Thursday, 29 March 2012

Writing on the road

It's hard to write when I'm away from home, but it's also hard not to write. Sometimes I feel like I'm only half here: the other half is in (at the moment) a community hall in rural Manitoba. But it's not an unpleasant feeling, except that I'm pulled and want to be there. I've been reading old issues of Chatelaine magazine from 1967, research for the current novel. What strikes me, besides some of the quaint ads (for the "every half hour cocktail party" (???)), the neat clothes (culottes!) and the fact that we used to call couches "chesterfields," is that we haven't changed much. Yeah, we've changed on the surface; we can choose from a shelf of about 600 varieties of tea (as a tea drinker, I notice this) and we can Skype from India to Penticton and all that, but our human obsessions remain essentially the same. We're not so advanced as we seem to think we are. We recycle our dilemmas. We work with the same seven notes, rearranging them in different patterns.

A friend who grew up in India read Shelter and said something like "the landscape is different, jobs are different but the human problems are 100% the same." I get the sense of that reading The Odyssey or the Ramayana. (I don't mean to put Shelter in that class!) Old but familiar tales, familiar at the root, ringing with recognition. I'm not sure if that's cause for hope or despair.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

The Ramayana

There are many, many versions of this Indian epic, the Ramayana, from comic books to plays. The back cover of this version says, "One of India's greatest epics, the Ramayana pervades the country's moral and cultural consciousness." I've only read two versions, R. K. Narayan's short prose version (which I loved) and a graphic novel version from the perspective of Sita by Samhita Arni. And I've just begun this one, my third. A hefty near-700 pages, it's a translation of the Sanskrit text by Valmiki, probably written between 750 and 500 BCE. The translation is by my friend, the talented and witty Arshia Sattar, who I met at the Sangam House writers' retreat.

In the introduction she writes,"the question that looms large over the Ramayana is that of the relationship between myth and history, ie. is the Ramayana a true story?...Early Orientalists [found that] Indians seemed to mix up their human heroes with their gods...Most scholars of epic believe that an epic grows around a core legend or tale that probably did occur. Thus it is possible some king (perhaps not named Rama) did exist, that his wife was abducted and that he fought a war to get her back." 

And that gives you a taste of the plot. Like the Odyssey, this is a story of complex personalities and relationships, twists and turns of fate and human weakness and, above all, dharma, a word that roughly translates as "duty" or "right." And if ever there was a use for the shorthand WTF, it comes at the end of the Ramayana.

Friday, 9 March 2012

Ethel Wilson's Swamp Angel

I first read this book a long time ago; I can tell by my name written on the inside cover in rounder, more careful handwriting than I have now. And I found a folded note inside that reads: Damon, Just gone for a walk. Help yourself to a cupcake. Slap some icing on it (them) L. And a phone number in different ink (not my writing; I never crossed my sevens). The note, written by my long-time friend Laurie who lives in Winnipeg and is still with her partner, Damon, suggests that either I lent this book to her, or I borrowed it from her, kept it and eventually wrote my name in it, thinking it was mine. Then again, I rarely write my name in my books unless I'm lending them.

The book smells like an attic and someone has written in it, in ink GUN=SELFHOOD, POWER. That was neither me nor Laurie because neither of us would do that to a book we loved. Whoever did it also underlined "Burrard Inlet," "Stanley Park," "Lion's Gate Bridge," "golf course," "New Westminster" and "outraged endurance," but then the underlinings peter out and past chapter nine, it's clean. I feel an instant dislike for the person who did the underlining. It's as if the book was mined for uppercase meaning then abandoned once it'd given up its goods. That's probably unfair; it's not like I've never approached a book in such a businesslike way. Just not this book.

Skagit River at Sumallo Grove


I remembered little of this book except that I liked it and that it traveled into the firs and pines of the BC deepwoods and that it made the familiar a little exotic and I liked that. Re-reading it tonight, I was delighted to find that when Maggie leaves the home she had loved but now hated, she stops at Hope and reflects on the two roads forking into the interior of BC and she chooses the Hope-Princeton. I always choose the Hope-Princeton too, though it's a home I love that I'm heading to. And she stops by the river, which she calls the Similkameen. And the Similkameen does run along that road, but first you pass through the wilder transition from the coastal rainforest -- the huge cedars and salmonberry undergrowth -- where the road runs along the Skagit River. That's the river I always stop beside (at least when the road in is passable, which is from about May to October).

I was re-reading Swamp Angel because Shelter has been shortlisted for the BC Book Ethel Wilson Prize and when I heard, it reminded me of the book and of the writers like Wilson and Margaret Laurence and Gabrielle Roy and Adele Wiseman and Margaret Atwood, who I read when I was in my early twenties, those iconic McClelland and Stewart New Canadian Library books. I envied Margaret Laurence her cigarettes and coffee at her desk overlooking the Otonabee River and I wanted to do that. I don't have the river or the cigarettes but I spend my days writing at my desk looking out on the hills around Penticton and I feel a kinship to those writers who wrote things like "'I shall be all right. Just set me down near the river.'" (Ethel Wilson, Swamp Angel, 1954)

Friday, 2 March 2012

Ancient Indian technology

This is an interesting article about using ancient technology for cooling in India, like jalis (stone window screens) and stepwells. We visited stepwells in India on our tour and were told that they were a communal water system and gathering place, but we all puzzled over why they were so elaborate and deep (and would require so much effort to gather water, as opposed to the rope and bucket system.) Here's a photo of one:

 What I learned from the article is that they also acted as a kind of air conditioning. Makes sense. Just as you might go into a restaurant or movie theatre to escape the heat, you could take your time descending the steps to collect water at these way-stops, which were built by the ruling family. The stepwells also had a number of small rooms overlooking the well that could be used as "motels" by passing travelers.
My clever fellow travelers
The jalis are not just practical, but beautiful. Here's a 16th century-ish one and the modern update below it.