From Penguins to Paintings: CNF Night in Canada

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February 18, 2014

By Liz Snell

It’s not often that invasive ivy, clumsy penguins, and cheap reproductions of famous paintings get to hang out together. At “CNF Night in Canada”, a precursor to WordsThaw, The Malahat Review’s annual literary symposium, the three non-fiction readers (Malea Acker, Jay Ruzesky, and Madeline Sonik) respectively covered each topic.

In the basement Russell’s Vintage, light glinted off the gold spines of old books around the little stage below the staircase. Malea Acker read from her book “Gardens Aflame”, which is about Vancouver Island’s endangered Garry oak ecosystem. Her hands gestured gracefully and frequently as she read about removing invasive species from Trial Island, an ecological reserve just off Victoria that is home to many rare species of flora. Full of specific plant names, Acker’s writing evoked the particularity of the windswept island environment.

Jay Ruzesky read from his book “In Antarctica: An Amundsun Pilgrimage”, which recounts his journey to Antarctica to follow in the footsteps of explorer Roald Amundsun, Ruzesky’s distant relative. He read an excerpt about asking for a bank loan to finance his expedition; the audience laughed as he recounted the employee’s incredulous response: “There’s no candid camera here?”

In an excerpt from the Antarctic expedition, Ruzesky captured the humour of penguins “clean as scrubbed potatoes” and their endearing awkwardness: “I think we love them like we do because of their imperfections.”

The penguin passage also touched on how serious discussions around the environment can often become, and how penguins are a kind of relief from that. “There’s something about humour that’s its own kind of reverence,” he read, which seems an apt description of his reading as well.

Madeline Sonik shared an essay about her childhood, when her father became obsessed with buying reproductions of masterworks from a local gas station. He gave his children a bogus education on the paintings’ significance, encouraging them to speak with “great pretension and confidence” about art, regardless of their knowledge. Sonik demonstrated a deft hand for capturing her family’s antics and kept the audience laughing.

An open Q & A period followed the readings. In response to a question about how the authors see themselves situated in the Canadian lit scene, Ruzesky commented on the difficulty of keeping up with the constantly emerging talented authors. The three authors’ general consensus was that the literary community has been very supportive of their work, despite, according to Acker, “some fractiousness and disagreement, which is a healthy part of a growing community.” That support seemed apparent in the packed room. Though Canadian literary events probably won’t be filling stadiums with towel-swinging fans any time soon, “CNF Night in Canada” proved our writers (and readers) still have their sticks on the ice.

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