This past May, Michael Christie presented as our Keynote Speaker
at the NOWW Literary Awards Party. For those of you unable
to attend, or for those who want to experience it again,
we are happy to now share with you Mr. Christie's keynote address,
By Michael Christie
After moving here from Northern England following World War II, my grandmother lived with my grandfather on Miles Street for nearly 50 years. She was a chatty, intelligent woman who liked Red Rose tea and could polish off ten crosswords in a single afternoon. And sitting with her over the years in her kitchen, it didn’t take me long to learn that her favorite topic of conversation could only be described as the following: the-“Famous People Who Are Actually From Thunder Bay”-game.
And from what I’m told, this is not an unusual obsession in this city.
Did you know that the teen idol Bobby Curtola was from Thunder Bay? Or the actor Kevin Durand? Or the writer Diane Schoemperlen? Or all of the Staahl Brothers? These stories are always told with a mixture of pride and amazement, told in the same perpetually astonished tone that one might mention the following true, yet somehow unbelievable facts: “Did you know that Russia is actually bigger than Pluto?” or “Did you know that a housefly hums in the key of F?” or “Did you know that Paul Schaffer is actually from Thunder Bay?”
Well I’ve been thinking lately about why this is, why you and I and my grandmother are all so obsessed with naming the successful people who hail from this area. And I’ve come to suspect that it must have something to do with our relative isolation, and the cultural marginalization that results. We are marginalized from Canada’s cultural hub of Toronto by its sheer distance, (a 15-hour drive to go to a literary reading, anyone?) And we are marginalized from the United States by the utter enormity of its cultural power, and its ever-growing disinterest in what transpires outside its own borders.
So it’s in light of this marginalization that I’ve come to suspect that the real story that you and I and my grandmother are actually telling ourselves when we talk about who is from Thunder Bay is this:
We matter too.
If our actors matter to the world. And our writers matter to the world. And our musicians matter to the world. And our filmmakers. And our athletes. Then it must mean that our lives matter to the world, too. And it must mean that as much as anyone, we have the right to be just as creative, just as driven, just as insightful, just as bold, as anyone else out there.
And every single name that we add to the list of The Notable people from Thunder Bay Wikipedia page serves only as further proof that if people can be born in a place as isolated as this, a place without private schools, and without many types of artistic opportunity, and still go on to do great things. Then maybe this place that we love is perhaps not in the middle of nowhere at all, but rather, dead-center in the middle of somewhere.
All this I agree with. I tell these stories of people from Thunder Bay myself, and I find myself doing it in Vancouver all the time. And when I was younger and first starting out as a writer, I would often remind myself of these trailblazers who’d set out before me from this very same spot, and without them, I’m not sure I could’ve believed any of it possible.
But I also know from personal experience that the feeling of inferiority that accompanies our isolation and cultural marginalization can lead to a kind of paralyzing sort of resentment and self-doubt.
And here, I think, is where things get tricky. I grew up with this feeling of inferiority woven into the fabric of my every day experience. My older brother and I used to watch a great deal of TV and movies, and I’m sorry to report that when we really didn’t like something, we’d describe its weaknesses by saying that it was “So Canadian.” Whether it was actually Canadian or not, didn’t matter to us. It was just the connotations of it. “Canadian” meant cheap, poorly acted, unimaginative, and, as a result, boring. And when we wanted to issue the ultimate condemnation of something we’d watched and utterly hated, whether it was a commercial, a movie, or a TV show, we’d say this: “That was so Thunder Bay.” We’d say it about books and songs and clothes and food and anything at all really that we really, really didn’t like.
And I can only think now: Where did we learn to do this? My parents didn’t teach it to us. We never read a book called You’ll Never Make Art Because Art Doesn’t Come From Where You Live. So how did we intuit that all cultural products that come from here weren’t worth our attention?
To be honest I’m still not sure, but my guess is that when you are culturally marginalized, it’s easy to have your experiences discredited, to have your voice silenced, and your very existence questioned. It’s safe to say that this is a subject that our countries fine Aboriginal writers know more about than anyone.
But this is exactly why organizations such as NOWW and award ceremonies such as these are so important to counteracting these terrible forces. So important to encouraging the budding artists of whatever age in this community, from whatever background, by reminding them that their stories and their voices matter. And that if they write well about their experiences, then there will always be an audience. There to read it.
It’s also important to remember that Northwestern Ontario is by no means the only culturally marginalized place in Canada. Before landing in Thunder Bay on Thursday, for the past few weeks I was on a bit of a Maritime tour. The tour brought me to Moncton and Halifax and Cape Breton Island, a place I’d so often read about but never been. While I was there on the Western coast of the Island, in Inverness, I visited the cabin in which the late, great Alistair MacLeod wrote the majority of his masterpiece, the novel No Great Mischief. Perhaps you have read it, but it tells the story of a family of poor fishers who are divided when they are forced to seek work elsewhere in Canada. It was a hugely influential book on me. Reading it, I could see the mist hugging the shoreline. I could see the yellow slickers on the men. I could taste the Atlantic sea-spray in my mouth. When I read interviews where Alistair MacLeod talked about this writing hut, overlooking the ocean, I was nearly overcome with writerly jealousy.
So suffice to say that I was buzzingly excited to be there and see it. It was a structure no bigger than a shed. Inside just a small plywood table, a metal chair, set beneath one single-paned window overlooking the sea. It was wonderful experience for me. And while I was definitely excited, there in the sparseness of the cabin, I also made sort of a strange realization.
This place is just a place.
But because of his writing, I’d imagined it so much more richly and more vibrantly than it was in real life. It might be strange to say this, but in a way I was a little disappointed. It led me to thinking: what exactly had Alistair MacLeod done to turn this place he lived into a living myth? How did he make me care so deeply about a place I’d never been?
I’m sure you can guess the answer: the power of his writing.
Now I’m not here to suggest that everyone ought to write about the place they are from. Perhaps some of you are right now writing political thrillers set in Tanzania. Or perhaps you’re writing a cycle of poems set in an imagined universe ruled by your dog. If so, I applaud you. We ought to be able to write about anywhere we’d like, whenever we’d like, however we’d like. The only requirement is always the same: the work must be good, everything else is just decoration.
But we also must not be afraid to write about where we live. It was very satisfying for me to set my book here. And there is another one coming! We’re All In This Together a first novel, by the blindingly talented Amy Jones. Which will be published June 7th of this year. I’ve read it and I loved it, and you should all go home and pre-order right now. When it appears Amy’s book will join Jane Urquhart’s The Underpainter and the many other great books set in this region, and we’ll have another name to add to that good old Wikipedia page.
My advice to you, my fellow writers, is perhaps both depressing and inspiring:
Yes. We were right all along. Thunder Bay is marginalized. It is isolated. And I’m here to report another perhaps painful truth, nobody in Toronto cares about Thunder Bay. Not really. But here’s the thing: It’s not just us. They also don’t care about Cape Breton, Sarnia, Sudbury, Winnipeg, Chicoutimi, Nanaimo, and actually, they don’t even really care about Toronto.
However (and here we’ve come to what I hope is the inspiring part!), if you write a gripping story that’s artfully constructed with complex human characters and powerful, vivid language, told with economy and style, and it just happens to be set in Thunder Bay? Then yes, you’re damn right, people will care about Thunder Bay. They will care like crazy. And this, I believe, is the immense power of writing: its ability to enlist the empathy of the reader, to essentially force people to care about subjects and people that they never would’ve normally.
Because it’s not the details of the place that really matter: (though all the these things are wonderful). It’s not the Persians or the shags or the sun rising behind the Giant on a wintry morning.
No, it’s the human beings that make a place what it is. The people. And you don’t need me to tell you that we’ve got some great people here, as good as anywhere. Complex and strange and funny and tender and human.
Now all we need are all your wonderful books, to prove it to the world.