Up Close and Personal
with Canadian Journalists
Why are you telling me this?
Eleven Acts of Intimate Journalism
Edited by Heather Elton, Barbara Moon and Don Obe
Banff Centre Press
1997, 272 pp, paper, $17.95, ISBN 0-920159-86-9
Reviewed by Sharon Crawford
If you believe journalists should stay out of their stories and
concentrate on the subject, think again. In Why are you telling
me this? Eleven Acts of Intimate Journalism, eleven journalists
from the Arts Journalism Program at the Banff Centre for the Arts
The Arts Journalism program has existed for a decade. A Maclean
Hunter fellowship pays for eight senior journalists' professional
development each summer at Banff. Journalists live in cottages.
Surrounded by the beauty of the Rockies, their task is to write
essays on topics of their choice. Topics must cover some area of
the arts. Banff Centre faculty editors Don Obe (Journalism professor
at Ryerson Polytechnic University) and Barbara Moon (editor-at-large
with Saturday Night magazine) guide the writers.
This anthology consists of creative non-fiction written by journalists
from this program. Alberto Manguel, the program's chair from 1992-1996
(Robert Fulford was the first), writes in the book's introduction,
"I have been intrigued, as have the program's two editors,
by the recurrent phenomenon of a writer's arriving to work on some
burning abstract issue only to discover part way through the month-long
residency that the heat of his or her interest springs from private
anecdotal fires and that, mirabile dictu, investigating these is
a most productive way of grappling with the abstraction."
The eleven contributors grapple with a miscellany of fires including
parents, sexism in sports, music, striptease, depression, romantic
love, Natives, post-apartheid South Africa, and the political oppression
of writers. Most stories heat up with innovative style and inspiration.
A few reach burnout before the end.
David Layton and Marilyn Powell take different approaches in dealing
with their parents. Layton, in "Irving Layton, Leonard Cohen
and Other Recurring Nightmares" compares his famous father
to his famous godfather. He mixes narrative with dialogue to show
the relationships between the two men, his mother, Aviva, and himself.
In emphasizing their differences, Layton also shows their similarities,
e.g. both are poets and womanizers.
Marilyn Powell in "The Tyranny of Love and Affairs of the
Heart" imagines what her parents felt towards each other because
they hid their emotions. Powell transcends this exterior shallowness
by digging deeply into love and the heroes of English Literature
from 12th century France, interviewing British writer Doris Lessing,
then touching on her own marriage. The style is somewhat disjointed.
More compelling is Rosemary Sullivan's "Romantic Obsession."
Sullivan confronts her own romantic obsession by seeking out and
meeting the poet Elizabeth Smart (whose biography she later wrote)
in her English cottage. In narrating Smart's affair with poet George
Barker, as well as artist Frida Kahlo's affair with another artist,
Diego Rivera, Sullivan compares love to a collusive dance. "It
makes some sense to me to see romantic love as the female artist's
route to her own creative ego," Sullivan writes. Bingo. This
one strikes a familiar chord.
Chords of different sounds emit from David Macfarlane's "Music
for Music's Sake" and Myra Davies' "The Berlin Aesthetic."
Macfarlane explores the world of contemporary jazz from the viewpoint
of someone who can't hear music on his own but who once steered
into it, passionately embraces it. His statement "Our own age,
it seems to me is peculiarly inept at hearing music very well on
its own," could be applied to the subject in Davies' story,
the "Berlin Aesthetic," Berlin punk rocker, Blixa, whose
performance with various bands mixes noise and fire.
In "Trick or Treat? What Kind of Indian are You?" Paul
Seesequasis reconciles with his half-breed background by studying
Native literature, particularly contemporary American Native writer
Gerald Vizenor, whom he interviews.
Atkinson fellowship winner (1994-95) Sandra Martin writes on two
levels in "Shedding Lives: Travels in the New South Africa":
a report on the difficulty of developing workplace equity and a
personal account of becoming lost driving at night in a remote section
"Inside the Copper Mountain," Myrna Kotash's account
of Ukrainian writer Vasyl Stus' persecution by the KGB comes across
Laura Robinson, in "An Athlete's Lament," reveals her
growth from female athlete grappling with sport's sexism and competition
to learning from Aboriginals the spirituality of running.
Morris Wolfe, in "Elizabeth and Me," discovers one of
the best ways to work through depression is writing about it.
Lindalee Tracey 's "Growing Up Naked: Scenes from the Girly
Show" presents a light-hearted look at exotic dancing from
the viewpoint of a woman' first striptease.
As a journalist, I found the creative stretch of these stories
inspiring. To answer the book's title, Why are you telling me this?
Because we can find something of ourselves in these stories.
Sharon Crawford is a freelance writer and member of PWAC based
in Aurora, Ontario.
Published in Sources,
Number 41, Winter 1998.
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