Sunday, April 27, 2014

Peter Norman reads from novel Emberton at Ottawa International Writers Festival

Just attended my pal Pete Norman’s reading at Ottawa International Writers Festival the other night. Peter read from his first novel (Congrats, Pete!), Emberton, published by Douglas & McIntyre. I’m very proud of m Pete. I know from our days of swapping short stories and egging each other on to simply produce work, that he had a couple of novels on the go at the same time. But let’s fast forward from this heady, yet struggling time of the early 2000’s in Centretown to 2014.
 
My friend read with two other first-time novelists to a strong audience of at least 75, adeptly hosted by the insightful poet Stephen Brockwell, whom I also know.  As a host, Brockwell has a confident style, asks perceptive questions and knows how to lead the conversation. New York writer Alena Graedon gave the audience a sample of The Word Exchange. Toronto’s Ghalib Islam excerpted Fire in the Unnameable Country. The reading, entitled, Worlds Within Worlds, was held at Knox Presbyterian Church on Elgin St. in Ottawa on April 25, 2014.
 
Peter Norman's Emberton is about a group of people who create dictionaries and an unassuming hero who is tasked with aiding them. Graedon’s The Word Exchange is about trading words as commodities.  Islam’s Fire in the Unnameable Country is, like the other first novels, about a dystopic future. While I haven’t read any of these compelling titles yet, they all also feature protagonists navigating a clash between past and present, technology and human interaction, print form and electronic form, and the memory of language.
 
What struck me most about the reading is that each book is ostensibly sci-fi wearing literature’s clothing. In reality, this was a memorable speculative fiction reading. It is touching and somewhat humorous that Festival organizers did not feel the need to call the event a speculative fiction triple bill. Neither did the authors feel the need to come out as speculative fiction writers. Peter did, though, say his uses traditional gothic tropes in his book, while Brockwell thinks the novel follows a pulp detective narrative arc. While nobody uttered sci-fi, but clearly the titles are all literary sci-fi.

Peter as, always, produced witty asides and self-deprecating humour, his mix of keen insight and neurosis and delivery. His excerpt was part Brazil, part Barton Fink in tone. Ghalib read a little fast, leaving audience members trying to deduce what he was saying. This is shame, really, because his book sounds great. Hell, the novel is about a narrator going through a weird discourse of thought and pop culture absorption. Oh–and they can hear every unspoken utterance of the nation. With a little coaching , Ghalib overcome his tendency to rush through his sentences. His prose deserve to be heard. Graedon’s reading hinted at a disappearance of an important character and a heroine enduing a break up in a technology-tyrannized environs. Graedon gave an assured reading from the opening of her novel featuring a protagonist enduring a recent break-up and contrasting her view of new technologies against vintage clothing and style. The heroine associates the latter with her father.
After the readings, Stephen Brockwell headed the question-and-answer session. What also struck me was Ghalib’s admission of cognitive disconnect. He related his experience of being a hit-and-run victim and how he had to re-create the bulk of the ideas in his book because he could not recall most of them after the accident, which involved head injuries. Ghalib also dropped his audio headset. The resulting loud bang was not terribly surprising, although an audience member's reaction was. Said audience member responded by releasing a bellowing, dramatic cry that echoed throughout the venue. Graedon, meanwhile, like her fellow readers, is a graduate of an Master of Fine Arts Program. The leggy, beguiling North Carolinan confessed to growing up with a non-sentimental and practical use of newspapers and other forms of old-school reading.
 
Being a writer of about the same age as these authors, I struggle with similar problems regarding old-school reading and new-school e-books and texting and other gadgetry.

And there is nothing like hearing authors in a live venue. As they used to say about buying vinyl records - if you want the perfect studio version, listen to the album. If you want to hear art live, hiccups and all, go to the concert. Hearing authors is the same. If there are flaws and glitches in the performance, all the better.

All in all, I found this an astonishing, entertaining, and memorable reading from the Ottawa International Writers Festival.
 
And congratulations again, Pete. Keep at it.

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