Reading Round Up: My Thoughts on the Canada Reads 2015 Finalists and Debates

On March 16, Canada Reads 2015 kicked-off the debate of five books in search of the one book that can break down barriers. The five Canada Reads 2015 finalists and their champions are:

Intolerable Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes by Kamal Al-Solaylee (HarperCollins Canada, 2013) championed by Kristin Kreuk, actor.

The Inconvenient Indian The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America by Thomas King (Doubleday Canada, 2013) championed by Craig Kielburger, activist and social entrepreneur.

Feels Like The Movies When Everything Feels Like The Movies by Raziel Reid (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2014) championed by Elaine “Lainey” Lui, entertainment reporter.

And The Birds Rained Down And The Birds Rained Down by Jocelyn Saucier (Coach House Books, 2012) championed by Martha Wainwright, singer-songwriter.

Ru Ru by Kim Thúy (Penguin/Random House Canada, 2012) championed by Cameron Bailey, Artistic Director of the Toronto International Film Festival.

All five books are deserving of praise and each stands on its own merit, I cannot emphasize this enough. However, as I read each book through the lens of the one book that can break down barriers – that can challenge stereotypes, illuminate issues, open minds and change perspectives – I felt not all responded in equal measure to this year’s Canada Reads challenge. Of the five, The Inconvenient Indian and When Everything Feels Like The Movies emerged as the strongest contenders for me. I felt that Intolerable by Kamal Al-Solaylee was also a strong contender, until I read When Every Thing Feels Like The Movies. I was so impacted by this book that with the exception of The Inconvenient Indian, I found myself measuring the other books against Mr. Reid’s.

Raziel Reid’s debut novel, When Everything Feels Like The Movies, is the only young adult entry among the finalists. It is at once a raw, funny, disturbing and heart-breaking story of Jude Rothesay, a junior high schooler in small town “anywhere” North America, who is openly gay, fiercely glam and has a penchant for pink lip gloss and his mother’s high heels. Jude’s school life is harshly oppressive. He is mocked, bullied and beaten. His home life is no better, as dysfunction abounds. Jude sees his life as a movie and this is his means of emotional survival. The author ascribes a level of agency to this character that does not permit the reader to see him as victim, despite his victimization and the realities of his life. He is unfiltered and in-your-face and purposely goes out his way to shock and provoke in order to ensure that he is seen and heard. I feel that Mr. Reid’s portrayal of Jude as someone who refuses to shirk or apologize for who and what he is, is the foundational power of this story and character. Mr. Reid’s telling of Jude’s story is uncompromising in its depiction of the realities and often horrors that gay youth experience and does not allow any room for reading complacency.

I had previously read The Inconvenient Indian when it was initially released in 2013, but re-read it for this year’s challenge. Hands down, Thomas King is one of my favourite authors and one I greatly respect. Over the years I’ve read several of his works, both fiction and non-fiction. The Inconvenient Indian and The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative, his contribution to the Massey Lectures, are my favourite works by this author. In The Inconvenient Indian, Mr. King fuses his personal story and experiences with the history of colonization of the indigenous peoples of North America and what it means to be “Indian” – a settler-imposed construct and pejorative term, but one that Mr. King uses to effectively make his point. Through wit, humour and eloquence, all trademarks of Mr. King’s voice and writing style, his book both challenges and undermines stereotypes and the dominant society’s interpretation of the history of colonization in North America, all the while shedding light on the devastation and legacy of colonization on indigenous peoples and the systemic racism they continue to face.

Intolerable is Kamal Al-Solaylee’s personal history and experience as a gay man growing up in the Middle East. The book spans the period of decolonization in the region to the rising wave of Islamic fundamentalism, and follows Mr. Al-Solaylee and his family’s journey in search of stability and prosperity from his birthplace in Aden, Yemen, to Beirut, Lebanon and Cairo, Egypt, and back again to Yemen before the author emigrates to the west, first to England and then Toronto, Canada, where he settles. Similar to Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian, Mr. Al-Solaylee easily interweaves his personal story with the political and social history of the Middle East, providing a basis for those readers that are not as familiar with this part of the world. The author also sheds light on the contributing factor of socio-economic disparity in the rising tide of religious fundamentalism. Given the current geopolitical situation, Intolerable is timely and best responds to the thematic question of the Canada Reads 2015 challenge by dispelling western stereotypes of a homogenous Middle East. Mr. Solaylee illuminates the diversity of the region in respect of social and political culture, ethnicity and even religion and how the encroachment of Islamic fundamentalism has contributed to crushing pluralism.

Jocelyn Saucier’s And the Birds Rained Down is a beautifully written, introspective read that touches upon the subjects of aging, and living and dying on one’s own terms. Issues universal and eventual to all of us. I absolutely loved this book; how the story is woven and unfolds and how the significance of the wonderful title is revealed. The book raises issues that are important and timely in Canada, in particular in relation to the recent Supreme Court ruling on assisted-suicide. Kim Thúy’s Ru is also beautifully written and by far the most poetic of the five books. It is fiction but reads as a biography/memoir. It is the story of a woman who arrives in Quebec, Canada as a refugee fleeing her war torn Vietnam. The story is written as a series of vignettes and unfolds in a non-linear manner, alternating between past and present and between Vietnam and Canada, chronicling the experiences of both refugee and immigrant. As much as I enjoyed both And The Birds Rained Down and Ru, beautifully translated from their original French into English, I felt that these two books were the weakest in responding to this year’s Canada Reads challenge of breaking down barriers.

Day One of the Canada Reads 2015 debate began with a trailer of each book and a one-minute opening defense by each champion. Lainey Lui hit the ground running with her sixty-second throw down of why Raziel Reid’s When Everything Feels Like The Movies is deserving of the tribute as the one book that can break down barriers. Ms. Lui’s opening salvo lit a fire by taking on “the guardians of the status quo” and “the pearl clutchers who guard the barrier of homophobia and intolerance” in direct response to detractors of the book currently petitioning to revoke Mr. Reid’s Governor General’s Award for what they view as vulgar content. The first book to be eliminated at the end of the Day One debate was Intolerable by Kamal Al-Solaylee. I was quite disappointed with this development, as I would have liked a more fulsome discussion of the book’s themes.

The second day of debate proved to be quite heated and often emotional as the panel of defenders passionately debated the merits of the four remaining books. Craig Kielburger’s opening remarks of Canada’s violation, assimilation and institutionalized racism against indigenous peoples in defense of The Inconvenient Indian, was powerful and his observation that The Inconvenient Indian is not a history book but about Canada today insightful. My disappointment over the elimination of Intolerable on Day One does not compare to my shock (and I’m not alone) with the outcome of the Day Two debate when Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian was eliminated.

I had hoped that The Inconvenient Indian and When Everything Feels Like Movies would be the two remaining books on the last day of debate. While choosing between the two would have been next to impossible for me, I think the debate of both books together would have made for compelling discussion. I believe that both books are deserving of the Canada Reads 2015 title. They are important contributions to Canadian literature and should be read by all. Both books deal with political and social discrimination and injustice against marginalized populations, and both books articulately subvert “accepted” notions and societal stereotypes, but come at these barriers in different ways.

In The Inconvenient Indian Mr. King disarms the reader through wit, humour and eloquence, a cleverly subtle but at the same time altogether powerful writing tool in undermining settler society’s perspectives about indigenous peoples, all the while illuminating the experiences and issues that indigenous peoples face in overcoming the devastation and legacy of colonization.

In When Everything Feels Like The Movies Mr. Reid comes at the barriers faced by gay youth, with devastating realism, urgency and impatience using language and imagery that provokes and shocks, but at the same time is recognizable to Millennials or Generation Y, leaving the reader disturbed and uncomfortable. There is no room for subtleties in Mr. Reid’s account of the realities and often horrors faced by gay youth, as one too many gay kids are getting shot in the head or are hanging themselves in closets.

The Canada Reads debate has now reached its half way mark with two days of debate left. Of the three remaining books, I feel that Raziel Reid’s When Everything Feels Like The Movies best exemplifies this year’s Canada Reads theme and is most deserving of the Canada Reads 2015 title. Mr. Reid’s book doesn’t simply break down barriers it takes a sledgehammer to them.

The full episodes of Days One and Two of the Canada Reads 2015 debates can be viewed here.

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