Tag Archives: Pontificating

Fill the Space

Last week, one of my dear friends and fellow historians sent around a link to a column by David Perry, about how without us always noticing it, medieval history has frequently been appropriated by white supremacists as part of their world view. It’s a really good piece, and you can read it here.  (Here is a great bibliography of further reading along similar lines, if you would like.)

I’m not going to try to expand on Perry’s thoughts about history (because I don’t really think that I can) but his column did get me to thinking about the imaginary worlds we create. I often read comments to the effect of ‘Leave the politics out of your writing, I just want a good story’ directed at authors. Is it a fair criticism? Should artists provide politically-neutral entertainment for our audiences? Or do we instead have an obligation to use our platform (of whatever size it may be) to promote the values and causes we think are important?

I actually want to hit pause on the question of whether it would be desirable to write fiction that was free of political messages, and consider whether it’s even possible. I don’t think that it is. Certainly everything that I write has a large part of me in it, which includes the values I hold dear and all the assumptions and biases that are a part of me. When I create my heroes and villains, I doubt I could avoid putting my own consideration of what ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are into the mix. Whatever kind of imaginary world I’m creating will always be at least partly refracted through the prism of how I see the world around me: what I like, what I don’t like, what pleases me and what bothers me.

So I think that even if I tried to write a story that was entirely apolitical, I would probably fail. My ideas are in there, in the weave of every tale I spin, and I don’t think it could be any other way.

Even if it were possible to write a story that was somehow free, or even apparently free, of ideology, it would almost certainly be a dangerous idea. Our imaginary worlds can be the blank space that gets filled with dangerous, harmful messages just as easily as the worlds of the past can be. An imagined past, present, or future that carries no expressions of tolerance, diversity, and equality all too easily becomes an expression against those ideas. Perry mentions how we already know this happens with tales like The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, at times. I think the argument that it is the writer’s duty to counteract the use of art to spread hate is as strong as the one placing that duty upon the historian, and the teacher.

Some people suggest that artists have a special obligation to be political in this particular moment in which we find ourselves, to boost the ideas we cherish against what seems to be an increasingly negative tide. I’m not sure whether that’s true or it isn’t, but I think the idea of the writer as apolitical is a false one, unachievable and undesirable. In the end, we must write what we believe. Anything else will ring false, and we do a disservice to our values if we try to silence them. I trust my audience can consider my ideas for themselves, and take them or leave them as they choose.

Finally, to my teaching, at least briefly. From when I started teaching I tried very hard to deliberately leave my politics and my beliefs out of it. For one thing, I didn’t (and don’t) believe that what I think about any particular issue is of any particular interest or import, but it was more than that. I wanted my students to reach their own conclusions, and I felt that I was there to teach history, not to teach them what to think about history. Recently, and at least in part because of other historians like Perry, I’m reconsidering. Probably my politics were already there, just as they are in my writing, in what I chose to put in my lectures and what to leave out, what to emphasize and what examples from the past to bring into the light. Somewhat amusingly to me as I write this, that was more or less the point of my PhD dissertation – that history is never neutral. I’ll never insist that my students agree with anything that I suggest to them, but I do think it’s probably my job to make sure they hear a particular side of the story.

That blank space unto which harmful views can be projected isn’t desirable in the classroom any more than it is in the world of fiction, and it’s space that will be filled if we don’t put something there.

We may as well make sure that space is occupied by something marvelous rather than something ghastly.

That’s what I’ve got for you this week. Thanks for reading.

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Canada 150

Well, that’s over.

For those of you wondering what the heck I’m talking about (moreso than usual), this past weekend was not only Canada Day, but the much-hyped ‘Canada 150’, the 150th anniversary of Confederation and Canada becoming a (reasonably) independent nation. Since I live in Ottawa, this has been Red Alert Status stuff for what seems like the past ten years and finally, all the planning and preparations went into action.

Predictably, there was chaos and people got pissed off and probably a lot of people had fun and I avoided all of it.

I’ve written about Canada Day and what I think about where I live at least a couple times before, and usually ended up saying something about how grateful I am to live where I do (which I am) and how I think, overall, that this country is pretty great (which in a lot of ways it is). When I was younger, I would have said it was unambiguously great and said it was the best nation in the world.

As time has gone by, I guess I’ve learned more about Canada’s history, how it’s treated various different groups of people, how we haven’t always done so well, and continue to not do so well in very important ways. So, as much as I still admire a lot of what has been built here, in this place, I think there are a lot of things that absolutely need to be criticized and a lot of things that we need to insist are done differently and better. This country now both makes me very proud, and very ashamed.

I love the story about the Syrian refugees who came here and opened a chocolate business, not only supporting themselves but becoming employers in their new home. This is Canada. I really love the story about another group of refugees who, when the city of Fort McMurray was devastated by fire last year, launched a relief effort, because they knew what it was like to lose everything. This is Canada.

My friend Jay Odjick went to the opening of an exhibit at the Canadian Museum of History that he did the art for, and on what should have been a proud and special evening for him, he got hassled by security, and this is also Canada. There are over 150 communities that do not have drinkable water. Most of them are First Nations communities, and this is also Canada.

Canada is a country that does a lot of things right, in terms of rights for LGBTQ people, rights for women, a healthcare system that I am ever more grateful for as I watch the spectacular mess to our south, and in providing a place of safe refuge to people who desperately need it. All of these are things that, even as we can continue to do better at them, we can take a lot of pride in.

We do a lot of things wrong. Maybe foremost among those is our relationship with and treatment of First Nations people, for me our great national shame and something we must absolutely fix. We sell weapons to repressive regimes. We don’t do enough to safeguard our environment. These are things that we have to take our lumps for and commit to doing far better with.

As I get older, the more I see both the good and the bad in this place where I live, and so I feel less excited about Canada Day and less able to get excited about a celebration of a nation that still has so much work to do. The legacy of this place is absolutely one of peacekeeping and inclusion and achievement; it is also one of genocide and colonialism. So I end up more thoughtful and regretful on Canada Day than anything else, and especially on this Canada 150 that was supposed to be Canada Day plus plus plus.

I guess what I want to believe is that the intentions of this society are right and the trend is towards what is good and fair and just, that the forces here that are still about exploitation and division and repression are on the wrong side of history and that we will, day by day, improve this place and make it into a society we can take unqualified pride in.

The past is never going away, and we shouldn’t deny it or try to forget it. We can do better, and say that that’s not who we are any more. I would like very much to be, in whatever teeny tiny way, a part of making this place better, and there’s nowhere else in the world that I’d want to live. This land is a great blessing, the society that lives in it (I think) fundamentally has good intentions, and we need to live up to the latter so that we might be able to say we deserve the former.

Which is a lot more complicated than just saying that I live in a great place and that my country is amazing, but I think it’s closer to the truth. I feel like the truth is maybe the most important thing for us to hang on to these days, so there you have it.

I’m glad the ridiculously over-the-top Canada 150 celebrations are over, because maybe now we can focus on building a Canada that deserves a celebration.

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On Cultural Appropriation

I’ve been hesitant to write about this topic because, first, there’s been a great deal written about it already, much of it by wiser heads than me and in general, on any topic the world does not tend to need more white dude opinions, and second, I think it’s important to mostly hear the voices of people from cultures that are being appropriated on this issue. And yet, I am a writer and one who writes about things I imagine, so this seems like an subject I can’t easily avoid, and I have also seen people whose opinions I usually respect thoroughly not getting the problems here, and maybe if I can help a tiny little bit.

I trust I don’t really need to explain the concept of cultural appropriation itself; it seems hardly possible to spend any time at all thinking about the creative world without having run into the discussion. The issue really burst into flames in Canada last week when Write magazine published an editorial calling (not very seriously) for an ‘Appropriation Prize’ and declaring (much more seriously) that cultural appropriation doesn’t exist (or isn’t a problem) and that writers should write about whatever different cultures they choose and imagine the perspectives of as many different kinds of people as possible. A lot of people (unsurprisingly) got upset, a small(ish) number of white industry insiders made edgy comments in favour of the idea of an Appropriation Prize, and as I write this today the guy who wrote the editorial and at least one of the edgy commenters have resigned from their jobs.

Hopefully what the whole episode of the Write editorial will be is an opportunity for everyone to hear the voices of people from cultures that are exploited via appropriation, listen to their perspectives and their concerns, and do better as we all go forward. Fortunately, there seems to be a good deal of that going on, although it is striking to hear a common theme from many of these speakers: sadness that this is still an issue that we are grappling with, rather than a problem that had been solved long ago.

This is also an issue that I have been asked about. I (currently) write fantasy, so basically making up the points of view and perspectives of people who are not like me is more or less baked into the job. So, isn’t that a problem if I’m against cultural appropriation? The first answer (which I hope is obvious) is that there’s a big difference between making up an entirely fake culture and adopting the perspective of a real one lived by real people. There is rather more tricky territory with creating a culture based upon a real-world one, or imaginary cultures that appear to (intentionally or not) mirror the relationships between groups in our real society. The more fantastic and imaginary you make something, probably the less you need to worry about the problem of appropriation, but this is not the issue that most people have a problem with. Of course fiction writers make things up. That’s not a problem.

However, of course, in the case of the stuff I’ve had published, things weren’t quite that easy. Both King in Darkness and Bonhomme Sept-Heures are set in our world, or something very close to it. My cast of characters includes people who aren’t white, aren’t male, and aren’t straight, so aren’t I engaging in appropriation? It’s not a completely unfair question, and it’s one that I’ve asked myself a bunch of times as I’ve been sitting down to write.

The answer (I think) is that diversity in writing is important both in terms of the kind of characters that get written and who does the writing. So yes, if I’m going to write (and I am), it’s important for me to value the existence of people from a variety of backgrounds, and if I’m going to do that I need to do it as respectfully and well as I can. It is one of the most challenging parts of writing for me but I also feel it’s one of the most vital ones – while it might arguably be easier to exclude characters with experiences that don’t match my own a) it would be boring b) it wouldn’t be a very good portrayal of the world we really live in and c) imagining that different groups in society aren’t there is a harmful thing to do. So it’s essential that I continue to write characters from a whole bunch of different backgrounds in our society.

A key part of doing that, though, is to listen to the people from those backgrounds when they talk about something I wrote, or things other artists created, and how they were portrayed (or not portrayed) in those pieces. What was good. What was wrong. What was hurtful. Then I need to to better the next time. I don’t think anyone is seriously suggesting that an author like me should never include people who aren’t like me in my stories (and I sure hope not!) but that when I write those different people, I try to be mindful of the differences between their experiences and mine, value those differences and portray them as well as I can. When I learn that there are things that I need to do better, I acknowledge that, try to learn more, and try to keep improving.

It’s also important that I’m not going to pretend to be of those other cultures. I can tell a story with a First Nations person in it, but I’m not going to claim that culture as my own, or to say that I am telling the story of First Nations people. Which is a fine distinction, but an important one. There was another controversy recently with a white painter who says she was inspired by the art of First Nations people and started producing art in that style. First Nations people objected, strenuously, and other people objected just as strenuously that artists should be free to express themselves.

Isn’t it ok? Can’t we be inspired by whatever we’re inspired by, as artists? Isn’t copying (or modelling) the behaviour of others pretty deep in our genes? In an ideal world where all cultures were on an equal footing and we could ignore centuries of interaction between them, I guess the answer to those questions might be ‘yes’, but they’re not and we can’t and so the answer is no.

It is deeply not ok for a white person to decide that the art and stories and culture of a people that we, as a society, spent at least the past 150 years trying to eradicate is kind of fun and cool and to claim it for our own and try to make money off it. Doing so is a continuation of the plundering of the colonial era that got us to this deeply problematic place where we are today. What about when a non-white artist uses something from (say) European culture? Isn’t that the same problem? Again, no, of course it’s not – European culture has never been in danger of being eradicated by another one. It’s never been under threat. And, it’s never been a problem for European artists (as a group) to get the attention their work deserves.

The other part of this problem and why it’s not ok for white artists to identify with whatever they identify with and start telling the stories or using the art of other cultures is that it is still so hard for people from these different cultures to get their voices heard and to get their stories told. The demographic breakdown for fiction authors getting published is still overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly male. It is orders of magnitude harder for other voices to get heard.

It is, therefore, an incredible problem for white people to swoop in and start trying to tell those stories themselves. It’s super hard to get these stories in front of an audience to begin with, so to have the opportunity to tell them taken away from a person who’s actually from that culture and used by a person who is privileged in society anyway is really problematic, and (I am sure) incredibly frustrating and hurtful. People should be able to tell their own stories, because it’s theirs and they know it and know what it means and why its important. They have had their stories told for them, and stories told about them, for far too long already. They deserve a chance to be heard in their own right.

In sum, then, the problem with cultural appropriation is that it is people from a dominant culture taking advantage of and exploiting others in a variety of ways, and perpetuating their dominance of the market by sucking up the opportunities to be heard that might (and should) otherwise go to people from a more diverse backgrounds. So, I guess in some ideal situation where it wasn’t a problem for artists of different races and genders and cultures to get their voices heard, and where all the cultures of the world were on a level playing field where some hadn’t been historically oppressed and repressed and weren’t in danger of being lost, maybe cultural appropriation wouldn’t be a problem. In case it isn’t clear, that’s not where we are. It is, therefore, a big problem on a lot of levels.

Even so, it should surely just be basic human decency to listen when our fellow human beings speak up about something we did and say ‘hey, when you use that part of our culture in the way you just did, we find it disrespectful and hurtful, could you stop?’ to put aside our arrogance and self entitlement and give what has to be the only conceivable answer in my view: ‘I’m sorry, and of course I will’.

I’ve read a lot of people who seem to treat the entire issue of cultural appropriation as an intellectual exercise, as a sterile problem to pick over in an ethics or philosophy classroom. The problem with treating it that way is that there are real people in real pain involved. Those of us who occupy privileged positions in society need to, at last, stop justifying and start listening.

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Last night I was watching the most recent episode of Gotham. If you don’t know the show, the basic pitch is ‘Gotham City before Batman’ which is a bit of a curious idea (although we do seem to love a prequel, these days) but since I am (you will no doubt be aware) a sucker for superhero stuff, I started watching. I will be honest and say I don’t love the show, but there are some interesting things about it.

One of the things that intrigued me during its first season was the very visible and thorough change of tack the show went through. For the first few episodes, we were given something trying to be a gritty cop drama with a few hints of the weirdness that would later plague the city. We had Detective James Gordon trying to deal with IA cops, we had organized crime, we had Donal Logue doing a fantastic Harvey Bullock. It was thoroughly unremarkable.

Then the show pivoted quite swiftly, embracing the over-the-top nature of the Batman setting, so that by now we have the Joker and the Penguin, we’ve had Mr. Freeze and Hugo Strange, we have the Riddler in all but name, and we’ve basically had Clayface. Det. Gordon’s fiance Barbara has turned from an entirely cliche, auxiliary and disposable character into a lunatic crimelord. I am honestly not sure how well any of these characters, and this super-villain plagued Gotham really work without Batman. I’ll get back to that.

It’s possible all this was planned from the outset, but with the way characters that were introduced just abruptly stopped appearing, and plotlines vanished into the aether, it doesn’t feel that way. It seemed to me very much like the creators of a show realizing that Idea #1 wasn’t working and hastily changing course to Idea #2 that, whatever else you can say about it, is definitely not boring. (It doesn’t always make sense, but it’s not boring) If that’s the case, it worked out for them because it got the show renewed and they’re on Season 3 now.

Anyway, it was interesting to me to watch the rewriting and reworking happen. It seems to me that this may be one of the advantages of a serialized piece of work; you can gauge the reaction of your audience and rejig things to give them more of what they want, or less of what they don’t like. When I write a whole book (“when”, he says optimistically) I don’t know whether people like what I’m doing or not until they see the whole thing, or at least not most of the people. This is one more reason to be grateful to the Eager Volunteers, who haven’t seen a rewrite on the scale of Gotham yet but may one day, I guess.

So that’s the first thing.

The second gets back to the idea of Gotham, full of its villains, without Batman, and whether that works. (And by this, I mean ‘works for me’, but it’s my blog after all) I don’t think that it does, terribly well, because you end up with this tornado of increasingly violent awfulness without the figure who can, on some level, deal with it all, and without the symbol of hope that suggests that all of this mess can be overcome. That’s a big part of why I don’t love Gotham; what we’ve seen so far has been really bleak, if a sort of darkly entertaining bleak.

But then this last episode, for the first time we saw young Bruce Wayne (played by David Mazouz, who is absolutely believable in the role) stand up to the proto-Joker, and in a couple scenes, start to be the Batman. (Gotham writers having never in their lives heard of subtlety, of course they threw a music sting suggesting the Hans Zimmer Batman theme all over these moments.) They were just moments, but they were there, and for those brief spaces of time Gotham, and Gotham, had its hero.

Despite not loving the show, those moments still got me. Naturally (well, for me), I immediately Got To Thinking about why. Part of it is fairly straightforward: Batman is one of my favourite comic characters* and so whenever the story (and it’s really almost any story) starts to meander in the direction where Batman is about to appear, I’m going to like it. However, it’s not just that. It’s also that the hero, at least briefly, arrived. It was probably more effective because the hero is a character I like, but just the idea that out of mayhem and death a figure was going to appear to Fix Things is one that I know I like, and I think (if you look at stories that have been popular over the years) it’s one that we like in general.

I do slightly wonder why, although on some level wondering why a story has a good guy may seem a little stupid. But, we really seem to like these characters who can show up in the nick of time and rescue us when we’re in danger, to round up all the bad guys, and to fix what has been broken. Part of it is, undeniably, good storytelling. But why does it appeal to us, especially when most people’s experience with the real world tells them this is not a thing that actually happens? Problems do get solved, but it’s almost always by ordinary people taking ordinary actions.

And yet we like the thoroughly unrealistic alternative. We like made-up stories in general, so no doubt part of this is just enjoying imaginary things as we always do. I wonder, though, if part of it is some sense that we have (or, at a minimum, that I have) that there should be such figures, who can arrive when they’re needed and save us, save us from ourselves if need be. Who know what needs to be done and can just appear and do it.

(This was, as I try desperately to avoid a long tangent, one of my favourite bits of the pilot for Person of Interest, a show you may recall I liked a lot. The main action-y character, Reese, gets hooked into this crazy plan to use a super-intelligent AI to stop crimes before they happen more or less entirely through the promise of being able to show up in time. The chance to be that hero that we all think really should exist, even as we know they don’t. Reese (who starts the series a seriously broken person) has felt the frustration of the absence of that hero and it’s more or less what sells him on signing up for a project run by a crazy rich guy living in an abandoned library. (Seriously. Go watch Person of Interest))

Stories like Batman stories, most superhero stories, many of the movies we like, and (maybe, now) Gotham, satisfy that feeling, at least briefly. They give us the hero that we feel, on some instinctive level, should be out there.

It is both a sad reality, but also a liberating one, that this isn’t true. We solve our own problems.

Thanks for reading.

*-there are legitimate criticisms about the character and the ideas underpinning it that I acknowledge, especially the ‘Batman is a rich guy beating up poor people’ one. It is not a great look. I guess I deflect it by focusing on the fact that Batman doesn’t really spend that much time fighting ordinary criminals, he’s pretty much 24/7 on the supervillain beat now. I also think there’s a lot genuinely good and inspirational about the character that I’m not ready to throw in the trash. It’s problematic, though, and I’m not done thinking about it. Maybe you get a blog on that down the road. (Attach your ‘please, no’ comments below)

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Can*Con 2016

This past weekend was Can*Con in Ottawa, which is our annual convention for readers and writers of science fiction, fantasy, horror and erotica. It is steadily growing both in terms of the stature of the guests who attend and the number of people who sign up for a weekend’s worth of discussion on the literature they love. It will also always be special to me because it was a Can*Con pitch session that got me connected with my publisher for The King in Darkness, and being able to see my first novel in print.

As always it was fantastic to get to spend a couple of days really feeling like a writer: participating in thoughtful discussions about both how to write and things we enjoy reading, meeting loads of awesome people who are deeply into the same stuff that I’m deeply into, and talking about my own writing to people who didn’t immediately look shifty and scurry away sideways. Especially when writing often has to be crammed into whatever time can be stolen here and there from jobs that pay the bills and the practicalities of life, it can be easy to feel like your writing isn’t very significant. It’s amazing to have a few days where writing gets to be The Thing and to have your passion validated. I always come away from Can*Con very excited to get to work on new projects. Project. One project at a time, like a sane person.

So that feeling was great to have again, but this Can*Con also felt very different because this was the first year that I was part of the organization team, which is also getting larger as the con (and therefore the work involved in setting it up) expands. This added a whole new level to the experience. In addition to everything else, I was also getting chairs where we needed chairs and hastily creating signs and helping lost souls find the con suite – and also getting to meet all of our guests in a slightly different way than previous years. Getting to (even briefly) say hi to Ed Greenwood was pretty cool. More than anything, this all made me appreciative of the work that goes into putting on an event like Can*Con in a way that I hadn’t really understood before; we started actively planning this soon after the New Year and had basically been working steadily at it ever since. It was great to see all that work turn into the event itself and to watch people enjoying themselves with what we’d put together.

Now I also need to lie down.

All of the discussions I went to were interesting – I was part of talks on epic fantasy, the nature of monsters (which will lead to a radical change to my current WIP), the portrayal of medieval culture in fantasy, the financial side of writing, and Shakespeare in science fiction, and all of them gave me a lot to think about. The one that I’ve been going back over in my mind over and over, though, was the panel on adapting SFF for TV or movies, which (to be honest) I mostly went to because Jay Odjick panels are always awesome.

Now, in all honesty I’m extremely unlikely to have to worry about the things that go into having something I wrote adapted for film (although, as we saw last week, I do think that would be pretty rad), but one of the things that all of the panelists said (including Tanya Huff and our agent guest of honour Sam Morgan) got the Mind Gears going. Basically they said that if your work is being adapted into another format, those writers are going to change basically everything (Tanya Huff was invited to write an episode of the series that was adapted from her book Blood Ties, and they kept six lines of the dialogue she had written) and that, as a writer, you should be fine with this because they’re giving you a cheque, and your original work is of course unchanged.

I gotta say, that makes a solid amount of sense. Stephen King got asked about whether he was upset about what Hollywood had done to some of his books, and famously replied that ‘no, the books are fine, they’re right there on the shelf’. I admire that. I also know that deep inside my bizarre little writer’s heart, I would be screaming at the top of my lungs about something I wrote being changed. It’s my story. These are my characters. I wrote them this way for a reason, you don’t get to just change them around. Or, if you do, it’s not my story any more, and let’s not pretend that it is. (As an example, one ‘change’ suggested by a reader of King in Darkness was that the main character Adam should ‘get together’ with Sophia. Sophia is gay. Adam is at least twice her age. If that change got made to the story, I would be really upset. And yet, ‘add a romance!’ seems like a pretty probable move.)

I really do get the ‘yes, but cheque!’ argument, as well as the one that everyone knows that film writers change everything and so nobody really connects a film version to the writer in any significant way. It’s probably ok if the screaming is on the inside. So I do get that, and understand Sam Morgan’s comment that if a client of his was upset about changes being made to an adaptation of their work, he’d smack them (because: cheque!), but I also know that at least some part of me would be deeply unhappy with the whole deal. It’s probably just as well that this is a moot point and that probably no-one will ever want to make a movie out of King in Darkness, is one takeaway.

The other is that it’s remarkable how much ownership creators (because I don’t think I’m the only one) feel over their imaginary people and their stories, and how emotionally invested we are with the pretend worlds we’ve brought into being. I do write my stories the way I do for reasons that I think are good, and because (as I mentioned in an earlier entry) I feel like I know these characters so well, it seems wrong to just arbitrarily change them. It’s part of why creating art is so risky, because you really do put a piece of yourself out there for the world to look at. (That’s also part of why it’s great, when people look at it and say that they liked it.)

However, I should know from my history studies that stories don’t belong to anyone, or rather they belong to everyone. Stories that survive almost any length of time at all get constantly rewritten and changed and done over again to suit the needs of different audiences and to express the values and priorities of different cultural moments in time. King Arthur and Robin Hood and (more recently) characters like Batman and Sherlock Holmes change and change again as writers and readers who love them want to do something new with them or make the story work for their time and place. It is, really, a wonderful compliment to a creator to say that you want to take something they came up with and adapt it and give it a new kind of life.

So maybe I really would be ok with someone rewriting my stuff to film it.

Once the screaming died down.

And on that cheerful note, I want to use this space to thank everyone who was part of Can*Con and helped make it such a great weekend. We had amazing panelists, really enthusiastic and thoughtful audiences, and our volunteers were outstanding. All of the other members of the organizational team – Marie Bilodeau, Nicole Lavigne, and Brandon Crilly (who was programming’s Batman to my Robin) did fantastic work. I also want to especially thank co-chair Derek Künsken for inviting me onto the team and letting me be a part of it all.

Already looking forward to next year.


Some of you may have noticed a sudden lapse in running-related entries on here. Many of you probably said ‘oh thank God’. In case you were curious, though, the reason is that I have had only the second significant injury I’ve suffered as a runner this summer and have shut things down for the season. The plan is to spend the winter getting strong and have a great season next year.

This has been surprisingly difficult, though, both because running is a stress-buster for me and has very much been part of my routine for years, and also because (as I’ve talked about previously) I do a lot of writing in my head while running, and all of that is currently lost. I also had to admit a little while ago that there was no way I could do the race I had planned for the end of the month, and just let that go.

In a way though that’s another useful lesson to come out of running that I think applies to writing as well. It’s good to set goals for yourself and to push yourself to achieve them, and to try to set standards that you need to live up to in terms of amounts of work getting done or having something finished by a certain time. That helps with organization and time management and making sure that you’re making your writing a priority.

There are also times, though, when things are just out of your hands and you have to let one of those goals go, and that’s ok. I couldn’t do anything about this injury, and it’s ok, and I will be back running when I can and I’ll hit the next goal. Sometimes the equivalent will happen with writing, and something won’t get done on time, and that’s ok.

Setting goals is only useful if it makes you better, not if it just turns into another stick to beat yourself up with.

Letting go is ok.

That’s what I’ve got for this week, except that if you’re going to be in Ottawa on Saturday, October 29th, you should definitely come to the Renaissance Press launch event for Bonhomme Sept-Heures and seven (seven!) other authors and creators, at the 3 Brewers pub at 240 Sparks St. It will go from about 5 to around 7, and there will be reading from all the authors, prizes, and probable tomfoolery. It would be great to see you there.

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My Companion

So this week I’m going to write about my oldest, constant companion. It is both a wonderful gift and, at times, a trial, but even in the moments when it drives me crazy I also know I wouldn’t change it if I could. This companion of mine, always with me even in moments when it might be best if it wasn’t, is my imagination.

(This is going to be one of those kind of weird mind-rambly entries, so buckle up and/or bail out)

I have always – or at least, as long as I can remember – had a very active imagination. I’m not sure whether a good imagination is something one is born with, or learns to have, although I do know some people don’t have them. I grew up in a house with a very good example of that: my father has basically no imagination. (I write this secure in the confidence that he will never read this blog.) My dad never reads fiction because he can’t get past the part where the people don’t exist and the events never happened. I guess he just doesn’t see why he should spend any time on things that aren’t real. (Which is, to be completely fair, a solidly practical point of view on things) Even though he is deeply, deeply fascinated by World War Two, my mother failed to get him interested in a historical novel about a fictional WWII fighter squadron, because again: not real. Even though you could hardly have tailored a book more specifically to my father’s particular interests, I don’t believe he ever finished it. (I did. It was ok.) (I will read almost any book that isn’t actually on fire)

So I know some people don’t have much of an imagination, and therefore (I assume) not much of an imaginary life. I don’t know exactly where mine came from, whether through the genetic slot machine or learned behaviour – my mother always encouraged me to read and was immensely tolerant of imaginary games that routinely took over big parts of the house – but I have it now and again, for the most part, I regard it as a tremendous gift that I cherish.

I guess it isn’t a huge surprise that a fiction writer has a good imagination, and of course that’s where all the strange things I scribble down come from. A lot of times (as I think I’ve discussed in previous blogs) some fragment of the real world gets plucked up (for whatever reason) by my consciousness and dipped into my imagination before becoming part of a story. But obviously, it all comes from there or through there and as I love to write and increasingly love to share my stories with other people my imagination something I simply could not do without.

It has also given me a wonderful escape from the world and my problems throughout my life. It’s easy for me to wander off into a place that doesn’t exist and explore that for a while when the planet is too stressful or too disappointing or too thoroughly awful to deal with for a while. It’s a great coping mechanism and also just vastly entertaining; growing up I had space explorations and dinosaur Olympics and scientific expeditions and much more all without needing to go anywhere at all. It has let me go places and do things that I’m pretty confident no-one else ever has.

I think in some ways having a good imagination made me reasonably self-sufficient, because I’m very good at keeping myself amused and keeping myself company, or at least conjuring up imaginary people to keep me company. That’s also been a great gift, at times. I also wonder whether being able to spend so much time engaged with my own imaginings, and therefore not needing to interact with actual real people as much, helped make me into the rather shy person I am today. Probably the two things reinforce each other.

There are times when my imagination is not helpful. It has made me an elite world-class worrier. I can think of roughly 1000 worst-case scenarios for any situation or any decision, and experience them in gruesome detail. I can usually think of very, very many possible outcomes to any course of action I might want to take, which is sometimes good, but sometimes also leads to ‘analysis paralysis’ as I pause and consider all the various ways (some not good) that something might work out before doing it. There are times in my life where I know my imagination, and the many maybe-future roads it let me see, led me to wait and wait and wait before doing something, because I wasn’t sure how it would work out, and then the moment to do it was gone and will never come back.

It’s at times like these, or when I am lying awake in the night considering the 437th way that That Thing I Said will lead, inexorably, to my demise, that I can get very frustrated with my imagination, and wish it had an ‘off’ switch or at least a volume button. I have, in these moments, even tried negotiating with my imagination (look, can you cool it for a few hours so I can Get Things Done and then we’ll get right into it) but it is, I am sure, an inherently irrational thing and so they never work out.

In the end, though, if forced to choose I know I wouldn’t change it, at all. My imagination has been my companion for as long as I can remember, and it has made my life an endless amazing, fabulous, and deeply odd place. I’m grateful in many different ways for that, and can only hope it continues on for all the years ahead.

However many there are.

(Don’t start, you.)

That’s what I’ve got for you this week. Thanks for reading.


In case you have somehow failed to notice the approximately 500 times I have announced this already, here is the cover for my upcoming novel, Bonhomme Sept-Heures.  There’s a blurb for it over in the ‘Books’ section of the blog as well if you’d like to give that a read.

I’m very excited about it and to have the book ready for you to read later in the fall.

bonhomme kindle cover

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Farewell to The Hip

I had what I was going to write about this week all planned out and mostly written in my head. Then I watched the Tragically Hip’s farewell concert last night and even though I already wrote about Gord Downie a while ago, I’m gonna do it again this time too. I wrote some of these thoughts on Twitter, but as my long-suffering editors will know, my natural tendency is to write a *lot*, so getting things down to 140 characters is basically agonizing for me. This is my chance to do things more my way. (Sorry?)

It was, first of all, an amazing national moment. Obviously there are lots of people in Canada who aren’t fans of the Tragically Hip, but a big chunk of the country (I am now informed it was around a third of the nation’s TV sets) was gathered around watching one last show from a band they love Saturday night, which is a pretty amazing thing to think about. It was also very cool that most of the country (you needed a TV or an internet connection) could be a part of it, more or less free (see above) and without commercials. As lots of people pointed out, that’s why it’s good to have a public broadcaster. Thanks to the CBC.

It was the last time we’ll see the Tragically Hip perform. I wrote in my other Downie-inspired column that the Hip have been the soundtrack for big important chunks of my life, which has been wonderful and is a wonder to look back on. The band has been a great gift to me at times; perhaps most of all when I spent a year studying in England and Music@Work was my little piece of Canada that I could turn on whenever I needed to. And now they’re done. I’m too old to think about my youth ending (that happened, quietly, some time ago) but something has ended now that the Hip have finished their last tour. I got to see them live three times, I wish it had been more, and I’m grateful to have had the luxury.

Any band, and any artist, performing live is always a treat because you get to see an ongoing act of creation. I think artists never look more alive that when they are creating their art, and a concert is a chance to sit (and/or stand) and watch that go on. Downie is a special joy to watch because he loves to perform as much as he sings. He dances and fights with the mic stand and generally makes the stage his own. I have a tremendous respect and (as someone who constantly second-guesses whether I should say a thing or do a thing, until the moment has passed forever) envy for his confidence and his joy in performance that let him do whatever the hell he feels in a particular moment. It’s tremendous fun to watch.

I also loved that the Hip took a couple moments to share a message that is obviously important to them. Some people complained about ‘getting political’, (and it is jarring if you discover someone you doesn’t share your views on something) but I figure when you’ve reached the point where the attention is on you nation-wide, and this is your last moment in the spotlight, you’ve earned the right to say what you want to say. Downie chose to say something pretty powerful, too, calling out the Prime Minister and the nation as a whole to make things better for the First Nations communities that have been marginalized and ignored and kept in horrible conditions for far too long. As causes to give a signal boost too, that’s a pretty awesome one, and I thought it was great that the Hip used their moment to do that. (After I wrote this, a First Nations writer and artist I admire a lot, Jay Odjick, pointed out that Downie’s statement is really only a beginning and the next step is to listen to First Nations people about why things are bad for them and the solutions they need. I think it’s a great point and maybe having someone like Downie draw attention to things will put more people in a position where they’re willing to listen. I hope so. You can check out Jay’s comments starting here.)

I also thought it was great what an essentially optimistic conclusion Downie left about it. “You’re gonna figure it out.” Their songs have always showed a great love for their country, and I think Downie showed it again there, believing that this is a problem that will be solved. Now it’s up to us to prove him right, for all kinds of reasons. Among them now is that these artists who we chose to make into our voice expect it of us. I thought it was a very Canadian way of talking about this problem they care about. There was another nice moment later when Downie talked about the band’s beginnings and said, “Our idea was just that everyone’s invited.” If we ever want to change the motto on the Canadian coat of arms, we could do a lot worse than ‘Everyone’s Invited’. Now let’s make it true, every day.

Not long ago someone asked me which one of the characters from King in Darkness was ‘me’; that actually comes up reasonably often. (For some reason a lot of people assume I’m the grumpy professor) As always my answer is ‘none of them, and all of them’ because none of the characters are self-inserts, but every character I write has a piece of me in there somewhere. (Yes, even the bad ones) I doubt I’m unique in that, and watching Downie on the stage I can’t help but feel the same is true for him and his songs, the emotion and life that’s in the performance can’t mean anything else. He had a teleprompter on stage last night, apparently because one of the effects of his cancer is that his memory fails him sometimes. The idea of Gord Downie forgetting the wonderful words to his own songs is intensely sad. Fortunately he rarely seemed to glance at it last night. I’m very glad he got to do all the shows of this farewell tour more or less on his terms.

While there were a few moments where a little frailty peeked through – and honestly, the sight of his bandmates supporting him as he went down the steps off the stage was more touching than anything else – on the whole he gave a vibrant, powerful performance that went far beyond what I think anyone would have expected from someone dying of brain cancer. He stood up there and lived the idea of ‘rage, rage against the dying of the light’, and I admire the heck out of it. I imagine it helps him to do what he loves, but it was also a huge, courageous gift to his fans that I will always appreciate.

Downie always looks so very full of life when he performs, and full of the love of doing what he does. It seems impossible that he won’t be that way forever. He will be in our dreams, and I think all the Hip’s fans are profoundly grateful that he gave us one last glorious goodbye at a time when no-one would have blamed him, or them, for wanting to just worry about himself. I like to think it was good for Gord as well and I hope maybe they can draw some strength from all the emotion their farewell tour generated across the nation.

To reiterate a thought I tried to cram into 140 characters on Twitter: Downie’s talent for making words do cool, unexpected and memorable things is spectacular. In another age he would have been a poet who wrote for kings. His words would have been the ones furiously and meticulously copied with quill pens for audiences desperate to read and hear them. I’m so glad we got him in ours. Thanks for the words, Gord. I’ll treasure them.

All right that’s it – I got a little of what I was originally going to write about in there and hopefully there was some of it you enjoyed. If you want to kick some support towards the Gord Downie Fund for Brain Cancer research, it’s a great cause and you can do so here.

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On Barb, and Hugh

If you follow me on Twitter or Facebook you will have seen me gush about the Netflix series Stranger Things, which is one of my favourite things on TV (or whatever we’re calling it when stuff ‘airs’ on Netflix) in a very long while. Stranger Things is a wonderful, creative piece of SFF and I hope there’s more in its vein to come. If you poke around on social media you’ll see lots of people having passionate reactions to the show and its characters, and there’s one in particular that has stuck out at me and that I wanted to write about today.

[[ IMPORTANT NOTE: The rest of this entry contains spoilers for some parts of Stranger Things, so if you are the sort of person who is bothered by spoilers as well as not having seen the show yet, stop reading now and I’ll see you next week, or after you’ve watched the series. By the way, if you read this blog and you haven’t seen Stranger Things yet, I heartily recommend going and doing so. It’s very good. ]]

And we’re back.

Fans of the show have reacted very strongly to the performances of Winona Ryder (who I thought was very good), David Harbour (who I also thought was great), and both the character of Eleven and the actor who portrays her, Millie Bobbie Brown (who is amazing). None of that surprises me, but there is also a reasonably vocal discussion centring around a character that does surprise me a little: Nancy’s friend Barb.

Barb is pulled into the Upside Down by the monster towards the end of episode 2, and unlike Will Byers is unable to survive long enough to get rescued (she’s somewhat disadvantaged by starting off in an Upside Down echo of an empty pool), apparently dying in episode 3 with her fate confirmed by Eleven in episode 7. Although Nancy is deeply worried about her friend, we don’t see the same reaction to Barb’s disappearance as there was for Will Byers, and I think this is part of what has led to people being upset or unsatisfied with how the story treats her.

(It is true that there is some narrative justification for this; the Shadowy Government Lab fabricates a story that Barb has run away rather than mysteriously disappeared as Will did, with only Nancy and Hopper being aware of the truth for most of the series. It is still probably a fair point that we don’t then see a lot of concern about Barb having ‘run away’, although it’s also fair to say the relatively tight schedule the show is on didn’t leave it a lot of room to show this.)

In any case if you poke around online you’ll find a lot of affection for Barb’s character, as well as dissatisfaction (some perhaps tongue in cheek) with her story, that we didn’t get more of it, and that she doesn’t get the (relatively) happy ending that Will Byers did. Part of what’s going on is that the Duffer Brothers created a character that was interesting and engaging enough that a lot of their audience bought in to her during episodes 1 and 2, so that they wanted more of her story and perhaps a different ending to it. From a writer’s perspective, getting the audience hooked into a character who is going to be a victim is exactly what you want – you want that loss or death to hit home and not get shrugged off. The dissatisfaction, though, isn’t what you want, and the two things are shades-of-meaning apart.

I had a slightly similar experience with my own writing, during the editing process for King in Darkness. There’s one character, Hugh, who I called into being solely for one specific scene. (Yeah, I’m restricting the spoilers of my own story. It’s my blog and I’ll be inconsistent if I want to.) You meet him slightly earlier to establish that he exists, then he does his scene and (I thought) he disappears unproblematically from the stage thereafter. I didn’t, to be honest, expect that anyone would get particularly interested in or attached to Hugh (sorry, imaginary person) and that he’d basically vanish into Stage Left, his purpose served, and no-one would mind one way or the other. (really sorry, imaginary person)

Didn’t work out that way. All of the editors for King in Darkness gave me notes to the effect of ‘need closure about Hugh’, ‘what happens to Hugh?’, ‘we need to see how things work out with Hugh’. Basically as soon as more than one editor calls for something, I figure it Must Be Done, and so I wrote a new scene that ties up Hugh’s part of the story a little more completely for the final draft of the book. I think it made the story better in the end and I feel like I have now done better by one of my imaginary people.

The more important part of the process, though, was realizing that people might latch on to characters that I didn’t expect them to, and didn’t intend them to. I’m still not sure exactly what it was that made people want to know how things worked out for Hugh in King in Darkness (I kind of wish I did, so that I could sprinkle that magic on future imaginary people) but obviously there was just enough there to get the people who read the manuscript to get bought into him, and his story, enough to want there to be more of it than I originally planned to give.

I suspect (and of course, it’s just a guess) that this is what has happened with Barb in Stranger Things. She’s not written as a major character, she appears to have been created as a way to get Nancy actively engaged in trying to solve the mystery of what is going on in Hawkins, and probably also to indicate to the audience in an impactful way that the monster that took Will is an ongoing threat. Lots of stories, horror stories and others, have these ‘victim’ characters in them that serve this kind of narrative purpose, as well as providing a moment of terror or pity when they meet their doom.

However, Barb’s fate, and the reaction of the world of Stranger Things to it, does touch on wider issues of female characters in fiction, and in SF/horror in particular, where they have all to often simply been used as recipients of violence and/or motivators for male characters. I believe I’ve touched on the Women in Refrigerators issue before, and people have made the argument that Barb fits into this pattern as well (despite not being a superhero, although the concept has I think been broadened to think about how female characters get treated in SFF in general). Looking at things from a plot perspective, the main thing Barb’s character does is to be a second (well, third) victim for the monster and thus provide Nancy (who is a main character) her motivation to get involved in trying to figure out what is happening in town, thus hooking her into the main stream of events leading up to the climax.  This does tick some problematic boxes, ‘female character as victim/motivator’ in particular.

It’s also true that Barb is not used to motivate a male character – in fact part of the issue people have with what happened to Barb is that some of our male characters don’t seem to particularly react to what happens to her. Her disappearance is a motivating factor for another female character, one who does not settle into a passive role and becomes an active part of driving the plot forward. I would argue that’s an important distinction. (I also think that although Hopper doesn’t really seem to react much to what happens to Barb, he’s already pretty fully engaged in trying to figure out what’s going on in Hawkins by the point, and Will’s disappearance probably has more personal impact for him because Will is closer in age to his deceased daughter) I don’t think the intention of pointing out the Women in Refrigerators issue was to say, either, that you can’t ever have a female character who is a victim in a story, just that it can be a lazy plot device and that it seemed to happen to female characters in comics disproportionately. For what it’s worth I think Barb’s role in the plot is both important and handled with relative care (we don’t see a lot of fallout from her disappearance, but it’s more than Benny gets!). I think, overall, Stranger Things presented some really strong and interesting female characters and so, overall, I think the Duffers deserve far more praise than criticism here.

I also wonder if, since Barb is not one of the ‘cool kids,’ and appears to fit kind of awkwardly into her social world, that since SFF tends to attract a reasonable proportion of the socially awkward, shy and introverted to its audience (definitely include me in that number), that audience saw ‘themselves’ in her a little bit, and that’s part of why her fate has attracted as much discussion as it has. Barb is kind of like many of us in the audience, so we want to root for her a bit and are extra disappointed when things end badly for her. Which gets us back to the idea of the audience getting attached to characters you maybe didn’t expect them to, as a writer. In the end, to me, it’s a really cool feeling when someone reads my stuff and feels a connection to it. One of my favourite things in the time that King in Darkness has been out has been hearing from people who read it and dug one or more of the characters; sometimes ones I expected people to like and sometimes ones I didn’t.

I think it’s a great gift as a writer to have your characters end up having an impact on people and mattering to them; it’s very hard to think of a better compliment from a reader. (Aside, perhaps, from ‘please write more’) I hope that’s how the Duffer Brothers are taking the reaction to Barb in Stranger Things. They created a whole cast of characters that their audience really bought into, and left many of them wanting a little more about one of them. I hope they continue to give us the same rich selection of imaginary people in their next project.

And perhaps I’ll write a little more of Hugh’s story one day.

Thanks for reading.

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Me vs. The Speckled Band

As part of working (slowly) on the Easter Pinkerton project I wrote about a couple weeks ago, I have been re-reading some Sherlock Holmes stories (a thing I tend to do anyway) and a night or two ago I got to ‘The Speckled Band’. I am told that Conan Doyle considered it the best of his Holmes tales, and while I don’t agree with this (something Sir Arthur and I can no doubt debate when I reach the great Writers’ Hereafter) it is a good un.

There is an issue, though. (This next bit is arguably spoiler-y but I think the Holmes stories are old enough that I don’t care) At the climax of the story, Holmes discovers that the murder weapon in this particular case is a swamp adder, ‘the deadliest snake in India’, as our hero describes it, that has climbed down a bell-rope into the bed of its victims. Which is pretty cool.

The problem is that there isn’t actually a snake called a ‘swamp adder’ in India or any place else, nor indeed a snake that looks all that much like the one Conan Doyle describes. Herpetologists and Holmes fans have wrestled with this problem and come up with a few snakey options for what the creature might actually be, but there’s a larger issue yet. Apparently snakes can’t climb ropes. (I didn’t know that either!) Thus, the whole premise of Conan Doyle’s story is impossible. Despite this, ‘Speckled Band’ was his favorite (I assume he didn’t know it was impossible) and despite the problems with the made-up snake and the made-up snake behaviour (the snake is also trained to respond to a whistle, which is also a problem because snakes are, apparently, deaf) people have been reading ‘Speckled Band’ for over a century, and it is routinely mentioned as a favourite.

Presumably at least some of that is the readership not knowing about swamp adders and snakes, and thus not knowing where Conan Doyle has gone wrong. However, I still enjoy it very much even knowing the issues with it, because Conan Doyle was right and it is a very good story. The central mystery is good, we get some opportunities for Holmes to show his deductive brilliance, as well as the somewhat rarer example of Holmes being (temporarily) mistaken. The atmosphere and tension of the climactic scene is very well done. In other words, the thing works, if you can put aside or cheerfully ignore all the snake-related issues.

This gets me to wondering (probably in part because I’m writing a story that will be set in the Victorian period, a period I am not expert on) whether we get too hung up on factual precision, getting every fact and word exactly correct, when we create. The example of ‘Speckled Band’, along with very many others, suggests that if you’ve got a good story, your audience will follow you, even if there are cases where you have an, ah, elastic relationship with the truth.

If you have a good story, I wonder if it might not be better to just write the thing and worry less about the facts. I know an overriding concern with accuracy can kill creativity. I think I wrote here a long while ago about a story of mine I wrote for a creative writing class with an opening scene that I set in Vladivostok, purely because it sounded like a suitably William Gibson-y place to stick a cyberpunk-ish story. My teacher pointed out (probably accurately!) that Vladivostok looked nothing like that. The story, which was meant to be the first piece of a novel, never recovered and I hardly did a thing to it or with it after that, because I couldn’t let the Vladivostok thing go. In this case, I don’t think the world lost a great story (I’ve written elsewhere about why my phase of trying to write cyberpunk was irredeemably bad) but the point I’m thinking about at the moment is that from a creative point of view, it probably would have been better to cheerfully ignore the whole issue with Vladivostok and just write the story. If it was a good story (it was not a good story), most readers would have cheerfully ignored it right along with me and enjoyed the narrative they were being given.

There is probably a minimum standard here somewhere, some tipping point past which even a well-written story gets dumped down from ‘enjoyable’ and ‘entertaining’ into ‘unbelievable, and in a bad way’. Some things do (to judge from internet reactions) seem to get particular subsets of readers particularly energized – getting facts wrong with guns seems as though it will get a reasonably large number of people excited, and computer-y people routinely point out all the problems with any kind of scene involving the internet and hacking. I freely confess to being scolded for ‘ruining’ the Clive Owen King Arthur movie by objecting to its problems with the truth throughout the film. (I still maintain that movie was pretty much self-ruining, though) If you get certain parts of your story wrong, people will notice, and it may bother them enough that they either give up on your story, or switch focus to finding all the other mistakes you’ve made, and then (often) pointing them out, a task which the internet certainly assists.

Part of this is (I think) that we love to point out our own knowledge. Part of this, though, is that places where a story strays from the factually possible is kind of a challenge to the reader: how ‘in’ are you, with this story? Are you bought in enough to stay with me through this, er, creative interpretation of the truth? You can, I think, only challenge your audience in this way so many times, or to a certain degree of severity, before the answer becomes: ‘nah, I’m out’.

I’m not sure if this is some precise calculation that a writer needs to constantly make, or (as I suspect) that this is one of those intuitive processes where you have to decide how essential certain facts may be to your story and to what extent they can – or in some cases must – be fudged in favour of your story. I am sure that in the end, if you have a good story, you probably have an audience that will follow it despite any factual blips that may be in there. If you have an immaculately researched, factually unassailable piece of work that isn’t a good story, all the research doesn’t matter because people won’t want to read it. I guess the more I think about this issue, and how to budget my time and energy as I work on this current project, the more I think I need to spend it on creating rather than on graduate-level research into the Victorians. I gotta have a good story before I need anything else. If I have one, I think my readers will forgive me for any swamp adders.

That’s what I’ve got for you this week.

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Abdirahman Abdi

Ok, so I have said several times in the past that this is a writing blog and that’s what it is going to stay, and that I know (or think I know) that those of you who read this don’t come here for my ideas on politics or morals or whatever else. However, last week something happened in my home city that I feel very strongly about, and after Orlando I also wrote here that I was going to try not to stay safely silent on such issues any longer, and so here we are. I’m going to write about an issue I think is an important one today, and if you absolutely don’t want to read it I both respect your choice and promise that I’ll be back to writing about the odd things my brain does next week.

The thing is that the police killed a man in Ottawa last week. That seems like an overly dramatic phrase but it is the unvarnished truth. They came to arrest him, most accounts agree that he tried to escape, and most accounts also agree that he was punched, pepper sprayed, and beaten with a baton. It’s not clear exactly when he died, although some reports – which I have not seen directly contradicted – say that he was dead 45 minutes before he got to hospital. The man’s name was Abdirahman Abdi. He did not have a weapon.

We are told, by various authorities, that we must all keep our thinking relevant to this matter on pause until the Special Investigations Unit is done investigating and releases its conclusions. However, as Desmond Cole pointed out in the Citizen yesterday, although we do need to wait for the wheels to turn on any legal consequences, it is ridiculous to say that we shouldn’t think anything yet, and cannot yet say that anything is wrong. Among other things, as we are frequently reminded by the verdicts from courts here and elsewhere, there is ever a significant difference between what is legal and what is right.

And it seems so very clear that what happened to Abdirahman Abdi was not right. Before we get to any other issues, one very basic, and it seems to me inescapable, conclusion is that if the police cannot take a single unarmed suspect into custody without killing him, then we have a serious problem. The night Abdirahman Abdi died, the chief of Ottawa’s police was on TV saying that his officers receive training in ‘de-escalation’ and resolving situations peacefully, as though that settled matters. However, that only leaves more disturbing problems, because if these officers received such training, and the training was good, then they should have been able to make their arrest without loss of life. But Abdirahman Abdi still died. Is it more disturbing to think that police are not being properly prepared, or that they are prepared, but choose to ignore what they are taught? Neither is acceptable. Even if the officers are legally exonerated, what happened was clearly not right, and we need to confront that and respond to it.

And of course there are more issues enmeshed with this one. Abdirahman Abdi is described in most reports as ‘mentally ill’ (I have not seen a specific diagnosis), and so we return to the question of how police, and our society in general, deal with and hopefully take care of people with mental difficulties. Not very well. Last week we also saw a verdict (now under appeal) in the trial of a Toronto police officer who shot another young man with a mental illness. We haven’t, it seems, learned much since then It is often said that police are not social workers, and that it is not in their remit to handle such people gently. However, as Nicole Ireland’s article for the CBC pointed out last week, this is a perspective we can’t afford to accept. Officers can’t be psychologists, but if they’re meant to interact and intervene with the public in a meaningful and useful way, then knowing that in some situations pointing a gun and shouting commands won’t be effective and may make things work is knowledge they need. We must insist on it. Everyone knows it is a super difficult job that most of us couldn’t do, but it’s not good enough to say ‘tough job, things gonna happen.’ Police are supposed to be our helpers and advocates and protectors, they are the ones sanctioned to use force in our society. We need to insist that they fill these roles carefully and with empathy and with respect and with consideration. Anything else must be unacceptable. Last week something went terribly, irretrievably wrong, and that must be unacceptable too.

And of course there is yet one more issue at least, because Abdirahman Abdi was black. Now, the head of Ottawa’s police union was on the radio last week saying that it is ‘inappropriate’ to suggest that race may have played a part in how this incident played out to its ghastly conclusion, but this is a ludicrous thing to say. To say that, in light of all that has happened to visible minorities at the hands of police in recent days and weeks and months, is either wilful blindness or simply one of the most unrealistic things I have ever heard. To expect anyone, especially members of minority communities, not to wonder if race played a part in how the police reacted to Abdirahman Abdi, in their decision to use force on him, and in how he was treated afterwards, is simply divorced from common sense. Again, last week we saw all charges dropped in the case of Freddie Gray, a black man who died in the custody of Baltimore police, with a severed spine that (apparently) no-one is responsible for. Time and time again we see these cases, we get the same assurances, and – it seems – nothing changes. The questions the police find ‘inappropriate’ are asked because they have, as yet, received no satisfactory answer. They will continue to be asked until one is forthcoming, and especially until the dying stops. Possibly Abdirahman Abdi’s race had nothing to do with what happened to him, but of course people will ask the question, and given our recent bloody history, we are likely to doubt that it didn’t without compelling evidence to the contrary. To do otherwise would be, to say the least, inappropriate. We are told today that the SIU may not consider whether race was a factor in what happened to Abdirahman Abdi. That seems crazy to me, because the rest of the community will and is considering just that. We have to. We need to.

It is often far too easy for us (or at least me) to sit here in Canada and watch what happens in the United States and think ‘well that’s there, not here’, and to think that we don’t have such problems here. I shouldn’t think that, given what people from visible minorities say about their experience with police here in Canada, and Abdirahman Abdi’s death is a stark reminder that the problems of use of force by police, and how police react to and against visible minorities are our problems too, and of our own racial divisions, that we like to pretend don’t exist or aren’t meaningful. There was already plenty of evidence of this from the many cases of how people from First Nations communities have been abused by officers who were supposed to protect them from harm. We can’t pretend that these problems are safely south of the border or overseas, they are here at home and Canadians must confront them and grapple with them. It may take away some of our comfortable illusions, but people are suffering so it doesn’t matter, and in the end we will be better for it.

That’s one of the main reasons that I don’t like the ‘wait and see’ response from authorities here. However the legal issues around Abdirahman Abdi’s death are eventually determined, it was terrible and sad and wrong and we should have a sense of urgency in our response to it. That happened on a community level, but it would be good to see it from our political and civic leaders as well. Jim Watson, our mayor who I am generally a fan of, has not displayed his usual vigorous response this time. When someone parked in a bus lane and caused a traffic jam he immediately ordered a parking crackdown; when it was revealed on Twitter that OC Transpo directed its bus drivers to stop in bike lanes for timing stops, he publicly shamed them and ordered the practice to cease. When someone got in his face about flying the Pride flag at city hall, he flatly told them he didn’t want their vote. It would be great if that Jim Watson had shown up demanding action and answers, but instead he issued a rather bland statement of condolence and said nothing else. Again, there’s a difference between waiting for the legal process to run (which we must do) and simply doing nothing (which I think we must not do). It’s okay, and I think important, to point out the things that the death of Abdirahman Abdi shows us are not right in our city and our country and our society, and to point the way towards change. That’s leadership, or would be.

There are so many issues attached to this one awful moment. It’s like some kind of prism that casts a terrible light no matter how you turn it. It has revealed, or freshly illuminated, a great many problems. I don’t pretend to know what the solutions to all these problems are; I wish that I did. I do know that at a minimum wrongs and abuses in our society need to be pointed out and we need to insist that they are not okay and that change happens. What happened to Abdirahman Abdi was not okay. Whatever the issues were that lead to his death, there has to be change to prevent it happening again, in Ottawa or elsewhere. We can’t just call it a tragedy and end up saying that things are fine as they are: they aren’t or an unarmed man would not have died on a sidewalk.

We need especially to listen to the people from communities who find themselves mistreated by authorities. We mustn’t try to silence them or to reassure ourselves by pretending that what they are saying cannot be true or that it doesn’t matter. Our fellow human beings are telling us that they don’t feel safe, that they feel under attack in the place that is supposed to be their home and that they don’t feel able to trust the people who they are told to look to for protection. We need to hear them and believe them and do what we can to make it better. I believe them, and I know there has to be change on their behalf, and for Abdirahman Abdi.

I’m not sure if writing this was helpful in any tangible way, but I feel better for having written it. Thanks for reading.

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