Friday, May 6, 2016

Celebrating Farley Mowat at his boat-roofed house

Farley Boat Roof House

To kilt up or go Arctic. That's the dilemma I face. It's prompted by the moving of the Farley Mowat boat-roofed house in Port Hope. Come October, an international crew of professional stone-wallers will arrive in that town, 100 km east of Toronto. They will dismantle and then reassemble the boat house, placing it at a new location near the Port Hope Public Library. You can read all about this adventure by clicking here. And while you're clicking around, you might want to check out this definitive piece (ahem) on the legacy of Farley Mowat. Anyway, in Port Hope, after the hard work comes the fun.
I am delighted to report that on Saturday October 8, I will be one of five authors -- including Claire Mowat -- who will celebrate Mowat with readings at the Port Hope Library. You see how this is coming full circle? I can't help but think of Farley responding to fancy public occasions in the Big City by whirling around shameless in his kilt. No, nothing like that is going to happen in Port Hope. Farley Mowat was one of a kind. But the question is: do I gesture towards the pride Mowat took in his Scottish heritage? Or do I, instead, give a nod to the Arctic, which also formed such a large part of who he was? Perhaps by donning tuque and shades? Fortunately, I have a few months to contemplate this question . . . and, perhaps, to receive input from others.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

U of T summer course in narrative nonfiction . . . .

In the past couple of weeks, I have purchased two books written by folks who passed through one of my University of Toronto workshops. I would like to say that these publications are down to me. But I don't dare. People would call me out. Put it this way: at least I didn't get in the way! And here we are again, two months from starting (July 11) my one-week intensive course in narrative nonfiction (aka creative nonfiction) at the U of T summer writing school. A number of folks have already registered, wisely bent on securing the $50 discount offered for early-bird registration. 

As you can see, I do ask for submissions (up to 1,500 words) so we can hit the ground running. Below, we find a nutshell description and an image of the official "me." Dr. Jekyll. We do have a good time. And I do believe that this workshop can move you forward. Click here for Course Details.

Meanwhile, here's that nutshell description: Anyone looking for today's most exciting writing should check out Narrative Non-Fiction, an emerging genre in which writers apply literary techniques to factual narrative. This course will orient writers within the genre, which includes both personal streams (memoir, autobiography, travelogue) and impersonal ones (true-crime writing, biography, historical narrative, immersion reporting). The workshop focuses on craft, and will include lectures, discussions, exercises, and workshopping student writing.
You have to register before submitting material.  Please submit a story--maximum 1,500 words:  Note:  these pieces will be uploaded so that students can read each other's work before the start of the course.
Required Textbook: The Art of Fact: A Historical Anthology of Literary Journalism by Kevin Kerrane and Ben Yagoda, ISBN-13: 978-0684846309--available at the U of T Bookstore.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

At last we hear the ringing voice of an ex-Montrealer

At last we hear the voice and see the vision of  a Montreal expatriate! Film-maker John Walker, who earned well-deserved kudos with his docudrama Passage, has worked magic again with Quebec My Country Mon Pays. Down through the decades, we have heard countless francophones and many an "anglo" speaking to the outside world from within Quebec. We have heard numerous Ontarians and western Canadians sounding off on the "Quebec problem." We have heard from immigrants who have recently taken up residence in Montreal. But the complex, haunted perspective of the ex-Montrealer? The individual of Scottish and Irish ancestry, say, who has been abridged and demonized as "English" and driven out of the home where his ancestors have lived for a couple of hundred years? That is someone we have not yet heard from -- not on a major scale. Walker has stepped into and filled that void. How did he get the legendary Denys Arcand to articulate the prevailing Quebecois attitude so openly? And that is just one of the triumphs. While telling a personal story, and a political one, Walker moves between French and English. He moves across classes and from city to country. He takes us across generations and highlights recurring challenges. He evokes the past through wonderful old photos and clips. In the present, he rides us into Montreal on the train, and visits the historic church at St. Eustache (look right). He even goes to Scotland for the recent referendum. Walker's ambitious film may prove controversial. This much is certain: it will resonate with ex-Montrealers, and yes, we are legion. [Quebec My Country shows again at HotDocs on May 3 and May 8.]

Monday, March 28, 2016

Meet Louie Kamookak: champion of the Inuit oral tradition

Wonderful to see that my friend Louie Kamookak -- Inuit historian, Franklin expert, and public speaker -- has set up a website (click here). I'm looking forward to catching Louie in Ottawa on April 12, where he will participate in a panel discussion about Franklin and the Inuit oral tradition. It will be hosted by the Royal Canadian Geographical Society.  My own favorite story about Louie harks back to 1999. It starts with us beating south along the west coast of Boothia Peninsula in his motorboat. We were returning to Gjoa Haven after placing a plaque honoring  explorer John Rae. Louie said that, before we recrossed Rae Strait, he wanted to check out a spot he knew, where sometimes the hunting was good.  We entered a small bay, hauled the boat up onto a sandy beach, and climbed a ridge to scan the horizon. I saw nothing, but suddenly Louie said: “Caribou!” The animal must have been 120 yards away. Louie dropped to one knee, put his gun to his shoulder, and fired. Nothing happened. I thought he had missed. But then, the caribou dropped down dead where it stood. We raced across the tundra. Louie was jubilant: “Straight through the heart!” He skinned that animal, put the massive carcass on his back, and staggered with it back to the boat. “Meat will last all winter,” he said. And that's just a part of who Louie is. To the great tradition of Inuit explorers, adventurers, interpreters, and story-tellers -- a lineage that includes Eenoolooapik, Tattannoeck, Ouligbuck father and son, Tookoolito, and Ebierbing -- today we can add another name: Louie Kamookak.

Friday, March 18, 2016

We're voyaging Into the Northwest Passage with Adventure Canada. Are we excited yet?

Three Facebook friends from different corners of the world have drawn my attention to a call for presenters aboard a celebrity sailing in the Arctic. While I really do appreciate their thinking of me, this does make me wonder if I haven't made sufficient noise about how, this August, Sheena and I will be voyaging Into the Northwest Passage with Adventure Canada.  We'll start in Greenland and sail north into Smith Sound (Elisha Kent Kane country) and then west, stopping at Beechey Island before pushing on to Winter Harbour, visited by William Edward Parry in 1819. Reaching that site will be a first in contemporary expedition cruising. And forget rolling and heaving across Davis Strait in one of those cramped and boxy old Russian tubs. We will sail aboard a supremely comfortable vessel, the Ocean Endeavour, which boasts comfortable cabins and no fewer than 20 zodiacs in which to zoom about. So, yes, we're excited about the travel itinerary and the ship. But above all, we are thrilled by the expert staffers (our fellows) who will be leading talks and workshops. We're talking Juno-award winning musician Susan Aglukark; archaeologist/ author Robert McGhee; culturalist/ author David Pelly; filmmaker John Houston; seabird biologist (and Canada Research Chair) Mark Mallory; photographer and wildlife biologist Dennis Minty; veteran Arctic explorer David Reid; field botanist Carolyn Mallory;  marine mammalogist Ree Brennin-Houston; and Inuit leader Tagak Curley -- yes, the man who appears in the docudrama based on my book Fatal Passage, and who, indeed, steals that particular show. Late last year (2015), I wrote (and evoked, through Sheena's photos and paintings) what one of these voyages is like. This year, we are happening August 26 to September 11. If you're thinking "Arctic," Adventure Canada is the way to to. Tell 'em Ken sent you.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

A Real Canadian can pretend to be Irish on St. Patrick's Day

Gotta love a column by Peter Shawn Taylor that turned up today in the Waterloo Region Record -- one week in advance of St. Patrick's Day. Faithful readers will appreciate that I am a man without bias, ahem, but I do believe Taylor hits his stride when he invokes Celtic Lightning and, all right, paraphrases Our Hero. "With more than a quarter of Canadians tracing their ancestry back to Scotland or Ireland, McGoogan claims these ancient Celtic precepts were gradually inserted into our cultural DNA and have today come to define Canadians of all backgrounds. From this perspective, anyone who celebrates their Irishness on March 17 — whether genetically valid or not — is simply acknowledging the inherited meaning of Canada. McGoogan's theory thus offers some important lessons for those who attack Canada's history or feign outrage whenever anyone "appropriates" the symbols of their ancestors.
"The striking lack of complaints from Irish voices over the culture appropriation of St. Patrick's Day — particularly when the popular stereotype tends to emphasize drinking, fighting and swearing — reflects those admirable Celtic attitudes of good cheer, open-mindedness and inclusivity. All are welcome to join in the fun. Surely that's healthier than shouting "racism" at the drop of a hat.
"Every culture should similarly seek to define itself on the basis of accomplishment and aspiration as opposed to victimhood. Those many waves of Scottish and Irish peasants faced plenty of discrimination, poverty, marginalization, colonialism and hardship when making their way to Canada. As McGoogan points out, Sir John A. Macdonald, the father of Confederation, was a third-generation refugee whose family was evicted during the Highland Clearances of the 1700s. And while religious strife was once a defining characteristic of Ireland and Scotland, any sectarian connotation to St. Patrick's Day (or Robbie Burns Day for that matter) has long since been swept away by an all-embracing Canadian mosaic. It is the party that remains.
"If you want to know what it means to be Canadian, just pretend to be Irish on St. Patrick's Day."
You can read the whole column by clicking here. Go ahead. You know you want to!

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Authors for Indies set to party at Book City in the Beaches

It's happening again. The Great Canadian Book Bash is coming to a bookstore near you. On Saturday, April 30, roughly 700 Canadian authors will turn up at more than 100 bookstores across the country. It's called Authors for Indies and, yes, we do it to show our support for Canada’s independent booksellers. We want them not just to survive, but to flourish. You can read all about it at
Above, a photo from last year entitled The Calm Before the Storm. Here we see Our Hero at Book City in the Beaches with two fellow authors -- Glenda McElwain and George A. Walker -- and also veteran bookseller Ian Donker.
Shortly after Sheena Fraser McGoogan snapped this photo, a mob descended, clamoring for photos, counsel, and signatures on books. Donker, general manager of the Book City stores in Toronto, reeled around this outlet, slapping his forehead: "I've never seen anything like it."
This year, Book City has invited authors to pick three "desert island" reads for possible hand-selling. I said let's go with  White Eskimo by Stephen R. Bown, Empire of Deception by Dean Jobb, and What Lies Across the Water by Stephen Kimber. Book City will also stock a few extra copies of my latest opus, Celtic Lightning, and of a few tomes from my backlist . . . Fatal Passage, Lady Franklin's Revenge, How the Scots Invented Canada. 
Hey, we're talking win-win-win. Besides, it's lots of fun. Maybe see you April 30.