The Walrus Blog

Monthly Archive: November 2010

Writing on the Edge of a Knife

Granta's masterful study of Pakistan — a nation defined by its stresses — is a tome for the ages

Granta’s study of Pakistan, a nation defined by its stresses, is a tome for the ages


Pakistan has never had a rosy history, but over the past decade it has been cast in an ever more frightening light. The flooding of the Indus River in 2010 brought to the world’s attention a nation that is ravaged by insurgency, constricted by a corrupt government, and left without the basic infrastructure that could have saved scores of lives from the deluge. But the Western mass media offered little more than a fleeting glimpse into the world of Pakistan’s people before its twenty-four-hour news stations quickly moved on. By contrast, the 112th issue of Granta — the UK literary journal which dates to 1889 — offers readers of journalism, fiction, and poetry a window into the terror and hope this troubled region faces, the difficulties of exile, and the scarred-but-enduring beauty of the arts in times of war.

One does not have to look far in the collection to see such scars. “The first year of Pakistan was marked by the staggering bloodletting that accompanied partition,” observes Jane Perlez in “Portrait of Jinnah,” a journalist’s survey of the region which introduces the measured chaos that follows. Kashmir, recognized by Salman Rushdie and others as a paradise on Earth, is reduced to rubble and terror by decades of war waged by foreign powers (“Kashmir’s Forever War,” Basharat Peer). Mohammed Hanif, penning fiction (“Butt & Bhatti”), unleashes a storm of gunshots, robberies, and tire fires after an altercation in a hospital hallway. Intizar Hussain, in his memoir “The House by the Gallows,” watches as public discourse degrades into mindless nationalism, and capital punishment becomes a spectator sport: “What an era General Zia had brought to Pakistan!” he writes, “The echoes of prayer and the roar of public hangings.”

The interaction between pieces is particularly noticeable where such transformations are concerned. While the emotional suffering in Nadeem Aslam’s “Leila in the Wilderness,” rooted in tradition, is drawn out over the course of a novella, Mohsin Hamid’s ”A Beheading” imagines the sudden and unexpected end of a life within only a few minutes’ worth of reading. The juxtaposition is meaningful: where moral lessons were once learned over the course of a life’s natural rhythms, they are now dished out at gunpoint or the gallows, by the state or terrorists, in a matter of moments. (more…)

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Invasive Exposure

In Toronto, bird’s-eye photos of off-the-clock strippers raise questions of privacy

In Toronto, bird’s-eye photos of off-the-clock strippers raise questions of privacy

Recently on Twitter, writer Jen Selk made this request: “I want Jeet Heer to write about that Zanzibar/Torontoist thing next. You tell ’em, Jeet.”

Never let it be said that I don’t listen to readers.

First, some context. Zanzibar is a strip club in downtown Toronto. Torontoist is “a website about Toronto and everything in it.” And the “Zanzibar/Torontoist thing” was summarized by the Toronto Star in these terms: (more…)

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What’s Cooking in Cancún?

Forecasting haze and unhappiness at the 2010 United Nations Climate Change Conference

Forecasting haze and unhappiness at the United Nations Climate Change Conference

What on EarthThe United Nations Climate Change Conference for 2010 is set to begin on Monday in Cancún, Mexico. Running from November 29 to December 10, this meeting follows last year’s session in Copenhagen, which, despite high hopes, turned out to be a mess. A study released this week suggests that the voluntary emission reduction goals set in Denmark wouldn’t be sufficient to mitigate catastrophic climate change, even if they were met in full (which is quite unlikely). The world is in a much less hopeful, and much more skeptical, state now than it was last year, and there are many hurdles to overcome — so what’s at stake in Cancún, and what should we expect to come out of the conference? In the lead-up to the talks, commentators have had a lot to say:

  • Pessimism from John M. Broder and Elisabeth Rosenthal in The New York Times (Poor Prospects for New Climate Meeting):

    There is no chance of completing a binding global treaty to reduce emissions of climate-altering gases, few if any heads of state are planning to attend, and there are no major new initiatives on the agenda. Copenhagen was crippled by an excess of expectation. Cancún is suffering from the opposite.

  • (more…)

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Too Brazen

Maclean’s, Margaret Wente, and the Canadian media’s inarticulacy about race

Maclean’s, Margaret Wente, and the Canadian media’s inarticulacy about race


Perhaps Americans talk too much about race, but Canadians have the opposite problem. From Frederick Douglass to Ruth Benedict to Martin Luther King to César Chávez to Toni Morrison, our neighbours to the south have a robust and complex tradition of tackling race head-on in public discourse. Canada has its own racial and ethnic divides — and a distinctive habit of stammering incoherently when confronted with civil rights issues. The latest evidence of Canadian inarticulateness on this crucial topic is the now-notorious Maclean’s article “‘Too Asian?’” (from the magazine’s 2010 university ranking issue), as well as yesterday’s defence of the newsweekly offered by Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente.

“I’m much more offended by bad editing than I am by xenophobia,” I wrote in an email to a friend when I first read the Maclean’s article. What I meant was that the article, co-written by Stephanie Findlay and Nicholas Köhler, was a classic case of ruining an important topic by packaging it in a sensationalistic and ham-fisted fashion. I actually think the authors and editors meant well when they started the piece, which contains some excellent reporting about race relations on the Canadian campus. Unfortunately, as is the magazine’s habit of late, Maclean’s dressed up the topic in an attention-grabbing tabloid manner, so that instead of being an examination of racism it became an example of xenophobia.

The problems with the Maclean’s article are many and systematic. I’ve already discussed them here and here. Briefly, the article leaves a bad aftertaste because: (more…)

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Out of Order

Feeling hot and bothered by Bill C-311’s sudden, extraordinary death on the Senate floor

Hot and bothered by Bill C-311′s sudden, extraordinary death on the Senate floor
What on EarthBill C-311, the “Climate Change Accountability Act,” was a small but very significant piece of legislation that had been crawling its way through our federal lawmaking apparatus since 2006. It would have enforced on Canada obligations set by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change: a return to 25 percent below 1990 carbon emissions levels by 2025, and 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. The bill’s success would have signalled a dramatic shift in Canadian policy toward climate change — that is, since we bailed on meeting the standards set by the Kyoto Protocol, which we signed on to — and would have given us something to show the world at the next major climate conference, beginning later this month in Cancun. Liberal, Bloc, and NDP MPs passed the law in the House of Commons in April, sending it on to the Senate. Unfortunately, this past Tuesday, in an almost unheard-of political move, Conservative senators abruptly shot it down — before anything like the normal Senate process of debate and evaluation had taken place, with senators who would otherwise have supported the bill not present.

As I am no authority on Canadian politics, and am often horrified at the gaping partisan divide that splits those of the US, I tend to be cautious about leaping to accuse our ruling party of political treachery. But this episode stinks of cynicism and hypocrisy.

The Senate is designed to be a place of sober second thought, where bills passed by the politically charged House of Commons are debated and committees are formed to closely examine their merits. To make it clear what is so extraordinary about what happened on Tuesday: Claudette Tardif, Deputy Head of the Opposition in the Senate, points out that the Senate has only rejected a bill passed by the House of Commons four times in the last seven decades. Each of those bills was subjected to days of committee hearings and debate before being voted down. In Tardif’s words, “That is the history and tradition of a legislative chamber that respects its unelected nature by defeating legislation adopted by the elected members of the other place only after listening long and hard to a great many Canadians.” But Bill C-311 was killed on its second reading, with no advance notice, before ever being taken to committee. (more…)

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Five Stars for Five Dials

An interview with Craig Taylor, Canadian editor of the UK’s finest online literary magazine

An interview with the Canadian editor of the UK’s finest online literary magazine

Illustration by Julie DoucetIllustration from the Quebec issue of Five Dials by Julie Doucet

Before Twitter, before Facebook, before even e-mail, there was a great social networking tool known as the literary magazine. The great lit mags of the 20th century — The Dial, Partisan Review, The Paris Review, Granta — didn’t just publish wonderful poems, drawings, essays, and stories, they also gave writers and artists a social context for their work, a way of connecting with readers and like-minded creators. Many of these magazines were social in a more obvious sense as well. George Plimpton’s Paris Review was a famous hotbed for parties.

Like every other cultural institution in our current digital age, the lit mag is in a state of flux. On the downside, the older magazines, many of which are dependent upon sponsorship from academic institutions, are facing serious financial trouble as their patrons no longer see their value. But the same technological changes have given a platform to a new generation of lit mags, chief among them being Five Dials.

Published irregularly and edited by Craig Taylor, Five Dials manages to be both everywhere and nowhere at once. The magazine isn’t printed: it’s presented as a PDF file, which is then sent free to subscribers (more than 15,000 strong). Contributors have included Orhan Pamuk, Sheila Heti, Jonathan Franzen, Zadie Smith, and George Saunders.

As an old-style lover of the physical magazine (stapled, glued or stitched together), I was initially a bit skeptical of Five Dials — but once I started reading the back issues (all available for download here), I became an addict. It helped that the PDF format makes it easy to print off the works I wanted to keep permanently. Beautifully designed, cosmopolitan, lively, and alert to the world around us, Five Dials is the literary equivalent of a five-star restaurant that you can get into for free (or at the very most, the cost of spending a few hours at an internet café). (more…)

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This Mortal Planet

Introducing What on Earth, the newest, greenest member of The Walrus Blog family

Introducing “What on Earth,” the newest, greenest member of The Walrus Blog family What on EarthAs long-time readers well know, The Walrus has a lengthy (and award-winning) tradition of covering important environmental issues, both within Canada and worldwide. I’m pleased to announce that, over the next several months, I’ll be building on that tradition here, with the help of the YMCA’s Post-Secondary Youth Eco Internship Program. As’s resident “eco-blogger,” I will be putting together online supplements to environmental pieces from the magazine, profiling people, ideas, and projects that are changing life on Earth (for better or worse), sharing relevant links from around the web, and exploring the environment and humanity’s place in it with more fleshed-out blog posts. (All of which will be marked by the little Earth icon you see above.)

I am neither an expert on environmental policy or science, nor even highly accomplished at charting the ever-changing arithmetic of “green”/sustainable living. But I hope to use this to my advantage: I’ll do my best to report news that is accessible, informative, and enjoyable, and to leave the highly technical content (and the risk of radiating sanctimony) to others whenever possible. I hope you’ll like it, and that you’ll correct me in the comments if I happen to, say, miscalculate my carbon footprint (a mere nine tonnes per year, if my guesstimations hold true).

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How We Remembered

Weekend links no. 44

Weekend links no. 44: recommended browsing hand-picked from The Walrus Blogroll

Afghanistan Sky© US ArmyAfghanistan Sky

The Walrus Blogroll was alight this week with reflections on war, commemoration, and the practice of Remembrance Day:


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Prize Fight

The small press that published this year's Giller-winning novel struggles to meet big-time demand

The small press behind this year’s Giller winner struggles to meet big-time demand

The SentimentalistsThis year’s Giller Prize winner: The Sentimentalists by Johanna Skibsrud

Everyone loves a good fairy tale and this year’s Giller Prize offers the chance to enjoy an unfolding saga that’s been described by the Toronto Star as a real life “Cinderella story.” The heroine is Montreal-based Johanna Skibsrud, as bright-eyed a ragamuffin-turned-princess as one could want. The role of fairy godparents is being played by the Giller jury, which has bestowed the Giller’s magical blessing on Skibsrud’s The Sentimentalists, an underdog of a book because it is a first novel published by a very small press, Gaspereau of Kentville, Nova Scotia.

Of course, Cinderella always has a nemesis, a wicked stepmother who wants to hold the struggling waif down and prevent her from enjoying her well-earned success. If media accounts since this Tuesday’s Giller ceremony are to be believed, the villain’s role in this tale has been filled by Gaspereau Press, which has been accused of selfishly not printing enough books to meet the demands of a public that’s suddenly yearning to read The Sentimentalists.

Here’s the situation in brief: a Giller winner can expect to sell between 60,000 to 75,000 copies. But the boon of a Giller win is time sensitive: most of those copies will be sold between the announcement of the prize and Christmas Day. Gaspereau is committed to craft values. All its books are lovingly handmade artifacts. By itself Gaspereau can produce a maximum 1,000 copies of The Sentimentalists per week. They are currently about 2,000 copies of the novel in existence. If Gaspereau works at full speed, by the end of the year it could have at most 9,000 copies in print — far short of the number that most publishing experts think is needed. (more…)

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Lift Off

The National Gallery of Canada launches a satellite project in downtown Toronto

The National Gallery of Canada launches a satellite project in downtown Toronto

Thomas DemandSpace Simulator (2003), Thomas Demand

A new partnership between Ottawa’s National Gallery of Canada and Toronto’s Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art debuted this week with the collaborative exhibition Adams/Demand/Fraser. Over the course of the three-year project, MOCCA — until now, a relatively minor institution best known for its massive ambitions — will host work from the NCG’s contemporary art collection. At a press conference announcing the initiative, NCG director Marc Mayer and MOCCA director David Liss laid out how the shared content is meant to complement the artists (and works) featured by the latter’s main programming.

“This new partnership will expand [the National Gallery’s] service to Canadians in one of Canada’s most populous cities and help broaden the conversation on contemporary art,” Mayer said.

The relationship is well begun. From now through the end of December, a newly renovated project space at MOCCA is featuring loaned work by Canadian artists Kim Adams and Geoffrey Farmer and Berlin’s Thomas Demand. Liss and NCG curator Josée Drouin-Brisebois selected the pieces — a single sculpture by Adams and large-scale photographs by Farmer and Demand that play on the temporality of sculptural media — to play off MOCCA’s current exhibition, David Hoffos: Scenes from the House Dream. (more…)

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Bellow’s Emulators

Giller Prize nominee David Bergen: the latest name on a lengthy list of the old master’s disciples

Giller Prize nominee David Bergen joins a lengthy list of the old master’s disciples

Saul Bellow© University of ChicagoSaul Bellow

“A writer,” Saul Bellow once said, “is a reader moved to emulation.” One way to define Bellow’s stature is to note that aside from all the critical adulation and prizes the novelist won, he’s also been among the most emulated of modern writers. This was certainly true during his lifetime and continues to be the case even though Bellow died in 2005 and has been out of literary favour for several decades.

More than one reviewer has noticed the similarities between David Bergen’s new Giller-nominated novel, The Matter With Morris, and Bellow’s Herzog, the 1964 novel that aroused the greatest emotional response from his readers. Bergen is upfront about his homage to Bellow. Morris Schutt, Bergen’s hero, is a Bellow reader; we’re told that Herzog is “one of Morris’s much-loved novels.”  (Bergen’s novel was excerpted in the September 2010 issue of The Walrus.)

One reviewer described The Matter With Morris as “Herzog using a Winnipeg setting.” The parallels are many: both novels track the nervous breakdown of a middle-aged soulful intellectual who waxes philosophic about life’s unexpected tragedies. Moses Herzog and Morris Schutt share the same peculiar hobby of writing frenzied and perplexed letters addressed both to famous politicians (Dwight Eisenhower, Stephen Harper) and dead philosophers (Plato, Nietzsche). The two heroes have a common tendency to become ensnared in farcical situations and fall under the suspicion of the police. Moses and Morris, Bellow and Bergen: even the names sound alike. (more…)

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Red (State) Dawn

Weekend links no. 43

Weekend links no. 43: Recommended browsing hand-picked from The Walrus Blogroll

Painting by Attila Richard Lukacs
Mr. Bojangles by Attila Richard Lukacs (via BOOOOOOOM!)

On Tuesday in America, the Republican party made considerable gains in midterm elections. The Atlantic Wire has a host of roundup posts analyzing the results. Some highlights: Welcome to the New Political Landscape;” “Now in Power, Some Conservatives Say ‘Take It Slow’ on Spending Cuts;” “How Much Did the Tea Party Really Help the GOP?;” “How Republican Victories Might Start a Science War;” “So, How Did the ‘Mama Grizzlies’ Do?;” and “Why Are More Gay People Voting Republican?

“In the wake of what is being called the deadliest midterm election in the nation’s history, Washington’s sole surviving politician, Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon’s 4th Congressional District, emerged from the rubble of the Capitol building Wednesday to announce his intention to rebuild the fallen US government.” After an election season characterized by wild punditry and aggressive attack ads, it feels like The Onion is only exaggerating a little.Last Remaining Politician Must Rebuild Entire Government Following Bloodiest Midterm Election In American History” (The Onion)

Glen Pearson argues that there is little for Canadians to envy in the theatrics of US politics: “To be sure, the collective anger south of the border is real, but I’m not sure the answer to it is ribald characters capitalizing on that anger and dividing Americans even further in the process. It’s a zero-sum game that’s likely to lead our neighbours down a dark road. And while some might delight in the sheer theatrical belligerence of it all, behind all those stage performances lie people in desperate situations, trapped between reformers on the one hand and demagogues on the other.”On Politics As Entertainment” by Glen Pearson (via Maclean’s)

In the midst of controversy over Stephen Harper’s appointment of business executive Nigel Wright as chief of staff in the prime minister’s office, Duff Conacher examines the Canadian government’s atrocious record on dealing with conflicts of interest as far back as Brian Mulroney.Loopholes, Lapdogs, and the PMO” by Duff Conacher (The Mark) (more…)

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