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Agent Orange and Canada’s legacy in Vietnam

Posted on Nov 29, 2014

Agent Orange and Canada’s legacy in Vietnam

I’ve realized a number of times my reluctance to show footage of Agent Orange children, an ongoing, third generation issue for Vietnam. I know why. It’s a personal failure of courage and a fear of self. The most important impulse for me in writing All The Broken Things was to bring Orange, the four-year-old sister of the protagonist in the story—a severely disabled child due to her parent’s having been exposed to the chemical called euphemistically Agent Orange—directly into the geography of Canada. I’d been constructing stories for a few years (Laikas 1, Song of Otto, Will You Staunch the Wound?, Yuri of the Park) which collide world event into the comfortable space of home, namely my neighbourhood in the west-end of Toronto. The deliberate strategy is to collapse time and space and make clear that we are global, responsible, and ethically culpable. War is not a distant media event. Canada allowed the company Chemtura to manufacture under contract to the US military a chemical that was known to be both mutagenic (it causes birth defects) and carcinogenic. This chemical, a defoliant, they also knew, would be sprayed over Vietnam to aid in visibility in the dense jungle areas where “the enemy” hid. Canada participated in the war the Vietnamese call “The American War” (think about that for half a second) and our participation is still being felt forty-odd years later. There are still children born with severe birth defects because of this ten-year chemical spaying campaign. There are still children born whose parents must look after them for their entire lives. There will still be continued risk until the soil is cleaned. Yesterday, in a classroom of undergraduate students—students whose parents and grandparents come from all over the world—I was asked questions about how and why I represented Orange in the novel. I told them I had decided that it was important to me, by way of trying to awaken a sense of duty even for the few readers I might have, to bring this vision of a girl who is monstrous, a monstrous thing that Canada participated in creating, into this physical space, so that our gaze, however we may like it to feel innocent, or generative of activism, or pitiful, cannot stop there. Our gaze must be reflective. We did not just create this issue through an egregious war crime, we continue to BE THIS THING we created, and unless we look at it, and really see our reflection in it, it will remain some distant problem in some distant land. And we will continue to be monstrous. (Aside: Our monstrosity extends very directly into a genocidal pattern of behaviour with our first nations citizens — where we (a wealthy nation and a nation wealthy with WATER) allow water supplies to be contaminated with mercury, and other toxins). Here is the video I showed this classroom of students. It was the mildest Agent Orange related video I could find, and the room was quiet for a minute after I showed it. One of the students expressed to me that he had directly felt his own culpability in the unfolding of event—his own culpability in failing to understand Orange’s humanity, and his own inability to see her full humanity. This made me inordinately happy. It is impossible to really, truly see, unless one is also responsible. We are, to a large extent, comprised of each other....

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Robyn Hod & the Shryff off Nottynham

Posted on Nov 22, 2011

Robyn Hod & The Shryff off Nottyngham ©2011 Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer (This text is excerpted and altered from a longer talk on Robin Hood and the forest which I gave recently. ) 1. Forest Law and possible origins of Robin Hood Robin Hood is a mutable, fluid and nostalgic figure. He is many things:  a yeoman, an outlaw, a nobleman, a peasant, a thief, and a philanthropist. He is cheeky, violent, wily, manly, spiritual, lawless and fair. He steals from the rich and gives to the poor but more often he steals from the rich and gives to himself. The only aspect of Robin Hood that seems static is that he lives in the forest. And there are 2 forests — the forest of the imagination and the real, actual forest.  In order to contextualize Robin Hood, this talk hopes to delineate issues regarding both of these forests. I’ll be discussing Forest Law and Spring ritual as a portal to the play fragment Robyn Hod & the Shryff of Nottingham. It’s worthwhile to imagine the industry taking place within the forest boundaries to fully understand the space in which the legend of Robin Hood transpires. The forest was the heart of rural medieval England. First, people lived in them – barons as well as peasants and poorer landowners. Butchers grazed their beasts there, so there were cattle, swine, and other farm animals moving through them, as well as herders looking after these beasts. People relied on wood fuel for heat and for cooking — so imagine people gathering dry branches and cutting trees at least through three seasons. Carpenters relied on the timber for ship-building, house framing, barrel-making and more. Iron-mongers and glass-makers built hearths in situ where they could locate charcoal. Seasonally, people gathered nuts, kept bees and trapped birds. Hunters and their dogs moved through the forest in search of venison. The medieval forest begins to feel like a crowded and lively place. After 1066 when William the Norman conqueror realized he might have all the forests of England for his own sporting ground, Forest law came into effect. It became illegal to take so much as a branch from the crown’s forests. The forest shifted from a commons, and an actual physical place to a legal entity. Venison seems to have taken on an almost divine status – its attachment to the crown attributing it with a particular sacred value.   “On 11 June 1248 James of Thurlbear, a forester came into the park of Brigstock about the first hour [i.e., just after sunrise] and found …John the son of Stephen Cut of Slipton, carrying a doe’s fawn. And the said James arrested him, and caused Richard of Aldwinkle the verderer to be summoned. He came the next day ‘and questioned the said John…and he said that he had no accomplices.’ The Poacher was sent to Northampton to be imprisoned. And the sheriff was then Alan of Maidwell. And the skin of the aforesaid fawn was delivered to John Lovet, verderer, to have before the justices of the forest.”  (The Royal Forests of England, Raymond Grant, Sutton, 1991, p. 47) This decision on the poacher would have been made at a Forest Eyre. Prior to 1212, summonses were sent out months ahead of them, and landowners, verderers, foresters, knights, and the accused etc. from jurisdictions around the offense would have been obliged to attend. The Eyres were juried by 12 knights or other men of status, and were designed to extract fines from as many offenders as possible (this as opposed to prison sentences – fines being...

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Dear Miss Manners of Literature

Posted on Oct 28, 2011

Miss Manners of Literature Dear Miss Manners of Literature, I have been a neighbour of one of icons of Canlit for twenty years and went, some years ago, to the IFOA to support her and her work (I did not enjoy her last book, I might add). Dutifully, I waited in a snaking line with her newest endeavour cradled in my hands. She sat—nay perched—frazzle-haired and with an imperial air about her, signing and chatting with those ahead of me. When I finally arrived at the front of the line, some twenty minutes in to the signing, and lay my book down in front, and said my hellos, she had the audacity of asking me, not just my name, but how to spell it. I’m sure you agree this was the height of rudeness. Signed, North Annex Dweller ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Dear NAD, I weary at the ink I am about to spill for you. As you state your approximate neighbourhood, I can almost feel the hubris emanating from your person—the reek of it affronts me. It is you who are rude, dear North Annex Dweller, rude to the core. You say, between the lines, that you live comfortably, you say you KNOW FAMOUS PEOPLE, You say you deign to support these poor famous writers, you say you HAD TO WAIT, and as we all know, waiting is for plebians, and then—shock—you are dismayed that your position does not buy you recognition. In spite of all this undertone, I will do my best to set this aright. Writers are, by and large, introverts. One cannot write a book unless one holes up for a lengthy period of time (say one year at the low end and ten at the high). This forced introversion has the effect of insulating the writer from all manner of petty details—such as whether there ought to be a grain and a veg at dinner, and whether one’s neighbour spells her name with an ‘e’. Writers are focused on their work and their work only, for months and months of their lives. Then, the book is published, after long editorial and long copy-edits (in which the writer gets so close to her work, she merges with the commas, and em-dashes), and the festivals, the launches, the hi-jinks begin. Tens or hundreds of people want a little piece. They want a signature, they want a smile, they want ‘a connection.’ This period lasts—for most authors—about three months. For three months out of 120, they have people surrounding them. This amounts to 100s of names, with hundreds of spellings. On top of this the author is obliged to recall the various and arcane details of how she made the book, why she made it, and what she thinks of global warming and the politics of Libya. She is an expert. And she is very very tired. Do your writer a favour, NAD, be the meak and minor constellation around her momentary and exhausting centrality. Approach with humility. Take her pain away. Unless you are the writer’s mother, introduce yourself, spell your name, or write it down, and don’t act surprised if your writer/neighbour does not recognise you. Trust me, she’s on another planet working on her next book. She’s not REALLY there at all. Sincerely, Miss Manners of...

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Inordinantly happy subway journey

Posted on Oct 19, 2011

Inordinately Happy Subway Journey Yesterday between Museum and St. George subway stops, a bearded man was hitting the keys of a yellow portable typewriter, using his grocery trolley as a desk. Did he know he was referencing a by-gone time? Did he know he was destined to become a character in a short fiction? I think he might have. A blurry picture:

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9/11 and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Posted on Sep 12, 2011

9/11 and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

9/11 and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader ©2011 Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer Last night I went down to Wilson 96 on College to hear some of my favourite people read from texts that resonated 9/11 for them. The evening was hosted and curated by the poet Michael Lista. Curated is perhaps not an accurate reading since Lista did not know what his guests (Stacey May Fowles, Mark Medley, Adam Sol, Catherine Bush and Tabatha Southey) would read, but he decided the guests, and insofar as that may have predicted some defined random outcome, we can say he curated. He curated by temperament. The result was meandering in the best possible way: A man on a wire, all of New York looking up (Colum McCann, “Let The Great World Spin”), the perishable (Joan Didion, “Fixed Opinions, or The Hinge of History“), a fireman’s gulls (archival recollections of 9/11), Song (Lamentations, sung heartfully), silence and complexity as a trauma response, and a sobbing Peter Pan (J.M. Barrie, “Peter and Wendy”). And as I listened, I recalled something I had long filed. I had been reading The Chronicles of Narnia to my three young sons and was onto Book 5 by the time of 9/11. Anyone who reads properly to their children will know that the magical time of night-time reading is a salve to both child and parent, and I was reading this book now to my boys, for probably the third time. It seemed an important series to me, and with each child reaching 6 or so, I would begin again. I know the Chronicles are supposed to be horrid to some, the Christian analogue repellent etc. but I’ve never felt this way about them. They are spiritual in the best possible sense, to my mind, as a recovering Catholic. They are the shimmer of story and possibility and beauty, and whatever there is wrong with them, there is a great deal right with them to compensate. It was Chapter 6 of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader that stopped me, some short time after the towers were brutalised, and the sensible, caring world fell to grieving and retaliating. For it is in Chapter 6, that the peevish cousin Eustache Clarence Scrubb (“and he almost deserved it”) writes the diary entry: “September 11. Caught some fish and had them for dinner. Dropped anchor at about 7 P.M. in three fathoms of water in a bay of this mountainous island.” Eustache has spent the days leading to his 9/11 being singularly miserly and difficult. He tries to steal water rations and contrives to have Lucy share her food with him. He is unlikeable. Lewis writes: “What awaited them on this island was going to concern Eustache more than anyone else, but it cannot be told in his words because after September 11 he forgot about keeping his diary for a long time.” Imagine the chill that ran through me that day in early September 2011, upon reading these words. And what about what happens to Eustache? He wanders off from the ship and the people who might most care for him (however horrid he might be) in order to avoid work, and finds himself witnessing the death of a dragon. I have never read of a dragon dying of age before; this might be the first occurrence in literature. It is arresting, especially as Eustache has no idea what he is seeing. It begins to rain heavily and Eustache retires to the dragon’s lair where he finds treasure and marvels for himself that “they don’t have any tax here…and you don’t have...

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Granta Launch

Posted on Sep 1, 2011

Granta Launch

Granta #116: Toronto launch with Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer and Sadaf Halai Granta #116 is out and that means so is my story Laikas 1. The Toronto Issue launch is September 7 at Type Book and details are here: If you come, introduce yourself to...

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