Wednesday, September 23, 2015


The first time I saw Wab Kinew was at a speaking engagement in April 2013. Best known as the dynamic host of the acclaimed CBC documentary series 8th Fire, the journalist/broadcaster-cum-indigenous-spokesperson was the guest of the Halton Catholic District School Board, educating the small audience in Oakville on the Idle No More movement. He was engaging, informative, personable, entertaining. There was a bit of an unexpected moment outside of the presentation and friendly banter. An indigenous woman in the audience dismissed Kinew as not really indigenous enough because he had chosen to wear a business suit to this event. Kinew handled this situation with deftness, class, and vigour. More on this later.

In The Reason You Walk, Kinew recounts his journey reconnecting with his father after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. The memoir is as much Kinew's story of coming into himself as an educated (both formally and traditionally) Anishinaabe man, weaving his own experiences in with his father's life story. Kinew starts at the beginning of his father's life. Named Tobansonakwut (Low Flying Cloud), Kinew's father was born into a traditional family with early spiritual growth until the moment his childhood ends as he is sent to St Mary's residential school. "Renamed" Peter Kelly, Tobansonakwut's story here is much like many survivors' stories as recounted at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings across Canada from 2010-2014. Religious conversion, mistreatment, abuse, but also also stolen moments of joy, like the company of a kind priest or skating on an outdoor hockey rink.

When Tobansonakwut finally returns home at 16, it was not the home he remembered: his father gone, younger siblings still in residential school, and am older brother already an alcoholic. Tobansonakwut quickly leaves and heads to work, and while his story of hard work and racism and poor decision-making is not unusual, what does stand out from this story is a persistence to not be shackled by the injustices he has experienced. Tobansonakwut keeps circling back to the traditional culture, his deep connection to the spirituality from both indigenous and Christian (here Catholic) perspectives, a retention of Anishinaabemowein (the language), and eventually, cleaned up, political action, activism and forgiveness.

The strongest parts in this memoir occur when Kinew talks about indigenous traditions and ceremonies. Kinew provides his audience with an insider's view of some sacred ceremonies such as Sundance. In my experience in the indigenous community, many elders and knowledge carriers closely guard ceremonial practices. One elder said to me this summer, "Everything else has been taken from me. This is all I have. I am not yet ready to give this up by sharing it." Another perspective is that there is power in knowledge. Educating people about the importance and sacredness of ceremony, the sacrifice, responsibility and humility that accompany ceremony may lead to better understanding by those outside the community. Kinew is careful to provide context, explaining, for example, the responsibility that he had by being given his father's war bonnet, that the pain of piercing at Sundance is an act of selflessness as it shows that prayers and hopes for others are more important than personal comfort. It was these Sundance scars that Kinew offered to bare to the woman in Oakville who challenged his business attire. As he removed his jacket he asked her how he is a different person with, or without the jacket.

Kinew talks about the forces within indigenous community that divide (like the woman in Oakville), and those who work tirelessly behind the scenes for change for indigenous peoples. In one poignant scene, Tobansonakwut adopts the archbishop with Kinew presiding over the ceremony. The image of the meshing of two cultures is striking:  "The archbishop raised the eagle feathers in his left hand... He wore the bright star quilt over his black robe and Roman collar. This Catholic holy man stood in the centre of a traditional Anishinaabe building adorned with the accouterments of both cultures." Beautiful.

Ningosha anishaa wenji-bimoseyan is a line from an Anishinaabe travelling song traditionally sung at the end of a gathering to wish everyone safe journeys. The line roughly translated into English, I am the reason you walk, gives Kinew's memoir its title. Kinew notes that there are layers of meaning within this line, as with most phrases in Anishinaabemowein. Kinew examines how all the layers are intertwined in his life, how simply the ebb and flow of life bring different layers to the forefront for different people at different times, how the gravity of watching the decline of a beloved father brings the family closer together as they consider all the reasons they walk.

- Colinda Clyne

Wednesday, September 16, 2015


Growing up between cultures definitely enriched my upbringing. I heard captivating stories from my Chinese family and I loved watching costume dramas set in Imperial China. However, one story I definitely did not hear from my mother as a child was that of Sai Jinhua. Her fascinating life as an international courtesan may not be children’s bedtime book material, but it has nevertheless been celebrated in operas, films, and other forms. Alexandra Curry’s debut novel The Courtesan is perhaps a first in another way as well. Curry introduces the West to this unique and multi-faceted woman, whose cross-continental escapades have become the stuff of legend.

Sai Jinhua lived in the tumultuous and intriguing turn of the twentieth century. Europe and America have made inroads upon the final dynasty of Imperial China. Curry dedicates The Courtesan to Sai Jinhua’s early years, from her tragic childhood to her rise as a Chinese icon. Jinhua is joined by a cast of largely fictional but nonetheless compelling and plausible characters. The Courtesan begins with the execution of Jinhua’s father, a mandarin who is beheaded at the command of the emperor. Her father’s first wife spitefully sells Jinhua, leading her into a house of prostitution. There she has her feet broken and bound at the hands of the madam of the house, Lao Mama. She soon begins “bed business” as soon as she turns twelve with clients multiple times her age. Fortunately, she finds camaraderie with Suyin, a maid whose friendship will sustain her for years to come. Jinhua is eventually saved from her harsh destiny when Master Hong purchases her as his concubine. When Hong is selected as the European emissary, Jinhua follows him to Europe. She resides in Palais Kinsky in Vienna, encounters the aristocracy, befriends a servant named Resi, and falls in “Great Love” with Count von Waldersee. However, her idyllic life as an exotic adventurer is interrupted when she is brought back to China and both the fate of herself and China take a drastic turn for the worse.

Curry’s detail is both sumptuous and heart-wrenching. Especially at the beginning of the novel, Curry describes Jinhua’s plight in candid, cruel detail, from the fierce piety of Timu and her Buddhist rosary to the sadism of Lao Mama, represented by her brutal emerald ring. Jinhua’s foot-binding and deflowering by Banker Chang are described in particularly gruesome detail. Yet, Jinhua’s encounter with Empress Elisabeth, excursions with Resi, and moments with Count von Waldersee are charming and beautifully portrayed. The simultaneous juxtaposition of privilege and violence in The Courtesan is reminiscent of Puccini’s unfinished opera Turandot, where his gorgeous melodies juxtapose with the title character’s icy brutality. Fans of books such as Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha will also enjoy this tale of a fascinating woman whose life extended far past her profession as a courtesan.

However, Alexanda Curry has made some interesting alterations to Jinhua’s story. In the novel, Jinhua’s venture into prostitution seems to occur earlier in her life than usually documented. Master Hong’s first wife also did not commit suicide out of jealousy in reality. Jinhua in fact did travel much of Europe besides Vienna, and the true nature of her relationship with Count von Waldersee remains unknown. Jinhua’s equally fascinating scandal-ridden later life is also not explored, including her reputed saving of Beijing using her German, later marriages, and prison sentence. However, Curry, acknowledges this in the Author’s Note, and in fact her literary choices are quite rewarding. By setting Jinhua’s European voyage solely in Vienna, Curry streamlines the plot and allows more time to explore the locale in more depth rather than flitting between cities. The interpolation and expansion of both fictional and historical characters adds emotional dimension and further drama to The Courtesan. Though potentially contentious, Curry’s creative choices result in a unique interpretation of Jinhua that is carefully constructed and thoughtfully fashioned. It is a reimagining of Jinhua which is sensitive and nuanced, while positing some interesting hypotheses for the contradictions and gaps in Jinhua’s real life story. Of special note is Curry’s idiomatic use of Mandarin in unaccented pinyin, which was a pleasant surprise for me, as I speak Mandarin. Curry also uses German in the Vienna chapter and the use of both languages further immerses the reader in the changing sights and sounds of Jinhua’s cross-cultural life.

As a great fan of historical fiction, I am sometimes disheartened by the inundation of the genre with copious amounts of Eurocentric fiction, which can tend toward the formulaic and familiar. However, Curry’s book takes a brave direction, exploring China’s vibrant tapestry of history. The Courtesan reminds me of why I fell in love with historical fiction in the first place: when it’s done well, it showcases fascinating and well-written stories that are all the more remarkable since the characters were once living, breathing human beings as we are now. The Courtesan is a fascinating opportunity to delve back into a time where bound feet, emperors, and courtesans existed – reminders of both the beauty and cruelty of the human condition that still remain today, albeit in different forms.

Mike Fan is a Chinese-Canadian classical baritone. Mike plays five instruments and speaks three languages fluently (with a few in progress). After obtaining degrees in piano performance and biomedical science, it became clear that music would win out. On the literary side, Mike wrote 365 sonnets in his teens and writes for his poetry blog Some Turbid Night. Follow @MikeZFan for Mike's adventures, musical and otherwise.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015


Bestselling author Dr. BrenĂ© Brown doesn’t waste time delving into her message. On the cover, she provides a succinct, two-sentence summary: “If we are brave enough, often enough, we will fail. This is a book about what it takes to get back up.”

In the introduction, she is even more direct (and vulnerable) when describing her own ability to rise strong: “I’m not great at falling and feeling my way back.”

So why should we listen to her message?

Very simply, Dr. Brown has the ability to not only write and speak about vulnerability but to also live with it. Throughout the book, she provides many examples of her struggles, not sparing any of the details. I particularly enjoyed the chapter entitled, “Sewer Rats and Scofflaws,” where Dr. Brown describes her encounters with these unsavoury characters and also includes her own experience as a chubby little sewer rat in a battered jacket and torn jeans.

In addition to sharing her own stories of struggle, she interviewed a wide range of people: teachers, clergy, parents, couples in long-term relationships, artists, military personnel, leaders of Fortune 500 companies. From her research, she concluded that the Rising Strong process is the same, regardless of circumstances such as divorce, death, job loss, and workplace conflict. With practice, each life challenge can be addressed using a unique set of 3 Rs—Reckoning, Rumbling, and Revolution.

In the Reckoning step, we recognize and develop a healthy curiosity about our emotions. Instead of labelling ourselves as failures, we should simply recognize that emotions and feelings are in play. And not be afraid to ask ourselves about triggers and strong emotional reactions. While the instructions sound straightforward, Dr. Brown reminds us that shutting down or disengaging is the usual default.

In the Rumbling step, we get honest about the “stories” we have been making up about our struggles. Dr. Brown suggests that we engage our creativity and write SFDs (sloppy first drafts). The process is clearly stated: “Our job is not to deny the story, but to defy the ending—to rise strong, recognize our story, and rumble with the truth until we get to a place where we think, yes. This is what happened. This is my truth. And I will choose how this story ends.”

The Revolution is the final step of the Rising Strong process. Here, we integrate the lessons learned during the Rumble.

Rising Strong is an excellent book, chock full of Dr. Brown’s trademark wisdom and humour.

Joanne Guidoccio is the author of A Season for Killing Blondes, Between Land and Sea, and The Coming of Arabella. Visit her website at