Sunday, August 20, 2017

A younger male writer crosses swords with Margaret Atwood

Over on Twitter, I find myself arguing with Margaret Atwood. When I mentioned that I am proud to be part of The Atwood Generation, she objected: "Now Ken. You are WAY younger than me!" Yes, I am younger. But future scholars will talk of The Atwood Generation of Canadian writers as comprising those born 15 or 20 years before or after the warrior queen herself. I suggested as much in my 2013 book 50 Canadians Who Changed the World.  First, I launched a section on Artists (painters, writers, and film-makers) with a quick look at Atwood in action on the global stage. . . .  


Speaking in Jerusalem while accepting the Dan David Prize for Literature, Margaret Atwood noted that writers are easy to attack because they don’t have armies and can’t retaliate. She and Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh, with whom she shared the $1 million award, had “both received a number of letters,” she said, “urging and indeed ordering us not to attend, on the grounds that anything connected with Israel is tabu.”
Those letters “have ranged from courteous and sad,” she added, “to factual and practical, to accusatory, outrageous, and untrue in their claims and statements; some have been frankly libelous, and even threatening. Some [of the correspondents] have been willing to listen to us, others have not: they want our supposedly valuable ‘names,’ but not our actual voices.” In other words, Atwood said, “the all-or-nothings want to bully us into being their wholly owned puppets. The result of such a decision on our part would be – among other things – to turn us into sticks with which to beat other artists into submission, and that we refuse to do.”
The Dan David Prize for the Present, as distinct from those prizes awarded for the Past and the Future, was ear-marked in 2010 for “an outstanding author whose work provides vivid, compelling, and ground-breaking depictions of 20th-century life, rousing public discussion and inspiring fellow writers.” Atwood was cited specifically for enabling “the emergence of a defined Canadian identity while exploring . . . issues such as colonialism, feminism, structures of political power and oppression, and the violation and exploitation of nature.”
. . . As an artist, and more specifically a writer, Margaret Atwood is more politicized than most, and also more politically effective. Here in Canada, she long ago established herself as the Warrior Queen of Canadian Literature. Globally, as we see from her words and actions in Jerusalem, Atwood remains fearless. She defends the diminishing space afforded to art in the broad sense -- the psychological space an artist, writer, or film-maker requires to work. . . .
Later in the book, in a chapter about Atwood, I wrote:
As a novelist, poet, essayist, and, indeed, activist, Margaret Atwood is a global figure. She has published more than fifty acclaimed books and won a still greater number of awards, including prizes from France, Germany, Ireland and the United States, as well as the Booker Prize (she was shortlisted five times), the Giller Prize, and two Governor-General’s Awards (she has been a finalist seven times). Here in Canada, Atwood has been doing cutting-edge work for decades. Her influence is so far-reaching that, in the minds of many, she leads a generation of writers: the Atwood Generation. . . .

The image above is from 1999: Atwood walking the picket line at the Calgary Herald.
And with that, the younger writer rests his case.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Sailing Out of the Northwest Passage launches Dead Reckoning


More Dead Reckoning events are in the works. But at this point, Our Hero is sailing with Adventure Canada Out of the Northwest Passage from Sept. 7 to 23. After that, the confirmed schedule looks like this:
Sept. 27: Toronto: Ben McNally
Oct. 1: Stratford Writers' Festival 
Oct. 14, 15: Calgary Wordfest
Oct. 17: Victoria: Bolen Books
Oct. 18, 19: Vancouver Writers' Fest
Nov.6: U of T series, Oakville
Nov. 9. U of T series, Markham
Nov. 15. U of T series, St. George 
Nov. 18: Niagara: Hotel Dallavalle
Nov. 24: Embro, Ont: Caledonian Society, St. Andrews Day
Dec. 6: Burlington, Different Drummer

Monday, July 31, 2017

Log church at Loch Broom commemorates arrival of Scottish immigrants

The little log church at Loch Broom, Nova Scotia, is open seven days a week . . . except on Mondays. Sheena took this shot through a window at the side and I was quite pleased with the result. A memorial cairn out front indicates that this was the site of Pictou Country's first church, erected in 1787. Forty feet long by 25 feet wide, it was built of logs. First services were conducted in Gaelic. A second memorial, to the left of the church,  commemorates the arrival of Alexander Cameron (and other Scottish immigrants) on the Hector in 1773. Born in 1728 in Loch Broom, Scotland,
Cameron saw two older brothers killed at the Battle of Culloden in 1746.  Here in Nova Scotia, he named his land grant Loch Broom and, as a pioneer farmer, turned forest into farm land. A community leader, Cameron lived to the age of 103. He is buried a few miles from this site at Durham Cemetery. Some BBC types have been poking around in these environs. They have produced a documentary that has yet to be seen in Canada.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Prince Edward Island can be REALLY boring. Please stay away!


So you hear about the glorious red-sand beaches and the entrancing sites pertaining to Anne of Green Gables and the culinary, architectural and historical delights of Charlottetown. And the 75-minute ferry ride from Nova Scotia, and the boating and the lobster dinners and the shocking friendliness of the people, and like that. And that's how Prince Edward Island ends up being over-crowded all summer long!  So I am here to show you
that PEI can be really, really boring. Look: above we have St. John's Presbyterian Church in Belfast. The Selkirk settlers, having arrived here starting in 1803, built it in the 1820s. That's boring, right? Behind the church, you might stumble upon a stone marking the grave of Mary Douglass . . . the only daughter of the 5th Earl of Selkirk, who brought several hundred Highlanders here from Scotland in three ships. I have no doubt that the story of this daughter is well-known. She had a family, after all, as you can deduce from adjacent gravestones, and lived quite a long life. Still, because in my ignorance I had not expected this, the site made me wonder. Selkirk himself rambled all over the place, and died in France. How did his only daughter end up living out her life in PEI? Boring, right? Wait! There is more. Below, we have a view of the beach behind Prim Point. This is where the Selkirk settlers, and the Acadians before them, first came ashore. Nondescript, right? There's a graveyard above the beach, and also a nine-hole golf course. Boring, boring, boring. In short, I recommend that you take a miss on PEI. Leave this boring little island to me and my history-minded ilk. We'll find ways to cope.


Thursday, July 20, 2017

Advance readers discover 'a brilliant reclaiming of history'

The advance readers are encouraging. Bob Rae writes: "Finally! A page-turning book about Arctic exploration that puts the heroism and leadership of indigenous people at the centre of the story." Ronald Wright calls it "a lively and gripping tale of heroism, folly and icy death . . . by highlighting the role of the Inuit, Dene and Metis, Ken McGoogan shows how the most successful white explorers were those who learned from the locals." Katherine Govier discovers "our national myth finally recast on our own shores . . . A brilliant reclaiming of history." Modesty, long known to be my bugbear, precludes my offering more extensive quotation. Dead Reckoning arrives in September.
In response to overwhelming popular demand (see comment below) I am adding two more advance bits: The legendary Peter C. Newman hails Yours Truly as "the ultimate guide to our last frontier." And the equally legendary Louie Kamookak writes: "This is Ken's best book yet. I am going to post a picture with all of his books so that he can show it around. I will even put on a seal-skin vest and tie."

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Opinionated? Moi? Q&A turns up in Celtic Life International

  
[The following is a shortened version of the original article.]

Prolific, profound, witty, and opinionated, Canadian author Ken McGoogan made waves recently when he suggested that Canada adopt Scotland as a new territory. Celtic Life International recently spoke with the scribe about his Celtic connections. 

What are your own roots? My roots are Scottish, Irish, and French Canadian. In Scotland, DNA research led me to meeting Jim McGugan, a long-lost “cousin” who lives in Arbroath; and from there to the island of Gigha in Kintyre, where our earliest ancestor is buried. In Ireland, I have tracked my ancestor Michael Byrnes to New Ross, County Wexford, where he was a contemporary of Patrick Kennedy, a forebear of American president John F. Kennedy.

Why are those roots important to you? Tracking my roots drove me to scrambling around on Cruach MhicGougain in Kintyre, and to having many other fun adventures. The process not only gave me a whole new sense of self, but inspired two books: How the Scots Invented Canada and Celtic Lightning: How the Scots and the Irish Created a Canadian Nation. Unearthing my own roots inspired me to conceive of what I call “cultural genealogy.” Canadian intellectuals hunker down with geographers and sociologists. That’s a mistake. We assume geography’s limitations and cease investigating our collective past at the western edge of the Atlantic Ocean. Instead, like genealogists, we should keep sleuthing. This nation’s history crosses the Atlantic. And, given that nine million Canadians trace their roots to Scotland and Ireland, it does so more often to those two countries than to anywhere else.

From your perspective, what are the biggest challenges facing Celtic Canadians today? I see Celtic culture in Canada as egalitarian, pluralistic, and progressive. So I worry about the emergence onto the world stage of a powerful right-wing partnership led by Theresa May and Donald Trump, or the Tories of Little England and the Republicans of the ‘Wild Wild West.’ I worry that, together, they might create some great libertarian beast and set it slouching towards Canada.

Are Celtic Canadians doing enough to preserve and promote their heritage? Not really. In my own small world, that of books and authors, we have regressed. Once upon a time, Canada and Scotland shared a writers-in-residence program. One year, a Scottish writer would come to Canada for three months. The next, a Canadian writer would spend three months in Scotland. One of the founders of that program told me recently that we Canadians were the ones who dropped the ball. We should be fostering closer relations with Scotland and Ireland, creating linkages of all kinds - cultural, economic, and political - not watching excellent initiatives wither and die.


What can be done to change this? We could start by waking up to the great wide world. Obviously, we face domestic challenges. But the current leadership of the country next door, backed by tens of millions of citizens, wants to create a society in which everyone carries a gun and only the wealthy can afford education or health care. Celtic Canadians should smell the coffee and start casting about for stronger alliances elsewhere - beginning with Scotland and Ireland.

(To read this piece in full, along with much else, pick up the magazine by going here.)

Friday, July 7, 2017

Save Rae's Clestrain with actions in Orkney and the High Arctic

Arctic explorer John Rae, who died in 1893, is alive and well in the news. The BBC reported on July 5 that the Orkney Islands Council is conferring the Freedom of Orkney on that Stromness-born explorer, albeit posthumously. Bravo for that action! Here's hoping it draws attention to the ongoing drive to fund the restoration of Rae's childhood home, the Hall of Clestrain.
In 2014, after a relentless, ten-year campaign, Alistair Carmichael, the Scottish member of Parliament for Orkney, managed to get Rae recognized at Westminster Abbey with a modest ledger stone. Carmichael had been promised a plaque on the wall identifying Rae as the "discoverer of the final link in the first navigable Northwest Passage."  As I write in Dead Reckoning, the plaque got beaten down to a ledger stone on the floor by an anti-Rae protest, "a particularly shameful episode in a tedious tradition of repudiation that dates back to the Victorian era."
We can return to that another day. This latest news reminded me that St. Giles Cathedral, Scotland's answer to Westminster Abbey, has no statue of John Rae. Shouldn't that be rectified? Then I thought of a statue of three figures which can be found in both Scotland and Canada. Near Helmsdale, it is called The Emigrants. In Winnipeg, it is The Selkirk Settlers.
Then I remembered that the famous statue of Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn was financed by a (Scottish) Canadian named Eric Harvie, who erected an identical statue in his hometown of Calgary, Alberta.
Meanwhile, I had been chatting online with Louie Kamookak, the Inuit historian and leading expert on the Franklin expedition. In 1999, Louie and I and Cameron Treleaven had placed a plaque beside the ruins of a cairn that John Rae built in 1854, marking his discovery of Rae Strait in the heart of the Northwest Passage. 
Rae had been accompanied by an Inuk, William Ouligbuck, and an Ojibway, Thomas Mistegan. Without these indigenous companions -- expert hunters and travelers, and the only two men who could keep up with Rae -- the Orcadian explorer would not have made his crucial discovery.
Shall I cut to the chase? We need two identical statues of three figures in action: Rae, Ouligbuck and Mistegan. One of these statues could go into St. Giles . . . OR, even better, into a refurbished Hall of Clestrain. The other could go into the heart of the Arctic, to the John Rae Memorial Site on Boothia Peninsula where in 1854 Rae built his cairn.
Louie reminded me that our modest plaque probably saved the life of an Inuk who, while lost in a blizzard, had stumbled across it. Just imagine what a MASSIVE, three-person statue could do. All we need to make this happen is a present-day Eric Harvie -- a no-nonsense philanthropist of vision. Yo, can anybody hear me?