CWILA at the Gillers: A Report from Critic-in-Residence Shannon Webb-Campbell

By  Shannon Webb-Campbell

When CBC radio host Stephanie Domet, an award-winning novelist and neighbor, put me on the VIP list for Between the Pages, an evening with the Scotiabank Giller Prize finalists on October 20 at the Rebecca Cohn Auditorium in Halifax, I was over the moon.

Charmed by complimentary cocktails, an oyster bar, and the entire collection of shortlisted books on my seat – later signed by authors David Bezmozgis, Frances Itani, Sean Michaels, Heather O’Neill, Miriam Toews, and Padma Viswanathan – I daydreamed about attending the actual Gillers.

Coincidently, a road trip came up in the weeks leading up to Canadian literature’s biggest night. Mere hours after firing off a media request, both as an arts freelancer and 2014 Critic-in-Residence for Canadian Woman In Literary Arts, the news about Jian Ghomeshi broke. His then-team of PR folk seized the opportunity to set the terms of the public debate. In his Facebook post, “This Is My Story, The Truth,” Ghomeshi used his celebrity figurehead as space-maker for CanLit culture in a very public and crucial way to solidify his narrative.

“Our relationship was affectionate, casual and passionate. We saw each other on and off over the period of a year and began engaging in adventurous forms of sex that included role-play, dominance and submission,” he writes. “We discussed our interests at length before engaging in rough sex [forms of BDSM]. We talked about using safe words and regularly checked in with each other about our comfort levels. She encouraged our role-play and often was the initiator. We joked about our relations being like a mild form of Fifty Shades of Grey or a story from Lynn Coady’s Giller-Prize winning book last year.”

I haven’t read Fifty Shades of Grey, but Lynn Coady’s story, “An Otherworld,” from Hellgoing is a smart, sad, and funny story about a soon-to-be married couple set against the backdrop of their destination wedding in Belize. It’s an insightful look into the complexity of relationships, sexuality, and happens to involve BDSM. No cracked ribs, Jian.

Like the rest of the country, I was floored, sent into a dizzying array of questions, internal struggles, and was glued to social media. With every Facebook post and Tweet, my anxiety roared. Everywhere: a trigger.

Strangely – and this occupied my mind as I headed to Toronto – Ghomeshi had deliberately managed to wrangle last year’s Giller winner into his defense for sexual assault as an illustration of his sexual preferences. When Coady tweeted her own statement, of sorts, “I knew Jesus was going to punish me for that story,” I understood the weight of language. How words had the ability to transform monsters into men.

Shortly afterwards, the Scotiabank Giller Prize posted an announcement that Ghomeshi wouldn’t be hosting this year’s event. The following morning, I received notification my media request had been approved, followed by an inquiry to see if I wanted to cover the red carpet. Given the Ghomeshi tsunami, I took a few hours to respond, considering my own motivations for wanting to attend, and thinking carefully about my own role as a cultural critic.

Here is the thing: suddenly, rape culture was being talked about everywhere, and it was relentless. From lines at the grocery store to Facebook walls, everyone had an opinion about the accusations around Ghomeshi. And it was deeply triggering.

Over the following week, a choir of eight women came forward, including Canadian television actor Lucy DeCoutere (who plays Lucy on Trailer Park Boys), and I felt panic-stricken, as if my throat was closing over. I couldn’t stop thinking about the silent hearts, the ones who couldn’t come forward. And I understood why.

Managing editor of The Guardian Ruth Spencer (a former University of King’s College journalism classmate), published her first person narrative, “In 2010, I dated Jian Ghomeshi, the beloved Canadian broadcaster now accused of sexual assault,” and it struck a nerve. “I am no different from any of the young women Jian is alleged to have abused – I’m just lucky that he never got around to doing it.” Lucky? If I was blindsided, I couldn’t imagine how Ruth must have felt processing the news, what it meant to publish this piece, both personally and professionally, and for the many objects of Ghomeshi’s abusive affections.

I never dated Jian Ghomeshi, and only met him a handful of times. Like many listeners, I let him in through the speakers of my old stereo at home, in my headphones, and found his voice lingering in my favourite cafe. A few years ago I attended a live taping of Q in Toronto at CBC studios the morning after The National played at Massey Hall with Bon Iver. Ghomeshi and I even shared a lobster roll at an industry party during the 2006 Juno Awards in Halifax. Being a cultural reporter, I heard rumours of Ghomeshi being a womanizer. Many in the arts had. But conversation is limited when it comes to abuse, especially when in relation to a person in power, a figure who appears to be so liberal and arts oriented. Sometimes, we don’t have the language, capacity to listen, or ability to find the words.

Social media grew octopus arms, and became a platform for a wide variety of people’s outrage: if this happened, why hadn’t these women come forward? Horrifying statements of misogyny became part of the daily conversation, some surprisingly, from people we knew, respected, and followed . While Ghomeshi’s online presence attracted thousands, I was ready to throw in the towel on social media.

Then something transformative came out of the Ghomeshi’s uproar. Twitter started to help answer the question of why women don’t report assaults with the hashtag #BeenRapedNeverReported, inspired by an online conversation between Toronto journalists Antonia Zerbisias and Sue Montgomery. And it spread like wildfire. Women from all over the world opened up about their experiences of sexual abuse, and why they hadn’t reported them.

I took a deep breath, and joined the chorus: “I couldn’t report it so I became a poet. #BeenRapedNeverReported”

Finally, I dislodged the lump in my throat.

In the days leading up to the Gillers, I joined an online discussion with 2014 Griffin Prize-nominated Halifax poet Sue Goyette, and several other community members and cultural makers to help organize Safe Harbour: A Community Circle About Sexual Assault, which will be held in Halifax on November 25 at The Company House. The inclusive event is positioned as a healing circle, and will “focus on sexual assault and the groundswell of stories, questions, and possibilities which have come to the forefront after the national story that recently erupted at the CBC.” All donations will go to the Avalon Sexual Assault Centre.

Ultimately, I am a reader first, critic second, and poet at my core. This is how I experience life and relate to the world. At the core of my Giller yearning was a desire to witness a nation-wide glittery celebration of books. I realized my relationship to the shortlisted titles is more private, internal, and held in the knowing between author and reader. This exchange rarely takes place over cocktail small talk, or when clad in fancy dresses or black ties. It’s more sacred, a promise made between pages. Here is my report from the 2014 Scotibank Giller Prize, one of my last jobs as 2014 Critic-in-Residence for Canadian Women In Literary Arts.

Miriam Toews and Naomi Klein    Photo Credit: Shannon Webb-Campbell

Miriam Toews and Naomi Klein Photo Credit: Shannon Webb-Campbell

The Scotiabank Giller Prize was founded by Jack Rabinovitch in 1994 to honour his late wife, literary journalist Doris Giller, who passed away the previous year. Originally a purse of $25,000 awarded to Canadian fiction (long format or short fiction), the prize has grown to $100,000 this year. When the announcement came in September, Rabinovitch said when he graduated from McGill University in the 1950s, “there wasn’t a single course in Canadian literature. Today, there are many.

“I don’t know whether the (Giller) prize itself contributed … but what I think happens is that you begin to have a national identity, and people feel that they can write about their own country and their own feelings as Canadians, and do it in a Canadian way and that there’s a market for it,” said Rabinovitch.

Canadian literature existed long before the Giller Prize. Certainly, the prize raised the profile of CanLit, and spotlights the long and shortlisted authors who make the cut, but it’s not our only literature. In a country where authors are celebrities, the news of our adored CBC broadcaster and author Jian Ghomeshi rattled us. We want to trust our cultural leaders – writers, thinkers, broadcasters, journalists, and critics. Literature is a massive part of our national identity, though often it’s a particular literature we celebrate. As a country founded on its Indigenous land and people, we often ignore the multiple Aboriginal languages, stories, and oral culture.

Leading up the Gillers, Between the Pages events were held in Vancouver, Halifax, and Toronto, where local celebrities read from the books and the shortlisted authors were interviewed on stage.

While I finished a Margherita Atwood scotch cocktail at the bar outside the live broadcast ballroom at the Ritz-Carlton, I bumped into the newly coined Books Editor at The National Post, Emily Keeler (who interviewed David Gilmour for Hazlitt last fall, where he infamously went on record saying he “was not interested in teaching books by women”). We got talking about the significance of the Gillers, and perhaps questioned if it mattered too much. In a calendar year, thousands of books are published, and for a season, only a few receive focus.

Heather O'Neill Photo Credit: Shannon Webb-Campbell

Heather O’Neill
Photo Credit: Shannon Webb-Campbell

Though, Giller jurors Shauna Singh Baldwin, Justin Carwright and Francine Prose, who read 161 books leading up to their decision, did not feel gender played a role in their final cut (even though in a shortlist of six, four were women writers).

As I stood behind the last sectioned-off portion of the red carpet with a media post clearly stating my position as the Canadian Women In Literary Arts rep, next to the top news outlets in the country, I was privy to interviews with anyone who walked down the red carpet. Naomi Klein sauntered with Miriam Toews. Heather O’Neill and I gushed about black cats in relation to The Girl Who Was Saturday Night’s twins Noushka and Nicolas Tremblay. The Betrayer author David Bezmozgis even mistook me for a “presenter in Halifax.” Sean Michaels and I exchanged grins as two music journalists turned writers. Several reporters didn’t even know who the actual shortlisted authors were; they were more preoccupied talking to television stars such as Mad Men’s Jessica Paré, and Sons of Anarchy’s Kim Coates.

While each shortlisted author takes home $10,000 and gets their book backed by a celebrity (I suspect to lure the non-readers, and slew of Toronto elite who attend the gala), what remains at the heart of the Gillers are books.

Toews’ All My Puny Sorrows (Alfred A. Knopf Canada), presented by Klein, took home this year’s Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize for her stunning portrayal of two sisters –one a suicidal concert pianist, who cuts her wrists and drinks bleach, the other a moderately successful young adult author – and the nature of loyalty, sisterhood, love and the many miles between Toronto and Winnipeg, life and death.

O’Neill’s The Girl Who Was Saturday Night (HarperCollins Canada), presented by Paré, is a poetic novel conveying youth, experience, and grief set in Quebec during the 1995 referendum.

Viswanathan’s novel The Ever After of Ashwin Rao (Random House Canada), presented by director Deepa Mehta, charts the learning and unlearning of the immigrant experience, racism, and religious fundamentalism.

With sixteen published books to her name, Itani’s Tell (HarperCollins Canada), presented by Murdoch Mysteries actor Yannick Bisson, explores morality, mystery, foibles, and the notion of telling.

Bezmozgis’ novel The Betrayers (HarperCollins Canada), presented by Kim Coates, captures a universe of deception and moral conduct, a world where Israeli Baruch Kotler’s wife cheats on him a much-younger lover, taking him to Crimea.

Sean Michaels Photo Credit: Shannon Webb-Campbell

Sean Michaels
Photo Credit: Shannon Webb-Campbell

Debut novelist Michaels, acclaimed music blogger at Said the Gramophone and author of Us Conductors (Penguin Random House Canada), may have won this year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize, but it wasn’t the $100,000 that overthrew him.

For Michaels, it was the musicality of the moment. The 32-year-old Montreal music journalist accepted the top award in Canadian publishing by eloquently saying: “I feel like a whale who has found a whole city in his mouth.”

Us Conductors is a gorgeously melodic work of fiction, serenading readers through the life of Russian-born Lev Sergeyevich Theremin, the inventor of the theremin – an electronic instrument that doesn’t require physical contact from its player. From the glamour of 1920s New York to Stalin’s Soviet Union, Us Conductors is a love story, a remarkable novel that charts the interiority of music and how it resounds.

Penguin Random House Canada has announced plans to immediately reprint Us Conductors in hardcover, as it is faster in terms of production. The book was previously only published in softcover.

In the Giller’s 20-year history, Michaels is only the third debut novelist to win the award, following Vincent Lam in 2006 and Johanna Skibsrud in 2010. He joins the elite ranks of the Giller effect: Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, and last year, Lynn Coady. Michaels has big boots to fill.

Michaels’s win is a movement forward, bridging the gap between bloggers and the literary establishment. Even media outlets like eTalk, CBC, and CP24, who quipped about the win before a media scrum with Michaels in a hotel suite upstairs at the Ritz-Carlton, agreed – “he’s one of us, a working writer.”

During his book tour, Michaels tracked down theremin players to perform in each city, an instrument described as a magical sound rising from nowhere. Musician David Usher presented Us Conductors at this year’s gala. Michaels remembered Usher’s work from his popular ’90s band Moist, and took a moment on the red carpet to recall being a teenager wandering the streets in an Ottawa winter with headphones while listening to Moist’s melancholy-soaked songs.

Clearly emotional and overwhelmed by the improbability of his Giller win, Michaels ended his speech by referencing the uproar around the recent allegations of sexual assault and harassment by previous Scotiabank Giller Prize host and former CBC personality Jian Ghomeshi – the elephant that replacement host Rick Mercer only referenced when he introduced himself to the audience as “your Giller filler.”

Michaels aptly said: “As we’ve been reminded in recent months there are people in our little corner of culture who behave monstrously. We have to reckon with that and change it. Each of us does. We must believe women and men too, mostly. We must tell good stories and buy every book.”

While the event offered insight into the Giller machine, the real take away was the final line of Michaels’ speech, where he quoted Montreal poet Sina Queyras’ 2009 collection Expressway: “Go forth and undo harm/ go forth and do.”

 

Photo Credit: Mel Hattie

Photo Credit: Mel Hattie

 

Shannon Webb-Campbell is the inaugural winner of Egale Canada’s Out in Print Award and CWILA critic-in-residence. She was shortlisted for WFNS’ Atlantic Writing Competition 2014.

Currently, she is earning her MFA in Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia. Her forthcoming poetry collection, Still No Word (Breakwater Books, 2015), is her first book. Shannon’s criticism, poetry, and fiction have appeared in numerous anthologies, literary journals and magazines. She lives in Halifax.

 

Published on November 19, 2014

 

 

 

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