A big thank you to our incoming PhD candidate Kyle Gerber for this guest post on Rudy Wiebe’s recent visit. Read on to learn about Wiebe’s comments on becoming a writer, the ethics of authorship, and more.–JLH
If I were to write this post in the vernacular of contemporary celebrity culture, I’d probably confess “how I’m still coming down from two days straight of fangirling over literally my biggest hero, EVER.” I’ll try to tone it down for your sake, and my dignity. The truth is that I am still enjoying the lingering satisfied buzz of getting to sit in the shadow of my most significant literary influence, and I’ll try to parse the details into something meaningful for our readers here.
Last week, the English Department was privileged to host two events with Governor General’s Award-winning author Rudy Wiebe. On Tuesday, April 15th Rudy read from both Stolen Life: Journey of a Cree Woman (1998, Jackpine) and his recently published Collected Stories: 1955 – 2010 (2010, Jackpine). On Wednesday, April 16th he was interviewed by Lacey Beer (PhD candidate in the English Department) and Rob Zacharias (Banting Postdoctoral Fellow)regarding – but not limited to – the material from the day before, addressing a range of questions from authorship and community to authorship and ethics.
Wiebe is one of Canada’s most celebrated authors, having won most of the major literary awards in the country. He is also considered one of the seminal voices in Western Canadian literature, and is known for his attention to Western Canadian communities, particularly indigenous peoples and Mennonites. His frequently anthologized short story “Where Is The Voice Coming From?” is often held as the exemplar of his dedication to examining those voices which are either ignored or silenced by history, and the theme of investigating these voices came out strong in the readings and interview session.
In spite of it being in the middle of exams, and a few days before Easter, both events were well-attended by a cross-section of faculty, students, and community members. A few of those in attendance were students from a community literature class that I taught in Elmira this winter, in which we studied Wiebe’s first novel, Peace Shall Destroy Many (1962, McClelland and Stewart). I spoke with them afterwards, and several of them mentioned how striking it was to hear an author read his own words, commenting on the sense of reflective power captured in the mixture of voice and words.
I asked Jesse Hutchison, a PhD candidate drawing on Wiebe’s autobiography in his dissertation, to weigh in on the interview, and he had this to say:
There was one particular story that Wiebe told that is noteworthy for English students. Lacey asked Wiebe how it felt to be a recognized writer. Wiebe answered that to be recognized is wonderful. He said that he was born to refugee parents whose greatest desire was for their children to make a living. Consequently, they were initially disappointed when Rudy decided to go to university rather than immediately go to work. And if you were going to go to university it was understood that you would go to become a doctor or something along those lines. And, in fact, Wiebe did begin in the sciences but eventually switched to an English major. This, particularly, shocked his mother who asked, “What are you going to become?” Rudy responded yesterday by saying, “I’ve become a writer and I’ve been very happy.”
There was some interesting discussion on the ethics of collaboration, and Wiebe was quite honest about how troubled he was while working with Yvonne Johnson on Stolen Life. While speaking with some from my class afterwards, they all noted the burden, or weight of responsibility that an author carries when speaking with and/or for another. Sarah Gibbons, another PhD candidate in the department, also commented on Wiebe’s response to this topic:
[Wiebe] gave an interesting explanation of how to share a story with someone is to give that person a gift, and that Yvonne Johnson had given him a gift by placing trust in him to help her tell her story. He also noted that helping someone to tell a story involves a great amount of responsibility. It involves a sincere acknowledgment that you believe the person’s story and are committed to helping them tell it.
The one thing about Wiebe’s work that has always stuck out to me is its intensely emotional quality, and the two times I’ve had the privilege of hearing Wiebe read from his work, the distinction between word, voice, and emotion becomes almost non-existent. Wiebe’s words, whether fiction or non-fiction, seem merely a porous membrane under which the significantly emotional component of human experience strains. Fortunately for us, he is not done writing, and a new novel called Come Back has just been announced. Assuming that it is of the same caliber that we’ve come to expect from Wiebe, we’re in for quite the treat. I, for one, can hardly wait.
A great big Thank You to those in the English Department who made it possible for these two events to happen, especially to Lacey Beer who coordinated and organized the entire visit.
Again, thank you to Kyle Gerber. –JLH