Helen Waldstein Wilkes holocaust letters shape prize-winning memoir and family history

Letters From the Lost: A Memoir of Discovery (Athabasca University Press) won the 2011 Alberta Readers Choice Award. (See her acceptance speech below). 

“Since receiving her Ph.D in French Literature, Helen Waldstein Wilkes spent 30 years teaching at every level in Canada and in the U.S. Her research interests include cross-cultural understanding, language acquisition, and neurolinguistics. Now retired and living in Vancouver, she is actively examining her own cultural inheritance and its impact.”

About the book: “On March 15, 1939, Helen Waldstein’s father snatched his stamped exit visa from a distracted clerk to escape from Prague with his wife and child. As the Nazis closed in on a war-torn Czechoslovakia, only letters from their extended family could reach Canada through the barriers of conflict. The Waldstein family received these letters as they made their lives on a southern Ontario farm, where they learned to be Canadian and forget their Jewish roots.

Helen Waldstein read these letters as an adult―this changed everything. As her past refused to keep silent, Helen followed the trail of the letters back to Europe, where she discovered living witnesses who could attest to the letters’ contents. She has here interwoven their stories and her own into a compelling narrative of suffering, survivor guilt, and overcoming intergenerational obstacles when exploring a traumatic past.” (Athabasca UP)

Continue reading “Helen Waldstein Wilkes holocaust letters shape prize-winning memoir and family history”

Mary Woodbury tracks her writing history at Women & Words

On June 9, 2011, Mary Woodbury spoke as part of  a panel discussion about “Women & writing: right on track… or backtracking? — an event organized during Women & Words: Summer Writing Week. This annual series of June writing workshops and readings is in its eighteenth year of programming by the Faculty of Extension, University of Alberta. What follows is Mary’s talk:
 
 

 

It started in the fall of 1974…. I’ve got one advantage over the other panelists, I have more years of experiencing the rise and fall, rise and struggle, rise and shine of women in the last two thirds of the 20th century. I was born when girls couldn’t bounce basketballs more than twice because they might damage their feminine organs. When I told the Continue reading “Mary Woodbury tracks her writing history at Women & Words”

Naheed Mustafa: an interview, stories and radio documentary

Naheed Mustafa is an award-winning journalist and writer.  This interview with Naheed and a story – “We Felt No Mercy” – are featured in the Spring 2011 issue and website of maisonneuve, a quarterly of arts, opinion and ideas  – an award-winning Montreal magazine. Listen to Taking the Oath, her CBC radio documentary on immigration. Her story  Three Meals in Afghanistan is published in The Walrus.
 

When covering important political stories, some journalists talk to the major players. But other writers strive to let the underdogs be heard. In her new Maisonneuve cover story “We Felt No Mercy,” which appears in Issue 39 (Spring 2011), Naheed Mustafa offers an unmediated look at the lives of Afghan citizens. Neamatullah Arghandabi, a former mujahed who helped fight off the Soviets, opens up about life as a young soldier and the current state of his country.

Mustafa is an award-winning print and radio journalist. We talked to her about the difficulties of foreign correspondence and how to tell personal stories from countries in conflict. To read “We Felt No Mercy,” pick up a copy of our Spring 2011 issue or contact us to order it.

Mick Côté: Can you tell me about the initial contact with Arghandabi?

Naheed Mustafa: It was straightforward. I basically phoned him up and just asked him. Obviously, I had to tell him how I got his number and then I just asked him if he was interested in trying to meet. He said sure. The issue was nailing down a time with him because he was really busy. He comes to Kabul once every few months. The other thing that I found while working in Afghanistan—and not just there—is that people don’t really stick to their times.

MC: Was he reluctant to share his story?

NM: He didn’t really understand what I was trying to do. Not in terms of literally understanding, but he didn’t really “get it.” He didn’t really understand why I was interested in his story and he didn’t really understand why I wanted to construct this particular piece.

The project is actually a lot bigger than this particular item. I’ve been collecting stories for a while, but I’m not really sure what I’m going to be doing with them. It’s an opportunity I take when I’m working on other things over there. He asked, “What’s the point? It’s not really a story. I’m not anyone famous or particularly influential.” But to me, that’s what was interesting. That’s the story I wanted.

MC: In the article, you allotted a lot of room for quotations and very little for narration. How did you make this decision?

NM: This was the first time I’ve tried this type of format. The model for it was Studs Terkel’s book, The Good War. He collected stories of people who participated, in various ways, in World War II. He has these long types of discursive quotes. I’ve seen that style in other places but I hadn’t ever done something like that myself. The point of the oral story is to get people to tell their own story, and that seemed like the most obvious way. I was pretty nervous about using that style, and I wasn’t sure that people would find it compelling.

I’ve done long feature-style narrative from Afghanistan in other ways. I’ve done it in broadcasting, and I’ve done it in other print features. But part of the effort for anybody is: how much of ourselves do we insert into that story? We’re going to insert ourselves in various ways. The most obvious way would be that first-person narrative about who you’re meeting and who you’re talking to and your impressions. The other part of it is really about what we choose to quote.

Obviously, even the way that I’ve done it—even in selecting these particular passages—that’s still mediating his story. But I think it comes closer to an unmediated story than if I had written my version of what he was saying. That’s one of the things that I was struggling with a lot. It’s not always easy to figure out how to quote people because people don’t always just talk in short form. When you look at those kinds of interviews, people have a lot to say about themselves, and they tell you because they want you to hear it.

Part of that discussion for me, internally, is: how much of a duty do I have to report that? If I’m there to talk about people’s experiences, then how much should I keep myself out? I thought it was one way to get a story out, with as much content as I could in the style that he would tell it….more

This interview with Naheed Mustafa can be read in full here on the maisonneuve website.

The 21st Century Motherhood Movement

Christin Geall  is a creative nonfiction writer who was  a newspaper columnist, magazine editor and communications director before completing the Stonecoast M.F.A in creative nonfiction. She teaches at the University of Victoria. This was first published on Christin’s blog.

Rare are the days I’d do Grace Paley proud.

Between pick-up and drop-off, whole days slip by me in sentences, only a few of which are political. So it goes, I tell myself, you’re doing the work of a mother and a professor—contributing to the greater good. Besides, you write, and isn’t writing itself is a political act?

No. Or rather, not often enough.

But today, thanks to Andrea O’Reilly, the powerhouse behind the Association for Research on Mothering, this one writermama can feel good about walking her talk.

The 21st Century Motherhood Movement: Mothers Speak Out on Why We Need to Change the World and How to Do It is now out from Demeter Press in Toronto. 978 pages! Continue reading “The 21st Century Motherhood Movement”

Linda McQuaig – Canada mines African discontent

Linda McQuaigTanzanian uprising against Barrick Gold leaves seven villagers shot dead

Originally published in The Toronto Star
 

While Canadians may think of ourselves as best known for owning the Olympic podium, among Africans we may actually be better known – and not particularly liked – for owning their natural resources.

Once beloved on the continent, Canada is no longer so fondly regarded in Africa.

The new, less enthusiastic view of Canada was vividly illustrated last month when more than 1,500 desperately poor Tanzanian villagers picked up machetes, rocks and hammers and stormed the mining compound of Canadian-owned African Barrick Gold.

The uprising – leading to the shooting deaths of seven of the villagers by police and security forces at the mine – is a startling reminder that theories widely held in the West about the benefits of foreign investment for the developing world are not always shared by people on the receiving end.

In theory, Barrick’s arrival in the 1990s has been a boon to the Tanzanian economy, pushing it toward development.

In reality, Tanzania has collected only a pittance in taxes and royalties from Barrick and other foreign multinationals through contracts that are shrouded in secrecy. So, although it sits on massive gold reserves worth more than $40 billion, Tanzania remains one of world’s 10 poorest countries.

A 2008 investigation funded by Norwegian church groups concluded that Tanzania collected an average of only $21.7 million US a year in royalty and taxes on more than $2.5 billion worth of gold exported over the previous five years. The investigation also estimated some 400,000 Tanzanians, who formerly mined for gold with nothing but their own picks, shovels and ropes, have been left unemployed by the giant mining operations.

Two months after that report, a government-appointed commission headed by retired Tanzanian judge Mark Bomani strongly urged imposing higher royalties and taxes on the foreign mining companies.

With growing popular pressure for tougher legislation, the Canadian government intervened on the side of the multinationals, pressuring the Tanzanian government and parliament to oppose Bomani’s proposed reforms. Continue reading “Linda McQuaig – Canada mines African discontent”

Rita Wong on Courageously Speaking Against the Politics of Fear: Thank You to Brigette dePape

 A Fresh Page in an Old Story

Rita Wong is a poet, blogger, teacher, cultural critic, and contributor to the pomegranate

You may not agree with Brigette dePape’s protest – she displayed a “Stop Harper” sign during the throne speech in the Senate – but dePape acts from a place of genuine concern for Canadians. She feels that we are in danger, and this justifies stepping outside the mode of business-as-usual into creatively thinking about how to best warn her fellow citizens. Living through a year with the highest greenhouse gas emissions on record, I take her warning seriously.

Interviewers in the mass media seem to miss or avoid engaging with dePape’s point that our government’s parliamentary system will not protect the peace and the environment that most Canadians value. They take a superficial definition of democracy that begins and ends with an election, whereas dePape asserts that democracy is much wider and deeper than an election where three quarters of the Canadian population did not vote for Harper. The Conservatives got 40% of the votes from the 61% of Canadians who participated in the election, translating into one quarter of the population. Ms. dePape’s math turns out to be more accurate than her media interviewers’ calculations that accept the conventional definition of a majority government and disregard the many people who did not vote.

Math aside, it is very important to consider DePape’s argument—broadcast on CTV news June 4, 2011—that millions of Canadians will not see their concerns adequately addressed within the Canadian parliamentary system for the next four years. A quarter of the country helped to elect a government that will build enormous, expensive prisons, buy fighter jets, and speed up the destruction of our planet through increased global warming. The 75% of Canadians who did not vote for this violent, fearful agenda are nonetheless held hostage to it, and the sooner they realize this, the better. It is our children and grandchildren who will pay for our mistakes, as they inherit a more polluted, degraded planet with acidifying oceans, as well as a more violent society with greater extremes of inequality. The Tory agenda is a corporate agenda, specifically a tar sands agenda where the rich will increasingly rule, at least temporarily, before leaving an enormous toxic mess for everyone else to clean up. Continue reading “Rita Wong on Courageously Speaking Against the Politics of Fear: Thank You to Brigette dePape”

Sheila Pratt on “The Rule of Law” and Omar Khadr’s lawyers

The Rule of Law

Sheila Pratt is a contributor to the pomegranate, senior feature writer at the Edmonton Journal and co-author of Running on Empty: Alberta after the Boom. This is the first third of an article that appears in Alberta Views (June 2011) – available at your local newstand!

The jury of seven military officers filed back into the courtroom in Guantánamo Bay at the end of eight long hours deliberating the fate of Omar Khadr. Sitting next to Khadr, watching tensely, were two Edmonton lawyers, Nate Whitling and Dennis Edney. For the past seven years, the two Albertans had waged a determined battle for legal rights for Khadr. They had been to the Supreme Court twice, with some success, in their effort to bring the rule of law to bear on the case. They’d travelled a dozen times since June 2007 to visit their client at this notorious US military prison and to help his American military lawyer, Lt. Col. Jon Jackson, prepare the defence. This day, October 31, 2010, was a critical point in their journey—the fate of their client would finally be decided.

“Make no mistake, the world is watching,” the military prosecutor told the jury. “Your sentence will send a message.” Indeed. The court had accepted Khadr’s guilty plea (part of a plea bargain) the week before. Today it would recommend a sentence—and signal of the kind of justice to be had from the contentious and deeply flawed US military justice system.

Whitling and Edney knew the legal deck was stacked against their client in the military commission system, which violated the rule of law and other fundamental principles of justice. For instance, in the military court, evidence obtained under torture was admissible—unthinkable in regular courts.The prosecution was not required to disclose its evidence, as required in regular courts. The military commission system, devised post 9/11 and modified by the Obama administration, was so stacked against the accused that the US government ruled its own citizens could not be sent to trial there. This was justice suitable for foreigners only.

But the US government was not the only one to ignore its own traditions concerning the rule of law. Months before the trial, the Canadian government ignored the recommendation of its own courts, which ruled Khadr’s Charter rights had been violated when Canadian security officials participated in illegal interrogations of Khadr. To remedy that wrong, the government should bring Khadr home, the courts said. Instead, the Harper government played to the politics of the day by leaving him in Guantánamo, argues Edney. By failing to uphold the rights of one citizen, he adds—however unpopular the citizen—the government undermined the legal rights that protect all Canadians.

The defence of Omar, second youngest son of Canada’s notorious al Qaeda-linked Khadr family, was not a popular cause. The family’s ties to terrorist Osama bin Laden were a shocking betrayal of national values and an affront to Canadians. For Whitling and Edney, however, a greater principle was at stake: the rule of law, so fundamental to democracy. Every Canadian citizen is entitled to the right to counsel, protection from torture and to a fair trial. Khadr had none of that in Guantánamo. Continue reading “Sheila Pratt on “The Rule of Law” and Omar Khadr’s lawyers”

Christine Jackman on War of Words in the The Australian

War of Words  in The Australian

Christine Jackman writes on verbal cyber attacks …the downside of anonymous comments….
(with thanks to Penney Kome & Louise Dulude for link)

“Every now and then, I wonder whether I should be watching my back, but I just shake those thoughts off and get on with it. I’ve never discussed this issue publicly before, because I’m out there encouraging people to speak out – which is paramount to creating change. So I don’t want to put anyone off.”

And therein lies the Catch-22 for women in the cyber-firing line. On the one hand, they believe it is essential to expose the level of abuse and misogyny that has flourished on the largely unregulated new media. On the other, they fear the only effect that would have is to discourage women from participating in public debates.

Says Tankard Reist, who occasionally re-Tweets or posts particularly vile comments: “I want to expose these people so my followers [on Twitter or her website] can see the battle we have, the ingrained hatred and contempt these people have for women… But I already know of young women who say they won’t write their own pieces or contribute to comments pages anymore because of the feedback they get.”

Although she condemns the sort of abuse thrown at men like Cummins and controversial male commentators like News Limited journalist Andrew Bolt, Tankard Reist says it is hard to imagine any man being subjected to the levels of personal intimidation – particularly, threats of sexual violence – that are part of life in the new media age for outspoken women.

Of course, there are still a few things the old and new media have in common, including the truisms that sex sells and so does controversy. So if you build a site where there is heated, colourful debate, the hits will come. And in an era where the media and newsmakers are still grappling with how to build stable, profitable audiences online, few moderators or hosts are willing to shut that down.

“Sure, it drives more traffic to a site,” Tankard Reist says of the sort of no-holds-barred slanging matches that often replace serious debate online. “But editors and moderators need to be more vigilant about not allowing their forums to become platforms for haters and trolls.”

Funnell agrees: “There’s a ‘lighten up squad’ out there where everyone says ‘if it’s too hot, get out of the kitchen’. But perhaps the kitchen shouldn’t be so hot in the first place. This is not just about women. It’s about any sort of hate speech that is systematically directed against any particular group, designed to intimidate them or shut them down. It’s about freedom of speech versus speech that defames, threatens or intimidates.”

Tankard Reist, who has an ear for popular culture, chimes in: “When you ask for moderation or regulation, the people who oppose it claim it’s because they believe in free speech. But they want to shut my speech down. It reminds me of the chorus of that song Ode to Women [by Your Best Friend’s Ex]. They all demand their right to freedom of speech, and yet guys like that are using it to sing: ‘Bitch, shut your mouth’.”

Heather Mallick: Meet the woman who counsels torture victims

The Toronto Star Heather Mallick: Meet the woman who counsels torture victims.

…In the course of her intensely lived life, Bamber, who helped found Amnesty International, once put a torture hood on her head to describe to a court what it feels like — the suffocation, the gagging and the panic in the dark — and has spent decades counselling people who will never recover from the bodily and mental insult.

You don’t get better after torture. It is the most isolating experience possible, and this is what the torturers intend. Every day, Bamber dresses with precision and elegance — it’s a form of armour, she agrees — and goes to her London office to sit with and listen to people who endured it.

Bamber campaigned for codifying medical ethics in Britain, helped build the now-thriving Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture and now operates her own Helen Bamber Foundation, offering clinical help. The waiting room is worrying, with people who look simultaneously dead tired and alarmed. They are very, very thin.

What I’m trying to find out from Bamber is where she gets her strength. How do you see the worst that humans can do and then confront it over and over again in a lifetime?…

Heather Robertson wins Graeme Gibson Award

The Writers’ Union of Canada announces –

“Canadian nonfiction writer Heather Robertson was presented with the Graeme Gibson Award by The Writers’ Union of Canada at its Annual General Meeting on May 28, 2011. Established by the Union in 1991 for “varied and remarkable contributions to improve the circumstances of writers in Canada,” the award has been given to Graeme Gibson and, in 1992, Pierre Berton. Ms. Robertson is its third recipient.

In 1996 a class action was launched against the Thomson Corporation and others by freelancers whose articles written for The Globe and Mail and other print publications were used in online databases without their authorization and without payment. Heather Robertson agreed to serve as the representative plaintiff. In 2009, thirteen years later and three years after a favourable decision from the Supreme Court of Canada on the main issue – whether freelancers’ consent was required to reproduce their articles in electronic databases – an $11 million settlement was reached in Robertson v. Thomson and payment made to the freelancers whose works were used without permission. Ms. Robertson brought a second class action against The Toronto Star, Rogers Publishing, CANWEST and others, again acting as the representative for the class of freelancers. A $7.9 million settlement in that case, nicknamedRobertson 2, was approved by the Ontario Court on May 3, 2011.

“We celebrate Heather Robertson for her courage and persistence in standing up for our rights and principles, quietly, unshakably, for so many years, when new technologies seemed about to sweep our rights away,” said Alan Cumyn, Writers’ Union chair. Heather’s tenacity will continue to inspire writers in our on-going fight to be paid fairly for digital uses of our work.”

“This has been very much a collective effort,” she said in accepting the award. “I could not have carried on without the moral and financial support of The Writers’ Union, the Professional Writers Association of Canada, and many individual writers from coast to coast.”

Heather Robertson was a founding member of The Writers’ Union of Canada and the Professional Writers Association of Canada.  She is a journalist, novelist and nonfiction writer whose books include Reservations are for Indians, Willie, A Romance, which won the Books in Canada First Novel Award and Walking into Wilderness, which won the Ontario Historical Society’s 2011 Fred Landon Prize for regional history. Throughout her writing career, Heather has been a prolific freelancer for national magazines such as Maclean’s, Chatelaine, Saturday Night, and Canadian Forum.

The Writers’ Union of Canada is our country’s national organization representing professional authors of books. Founded in 1973, the Union is dedicated to fostering writing in Canada, and promoting the rights, freedoms, and economic well-being of all writers.”