Monday, February 27, 2012

Books: A Jest of God

Continuing with my journey through the literature by and about Margaret Laurence, I read her second Manawaka novel, A Jest of God.

In this novel, about a thirty-something 'spinster' named Rachel Cameron, a desperately lonely school teacher. Like her previous protagonist, Hagar Shipley, Rachel is trapped in a web partly of her own doing, party of circumstance. Living with a mother whose honey-covered barbs are almost painful to read, she is caught by the conventions and restrictions of obligation and societal norms. She is also self-conscious and critical to the point of being paralyzed into an uneasy stasis.

The narrative is intimately told from Rachel's perspective and while Laurence herself said it was slow to get moving, she felt she had to allow Rachel her own time and way to tell her story. Rachel's gradual transformation, from solitude to companionship, from constraint to cautious freedom, is a gradual process - and one that she does not earn without heartache and pain.

The ending of the book has one of the most beautiful and timeless passages of freedom I know.

"I may become, in time, slightly more eccentric all the time. I may begin to wear outlandish hats, feathered and sequinned and rosetted, and dangling necklaces made from coy and tiny seashells which I've gathered myself along the beach and painted coral-pink with nail polish. And all the kids will laugh, and I'll laugh, too, in time. I will be light and straight as any feather. The wind will bear me, and I will drift and settle, and drift and settle. Anything may happen, where I am going... I will be different. I will remain the same. ...  I will ask myself if I am going mad, but if I do, I won't know it."

As I've mentioend before, not only am I enjoying re-reading Laurence's novels, I am also reading her memoir, letters and a bio about her. Although she does not discuss much of a book while she is writing it, she admits to her fears and doubts about its viability. She struggled for months to find a way in to the novel - in fact she wanted to write about two sisters and for a long time worked on Stacey's story (which was to become The Fire Dwellers), but eventually realized that Rachel's story had to be told first.

These discoveries reveal just how closely connected Laurence was to her characters - and how real they were to her. It is this strength of connection and depth of understanding that enables her to write in such a memorable and honest voice.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Senate Committee on Bill C-10

Today I had the pleasure of attending the Senate Committee meeting regarding the review of Bill C-10 - the Omnibus Crime Bill I've been following for months. I was there to write a blog for the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition. Here's what I wrote:

During a 7-hour long meeting today, the Senate Committee heard from 13 individuals speaking to various aspects of Bill C-10. While most of the witnesses addressed the Bill’s immigration-related aspects, the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo and AFN senior strategist ,Roger Jones talked about the negative impact the Omnibus Bill will have on Aboriginal Peoples.

Atleo spoke via video conference from his community on the west coast of the Vancouver Island. He made it clear that the AFN is very concerned about the direction Bill C-10 is headed in and that this legislation will not make Aboriginal communities safer. Unfortunately his testimony was cut short due to technical problems, so Jones fielded the Senators’ questions.

Jones told the Committee that the AFN searched high and low for elements within Bill C-10 that would improve the situation for Aboriginal Peoples – and couldn’t find anything.

He said the Omnibus Bill will compound the existing over-representation of Aboriginal people in the criminal justice system, such as through Manditory Minimum Sentences (MMS) for drug offences and the removal of judicial discretion with regard to such things as the Gladue principles.

References to the Gladue decision were frequent throughout AFN panel discussion. Gladue principles, based on a 1999 Supreme Court interpretation of Section 718.2 of the Criminal Code, provide that reasonable alternatives to imprisonment should be sought and particular attention should be given to the circumstances of Aboriginal offenders.

Senator Mobina Jaffer suggested that the Senate could recommend an exemption clause in Bill C-10 so as to preserve Gladue principles. 

Senator Fraser questioned how often these principles are applied. (Not often enough, Jones replied.) Senator Lang challenged Jones as to why MMS for such reprehensible crimes as child sexual exploitation should have exceptions for Aboriginal offenders. Jones replied that nature of the crime should never negate the need to look at the offender’s circumstances.

In contrast to the AFN’s detailed concerns with the Omnibus Bill, University of British Colombia Law Professor, Benjamin Perrin, noted his strong support of “all” aspects of the bill, suggesting it balances criminal law by enhancing the accountability of offenders and increasing the rights of victims.

He argued that more people charged with cultivating marijuana should be imprisoned and that 89% of marijuana production comes from organized crime groups and the majority of what is produced is destined for the United States, fueling serious border problems. This argument relies on the assumptions of supply suppression and drug probation which have actually made drugs more available and cheaper, and have undermined the public health system.

Indeed, all criminal justice legislation relies on certain assumptions – such as incarceration as a tool of deterrence and segregation as punishment – but as the AFN repeatedly pointed out today, these assumptions and their outcomes have resulted in a sustained failure to address the systemic roots of crime or how the justice system continues to fail First Nations Peoples.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Books: The Stone Angel

The Stone Angel is Margaret Laurence's most well-known book. Compulsory reading in most high schools, it is undeniably part of the CanLit canon. It was also one of the first books I fell in love with. I still remember being deeply affected by the proud, stubborn character of Hagar Shipley and in reading about the dying seagull, recognizing that this poignant metaphor of the desperate struggle for life.

I love my copy of The Stone Angel - well-loved and worn. It's shown in the photo beside a postcard I have of a real stone angel in the graveyard of Margaret Laurence's home town of Neepawa, Manitoba (where she was born in 1926).

The Stone Angel is one of the five books that Laurence set in the fictional prairie town of Manawaka. It was the first book she wrote about Canada - her previous works being about Africa.

When she began working on the novel in the early 1960s, Laurence seemed almost surprised by the story and unsure of how to manage it. "This daft old lady came along," she wrote to her friend, Adele Wiseman, "and I will say about her that she is one hell of an old lady, a real tartar. She's crabby, snobbish, difficult, proud as lucifer for no reason, a trial to her family, etc. She's also - I forgot to mention - dying."

But while Laurence was very sure of the character, she was not so sure about the novel. "The whole thing is nuts," she went on to Wiseman. "I should have my head examined... Sometimes I feel so depressed about this, I think I will take up ceramics."

Unlike her other books, in which she invested a lot of time and revision in crafting stories and descriptions about colonial relations and such issues, she seemed take aback that this book was "written almost entirely without conscious thought... I simply put down the story as the old lady told it to me."

Yet this book, and the voice she found as a writer through it, marked a profound change in in Laurence's career. It also marked a very personal transition for her. For her African books, Laurence had relied a great deal on her husband - for his editing and his approval. When she showed him her draft of the Stone Angel, he didn't like it. She tried to re-write it to suit him, but realized in the end that she had to be true to her original voice. Though not the only factor, this decision was part of the ending of her marriage.

Reading The Stone Angel again for me is like meeting an old friend again - I'm filled with memories, yet struck with new insights. I never cease to marvel at Laurence's rich language and brilliant character portrayals - just as I never cease to feel a strong mix of frustration and affection for the character of Hagar.

As an interesting side note, the book was almost called 'Old Lady Shipley' and it was only just before it went to press, as both Laurence and her publishers were fretting over the title, that Laurence re-opened the book and recognized the image that is in the first sentence and which occurs throughout the book - the stone angel.