Three rows of six posters with differently shaped heads face toward a window that is reflecting tree branches and fall leaves.

Event Review: Vancouver Writers Fest 2018: Recap of “Three-Degrees-from-Normal”

Written by Nancy Tinari; copy edited by Katie Beaton

A yellow board has several posters advertising different Vancouver Writers Fest 2018 events.

The “Three-Degrees-from-Normal” panel event occurred on October 19, 2018, and it featured authors Kevin Chong (The Plague), Claudia Dey (Heartbreaker), Waubgeshig Rice (Moon of the Crusted Snow), and Rabindranath Maharaj (Adjacentland), with Claudia Casper moderating the conversation. In their new books, all of these authors wrote about crisis situations.

These writers also have in common tremendously vivid imaginations; however, the discussions about where the ideas for their books came from made these three-degrees-from-normal scenarios seem eerily plausible. Even though their settings and situations may seem extreme, they are all intimately related to what is happening in the world right now.

We got a taste of each writer’s imaginative world from Casper’s introductions and brief readings by the authors. Casper then asked the panellists to explain how the scenarios and ideas expressed in their novels could be related to current events.

Maharaj tackled this question first. His novel Adjacentland is told from the point of view of a protagonist whose memory for events lasts only three months. Additionally, in this world, human imagination has shrunk to the point of being a vestigial reflex. Maharaj created this scenario because he is obsessed with the negative implications of our online lives. “The time we spend online is erasing our ability to do long protracted thinking. We are getting used to receiving information in soundbites. All of this is eroding our imaginations.”

Moreover, Maharaj sees that online sites can drive us into hives—meaning we become part of huge groups who see each other and other groups in oppositional terms. He questions, “What can justify hatred? We can become immured to something that should be terrible.”

In addition, he says, “The reliance on AI is already happening.” We parcel out so many decisions that we used to make for ourselves. As online sites and search engines learn our preferences, they make choices for us—for example, about the books we read, the news delivered to our feeds, the political views we see, the consumer choices we make—and we allow this.

When he said this, I thought about how online sites like Facebook work—they choose to show us events, articles, and people that agree with what we already believe. If we followed all these suggestions, we would not grow and change. Personally, I love making new discoveries (about books, for example) in ways that are random or unpredictable. This can happen by browsing at my local library, especially in the regular stacks where lie unpromoted treasures.

Chong’s The Plague is a retelling of Albert Camus’ book of the same title. A city is under quarantine because of bubonic plague. Chong, a journalist and author of six books (both fiction and non-fiction), explains that he used the bubonic plague scenario knowing that it was not strictly realistic. However, it is true that one or two cases of bubonic plague still show up every year, and he figured his depiction of events would seem plausible enough for the average reader.

Chong said that Donald Trump’s being elected in 2016 had a huge impact on him. Trump’s America is a place that emphasizes Chong’s observation that “people don’t suffer symmetrically.”

Chong felt that his setting of a quarantined city is a place where a level playing field exists. Another reason he wanted to write about a crisis situation is that he believes that having meaningful work is what gives life meaning. He is optimistic that in times of calamity, people help each other, and in so doing, find meaning in their lives. He mentioned a scene in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov where an old lady gives someone an onion. He finds this scene very meaningful; it’s about the importance of kindness, he said.

Rice’s Moon of the Crusted Snow is a thriller. Rice, like Chong, is optimistic about the power of community and the ways people will help each other in a crisis.

Rice is an Anishinaabe author and journalist from Wasauksing First Nation. Referring to the topic of apocalyptic scenarios, he said that First Nations peoples have already endured their apocalypse. Now, they are on a healing journey.

As he was writing Moon of the Crusted Snow, he was thinking about the long-lasting power blackout that occurred in Montreal in 2003. He wanted to explore the different ways a crisis situation would play out in a rural versus an urban location. He expressed pride in the survival skills of First Nations peoples. They are skilled at living on the land, without power. He explained that “going home to the Rez” implies that one can be confident of being welcomed and surviving with the help of a whole community.

Rice mentioned his admiration for Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, also a novel about an apocalyptic time. However, Rice said he found the book terribly dark and grim because the protagonists, the father and son, are alone. They lack the sense of hopefulness that a community can provide.

In his own novel, Rice explained, there is a threat to the community in the form of a visitor. This visitor’s character can be recognized as an allegory for colonialism. He creates conflict between the leaders of the community. Some are entranced by him while others don’t like him because they understand the danger he brings.

In the imaginary community of Dey’s Heartbreaker, plural underage marriage is the norm. In fact, Dey’s 1985 setting is a place like the real community of Bountiful, BC. In the novel, Dey depicts a cult of 391 people. Young women are being transported into the cult to marry older men; blood from teenagers is being harvested. Dey said she didn’t find out until after the novel was published that the Kardashian sisters actually use blood as an elixir of youth. This was one detail that she hadn’t known was real!

Dey commented that works of fiction come from whatever it is inside of you that is most distressing. Dey is famous for an essay she wrote entitled “Mothers as Makers of Death,” which was published in The Paris Review in August 2018. The essay is deep and complex, but it expresses Dey’s conflicted reactions to being a mother, and some of this conflict is explored in Heartbreaker. Dey believes people should make independent decisions. In Heartbreaker, her character Billy Jean (who would be considered a bad mother) says, “Carve out your own life, whatever the cost.”  Dey said that she “cares about the codes that keep women captive”—and surely motherhood is a kind of captivity.

Casper, as moderator, made several comments during the event that related these panellists’ novels to bestselling science fiction works of the past. She talked about how writers like Anthony Burgess (A Clockwork Orange) and Russell Hoban (Riddley Walker) often use language in unusual ways to create a sense of an alternate reality. She questioned the panellists about whether they used language in deliberate ways.

Rice said the sparseness of his language was planned. His book is sprinkled with Anishinaabe words. He said incorporating these words demonstrates the resilience and endurance of his people and their culture.

Chong explained that he was aiming for a clinical tone, writing from a distance—the same way Camus did in the original The Plague. However, he was trying to “strike a voice that would use the rhetoric of today.” He sees his narration as being like that of a Greek chorus, an homage to that.

Dey said she writes intuitively. Given her history as a screenwriter (she has written plays that have been performed internationally), it isn’t surprising that Heartbreaker is written from three points of view: that of a girl, a dog, and a boy. She writes in voices that suit each character; but without reading, I can’t imagine the voice of the dog, Gena, whom Dey describes as “homicidal, lesbian, old, and erudite.”

Dey wanted the book to have different scenes, just as plays do. Rather than using exposition in her writing, she constructed her book so her readers would be parachuted into each scene. She describes her writing process as storm-like and said she wrote Heartbreaker in intensive sprints that lasted six, eight, or even 15 days. She found ways of isolating herself from her family and the world, sometimes behind the locked doors of friends’ apartments.

Maharaj said that, like Dey, he writes intuitively. In his past novels, he said, his voice was that of an immigrant, but Adjacentland is different. As mentioned above, his protagonist has a memory limited to three months. Maharaj is familiar with the unreliability of memory. Until his father died recently, Maharaj used to go back to his birthplace (Trinidad) to visit his father. He noticed his father was making up stories to replace the memories he had lost.

How does a writer tell a story in the voice of a person with only three months of memory? How would such a person view the world? Maharaj said he had to leave clues for readers to follow. Without reading Adjacentland, it’s difficult to imagine what he meant, but Casper had read the book and understood what he meant by clues. Using this technique, he said, gave his book the feel of magical realism.

Despite the unique settings each panellist created for their novel, and despite vastly different writing styles, I found commonalities amongst the themes and concerns that drove these authors to write their new books. They all wanted to examine how people would behave in a crisis. They expressed concern about people not making their own decisions, and not being able to think deeply any longer. Both Maharaj and Dey mentioned that they don’t like what smart phones have done to us.

These writers believe in some old-fashioned values; both Rice and Chong emphasized the power of community, meaning real, physical communities, not the online communities where we are driven into what Maharaj calls hives. People can derive strength by going “back to the Rez,” practising kindness, and finding meaning through helping others.  

Nancy Tinari is a former Olympic runner who enjoys reading, editing, and reviewing books, as well as writing about fitness and psychology.

Katie Beaton recently discovered her love of editing and decided to enrol in the Editing Certificate program at SFU. She hopes to one day work as a professional editor. Until then, she continues to pursue her other love: travel. When she’s not exploring the world, she can be found teaching yoga, writing, and enjoying every brunch spot Vancouver has to offer.

Images provided by Nancy Tinari

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