September 16th, 2012
Joyce Nelson has been compared to Neil Postman and dubbed “the most astute cultural critic in Canada” (Books in Canada). She is the author of five books including The Sultans of Sleaze: Public Relations and the Media (1989) and The Perfect Machine: TV in the Nuclear Age (1987).
Born in Duluth, Minnesota, healing Nelson became interested in media literacy while teaching classes at an urban Milwaukee high school in her early twenties. “There were fires set every day and that sort of thing, approved ” she says, “I quickly realized that I had to make some creative decisions to survive, so I started focusing on media.”
Nelson studied media issues for a graduate degree in education at Arizona State University. After taking a course at the American Film Institute in California, Nelson moved to Canada in 1971. She co-edited one of the first Canadian books on studying film, the Canadian Film Reader (1977).
Renowned as an investigative journalist, Nelson, at 51, also published her own newsletter, Lynx, and is a regular contributor to the Georgia Straight, Canadian Forum, Monday Magazine, and Canadian Dimension.
Joyce Nelson was interview by BCBW in Victoria, where she lives in James Bay.
Her new book is Seeing in the Dark, a collection of poetry published by Ekstasis Editions. “In a different world, I’d be writing only poetry,” she says.
BCBW: How did you end up in Canada?
NELSON: During the Vietnam War I started increasingly disliking the country in which I was born. I realized that I had to leave because I didn’t like the politics and felt there must be a better way to live.
Fortunately, I had a choice. In the early 1970s, I was offered two jobs; one in Africa and one at Queens, in Kingston. I decided that it was better to make a small leap in terms of culture, rather than a huge leap which is what Africa would have been for me, having grown up in a small town. I chose Queens and ended up teaching in their film department.
BCBW: How did you get into writing?
NELSON: I’d always known that I was a writer from the time I learned to read and write. While I was considering my future options, I did a survey of some colleagues at Queens. I asked them two questions. The first was “Do you love what you’re doing?” Everyone said, “No”. The second was “Why do you stay?” Everyone answered, “It’s good money and you get the summers off.”
I decided to take a chance. I quit my job and moved to Toronto in 1976 and became a full-time freelance writer.
BCBW: What brought you out to the West Coast?
NELSON: Beauty. I came here for a Women & Words workshop in 1989. I’d never seen Vancouver; it was such a beautiful combination of mountain and ocean! I thought if Vancouver is this beautiful, I bet that island over there is even more beautiful. So sight unseen, I moved to Vancouver Island in 1990.
BCBW: Around that time, in the late 1980s, you were named “the most astute cultural critic in Canada.” How did you feel about that?
NELSON: It felt wonderful, but it’s not my work any longer. In fact, I haven’t watched TV since I wrote The Perfect Machine (1987).
BCBW: What is your work now?
NELSON: Investigative journalism. I enjoy doing research. But that’s only one side of me. I also want to make more space for the poetry muse to visit.
BCBW: What kind of response do you get to your investigative journalism?
NELSON: People are thankful when anyone is able to say what is going on without glossing over facts. People are very hungry for information about what’s happening in our country. So when anyone goes out on a limb to point out what’s happening, people are very thankful.
BCBW: Is the general public noticing the increasingly infotainment-like quality of news and the lack of hard-hitting news?
NELSON: I think people are noticing, saying, “Wait a minute! Mrs. Conrad is suddenly writing for the Sun! What’s going on?” It’s becoming so in-your-face that people are starting to recognize corporate media agendas. People are turning to alternative media because it’s becoming blatantly obvious that some issues are not being discussed.
BCBW: Is that why you started up a monthly newsletter?
NELSON: I started Lynx in June, partly in response to the direction that the mainstream newspaper situation is headed with Conrad Black buy-up of everything, it seems .
BCBW: What types of changes have you noticed in media outlets that have been taken over by Conrad Black?
NELSON: We’ve got a pretty good example with the Sun. Just in the last two weeks there’s been more bad news and three new neo-conservative columnists.
There’s a real interest [in BC] in what’s happening in the northern part of BC. Yet, with fewer and fewer stories about, for example, environmental issues, there is this shutdown of what’s happening in huge sections of the province and the country.
BCBW: Is the focus of Lynx on papers that have been ‘Conraded’?
NELSON: No. There’s one section in every newsletter called Conrad Watch which is like a calendar following various forms of Conradization over the past month.
Each issue of Lynx will look at a topic. For example, the September issue was about fish farming. Very little is being written about what is happening around this phenomenon. To my knowledge, no other publication in BC has covered the government loans provided to fish farming in the 1980s that were then forgiven by Order-in-Council when the fish farms went belly up.
BCBW: You say that people want more information, yet alternative outlets for information, such as Pacific Current, have folded due to lack of support.
NELSON: It’s pretty bad, isn’t it? Without being too harsh on the public, there has been a sense in Canada that what happens in the so-called Third World or in Eastern Europe could never happen here.
BCBW: Is that because we are so thankful that Canada is safe compared with places like Rwanda? Political correctness has a national mentality?
NELSON: You’re really putting me on the spot. I don’t know if it’s political correctness, but there is a sense that because we’re white and industrialized, nothing could happen to us.
BCBW: But we’re not all white.
NELSON: But that’s the mentality. We’re the best ally of the US and we’re basically a white country, so things are going to be fine.
BCBW: What could happen?
NELSON: When the economy goes into the toilet – and that’s not an accident – it’s pretty easy to get people fighting each other. It’s pretty easy to break solidarity, even with a provincial neighbour, provinces fighting provinces for jobs, fighting over inter-Canadian trade. The things that hold us together. That’s precisely what happened in the former Yugoslavia.
If you look at everything that has happened in Canada since Free Trade, people are in shock because things are happening so fast. When that numbness lifts, under that is rage.
BCBW: Do you mean the type of outrage that ensued when 25,000 people lined up at an auto assembly plant in Ontario and it turned out to be a PR exercise? And there were actually no jobs?
NELSON: One of the challenges we face is that there are highly skilled PR pros who know how to take that potential anger and channel it towards your neighbour for example, towards Native people. There’s real expertise in PR to get people fighting each other rather than being able to see the bigger picture of what’s happening and why it’s happening.
BCBW: Has the issue of Native land claims in BC been portrayed fairly?
NELSON: I don’t think there’s been a real analysis in the media. Like most people, I also feel terribly ignorant about the situation. A few columns by Stephen Hume (of The Vancouver Sun) have offered a different way of looking at things, as has Terry Glavin. But basically, most everything I’ve read has been from a biased stance. How come we don’t have Native columnists? How come we don’t have Native reporters? How come everything has to be filtered through a white brain?
A recent poll said that some hideous percentage like 43% of the Canadian populous thinks that Native people are living high off the hog. Yeah, right! Especially in our car culture, you think people would actually drive out to look at a reserve.
BCBW: You’ve written about the environmental hazards of our car culture. Do you own a car?
NELSON: I haven’t owned a car since 1972. People always assume that it must be because I’m poor, they can’t believe that people could choose not to own a car. I don’t suffer as a result of not having a car.
Somebody, it may have been Noam Chomsky, observed that the media are advertising media. Any information is just filler. So naturally you don’t want anything to interfere with what’s being sold us. I look at the Wheels section in The Vancouver Sun and in our local paper. We’ve already got too many cars! Just think if that whole section were devoted to the environment.
People actually changing the way they live is what will make or break the future for us. For someone to actually walk or ride a bike to work, that’s a huge shift. People riding their bicycles are heroes; they’re showing us that it can be done.
BCBW: Do you think what you do makes a difference?
NELSON: As a friend of mine said, “I’ve felt so much better since I gave up hope.” To which I would add, “and ever since I gave up anxiety.” I’m learning a lot from the Buddhist culture. You don’t attach to the outcome. You just do, try to stay calm, focused and centred.
BCBW: But still, wouldn’t you like to see more people biking instead of driving?
NELSON: Oh, I’d go a lot further than that. I’d like to see self-contained neighbourhoods where people don’t have to go long distances for everything they need.
BCBW: That’s a radical concept.
NELSON: A lot of people are making interesting choices about their priorities and questioning the corporate rat race. And saying maybe “I’d rather consume less and make do with less.” That’s a huge shift. It’s like we’re in school. Can we learn? Can we save this lovely planet?
BCBW: You’ve been called an eco-feminist. How for you feel about feminism currently?
NELSON: I’m still a feminist and an eco-feminist. We’re living in a culture that is totally oriented to the sky – and more recently to outer space – and it ignores the body and the planet. That insight came from Sixties’ and Seventies’ feminism. That insight had a huge impact on me. Unless we can heal the terribly divided body –mind split that’s so prevalent in our culture, we’re screwed.
BCBW: How do you feel about the information revolution, the Internet, etc.?
NELSON: I don’t have a modem. It’s only in the last two years that I got a computer, which is just for word processing. I’m not interested in the Internet. I’ve checked it out and what I found was that there’s no way to validate anything on the Internet. The bullshit lives right next to the excellent material. That’s terrible! You can say any far-fetched thing, or open a website and pretend you’re somebody else. I know of someone famous who opened a website, and soon there were six phoney websites under the same name.
I’ve never been interested in hype. I’m not interested in speed and I don’t like going fast. I don’t want to become a machine, incorporate in myself all the machine values that our culture says that we’re supposed to incorporate. We’re supposed to be efficient, as fast as possible. Why? I think the future is about reclaiming those human things which are currently devalued in our culture.
BCBW: How has computerization changed your work?
NELSON: It changed my writing style. With a computer, you think fact, in a left brain way. If I write essays or poems, I have to use a pen. You can’t compose poems on a computer. That observation should be one of those red flags, where our whole culture says, “Oh my god, if everything is processed by a computer, what do we lose?”
I do think people are noticing, for example, there’s this incredible response to live poetry and live music. People are realizing that without nature and community we’ll all be terribly lonely, just machine technologies that are running our lives.
BCBW: People know you primarily as a cultural critic and investigative journalist, but you’re a poet as well. What is Seeing in the Dark about?
NELSON: There’s a poem called “Seeing in the Dark” because a lot of poems deal with what our society considers dark issues. For example, there’s a poem about the death of Ken Saro-Wiwa called “Mourning”. It’s about how difficult it is to write a poem about death and about someone you admire. On some level, the poem is about the inadequacy of words to describe the terrible corporate and police state collusion to stop activist work of local people that led to Saro-Wiwa’s death.
Artists take the junk of culture and life and make something beautiful out of it. Even from tragedy. It’s a tremendous challenge to take something that’s very difficult and dark, and craft it in such a way that the reader is left in a light place or brought to a place of triumph.
BCBW: What other dark issues does your poetry deal with?
NELSON: There’s a poem about rape.
BCBW: Is it based on personal experience?
BCBW: Was it difficult to write about something so painful?
NELSON: As any writing teaching would say, you can’t write about something in the thick of the emotion. You need to really heal before you can write and come to a place where you’re resolved around it and you’ve done the emotional work. One of the beautiful things about writing is that you’re not running away from the material – you’re actually dealing with it.
BCBW: So with hindsight, you can grow from a negative experience?
NELSON: Yes. I don’t like victimy poetry. There is a necessary place in the process of healing where you do take a victim position, but to stay there, to get stuck, doesn’t help you as a human being. And it certainly doesn’t help the poetry. You have to keep going, keep moving. I hope people will recognize that my poetry isn’t victimy.
BCBW: What can you learn from a horrible experience like rape?
NELSON: The process of writing took me to another level of spirituality, where I explored the notions of clean and dirty and the feeling of being soiled. “Rape Poem” ends with the recognition that the goddess is [also] dark and the symbol of everything dirty as well as everything white and light. After all, our beautiful planet is made of dirt and soil.
Essay Date: 1996