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Here is my final piece as CEO of the Institute for Canadian Citizenship
Four years ago, I was given the chance to get out of my writerly room. Then deep into mid-career, with 11 books published and another under contract, I was offered a position running the Institute for Canadian Citizenship (ICC), a national not-for-profit organization based in Toronto. The offer fell from the sky and I had few formal qualifications for the role, at least regarding management experience.
I took the job. I liked the ICC’s mission, especially its work with new Canadians and its desire to frame public conversations around the benefits of immigration and the project of inclusion. My own writing had long been preoccupied with cultural identity and dislocation, and by 2015 the world had awakened to the “crisis” that consumes us still – the largest forced movement of humans across borders since the end of the Second World War.
For me, this wasn’t a crisis at all – it was Exodus, the book after Genesis in the Bible. According to that story, humanity was born in the garden. Not long after, we started relocating.
The American author John Gardner is often credited with declaring all of Western literature to be variations on exactly two tales. One tale is of a person who goes on a journey. The other concerns a stranger coming to town. Both are about people on the move and the challenges and changes that inevitably ensue.
Gardner’s count is probably a few stories short of the spectrum of archetypal narrative arcs. A scholar named Christopher Booker spent 34 years completing The Seven Basic Plots, a more accurate number. Two of his seven – “The Quest” and “Voyage and Return” – are directly about passages. Among the others, “Overcoming the Monster,” “Rags to Riches” and “Rebirth” also usually involve travel, much of it one-way.
In other words, I came into the job with a feeling for the narrative underpinning the Institute’s mission. Though not an immigrant, I have been telling versions of it in my own fiction for three decades. That the narrative has also been the engine for Canada, or at least for settler Canada, from its onset, was another attraction. Alongside the United States, we are the longest continuous experiment in immigrant nation-building.
Now, with my tenure at the ICC wound down, I am in equal parts changed and chastened by direct, shared experiences of how this story is unfolding. What I know much better about it now – know in my heart and mind, rather than my imagination – is mostly the result of meeting the people who are living the narrative with courage and dignity.
For this reason, I am forever grateful to the Syrian family who, during a visit we organized to Parliament in Ottawa, briefly welcomed a stranger into their circle. A four-year-old girl, struggling to keep up, asked if I would carry her on my shoulders. I did so for almost two hours, and deposited her on the bus at the end – all without her parents identifying themselves to me. Afterward, I learned this was a sign of their trust in the village to help raise the child.
Then there was the young man at the 6 Degrees forum we held last month in Berlin who took the microphone and explained to 400 people in broken German that he had walked up through Europe to escape the disastrous civil war in his homeland. Now he was sleeping on couches, and sometimes in the streets, in the capital, lost and afraid. Was he welcome in Germany? Would he ever be welcome anywhere?
No surprise, our decade to date has produced a burgeoning shelf of novels telling us of the news that will stay the news – that is, the narrative of displacement, relocation and rebirth that is our shared reality, now and into the future. The German novelist Jenny Erpenbeck calls this reality “the central moral question of our time.”
When the U.S. President sanctions the holding of the children of migrants as hostages and recasts a caravan of desperate people as an invasion, he is doing his own ugly, ahistorical storytelling. He is also accelerating a campaign of vilification into one of criminalization.
And criminals aren’t like us. They aren’t like our family ancestors either, who, it is true, were once immigrants, and mostly arrived in distress, and without much welcome or legal sanction, never mind language skills or professional qualifications or the right religion or skin colour. Criminals are law-breakers and wrong-doers, threats to security, even to the state itself. Why would such people deserve our empathy?
Two battles are under way on the eve of 2019, and they are related. The first is around the language we use to explain concepts such as immigrant, citizen, refugee and inclusion. The words we use, in short, to explain the particulars of our particular age. They make all the difference to how people think about these processes and, more importantly, these lives.
The parallel battle is over narrative. Which stories do we listen to in order to frame how best to negotiate, as citizens of the spaces we call countries, the routine and quite natural business of change and evolution? I wish I could say it was just a struggle to create more empathetic fellow travellers for this negotiation, the usual ambition for art when it intersects with politics and power.
By such a measure, Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone might feel a step backward – a white German writing about African refugees in Berlin. This acclaimed novel, published in English in 2017, addresses the dominant-gaze issue through the author’s extensive personal reporting of the actual journeys of refugees to reach Germany and her skillful use of these harrowing, moving accounts in the character portraits.
Erpenbeck also makes her protagonist, a retired Berlin academic, the classic pilgrim. Richard’s journey, from listless onlooker to energized participant, offers signposts for how those of us lucky enough to live unaffected by these upheavals, at least directly, can become both more involved and happier citizens. Progress along the way includes talking, listening, cooking, playing music and even sharing a roof with people now in your midst, and just like you and your friends.
Go, Went, Gone is a humanistic response to our age’s “human crisis,” as Chinese artist Ai Weiwei calls the mass displacements, not a vision of its shape into the future. Two other recent novels reflect on how that future might look, should countries and ecosystems continue to collapse and colossal numbers of citizens need to keep moving. Both the books are dystopian, and start in circumstances after democracy has failed.
Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West, originally published in 2017, is fast becoming a guide for how to think postnationally about movement and belonging. His story follows young lovers, Saeed and Nadia, who flee an unnamed city savaged by war and fanaticism by stepping through magical doors. On the far side are marginally safer places: a Greek island overwhelmed by refugees, then a London so undone by uninvited newcomers it debates an extermination campaign.
The couple end up in a barely recognizable future California, where they drift apart, as lovers do. Much has been made of Hamid’s transporter device, a signal both that he is telling a parable and is deliberately dispensing with the actual migrant journey, the source, perhaps, of too much easily sensationalized attention and pathos right now.
Less remarked about Exit West is its insistence on allowing its characters to be preoccupied most of their waking hours with the same problems of love, sex, work and faith as the rest of us. Being a refugee is not an identity or the sum of one’s humanity. It is a temporary status, albeit a distressing and consuming one.
In the background of the turmoil in the novel are countries that have lost the institutional supports, or even the vocabularies, to negotiate the challenges of a world on the move, and so have descended into chaos. Something has gone wrong with democracies in Exit West.
In Thea Lim’s 2018 debut, An Ocean of Minutes, things have gone catastrophically wrong for a United States devastated by a pandemic, descended into a shoddy corporate totalitarianism, and then riven by an internal political partition. A corporation has invented time travel, allowing people to escape the flu into the future, and Lim’s protagonist, Polly, must actually find a way back in time to locate her lost lover.
Lim’s striking plot innovation – all of An Ocean of Minutes is set in the 20th century, even the “future” sections – is as flashy as Hamid’s portals. But she, too, is more interested in the inner lives of her characters, and in speculating how it might look for America and Americans to be obliged to enact the same narratives of escape and flight and hostile border crossings as so many other nations and nationals.
Countries and their leaders who suggest otherwise through their policies and their rhetoric aren’t only telling lies about their own histories and humanity. They are recklessly imperilling the only political system that insists on respecting individuals, no matter who they are or where they’ve come from, and which on its best days appreciates how diversity – of identity, thought, perspective – are strengths for a society, not the opposite.
Better language and a deeper recognition of our shared Exodus narrative aren’t only ways to counter the nativism and nationalism now holding such powerful sway. They may be how democracy fights back.
Here is the link:
Writers’ Trust Fellowship 2018
Jury Citation: “The range, depth, and beauty of Charles Foran’s work is an astounding feat. Few authors in Canada or the world write as eloquently or expertly about literary lions and hockey legends; about the Irish Troubles and post-Tiananmen Square China; about lives caught in the public gaze of history or in their most intimate encounters. In a body of work that spans the tail end of one century and the beginning of another, he’s proven just as adventurous in his choices of genre — moving in and out of fiction, literary nonfiction, journalism, biography, criticism, and advocacy for freedom of speech and diverse societies. The Writers’ Trust salutes and welcomes to its fellowship an indispensable voice in Canadian literature, a masterful storyteller who has helped us understand ourselves and the world around us one book, one essay, one campaign, at a time. ” — 2018 Writers’ Trust Fellowship Jury
My piece about Leonard Cohen’s posthumous poetry collection, The Flame, for The Walrus, December 2018.
Leonard Cohen’s Afterlife.
Read the full piece here
My conversation with Chris Hedges, published in the Literary Review of Canada, summer 2018
There is no plan b; Chris Hedges on the collapse of America
Read the full piece here
Charlie Foran to step down as the Institute for Canadian Citizenship’s CEO
Architect of 6 Degrees to complete term in 2019
TORONTO, July 11, 2018—Charlie Foran, CEO of the Institute for Canadian Citizenship (ICC), announced today that he will be completing his term at the helm of the organization in early 2019.
“Charlie has led us through a period of exceptional growth”, said the Rt. Hon. Adrienne Clarkson, co-founder and co-chair of the ICC. “Over the past four years he has steered the dynamic expansion and reinvention of our cornerstone programs—the Building Citizenship and Cultural Access Pass programs. At the same time, he conceived of and has firmly established 6 Degrees as a driving force in responding to the rise in nativism and exclusion across the globe.”
Launched in 2016, 6 Degrees is an immersive annual three-day forum in Toronto focusing on citizenship and inclusion. Since then, it has grown to include a series of one-day events across Canada and around the world. This year, 6 Degrees Toronto will take place from September 24 to 26, followed by 6 Degrees Berlin on November 12. By the end of Foran’s term, the ICC will have published seven reports through its research arm, Ideas & Insights, and completed the digital transformation of its Cultural Access Pass program.
“When we first asked Charlie to suspend his writing and teaching career to help us achieve our vision of broader global impact, we couldn’t have imagined a quadrupling of the ICC’s work in such a short period”, said John Ralston Saul, co-founder and co-chair. “We are so grateful for the passion and authenticity he brings to the ICC, and for the truly inspirational leadership that will see us through to the start of 2019.”
“It’s been an honour to usher the ICC into its second decade,” said Foran. “The ICC is unique, not just in what we do but also in how we do it. And from the outset, I’ve worked alongside great people—the best way to ensure that the critical work we do on citizenship and inclusion has lasting impact.”
Foran is a Member of the Order of Canada. He is past president of PEN Canada, a senior fellow at Massey College in the University of Toronto, and an adjunct professor in the Department of English at the University of Toronto.He is author of 11 books.
On June 15, 2018, I delivered the commencement address to the St. Michael’s class of 2018 at Convocation Hall.
Read the entire speech here
For my Father, published in the Globe & Mail April 22
David Foran: Woodworker. History buff. Dancer. Husband. Born July 6, 1932, in Ottawa; died Dec. 2, 2017, in Bobcaygeon, Ont.; of serious health issues, including kidney failure; aged 85.
Dave Foran loved Hank Williams and Hank Snow, John Wayne and Gary Cooper. Red wine pleased him greatly, as did baked beans and old cheddar cheese. He was passionate about history, especially Canadian and British, and would take his oldest son on drives around Ontario to point out the remaining Orange Lodges – the source, he believed, of much that was narrow-minded and grim about the province of his upbringing. He worked most contentedly with his hands and for a while built model chariots and crossbows that were put on display at the local library. Once retired, he crafted pine stools, mailboxes and bird houses.
He loved the beauty and sensuality of cats, all the more so for their cold killer hearts.
For sure, Dave Foran loved his three children and, by the end, five grandchildren and one great grandchild. The grandparent role suited him especially: helping his grandsons build a tree fort; watching teen movies over and over with his granddaughters.
Above all else, though, Dave Foran loved Muriel Foran, his wife of 62 years. They met in small town Northern Ontario in the early 1950s. She was second youngest of 12 children born to a mill worker. Dave had survived a disastrous Ottawa childhood and gone into the bush, where he staked claims and hunted his food. Stories told of that time and place suggested a reckless young man, the kind that often did not see his own 25th birthday, or else ended up a rooming-house denizen, his best days long behind.
But he got lucky. While visiting a friend in Blind River, he met Muriel Fallu, a school teacher. Soon they were married and living in a tiny house in the town. Soon after again, they were in the suburbs of Toronto. Children, friendships, a career managing shopping malls, followed. Happy, positive things – the opposite of that childhood, or a protracted life in the bush.
His marriage helped him become a functioning husband, father and friend. He never lost that edge, however, and once, in his late 60s, floored a man half his age for insulting his daughter. He had come through a personal fire, and Muriel was his salvation.
Dave and Muriel Foran loved to dance. To jive especially, the hip hop of their courtship days. They jived fast and fluid, at ease as partners, lovers and best friends. Well into their 70s they danced with such joy, astonishing their grown children, who looked away in deference, sensing that the act was, ultimately, private.
In his own final years, Dave was mostly bedridden, if still his mischievous, unfiltered self. They could no longer dance. But they were together, pretty much every hour of every day, until the end, and she was never less than the great, sustaining love of his life.
See article here.
In February 2018, I interviewed the great novelist Martin Amis at the PEN Canada benefit in Toronto.