Thursday, August 05, 2010

With Cathleen With

A while ago I heard how Noah Richler had been invited to a few writer's festivals across the country to "live blog" the event. Now that's a gig!

So, when the Northwords Festival rolled into Yellowknife back in June, I had every intention of live blogging the hell out of it. Now I don't know Noah's work. He might be super talented. But I'm not Mordecai's son. So, if I wanted an invite to Banff's Wordfest, I'd have to prove my worth and then some.

Alas, I proved nothing. I wrote 0 posts. 0. In was early June, one of the busiest times of the year for a teacher, and even worse of an excuse, I forgot my camera for every single event. The picture above was sent to me by Cathleen.

In any case, I'm not going to even try recounting the whole thing right now. I hope it suffices to say that it was a lot of fun. But I do want to finally get around to say how much I enjoyed meeting Cathleen With, whom I now consider a friend.

I was nervous about meeting Cathleen. I'd reviewed her book Having Faith in the Polar Girls' Prison back in July of last year. It wasn't a bad review, but it wasn't glowing either. (In hindsight, it also wasn't a well-written review. One commenter remarked, "I'm not sure where you stand on this book.") But I've also heard some authors compare their books to their children, so my moderate reviews, might appear as all out attacks to these "parents."

Then I thought I had nothing to worry about. I met her. She was funny, warm, and best of all, seemed completely oblivious to my review. I decided not to bring it up and while I felt dishonest, it was easier that way. No harm done.

Then at the gala event I had to present an award (I'm the Northwords vice president) and when my full name was announced, Cathleen clued in. She had, it turned out, read my review but didn't realize my last name was Mutford. She had been wondering if she'd meet this Mutford guy from Yellowknife, but as I write like an old man apparently, it didn't occur to her that it might be me.

I didn't see her afterward, as I had to duck out early, but the next day I ran into her again and the first thing she said was, "You're the John Mutford that wrote that review?" My heart sank. And not just because I'd now have to come clean, but I would probably lose a potential friend. Oh the lonely life of a reviewer.

It got worse. "Are you going to the Luncheon with the Literary Ladies?" she asked. I hadn't planned on it as I moderated a panel discussion earlier that morning and as I said above, I was very tired at this point. "You have to!" she insisted, "I'm reading a response to your review there. A 'Dear John' letter."

Cripes. What a sadistic way to get back at a reviewer. Of course, in the end I decided to go. If I can't take it, I have no right dishing it, I reasoned.

In the end it was nice. I not only got off easy, I also got some food for thought. It seems that Cathleen's biggest reservation with my review was the opening line, "The worst thing about Cathleen With's Having Faith in the Polar Girls' Prison is..." When you Google "Cathleen With" and "Having Faith" it's right there on the front page. But, as she went on to explain in her "Dear John" letter, the harsh headlines get people to read the article. The harsh stories are important to read. As my review went on to say, Having Faith in the Polar Girls Prison is harsh as well, but it, too, is important. As long as we remember the good stuff as well. Enough of my attempts to summarize Cathleen's message, here it is. Please note, these notes came directly from her computer where it was typed to be read aloud and wasn't initially intended to be published. I did get permission to reprint them here, but I didn't bother editing. It's the message that counts:

Dear John,
On this lovely long sun June day--Sunday, a day that is not religious for me but still I think it's good to take a rest and reflect to breathe, Reviews keep us on our toes, like I said--and i totally took your whole review as a good one. There was one tagline about my book, from Monique Polak (I get google alerts, so yes i see them:) "Is it Too Sad to Read?"

Lots of authors do reviews, god love them where do they find the time (and like you John, with the blog--wow, what a great lot of reading, would love to join your challenge one day soon)--but i can't do reviews, I'm too much of a pussy. And by that I mean that I am a bit of a coward and you can't be, when you're being fair--it's all about authentic voice, really. So I am honoured to be reviewed at all, good and bad and hard taglines--especially the hard taglines b/c guess what: people will click on hard taglines, Bearing Witness: people will read the article then and maybe think, "I want to read that book and decide if i agree or not." Liz Taylor said, "Bad press, good press--at least it's press!" And i agree with her--whatever beings you to the table, reading.
And whatever gets them clicking on the good---and the bad, in our Arctic: "Inuvik Youth Centre" (go see the movies the kids made, google it) or "Why are children sleeping on the streets of Iqaluit?" or "Inuvialuit goalie Leah Sulyma scores on both sides of the border" (Like James Pokiak says, the singular of Inuvialuit is Inuvialuk--and even i screwed that up last night: I was a bit nervous= Gala vs Lunch right?) --Leah was in grade 8 when i was teaching in Inuvik, didn't know she was into hockey at the time, but what i did know was that every morning when i came up the stairs--and i taught the high school kids so she wasn't even in any of my classes--who is grinning a good morning to beat the band: Leah Sulyma.) The Firth Twins from Aklavik were also front runners = both in the Olympics--I think even four times--Google it--great role models for all Arctic kids.

So John, dear John Mutford, who has been there and here, with his wife and having their kids, raising them in this great Arctic sun (and dark) like many of you, there is the good and the bad. I believe it's about Bearing Witness, I believe it's about asking a former student of mine, who is now 22 and the mother of a gorgeous headstrong little Inuvialuk girl, but when i met her--when i first came to the Arctic and the next day walked into a craft fair and met her two month old boy Kaneda, was drawn to them instantly and said, "Oh, i love his beaded slippers. They're so small and still so delicately beaded and is his name from Japanese anime?" and Jolene laughed and said Oh wow not many people your age get that!" That moment. When not a month later Jolene came into my Calm classroom and I said, Wait, haven't I seen you before--you're Kaneda's mom and she froze--cliche but hey we're up here, it was fucking 40 below and the dark was still on 11am, northenr lights out my classroom window but i wasn't looking at them i wasn't looking out the window but at her frozen . Face. And she said: Kaneda's dead. Sids death. Happened to my Nanuk's kid too. When she was young."

Now i want to make sure you know that Jolene wasn't and isn't an addict like Trista, that Janine and Will, though Will wanted to do tattoos like Tyler, Trista's boyfriend from down south, and Faith's father--Janine and Will have beautiful kids and last i heard still live in Inuvik--they are not That part of the fiction. But on a June day not unlike yesterday here but in 2004 and hot hot hot in Inuvik, no A/C in the classroom, sun's out like gold powered laser beams coming through the classroom window but I'm still not looking out there am I? I am looking at Will's hand, and on it, a little tiny piece of metal, embossed with a word. And Will says to me: I found it yesterday, at the campsite, in the dirt. And i am going to name me and Janine's baby after it, it's a sign. I'm going to call her Hope." And she wasn't born with fetal alcohol syndrome, not Danika Hope she wasn't born into a jail-like environment like Trista's baby, coming out preemie on a cold Arctic night. But she was Faith. That's how it works, the good and the bad in fiction, in story. Bearing witness.

And so I call on you all to continue bearing witness, writing the hard reviews, the news that makes your stomach turn while you're clicking on it, while you're reading it the good tears you had in your eyes maybe--you people in YK, damn you saw those posters of Leah Sulyma is her hockey gear, eh? Sent out to all schools in Canada and beyond. I call on you to Continue to praise and laugh and dance and Sing the words of this sometimes tragic Arctic story, so that we all, can bear witness, to the lovely, and heart-breaking, songs.

Cathleen's words struck a chord with me again recently as the town where I grew up, and the town where I'm now visiting, hit national headlines. It was, unfortunately, one of the harsh ones.

But I want to end on a positive note.

Dear Cathleen,
Now that I know you read my blog, I want to thank you publicly-- for your wisdom, your heart, your humour and your friendship. You are one classy woman.

And to everyone else, since my review isn't the most convincing, Having Faith in the Polar Girls' Prison recently won the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize. You should read it.


Teddy Rose said...

Very cool!

pooker said...

Well, that makes two classy people.

BTW, Cathleen emailed me after the festival to let me know she had met "the amazing John Mutford". I was jealous of both of you.

Cathleen With said...


listen why don't you try and do the live blog thing for Vancouver International Writers' Fest? It's 3rd week of October, so not the best time for a teacher--but mostly it's over the weekend...would be neat to get a Northerner's perspective of what's going on in Van.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

The worst thing about this blog post is that it makes me acknowledge that I have a hard time writing a negative review. But Cathleen's attitude and grace has put this into perspective, and I now feel free to rip the shit out of everything.

On a different matter, I immediately thought of you and your family when I heard the sad news from Twillingate. Such a huge loss for your town.