This week, our spotlight turns to the 2020 Vine Awards Jury. In Q&A’s with Mary Anderson, the Koffler’s Manager of Literary & Public Programs, we asked this year’s Jury – Judy Batalion
, Allan Levine
and Shani Mootoo – to talk about their writing, what inspires them, and this year’s Vine Award submissions.
The Vine Awards, honouring the very best in Canadian Jewish literature with prizes of $10,000 in four categories, will be announced in November 2020. Full details here.
First up in this week's Vine Awards Jury spotlight is Montreal-born, NYC-based author Judy Batalion. Author of White Walls: A Memoir about Motherhood, Daughterhood and the Mess in Between
, Batalion's forthcoming book is The Light of Days: The Untold Story of Women Resistance Fighters in Hitler's Ghettos
(William Morrow/HarperCollins, April 2021). Her essays have appeared in The New York Times
, Washington Post
, The Forward
and many other publications. Read Judy's full bio here
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Mary Anderson (MA): Your writing takes many forms – personal essay, art review, fiction, non-fiction, scripting, and performance to name a few. Do you have a favourite?
Judy Batalion (JB): No, I don’t have a favourite child! Each form of writing has its unique challenges. Much of the pleasure of writing lies in solving these conundra. In my new book, The Light of Days: The Untold Story of Women Resistance Fighters in Hitler’s Ghettos
, the greatest writerly challenge was how to focus mountains of research into one dramatic, propulsive story. In personal essays, the hard-part is self-reflection, and figuring out how to share private insights in a way that is compelling to others. Usually, the more drenched I am in one form, the more I long to do another. After years of writing narrative nonfiction about the Holocaust, I fantasize writing humor. Beach reads and sitcoms, here I come!
MA: You currently live in New York City but you were born and raised in Montreal. Do your Canadian Jewish roots influence your writing? If so, how?
JB: Oh for sure, my Canadian Jewish roots - and I think my Montreal Jewish roots in particular – influence my writing, thinking, and being. I used to joke that I grew up in a Yiddish outpost of a Polish shtetl in the English section of French Quebec in a former British colony. (And I felt like an outsider even there.) I was raised with the perspective of an outsider, a post-nationalist perhaps, who sees the “mutt” in everyone. We’re all from somewhere else, from many somewhere elses, and yet it’s possible to co-exist peacefully, or at least productively.
The Canadian Jewish community comprises a relatively large percent of Holocaust survivor families, including my own. I grew up with an immigrant sensibility and grappling with trauma that’s leaked through the generations. My cohort of Canadian Jews deal with being 3G and raising 4G in very particular ways, as I explore in my book White Walls: A Memoir About Motherhood, Daughterhood, and the Mess in Between.
You know, it took living in several countries for me to recognize how utterly Canadian Jewish I am.
MA: When you completed a PhD in art history you “set the world on fire” with your analysis of domestic representation in women’s creative collaborations. What sparked your initial interest in feminist discourse?
JB: Yes it was a roaring blaze, I think 3 whole people read it! My PhD was about creative collaboration among women artists. My new book, The Light of Days
, is about Jewish women who fought the Nazis in Polish ghettos. These don’t seem like similar projects, and yet, they are. In both, I excavated and articulated a woman’s practice. In my PhD, I highlighted 50 contemporary artist groups that never made it into the art history books. In The Light of Days
, I give voice to hundreds, even thousands, of young Jewish women who smuggled weapons, flung Molotov cocktails, and blew up German supply trains, and again, vanished from the war narrative. In both cases, I tried to bring a woman’s history to light.
MA: In 2016, I had the pleasure of meeting your brother, Eli Batalion, when he and Jamie Elman created YidLife Does Kensington. Back then he claimed to be a bagel expert (and I believe still does). I’m curious whether you share this familial knowledge, and if so, Montreal-style or New York?
JB: No comment.
MA: Maira Kalman – painter, illustrator and author – stated the following about your new book: There are inspirational books that change your life. And this is one of them. Which titles have had this effect on you?
JB: Oh gosh, this is so humbling and I am truly grateful for her words. This is a hard question for me to answer, but certainly one book that changed my life is Fraud
, by the late Canadian Jewish author David Rakoff. Rakoff combined beauty, intelligence, wit and deep pathos with laugh-out-loud humor. Fraud
is a beau ideal.
MA: What excites you about this year’s Vine Awards submissions?
JB: They are so diverse. Even just looking at the fiction pile, currently forming a tower near my nighttable, I see literary short stories, a psychological thriller, a graphic novel and a comic romp. You Canadian Jews do everything!
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Our second Vine Awards Jury spotlight is on award-winning history writer, Allan Levine. Author of fourteen books including Seeking the Fabled City: The Canadian Jewish Experience
(2018), Toronto: Biography of a City
(2014) and King: William Lyon Mackenzie King: A Life Guided by the Hand of Destiny
(2011), Levine's next book, Details are Unprintable: Wayne Lonergan and the Sensational Café Society Murder
, will be published in August 2020. Read Allan's full bio here
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Mary Anderson (MA): You’ve been praised as an easy-writer historian – creating texts that are cohesive yet accessible. Why is this approach important in your writing? And how do you craft it?
Allan Levine (AL): When I started writing history, it was important to me that people wanted to read my work and hopefully learn something from it. I had spent many years as a graduate student reading academic treatises that were frequently filled with jargon and not always easy to understand. So my aim was to combine my academic training with popular historical writing to try to make the history fascinating and interesting, yet without losing the historical chronology, context and perspective. This approach was fairly common and prized in the United States in the work of such writers as David McCullough and Robert Caro (to name only two), though not quite as accepted or appreciated in Canada. The books of Pierre Berton and Peter C. Newman, for example, received much attention and were often bestsellers, but were generally criticized by academic historians.
I consider myself both a historian and a storyteller. Based on solid research in primary and secondary sources, I keep that in mind as I shape a narrative. Sometimes I visualize what I am writing as it might be presented in a documentary or film which helps fashion it in a way that keeps the story moving along that combines facts, personal detail and drama if at all possible. I’m a big fan of American writer Erik Larson, who uses this approach in his various popular history bestsellers.
MA: Throughout your writing career, you’ve been awarded numerous literary prizes – the Canadian Jewish Book Award, the McNally-Robinson Book of the Year, and the Alexander Kennedy Isbister Award to name a few. Has the award culture shaped your work? If so, in what ways?
AL: It is always gratifying to be nominated for a book prize and even more exciting to win it. It is extremely difficult and the competition especially in recent years is intense. Most writers appreciate the attention that their book receives—in the media and in book stores— because of an award nomination or a win. At the same time, I don’t start a writing project thinking about whether it might win an award or not. That is not a factor at all in what I do. My intention is to write a well-crafted book. The awards, if they do come, are certainly welcomed and a rewarding part of the experience.
MA: Canadian geography plays a key role in much of your writing. You explore an urban city in Toronto: Biography of City (2014), a province in Coming of Age: A History of the Jewish People of Manitoba (2009) and a nation in Seeking the Fabled City: The Canadian Jewish Experience (2018). Which context do you enjoy writing about most?
AL: Living in Canada and having studied Canadian history, I suppose that I was interested in and drawn to writing about Canadian locales, though I have also written books set in Europe and the United States. (Being “forced” to have to travel to Europe to do research and interviewing is a great reason to pick a European themed book.) While I have written several sweeping narratives like Toronto: Biography of a City
and Seeking the Fabled City
, which cover long periods of history, the research for such books admittedly can be daunting. My preference is for more concentrated periods and not as geographically as large a setting. I especially enjoyed writing my latest book – Details are Unprintable: Wayne Lonergan and the Sensational Café Society Murder
that will be published in August—which takes place in New York City during the late 1930s and early 1940s. Part true crime and part social history about a murder and the subsequent trial, I was able to probe in detail the history of the city and to convey what it was like to live in New York during that time period.
MA: In terms of genre, you write fiction, non-fiction, history and freelance. What inspired you to write historical mysteries?
AL: My first attempt at writing a historical mystery was in 1997 with The Blood Libel
, the first book in what turned out to be the “Sam Klein series” which was set in early twentieth century Winnipeg and presented the adventures of a Jewish immigrant detective. It was a place and era I knew a lot about so I felt comfortable in the creation of the setting. At the time, I was looking to broaden my writing and figure out, too, if I was able to write fiction. It was an interesting learning experience. Though I have researched each historical mystery as I would for a non-fiction book, the actual creation of the characters, scenes and dialogue was challenging. All of these books required much more rewriting than my non-fiction work. On the other hand, it was also liberating to be able to use the history in a more creative way. I was able to play around with facts and not worry about endnotes.
Much to my surprise and delight, The Blood Libel
got a positive response and was even shortlisted for what was then the Chapters/Books in Canada First Novel Award. That amazed me. So going back to your question above about whether or not awards have influenced my writing, I suppose that this particular nomination was a type of affirmation for me, which led me to write several other mysteries. Two of the books in the Sam Klein series were also published in Germany. In 2004, when the second book was published, I did a five-city book tour of Germany. At several of the events, the publisher had arranged for actors to present scenes from the book in German. It was a fantastic experience as a writer to see that and watch the audience’s reaction.
MA: When it comes to research you are ambitious in scope and meticulous in execution. What advice would you share with those who are interested in writing historical narrative?
AL: In any non-fiction history project, research is indeed paramount. I have often felt that the research part of doing these books takes longer than the actual writing. Research of primary materials in archives and libraries is especially significant because it is the details of a person’s life, correspondence or diaries combined with the historical background and context that can bring an individual or subject to life. More than a decade ago, when I wrote a biography of William Lyon Mackenzie King, for instance, I had access to his famous diary, one of the greatest of Canadian historical documents, which allowed me to understand his inner thoughts, attitudes and his numerous quirks in a way that would have been impossible if that diary did not exist. Extensive reading of secondary source material is also important in understanding the broader issues. This often means reading many, many academic books and dissertations which can be time consuming though no less important. The Internet has proved invaluable in conducting this type of research and in identifying key sources, many of which might never have been discovered in earlier years.
It is essential to be organized and create a system in which you can keep track of this mass of data in a way that makes it possible to use as you draft the book. You cannot let the research overwhelm you. Thus, it is often a slow process in selecting what you intend to use and then fitting the research and facts together somewhat like a puzzle. The best advice I can give is not to get flustered. When I feel like that, which is often, I first review the material and do a point form draft whittling down the research material to something manageable. Once that is done, and the facts and details are in rough order I go back and begin crafting sentences, again cutting out or adding research as the story proceeds.
MA: Why does Canadian Jewish literature matter in this country’s literary landscape?
AL: Any country’s literature reflects that country’s collective experience. In countries with diverse populations like Canada and the United States, it is therefore essential that literature goes beyond the majority’s perspective and equally offers portraits of the lives of minorities—their shared history, trials and tribulations, hardships and successes. In the case of Canadian Jewish literature, both fiction and non-fiction, this writing examines places, events, people, as well as prejudice and discrimination, that is unique to Canadian Jews and gives a fuller portrait of Canada’s overall development. As one example, much of Canadian Jewish writing shows time and again that tolerance and support of multiculturalism believed today to be the quintessentially Canadian characteristic are in fact a recent phenomenon. Hence, Canadian Jewish writers, as diverse as they are, make an important contribution in broadening the scope of Canadian literature, just as the literature of other cultural and religious groups do. We are better for that.
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Our final Vine Awards Jury spotlight is on award-winning writer and visual artist, Shani Mootoo. Mootoo’s critically acclaimed novels include Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab
, Valmiki’s Daughter
, He Drown She in the Sea
, Cereus Blooms at Night
, and the just released Polar Vortex
. Her work has been long- and shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the International Dublin Literary Award, and the Man Booker Prize. Read Shani's full bio here
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Mary Anderson (MA): Throughout your career, you’ve successfully managed to create work in both visual arts and literature. How do you maintain artistic fluidity? Does one practice encourage the other?
Shani Mootoo (SM): What dictates a medium is often the sense or knowledge that an idea would be better realized in one and not the other. And sometimes I am just aching to hold a camera, or to feel the cool plasticity of acrylic between my fingers, the chalky smell of it, or there is an idea I need to use words, grammar, logic to poke at. So sometimes the medium calls, sometimes the idea dictates. Having for a long time had my fingers in these different media, I can quickly see the limitations in any as they might apply to a specific idea, and spotting the potential for limitation is a kind of instruction about the benefits of another medium. The camera—framing, isolating a subject, editing, trains me to look and to see. Painting has given me an appreciation for the stroke, equivalent to the word. Writing, fleshing out an idea, has made me interrogate what I see. There is definitely symbiosis.
MA: Landscape seems to influence your writing, as well as your visual practice. Where does this appreciation come from?
SM: I am, like many if not most people, drawn to water, to green (greenery) and to mountains. When I was living in Edmonton, the Prairies, I remember saying to a local that I loved the Rocky Mountains, and the man, baffled, replied, “Mountains, ah no! No mountains; they just get in the way of the view”. Perhaps the appreciation is a response to the environment in which one has existed from young? My earliest landscape is that of Trinidad, hills, mountains, sea, such varied marine and wildlife and flora. When I was younger, I was very much of an outsider wherever I was, and found a kind of peace and security in nature, rather than with people. Nature is not malicious.
MA: You’ve stated the following about your writing: Whenever I begin with a known idea, I am quickly bored. When I let go and let the story unfold in it’s own logic, I am without fail delightfully surprised. When do you know to let go and trust the creative process?
SM: I let go when the flow isn’t happening. When I find myself struggling and having to bend logic, or trying to force a situation, I know it’s time to back off, time to stop trying to control a character or the narrative. If, when I read back what I’ve written, it sounds to me like a lie, or like I’ve taken the easy way out, I just know that my reader will also see/hear it and lose faith in me and my work. It takes a lot of practice and discipline to stop wrestling with something when it’s not working and to step away. In the realm of creativity we are fortunate when we come to the realization that we, the artists, are not always in control--sometimes we are “in the service of”-- and that there is between us, the writer, that is, artist, choreographer, etc., and the ‘story’ often a dance, with each one taking turns to lead. The creative process is indeed a mysterious thing, like another being you’re engaging with, and you have to respect and take care of it. It can also happen that I poke, step away, return and prod again, time and time again, and then, suddenly, like a bolt of light, inspiration and understanding of what I’m doing comes.
MA: In your opinion, what constitutes a strong piece of fiction?
SM: When I forget I am reading and find my mind full of pictures and voices, and I feel investment in aspects of the story I’m reading, can’t get the story out of my mind, I know the work is strong. This usually means that the writer has created a well-rendered landscape in which her story is set, has captured unique, appropriate and compelling voices, has intrigued me with a storyline I see forming, and has realized that there will be a reader to whom she will be speaking. In other words, when I see that the writer does not get lost in their own head, but is aware of the medium as a means of communicating. Also, a work that hones right in on a specific situation or set of circumstances gets it right when that translates into a more general sense that the writer has understood something fundamental about life, and is giving a new insight into human nature.
MA: Your CV is remarkable – exhibited works at the MOMA, the Venice Bienale, and the San Francisco International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, to writer in residence at the University of the West Indies, keynote addressee at the University College Dublin, and guest writer at the Sydney Writers Festival. You’ve received awards over the years – Lambda’s James Duggins Outstanding Mid Career Novelists’ Prize and the Ontario Arts Council Chalmers Fellowship, for example. And your novels have been longlisted for the Dublin IMPAC Award and the Man Booker Prize, and shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, and the Chapters/Books in Canada First Novel Award. Is there a particular achievement you are most proud of?
SM: I am very grateful for the recognition I’ve received. There is a different kind of achievement, however, that I am fortunate to have had. I was not yet a teenager in Trinidad, where I grew up, when I knew that I wanted to be an artist and a writer. I was fiercely discouraged by my parents and by a secondary school system that prioritized the sciences and eschewed the arts. I knew, too, that my sexuality would not be tolerated in Trinidad, and that if I were to be free to live honestly and contribute to the best of my abilities, I would have to leave Trinidad. I did leave, with little or no support, and pursued my dreams. Perhaps I am most proud that I sold vacuum cleaners door to door, and did that sort of thing unimagined in my own family of origin, in order to pay rent and buy paint and canvas. I never gave up, even in the face of hardships I would likely not have known had I remained in Trinidad and married as my parents would have then preferred. I would couple that achievement with the fact that my mother before she died, my father today and siblings are amongst my most ardent supporters.
MA: As a non-Jewish writer, what do you hope to bring to jurying the Vine Awards?
SM: Lovers of ‘story’ know a good book when they read it. If, as writers and readers, we only ever read works that come from inside the perimeters of our own experience, our knowledge and indeed our own worlds would be miniscule and we would be utterly boring beings. I bring the experience of being a writer, and of having been for more than two decades now, a juror on various arts and literary prizes, and of being a reader of literature from around the world. I am delighted to be on the jury for the Vine Awards; the reading experience will amount to a consistent and constant immersion for a defined period of time, where I will be afforded insights into the varying perspectives and cultures of people from a specific community. This is, in a word, a privilege. My world and my mind will no doubt evolve and expand because of this opportunity.
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