Visitors from outside the country always ask me ” Are there any famous people from Ottawa?”, to which I usually whisper “Alanis Morisette” (or Alex Trebek, depending on the questioner’s demographics) and then talk about the weather. Today we had so much snow that there was a power outage! Really! But there’s a writer from Ottawa whose story satisfies the hungriest fame-hound. I’m talking about Tracy Quan.
Just in case you missed this literary phenomenon: Quan is a call girl, and the author of the Nancy Chan novels, Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl and Diary of a Married Call Girl. The books themselves are fascinating; a down-to-earth account of the ‘world’s oldest profession’ by a woman who’s smart and confident and knows exactly what she’s getting into. There’s a great interview with Quan in the literary magazine Rain Taxi, where she talks about Ottawa:
I grew up in Ottawa, the unnamed “quiet city” in the Nancy Chan novels. I wanted to describe it without naming it because there are preconceptions about Ottawa, just as there are about prostitutes. However, a Canadian war reporter recently told me that Ottawa produces people with tremendous ambition—he’s from Toronto where they tend to deride Ottawa, so he wasn’t just shilling for Ottawa reflexively. His theory: it’s the center of Canadian reality; no matter how small it is, you have a sense of owning something quite large and you can develop ambitions that are out of proportion to “reality.” My theory: There’s nothing to do there but think. And think. About what you are going to do when you get out of Ottawa. And so you have this driving ambition to create your own reality.
I grew up in the centre of town—a safe, short bus ride away from Parliament. My friends from the Ottawa ‘burbs don’t share this view but I feel very lucky to have spent my childhood years there. I was surrounded by the values of bilingualism—I received my first kiss, on the cheek, from a French-Canadian boy of eight (I was seven). He was amazingly chaste and he lived next door. There was a strong awareness of human rights. Homophobia was taboo. Everybody I knew was politically aware, and many were politically committed. It was provincial and international at the same time.
It could be very frustrating growing up in this backwater where everything seemed to shut down at 10 pm. Our parents felt safe raising kids in such a small, easy city but you could still see a Shaw play or Marcel Marceau at the National Arts Centre, which happens to be located right across from Byward Market. The Market was Ottawa’s red light district when I was a kid and, as far as I know, still is. It’s conveniently located—right near Parliament Hill. At some point, in the ’80s, wicked yuppies tried to eliminate streetwalkers and they didn’t really succeed. As kids, we all knew that something racy went down in the Market, and we also knew that our parents thought it was a normal fact of life.
Quan’s website is at http://www.tracyquan.net/, where you can check out her blog, donate to the ABA Bookseller Relief Fund for Hurricane Katrina survivors in the book trade, and read letters to her at Dear TQ, amongst other things. Perfect activities for a snow day.