A reading with Rohinton Mistry, Wayne Johnston and James Bartleman

I attended the World Literacy Canada reading at the Park Hyatt Toronto earlier this week to see these three authors.  There was a line-up, of the sort you’d expect to see at a samizdat store selling discounted iPads; literature isn’t dead, you doomsayers.

(L to R: Johnston, Bartleman, Mistry. Pic from worldlit.ca)

First on stage was James Bartleman, whom I’d never heard of prior to this event: the more fool I. Bartleman is a former career diplomat who was Canada’s ambassador to Cuba, Bangladesh, and Israel, so he must have been awfully good at his job. He was then Lieutenant Governor of Ontario from 2002-2007, and yes, I should have known this.

Bartleman talked about the background of his novel As Long as the Rivers Flow, about First Nations kids entering suicide pacts and killing themselves at age thirteen because their future lives seemed to be pointless. It was heart-breaking–I found myself tearing up, and I’m not a crier. The parents of these children were mostly survivors of residential schools, where they’d faced years of racial (and often, sexual) abuse.  Obviously, if you’d been plucked away from your parents at age six and then returned to them at sixteen, after undergoing ten years of barbaric treatment, you’d have little knowledge about how to provide a supportive atmosphere for your own children. And this isn’t comfortingly ancient history–according to Wikipedia, “the last residential school, White Calf Collegiate, was closed in 1996.” WTF. WTF.WTF.

I’m a little fearful of reading the novel–I think I’ll wait for the fall, by which time I’ll hopefully have gathered up my courage. Oh, and  Bartleman (who is a member of the Chippewas of Mnjikaning First Nation) has advocated for many years to build literacy in First Nations communities, and to date, he’s gathered over 2 million books for this initiative. Holy wow.

Next up was Wayne Johnston, who spoke about injecting fiction into historical nonfiction for narrative balance–and the consequences  of that decision when he began the publicity for his book, The Colony of Unrequited Dreams (which deals with the history of Newfoundland). I don’t know much about the subject, so I’ll just say that Johnston is an excellent raconteur with a fine repository of accents, and leave it there.

My blog giveaway winner Mayank and I were both madly excited to hear Rohinton Mistry, whom we count among the best writers in the world. (I spent twenty minutes with a flat-iron in Mistry’s honor before setting out to the event. No, nobody noticed.) Mistry read from his short work The Scream, which was originally available back in 2006 in a limited edition of 150 copies, and sold exclusively by World Literacy Canada to raise funds for them.  The original edition was priced at $500, and the proceeds went to literacy efforts in South Asia; the book is now available for $15.68 on Amazon for us cheapies.

Mistry’s intense, dramatic reading had me glued to my chair, but sadly (for me, that is), his session was confined to his book–he didn’t talk about his writing process, and there was no Q&A after, so I have no news or insight to offer about his work. He did however mention he was working on a new book, so we can all breathe easy and cross off Christmas presents for an upcoming year. I’d planned to buy The Scream and get it signed, but the booksellers ran out of copies, so I had to content myself with his signature on my program. Which I’ll treasure forevah!

And finally, a big shout-out to World Literacy Canada, for all their work in bring people and literature together, both here in Toronto and all over the globe. There was so much positive energy in that room that night, the sort of energy produced when you are having a good time and doing something good. That combination doesn’t occur often in my life; I can’t wait for next year’s Kama!

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12 responses to “A reading with Rohinton Mistry, Wayne Johnston and James Bartleman

  1. Sounds like it was a great event! Sad to have had to miss it. Like you, I have only been exposed to Mistry’s work which I absolutely love!

    As far as residential schools go… I only found out last year about the last one being closed as early as ’96! Shocking isn’t it?!

  2. I enjoyed reading that

  3. Well that’s a few more books added to my wishlist. Bartleman’s books about his childhood and his career also look interesting, but aren’t readily available in the UK, it seems.

  4. “fiction into historical nonfiction for narrative balance” seems risky, essentially treating non-fiction as a carrier for the intertwined fiction. As a reader I’d rather know what I’m into and not have to sift (actually identify) between the two while reading. A dodgy approach at best.

    Mistry is in a class of his own. To actually try and visit places with the atmosphere he evokes in his writings is an interesting experience.

    By residential schools, you meant the boarding schools back here?

    • Well, I suppose fiction by definition does give the writer that latitude, and historical novels aren’t bound to fact. I do understand your preferences though.
      Yes, boarding schools, but not as we generally understand the term. The “residential school” was a specific type of school designed to instill (white) European values, culture and religion amongst the First Nations people.

  5. (How do you KNOW that he didn’t notice, particularly if there was only a reading and no Q&A?!)

    That sounds like a fantastic and inspiring event. You’ve made me want to immediately pull works by each writer from the shelf right now!

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