On February 8, 2016, I had the privilege of moderating a Fireside Chat with authors Brian Brennan, Sharon Butala and Ruth Scalp Lock. Here are my introductory remarks.
I like those two words, and I particularly like the sound of those two words together. Over the past couple of years, I have been thinking a lot about a variation of tonight’s theme: “Words West/Calgary.”
Calgary author, Aritha van Herk says: “A Calgarian is someone surprised to hear herself say the words ‘I’m a Calgarian.’” Some of you may have a different experience, but for me, those words ring true.
I’ve lived most of my life in this city, but I’ve only recently started to think of myself as a Calgarian. My relationship with the city is complicated, and part of that complication has to do with rarely if ever seeing the city imagined in the pages of a book.
A couple of years ago, I decided to do something about it. I started tracking down and reading Calgary stories. I set out to see how writers had captured the city in their novels and short stories, their poems, essays and memoirs. What could those stories tell me about my relationship with this city, and ultimately, what could they tell me about Calgary itself?
I quickly discovered that novelists and poets, essayists and memoir writers have been writing Calgary stories for a long time: all I had to do was go looking.
Last summer, my reading project turned into a weekly blog series called Writing the City: Calgary Through the Eyes of Writers. The blog has turned out to be a wonderful and surprising treasure hunt through Calgary’s 140-year history and across its geography.
Over the past months, the blog has featured:
- the English poet Rupert Brooke’s 1913 visit to Calgary at the height of one of the city’s first booms
- the British novelist Graham Greene’s short story set in the Calgary suburbs circa 1963
- Lori Hahnel’s novel about coming of age in the city’s punk rock scene in the early 1980s
- Cecelia Frey’s “Ode to Fireworks during Stampede”
And many more.
Let me return to tonight’s theme: Words West.
What happens when we tune in to the stories that come out of the places we live?
Here are a few things I’ve noticed, as I read Calgary stories, and as I read the works of tonight’s panelists about the West.
When I see the West through the words of writers, I see the specific details of this place – a landscape that is richer than its stereotypes, a region more complex than its myths. I feel that wonderful hum of recognition, and at the same time, the challenge of looking beyond my own experience.
My curiosity clicks into gear.
When I accept a writer’s invitation to go back in time, I find out about things I may have forgotten, not paid attention to, or never known. I make connections between the life I am living now in the West and the history that precedes me.
Last, but not least: When I see the West through the words of writers and their stories, I experience a deepening in my own relationship to this place
So: Words. West. Two words – two ideas – that belong together.