Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Calgary Visit - Part One

I flew to Calgary on 2 March 2009 at the invitation of the Department of English at the University of Calgary. It was a return visit. I had visited before in 2007 as part of a mini-tour of Western Canada to promote my first collection of short fiction, Pink Icing. That visit took place at just about the same time in early March, and involved a lunch time reading which went well, never mind the small audience. Christian Bok had said then that the Department would ask me back.
So I begin by saying thanks to him for making good his promise.

A bit of serendipity, though, before I go any further. Roaming the web last night I came across a review of Pink Icing posted at Outsider Writers’ Collective:

It’s a nice review that includes these comments:

"One of Pamela Mordecai’s biggest strengths as a writer is her ability to disappear. So, you’re thinking, ‘Wow, that’s the most backhanded compliment I’ve read.’ But it’s true…Her words dissolve and leave you immersed in the world of story, occupying the same patch of grass or gravel road as the characters... Her restrained prose is economical and turns many a phrase without drawing attention to the writing itself, eschewing any chance of pulling you out of the story."

You’ll see in a bit why I was glad to read that, and be reassured that I put my money where my mouth is. Thanks, Nik Korpon!

So here I was, at the end of February, being optimistic. Courtesy of a chinook, it had been relatively warm in Calgary, and Robert Majzels, poet, playwright, novelist, prize-winning translator and associate professor of the Creative Writing group in the Department of English, had sounded as though, maybe, just maybe, the weather might be persuaded to hold. But Calgary weather is mercurial, a word I have on occasion used to describe myself, so by the time I touched down, it had exercised its right to do a volte face and welcome the visiting writer with an example of her very own changeable nature. "If not, why not?" as my Granny used to say...

I'd been reading the latest Robert Majzels (say May-zels) book. The Humbugs Diet, over the previous day or two, and indeed on the flight across. I am, I confess, severely under-read, a state I tell myself I share with most of the world, so not to worry. Given the opportunity of meeting a fellow-writer, however, I usually make it my business to read his or her work. It's as good a way as any to decide on what shall be the next book I choose as I struggle valiantly with the Sisyphean task of catching up.

The Humbugs Diet, billed as a detective story, is tasty. (I won't tell you anything about the story, except that it's about old people, is not really a whodunit, and is funny. To find out more, go buy the book.) As I've said before, I dislike writing that calls attention to itself: I don't like clever that makes sure that I notice it. I'm old-fashioned, believing firmly in the celebrated "seamless unity of form and content". Ergo, "The writing is so fine!" as a statement about any book makes my antennae quiver. However fine, it should be tucked away, like a respectable lady's petticoat, at the service of the story. In this novel, Majzels uses a manner of thought, and so of writing, to create a doppelganger, an own-way, own-mind second self for his ex-detective protagonist, Rotuf Mazal. Rotuf is on the one hand not much of anybody, diffident, indecisive, letting the days go by till he can't stand to do it any more. But quirky habits of phrase and deliberation conjure his second self for us, and much of the humour in the novel derives from the interplay between Rotuf's pedestrian first self and his sardonic second self.

I have a thing about numinous quality of names (Brutus starting a spirit, and all that) so, as I told Robert, I wasn't sure about his giving the protagonist a name so similar to his own. (I wasn't to know then that the Claire of the story is also named for his partner, Claire Huot.) And this isn't a flawless work. But it was experimenting - with language, with signifying on cultures and literatures, with pushing the boundaries of a genre in an amiable, unsnooty way. Above all, it diverted me, which is what good storytelling has always been about.

If his story was wry and endearing, never mind that it concerned a murder or two, Robert, in his role as host, was equally good natured. When I found I had to postpone the visit from October 2008 to March of this year, he said, No problem - these things happen. Once we confirmed dates, I had clear indications about things that I needed to do, and what my visit would involve. The refund of my plane fare and my honorarium arrived in advance of my departure for Calgary - very reassuring for a poor writer. And Robert was always accessible and helpful.

And now, here he was on the ground, meeting me with his trusty VW steed (veteran of two cross-Canada runs, I later learned), whisking me off to the Best Western near the University, helping me with my bags to the door of my room and promising a ride to U of C the next afternoon. The next day, he arrived exactly on time, delivered me safely to the English department, never mind the treacherous, iced-over terrain, and introduced me to Aruna Srivasteva whose class I was to visit that afternoon. More on Aruna’s class in my next dispatch.

His final kindness was to introduce me the next night at a reading at Pages, a great alternative bookstore in Kensington where the own-way traffic lights must have been made in Jamaica, for dem cyaan agree. There the chairs were all occupied, the audience receptive and the owner-manager, Simone Lee, her baby son, Theo, and Martin and the rest of the staff, both gracious as well as organized - smooth as Theo's bottom. Robert and Claire saw me off at the end of the reading with good wishes for the rest of the visit.

So I'm raising my glass of sorrel in a toast to Robert Majzels, and through him, the Department of English at the University of Calgary. Thanks, Robert. Good luck with finding the house! I look forward to seeing you next year, and between now and then, walk good.


FSJL said...

Being able to disappear is a trick that writers of fiction need to be able to do. A good work of fiction should be seamless, and the narrative should envelop the reader without the reader feeling that the writer is playing tricks on him or her. At least that's how I see it. The best stories draw you into another world and leave you at the end both satisfied and yet wanting more. Knowing, that is, that you've been to another place, but not who or what took you there.

On tarra hand, it sounds as if you enjoyed your trip to Calgary, and the natives were friendly.

clarabella said...

Hi FSJL: Challenged by keeping up with two blogs, and going on with life! Yes, I agree with you about how a good work of fiction ought to be. In fact, I use much the same terms to that you have done, terms like seamless. I don't know if it's "on tarra hand," but, as my newest post shows, I did enjoy the trip to Calgary because of the fine people that I met. It's Cowboy country, though, and alive with prejudice...

FSJL said...

Perhaps not "di tarra hand" but "di todda hand". My father taught me that in the old days (or at any rate in St Elizabeth in the 1920s), illiterates counted up to nine thus:

Di one, di two, di t'ree,
Di ram, di ewe, di wedda,
Di dis, di dat, an di odda.

clarabella said...

Hi there, FSJL: I've heared 'di tarra' in Jamdown, but 'di todda', and, nearer English, 'di odda', are more common these days. I think you really ought to write a memoir about your Dad, and include the wealth of lore he seems to have passed on to you. I've never heard that strategy for counting before. You know of course that innumerate newspaper vendors can nonetheless make correct change?

FSJL said...

I've seen correct change made by street newspaper vendors. I've no idea of their numeracy or innumeracy.

We tend to forget that Jamaica is big enough to have different local dialects and customs. A practice in one place might well be alien to another, or too "country" for more sophisticated city folk. And St Elizabeth (like rural parts of Clarendon) has always been stigmatised as especially "country".

I don't know that I have a particularly large collection of lore. Just a few scraps here and there.