Blue Zen Mind Field


By Byron Rempel

I’ve got this writing app that fills the screen with what is supposed to lull you into some kind of concentrated bliss but looks uncannily like the blue whiteout of a Manitoba snowscape. Do you ever get that, living in the midst of that arctic Zen mindfield? (1)

That experiential wisdom thing? Because I don’t remember that. Experiencing panic maybe, in mid-February. Desolation and a distracted longing for la vie ailleurs. Preferably with palm trees. But concentrated bliss? There ain’t no palm trees in Montreal in February either.

I am heading for the palms and blue seas and skies any day now, in the Mexican Caribbean which should under no circumstances be called the Maya Riviera, since the Maya have little to do with that corporate creation, and giving it a fancy name isn’t going—oh, just stop me.

What I really want to say is, do you know what the official colour of the millennium is? That’s right, it’s Pantone 15-4020 TC. Cerulean Blue to you and me baby, “the colour of the sky on a serene crystal clear day.” Is that how your millennium is shaping up?

I mean, not even counting that Long Count b’ak’tun and the pseudoscientific end of the world, speaking of the Maya. Monstrous earthquakes and heartless tsunamis, multiple rebellions and dicey wars, and Pacioretty getting his neck just about broke by Chara (may the teacup poodles of hell sit on his chest and bark at his soul). Where will it all end? Are we even going to make the playoffs?

And now this: Montreal’s Blue Metropolis International Literary Festival goes through a regime change in some kind of bloodless coup. Okay I exaggerate—there may have been blood. Not from fighting mind, but perhaps from bleeding hearts. Linda Leith, whose name has struck fear or longing in all Montreal writers’ hearts, founded the festival some time back in the Pleistocene era, or fourteen years ago in human years, and now has hung up her Blackberry for good. “I had done this work for 14 years,” she told me, “and I wanted to have more time for writing than is possible with a job as demanding as Blue Metropolis.” (Linda is being diplomatic, which befits a cultural Czar. What she means is, she wanted to leave a demanding job in order to have more time to do a job that rarely pays, is the most brutal and relentless taskmaster, and leaves you alone and lonely at the best of times. I understand. I love it too.)

Nevertheless, if Leith brings to writing half the gumption she brought to the festival, she’ll be reaping awards soon. Stephen Henighan wrote in the Times Literary Supplement that the festival, founded “to heal the divisions between anglophone and francophone writers has evolved into a model for multilingual literary festivals elsewhere.”

Has it healed divisions? Perhaps that’s too big a question for a small column like this, or one that needs its own column, without all kinds of meandering about Zen and the art of calendar maintenance. One that is willing to take the time to outline centuries of misunderstandings that have led to resentments, jealousies and some of the best bagels in the world. That’s not this column. But the festival has certainly begun a dialogue between the two solipsisms. And what’s writing about if not communication, in any language it takes?

Linda Leith’s legacy is entrenched in the name of the festival too. Why a blue metropolis? In her latest book, Writing in the Time of Nationalism: From Two Solitudes to Blue Metropolis, she cites William Gass’ On Being Blue as the inspiration. Blue can mean anything and everything, from blue collar to blue chip

Blue Metropolis can accommodate all these meanings and dozens of others; it is limited to none of them. Blue Metropolis, in fact, is a bit like one of the inkblots the Swiss psychologist Hermann Rorschach proposed as a test of a patient’s emotional state in that it generates very different interpretations, which can be far more revealing about the person making the interpretation than they are about the inkblot itself. Blue Metropolis is a city that is open to all.   So Blue Metropolis is a utopian idea. It’s the city we want to live in, or at least it’s the city I want to live in. Blue Metropolis would bridge the linguistic divides of Montreal. It would bring Montrealers of different backgrounds together for literary events that would take place in French or English or both at once.

And apparently, the more languages the merrier. Blue Met likes to call itself the “world’s first multilingual literary festival,” and indeed there are now others in the world (Singapore: English, Mandarin, Malay and Tamil; Utrecht in the Netherlands links to two other countries each year, this year Scotland and Sweden).

We all want to eat local and boast global these days. There are by my count 35 major literary festivals in Canada, and the majority jiggles the adjective “International” in somewhere, including the East Braintree Enormously Large and Powerful International Literary Parade. International has apparently now replaced “World Class” as an only slightly less desperate plea for respect. Blue Metropolis may have more polyglottic flavour than other lit love-ins (High in Fibre Too!), but it is distinguished as the only bilingual one, with 60 per cent French and 40 per cent English, and I’m not sure who did this math but also with Spanish, Arabic, German, Portuguese and Italian presentations. All well and good, but as the mixed up citizens of Montreal can attest to, that can also lead to an identity crisis. On the other hand, there’s nothing like a dysfunctional family to jump-start a productive writing career.

The festival is “unusually popular and well-financed,” says the Montreal Gazette, with attendance at 16,000, 200 authors, and just shy of a million dollar budget. They’re trying to keep it vital too, which is exactly where incoming president William St-Hilaire steps in.

And boy does she (yes she, we’ll get to that in a minute) know how to make an entrance. Here she is in the Journal de Montréal: “this tall woman with a long neck who recalls the grace of Modigliani’s models…” (My translation). And the Montreal Gazette: “Knee-high black leather boots, bulbous shiny metal necklace, three-piece charcoal suit, fine auburn hair pulled back to reveal a high brow, designer eyeglasses squaring off the face—this lady was the whole package.”

Not bad for someone whose previous career was as a sailor. Or that’s how she likes to spin it anyway. She was a hostess for the Tall Ships event in Quebec back in the 80s, but they didn’t allow her on the ferry to park cars or tie it up on the docks. Stubborn, she got the job, but then she never got called up because she had a woman’s name. Thus the name change (from Caroline), which she eventually legalized. Having a sailor’s mouth didn’t help her in the next job, though.

In 2002 St-Hilaire crashed into the literary world with her French language erotica Banquette, placard, comptoir et autres lieux, (roughly translated as Booth, Closet, Countertop and Other Places) and has since published eight more. Despite publishers wanting more women writing and her name working against her, the Gazette says the collection “sold well in Quebec as well as in France and Japan.” Hardly surprising, as these three places are the most obsessed, enlightened or twisted about sex. In the latter country, they stop her on the street and ask for autographs. (Of course in my village the Japanese tourists stopped me on the street and asked to take my photograph, but that might have been because of the unfamiliar height of both me and my dog, a Great Dane).

And what does Madame William, who counts Woody Allen, Elizabeth Gilbert and spiritual development books among her influences, have in store for our staid little city? “My little twist,” says our erotic sailor, “is le choc literaire—the literary shock. Right now, the festival has a classic approach: readings, panels and such. I would like to see a little more punch: more debates, more provocation, more rebellion.”

And presumably, one likes to imagine, more blue erotica.

More on that next installment.

[1] I don’t know about where you are, but here both French and English speakers throw around a lot of “Zen” look and “Zen” feeling and “Zen” snack foods and “Zen” kitty litter. What does that mean? Beige coloured?  Too cheap to decorate? Does that wallpaper really emphasize experiential Wisdom in the attainment of enlightenment, or lead to a distrust of rational perception? So just stop it. Put that down. You’ll hurt yourself.

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Observations from New France

Byron Rempel

Byron Rempel lives outside of Montreal and writes and edits books for a living.