Literary Thoughts from Turkey
April 02nd, 2008
PARENTHETICAL THOUGHTS ON NEW WORLD ETHICAL BOUNDARIES FROM THE AEGEAN COAST
Even after a half century of experience in the sometimes Byzantine world of Canadian letters, I am still convinced that the truth resides more frequently in our literature than it does in religious or political orthodoxies. Though I had read some Canadian writers in my childhood, I was relatively unimpressed by Canlit when I presented myself as a half-filled vessel at the University of British Columbia in the Sixties. Having signed up late for a course in Restoration Comedy, I was offered, in exchange, Canadian Literature.
Oh my god, I thought, purgatory.
The teacher was Dr. X , co-editor with my thesis advisor of an outstanding new journal of Canadian literature. Dr. X, an upright Anglican and brilliant classroom entertainer, was no writer. That, I assume, is why he took my final term paper, “Lilacs Out of The Dead Land, the Sacrificial Theme in Canadian Literature” to the Learned Fellows meeting, Summer 1966, and read it as his own. That is probably why he published it under his own name in The Dalhousie Review.
After my thesis advisor drew this matter to my attention, I went to Dr. X’s office, where he was having a pre-prandial martini with a jolly colleague, and offered him a bag of oranges, just as Mrs. B had given the fallen chorister Judith oranges in Sinclair Ross’s masterful As For Me and My House. The rest of that Biblical quotation is, “we will serve the Lord.” Ironically, my essay, later expanded into a thesis, was based on the Old Testament.
I brought oranges, the Anglican blushed, and his good friend laughed at a grad student with an obvious crush.
When Dr. X died, I was mentioned in his obituary. I often wonder if he wrote that himself as a form of contrition.
In the forty years that have passed since that lapse of integrity, our literature has matured. I can imagine that students signing up late for Canlit might now be placed in under-subscribed classes on British poetics. The new generation of writers has taken the Mother Tongue by surprise. My generation was hopefully the last to tolerate a paternalism that would allow a professor of literature the prerogative of stealing intellectual property and getting away with it.
My generation is also the last one that can say we knew the pioneers of BC literature, men and women who took on as courageous a vocation as the building of railways and clearing of land and transcended colonialism. Al Purdy, Ethel Wilson, Robin Skelton, Dorothy Livesay and George Woodcock are dead, possibly chuckling over the disestablishment notions of Christopher Hitchens in some posh library in the sky. Dr. X may be in Anglican heaven with the infamous clerics who taught prosody and religion at Cariboo residential schools.
Interestingly, my father, a publication and copyright lawyer, who established the UBC Alumnae Chronicle and the Ubyssey with his pals Stu Keate and Pierre Berton, advised me to forgive and forget about Dr. X when I took home my sorrow and disappointment. When my father died this summer, I jumped off a mountain.
I paraglided off Baba Dagi at Olu Deniz on the Aegean Coast remembering what the poet Kahlil Gibran said about secrets, “You may whisper them to the wind, but do not be surprised when the wind tells the trees.”
Baba Dagi means “father mountain” in Turkish.
As I fell from that great height, I blessed my grandchildren and forgave my transgressors. I had learned forgiveness in my family. Just as the Turks have absorbed the wisdom of Mohammed and the Sufis no matter what their religion, so have I absorbed this Anglican precept, which is also integral to our national identity. We, and by “we” I mean First Nations and everyone who followed, forgive the past. That is why we are able to move forward. That is why we have a great literature.
At two am the morning after the mountain, I was walking back to our cabin on the Dead Sea Lagoon with my husband who was carrying his mandolin case back from a gig at a beach club. We were listening to the cuckoo coo of doves and the sibilant lovemaking of cicadas, when a motorcycle passed us.
“Sweet Papa Lowdown,” shouted the driver, an enthusiastic fan of my husband’s band, when his headlight shone on the mandolin case.
“That’s fame,” I said, as the voice disappeared into the night.
“And it’s a good thing, so long as we don’t chase it into the darkness,” my husband added.
Darkness awaits all of us, the famous, the infamous and the ordinary. What we are doing in the dying of the light is laying family, tile by tile. Integrity and forgiveness are the cement that binds this family. These concepts transcend religious factions and literary cliques.
Nowadays some writers speak of “literary careers” and I remind them that one of the dictionary meanings of the word career is “downhill, out of control.” I have jumped off a mountain and seen how beautiful the world is; and I know how quickly the ride ends. It is the integrity of the ride that counts. That is what my inner god told me at Baba Dagi.
Essay Date: 2007