The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Dear Yann Martel

My apologies for being so late in discovering your project, What is Stephen Harper Reading? I realize it was covered by the Globe and Mail, CTV, CBC and others, but I’m terrible at keeping up. The news to me is like As The World Turns. (Is that still running?) You can miss weeks of it and not miss much at all. And news about the arts doesn’t stay in the headlines for as long as, say, anything about Conrad Black, does it?

So, by the time I got wind of your project, you had already sent ten books and letters to Mr. Harper. A book and letter every two weeks for as long as Harper is Prime Minister. Wow! I’m impressed by the commitment and discipline this requires. It makes me think about the tree sitters just outside Victoria who have been protesting a major highway extension through a wooded area since April 11, 2007, just a few days before you started your project. I wonder if you’re feeling a little like they might be right about now.

You know: in the early days a small crowd gathers and you get some publicity. You’re feeling pretty good about yourself. You’ve planted your ass on a platform high up in a tree. But four months later, who notices as you sit (and sleep) up there, rain or shine*, defecating in a bucket? Of course, the real you (vs. the figurative) is trying to edify a Prime Minister, not just preserve some woods and the creatures that live in it. Furthermore, you’re going it alone — no one appears at the bottom of the tree to take the next shift. Even so, I wonder if your friends aren’t beginning to say stuff like, “Hey buddy, you’ve made your point. Climb down from there. Let’s go for a beer.”

In April, you were full of righteous indignation* over Harper’s budget for the arts. I’m all for upping funding. Let’s pull out of Afghanistan and make art, not war. You also were full of hurt over Parliament’s scant attention to a delegation of which you were a part. I understand that, I do. You won the Man Booker Prize, for crying out loud.

It reminds me of seventh grade when I was Lieutenant of the safety patrols. My post was a busy and dangerous highway. Captain Tommy W. and I had the power to change the lights; to stop traffic so school children could cross the highway. All that power could have corrupted me but my sense of duty was deep, unlike Tommy who was frequently late. Also, he didn't insist that the other Patrols maintain the discipline I thought they should. (Why hadn't I been appointed Captain?) One day, the Patrols left their wet yellow rain slickers on the floor in the hallway before class. The principal was angry. Tommy refused to help me pick them up. Protesting his incompetence, I resigned, turning in my white patrol belt and my brass Lieutenant's badge. I waited for our advisor to beg me to reconsider, but by the end of the day, he had replaced me.

Not to imply your emotions are on the same level as a seventh grader’s. Or that your indignation isn’t way more legitimate than mine was. It’s just that I understand outrage and how anger and hurt can fuel dramatic gestures.

I must confess I’ve read only two of the ten books you’ve sent the Prime Minister. Your letters make me want to read them all. I knew you could write when I read Life of Pi, and these letters are darn good, too. Mr. Harper might find parts of them a tad preachy and condescending which could account for his lack of response since the first book. I, on the other hand,* am enjoying them greatly.

I do have a question, though. How will sending Stephen Harper these books secure more funding for the arts? Just curious.

Yours Truly,

Tricia Dower

*More apologies, this time for the clichés. I appreciate your warning in the ninth letter that they can lead to dogmatic thinking. I will work on my lazy fingers and brain.

Photo by Alice Kuipers: Yann Martel reading a letter to Harper at a writing congress at the University of Saskatchewan in June.


Blogger Antonios Maltezos said...

Bravo, Tricia.

Thu Aug 23, 03:08:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Steve Gajadhar said...

I'll have to check this out. Thanks for sharing. I loved Life of Pi (except for the middle) and I really love Martel's short stories.

Thu Aug 23, 05:32:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Thanks for stopping by, Tony and Steve. I read one of Martel's short stories and it was excellent. I'll have to look for more.

Thu Aug 23, 08:18:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger tamara said...

I always liked the idea of it; but have found it's become a bit like the joke that went on a little too long. But I like it as an act of artistic petulance, whilst so many other artists and art organisations kiss ass to ensure their funding.

Fri Aug 24, 03:54:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Good point, Tamara, and good phrase: artistic petulance.

Fri Aug 24, 08:22:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Andrew said...

I like this project but I hope it's a short one.

Sat Aug 25, 09:26:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger Martin Heavisides said...

That is to say, Andrew, you hope Stephen Harper isn't at 24 Sussex Drive much longer? But I think it would be worthwhile continuing it with whoever,of whatever party, succeeds Harper as Prime Minister. Functional literacy is a good thing to have in a first minister.

Sun Aug 26, 10:53:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Nice to see you here, Martin.

Sun Aug 26, 03:31:00 pm GMT-4  

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