Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Canadian Nonfiction Collective conference at Green College inspires

Peaceful Green College, surrounded by lush gardens and ocean views, was a great setting to hear the wise words of CNFC guest speakers, who made the recent gathering of nonfiction writers uplifting and inspiring. One big topic was the effect of new media on thought and language. Andreas Schroeder sadly commented that while people rely on the speed and accept the shallowness of internet research, you could "drive a truck through the new Koerner library." Blogging may have its place, but "I defy anyone to be able to produce anything worth reading every single day."

Fellow writers learned much from the thoughtful journalist Deborah Campbell, who has just won the BC Book Prize for Nonfiction and the Hillary Weston Prize. A Disappearance in Damascus took years to write, and many times she was tempted to quit. The insight that kept her going was this. "The point of writing is not to change the world, but to keep the truth alive." The challenge of keeping the truth alive in a "post-truth world," when journalists are told that "Iraq is over," and "Refugees are over," Campbell pointed out that this problem is not new. Like Jonathan Swift in "A Modest Proposal," the writer must engage the reader using the ancient techniques of storytelling. She offered words from Berthold Brecht, written in 1956, as an aid to comfort and hope. Writers in all places and all eras, said Brecht, need the courage, keenness, skill, judgment and cunning, but it is possible to get our words in front of the audience that needs them.

Joy Kogawa recently published a memoir, Gently to Nagasaki. She spoke about the paradoxes that attend the writing life, and the struggle to discover how to live. She acknowledges the evil in the world; it has challenged her mightily in her own life. Her family were evicted from their home as enemy aliens in 1942, and sent to internment camps. Yet now that re-purposed house has become a beacon for diverse writers and a historical reminder of our past. Kogawa loved an ancient and scarred cherry tree in the garden of that house, and wanted to take cuttings of it and plant elsewhere as symbols of love and reconciliation. Nevertheless, somebody deliberately killed it in a displaced expression of rage against her deceased father, a minister who had been exposed as a pedophile.

Kogawa also shared some bizarrely ironic history about the bombing of Nagasaki. This place was not the initial target, and was hit when changing weather conditions and low fuel in the bomber made it urgent to drop the deadly payload. The people the bomb fell on were a hidden community of Japanese Christians, long persecuted by their own government for their religious difference.

"Getting your own back is sweet, and we call it justice," said Kogawa, "but it doesn't satisfy for long." The wisdom I took from this wise elder was more nourishing. "If you can't forgive yet, you can still intend to." If we live with two parts mercy to one part abundance, we can "be with people who have different truths, even Donald Trump." Humans are a "sense-making species, and we make our stories by struggling with them" (a message also shared by Campbell).

But the line that makes my scalp prickle with resonance as I retype it from my notes: "Have confidence in this: The long arc bends toward the good."


  1. Thanks for this. I recently joined the collective and was at the conference too. It's always fun to read another person's "take" on a mutually attended event. Like you, I thought it was an excellent conference, warm and inspiring and instructive in so many ways.

  2. .. good conference, good group, thanks for the text .