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The Tree that Owned Itself

(Poet Amatoritsero Ede in conversation with Wayne Grady, Creative Nonfiction Writer)

Amatoritsero Ede: We are happy to have you hold a conversation with us at MTLS. This is unique in that most writers we have interviewed have been mostly novelists. How would you describe your writing?

Wayne Grady: Thank you. For most of my writing life I have written nonfiction, much of it creative nonfiction, even when I was writing magazine journalism. As far back as the early 1980s I was writing creative nonfiction for Saturday Night magazine, although we didn’t call it that at the time: literary journalism, I think, was the term. When I moved into the country near Kingston, Ontario, and started working for Harrowsmith magazine in 1984, I began to become more interested in nature writing. Because of my magazine background, I naturally took to the essay form: the nature essay, the travel essay, and the personal essay.

A.E.: Yes, I expected you would describe yourself as an essayist. But I have read some of your work; Breakfast at the Exit Café for example or Bringing Back the Dodo. A scientific or seemingly pedestrian subject, simple mud normally, becomes golden clay in your hands when fired through your prose. What drives your writing?

W.G.: Curiosity, mostly. The usual advice for new writers is “write about what you know,” but I prefer writing about what I don’t know. I figure that if it fascinates me and I write well about it, it will interest others as well. I have no background in science, for example, but I have written a lot about science, paleontology, for instance, and global warming, and I think not being a scientist has helped me write more lucidly about scientific things. I am not afraid of asking dumb questions. I don’t make assumptions about what a particular scientist is thinking as he or she works. Asking a simple, basic question often startles the person I’m talking to into articulating something he or she may not have had to articulate for a long time, and very often some very interesting things come out of that conversation. Essentially, I would say that there are no simple, pedestrian subjects, only simple, pedestrian ways of treating those subjects. Just as there are no simple people, or families, or ideas. Everything connects to something greater than itself, and it is making those connections that drive my work.

A.E.: I know Bringing Back the Dodo began as a series of essays in a regular column for a Explore magazine in the USA; and you are or were the science editor for Equinox magazine. What role has Journalism played din your writing.

W.G.: Being a freelance journalist for almost 30 years forced me to read and write about things I wouldn’t normally have read or written about. It took me to places, both literally and figuratively, that I would not even have known about. And it forced me to get out of my own head and into the real world. Journalism also taught me to work hard and fast and how to work with editors to improve my stories. It taught me discipline. You can’t easily make a living as a freelance journalist in Canada at the best of times; you can’t do it at all if you are not disciplined, able to meet deadlines, able to improve a story draught by draught, and able to work with an editor.

A.E.: Bringing back the Dodo, with its concern for human interference in the eco-system, especially brought David Suzuki to mind.  I was wondering if you are also an environmental activist, apart from being the writer.  Another work of yours, A journey to the north pole to investigate global warming, seems to suggests so. You were ‘active’; you actually went to the North Pole!

W.G.: Yes, I did go to the North Pole for that book (which is called The Quiet Limit of the World: A Journey to the North Pole to Investigate Global Warming is the subtitle). I spent two months on a Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker, leaving Victoria, BC, in July 1994 and arriving in Halifax, NS, in September, after crossing the Arctic Ocean over the North Pole (the first ship in history to make that transect, by the way). In a way, I would call that book a work of environmental activism, in that the general consensus at the time was that global warming was a hoax perpetrated by a bunch of scientists who wanted to get funding to spend their summer on a ship breaking through 32 feet of ice to get to the North Pole. My book took the stance that global warming was real, was on the way, and was going to cause a lot of havoc in the not-too-distant future. And I was right. My view of environmental writing is that if people are going to do anything to save the natural environment, they have to know something about it. If no one knows anything about the red wolf, for example, then it’s going to be hard to convince them to do anything to save it. So my books help them to know nature, and to go from there to loving it, and to go from there to want to save it. In that sense, it is environmental activism. Passive activism, I suppose you could call it.

A.E.: As the blurb of A Journey to the North Pole says, is it still a scientific fact that “The five hottest years since records have been kept are, in descending order, 1996, 1995, 1994, 1993, and 1992?” I ask because the 2ist century seems to have displayed the effects of global warming more than those other years in the 20th century. Is the new millennium hotter?

W.G.: Yes, it is now a truism that the five hottest years on record will be the past five years, no matter what year you make the claim in. Every single indicator tells the same story: global warming is no longer just coming, it is here. We have dithered and debated and denied long enough, and there is now nothing we can do to stop it. We are already living on a different planet from the one we were born on.

A.E.: It is interesting that you actually display social consciousness in your art, unlike most writing today, which one can say is art for art’s sake. What do you think?

W.G.: Well, I don’t think there is anything called journalism for journalism’s sake, although come to think of it, maybe there is. But there shouldn’t be. Even art we produce for our own satisfaction has definite social value, assuming it is true art. As I mentioned earlier, if I write something about the eastern coyote that strikes a cord with a single reader, then I have created something that does not exist for its own sake. All writing is a political act; even deciding not to write is a political decision. And a political act is an act of social consciousness. There is a reason why the first thing a political dictator does is get rid of the artists (in Canada it’s called making severe budget cuts to arts organizations). It isn’t fiscal responsibility; it’s controlling the people who make other people think.

A.E.: Should writers also have causes, activism, show political engagement in their writing and question the social order or disorder etc? We live in a country whose prime minister is on record as saying there is no such thing as Canadian culture. Which means that if I write a book there is no compelling reason why a Canadian should be more interested in reading it than in reading a book by an Australian or a Chinese writer. Which in turn means there is no compelling reason for the Canadian government to subsidize it. This is such cynically self-serving nonsense that it is actually quite difficult to argue against it: it’s like the phrase in Haruki Murakami’s novel 1Q84: if you don’t understand it now, you won’t understand it when I explain it to you. A political leader who believes that his country doesn’t exist culturally is living in some kind of parallel universe that is inaccessible to reason from the real world.  And yet we must continue to make the case for Canada as a cultural entity. We don’t necessarily do that in our art – the art must speak for itself – but in our daily lives, in the associations we join and the activities we engage in. We are living in a profoundly anti-intellectual age, and also in a time when the temptation to regard ourselves as belonging to an amorphous, globalized social network rather than to a specific place is enormous. The individual is at risk of disappearing altogether. Culture, specific to a country, or a place, and a time, can correct that, but only if it is allowed to continue to exist.

A.E.: You are a translator too and you have won a governor General ward for and another prize for that aspect of your work. What are the challenges for capturing nuance and range of signification from French into English? Where is the line between translation and transcription?

W.G.: Machines can do transcription. Have you ever pressed the “translate this page” link on Google and then tried to figure out what the hell the article was about? This ties in with the previous question, actually, because what a translator does is not so much translate or transcribe or transliterate words from one language to another, but find linguistic and cultural equivalents between the source and target languages. There is a good example of that in Douglas Hofstadter’s excellent translation of Françoise Sagan’s novel La Chamade (which he translates as That Mad Ache). In his introduction, Hofstadter points out that the dictionary translation of the French ascenseur is “elevator.” But when a French person thinks of “un ascenseur” he or she will have an entirely different mental picture in his or her head than a Canadian will have when he or she thinks of “an elevator.” In Paris, say in Sagan’s Paris, or in Walter Benjamin’s Paris, un ascenseur is a metal, clanking, open-grille-work contraption that closes like a steel trap and takes you up through a series of holes in the floor, possible at the risk of several fingers. An elevator, on the other hand, is a silent, efficient, enclosed box whose doors close automatically and you are whisked almost motionlessly up to your destination while listening to the Hollyridge Strings playing soporific versions of early Beatles tunes. The challenge is, how to get the reader to think ascenseur while reading elevator? By extension, similar considerations pertain to words like bread, tree, wine, ice, boulevard…well, you get the idea: all words, in fact.

A.E.: Breakfast at the Exit café is a travelogue about Southern USA. I was in the audience at the Ottawa International Writers Festival where you read some touching passage from the work about a tree, upon which more care was showered than the slaves who probably had to tend it That tree still stands today. The book took a subjective twist where you weave your own personal history into the text. It came out that you have black ancestry going back generations. Do you mind telling us more about this physical tree and that tree of ancestry?

W.G.: Not at all. The tree in question is in Athens, Georgia, and is known as the tree that owns itself. In the early 1800s, the tree’s owner deeded the tree to itself so that no one would ever be able to chop it down. In the book, I contemplate the sad irony of there being a tree that owned itself in a time and in a place in which thousands of black slaves were not allowed to own their own children. I had recently discovered that my father was of African-American descent, and that trip through the American South was an extremely emotional experience, which I tried to evoke in those parts of the book (actually, in the book, which I co-authored with my wife, novelist Merilyn Simonds, we travel from Vancouver to Kingston through 22 of the United States; the Deep South was only a part of the longer journey). My father passed for white because, I think, he wanted his children to have a different kind of childhood than he had had as a member of Windsor, Ontario’s black community. Consequently we knew very little about racism, segregation, cultural and familial annihilation. Travelling through the Deep South as a white person with black ancestry – that is, travelling with the benefits of being taken for a white man while knowing that I was not – was psychologically devastating. I still haven’t come to terms with it. Or rather, I am still coming to terms with it.

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