Saturday, August 30, 2014

Saying goodbye to my friend Victor Ramraj


Earlier this month at King’s College in Nova Scotia, one of my grad-student writers, a woman who had spent some years in Kenya, pointed to a passage in one of my Arctic books and said: “Did you study postcolonial theory?” I took a beat and said, “No, but you’re right. The influence is there. My best friend is a leading postcolonial thinker.”
I was speaking of Dr. Victor Ramraj, a renowned scholar originally from
Guyana. He spent the past four decades as an English professor at the University of Calgary. His books include Concert of Voices and an early study of Mordecai Richler.
Today, in Calgary, I served as a pallbearer at Vic’s funeral. His death was unexpected. He died suddenly at his home last Monday night.
The dean of arts at U of C rightly described Vic as a “distinguished expert in postcolonial studies and Canadian literature” who was “internationally recognized,” and whose round-the-world ramblings found him giving a state lecture in Guyana last June. Sponsored by the prime minister of that country, it focused on and celebrated the work of Alice Munro.
I myself attended plenary lectures Vic gave at literary conferences in Canberra, Australia, and Colombo, Sri Lanka. The latter featured a focus on Caribbean writer Sam Selvon, and Vic got me included by publishing a piece I wrote on Selvon in the literary magazine he edited for years, called ARIEL.
To tell the truth, ours was a four-way friendship, Vic and Ruby, Ken and Sheena. After those conferences, we rambled around Australia and Sri Lanka. We hung out, as well, in Singapore, where “young Vic” was a law professor on his way to becoming  head of the law faculty at the University of Victoria.
The photos here, with Sheena behind the camera, find Vic and Ruby in Dawson City, Yukon. They came for a visit during my stint as the Berton House writer-in-residence. I gave Vic a scare by falsely claiming, after he left, that I had finally downed a Sourtoe Cocktail after all, and had the paper to prove it.
Ah, but the Perhentian Islands off the northeast coast of Malaysia. They are magical, but so difficult to reach that we thought Vic and Ruby would never manage to join us there. I vividly remember my joyful astonishment when they arrived, with Vic hauling a small, wheeled bag determinedly through the sand. That night, at the only outdoor pub serving alcohol, we sat under a canopy of stars laughing and talking and knew we would remember this moment forever.
We kept in touch after Sheena and I moved back east, though not as closely as we should have. In Halifax recently, while reading back issues of the London Review of Books, I came across a piece on Derek Walcott, a favorite of Vic’s. When I got home to the Centre of the Universe, first thing I did was pop it in the mail with a short note.
Today, Ruby told me that mine was the last letter Vic received. He read her passages from the article and pronounced it, “Not bad.” That piece was sitting on his night table when he passed. I don’t know why,  exactly, but I feel good about that.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Creative Nonfiction: University of Toronto takes it online

He's back! In response to a raucous clamor for stand-alone treatment, the Dr. Jekyll in me has beat his way free to announce an online course in Creative Nonfiction. It's called The Art of Fact: An Introduction to Writing Nonfiction, and it's available through the University of Toronto. We launch one month from now on September 22.  And the 
particulars look like this: "The hallmarks of Creative, Literary or Narrative Nonfiction are truth and personal presence. The genre includes subjective and objective streams, and encompasses memoir, autobiography, biography, history, adventure, travel, and true crime. The writer of nonfiction employs memory, imagination, analysis, and research, and adapts literary techniques from fiction, journalism, and the essay. This craft-oriented course aims to enhance your ability to tell true stories." You can find out more at the link above.  In the past, folks have "attended" from as far away as Japan and Uganda. Oh, and we do have a favourite text: Textbook: The Art of Fact: A Historical Anthology of Literary Journalism, edited by Kevin Kerrane and Ben Yagoda. (Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, ISBN 0-684-84630-6). 
Wherever you are, come on out.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Our Hero contends that the wicked need no rest

Wow! Just back from Nova Scotia. And, yes, I am reeling from an extraordinary couple of weeks at University of King's College in Halifax, teaching in the new master's program in Creative Nonfiction. All the best stuff has been placed under a Cone of Silence. But if you were not there, here's the good news (he said unblushingly): I'm offering an online, 10-week course in Narrative or Creative Nonfiction through University of Toronto starting September 22. In the past, most registrants have come from Ontario, but we've also had people from Seattle, Japan and Uganda. Think about it.
Just before that launches, on Saturday, September 20, I'll present a two-hour writing workshop for the Creative Nonfiction Collective. This will be the CNFC's first writer development workshop in T.O., and will run from 11:45 to 4:30 at the Bloor/Gladstone Library. I'll share the presentation load with the redoubtable Susan Olding. Details will soon be posted here.
Two Saturdays after that, on October 4, I'll give a slideshow presentation at the Centre for Scottish Studies in Guelph. It's part of a fall colloquium that looks like fun. Title of my talk: Canada's New Celtic Ancestors: How the Scots and the Irish Gave Rise to a Postmodern Nation. As for the photo above, Sheena Fraser McGoogan took it last October, during a Toronto book launch for 50 Canadians Who Changed the World. The trade paperback edition will surface from HarperCollins Canada in September. In short, the photo is only marginally relevant, and constitutes a cheap ploy to attract your attention.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Creative Nonfiction micro-readings underway at King's College MFA


Micro-readings are the only way to go. We saw that again tonight at University of King's College in Halifax. Writers involved in Canada's only MFA program in Creative Nonfiction took the stage at the University Club. All right, it was in the pub downstairs. Five minutes each, that was the rule. And it worked. Ten readers came and went, paf, paf, paf. And so we ended another marvellous day, this one featuring guest writer Andrew Westoll, author of The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary. The MFA program has doubled in size this year, from 19 to 38 students, and from four to eight mentors. Yes, Our Hero is still one of them. In the photo above, taken by Sheena Fraser McGoogan, I am giving away a copy of Fatal Passage to a grad student who has correctly answered a skill-testing question from the table of contents in 50 Canadians Who Changed the World. Maybe you had to be there.