Travelling Book Cafe

Who do we think we are?

It was no surprise that the discussion at The Travelling Book Café in Quebec wound round to language and how it affects our identities. Language enters conversations at every level here, and it is more complex than the simple divide between those who speak English and those who speak French. In this group of Anglophones, the majority of whom have lived in Quebec for decades, there were a few who claimed to be comfortable as minorities in this French-first province, but others still feel like outsiders. The sense of who they are has changed: since the society around them identifies them as Anglos, they have to consider what that implies, something that did not come up before they moved from Wisconsin or Saskatchewan, Poland, Maryland, Ontario.

As for French, having recently returned from the mother country that gave Quebec its langue maternelle, having learned that many of the first arrivals from France in the 1600's did not even speak French, but one of the regional languages of France at that time, such as Breton, Oc or Gallo, I saw how the French that has developed in Quebec could have been influenced by those languages, certainly was influenced by the classic French in novels that were required reading in school. It would be as if a group of Anglos were separated for generations from other English speakers, and clung to the diction of Shakespeare. Of course that changed with the influence of English-Canadian and American culture via mass media. Still, a grand controverse erupted over the comments, supposedly misinterpreted (but don't they always say that?), of the Montreal tennis star, Eugenie Bouchard, who said that while she fears she may have too much of an Anglo accent when she speaks French, at least she no longer sounds like a Québecoise. The newspaper columnist who responded to this young woman, whom he otherwise admires, was noticeably hurt. An accent reveals our origins, he wrote. We should never be ashamed of our origins, who we are, where we come from, even if some of the wonderful Quebec films that have been produced in the last few decades have to be subtitled for screening in cinemas en France.

Identity: a major theme in my novel You Again, and the topic that elicits such personal revelations at The Travelling Book Café. A man who comes from North Carolina began the discussion with an appropriately general comment about how our identity is influenced by a web of things, including family, country, religion. A couple of women insisted that they are who they were born to be and have never questioned it, but I wonder: have any of us been so confident, life long, that we could avoid asking questions that get to the heart of our being? One good reason for keeping the Book Café to less than 20, preferably 15 people, is that everyone has a chance to speak, and after awhile, the more intimate stories begin coming out. One woman defines herself as someone who is not like the rest of her birth family, who are just plain mean, she said. Another one confessed that the culture she moved into when she came to Quebec with her husband caused her to fall into a depression she thinks stemmed from a loss of connection with self. A 20 year old admitted that while she attends school in the U.S., and is a U.S. citizen, she does not feel like an American. She has lived in many parts of the world with her travelling parents and assimilated aspects of each culture. She is now some kind of hybrid, she feels, no matter what her passport says.

Close to the age of my character Mattie, who tries to rescue his own identity by escaping the identity theft ring he was part of, this young woman's story was particularly poignant. Outwardly lovely and poised, she is searching for stable footholds as she moves forward into a career, into adult life. That won't be the end of it, though, at least it is not for most people, as Mattie's mother, another character in You Again, demonstrates. Sense of self changes as life circumstances change. What happens when you learn that your mother has been lying to you about your true father? What image do you have of yourself when the world no longer reflects the beautiful woman/handsome man you used to be? How far down do you have to reach to find your essence? In what language do you talk to yourself?


Off the plane, on the bus to the Kipling subway station, the grey look of the city, the people. The winter fatigue.

Table for two at the Travelling Book Café, where Margaret Hollingsworth and I focussed on writing and publishing. This old friend, a long time writer with many plays to her name, a novel, short stories, essays, has become a poet, and after a lifetime of writing, her original ideas, her stunning language, she wonders, is it good enough? Even having won a poetry contest hasn't convinced her. Still, if no one else will publish her collection, she will do it herself..."because I have spent all those hours..."

Tulips in all the stores. The fragrant, bountiful St. Lawrence Market. The awful, embarrassing mayor. Someone you wouldn't want even at a table beside you at dinner. It's sad for him and also Toronto. Line ups for everything, transit, transit, people, people, but...

The wonderful hot docs festival, three films in all: the powerful "Virunga", about the endangered national park in the Congo, a World Heritage Site. Why do these stories never change? Why are corporate values, in general, so contrary to nature? Proceeds from poaching mountain gorillas fund the rebel armies as do payoffs from SOCO, the British oil company that wants to use Virunga as its own private profit well. Not much different than in King Leopold's days of rubber high grading. Instead of chopping off human hands, the hands of  gorillas are chopped.  Wonderful footage, sad story. Somewhat splayed story structure.

Then "Rich Hill", the intimate look at this Missouri town of 1500, and three boys anyone would term at risk. Fabulous job of intimate film making, character revelation. Andrew taking care of his parents, Harley about to explode, Appachey drifting, smoking, reverting to a baby with his head on his mother's shoulder before he enters juvenile court. Beautiful camera work, too.

My least favourite, "Lady Valour", not because of Kristin Beck and her situation, her having come out as a woman after a career as a seal; but the CNN way of underscoring with loud music, concentrating too much on the nail polish and the high heels of this so-called princess warrior. I'm not sure the film really did justice to Ms. Beck, though the director had her explain her situation again and again and again. Most touching part, Kristin's father, brother and sister. The emotional toll of Kristin's transformation, the love they felt for her... that said more than any of the statements she made about how hard it was to be her.

Traffic tie ups slowing down the Bathurst bus on a long, rainy day.... but, charming side streets with narrow brick houses and peak roofs. Sun breaking through, wind blowing away the clouds and, finally, free ice cream and a dancing cow to celebrate the opening of the new Dutch Dreams location on Vaughan Road, and also Dutch liberation day!

I'll read you my story, you tell me yours

The people who attended my first Travelling Book Café opened their lives to me and to each other.

My format for the afternoon was to introduce my new book, You Again, by describing what had inspired the trilogy that this novel completes; then read a bit, parts that demonstrated the themes I wanted people to pick up on, then invite my listeners to tell their own stories.

How incisive a discussion that invitation sparked. Some people I knew and some I didn't told tales of their search for identity, of waiting until  their 30's, or 40's before embracing whom they felt themselves to be; the importance of recognition or non-recognition from mothers. The talk wound around to sisters, especially those from different fathers; then single mothers and the ways they were stigmatized in the days when banks would not approve mortgages, when potential employers considered lone women with children risks instead of assets. How more than one parent had opened discussions of a daughter's future with the phrase "when you're safely married". The crowd ranged in age from late 20's to early 70's, so layers of history unfolded through the speakers.

One person told of growing up with an invalid mother who thought of her daughter as her emissary to the world. Another of how she has been looking for an image that truly reflects her since her mother rejected her when she was a child. The mother of two daughters from two different fathers talked about the sibling rivalry between her girls, how both had courted the favours of the only father who was in the picture. An actress who is caring for her dying father revealed that she cheers him up by imitating the Irish lilt of her late mother. "I have her down to a t-e-a!"

All this, and just outside the gallery where the event took place, in the Mall, a pre-Easter petting zoo attracted a different crowd: parents and kids, some sitting nicely with bunnies or guinea pigs on their laps; others standing outside the fence watching little pigs, and some fluffy headed breed of chicken, beautiful yellow ducklings, and newly hatched chicks snuffle and scratch and gaze back at the spectators with that trust unique to infants.

A few days later, it was not baby animals but the stopping and going of the #9 Broadway bus outside the window of the Heartwood Café that provided the rhythm and the potential to distract. Under the stamped tin ceiling, in the cozy front part of the café, I read the two sections I had read at the gallery, in which Annette and Elfie, (the middle and youngest of Shinny's daughters, who are nearing and midway through their 30's in You Again), contemplate their own identities and their place in the family. But I added a paragraph from the eldest daughter, Lawreen, in which she grieves for the lost identity her daughter's career as an actress had made possible:
            She swallows, works her mouth from side to side, rolls her lips together. But the tears come anyway, and since Ken is not home to ask her what’s wrong, she sits down and gives in. It’s just so stupid. She misses Mariah, her energy, her beauty; she misses the thrill of walking onto a movie set, or into a wrap party, of dressing up, of not pretending to be but actually being someone. The star’s mother, or the second-lead’s mother, or the girlfriend of the lead’s mother. Mariah has not actually needed a chaperone for years, but no one minded Lawreen tagging along. Everyone knew her, the crew, the producers, some of the regular Vancouver actors. She went from vigilant at first, to eventually relaxed, and could sip a cup of coffee and make small talk with anyone. It isn’t her life, it’s Mariah’s; she knows it’s time to back off. But she misses it. Oh how she misses it. What will she do with herself? Now her chest is tight and she’s struggling for air as if she has run a marathon. Could it be asthma?

This audience included two women who are both the middle sister of three girls, none of whom have children of their own. And a new thread unravelled from stories about how sisters remember childhood experiences as differently as if they had grown up in two different families. To conclude the evening, a writer friend, Ethel Whitty, read a section from her forthcoming novel, in which the bond between mother and daughter is expressed by the dress the mother sews for her daughter's first dance. The lyrical language itself testifies to their complicated love for one another.

The Travelling Book Café moves onto Toronto first weekend in May; Quebec in June. Have book, will travel.