Final novel by celebrated Indigenous author Richard Wagamese launched at UVic

From telling stories that helped us understand what it meant to be Canadian to inspiring future generations of writers, Richard Wagamase was one of Canada’s most beloved authors. His death in 2017 at just 61 was a profound loss for our country’s literary culture, and now his final novel, Starlight, is being launched locally at a special event hosted by UVic Chancellor Shelagh Rogers who is also host of CBC Radio’s The Next Chapter and a longtime friend of Wagamese.

The Starlight book launch runs from 7-8:30pm Tuesday, Dec 4, at UVic’s First Peoples House. Admission is free, and all are welcome.

Starlight tells the story of an abused woman who discovers sanctuary on the farm of an Indigenous man, and is an apt conclusion to his literary legacy.

“This book is not only a last gift to his readers, it is a masterpiece,” says Rogers. “It will be wonderful to be among friends to pay tribute to his life and his writing, and it’s wonderful that this event takes place at UVic, as Richard loved the university and his time here.”

Joining Rogers will be 2018 Governor General’s Award winner Darrel J. McLeod (Mamaskatch), 2018 Bolen Book Prize winner Monique Gray Smith (Speaking Our Truth: A Journey of Reconciliation), current Writing MFA candidate Troy Sebastian and Writing professor emerita Lorna Crozier.

Richard Wagamese (photo: John Threlfall)

As one of the Harvey Southam Guest Lecturers in the Department of Writing, Wagamase had a lasting influence on UVic students and the local community by mentoring young writers and sharing his vision of the power of Indigenous storytelling.

“Richard Wagamase had a profound impact on our national culture through his novels, his essays, his memoirs and his memorable readings and talks,” says Writing chair David Leach, moderator of this event.

“As our Southam Lecturer in 2011, he inspired and challenged our students to move out of their comfort zones as writers and explore the power of oral storytelling. It was such a great pleasure to hear Richard’s big-hearted laugh in our hallways and talk with him about books or baseball or the blues. It’s still a shock to realize we will never get another chance to hear him read aloud from his richly detailed and deeply humane novels and essays.”

By drawing upon his work as a journalist and his experiences as a residential school survivor, Wagamese created memorable and award-winning novels such as Indian Horse and Medicine Walk, as well as compelling works of nonfiction, including as One Native Life and Embers.

Copies of Starlight will be available for sale at the event.

UVic is accessible by sustainable travel options including transit and cycling. For those arriving by car, pay parking is in effect. Evening parking is $3.

The Drowsy Chaperone a smash success!

The cast of The Drowsy Chaperone (photo: Dean Kalyan)

The response to Phoenix’s current production of The Drowsy Chaperone, directed by Jacques Lemay, has been fantastic. From audiences to reviewers alike, this production is being hailed as one of the Phoenix’s best shows ever!

It’s such a hit, in fact, that the show is now extended through to November 25. All prior shows are currently SOLD OUT, except for the recent additions of Sunday, November 25 at 2 & 8pm—but we also expect those shows to also sell out quickly. Call the Phoenix box office at 250-721-8000, and note that all hold-over tickets are $30.

Here’s a quick roundup of what the media are saying:

“[Jacques] Lemay takes full rein as director and choreographer—and the results are even more stunning. This is one of the best shows staged by the university’s theatre department in recent years and should not be missed,” notes thisTimes Colonist review by Adrian Chamberlain. “Everything about this elegant, detailed production works well: the excellent costumes, set, acting, dancing, choreography . . . . [this is] a truly superior piece of theatre that will undoubtedly be a highlight of the season.”

Douglas Peerless as the Man in the Chair (photo: Dean Kalyan)

“Sometimes you just want to forget about politics, the state of the environment and other troublesome daily matters, and sit back to enjoy a bit of silly fluff. If this is your state of mind, The Drowsy Chaperone at the Phoenix Theatre is exactly what you need,” says this Monday Magazine review by Sheila Martindale. “With minimal plot, unlikely romantic situations and dynamic singing and dancing, this musical play is just the ticket to chase away the November blues.”

While Martindale praises the cast—notably student Douglas Peerless as the Man in the Chair narrator, who she describes as being “irrepressibly enthusiastic and very cute”—she also highlights the production’s designers. “Bryan Kenney’s set is clever, starting with a tiny apartment kitchen, which folds away to reveal a spacious interior where most of the action takes place. Graham McMonagle’s costumes are very 1920s and a bit over the top – exactly right for the tone of the piece. Nancy Curry must be commended for her splendid music direction, while Jacques Lemay is the overall director and choreographer . . . . Kudos to all.”

The Showbill Canada blog was similarly effusive in this review by Tony Carter: “While the effort and skill that went into this production is clear from everyone involved, special praise is owed to Douglas Peerless . . . . [but] for every bit of character work that Peerless deserves praise for, the actors who populate the diegetic musical deserve just as much for their physicality . . . from Ted Angelo Ngkaion’s blindfolded roller skating to Alison Roberts show-stopper stage routine, to Rahat Saini’s incredible vocals all live up to the Broadway tradition . . . . The Drowsy Chaperone has no bad performances. It is a Broadway classic brought to life by an amazing set design and a talented cast and crew.”

Rahat Saini as the titular chaperone (photo: Dean Kalyan)

Local arts podcast Check the Program was also delighted by it, noting, “This is a very strong production and the kind of show Phoenix does so well: it’s a big show that needs a big stage, a big cast, big sets and big costumes . . . director Jacques Lemay has managed to find the tragedy and the sadness in that character, which really shifts it from just being a comedy; it has a strong emotional core . . . Bryan Kenney‘s sets are fantastic . . . Graham McMonagle continues a streak of really great costumes . . . it really is so much fun. It’s a great show!”

Finally, the student press was also very enthusiastic, with UVic’s Martlet reviewer Adam Bach describing it as “a grand spectacle . . . honourable [cast] mentions include Aaron Smail and David Cosbey—they earn their laughs not just through physical comedy and choice accents, but by (smartly) playing opposites to each other’s size and vocal range. Another honourable mention goes to Ciaran Volke. Though his role has the least amount of jokes built directly into the script, he has everyone (but himself) giggling the whole show. The ensemble works together to command the stage, thrilling the audience with comedy and a wholesome undertone. Several numbers beg standing ovations in and of themselves.”

Nicholas Atkinson as the comic lothario Adolpho (photo: Dean Kalyan)

And Camosun’s the Nexus said in their review by Katy Weicker that “the star of this show, in many ways, is the complex stage . . . [but] the over-the-top performance style of the actors . . . I found incredibly entertaining . . . in particular, Justin Francis Lee, Rahat Saini and Nicholas Atkinson. While most of the actors managed to steal the spotlight at one point or another with their shenanigans and hijinx, the consistent shining light in the performance was Douglas Peerless, our fourth-wall-breaking narrator . . . Peerless is complex and nuanced, causing the audience to laugh out loud one moment and fight back tears alongside him the next. His raw, modern-day realness as the only major character outside the musical gives the perfect contrast to the show-stopping energy of The Drowsy Chaperone.

Weicker concludes that, “the Phoenix Theatre should be commended for tackling such an ambitious project. It’s clearly a huge undertaking . . . they nailed the razzle-dazzle, the quick-change costumes and sets, and the comedic timing of an old-time musical, while giving a real person for the audience to connect with in Peerless’ Man in Chair.”

Simply put, don’t miss The Drowsy Chaperone at the Phoenix . . . if you can get a ticket. People are sure to be talking about this production for years to come!

Writing alumna wins second Giller Prize in seven years

Internationally acclaimed Department of Writing alumna and Greater Victoria-based author Esi Edugyan has won the 2018 Scotiabank Giller Prize for her latest novel, Washington Black.

Esi Edugyan wins her second Giller Prize on Nov 19

Edugyan wins $100,000 on this, the 25th anniversary of Canada’s richest literary award, and also earns the distinction of being one of only three authors to twice win the Giller Prize, alongside M.G. Vassanji and Alice Munro.

“I wasn’t expecting to win,” she told the audience as she collected the award & her $100,000 prize. “So I didn’t prepare a speech.” She did, however, go on to say that, “in a climate where so many forms of truth telling are under siege, this feels like a really wonderful and important celebration of words.”

You can congratulate Esi in person at a special Autographing with Esi Edugyan, from noon to 2pm Friday, Dec 7 at Munro’s Books, 1108 Government.

Nominated for the Man Booker Prize, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, and the winner of this year’s Giller Prize, Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black is a wildly inventive portrayal of a young slave’s flight from Barbados alongside a mysterious inventor.

Edugyan previously won the Giller in 2011 for her sophomore novel, Half-Blood Blues. Indeed, having only published three novels (including her debut, The Second Life of Samuel Tyne), Edugyan’s back-to-back wins for Washington Black and Half-Blood Blues is doubly remarkable, especially when you consider both were shortlisted for the trifecta of fiction awards — not only the Giller but also the Man Booker Prize and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize.

The announcement was made on November 19 at a black-tie dinner and award ceremony hosted by television personality and author Rick Mercer, and attended by nearly 500 members of the publishing, media and arts communities. This year’s longlist, shortlist, and winner were selected by they five-member jury of Canadian writers Kamal Al-Solaylee, Maxine Bailey and Heather O’Neill, along with American writer John Freeman and English novelist Philip Hensher.

Of Edugyan’s winning novel, the jury wrote, “How often history asks us to underestimate those trapped there. This remarkable novel imagines what happens when a black man escapes history’s inevitable clasp — in his case, in a hot air balloon no less. Washington Black, the hero of Esi Edugyan’s novel, is born in the 1800s in Barbados with a quick mind, a curious eye and a yearning for adventure. In conjuring Black’s vivid and complex world — as cruel empires begin to crumble and the frontiers of science open like astounding vistas — Edugyan has written a supremely engrossing novel about friendship and love and the way identity is sometimes a far more vital act of imagination than the age in which one lives.”

Edugyan earned her BA in Writing department in 1999, and later taught some courses for the department as a sessional instructor. She is also married to fellow Writing alumnus Steven Price, who is also an acclaimed novelist and poet.

“I studied with so many great teachers at UVic,” said Edugyan in this 2012 interview upon being named one of UVic’s Distinguished Alumni. “The caliber of guidance was amazing. Patrick Lane was my first great teacher. I found myself following poetry because he was so inspiring. Jack Hodgins, Lorna Crozier, Bill Gaston . . . there was such a high level of instruction.”

Award-winning author and Writing professor Bill Gaston recalls that both Edugyan and Price were in the very first workshop he ran at UVic in 1998. “I’m sure never to say I ‘taught’ her, though,” he says with a chuckle. “I tried to stay out of her way, and not ruin things.”

The four remaining Giller finalists, who receive $10,000 each, include Patrick deWitt (who also lost to Edugyan in 2011) for French Exit, Thea Lim for An Ocean of Minutes, É​ric Dupont for Songs for the Cold of Heart, and Sheila Heti for Motherhood.

Media coverage of Edugyan’s win was extensive, of course, with notably pieces running in CBC News, the Globe and Mail, the local Times Colonist and CBC Radio’s All Points West, who interviewed Bill Gaston on Nov 20 but has yet to archive the story.

The Globe and Mail also published this interesting post-Giller piece, commenting on the award’s impact for the Canadian publishing industry. “The greatest relief through the room was that the assembled publicists would not have to battle to sell a 600-page book in translation about a small Quebec town,” wrote analyst Russell Smith. “This one sells itself.”

AHVS professor Carolyn Butler-Palmer advised on new $10 bill Copy

When Art History & Visual Studies professor Carolyn Butler-Palmer received an email from the Bank of Canada back in 2017, she didn’t put much stock in it. “To be honest, I thought it was a scam email,” she laughs, “but in fact they wanted to speak to me as an art historian.”

While it’s no secret now that Canada’s new vertical $10 bill features Nova Scotia civil libertarian Viola Desmond, Butler-Palmer was under a strict confidentiality order for several months starting in summer 2017 while she was consulted by the Bank of Canada about the proposed design. One of a number of experts contacted, Butler-Palmer came to their attention due to the Globe and Mail coverage of her early 2017 exhibit Ellen Neel: The First Woman Totem Pole Carver at UVic’s Legacy Gallery.

“They knew I had an interest in women and issues of diversity,” she says. “And while they’d already determined Viola Desmond would be on the front side of the bill, they were trying to get different regional perspectives on options for the flip side—including what they ended up with, the Canadian Museum of Human Rights.”

Carolyn Butler Palmer with one of Ellen Neel’s masks in the Legacy Gallery exhibit

Often described as Canada’s Rosa Parks, the 32-year-old Desmond refused to leave her seat in the “whites only” section at the Roseland Theatre in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, back in 1946. As a result, she was dragged out of the theatre by police and then jailed; it wasn’t until 1954 that segregation was legally ended in Nova Scotia, partly due to the publicity around Desmond’s case.

While over 450 iconic Canadian women met the initial qualifying criteria, that list was then narrowed down to a dozen candidates by an independent advisory council for possible inclusion on the $10 bill; Desmond was eventually selected by the Minister of Finance and the Governor of the Bank of Canada from a shortlist of five (including poet E. Pauline Johnson (Tekahionwake), engineer Elsie MacGill, athlete Bobbie Rosenfeld and suffragette Idola Saint-Jean) in December 2016. “It was long overdue for a banknote to feature an iconic Canadian woman,” said Stephen Poloz, Governor of the Bank of Canada, when the new bill was unveiled in March 2018. (Butler-Palmer says she “had, in fact, already voted for Viola.”)

And while we now know the new $10 bill features the exterior of the Canadian Museum of Human Rights in Winnipeg, as well as an excerpt from the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and an eagle feather representing the continuing struggle for recognition of the rights of Canada’s Indigenous people, the question of what was going to appear on the reverse of the bill was still up in the air during Butler-Palmer’s consultation. But does she like the final design?

“To be honest, I’m not sure I would’ve gone with what they selected—without going into specifics, there were other objects I thought were more favourable,” she says with a  chuckle. “But I understand why they went in that direction—it’s a new museum and suits the broader issue of human rights. And the vertical design does have more impact.”

All in all, it was a unique experience for Butler-Palmer, who also teaches an AHVS elective titled “Fakes, Forgeries and Fraud” (returning in January 2019), which deals specifically with art forgery and theft—both of which are popularly associated with money. “It certainly was interesting to be contacted by a federal agency and be asked your professional opinion,” she says.

Now that’s news you can take to the bank!

A shifting focus: from photography to film

Like many outstanding students, the term “overachiever” is a good fit for graduating international Visual Arts major Guochen Wang.

Chen Wang (photo: Chorong Kim)

Born & raised in Taiyuan, a mid-sized city in China’s central Shanxi province, Chen went to a local international high school before looking for overseas post-secondary options. Yet his reasons for choosing UVic over an institution in the US, England or Europe may not be surprising, given his home city’s population of 4.2 million. “I visited Victoria when I was 12 and remember really liking it,” he recalls. “I liked the trees and the quiet.”

He was also attracted by the contemporary practice of UVic’s Visual Arts program, as well as its metaphorical appeal. “I was already doing high-fashion commercial photography in China, which I enjoyed, but I wanted to try something new,” he explains. “Visual Arts looks at photography as a tool to go somewhere else.”

An award-winning photographer before leaving China, Chen continued to find success during his undergrad years: not only did he mount two solo exhibits at local galleries, but he also picked up awards at both the Sidney Fine Art Show and the Victoria Arts Council’s LOOK show. “I like taking pictures of people on the street and telling a story through the lens,” he says.

Yet his future interdisciplinary path started to come into focus when he took his first video art course and then enrolled in the Writing department’s popular film production elective, where he worked on the short film Fear or Favour.

“I just fell in love with the medium,” he says. “Visual art is more about the individual—how you approach the work, creating on your own—but film is different. It’s more collaborative, where everyone is working towards the same goal. It feels different when you achieve something together.”

Chen on location (photo: Chorong Kim)

Fusing his artistic passion with tangible career goals, over the past four years Chen has founded the UVic Film Club, joined the CineVic Society of Independent Filmmakers, started his own commercial production company, joined CHEK TV’s production team (where he helped create over 20 commercials), served as the director of photography and camera operator for local company Botega Creative Ltd, worked as a sessional instructor for the Beifang International Education Group and volunteered on a number of independent films shot locally — all while finishing his undergraduate degree.

“I like the freedom to create,” he says. “Everyone in Victoria is very welcoming, and everyone in the independent film community seems to know and like each other, and the crews are very nice.”

Clearly no slacker, Chen applied for and was accepted as a screenwriting major in the Writing department’s MFA program for the 2018 fall session.

His intention is to develop a web series that uses humour to explore cross-cultural understanding. “I believe that comedy — which is itself a kind of international language that helps to connect people — is a good way to express my own feelings, inspire international students and bring together both Canadian and Chinese audiences in an understated way,” he says. “It allows cultural differences to be easily understood and it builds on shared human values by non-threatening means.”

Much like his experience with street photography, Chen finds humour in the reality of everyday observations. “I can give you an example: when I first got here, I made some Canadian friends and they would greet me by saying ‘What’s up?’ — so I would look up. It’s like [the TV series] Fresh Off the Boat, except for me it would be fresh off the plane.”

While working on his MFA, he’s now getting hired for local film shoots, both independent and union (Pupstars: Christmas), as well as writing and directing his own work, like the short film Drownings. “There’s a difference between writing something in visual language as a screenplay than watching the visual language on the screen,” he explains, “but the only way you can see that is to make it.”

Despite Vancouver’s Hollywood North reputation, Chen likes the idea of staying in Victoria. “I can shoot in other cities, but I like it here: I like the environment, and there are so many talented people who work very hard.”