…Insightful Reading on Urban Sustainability

November 22, 2012 4:45 pm

The University of Toronto Press has published Urban Sustainability: Reconnecting Space & Place, edited by Ann Dale, William T. Dushenko and Pamela Robinson.

Given ongoing concerns about global climate change and its environmental and economic impacts, the need for urban sustainability has never been greater. Urban Sustainability: Reconnecting Space & Place explores concrete ways to make cities more sustainable through integrated planning, policy development, and decision making. It is the first book to provide an applied inter-disciplinary perspective on the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead in this area. This volume sheds light on the theoretical underpinnings of urban sustainability through narrative case studies. The contributors provide fresh perspectives on how issues related to sustainable urban planning and development can be promoted through collaborative partnerships and community engagement.


Freedom and Darkness in Salman Rushdie’s Joseph Anton

November 14, 2012 1:37 pm
joseph anton a memoir

Salman Rushdie begins his brilliant new memoir Joseph Anton (Knopf Canada, 2012) by describing a phone call from a BBC journalist in February 1989 in which she asks what it’s like knowing that he’s going to be killed. Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini, she went on to tell him, had issued a fatwa calling not only for his death but for the death of anyone knowingly associated with the publication of his novel The Satanic Verses. According to Iran’s supreme leader, the work of fiction was blasphemous. Ever since that fateful day people have speculated on the Ayatollah’s motivation. Was he as outraged as he declared by The Satanic Verses? Did he actually read the book? Or, as Rushdie himself suggests, was the fatwa likely a cynical ploy on the part of Iran’s leadership to divert attention away from the country’s faltering revolution? Whatever the reason for it, the threat the fatwa posed was very real. Many Muslims the world over were prepared to mete out the punishment of death they felt Rushdie had coming to him. One of the most obnoxious characters in Rushdie’s memoir is a high profile British Muslim leader who took every opportunity to publicly declare that the author must die. (When we learn late in the book that he died of a heart attack it was impossible to feel any sympathy for the man.) Rushdie obviously lived to share his tale, but many others did not. Some guilty of nothing more than working at a book store in which the book was sold were killed. Others survived attempts on their life but suffered grievous physical harm. Rushdie tells of how a Danish publisher of The Satanic Verses emerged from his house one morning to discover a tire on his vehicle had been slashed.  As he approached to investigate he was shot three times. He survived, much to the dismay of all those who believed he should die by virtue of his association with Rushdie. Although the fatwa was recently lifted, it remains a most shameful episode for which those responsible must answer.

So what was all the fuss about? What did Rushdie write that could possibly upset Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini and the country’s mullahs and Muslims the world over so much that they believed that his death was the only appropriate response? One of Joseph Anton’s many highlights comes early when he reveals The Satanic Verses are part of Islamic lore.  Rushdie traces them back to the religion’s early days. Islam’s initial appeal was shared among the most underprivileged in rapidly urbanizing environments. These early adherents were persecuted by Mecca’s elites. Around this time the prophet Muhammad was apparently visited by an imposter of Gabriel and asked about three goddesses that were important revenue sources to the city of Mecca. They wouldn’t have the status of Allah, but could they be worshipped nonetheless? Muhammad was tempted.  The words spoken became sura 53 in the Quran. At some point in the not too distant future the real Gabriel informed Muhammad that the verse in question was not real and thus ‘satanic.’ It would have to be replaced by the godly verse.

The episode, Rushdie goes on to suggest, raised a thorny question: why was Muhammad tempted to elevate the status of the goddesses? Rushdie proposes that he might have been prepared to enter a bargain of sorts. Mecca’s elites were prepared to end their persecution of Islam’s followers if the goddesses so important to the city’s financial well being could be incorporated into the new religion. Muhammad, he adds, might have been tempted if it meant endearing himself to Mecca’s elites. In the end, Muhammad didn’t succumb to the temptation.

How does imagining and writing about such a proposition constitute ‘blasphemy’ or a grave insult to Islam? It’s hard to know. As Rushdie says, if he knew he’d be sentenced to death for writing The Satanic Verses, he would have really criticized Islam.

But sentenced to death he was and thus forced to exercise every precaution to keep his assassins at bay. Rushdie details how every aspect of his life suffered as a consequence of the fatwa. He assumes an alias – Joseph Anton, a hybrid derived from two of his favourite authors, Joseph Conrad and Anton Checkov – to conceal his identity. He was forced to live a life both on the run and in perpetual hiding. For years living in Britain he couldn’t so much as go to a corner store without planning it with the team forced to protect him. Airlines refused to allow him to fly on their planes. Publishers refused to publish the paperback version of The Verses. India, his native country, banished him. Indeed, he discovers first-hand what it’s like to have your freedom ruthlessly stripped away. If there can be said to be one benefit to his ordeal, it’s that he draws on it to write often beautifully and poignantly about the theme of exile.

Salman Rushdie and Padma Lakshmi PHOTO: FishbowlLA

Salman Rushdie and Padma Lakshmi PHOTO: FishbowlLA

Rushdie’s emphasis, however, is on his relationships with those closest to him.  Relationships sometimes buckled under the strain of constant threat to not only his life, but his family’s as well. His depictions of the women he loved and married are often generous and sympathetic, but were also often characterized by bitterness and acrimony. The effect on the reader is curious. On the one hand, you appreciate the author’s vulnerability. The reader senses his desire to be loved. On the other hand, although he does not spare himself from criticism, one still wonders if his version of tumultuous events with the women in his life are one sided. Was he as magnanimous as he sometimes portrays himself? It’s hard to know, especially given that for a time he was publicly vilified as volatile and egotistical and with a fondness for younger and strikingly beautiful women. He admits to leaving his third wife and mother to his younger son for Padma Lakshmi, a woman 23 years his junior who gained notoriety when she posed for Playboy magazine. He acknowledges it wasn’t his finest hour. Nevertheless, after reading the memoir, that sort of characterization seems more than a little unfair. Rushdie demonstrates too much insight into the world, too much sensitivity for the suffering of others and too much love for his two sons to be as selfish as he was sometimes made out to be.

There are stretches of the book when it is sometimes difficult to discern its arc. One feels anecdotes described in chapters 5 and 6 are too often the same in tone and substance as those in chapters 1 and 2. For this reason, the reader may have to contend with occasional bouts of tedium. But he is rewarded for his patience. The slow transformation to Rushdie’s character and life are eventually manifest. He writes movingly about his readiness to succumb to the relentless pressure to admit his folly and his sin. Repent, he was told more than once, and perhaps the Iranian authorities will lift the death sentence. Tell them you were wrong to write what you did about the prophet Mohammad. His desire to live freely and his declared need to be loved conspired to make him to do just that. Yet even after he made such a gesture the fatwa wasn’t lifted. Muslims everywhere insisted he still had to die. From that moment forward he writes of his growing defiance against the tyrants who would kill him for using his imagination to creatively engage with Islam. He uses his considerable prowess with the written word to expose their hypocrisy, their extraordinary capacity for cruelty and the danger such fanaticism poses to freedom.

Indeed the book soars when he writes less about himself and more about the ideas and principles at stake throughout the entire ordeal.  “How does newness enter the world?” he asks early in The Satanic Verses. Literature at its best is meant to explore this question and, in so doing, stretch and challengethe reader’s experience of the world. History is littered with examples of writers facing the wrath of holy institutions who oppose this sort of impulse. The same tension between newness and authority is often at stake in the world of science. Rushdie alludes to Darwin’s radical thesis of evolution and how the Church derisively characterized him as a menace to society. As for Islam, Rushdie is hardly the only person to suffer at the hands of its most conservative adherents. Challenging the faith can indeed pose grave risks. Rushdie refers to the brutal murder of Theo Van Gogh, the Dutch filmmaker who dared to depict Muhammad. If he were writing the memoir now, he would undoubtedly lament the Taliban’s attempt to murder Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani girl who so publicly, courageously and eloquently declared her and every other young girl’s right to an education. She was shot in the head by a Taliban sniper for promoting ‘secular’ values. Mercifully, she survived. But the response to this latest outrage has been ineffectual and tepid. As Rushdie warns, we’re losing the nerve and the basis on which to criticize the ideas that fuel this sort of monstrous violence.

Joseph Anton: A Memoir (Knopf Canada) is out now.

Joseph Anton: A Memoir (Knopf Canada) is out now.

Ottawa Writers Festival: One on One with Jian Ghomeshi

November 6, 2012 12:08 pm

Jian Ghomeshi, the host of CBC Radio Q (a national arts magazine show), was in town on October 27 to discuss his 1982 memoir.

1982 is the story of Ghomeshi’s life in grade nine while living in Thornhill, a Toronto suburb. Ghomeshi tells stories of girls, concerts, school, parents and how he wanted to be David Bowie. Wendy, his dream girl and a female version of Bowie, played a very dominant role in his life in 1982. Ghomeshi said it was difficult having a crush on a girl who was two years his senior and “way cooler” than he was. While his relationship with Wendy never lasted beyond high school, Ghomeshi recalled what an important influence she had on him during his early adolescence. Ghomeshi met up with his dream girl years later. While writing the book, Ghomeshi realized he would need her permission before publishing the story. He contacted her and she said she remembered a very different version of the events he described. But, she still gave Ghomeishi permission to publish the story, telling him to write the book however he wanted, since it was his story to tell.

While he didn’t repeat anecdotes already related in the book, the author reminisced about his life before a large audience at Knox Presbyterian Church. When the floor was opened to audience questions, Ghomeshi shared more about his life after 1982, including his assessment of his infamous interview with Billy Bob Thornton.


One thing I really admired about Ghomeshi was how much he praised the arts. His parents immigrated from Iran a short time after the Iranian hostage crisis of the late 1970s. Ghomeshi talked about his difficulties with his parents, who wanted him to be a successful doctor or engineer. Ghomeshi candidly told the audience that this was a path he never wanted to follow and was thankful for the opportunities he had in contributing to Canadian arts and music. Ghomeshi believes that his interaction with artists, actors, musicians and authors allowed him to become a critical thinker, never taking answers for granted and questioning the accepted norms of society on a regular basis. This is one of the reasons Ghomeshi has become such a successful interviewer on Q, and now, such a successful author.













John Ralston Saul’s Dark Return to Fiction

November 2, 2012 12:00 pm
John Ralston Saul

On October 28, Canadian author, essayist and public intellectual John Ralston Saul spoke to a full crowd at the Knox Presbyterian Church as part of the 2012 Ottawa Writers Festival fall line-up. Saul, who is known for his celebrated novels and essays, being twice elected as the President of PEN International, and his marriage to former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson, came to the Writers Festival to speak about literature, Canadian and global politics, and his newest novel, Dark Diversions: A Traveller’s Tale (Viking Press Canada), his first fictional work in nearly two decades. After his appearance at the festival, Ottawa Life Magazine got a chance to talk with Saul about his new book and his thoughts on the role of the writer.

Speaking about his hiatus from the world of fiction, Saul said he’s “always had these ideas about Canada and I needed to write them,” but they could not be expressed in fictional form. Through his essays and non-fiction books, Saul found himself in a period of transition from “writing novels to influence people” to “explaining ideas” directly to his audience. Saul described his earlier non-fiction works, like Voltaire’s Bastards (1992) and Reflections of a Siamese Twin (1997) as “half critique and half proposition,” while his later works, like On Equilibrium (2001) and A Fair Country: Telling Truths about Canada (2008), offered him a chance to share more singular arguments about his own propositions for Canada and the world. Saul believes his essays and the open discussions he’s held have “opened a door for the return of the oral argument,” an art form that helped define Canada throughout its history, but has nearly been lost in the present day.

To Saul, fiction and non-fiction writings are part of the big puzzle. “Philosophy has always been like fiction . . . [because] novels contain the ultimate truth.” For this reason, Saul has always seen himself as a novelist first and foremost. “Every day of my life, I think that I need to be writing novels. Eventually, I felt it was the right time to come back to the novel, which unlike non-fiction, allows you to create this world that people can find themselves in.”

During his absence from the world of fiction, Saul became president of PEN International, a global community of writers who promote freedom of speech and help free imprisoned journalists and authors. Through his role as PEN president, Saul has travelled the world and worked with publicists, academics, prominent writers and world leaders to promote the organization’s cause and raise awareness and sympathy for unjustly incarcerated writers.

Through his travels, witnessing a wide variety of social spheres and community classes, Saul found the inspiration for many of the characters in Dark Diversions, his first fictional work in 15 years. The narrator, whose name and identity are left unknown through most of the book, chronicles a series of stories while he moves among aristocrats in America, elites in Europe, and dictators in the developing world. He chronicles the passion, malaise, depression and self-destruction of the upper classes as he witnesses murder, infidelity, attempted suicide, the double lives and broken lives of the privileged persons and plutocrats in the highest echelons of society.

Dark Diversions is in part a continuation of the themes of Saul’s last novel, De si bons Américains, a black comedy about elites. Saul didn’t think Dark Diversions “would be so dark” when he started writing it, but the book’s use of composite and pastiche characters based on real-life personalities Saul has encountered led to the dark comic and ironic tones that reflect the present era. “I like black comedy,” Saul said. “[Dark Diversions] is funnier and darker because this is an era for dark comedy. When you look at something like the recent financial crisis and how the very people who started the entire collapse were rewarded for what they did – that’s comedic in a very dark way.” Saul believes that while events like the economic crisis of 2008 are not funny in a serious way, they are in part “comically serious.”

Saul took many real-life individuals he had met and transformed them through the novel. “I used, and I don’t want to call it the ‘lens’ of fiction, but more of the ‘metamorphosis’ or transformation, if that makes any sense. You can tell stories about real people, but through the transformation of fiction, you can really see them. It’s hard to explain, but you can see things entirely differently in fiction.”

Dark Diversions is in many ways a call-back to the early days of modern fiction. “I’ve always believed that the beginning of modern fiction is (Joseph) Conrad. In Heart of Darkness and many of his other works, the narrator is caught… being the witness and not knowing what to do about it. Dark Diversions is in part a picaresque, as the narrator tumbles into disorder, wandering through the different events of the novel.” Yet Saul’s anonymous narrator struggles with his place among the desperate and melancholic people he encounters and what he chronicles starts to affect him in tangible ways. The trials of the narrator reflect Saul’s own thoughts on how the author and the novel should interact. “Novels are driven by something… very muscular in society. When you’re writing a novel, you can’t just rely on the character of the narrator driving the novel.” To Saul, “a good novel allows you to enter in and control a world,” while the novelist disappears to allow the reader to experience the reactions of the characters personally.

In Dark Diversions, Saul’s narrator attempts to stay distant from the people he encounters, taking the time to observe but rarely interfere with the lives of the rich and influential. Saul wrote his narrator to be more distanced partially in reaction to what he saw as a growing trend in contemporary fiction in which the narrator is presented as more important than the plot. Saul saw many instances where the author uses the character of the narrator for wish-fulfilment purposes, in both detective novels and serious fiction. To Saul, this trend of the authors confusing themselves with their narrators and personally intervening in the events of the novel is very “pornographic.”

“I never liked novels where the author gets in the way… the author takes readers to a place to peek in on the action, without any consequences. I believe the author should take the reader to a place to go in and feel those consequences.”

Saul thinks authors invade their works in fiction and non-fiction. “There is a big confusion about how do you establish what truth is, and in non-fiction, many authors try to marshal facts to prove things; this doesn’t answer the real, big questions because you can prove almost anything with facts.” Saul believes that in relying solely on facts, writers create what he calls a “false neutrality,” where the author attempts to look unbiased, but still displays a prejudice through the information that is presented. “I believe an argument has to hold its own. Facts are just illustrations. I don’t rely on facts in my writing, but I still use them. In writing non-fiction, you have a role of getting the reader to think about how ideas work, not just telling them how to think.

To Saul, fiction and non-fiction writing is an important part of being human. “I don’t think novels and essays are that different. (A book) is the most powerful weapon. The first time a child discovers he or she is an individual is by reading a novel.” The biggest threat to a person’s identity is the removal of those works and the silencing of the freedom of expression that comes through writing.

As President of PEN International, Saul has been working tirelessly to promote freedom of expression on a global scale. PEN is currently working on the Declaration on Free Expression and Digital Technology, which will be released shortly. The Declaration is an attempt to generate a consensus among writers and governments about restrictions imposed on online interactions. “The digital world has created all sorts of opportunities, but we’ve seen an explosion in government security forces observing people through the digital domain.” In many countries, governments do not need judicial permission to obtain private information online and use it to convict and imprison their own people. “Governments are now getting an enormous amount of detail without this permission. We’re seeing this all the time with people constantly prosecuted over what is digitally published.”

Saul and PEN are very concerned about the dangers that could arise if the restraints on what governments should have access to go unchecked. “If you look at the victories that have been won for freedom of expression in the last 100 years, most of them have been lost in the past 20. The question needs to be asked, ‘Do we have to have rules to define what is acceptable and unacceptable?’ and [the Declaration] is an attempt to do that.”

Saul cited the example of Liu Xiaobo, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 for his defence of human rights in China and was imprisoned for his activism. The defence of his cause on the internet, as well as any online mentions of him or his work, have been entirely censored in China. Xiaobo’s imprisonment is not only an example of the repression of free speech, but of the failure of the Chinese government to address the nature of digital publication. “You need to read the case [against Xiaobo] to see how the Chinese government interprets what it thinks the internet is,” Saul noted. “We aren’t just defending journalists, authors and members of PEN anymore. Whether you’re a Nobel Prize winner or a volunteer announcer at a community radio station, and everything in between, we are here to defend your rights.” One of the most important things is for PEN to “not be divided by authorities attempting to make judgments on what a bona fide writer is.”

Saul firmly believes that free expression is not simply exercised by writers. “Freedom of expression belongs partly to the writer and partly to the reader. When you read something out loud or share it with friends, that is an example of freedom of expression.”

John Ralston Saul’s new book, Dark Diversions: A Traveller’s Tale, is available now in bookstores everywhere.



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