The Walrus Blog

Monthly Archive: June 2011

Better Living Through Questioning

Irshad Manji on the global citizen’s responsibility to confront Islam
Irshad Manji on Allah

Irshad Manji wants to stir things up. The author, journalist, and advocate for religious reform opposes the hijab, saying it “makes [women] a billboard for the most chauvinistic aspects of Arab tribal culture,” and was offended by plans to create an Islamic community centre near Manhattan’s Ground Zero. She is committed to her Islamic faith, but is urging all Muslims to ask questions and hold moral stances about things like honour killing and suicide bombing.

Manji’s new book, Allah, Liberty and Love, is out this month. It’s a follow-up to her wildly successful The Trouble With Islam Today, which was banned in many countries. But droves of readers, especially women and youth, reacted positively to Trouble, which has now been published in thirty languages and downloaded more than two million times. In Allah, Manji writes that the imam at her mother’s mosque in Vancouver “declared me a ‘bigger criminal’ than Osama bin Laden. His rationale: among Muslims, my book had allegedly caused more debate.”

Manji, a feminist, lesbian Canadian, is perhaps not many orthodox believers’ preferred critic of mainstream Islam. She frequently receives death threats, and reprints some of them in Allah, Liberty and Love. But she argues that the focus can be taken off of “bombings, beheadings, and blood” if Muslims practice ijtihad — using one’s mind to understand the world and “exercising the freedom to ask questions — sometimes uncomfortable ones.” Manji emphasizes that both Muslims and non-Muslims have a responsibility to query what is happening in Islam. Yet Muslims, she writes, are fearful of speaking out and acting in non-traditional ways for fear of dishonouring their families, while non-Muslims fear being labelled bigots for questioning the religion.

Manji is outspoken, determined, and, some would say, fearless. But as I interviewed her at Random House Canada’s Toronto office, I was taken aback by her charm and openness. A condensed version of our conversation follows.

Lindsay Lafreniere Your book The Trouble with Islam Today created such strong praise and criticism from people all over the world. Did you anticipate such reactions, and are you expecting a similar response to this book?

Irshad Manji I didn’t know what to expect after The Trouble with Islam Today came out. I only knew one thing, which was that my conscience required me to write it. I certainly didn’t expect the emails from young Muslims in the Middle East asking when I was going to get the book translated into Arabic. It’s been somewhat surreal, but more instructive and eye-opening than anything else. I truly would not have predicted being able to write a book called Allah, Liberty and Love after putting the finishing touches on my previous book. Love was not what I was thinking. I’ve [since] learned that I’m not alone and in fact, there is such a constituency of reformist Muslims who need to be equipped with the “how” of expressing themselves and not just the “why.” (more…)

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Posted in Chapter and Verse  •  1 Comment

Hello Again, Friend

Remembering Adam Gilders through a posthumous collection
Another VentriloquistJ&L Books

The author and journalist Adam Gilders contributed to the very first issue of The Walrus, an article about a fanatical German sub-culture of Wild West re-creationists — Gunther and Hans dressing up in cowboy hats and feathered headdresses. It was a story about identity and the strangeness of life, themes that would crop up in his later contributions to the magazine, too. When Gilders passed away in 2007, succumbing to a brain tumour at the age of 36, he had published twice more in the magazine, reportage about a feral boy on the island of Fiji and a shimmering piece of fiction titled “Barnyard Desires,” in which a rodent infestation is a harbinger of a tenant’s own tunnel-like self analysis.

Launch eventsOttawaCollected Works Bookstore, 1242 Wellington Street, Monday, June 27th 6:30–8:00pm
TorontoType Books, 883 Queen Street West, Tuesday, June 28th, 6:00–8:00pm

For those of use who knew him personally — in my own case, through this magazine — the news that we would publish one of his stories was always an exciting time. He was one of the new Canadian voices that the magazine was seeking to discover, in many ways typifying the idealism that many of us felt in the year of The Walrus’s launch. However, Gilders’ writing always operated on a much less grand scale, particularly his fiction, where each sentiment was an exercise in concision. In fact he was known to work and re-work each sentence laboriously, a self-styled perfectionist of the minutiae of language.

Another Ventriloquist, a posthumous collection of Gilders’ short fiction to be released this evening in Ottawa, and in Toronto tomorrow, showcases this approach to a tee. Some stories are only a few sentences in length, witty fragments that focus on the irregularities of life. Others, such as the longer “One Theory About My Marriage,” offer acerbic scenes of everyday Ontario (Gilders grew up in Ottawa and later lived in Toronto). (more…)

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Unwanted Visitor

What's the point of preventing American education theorist William Ayers from entering Canada?

Earlier today, education theorist William “Bill” Ayers delivered a pre-recorded keynote lecture to the Worldviews Conference on Media and Higher Education. While it’s only about an hour-long flight from Ayers’ home city of Chicago to Toronto, where the conference is being held, his lawyers advised him not to bother attempting the trip. He has already been denied entry to Canada on two separate occasions — first in Calgary in 2005, then again in Toronto in 2009 — and his legal advisors determined that he’d be turned back again should he try to re-enter.

Although the American-born professor is a world-renowned expert in teaching, curriculum planning, and education reform, his career trajectory is notably different from those of his peers. Before taking on graduate studies, Ayers was a co-founder of the Weather Underground, the 1970s activist network that planted small homemade explosives at government sites including the US Capitol and the Pentagon. After re-emerging into mainstream life, Ayers became a distinguished professor and senior scholar at the University of Illinois at Chicago. (He retired in 2010.) While he feels uneasy about such pompous titles, he outright rejects the other label by which he is sometimes identified.

“I still find it annoying that ordinary, intelligent people make me justify the fact that I’m not a terrorist,” Ayers tells me, speaking on the phone from his home in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighbourhood. Nobody was ever killed by a Weather Underground operation — the group phoned in bomb threats prior to each attack, leaving enough time for an evacuation — and Ayers insists that the destruction of public property shouldn’t be equated with terror. He was nevertheless targeted by a hostile media campaign in 2008, as the American right exploited his connections to fellow Hyde Park resident Barack Obama. The media blitz reignited Ayers’ notoriety: he still finds himself explaining to student protesters at campus speaking engagements that he is not a murderer. (more…)

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These Machines Are Built for Dancing

The ten greatest Canadian synth-pop songs of all time
In the July/August 2011 issue of The Walrus, Andre Mayer examines the new album by Junior Boys and the resurgence of Canadian synth-pop. Here, he chooses the ten greatest tunes in the genre.

Spoons, “Nova Heart” (1981)
With its ethereal guitar line, pulsating drums, and Gordon Deppe’s haughty tenor, “Nova Heart” remains an iconic track from the new wave era. This Burlington, Ontario band generated a string of sleek singles, but it would never top this one.


Rational Youth, “Dancing on the Berlin Wall” (1982)
References to the atom bomb and Len Deighton’s fictional spy Harry Palmer make this a synth-pop meditation on the Cold War. It’s although worth noting that the song’s peppy electro beat predated Afrika Bambaataa’s seminal “Planet Rock” by at least a couple of months. (more…)

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Posted in Music  •  4 Comments

The Unbalancing Act

How literary periodicals flail to correct gender inequity
Literary periodical coversCanadian Notes & Queries 80: The Gender Issue, Taddle Creek No. 26: Summer Issue, Granta 115: The F Word

If I were a man, and cared to know the world I lived in, I almost think it would make me a shade uneasy — the weight of that long silence of one half of the world.” — Elizabeth Robins, 1907

Recently Good Magazine published an article with a simple solution to inequity on conference panels. What if white men refused invitations to panels that don’t properly represent the diversity of their industries? The idea was so basic, yet I had never even considered it. Usually when I see five men on a magazine, marketing, tech or publishing panel, I criticize the organizers: “You couldn’t find a single woman?” I ask. It never occurred to me to question the participants.

Good broke it down:

“Why don’t the white men who are asked to engage in this nonsense simply stop doing it? The boycott is a protest with a long history of success. If white, male elites started saying, ‘I will not participate in your panel, event, or article if it is all about white men,’ chances are these panels and articles would quickly dry up — or become more diverse.”

But why not take this ingenious idea even further? Since literary publications so often struggle with gender disparity, in their contributor lists and mastheads, in the books they review and the viewpoints they include, why don’t men who consider themselves allies to equality simply refuse publication? Why doesn’t the “How do we fix this?” question include the responsibility of male writers, not just male editors, in its solution? Why shouldn’t writers cultivate a list of publications they will and won’t submit or pitch to on the basis of equity? (more…)

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4’33” for the 157

Joanne Tod’s “Portraits of the War,” in video form

Click here to view the full gallery of Joanne Tod’s “Portraits of the War,” from the July/August issue of The Walrus magazine.

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Posted in Moving Pictures  •  4 Comments

Flickers of Light

Nigel Dickson and Toronto's Shoot With This collective mentor the photography skills of at-risk youth
Portrait #8Tanisha Evans
Unnamed subjectDanielle ScottPortraits from “Spark”

Can art bring strangers together? Perhaps in some situations, as acclaimed photographer (and friend of The Walrus) Nigel Dickson recently discovered while mentoring at-risk youths in Toronto.

“It was up at the Jane and Finch area, where, to be honest, I’d never been before,” says Dickson. “[The youth] were from three different high schools and different gang neighbourhoods. These people would never have met if they didn’t have this group to come to.”

The “group” is Shoot With This, a film mentorship collective that helps prospective imagemakers develop their creative talents and professional skills. Dickson, an eighteen-time winner of National Magazine Awards, has had such big names as Christopher Plummer, Michelle Obama, and Pierre Trudeau sit before his lens; working with the collective’s young charges was an altogether different project for him. Their collaborative result is “Spark,” a group exhibition that pairs Dickson’s portraits of such Canadian celebrities as Arlene Dickinson and Colin Mochrie with photographs made by teens shooting under his direction.

“We got some good results. A couple of them were already into it, but most of them knew nothing about it,” says Dickson. “We ended it with six photographs that I thought were quite good. Three people in the group showed extreme promise, so who knows, they may go on to develop that.”


“Spark” is on display at The Al Green Gallery in Toronto until June 9.

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Home Sweet Stornoway

Will Jack and Olivia feel at home in the mansion?
StornowaySimon PulsiferStornoway

With another month begun, many Canadians are once again practicing the common ritual of settling into new rental and temporary homes. One notable Canuck, however, is biding his time to make a move that seemed unlikely, if not impossible, only a few years — and several federal elections — ago.

Jack Layton has already moved on up in Canadian politics, becoming the Leader of the Official Opposition during last month’s Conservative landslide. Sometime after Parliament breaks for the summer, he will become the first NDP boss to take up residence in Stornoway, the thirty-four-room mansion that serves as the opposition leader’s official residence. (First, though, he’ll need to figure out where it is: as recently as May 23, Layton denied knowing the house’s exact location.)

Built for a grocer in 1913, Stornoway sits on nearly one acre at 541 Acacia Avenue, in Ottawa’s Rockcliffe Park neighbourhood. Early on, the house switched hands a few times before being loaned to Princess Juliana of the Netherlands, who lived there in exile during World War II. In 1946, a private trust fund was set up to purchase Stornoway and house the leader of the opposition in style and dignity. When that money ran out in 1970, the government bought the property for the excellent price of $1. (more…)

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Posted in Online Exclusive  •  2 Comments
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