Steven Heighton returns from the Afterlands

On Jan. 10, York’s Canadian Writers in Person course and reading series presented poet and author Steven Heighton reading from his latest novel Afterlands. York teaching assistant Chris Cornish sent the following report to YFile.

Dec. 18, 1872. It is awful to contemplate what we may be becoming. God forbid that any of this company should be tempted to such a crime! If it is God’s will that we should die by starvation, why, let us die like men, not like animals! 

from Afterlands
by Steven Heighton

As Steven Heighton (right) read from his latest novel Afterlands (Knopf Canada, 2005) for the Canadian Writers in Person series, the temperature noticeably dropped and bellies growled with hunger. Afterlands is a re-imagining of the failed Polaris expedition to the North Pole in 1872, in which 19 castaways are set adrift on an ice floe. Working with the published account of one of the survivors, George Tyson’s Arctic Experiences (1873), Heighton evoked the voices of those whose story was left untold.

Heighton began writing the novel in 2001 while on a Yukon retreat at Berton House, the childhood home of the master of Canadian non-fiction, Pierre Berton. Not surprisingly, it was Berton’s brief account of the Polaris expedition that inspired him to retell the tale. While Heighton’s version is a classic survivor narrative in the spirit of Robinson Crusoe and has the factual framework of historical events, Afterlands also speaks to modern, post-9/11, times. This story of a multicultural group of people, who become split along national lines as their melting ice floe forces them closer together, is really a microcosm of today’s world.   

The opportunity to step out of time and culture to explore other perspectives was both challenging and appealing for Heighton. Tukulito, the Inuit matriarch, is perhaps the most interesting and enigmatic character of the novel, he said. Though she is an "historical character," she is almost post-modern in that she exists somewhere between two identities, Inuit and English. Her voice, said Heighton, along with the rebellious Kruger’s, was left out of the official record, leaving one to question the absolute authority of what we consider to be history.

Though Heighton is a successful novelist, his first love remains poetry. When asked about the difference in process between the two forms, Heighton revealed that writing a novel is like a 9-5 job and is usually written entirely from his laptop.  "Poetry, initially written by hand, comes as a flash of passion and is more about capturing the lyrical moment than a narrative," said Heighton. As Christian Bök commented earlier this year, "Poetry is what language does on its day off." Nonetheless, many of the principles of poetry inform the prose which "needs to be fresh. Its rhythms should embody the action of the story."

The poet treated the audience to a selection of his work including a poem inspired by his old address book. He discovered a feeling of melancholy as he mused about the people he had forgotten, who weren’t going to be transcribed into his new book. One such person, "Mad Carl", later read the poem in a literary journal and asked to be reinstated into Heighton’s address book. Though this poem isn’t directly connected to his novel, one could understand why Heighton would want to "imagine the separate loneliness of another person’s point of view."

Heighton said he hopes that "with every book of fiction, one’s capacity for empathy should improve." It makes the cold winter nights adrift on our own personal ice floes a lot warmer.

The Canadian Writers in Person series of public readings at York, which is free and open to the public, is also part of an introductory course on Canadian literature. On Feb. 7, Hiromi Goto will read from her collection of short stories Hopeful Monsters. Please note that Lynn Coady‘s reading on Feb. 28 has been cancelled. The series is sponsored in part by the Canada Council for the Arts