Prize-winning novelist, short-story writer, playwright and broadcaster, André Alexis came to York’s Glendon College on March 2 to read from his current work as part of the bp Nichol Reading Series. Ann Mandel of Glendon’s Department of English introduced Alexis as “a writer who leads me into sin. Once I read [his book] Despair, I lusted after more of his works.”
Right: Author André Alexis
In fact, this was Alexis’ third visit to Glendon, having read from his earlier books, Despair and Childhood, on previous occasions. His current work, Asylum, is in its fifth draft and has been in progress for the past eight years. “It’s the second longest relationship of my life,” quipped Alexis, with a twinkle of the understated humour which pervades his writing. “And it’s a love letter to Ottawa, the place where I recreated myself and where Canada became a reality for me.” Alexis and his family migrated from Trinidad to Canada and first settled in Ottawa, the city where the writer went to school and spent his formative years.
Asylum centres on Walter Barnes, a fictitious sociology professor at Ottawa’s Carleton University. He is recovering from amnesia resulting from a beating by another professor, the husband of the woman with whom Barnes was having an affair. During his three weeks in hospital, Barnes follows his inner voice, trying to recover his lost memory. In spite of the unfortunate circumstances, his gradual and incomplete recovery of his memory is deceptively light-hearted and wickedly funny. As he remembers vignettes of his past, he also contemplates ideas of God and the possibility that he may be missing an opportunity to become someone else in this transformation. Through his character, Alexis develops his own inner questions about power, mercy and the idea of the divine.
In his talk, Alexis examined the differences between novel-writing: an exploration of ideas which are not necessarily exact or explicit, and radio work: words and ideas which the audience hears only once and which must, therefore, be precise, concise and imitating “real-speak”. He also discussed the techniques of writing, commenting on the struggle and intense weeding process during the initial drafts. He offered an interesting insight – namely, that characters take on a life of their own and that sometimes an initially minor, marginal character may take over during the writing, while the central figure might be diminished or even eliminated.
He quoted W.O. Mitchell’s metaphor for writing: a well (of insights and experience) that fills up in a person’s early years, and from which the writer keeps emptying ideas for the rest of his life. Contrary to this, Alexis expressed his hope and conviction that new experiences and new ideas throughout a lifetime inform an author’s writing and affect his perspective. Fully bilingual and writing in French as well as English, Alexis stated that his goal when writing is to have complete awareness at every moment about the process and the ideas that are presented. He expressed his eagerness to bring Asylum to publication, in order to focus on new projects, among them plays, libretti, poetry and prose.
Alexis is the author of several published works including Despair (Henry Holt & Company, Inc., 1999), a collection of short fiction short-listed for a Regional Commonwealth prize; Childhood (McClelland & Stewart, 1998), a novel which won the Trillium Award for Fiction, and was nominated for both the Giller Prize and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize; and a play titled Lambton, Kent. He has written for radio and for theatre, has been a playwright-in-residence at the Canadian Stage Company, and has recently written and broadcast Radio Nomad for the CBC. He is a contributing editor for This Magazine as well as a reviewer for The Globe and Mail.
About the bp Nichol Reading Series
Glendon’s Department of English has been presenting a reading series for Canadian writers, sponsored by the Canada Council for the Arts, since the early 1970s. During the 1980s, the distinguished and much-loved poet, bp Nichol taught creative writing in the department and after his premature death in 1988, his colleagues named the reading series after him. In this series, several Canadian novelists, poets, short fiction writers and playwrights come to Glendon each year and read from their work. The readings are open to the public and are very popular with students and visitors alike. The format typically includes a reading by the author from a new or unpublished work, followed by a question period. Copies of the author’s books are usually for sale at the reading and at the Glendon Bookstore.
The next event in this series is a reading by Mark Abley, author of Spoken Here: Travels among Threatened Languages, which was short-listed for the Pearson Writers’ Trust Prize for Non-fiction in 2004. A Rhodes Scholar, Abley is a journalist, poet, fiction, non-fiction and children’s literature writer. Mark Abley’s reading will take place on Monday, March 14 in the Albert Tucker Room of York Hall, at 4pm. Everyone is welcome.
This article was submitted to YFile by Marika Kemeny, communications officer at Glendon College.