

Sure takes our minds off the potholes. 

This time Canada’s headlines have been hijacked by an individual who (allegedly) attacked the venue where Quebec’s Premiere-elect, Pauline Marois, was making her acceptance speech. She’d just uttered her few well-rehearsed lines of English, promising to protect the rights of the English community (hoo-boy!), when a loud noise had her security contingent swoop in to hustle her offstage.

An announcement was made about an “incident,” a platitude heard regularly in our Metro during service interruptions due to suicide-by-subway, and the crowd asked to head for the exits in an orderly way.

In true Quebec fashion, no one moved. Were they flummoxed by the request to be orderly (what, no clanging pots?), or did they stand pat because they’d come for a party and weren’t leaving till they’d had one?

Mme. Marois reappeared onstage, clearly against the advice of her security guys (what’s the point of having security if you ignore their advice?), and reiterated the request to empty Club Metropolis.

Once again, a la mode inimitable du Québec, no one moved.

What if they gave an assassination attempt and nobody believed it?

Mme. Marois gave up, spoke a little more, invited her friends, family, and fellow candidates up on stage, and continued with the celebration of her historic achievement, being elected the first female Premier in the history of le territoire. Note: no one in Quebec officialdom dares refer to it any longer as a province.

Mme. Marois has since said she had no idea, at that point, that anyone had been killed, the implication being she’d never have carried on so merrily if she’d known. Which makes me wonder: what, exactly, did her security guards tell her, why didn't they tell her how serious things were, and, once again, how much we’re paying for advice that she chooses not to follow?

Not to mention why there didn’t appear to be police protection at every access point to the venue, including the alleyway behind the venue where the shooting occurred. Haven’t these guys ever watched The West Wing?

Shot dead was 48-year-old Denis Blanchette; seriously injured, apparently by the same bullet, is the coincidentally named Dave Courage. Both men were audio technicians working at the club.

Photo taken from Facebook by La Presse

The suspect, Richard Henry Bain, 62, is “a respected businessman with no criminal record,” according to The Toronto Sun (I guess they should have added “until now”). 

At the time of the shooting and subsequent firebombing, Mr. Bain shouted, in French, “The English are waking up!” and that it was “payback time.” He is bruited to be bipolar and was acting more unusually in recent years, according to reports in La Presse. The H1N1 outbreak, for example, seemed to have resulted in a near-survivalist mentality, Mr. Bain quitting the city to run a fishing lodge in La Conception, near Mont Tremblant.

Repercussions of this shooting continue to ripple through our political pond, reports citing “facts” that are quease-inducing. In an article about Mr. Bain, who was attempting to secure the right to exclusive use of the lake where his fishing lodge is located, there’s this:

“Lors de ses visites à l'hôtel de ville de La Conception, il se montrait pourtant courtois et n'exigeait pas d'être servi en anglais, même s'il s'exprimait avec un fort accent en français.” 

Which means ‘During his visits to La Conception city hall, he remained courteous and didn’t demand to be served in English, even though he spoke French with a strong [English] accent.’ 

Eww. Imagine what they’d have written if he had demanded to be served in English.

Meantime, our mayor, Gerald Tremblay, is on record as saying that Mr. Bain has ‘nothing to do with’ (“n’a rien a voir”) the English community. And, not that we usually pay any attention to them but now, apparently, the Société Saint Jean Baptiste is blaming the English media for Mr. Bain’s behaviour…really? How do you say “scapegoat” en français?

On Facebook, a photo is circulating of an intern at a Montreal radio station standing on the street with a sign exhorting “Embrasse un Anglo.” Meaning ‘embrace an Anglo’ and not ‘embarrass an Anglo.’

Apparently, Mr. Bain had 22 guns because he loved to shoot things…er, I mean hunt. 

Since Canada’s gun lobby achieved the destruction of our long gun registry partly by demanding to be shown which crimes the registry prevented, I’d like to underline the sloppiness of that reasoning by calling on Prime Minister Harper to strike down our murder laws because they clearly failed to prevent the death of Mr. Blanchette.

May he rest in peace.

Yellow tape and police cars surrounded an upended red sports car;stuck in an enormous pothole in a road in downtown Montreal. The scene was an elaborate hoax as part of a campaign to launch the website

Wednesday 5 September 2012

l’Affaire Wong, or Post hoc, ergo propter hoc

Post image for l’Affaire Wong, or Post hoc ergo propter hoc

If a mechanic replaces your winter tires and scrimps on tightening the lug nuts, the consequences — a wheel popping off on the highway — can be disastrous. If a doctor leaves a surgical instrument behind, misreads a scan, or overlooks the follow-up test result, a patient can wind up seriously injured, even dead. So what happens if a career journalist confuses correlation and causation on a sensitive file of national importance? And what if, to compound the error, her editor fails to catch the mistake? And all this takes place during a fast-breaking news story?

L’affaire Wong is what happens. Out of the Blue is what happens.

I was a fan of Jan Wong’s for much of her career: her writing was consistently interesting and often extremely personal, displayed warts and all, especially her books about China and her tragic flirtation with Maoism. Now there was teenage rebellion carried to the nth degree.

I enjoyed her work during Tiananmen, had a few problems with her articles as an undercover domestic worker, munched (often somewhat aghast) on the occasional “Lunch With” column, etc.
And then there was the 2006 Dawson College shooting and her infamous Globe and Mail article on the subject. For me, that pretty much put the kibosh on Jan Wong’s appeal.

So I was intrigued by the hubbub surrounding her latest offering Out of the Blue, a book dubbed the first “workplace divorce memoir,” in Macleans. Triggering a spate of raised-eyebrow headlines, Wong’s publisher Doubleday declined the book in the final steps before publication, despite the text's having already been vetted by their legal team.

I began following the issue, was approached to write about, and was loathe to. Mostly because I didn’t want any of my meagre earnings transferred to Jan Wong’s bank account.

My son was at Dawson College on Sept. 13, 2006 — a date that “lives in infamy” in my overloaded cranium, I’m afraid — and I’ve written about it, too. But my concern was the necessity for more and better gun control — Quebec’s infamous mass murderers Lepine, Fabrikant, and Gill all managed to purchase their lethal weapons legally, and I continue to wonder why our society allows guns to be so easily accessed (the shootings at Club Metropolis, during Pauline Marois’ acceptance speech, may raise the question anew).

Unlike Jan Wong, I didn’t give a rat’s ass about the “why” of the shootings — I remain convinced these men were seriously mentally ill. I didn’t care whether Mr. Gill had been refused admission to Dawson (he wasn’t) or was a bullied or abused child (who knows)? But nothing excuses murder.

To me, all murder is hate crime. Unlike Wong, it never occurred to me to ascribe the tragic actions of these men to “racism,” Quebec’s supposed antagonism toward “les autres.” But curiosity finally got the better of me, and I compromised by buying the Kindle version of Wong’s book, about half the price of the paperback.

Several aspects must be considered in evaluating Out of the Blue, the one-and-only (or is that the first?) self-published book to be featured on CBC radio’s Sunday Edition.

There’s the W5 of Wong’s personal narrative: what happened to her, how she felt about it, what she did about it, etc. Which, as might be expected of a best-selling career journalist, is eminently readable and engaging.

And then there’s the objective part: how did L’affaire Wong — the Dawson article and the blowback from it — happen? Where does the responsibility lie? And finally, what to think of the way The Globe and Mail treated what happened next?

I call the first of these considerations “herstory” versus “the truth”– an over-simplification, perhaps, but rebuttals are welcome.

Out of the Blue’s premise is that the people of Quebec, and the Canadian political class, exhibited a major over reaction to Wong’s original article — the paper received a slew of angry letters, Wong received mailed excrement and death threats; her publisher informed her she had damaged the paper’s “brand”; Prime Minister Harper and Premier Charest sent letters to the paper admonishing her, and the House of Commons passed a motion demanding she apologize to the people of Quebec. All this from several paragraphs of “analysis” inferring three Quebec mass murders were a logical outcome of the province’s disdain of those who are not pure laine.

In the book, and in the clips and interviews where she discusses it, Wong treats the uproar to her article as though it was provoked by an innocuous single sentence in some 3,000 words. But she actually spent over 400 words on this “analysis.” Her point was clearly that Quebec’s emphasis on ethnic/racial purity is profoundly alienating and forms part of the explanation for Kimveer Gill’s — and Marc Lepine’s, and Valery Fabrikant’s — murderous rampages.

But those 400 words were not “analysis”: they were preposterous. Is there a single journalist in Canada prepared to stand up on her hind legs and ascribe, in public, Luka Magnotta’s (alleged) crimes to the ethnic exclusivist nature of Quebec society? No. And that’s not simply because Magnotta hadn’t lived in Quebec for very long. It’s because the supposition is, for want of a better word (and with apologies to loons), loony.

Let’s apply Wong-style reasoning to the Robert Picton case in BC. Is there a newspaper that would publish an article suggesting this savage killer’s actions were linked to, say, British Columbia’s having accepted too many Asian immigrants (after all, immigration from Asia increased, and then Picton killed many women, so…)? I don’t think so. And not just because it would be politically incorrect to do so.

It’s because B following A doesn’t mean A caused B. Or “Post hoc ergo propter hoc,” as I learned from The West Wing.

She describes how her brainwave arose:

On the car radio, a talk-show host was saying that all three of Canada’s campus shootings had occurred in Montreal. That’s right, I thought with surprise, but why?… ‘A lot of people are saying: why does this always happen in Quebec?’ Jay [Bryan, of The Montreal Gazette] said. ‘Three doesn’t mean anything. But three out of three in Quebec means something.’…Like epidemiologists who look for patterns in the outbreak and spread of diseases, reporters also seek meaning in chaos—except we must do so on deadline. Three out of three was statistically meaningless, but not in a business where we grasp for any pattern. For journalists, three is a magic number: it’s a trend.

Here is how that trend was described in her 2006 article, “Get under the desk”:

What many outsiders don’t realize is how alienating the decades-long linguistic struggle has been in the once-cosmopolitan city. It hasn’t just taken a toll on long-time anglophones, it’s affected immigrants, too. 

To be sure, the shootings in all three cases were carried out by mentally disturbed individuals. But what is also true is that in all three cases, the perpetrator was not pure laine, the argot for a “pure” francophone. Elsewhere, to talk of racial “purity” is repugnant. Not in Quebec.

Okay, so in 2006, according to Jan Wong, Montreal is no longer cosmopolitan, Quebec is racist, and Wong has no real understanding of mental illness. Wong committed a cardinal sin of journalism: in the absence of any tangible evidence, she confused correlation and causation. Her article was marred by a breakdown in the professional integrity journalists must be governed by.

There is trash journalism — of Geraldo or Fox News ilk — and there’s serious journalism. Unfortunately — for us and for them — on that day in September 2006, “under deadline” and in the thrall of a civic tragedy cum sensational news story, Jan Wong and Edward Greenspon briefly seemed unable to tell the difference. That neither of them works at The Globe and Mail any longer may not be a coincidence.

By the end of Out of the Blue, Jan Wong still can’t accept she was the author of her own misfortune. Instead, she writes, “like a plot device in an Ian McEwan novel, one random occurrence had set off an inexorable chain of events and everything changed.”

But the event wasn’t random. In my opinion, it was generated by Jan Wong’s poor judgement. And her editor’s.

But enough about L’affaire Wong. What about the rest of the book? Does Wong dish that “dish best served cold”?

Does she ever.

Wong commands our sympathy by launching her tale with a poignant scene: the author cowering in her car outside her home, convinced that a pickup truck parked nearby shelters a homicidal maniac–a Quebecer bent on revenge for her Dawson article. This is a delusion, of course. But as a literary device, it works.

Wong uses unnamed co-workers — and a dead woman — to establish that The Globe and Mail’s was a toxic work environment. The late Val Ross, Wong’s friend and colleague, along with two other women co-workers, “had been sick from work-related stress. Val told me she had been taking antidepressants for years…‘It’s the only way I can stand working here.’”

(Of course, the fact that a significant proportion of women in middle age are on antidepressants should also perhaps be noted.)

Wong’s descent into depression is recounted in excruciating detail. And, despite her explanation of a journalist’s near-compulsive note-taking, her behaviour demonstrates a degree of functioning still hard to reconcile in one supposedly so overwhelmed with depression she could no longer work.
Viewed from Wong’s point of view, the devastation that follows her 2006 article is understandable — extreme and total. But viewed from The Globe and Mail’s perspective: Wong maintained she was unable to work for them, could not write for them, for years. On the other hand, she could manage, contemporaneously, to polish off a 90,000 word manuscript while on a couple of months of unpaid leave. And mount a successful tour in support of the finished book.

Who can blame The Globe for being a little tetchy about that, or about the notion that her doctor-prescribed peregrinations to Europe and China — what she calls “the geographic cure” —  are a reasonable treatment for depression? Of course, she might say, “But look, I got better using the geographic cure.” In which case, one might reply, “Post hoc ergo propter hoc.”

Finally, Out of the Blue is, I am sorry to have to say, poorly-researched. For example, this early clunker that I noticed immediately, about that fateful day back at Dawson College:

Kimveer Gill had shot twenty people. It could have been much worse, but two rookie police officers arrived by chance on a drug-related tip three minutes after he began shooting. Veteran cops might have waited for backup. The rookies drew their guns and rushed into the cafeteria. Gill stopped shooting.

Wrong: charging in to confront a shooter had become standard operating procedure for police by 2006, as a cursory Internet search immediately reveals (I also remember reading about it back then). The method had been developed following the Ecole Polytechnique shootings: the then-established police practice–establishing a perimeter and waiting for SWAT backup — was one of the reasons the Polytechnique toll was so tragically high — 14 women murdered, 14 others injured.

In fact, Montreal police said the Dawson College incident was the city’s first true test of its revamped emergency response plan.

Deputy police chief Jean-Guy Gagnon, the senior officer in charge last Sept. 13 when Kimveer Gill killed one person and injured 20 others, says…”We can see a big evolution from the Polytechnique event to the Dawson event, the first responder applied exactly to our training program,” Gagnon said…Since the rampage at the Ecole polytechnique in 1989, police officers were trained to identify the suspect or source of danger and isolate it. For 18 harrowing minutes, five Montreal police officers kept a trenchcoat-clad Gill pinned in a corner, allowing Dawson students to escape unscathed. This is the reason we only have one death on that day,” Gagnon said. (Canadian Press article from Sept. 12, 2007 “Montreal cops learning from Dawson and two other school shootings.”)

A front page article in Kitchener/Cambridge/Waterloo’s The Record published the same day as Wong’s original piece, “Local police were doing simulation of rampage,” carries similar information.

Then there is her unquestioning reliance on the report by Montreal psychiatric researchers about the psychological impact of the event on the school’s survivors, which she mentions in part to underline how she isn’t the only person to have been traumatized by the Dawson shootings: “The study found they suffered psychological damage at a rate two to three times higher than that of the general population, and that the trauma increased with proximity to the shooting.”

Logical, perhaps. But unscientific in the extreme.

What neither Wong nor Dr. Warren Steiner, head of the McGill University Health Centre’s psychiatric department and point man for the study in the English press, come clean on is that the study analysed the responses of 949 volunteer respondents; I know they were volunteers because my son was approached to participate and refused.

Dawson College has some 7500 day students, another 2500 evening students, and many hundreds of teachers and support staff. There were, literally, thousands of students and staff present at the CEGEP on the day of the Kimveer Gill shootings. Is it likely that the 949 people studied represent a random selection of those exposed to the violent events? Isn’t it reasonable to assume these self-selected respondents are, in fact, probably much more likely than the average person present to have been traumatized by the violence? Who knows how many of these 949 people were on the psychologically less copacetic end of the spectrum even before the rampage of Sept. 13, 2006?

The bottom line on Out of the Blue: Wong’s book-long skewering The Globe and Mail for firing her reminds me of the standard definition of chutzpah: a young man who murders both his parents throwing himself on the mercy of the court because he’s an orphan.

Nothing justifies ethnic slurs, hate mail, or death threats, but L’affaire Wong was the result of decisions made by Jan Wong and her editor. Her remarks, which she neither takes back nor seems to regret, revealed an appalling ignorance of and lack of respect for Quebec society. Not to mention the sort of pseudo-intellectualizing that would have been shot down in a CEGEP term paper.

Probably Wong’s editor Edward Greenspon should have borne the brunt of Quebecers’ ire. Her writing crossed the line, and a tight deadline doesn’t excuse a seasoned journalist’s provincial character assassination. It was her editor’s job, though, to rein her in, to correct her lapses. And his failure was epic.

That said, who could then deny that The Globe and Mail had a duty to support Wong for an illness contracted during her employment with them, a result of said employment? No one. Which is, perhaps, why the paper eventually settled with her. And yet it’s hard to blame The Globe’s insurer, Manulife Financial, for having a hard time accepting that she was ill, and that “the geographic cure” — world travel — is a bona fide medical treatment for depression.

Wong now spends part of her time in Fredericton, teaching journalism at St. Thomas University. She also writes for the Halifax Chronicle Herald. A few years back, that paper laid off a quarter of its newsroom staff. In 2011, many of its freelancers quit after they refused to sign a new, mandatory, all-rights grabbing contract.

Beverly Akerman is a Montreal writer; her story collection, The Meaning of Children, winner of the David Adams Richards Prize, was recently published as an e-book.

This article originally published on The Rover

Tuesday 4 September 2012

One step closer to "becoming an e-book sensation. Seriously"?

It has certainly been a great few days!
A fantastic long weekend spent with friends, including 

the lovely, amusing, erudite, and 

always effervescent Miss Pauline...

(above with hubbly and bubbly!)



4,354 copies 


downloaded during my latest Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing Giveaway,

which ending Sept. 2nd...the book peaked at #11 in Free Literary Fiction, and #73 in Free overall.

Which, considering there are thousands of free books on Amazon, is pretty amazing...

I am grateful, touched, and humble in the face of this interest in my book, and I sincerely hope everyone who downloaded it enjoys the book immensely!

And, for making it easy for readers to connect with my book, I cannot say enough about Ereader News Today.

Indie writers: find ENT and submit your free promotion information to them early.

No other single website was more important than ENT in ensuring the success of my promotion. In fact, they only posted my book on Sept. 2nd, scant hours before the end of my free download period. If it had been posted at the beginning, I think the downloads would have been well nigh stratospheric (how's that for an enthusiastic endorsement?)

And now, let the paying sales begin, I say! :0) (And they have.)

I hope many copies are soon #seenreading, too (NOTE: my use of this hashtag has nothing to do with the book by the same name). Although this suggests a problem: will e-books be visible to others sitting nearby? It's probably often impossible to tell what people are reading on e-readers--one more argument in favour of old-style printing...

Which may partly explain the popularity of 50 Shades of Grey: soft-core right there out in the open...though I can't imagine doing so, myself.

But I, as I am wont to do, digress...

More reasons to be happy with the last few days: didn't cook (again) last night--treated to dinner at Peking Garden by the one and only Sandy Dubya--thank you, Sandy!

And then this morning, the doorbell rings; Canada Post, delivering a copy of the new book Skill Set with Grammar: Strategies for Reading and Writing in the Canadian Classroom (2nd edition) by Lucia Engkent, and published by Oxford University Press (in 2013!).

Why should this have me excited? I mean, grammar doesn't usually yank my chain. But THIS book just happens to feature my first professional article, "White Tops, Grey Bottoms," originally published in Macleans Magazine...please find it here if you're interested. 

Inspired by my one and only #2 son ("the spare," we call him. Not), who managed to snag a detention for having his shirttail untucked. Of course, I only discovered later that the dastardly punishment was meted out only after the same teacher caught him twice on the same day committing said heinous infraction. 

Some things parents only find out later...sometimes, MUCH later. 

There are times it is a relief to be out of the loop.

A distinct relief.

All told, over 5,000 copies of The Meaning of Children are now in readers' hot little hands, both paying and non-paying. A Canadian best-seller? 

Not quite. 

4,354 copies is almost chump change compared to my friend Martin Crosbie, for example, as detailed in my April Globe and Mail article on self-publishing.

But I'm still hoping I have mountains of positive reviews to  look forward to...and many more downloads. Paying ones this lives in hope, of course.

 And The Meaning of Children is always a FREE borrow for Amazon Prime members...

FREE for Amazon Prime members!