Dim Sum and Tug Talk

Canadian novelist Alistair MacLeod once observed that “writers write about what worries them”.  If he’d been in Vancouver this week at the International Writers and Readers Festival, Alistair MacLeod would have been cheered by the talk that went on informally among writers when they weren’t onstage.  If the gatherings at which I was present are representative, writers have some large and provocative ideas that are driving them to write. 

Ours hosts Susan and Lonnie arranged for us to have dim sum at Floata, the largest Chinese restaurant in Chinatown.  It seats 1,000 and is apparently a favourite for massive weddings and receptions. Floata is also famous for its lunchtime dim sum, and that’s why were there. For me, dim sum is the most sociable of meals – the round table, the sharing of dishes, the pouring of tea fosters a sense of communion that is particularly welcome when scores of strangers are brought together at an event like an International Book Festival.

We were joined at Floata by another of Susan and Lonnie’s charges for the Festival, the novelist, Camilla Gibb.   Her latest novel The Beauty of Humanity Movement is set in contemporary Vietnam.  The novel has as a central character an old man who once owned a restaurant patronized by artists and writers but who, after he fell afoul of the Communist regime is banished to the streets where he sells his famous Pho from a cart.  Camilla had with her her one month old daughter, Olivia, and Olivia’s nanny, Eveline. 

The seven of us (well that seven counts Olivia who truthfully didn’t eat much) ordered way, way too much food. I believe this is an ancient Chinese tradition. The food was great but the conversation was even better.  Our youngest son is 30, but I’m still recovering from his birth. I was dazzled at Camilla, a single parent, who’s been on the road doing a book tour pretty much since the day of Olivia’s birth. Predictably, much of our talk was about combining parenthood and writing but the most compelling conversation was, as they say in the movie biz, a back-story to Camilla’s new novel.

After Camilla graduated from Oxford with a Ph.D. in Anthropology, she came back to Canada and began working as a career counselor for U. of T.  She hated the job.  One day a colleague asked her what would make her happy and what was standing in the way of her dream.  Camilla’s answer to the first question was “Writing”; her answer to the second was “lack of funds.”

A week later, her friend returned with a box filled with cash -- $6,000 to be exact.  This was in 1999.  Six months later, Camilla’s first novel was finished and she was on her way.  She had been thinking about ‘retribution’ for this gift and several years ago when she was in Vietnam, she found the perfect candidate:  her friend Phuong who longed to open a pho shop of his own but lacked cash.  Camilla gave him $6,000 and the circle was complete. Someday when the time is right, Phuong will start another circle.    

Later that same day, Ted and I went on a harbour cruise that the organizers of the Writers Festival had arranged for its writers and their beloveds.  Our boat was a converted tugboat named La Fille that had been nicely fitted out with soft cushions, warm blankets, fresh flowers, wine, cheese, vegetable platters and truffles.  More tough sledding for the Bowens.

Our boat held, I think 22 people, and we were full, but the most provocative conversation that I was involved in seemed to be almost an extension of Camilla’s story at dim sum.  I was sitting with Katie Smith Milway, a Canadian writer of children’s books who lives in Wellesley Massachusetts.   

Katie’s first book One Hen:  How One Small Loan Made a Big Difference  “received international acclaim for enlisting children in the cause of microfinance.”  Her latest book, The Good Garden: How One Family Went from Hunter to Having Enough” provides children with the chance to grow “good gardens “ and foster food security.  Katie speaks passionately about our responsibility as human beings to help others change their lives.

Clearly, writers like Camilla and Katie are writers whose concerns go well beyond their next royalties cheque, and they are not alone.  Many of the writers here at the festival are also activists, people who are working to make the world we write about and worry about a better place.  Alistair MacLeod would be proud.

©2017 Gail Bowen.  All Rights Reserved.