The Group of Seven Reimagined: An Ekphrastic Celebration

Shimmering Water by Lawren Harris

2020 marks the centenary of the formation of the Canadian iconic Group of Seven artists. The Group of Seven movement “dragged Canadian art into the modern age,” writes Christine Sismondo of The Toronto Star in her review of “The Group of Seven Reimagined,” an ekphrastic celebration of the Group of Seven by twenty-one flash fiction authors (including my own “Alien Landscape” inspired by J.E.H. MacDonald’s Lake O’Hara). Sismondo astutely identifies and encapsulates the resonant meaning of the Group of Seven, then and now:

“A hundred years ago, seven Canadian painters got together and decided to start a movement. It was born out of the horrors of war. Now, the potential horrors of climate change are giving the movement an unexpected new life and meaning.”

Jack Pine by Tom Thomson

Sismondo goes on to describe how the movement itself took form:

“At the time, people were trying to put the horrors and sacrifices of the Great War behind them and look to the future to reimagine and redefine Canada itself. It was a pivotal moment, given the role the country had recently played in international affairs and the challenges it faced in becoming an increasingly modern nation. These seven artists—friends and colleagues, many of whom worked together in a Toronto design firm—felt they could help shape this conversation with bold strokes and bright colours to bring out the beauty of the Canadian landscape.”

But in those early days—and more than thirty years after Van Gogh painted Starry Night, Canada still wasn’t ready for Impressionism, or any other art form whose roots came from that movement. Canadian critics disliked the Group of Seven. They were too modern, too experimental. The Group were dismissed as “the Hot Mush School” “a horrible bunch of junk” “the figments of a drunkard’s dream” and “daubing by immature children.”

Mirror Lake by Franklin Carmichael

In his article on the Group of Seven’s reception in England vs Canada, Adam Bunch writes about the reception of the Group of Seven shortly after their formation after the First World War:

The Entrance to Halifax Harbour by A.Y. Jackson

“The reviews by Canadian critics were harsh. The Toronto Daily Star compared Jackson’s work to “a spilt can of paint.” But the English critics loved it. The Morning Post called the Group of Seven “the foundation of what may become one of the greatest schools of landscape painting.” One piece of Canadian art was even sold during the British Empire Exhibition — and it was Jackson’s. Entrance To Halifax Harbour was bought by the Tate Gallery. It’s still part of their collection today.”

“And despite the poor Canadian reviews, the show in London helped to establish the Group of Seven’s reputation back home. Now that the British took the Group seriously, Canadian collectors started taking them seriously, too. The Group even used the bad press to promote their upcoming shows: they printed posters with the angry Canadian reviews side by side with the glowing English ones.”

The Group of Seven Reimagined, published by Heritage House, was elegantly edited by flash fiction author Karen Schauber. Karen had invited me to contribute a piece of flash fiction (a piece of less than 500 words), inspired by a Group of Seven piece I would chose to inspire me. I took my time; this would be the first flash fiction piece I would write. It was an art form I was not familiar with, but was happy to experiment with. But I waited too long to decide and when I finally submitted my first choice for a painting, Karen informed me that it had already been selected by another writer. To my great frustration, this went on for a few pieces.

Shore Pattern by A.J. Casson

I finally took a short trip to the McMichael Gallery in Kleinburg to find my piece. In the main hall, I passed the pieces already claimed by my twenty colleagues; I sighed that I had waited so long. By chance, a large selection of artwork by J.E.H. MacDonald—one of the founders of the group—was currently on exhibit on the second floor. That was where I first saw the original oil sketch called Lake O’Hara by MacDonald. It was perfect! My story “Alien Landscape” emerged from the sketch like they had always belonged together.

Lake O’Hara by JEH MacDonald

The Star wrote: “while you might expect a lot of peaceful communing with nature on the page, a surprising number of the written pieces are actually dark tales of conflict and danger—forest fires, mining accidents, boat thieves and murderous plots in the woods. Nina Munteanu, a Canadian ecologist and science-fiction writer, takes J.E.H. MacDonald’s Lake O’Hara in a novel direction in ‘Alien Landscape’ by reimagining it as a refuge for a space heroine fleeing a world that had destroyed nature in pursuit of progress and ended in post-apocalyptic chaos.”

Gift shop at McMichael Gallery

The anthology has found itself gracing the gift shop shelves of several art galleries and museums such as the Royal BC Museum in Victoria, BC, and the McMichael Gallery in Kleinburg. It has likewise received much praise and accolades and appears on several ‘best of’ lists for ekphrastic works, art books, and more.

The anthology was long-listed for The Miramichi Reader’s “The Very Best” Book Award for 2020. The Miramichi Reader writes:

Sunset in the Bush by Frank Johnston

“There’s a very good reason that as I write this, The Group of Seven Reimagined, Contemporary Stories Inspired by Historic Canadian Paintings is sitting at, or near the top of bestseller lists in Canada (currently #3 on the Canadian Art bestseller list at Amazon.ca).  The result is a most attractive book that any lover of art and literature would enjoy, even if they already have more than a passing familiarity with the iconic Group of Seven. All the stories that accompany each image are in the “flash fiction” style, just a page or two in length, a little story that the authors were inspired to write after choosing a particular G7 painting.”

 

Jules Torti of Cottage Life  describd the book this way:

“Seeking equilibrium? This book is like a yoga session without the scheduling logistics and hustle to class. Balance is found in The Group of Seven Reimagined both as an intelligent coffee table book and tangible source of meditation.

Authors of the anthology

Twenty-five writers with notable street cred contributed “flash fiction” to colour iconic paintings by the Group of Seven (and their tagalongs). Flash fiction are stories categorized by length—they are 500 words or less which means they allow for one decent, undistracted cup of dark roast or whisky on ice. For writers or artists, the temptation to reimagine these works will be irresistible. And, what an intriguing resolution to make! Fiction and paintings both rely on interpretation and consideration. Fill in the gaps and colours with your chosen or perhaps newly discovered medium (watercolour?). As Jim and Sue Waddington suggest in the foreword, an art gallery visit becomes suspended in time. We keep returning to certain paintings that resonate and haunt and inadvertently, ‘Your mind sets off on a journey.’”

Author and reviewer Patricia Sandberg describes the anthology through metaphor: “Like a fine wine with dinner, some things cry out to be paired. In Reimagined, the nearly hundred-year-old brandy that was the Group of Seven is introduced to a fresh vibrant cuisine that is flash fiction, and both are the richer for it.”

Stormy Weather by Frederick H. Varley

“As a disciple of the Group of Seven and an aficionado of Canadian wilderness, every page gives me a little leap of pleasure.”—Robert Bateman

“These sharp, imaginative evocations of the world of the Group of Seven are both a joy in themselves and a welcome prompt to make us look at the paintings again. It’s refreshing to find that, a century later, they still speak to us about our lives and our country.”—Ross King, author of Defiant Spirits: The Modernist Revolution of the Group of Seven

Nina Munteanu with the anthology

“Words, the writer’s paint, are artfully chosen and applied, not one wasted. The stories all compel the reader to dive beneath their surface and linger long after the reading is complete…In 1920 The Group of Seven introduced a new vision for the Canadian landscape. One hundred years later, twenty-one writers in the Group of Seven Reimagined offer a new lens for appreciating their art.”—Ottawa Review of Books

“From one region of Canada to another, a national identity is captured and shared with writers all over the world who, in turn, have crafted beautiful flash fiction pieces that accompany and extend the meaning of the art.”—Niles Reddick, Literary Heist

 

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Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press (Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” will be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in May 2020.

 

 

 

International Writers’ Festival at Val David

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International Writers’ Festival & Retreat with Flavia Cosma, Val David

In the middle of June 2019, I drove to Val David, Quebec, with poet-songstress and friend Honey Novick. We had been invited to participate in Les Mots du Monde, the nineteenth international writers’ and artists’ festival of readings, songs, and discussions. The location was the residence of international poet Flavia Cosma. Cosma has been hosting the writer’s event for close to a decade in her large house in the forest just outside the resort town of Val David in the Laurentians.

The program spanned two days of lecture, readings, performance and art by artists and writers from Argentina, Romania, Mexico, USA, Laval, Montreal, and Toronto.

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International Festival among the trees

Poets, writers, musicians and artists included Honey Novick, Hélène Dorion, Tito Alvarado, Dinorah Gutiérrez Andana, Flavia Cosma, Gerette Buglion, Yvan-Denis Dupuis, EcologyOfStoryJeremiah Wall, Nina Munteanu, Nancy R. Lange, Nicole Davidson, Carmen Doreal, MarieAnnie Soleil, Luis Raúl Calvo, Louis-Philippe Hébert, Melania Rusu Caragioiu, Anna-Louise Fontaine.

I talked about my experience and process of writing my upcoming speculative novel “A Diary in the Age of Water”, coming out in 2020 with Inanna Publications. The novel chronicles four generations of women and their relationship with water during a time of extreme change.

I also shared examples of my recently launched writing guidebook “The Ecology of Story: World as Character” (Pixl Press). The 3rd guidebook in my Alien Guidebook Series, “Ecology of Story” focuses on place and environment and how these form the heart of a good story.

Throughout the festival, we were treated to magnificent ethnic food and refreshments. Interesting discussions on the international literary scene over wine and desert followed.

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Lunch at Flavia’s

I shared good conversation with fellow poet and water advocate Nancy R. Lange. She had given a compelling presentation on her recent book “Les Cantiques de l’eau” (Marcel Broquet) and knew about my book “Water Is: The Meaning of Water” (Pixl Press). Of course, the best thing to do was exchange books—which we did. Nancy is the literary ambassador for the Eau Secours organization and has promoted responsible water stewardship through her writing and presentations for many years.

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“It is not the cliff that shapes the ocean. It is the ocean that shapes the cliff. Fluidity is always the greater force than rigidity.”—Nancy R. Lange

 

On the final day, the writers and artists put on a public performance at the Val David Centre d’Exposition.

C'est La Vie Cafe

C’est la Vie Cafe, Val David

Val David

Val David is a small resort town located in the Laurentian Mountains about 80 kilometers from Montreal, Quebec. The village is known for its food scene and its artistic character. When I was there, I sampled the local cafes and experienced the street market, which offered a diversity of locally made and sourced produce and crafts.

 

 

 

 

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Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press (Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” will be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in 2020.

 

Eco-Artist Roundtable with Frank Horvat on Green Majority Radio

On December 8th on Green Majority Radio, artist and composer Frank Horvat hosted the second Eco-Artist Roundtable featuring visual artist Mark Adair, theatre artist Kevin Matthew Wong, and author Nina Munteanu.

In this hour-long thoughtful and insightful discussion, artists covered a range of topics pertinent to the environment from the role of the artist in raising eco-awareness to activism in art and human rights. Nina also read from her book “Water Is…”

Go have a listen.

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Kevin, Nina, Mark and Frank at the studio

nina-2014aaaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s recent book is the bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” (Mincione Edizioni, Rome). Her latest “Water Is…” is currently an Amazon Bestseller and NY Times ‘year in reading’ choice of Margaret Atwood.

Wake up Your Muse–How my Cat Taught Me the Art of Being…

Sammy

I’m not a very patient person. I make no time for writer’s block or lingering in useless limbo over some plot issue or misbehaving minor character. I write pretty much to a tight schedule: this short story to that market by this date; edits to this book to the editor by that date; blog posts created by such and such a time; an article to another market by another date. It goes on and on. When I go to my computer to write, I write.

Then there’s Sammy. My cat.

Who likes to jump on my lap, make himself all comfortable and then lie over my arm — trapping it along with five of my typing digits. Now what??? Some of you would advise me to simply pull out my pinned arm and/or shove him off. But how can I disturb such a blissful creature? He is so content furled on me, so satisfied that he has captured that wandering appendage of business that is all his now. Content in the bliss of now. In the bliss of cat-purr-meditation…

sammy-2010-01_edited-1Pinned in the moment, my mind first struggles with the need to pound out the next line. My mind then rephrases and teases out nuances of that line. Finally, it wanders out with my gaze and I find myself daydreaming in a kind of trance. Giving in to the cat-purr-meditation.

And it is here that magic happens. In the being; not in the doing.

This is the irony of writing and the muse. To write we need to live; we need to have something to write about and we need to be in that state of mind that allows us to set it to print. I am at my best as a writer when I am focused on the essence of the story, its heart and soul beating through me with a life of its own.

My cat Sammy isn’t the only vehicle to my magical muses.

 

Waking up the Muse

Here are a few things that help me entice those capricious muses into action:

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Sammy hunting

Music: music moves me in inexplicable ways. I use music to inspire my “muse”. Every book I write has its thematic music, which I play while I write and when I drive to and from work (where I do my best plot/theme thinking). I even go so far as to have a musical theme for each character.

Walks: going for a walk, particularly in a natural environment, uncluttered with human-made distractions, also unclutters the mind and soul. It grounds you back to the simplicity of life, a good place to start.

Cycling: one of my favorite ways to clear my mind is to cycle (I think any form of exercise would suffice); just getting your heart rate up and pumping those endorphins through you soothes the soul and unleashes the brain to freely run the field.

Attend writer’s functions: go to the library and listen to a writer read from her work. You never know how it might inspire you. Browse the bookshelves of the library or bookstore. Attend a writer’s convention or conference.

Visit an art gallery, go to a movie: art of any kind can inspire creativity. Fine art is open to interpretation and can provoke your mind in ways you hadn’t thought before. If you go with an appreciative friend and discuss what you’ve seen you add another element to the experience.

Go on a trip with a friend: tour the city or, better yet, take a road trip with a good friend or alone (if you are comfortable with it). I find that travelling is a great way to help me focus outward, forget myself, and open my mind and soul to adventure and learning something new. Road trips are metaphoric journeys of the soul.

Form a writer’s group: sharing ideas with people of like mind (or not, but of respectful mind) can both inspire you and provide the seeds of ideas.cat-in-the-park

Practice Cat-Purr-Meditation: you need a willing cat for this; I find that I need tostudy my cat’s meditative practices; where does he most like to relax? Mine loves to look outside the window onto the back yard and garden. That’s where I take him and there, together, we breathe deep and “purr” in the moment…You can read more about purring cat meditation in my Alien Next Door post, “Perfecting the Cat Purr Meditation

 

 

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

Amazing Cover Art, Part 1: Tomislav Tikulin and Costi Gurgu

In my article “Should You Judge a Book by its Cover”, I wrote about the importance of cover art for book sales and to maintain integrity and satisfaction with the story inside. In the article, I pointed out that, “If you don’t know the author of the book, the nature—and implied promise—of the cover becomes even more important. If the book does not deliver on the promise of the cover, it will fail with many readers despite its intrinsic value. A broken promise is still a broken promise. I say cover—not necessarily the back jacket blurb—because the front cover is our first and most potent introduction to the quality of the story inside. How many of us have picked up a book, intrigued by its alluring front cover, read the blurb that seemed to resonate with the title and image, then upon reading our cherished purchase been disillusioned with the story and decided we disliked it and its author?”

Collision With Paradise Small

Liquid Silver’s romance / SF cover

Cover art provides an important aspect of writer and publisher branding. Cover artists understand this and address the finer nuances of the type and genre of the story to resonate with the reader and their expectations of story. This includes the image/illustration, typology, and overall design of the cover. A cover for a work of literary fiction will look quite different from a work of fantasy or romance. Within a genre, subtle qualities provide more clues—all of which the cover artist grasps with expertise.

I’ve been fortunate in my history as a professional writer to have had exceptional art work on the books I’ve written or collections and anthologies I’ve participated in (see the mosaic below of many but not all the covers my work has been associated with).

For most of my books, my publisher provided me with a direct link to the cover artist (e.g., Dragon Moon Press, Edge Publishing, eXtasy Books, Liquid Silver Books, Starfire, Pixl Press) and I retained some creative control. I even found and brought in the cover artist for two projects I had with Starfire.

 

Tomislav Tikulin and “The Last Summoner

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Dragon Moon’s SF cover

Croation artist Tomislav Tikulin was the artist my Dragon Moon publisher had found for my 2007 book “Darwin’s Paradox”. For Darwin, I worked closely with Tikulin, who created the compelling hard science fiction cover of “future Toronto” that has attracted readers to the book for years. Tikulin has done cover designs for many publishers and bestselling writers from Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine and Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama to Amazing Stories Magazine.

Cover1_LastSummoner-frontcover

Starfire’s fantasy cover

In perusing Tikulin’s website one day, I was transported by one of his illustrations—of an awestruck knight standing knee deep in a mire within a huge drowned cathedral. Shafts of golden light from the vaulted ceiling angled across, bathing the mire and the bemused knight beneath. There was a powerful story in that image, I thought, and wrote a whole book based on it: “The Last Summoner”. Imagine the feeling when I approached Tikulin to licence the image and then my Starfire publisher to use it—and both agreed! You’ll have to read the book to find out why the image was so important to the overall story. Graphic artist Costi Gurgu took Tikulin’s image and used his typology and design skills to create an extraordinary front and back cover and spine. You can learn more about Tikulin in my interview with him on The Alien Next Door.

 

Costi Gurgu and “The Splintered Universe Trilogy

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Starfire’s SF cover

I met Costi Gurgu and his wife Vali Gurgu at a science fiction convention in Montreal in 2009. Costi and Vali were successful graphic artists working on magazine covers and interiors for top magazines in Toronto. When I eventually moved there to teach at the University of Toronto, I discussed cover design with Costi. I was working on a detective thriller in space with kick-ass female detective and Galactic Guardian, Rhea Hawke. I’d initially envisioned the book as one entire novel with three parts, but it very soon became apparent to me that it was three actual books in a trilogy. The Splintered Universe Trilogy consists of Outer Diverse, Inner Diverse, and Metaverse.

I was intrigued by what Costi designed: a “Triptych” for the three books of The Splintered Universe Trilogy. In an interview I did on The Alien Next Door, I asked him what inspired him to come up with it and what did he like about it? Costi replied:

“Your main character, Rhea, undergoes a certain evolution from a regular human being to… let’s just say something else. And that evolution has three parts, one for each book of the trilogy and it also has a touch of divine. So, the triptych design, so often used for religious paintings, fits like a glove on the entire concept.”

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Starfire’s SF cover

I was very taken by how the design for the triptych carried a powerful image that conjures a portal or gateway into another world (which is what the trilogy is about). The reader is drawn into an infinite landscape, looking in, and Rhea is looking out from within in Outer Diverse, bursting through in Inner Diverse, and walking outside with confidence in Metaverse. Costi explained the meaning behind the symbols and colours he used: “The initial idea was for the red ring to be a sort of mapping device and a radar combined into one, since Rhea travels great distances in her quest. Then I realized it might as well be a portal device on top of everything else and serve all her travelling needs.

There were two options —either we would look with her outside, to whatever target she had, or look towards her. I thought that it would be more powerful if we could look towards her and see her determined face, see the unflinching resolution in her eyes, while she’s pondering her next move and readying herself to use the device once again. But to look towards her and see her in a confining room of a space ship, or such, would have defeated the purpose. So, I needed to have her against the infinite landscape as the backdrop. She is in a continuous journey to discover herself and this journey takes her literally through the infinite spaces of not just one universe.”

Costi also shared some of the process in creating a cover design:

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Starfire’s SF cover

“Technically speaking, I always start with sketches on paper, which I later scan. I mainly use Adobe Photoshop, but for this illustration I had to use Adobe Illustrator as well. Obviously, the layout and the typography were done in Adobe InDesign.”

Costi’s wife, Vali, was the model for Rhea Hawke. Some of the additional shoots can be seen in the Youtube book trailer). Costi shared that, “I had to decide how to treat her image. I could have gone towards a more glamorous, shiny look, like in a fashion image, or I could just simply keep it more realistic… I chose to keep it that way, because I wanted to offer a realistic image of an ex-police officer: a woman who was used to fighting and chasing criminals, rather than taking care of her appearance.”

You can read the complete interview with Costi on The Alien Next Door.

All Nina Munteanu books can be found on most Amazon sites.

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Sampling of publication cover art for works by Nina Munteanu (to 2017)

nina-2014aaaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s recent book is the bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” (Mincione Edizioni, Rome). Her latest “Water Is…” is currently an Amazon Bestseller and NY Times ‘year in reading’ choice of Margaret Atwood.

“Absolutism” in the Time of Climate Change

AboutAbsolutism-webOnce upon a time, there will be one absolute ruler who we, the people, call the Supreme Leader (May He Rule Forever). The Supreme Leader will hate immigrants, writers, scientists, environment and extinct species. We, the people under his rule, will be proud to live in our pure and glorious Motherland. Because we’ll have little to eat, no entertainment, no self-respect, no freedom, no rights, and no access to the outside world, we’ll be happy.

This is the ridiculously sublime scenario that underlies Absolutism, the dystopian card game developed by science fiction author Costi Gurgu and game developer/designer Vali Gurgu about surviving dictatorship.

A week ago, I invited Costi to my science fiction writing class at George Brown College to share his experience in writing and releasing his recent book RecipeArium (now on the short list for an Aurora Award). Costi also brought his new game, Absolutism, based on his latest novel Servitude—a near future dystopia.

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Playing the game at George Brown

“Play unfathomable scenarios of daily life in a totalitarian society. A funny game for people without shame.”—Absolutism

 

Emerging Dictatorships & “Servitude”—the novel

Costi described how he and Vali came to develop the game: “Based on current global political trends, some could safely assume that in the next 5 to 10 years some present democracies will turn into dictatorships. In Europe for instance, one third of the European countries have nationalistic parties winning their elections—UK, Italy, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia. France and Germany came very close. The United States is slowly sliding into dictatorship. Russia and China are no longer communist countries, like North Korea, but they’re dictatorships. They opened their markets to international trades because they saw the wisdom in making profits, but that was as far as they went with the openness. They still rule their people with an iron fist.”

We are now 7.5 billion people on the planet. As climate change (the ultimate dictator) exacerbates tensions over the unbalanced resource scarcities of our over-populated world, fear-mongering and absolute control of the masses through nationalism, isolationism, trade-wars, etc. will logically follow.

Costi and Vali first conceived a card game entirely based on Costi’s dystopian novel Servitude. But, they soon discovered that the game was too grim.

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Life under a Dictatorship—Ceaușescu

Costi and Vali had experienced a dictatorship first hand. They’d grown up in Romania under Communist rule, first by Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, then under the communist dictatorship of Nicolae Ceaușescu. The dictator ruled for over twenty years before a coup d’etat overthrew him in 1989. Ceaușescu had ordered his military to open fire on hundreds of protesters in Timișoara, setting off the Romanian Revolution and ultimately his own execution by firing squad.

Ceaușescu’s totalitarian regime is still considered one of the most repressive in Eastern Europe. His Securitate (secret police) controlled the population through mass surveillance; they enacted many human rights abuses, censorship and relocation, and suppression of the media and press. Political propaganda infected all forms of education, art, entertainment and media. Non-compliant intellectuals were punished, arrested, or simply disappeared.

Inspired by the personality cult surrounding Supreme Leader Kim Il-sung in North Korea, Ceaușescu started his own cult in the Eastern Bloc by imposing a severe nationalist ideology. His policy of economic collectivization destroyed an already fragile economy and oppressed culture. Under the communist regime, thousands of books and magazines were banned and removed from public libraries and schools; intellectuals’ links to the West were severed; long-standing professional organizations were dissolved; and intellectuals, writers, and teachers were imprisoned and put into labor camps.

In Ceaușescu’s Systematisation program of urban planning—based on North Korea’s Juche ideology—whole settlements were demolished and reconstructed in the image of the state.

Ceaușescu made contraception and abortion illegal under Decree 770, and created incentives for high numbers of births—his idea was to increase the country’s population from 22 million to 30 million by the end of the century. By 1977, Romanians were taxed for being childless in a country already unable to house and feed its children. Sadly, this led to an increasing number of orphans, the highest infant mortality rate in Europe and the deaths of thousands of women who attempted illegal abortions. Orphanages were neglected and developed appalling conditions—most were concrete barracks in slums where many children suffered from frostbite, malnutrition and abuse.

 

“Absolutism”—the game

“Humor is your main weapon in fighting the victorious party and its minions,” say Costi and Vali. “Humor is the one thing that gives people hope and keeps the mental sanity of the masses in the face of oppression.”

And so “Absolutism” was born—a game of twisted strategies, irony and chance. Costi shared that with this game those who have never experienced dictatorship will have a taste of what it is like; the game will also remind those who have escaped oppression by dictatorship what they left behind and why their current freedoms are so precious and important to maintain.

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players absolutely succumb to the game…

“Maybe after playing Absolutism, people will see that Russia, China, and North Korea are not exceptions,” says Costi. They may realize that “absolutism is not something that can happen only there. It is already knocking on our door.”

Do you have what it takes to survive a totalitarian dictator with a twisted sense of humor? Or to be a successful dictator in the time of climate change?

Having played the game and lost—there is only one winner, of course—I can add that having a twisted sense of humor—is an absolute advantage in the game (along with an absolutely great set of bribe cards!). Thanks to my twisted humor, I was way ahead of everyone and well on my way to becoming the Absolute Ruler, when Costi charged in with a coup d’etat card and I lost all my cards; then the Secret Police rallied behind him and crushed any chance of subversive take over. Maybe next time…

“Absolutism” recently launched on Kickstarter and is still looking for pledges. Make a pledge and help make the game happen—we may never have a better chance at staring unscathed at the face of despotism.

 

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Nina Munteanu is an ecologist, limnologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

On Being a Canadian in The Age of Water

Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself; I am large, I contain multitudes.”—Walt Whitman

nina-child01I was born on this day, some sixty+ years ago, in the small town of Granby in the Eastern Townships to German-Romanian parents. Besides its zoo—which my brother, sister and I used to visit to collect bottles for a finder’s fee at the local treat shop—the town had no particular features. It typified French-Canada of that era.

So did I.

I went to school in Quebec then migrated across to the west coast to practice and teach limnology. Given that Canada holds a fifth of the Earth’s freshwater, that also made sense.

 

muskeg-northern Quebec

muskeg in northern Quebec

Canada is a vast country with a climate and environment that spans from the boreal forests of the Canadian Shield, muskegs of northern BC, and tundras of the Arctic Circle to the grasslands of the Prairies and southern woodlands of Ontario and Quebec. Canada’s environment is vast and diverse. Like its people.

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Nina and son Kevin explore Nature

In December of 2017 I participated in a discussion on the subject and role of water in literature in Toronto. I came to the event as a limnologist/ecologist, mother and environmentalist prepared to share how water—its meaning and our relationship with it—is used in my writing and how writing about water can help nurture a future of awareness and action.

But, as the discussion slid into the slippery subject of colonialism, I made the apparent mistake of sharing that—as a Canadian—I was proud of Canada. I was later schooled that “celebrating the nation” was considered anathema to an audience with strong anti-colonialist sentiments and a hatred for neoliberalist corporate Canada (something I share but do not obsess over); I’d obviously crossed some invisible line and I made a mental note to better assess my audience in future).

I also got to thinking about what it means for me to be a Canadian and what my pride in Canada really means. Was I being a “white-toast” nationalist in sharing a pride in my country?

Ecologist vs Nationalist

Ecology is the study of “home” (oikos means ‘home’ in Greek). Ecology studies the relationships that make one’s home functional. It is, in my opinion, the most holistic and natural way to assess where we live. My home is currently Toronto, Ontario, Canada and ultimately the planet Earth.

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country road in Eastern Townships of Quebec

Growing up in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, I’d always felt an abiding sense of belonging and I resonated with Canada’s national symbols—mostly based on Nature and found on our currency, our flag, and various sovereign images: the loon, the beaver, the maple tree, our mountains and lakes and boreal forests. Why not? Over 80% of Canada lies in the boreal zone with much of that boreal forest and wilderness (that’s some 552 million hectares). Canadians are custodians of a quarter of the world’s wetlands, longest river systems and most expansive lakes. Most of us recognize this; many of us live, play and work in or near these natural environments.

I have long considered myself a global citizen with no political ties. I saw my country through the lens of an ecologist—I assessed my community and my surroundings in terms of ecosystems that supported all life, not just humanity. Was a community looking after its trees? Was my family recycling? Was a corporation using ‘green’ technology? Was a municipality daylighting its streams and recognizing important riparian zones? I joined environmental movements when I was a teenager. I shifted my studies from art to science because I wanted to make a difference in how we treated our environment. After university, I joined an environmental consulting firm, hoping to educate corporations and individuals as environmental stewards. I brought that philosophy into a teaching career and began writing eco-fiction, science fiction and essays to help promote an awareness and a connection with our natural world. My hope was to illuminate how important Nature and water is to our planet and to our own well-being through an understanding of ecology and how everything is interconnected.

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Nina kayaking in Desolation Sound, British Columbia

Merriam-Webster defines “nationalism” as: “loyalty and devotion to a nation, especially a sense of national consciousness.” This is not the same as patriotism. Nor does it describe what many think of the word, which is an extreme form of nationalism, in which one nation is exalted above all others (I can think of one nation that is overtly doing that now) and placing primary emphasis on promoting its culture and interests over others—often through isolationism, xenophobia, chauvinism and jingoism. When I think of Canada, I think of my “home”, where I live; my community and my environment. I have traveled the world and I feel a strong sense of “home” and belonging every time I return. Canada is my home. I was born and grew up in Quebec; I raised a family in British Columbia, and I lived in Ontario and Nova Scotia. Each of these places engendered a feeling of “home”. If a strong sense of “home” and belonging is nationalistic, then that is what I am.

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The Dory Shop in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia

Or am I something else? Perhaps, we need to redefine our sense of belonging (and pride) in a country that is not tied to some core political identity or melting-pot mainstream. Historian and writer Charlotte Gray wrote:

“we live in a country that has a weak national culture and strong regional identities …Two brands of psychological glue bind Canada together: political culture and love of landscape…[in] a loose federation perched on a magnificent and inhospitable landscape—[we are] a nation that sees survival as a collective enterprise.”—Charlotte Gray

Canada as Postnational State

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Justin Trudeau on the cover of “Rolling Stone”

In October 2015, Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told the New York Times that Canada may be the “first postnational state,” adding that “there is no core identity, no mainstream in Canada.” This is largely because Canadians, writes Charles Forman in the Guardian, are “philosophically predisposed to an openness that others find bewildering, even reckless.”

To anyone but a Canadian, Trudeau’s remark would rankle, particularly in a time when many western countries are fearfully and angrily turning against immigration through nativism and exclusionary narratives. A time when the United States elected an authoritarian intent on making “America great again” by building walls. A time when populist right-wing political parties hostile to diversity are gaining momentum in other parts of the world. “Canada’s almost cheerful commitment to inclusion might at first appear almost naive,” writes Forman. It isn’t, he adds. There are practical reasons for keeping our doors open.

We are who we are because of what we are: a vast country the size of Europe. A country dominated by boreal forest, a vital and diverse wilderness that helps maintain the well-being of our entire planet. A land that encompasses over a fifth of the freshwater in the world, and a quarter of the world’s wetlands. Canadians are ultimately the world’s Natural stewards. That is who and what we are.

According to Forman, postnationalism frames how “to understand our ongoing experiment in filling a vast yet unified geographic space with the diversity of the world” and a “half-century old intellectual project, born of the country’s awakening from colonial slumber.” As the first Europeans arrived in North America, the Indigenous people welcomed them, taught them how to survive and thrive amid multiple identities and allegiances, writes Forman. “That welcome was often betrayed, particularly in the 19th and 20th centuries, when settlers did profound harm to Indigenous people.” But, says Forman, if the imbalance remains, so does the influence: a model of another way of belonging. One I think many Canadians are embracing. We are learning from the natural wisdom of our Indigenous peoples. Even our fiction reflects how we value our environment and embrace diversity. “Diversity fuels, not undermines, prosperity,” writes Forman.

naturalselectionAs efforts are made to reconcile the previous wrongs to Indigenous peoples within Canada and as empowering stories about environment are created and shared, Canada carries on the open and welcoming nature of our Indigenous peoples in encouraging immigration. In 2016, the same year the American government announced a ban on refugees, Canada took in 300,000 immigrants, which included 48,000 refuges. Canada encourages citizenship and around 85% of permanent residents typically become citizens. Greater Toronto is currently the most diverse city in the world; half of its residents were born outside the country. Vancouver, Calgary, Ottawa and Montreal are not far behind.

Canadian author and visionary Marshal McLuhan wrote in 1963 that, “Canada is the only country in the world that knows how to live without an identity.” This is an incredible accomplishment, particularly given our own colonial history and the current jingoistic influence of the behemoth south of us.

The Way of Water-COVERWriter and essayist Ralston Saul suggests that Canada has taken to heart the Indigenous concept of ‘welcome’ to provide, “Space for multiple identities and multiple loyalties…[based on] an idea of belonging which is comfortable with contradictions.” Of this Forman writes:

“According to poet and scholar BW Powe, McLuhan saw in Canada the raw materials for a dynamic new conception of nationhood, one unshackled from the state’s ‘demarcated borderlines and walls, its connection to blood and soil,’ its obsession with ‘cohesion based on a melting pot, on nativist fervor, the idea of the promised land’. Instead, the weakness of the established Canadian identity encouraged a plurality of them—not to mention a healthy flexibility and receptivity to change. Once Canada moved away from privileging denizens of the former empire to practicing multiculturalism, it could become a place where ‘many faiths and histories and visions would co-exist.”

Water Is-COVER-webAnd that’s exactly what is happening. We are not a “melting pot” stew of mashed up cultures absorbed into a greater homogeneity of nationalism, no longer recognizable for their unique qualities. Canada isn’t trying to “make Canada great again.” Canada is a true multi-cultural nation that celebrates its diversity: the wholes that make up the wholes.

Confident and comfortable with our ‘incomplete identity’—recognizing it for what it is—is  according to Forman, “a positive, a spur to move forward without spilling blood, to keep thinking and evolving—perhaps, in the end, simply to respond to newness without fear.”

This resonates with me as an ecologist. What I envision is a Canada transcending the political to embrace the environment that both defines us and provides us with our very lives; a view that knows no boundaries, and recognizes the importance of diversity, relationship and inclusion, interaction, movement, and discovery.

 

PolarBearMum-pupsSo, am I still proud of Canada? Definitely. We have much to be proud of. We live in one of the wealthiest countries in the world and the 8th highest ranking in the Human Development Index. Canada ranks among the highest in international measurements of government transparency, civil liberties, quality of life, economic freedom, and education. It stands among the world’s most educated countries—ranking first worldwide in the number of adults having tertiary education with 51% of adults holding at least an undergraduate college or university degree. With two official languages, Canada practices an open cultural pluralism toward creating a cultural mosaic of racial, religious and cultural practices. Canada’s symbols are influenced by natural, historical and Aboriginal sources. Prominent symbols include the maple leaf, the beaver, Canada Goose, Common Loon, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the polar bear, the totem pole, and Inuksuk.

WaterAnthology-RealitySkimmingPressWe are a northern country with a healthy awareness of our environment—our weather, climate and natural world. This awareness—particularly of climate change—is more and more being reflected in our literature—from Margaret Atwood’s “Maddaddam” trilogy and Kim Stanley Robinson’s “New York 2140” to my own book “Water Is…”. Canadians are writing more eco-fiction, climate fiction, and fiction in which environment somehow plays a key role. Water has become one of those key players: I recently was editor of the Reality Skimming Press anthology “Water”, a collection of six speculative Canadian stories that explore near-future scenarios with water as principle agent.

In a recent interview with Mary Woodbury on Eco-Fiction, I reflected on a trend over the years that I noticed in the science fiction writing course I teach at George Brown College: “It’s a workshop-style course I teach and students are encouraged to bring in their current work in progress. More and more students are bringing in a WIP with strong ecological overtones. I’d say the percentage now is over 70%. This is definitely coming from the students—it’s before I even open my mouth about ecology and eco-fiction—and what it suggests to me is that the welfare of our planet and our ecosystems is on many people’s minds and this is coming through in our most metaphoric writing: science fiction.”

It is healthy to celebrate our accomplishments while remembering where we came from and what we still need to accomplish. This provides direction and motivation.

 

References:

Dechene, Paul. 2015. “Sci-Fi Writers Discuss Climate Catastrophe: Nina Munteanu, Author of Darwin’s Paradox.” Prairie Dog, December 11, 2015.

Forman, Charles. 2017. “The Canada Experiment: Is this the World’s First Postnational Country?” The Guardian, January 4, 2017.

Gray, Charlotte. 2017. “Heroes and Symbols” The Globe and Mail.

Moorhouse, Emilie. 2018. “New ‘cli-fi’ anthology brings Canadian visions of future climate crisis.” National Observer, March 9, 2018.

forest path neat lightMunteanu, Nina. 2016. “Crossing into the Ecotone to Write Meaningful Eco-Fiction.” In: NinaMunteanu.me, December 18, 2016.

Newman-Stille, Derek. 2017. “The Climate Around Eco-Fiction.” In: Speculating Canada, May 24, 2017.

Woodbury, Mary. 2016. “Part XV. Women Working in Nature and the Arts: Interview with Nina Munteanu, Ecologist and Author.” Eco-Fiction.com, October 31, 2016.

 

nina-2014aaaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s recent book is the bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” (Mincione Edizioni, Rome). Her latest “Water Is…” is currently an Amazon Bestseller and NY Times ‘year in reading’ choice of Margaret Atwood.