Vancouver Writers Fest artistic director Hal Wake says he has always wanted to put Quebecois playwright and novelist Michel Tremblay and Cree playwright Tomson Highway on stage together. This past year, Wake heard the replay of a Tremblay interview on CBC Radio, and thought “I’ve got to try this again.” The event Titans of Canadian Theatre, featuring Tremblay and Highway, an onstage interview is sure to be one of the highlights of this year’s festival, which begins Tuesday.
They’ve only met once, at a long-ago reading in Toronto – just enough time to say hello and shake hands backstage.
But their theatrical connection goes way back – Tremblay’s seminal 1965 work Les Belles-soeurs was an inspiration for Highway’s breakthrough play, The Rez Sisters, which was first performed in 1986.
They spoke to The Globe recently, and the conversation quickly turned to headline-making issues facing their respective communities.
Michel, you must be watching what’s been going on in Quebec with the proposed charter of values, with great interest. What are your thoughts on this?
MT: I have mixed feelings about it because there are some things that were said that are very true, for instance when [Quebec media personality] Janette Bertrand said [in an open letter] that all religions are misogynistic and all religions were made by men for men against women, I think it’s true. I’ve been saying that for 45 years. But sometimes it’s the way that it comes out that is a bit too brusque for me.
Can you tell me something you disagree with in the charter?
MT: You separate state and religion completely or you don’t at all. And that charter is wishy-washy: yes for crosses, depends on the size of the crosses, and no for certain things and yes for other things. You have to accept that a charter is a complete charter against what is religious and then that’s it. Or you don’t do it at all and you live as we’ve been living forever, accepting what people wear.
Tomson, what do you think?
TH: I live in French Ontario, so I’m a bit distanced from the issue. I find that religion, as [Tom Robbins] once put it, is not the opium of the masses, it’s the cyanide of the masses. It’s a tinderbox. Once you start talking about religion, you’re asking for trouble. Ultimately speaking, if you were to follow this ruling to its very end, then you would have to remove every single crucifix from the top of every church in Quebec. You would have to remove that giant crucifix form the top of [Mount Royal]. You’d have to remove all of them and that’s a ridiculous idea.
Michel, politics has been fodder for your writing in the past. Have you thought about writing anything in response to this discussion?
MT: I rarely write about what is happening now; I always wait a few years because as we say in French ‘I had my nose too near.’ It’s like when I had my cancer, I waited a few years before I could write about it because I was afraid I wouldn’t have any objectivity in front of what I was living, so I waited until it was okay and I thought about it. There are writers who write very useful plays on what is happening now, but the problem is that these plays don’t age well. Chekov, 100 years later, we still love him because he speaks about the human soul, not about politics.
Tomson, how closely have you been following the Truth and Reconciliation hearings?
TH: I’m completely out of touch with it.
How do you feel about the fact that it’s getting more mainstream attention than it did when you first wrote about the issue?
TH: First of all, too many people, in my opinion, talk about it as if they were there, as if they actually saw it. Different people had different experiences. There was an awful lot of us who survived and who have beautiful, beautiful lives. I don’t dwell in the past. I dwell in the present and the future. Even if the school system had destroyed me, which it didn’t, you know what happens when something destroys you? You pick yourself up, you brush yourself off, and you move on. Who’s had a perfect school experience? How many kids were you tortured by in the schoolyard when you were six years old? How many 14-year-old white teenage girls are being tortured to death literally on the Internet? There are many, many positive things, and that’s what I like to think about. [Because] of the residential system, by the time I was 12, I was trilingual. Because of the residential system, I learned how to play the piano and I play like a dream.
You worked as a social worker …
For seven years. It was painful as hell to watch the broken lives I was working with. This is the conclusion I’ve come to in the past few years: Trauma works on the same principle as manure – the more spectacular the manure, the more spectacular the flowers and the vegetables that come out of it. Out of this is going to come an extraordinary period of history in our lives as native people. The 21st century, in my opinion, belongs to the aboriginal peoples of this world.
Michel, the VWF program says you’ve written 27 plays and 24 novels. Is that accurate?
MT: I think it’s more than that. I think it’s 31 plays and 29 novels.
TH: You know what I think of that Michel? I think that’s a bit excessive.
Titans of Canadian Theatre, moderated by Bill Richardson, is at Performance Works on Granville Island Oct. 24 at 8 p.m.
Book Her! Fresh from her Man Booker Prize win for The Luminaries, Eleanor Catton was originally scheduled to appear at the VWF for two events – Grand Openings on Tuesday night, and the Afternoon Tea on Sunday. The festival hustled to organize an additional event, one all her own: An Hour with Eleanor Catton.
Scarier than Fiction The Festival branches out to UBC this year with some big names in non-fiction, including Fast Food Nation author Eric Schlosser, whose superb and terrifying page-turner Command and Control investigates the risks associated with nuclear weapons; Alan Weisman’s Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth? is a bleak and urgent sequel to his bestselling The World Without Us in which he investigates the prospects for a planet burdened with overpopulation; and New Yorker writer George Packer’s terrific book The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America paints a gloomy picture of contemporary America through the stories of ordinary Americans.
As Stieg Larsson was to Sweden … Norwegian crime novelist Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole series is a huge success, selling millions of copies around the world and winning a slew of awards. Nesbo appears at the Up All Night event, alongside U.S. legal thriller sensation Scott Turow, Giller nominee Lisa Moore, and Marisha Pessl, whose debut novel Special Topics in Calamity Physics was translated into 30 languages.
The Vancouver Writers Fest runs Oct. 22-27.