The Fifteenth International Writers’ and Artists’ Festival / Le XVe Festival International des écrivains et artistes–Quebec

best best group shotOn Friday, June 9th, I drove with friend, songwriter and poet Honey Novick, to the 15th International Writers’ and Artists’ Festival in Val-David, Quebec (June 10th and 11th, 2017). Celebrated artists, poets, writers and singers with an international heritage that included France, Chile, Argentina, Romania, Canada and the USA would congregate at the festival, set in a large house nestled deep in the Maple Laurentian forest.

The mixed Laurentian forest is called the “eastern forest-boreal transition” and includes a varied tapestry of broadleaf (aspen, oak, paper birch, mountain ash and maple) and conifer (pine, spruce and fir) trees.

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Nina Munteanu

When we reached our destination—a large three-story house surrounded by forest—I took in the aroma of fresh pine and “sweet fern” and spotted Bunchberry (soon to be designated Canada’s national flower), forget-me-nots and lupine carpeting the ground near the house. A young deer, foraging on a shrub’s new leaves beside the house, glanced at us without fear then slipped back into the forest.

I thought the setting ideal for an international festival celebrating the expression of the arts. I was scheduled to talk about my latest book Water Is…”, a personal and scientific journey with water, and to give a lecture on eco-fiction.

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View outside my bedroom

Flavia Cosma, the originator and organizer of the festival for over a decade, greeted us at the door and in true Romanian-fashion immediately sat us down to eat and drink. After a seven-hour drive (we somehow ended up in Charlamagne, Celine Dion’s birthplace), I was hungry and enjoyed some of Flavia’s signature dishes, varză a la Cluj (cabbage a la Cluj) and salată boeuf (beef salad), made with carrots, parsley roots, eggs, potatoes, beef, pickles and peas mixed with mayonnaise. The view outside my bedroom on the third floor peered through tall firs to a mountain valley and the small village of Val-David. I looked forward to meeting poets, writers, musicians and artists the next day…

 

Day 1: Saturday

HoneyNovickBC-web

Honey Novick

Honey Novick (Toronto, Ontario), poet laureate of the Summer of Love Project 2007 Luminato Festival and winner of the Bobbi Nahwegahbow Memorial Award, opened the festival with an inspirational song.

Composers and singers Brian Campbell (Montréal, Quebec) and Ivan-Denis Dupuis (Sainte Adele, QC) provided additional and stirring song performance.

Louis Hebert

Louis-Philippe Hebert

Quebec author Louis-Philippe Hébert (Saint Sauveur, QC), winner of the Grand Prix Québecor du Festival de Poésie de Trois-Rivières and the Prix du Festival de Poésie de Montréal, read from his novel Un homme discret (Lévesque, 2017). Poet Julie de Belle read several poems, including When the sea subsides, finalist in the Malahat Review. Brian Campbell, finalist in the 2006 CBC Literary Award for Poetry, read from his book Shimmer Report (Ekstasis Editions, 2015).

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Flavia Cosma

Poet and award-winning TV documentarist Flavia Cosma, who received the gold medal as an honorary member by the Casa del Poeta Peruano, Lima, Peru in 2010, nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and whose work has been used in University of Toronto literature courses, read from her collection of poems, The Latin Quarter (MadHat Press, 2015) and Plumas de Angeles (Editorial Dunken, 2008).

Felicia Mihali

Felicia Mihali

Romanian writer Felicia Mihali read from her novel La bien-aimée de Kandahar, nominated for Canada Reads 2013. Romanian author Melania Rusi Caragioiu, member of the Canadian Association of Romanian Writers, read from her book of poems Basm în versuri și poeme pentru copii in Romanian.

Nicole Davidson, the mayor of Val-David, read some of her poetry. Jeanine Pioger, French author of Permanence de l’instant, read a selection of her poetry. Jocelyne Dubois showed her artwork and Romanian artists Carmen Doreal and Eva Halus discussed their artwork and poetry.

water-is-cover-web“Water Is…”: I shared the inspiration and making of my latest book, “Water Is…”, a scientific study and personal journey as limnologist, mother, teacher and environmentalist, which was recently picked by Margaret Atwood in the NY Times as 2016 ‘Year in Reading’ and recommended by Water Canada as ‘Summer Reading’. I discussed how I first conceived the book as a textbook early in my career as a freshwater biologist and how it morphed from one idea into something completely different and why it is my most cherished work to date.

Day 2: Sunday

French poet David Brême gave a workshop on poetry and the cultural hybridization of franco-québécoise (atelier sur la poésie et l’hybridation culturelle franco québécoise), which he had given earlier in Toronto.

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Nane Couzier

Montreal poet from France and Senegal, Nane Couzier, read from her collection Commencements, honorable mention in le Prix de poésie 2016 des Écrivains francophones d’Amerique.

JocelyneDubois

Jocelyne Dubois

Novelist and short story writer Jocelyne Dubois read from her novel World of Glass, finalist for the 2013 QWF Paragraphe Hugh MaLennan Prize for fiction. Laurentian poet John Monette, author of the collection Occupons Montréal (Editions Louise Courteau, 2012) read several poems and Eva Halus, Romanian poet, read from her book Pour tous les Voyages. Chilean poet Tito Alvarado also read his poetry.

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Claudiu Scrieciu of Nasul.TV Canada

Claudiu Scrieciu and Felicia Popa of Nasul.TV CanadaTeleviziunea Libera—the Canadian chapter of Romanian TV in St. Laurent, Quebec, televised aspects of the festival and the closing ceremony. Felicia, who interviewed me for their show, talked with me about “Water Is…”.

naturalselectionEco-Fiction: I discussed how eco-fiction evolved as a genre and its importance, both metaphorically and literally, in the literature of the Anthropocene (with a nod to Margaret Atwood’s 2016 challenge to a college audience in Barrie, Ontario, to write the stories that focus on our current global environmental crisis). I provided examples of ecological metaphor such as Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, Michael Ondaadje’s The English Patient, Frank Hebert’s Dune, and Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native. Astute questions, initiated by Flavia, led to an animated discussion on our ultimate participation in Nature, co-evolution, cooperation vs competition, soft-inheritance, DNA repair and the role and place of water in virtually all things.

The festival concluded at the Centre d’Exposition (art centre) of Val David with “Les Mots du Monde”, where poets, songwriters and writers performed readings and song to the community. The cultural setting and perfect acoustics provided a true inspiration for Honey Novick’s stirring opening songs—angelic in nature and in voice. I asked colleague Jeanine Pioger to read my essay “Why I Write,” which I had translated into French with help from colleague Betty Ing. The French version appears below.

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Toasting the international festival

After the closing ceremony, Flavia invited participants to a grand dinner party at the festival house featuring authentic Romanian dishes, good wine and stimulating conversation.

The festival was a great success on many levels. Honey Novick astutely thanked Flavia in a Facebook post, “thanks for the wonderful memories, great inspiration, generous hearts and a tremendous weekend.”  I felt a great resonance and synchronicity throughout the weekend. It was as though we all embarked on a dimensional ride together, orchestrated by Flavia, that challenged, fulfilled and enlightened…I spoke English, French and puțin limba română. Foarte puțin… …And the food… OOHLALA!

Mulțumesc, Flavia! A fost minunat!

BrianCambell-ShimmerReportEva Halus-Pour tous les VoyagesLatinQuarter-flavia cosmaun homme discret

 

La raison pour laquelle j’écris

L’écriture est le souffle et la lumière de mon âme et la source de mon essence. Quand j’écris, je vis le moment présent. Je suis dans le moment de la création, connecté au Soi Divin, embrassant la nature et l’ensemble de l’univers fractal.

Je fais quelque chose d’important.

Je me connecte avec vous.

Isaac Asimov a dit : « j’écris pour la même raison que je respire — parce que si je ne le faisais pas, je mourrirais ». C’était aussi vrai quand il était auteur inconnu qu’après qu’il est devenu grand écrivain. Il parlait métaphoriquement, spirituellement et littéralement. Je sais que si je n’écrivais pas, je me priverais mon âme de sa respiration de vie. Il représente plus que la vérité métaphorique ; il est scientifiquement prouvé. L’écriture expressive — que ce soit sous la forme de l’écriture d’un journal, de blogging, de l’écriture de lettres, de mémoires ou de fiction — améliore la santé.

Que vous publiiez ou non, votre écriture est importante et utile. Prenez possession de celle-ci, nourrissez-la et considérez-la comme sacrée. Inspirez le respect des autres et respectez tous les écrivains à leur tour ; ne laissez pas l’ignorance vous intimider et vous faire taire.

L’écriture, comme toute forme de créativité, exige un acte de foi ; tant en nous-mêmes qu’en les autres. Et c’est effrayant. C’est effrayant, parce qu’il faut que nous renoncions au contrôle. Il est d’autant plus préférable d’écrire. La résistance est une forme d’autodestruction, dit Julia Cameron, auteur de The Artist’s Way.

Nous résistons afin de maintenir une vague idée de contrôle, mais au contraire, nous augmentons nos chances de développer la dépression, l’anxiété et la confusion. Booth et al. (1997) ont conclu que la divulgation écrite réduit sensiblement le stress physiologique du corps causé par une inhibition. Nous sommes nés pour créer. Pourquoi hésitons-nous et résistons-nous? Parce que, dit Cameron, « nous avons accepté le message de notre culture… [que] nous sommes censés faire notre devoir et puis mourir. La vérité est que nous sommes censés être prospères et vivre ».

Joseph Campbell a écrit : « suivez votre bonheur et les portes s’ouvriront là où il n’y avait pas de portes avant. » Cameron ajoute : « c’est l’engagement interne pour être fidèle à nous-mêmes et de suivre nos rêves qui déclenche le soutien de l’univers. Alors que nous sommes ambivalents, l’univers nous semblera également être ambivalent et erratique. » Quand j’écris, je vis le moment présent, en harmonie avec le moment divin de la création.

En pleine joie.

nina-2014aaNina 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.

Parallel Plotting: Mirror, Mirror on the Wall…

ws_Forest_Dirt_Road-long“The common definition of plot,” says Ansen Dibell, author of Elements of Fiction Writing: Plot, “is that it’s whatever happens in the story.” But, “it doesn’t tell you how to make one,” he adds. “Plot is built of significant events in a given story—significant because they have important consequences.”

Dibell describes plot as a tapestry of pattern, form, shape and color that share recognizable meanings. And subplots are the threads that make up the story’s fabric. Parallel plots, braided plots … even the terms reflect a flowing river. This is an apt metaphor, particularly given that, as Dibell reminds us, “plot is a verb.” It is the engine that moves the story.

Subplots are more common in long fiction, where they are used to deepen a story and add layers that make it more intriguing and tease out more depth to the story. Subplots may provide varying aspects of a theme, from community to individual as played out by different characters. Ultimately, subplots and how they are crafted, provide the writer with the means to transcend plot into what Dibell calls pattern.

Parallel Plotlines & Patterns

Dibell describes “braided” plots, in which two or more subplots are woven together, and parallel plotlines, in which two plots share almost equal footing. This happens when strong protagonists carry each plot. Parallel plotlines often run counterpoint to each other in pace, tone and color. Each plot becomes richer and stronger when contrasted with the other. And they are always connected in some way, in many ways.

In Matrix Reloaded, Neo’s introspective and thoughtful plot with the architect of the matrix runs counterpoint with Trinity’s action plot as she sabotages the matrix and battles an agent. Both demonstrate conflict and tension but the tone and pace are opposite. This contrast only heightens each plot line.

Notice also how the two plot lines are connected and eventually converge in the final scene where Neo saves Trinity’s life by restarting her heart. Earlier on in, while Trinity is totally engrossed in her problems, Neo becomes aware of her struggle through the architect’s artful hint; this prompts Neo to choose his path to join her plot. His awareness is the bridge between the two plotlines. If you look carefully, you will find many other ways the two plotlines are connected, visually, mentally and viscerally and how they inevitably draw together in that riveting last scene; “how thoroughly,” Dibell says, “the story belongs to itself.”

Mirrored Pattern on the Wall…

Scenes, characters, and plots can be mirrored. It starts with identifying two situations that can be tagged for connection and built-in recurrence. Mirrored plots often run as double stories concurrently or through alternating flashback narration. Good examples include The Empire Strikes Back, Wuthering Heights and Lord of the Rings. My short story, The Arc of Time, used a double plot set 40,000 years apart, one played out with real characters and the other in the form of e-letters between two lovers. Both plots converged in the end.

Mirrored plots are achieved by setting up pairs of opposite and/or complimentary scenes that share emotional resonance.

Dibell provides these hints to create effective mirroring scenes:

  • Repeat one or more lines of dialogue (e.g. the “I love you” “I know” between Han and Leia in Star Wars).
  • Repeat a brief description of emotion.
  • Have the two situations go through similar stages.
  • Use similar imagery.
  • Ensure that subject and terms are the same.
  • Keep the polarities and emotional content the same.ws_Forest_Dirt_Road_1280x1024

Ultimately, the pattern that develops forms a moving story that has rhythm and cadence.

In short, nothing should happen at random. Plot should stem from “character under adversity” often with an urgent personal agenda. The plot of a story synthesizes the individual character subplots and subthemes and resonates with the overarching theme.

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.

Make Your Opening Count

moss-closeWhen I began marketing my short stories and novels, I was often puzzled by the request to just see the first page of my work. “I only need to see the first page to know whether your book is good or ready to publish,” they would say. I was aghast. How presumptuous! Surely, that wasn’t enough! Surely they were just putting me off and not really interested in the first place! That couldn’t be enough…

I was wrong. It often is.

Years later—and currently a seasoned writer of over a dozen published books, short stories, and a writing teacher & coach—I can tell you that it is generally true. The opening page is usually enough for me to know whether the author is professional, knows their ending, writes a compelling and directed story, and whether the story is ready to be published. Does that sound pompous of me?

If you think so, then read no further. If you’re not sure, read on and I hope to convince you that your opening is more than likely the most important part of your novel or short story. That doesn’t mean that you should inordinately concentrate on polishing it over and over and over at the expense of the rest of your work. That won’t work either; this is because a good opening relies on a good story. Think of it as the introduction to the core issue of your story. Think of it as a long title. If you don’t know where your story is going or what it is about, then your opening will undeniably reflect this.

A good opening resonates with the theme of your story; a great opening creatively illuminates that theme with intrigue.

My post entitled “How to Hook Your Reader and Deliver” discusses the three-step model of hooking the reader in an opening and how to maintain their interest throughout the length of your story. You can read it there, so I won’t go into it here (e.g., the steps are 1) arouse; 2) delay; and 3) reward). What I wanted to talk about here is more about what goes into a first page of any piece of writing to make it a great opening.

“A novel is like a car,” says Sol Stein (Sol Stein on Writing). “It won’t go anywhere until you start the engine.” Take a look at the opening of your WIP and see if its engine is running.

Openings should:

  • Begin with something happening to a major character
  • Arouse the Reader’s interest (with intrigue)
    • Introduce conflict
    • Threaten a likeable character
    • Reveal an unusual character or situation
  • Begin with a “scene” (action; “showing”) not a “sequel” (reflection; “telling”)

“Start your book with a scene where something is happening, and action takes place; show the drama not the reaction to it,” says Elizabeth Lyon (The Sell Your Novel Toolkit). Start in the middle, not the beginning of your story. Dwight Swain (Techniques of the Selling Writer) tells us that scenes and their corresponding sequels form an integral part of a story’s larger plot movement. And to apply sound story-building, this dynamic relationship must be first understood. You “show” in a scene, which plays out the goal, conflict and inevitable disaster of the protagonist; sequels, in turn, often “tell” of the protagonist’s reaction, dilemma, and decision (which propels the character on to the next scene). Yet, time and again, I read openings that are actually sequels (leading to action; but not action themselves). They may languish and even entertain with clever intellectual description, but they do not scintillate with intrigue or direction. It is a little like reading the review of a movie before watching it for yourself (one of the reasons why I never consult a review before I watch a movie—because I want to live it with the characters first hand, or at least give myself the chance to).

Another way of thinking of the scene / sequel dynamic is to see them as cause and effect or action and reaction. An opening in action is more likely to grip the reader in its visceral intrigue and promise of the story’s direction than an intellectualization of an event that happened off stage.

The table below provides a few suggestions on what to include and what not to in an opening page.

Good Openings Don’t… Instead They…
Contain lots of back story Integrate back story in with scene as needed in the appropriate place
Contain lots of exposition, setting, character description, etc. Reveal place and character detail with action as needed
Start with reflection, explanations – particularly about something “off-stage” in time or space Start with action / conflict / turmoil / discovery – start mid-stride with intrigue, then reveal after…
Start with a dream or waking up or other ordinary / mundane scenario heading towards the action or conflict Start with something HAPPENING … Start with a SCENE in “the NOW” as it is happening
TELL SHOW

 

misty-forest-path-slovakiaThere are many ways to manage the fine balance of exposition, telling and showing and
other challenges in grabbing and keeping the reader’s interest; all very pertinent to your opening page. But that’s another article.

 

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.

Who’s Your Audience and Why Should You Care?

winter-path-in-sunThe artistic process, whether painting or prose, is admittedly the child of self-expression. The long-standing image of the artist cloistered in her studio—hunched over a writing desk or standing before a canvas to create from the depths of his/her soul—is surely a truism. Artists create from the heart; we dive deep inside our often-tortured souls and closeted past to draw out the universal metaphors that speak to humanity and share—

Ay, there’s the rub. For to share is to have a dialogue and to have a meaningful dialogue is to demonstrate consideration of the other. Somewhere in that journey that began with self, others entered. It is, in fact, something of a paradox and a conundrum for many artists. One that has challenged the artistic community for centuries. It is also why many artists have relied on agents, benefactors, and advocates to effectively communicate, target — and even interpret—their often abstruse “message” to appropriate audiences.

Purists will tell you that a true artist need not consider her audience; because her self-expression naturally finds relevance with the culture and zeitgeist from which she writes through universally understood metaphor: her story is their story.

But is that enough?

I suppose it finally comes down to whether you are interested in sharing. I don’t know any published authors who don’t wish their books to sell. Every storyteller needs an audience to connect with and engage. That is ultimately what good storytelling does: engage, connect, rouse emotions and evoke empathic feelings. Make an impact.

Does identifying and targeting a specific audience result in more satisfied readers and ultimately better sales? Of course it does. The more you—and whoever is helping you market your work—know about your audience, the more likely you are going to attract them to your book, convince them to buy it and ultimately connect with them through story.

That’s the irony of art: it is a treasure that is created out of the depths of solitude but ultimately brought into the light and shared with the world. For your art to have impact, you must know and understand your world.

Knowing your audience will affect every aspect of your book project. It will help determine:

  • What your story is about and how you write it (e.g., language, “voice” or personality, narrative style, tone or mood/attitude, characters, setting and theme, even length)
  • What genre and sub-genre(s) it lies under
  • The look and tone of the cover and blurb (one that matches the story and its audience; I previously wrote about book jacket blurbs and book covers )
  • All aspects of promotion, including the language and images you use, where you direct your marketing and how (e.g., medium, timing, etc.)

For your work to succeed, it’s important to consider the following:

  • collision-with-paradise-smallWrite to the audience’s expectations (given the promise of your work): success of stories with readers will rely on the alignment of expected story structure, tone and endings. My romance SF therefore reads differently from my hard SF in so many ways.
  • darwins-paradoxWrite to the understanding level of your intended audience: how and what I write for my hard science fiction audience (with expectations on accurate and intelligent exploration and extrapolation on science) is different from the style I use for my historical fantasy. This will include “voice”, language and use of specific vocabulary, terms and concepts, sentence structure and pace.
  • Write with the knowledge of your relationship to the reader: how will you gain their empathy and buy-in to your story? This will depend on the genre of your work and expectations of its associated readership.

 

Understand Your Audience

Who is going to read your work? To what age group to they belong? What culture and sub-culture? What gender(s)? What education and intellectual capacity? Economic status? What regions? What political leanings? Prejudices and beliefs? What knowledge-base? For instance, you wouldn’t use a lot of multi-sylabic latinisms in an action thriller; but you might in a literary fiction or even high fantasy. If you research and create a profile of your intended reader, this will help you identify who you are writing to.  “Knowing or anticipating who will be reading what you have written is key to effective writing,” says SkillsYouNeed.com.

It isn’t enough to know who is reading, but why they are reading your writing. Ask yourself these two questions:

  1. Who do I want to read this? Who are you writing for? They are your primary audience; the ones you will truly resonate with your story; they will be your fans: who are they?
  2. Who else is likely to read this? This is your secondary audience, readers who may not necessarily read your genre but are interested in the issues or premise of your story or will appreciate how you’ve handled it in your story: who might they be? 

 

Writers are Solopreneurs

In his 2014 article in Forbes, Jayson DeMers shares that: “Market research was once the purview of only big companies. If you weren’t a Fortune 1000 brand, investing in any form of customer research was outside the scope of what many businesses could afford. Today, advances in market research technology have opened a whole range of services to even the smallest businesses. Small enterprises and solopreneurs routinely test ideas before they take them to market, saving tens of thousands of dollars and years of time developing products and services that fall flat with the market.”

Given the current publishing paradigm—which offers less and less to the author, writers are now more than ever required to understand their audience, given their need to be solopreneurs, succeeding on their own know-how, rather than relying on some marketing department that no longer exists.

To know your audience is to know your story better.

A previous version of this article was published in the Clarion Foundation blog and presented by Lynda Williams.

 

nina-2014aaNina 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.

Where Is the Literature of the Anthropocene?

interstellar-cooper-ice-planet2Early on in the recent science fiction movie Interstellar, NASA astronaut Cooper declares that “the world’s a treasure, but it’s been telling us to leave for a while now. Mankind was born on Earth; it was never meant to die here.” After showing Cooper how their last corn crops will eventually fail like the okra and wheat before them, NASA Professor Brand answers Cooper’s question of, “So, how do you plan on saving the world?” with: “We’re not meant to save the world…We’re meant to leave it.” Cooper rejoins: “I’ve got kids.” To which Brand answers: “Then go save them.”

In a 1976 NBC interview on the significance of the Viking 1 landing on Mars, astronomer Carl Sagan likened our space program to watching a dandelion gone to seed: “I can’t help but think of this as an epochal moment in planetary exploration. If you can imagine, a sort of a very patient observer, observing the earth for its four and half billion-year lifetime: for all of that period, lots of things came onto the earth, but nothing left it. And now just in the last 10 years, things are spewing off the earth.”

The Onset of the Anthropocene & the Great Acceleration

urbanlandscape2In a Guardian article entitled “The Holocene hangover: it is time for humanity to make fundamental changes”, Fredrick Albritton Jonsson examines Amitav Ghosh’s interpretation of climate change and considers the need to acknowledge Earth’s own powerful and changing identity—particularly through the face of climate change.

Is climate change the planet’s way of telling us that we no longer belong—like Cooper was suggesting in the movie Interstellar?

That we’ve largely orchestrated these changes may be considered ironic—or is it simply inevitable? For me, as an ecologist, this is not a new concept. Ecological succession is the process of ecosystem change and development over time (usually following a disturbance) as an establishing species impacts and alters its environment to eventually make the environment less suited to it and more to another species, which will replace it. Succession only stops when a climax community—which is in equilibrium with a stable environment—establishes. This climax stage can persist indefinitely—until the next environmental disturbance, that is. Succession occurs everywhere in Nature; examples include the recolonization of Mount St. Helen’s following the volcanic eruption. Natural succession occurs in human society as well. A good example can be found in any city. My landscape architect son described the natural process of “gentrification” in a large city: a process of renovation and revival of deteriorated urban areas through an influx of more affluent residents, resulting in increased property values and a displacement of lower-income families and businesses. Inherent in succession is movement and flow—something Nature is very familiar with and uses well.

“Our planet is changing into a strange and unstable new environment, in a process seemingly outside technological control,” writes Jonsson, who laments in a disillusioned patriarchal voice: “The fossil fuels that once promised mastery over nature have turned out to be tools of destruction, disturbing the basic biogeochemical processes that make our world habitable [for us]. Even the recent past is no longer what we thought it was.”

Jonsson then unleashes a litany of examples where humanity has imposed global change, including: climate change; reduced biodiversity of ecosystems; acidification of marine life and oceans capacity to absorb carbon dioxide; fresh water scarcity; ozone depletion, which threatens atmospheric stability; and disruption of global nitrogen and phosphorus cycles—to mention a few. “Indeed,” says Jonsson, “the planet’s biosphere bears so many marks of anthropogenic influence that it is no longer possible to [distinguish] between the realm of wilderness and the world of human habitation.”

world-war-2-goosestep“Scientists are telling us that the whole territory of modern history, from the end of World War II to the present, forms the threshold to a new geological epoch,” adds Jonsson. This epoch succeeded the relatively stable natural variability of the Holocene Epoch that had endured for 11,700 years. Scientists Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer call it the Anthropocene Epoch. Suggestions for its inception vary from the time of the Industrial Revolution in the late 1700s with the advent of the steam engine and a fossil fuel economy to the time of the Great Acceleration—the economic boom following World War II.

the-great-accelerationThe Great Acceleration describes a kind of tipping point in planetary change and succession resulting from a rising market society.

From the devices we carry to the lives we lead, everything is getting faster, faster.  The International Geosphere-Bioshpere Programme writes that “the last 60 years have without doubt seen the most profound transformation of the human relationship with the natural world in the history of humankind.” They suggest that the second half of the 20th Century is unique in the history of human existence. “Many key indicators of the functioning of the Earth system are now showing responses that are, at least in part, driven by the changing human imprint on the planet. The human imprint influences all components of the global environment – oceans, coastal zone, atmosphere, and land.”

While this notion rings hubristic, there is no question that humanity is now a major driver of planetary change: from tipping the Earth’s axis through the creation of massive water reservoirs and diverting a third of Earth’s available fresh water to increasing carbon dioxide to a levels found 800,000 years ago—changing global climate.

Geologists and historians discussed how the Anthropocene Epoch would best be identified by observers in a distant future. “Among the plausible candidates proposed are micro-plastics, metal alloys, and artificial isotopes,” writes Jonsson. “Such stratigraphic markers must be placed in their historical context. The scientific identification of the Anthropocene with the year 1945 gives us not just a plausible geological end to the Holocene, but also a watershed that fits comfortably with a great body of scholarly work about the historical consequences of World War II.”

great-acceleration-chartThe Great Acceleration encompasses the notion of “planetary boundaries,” thresholds of environmental risks beyond which we can expect nonlinear and irreversible change on a planetary level. A well known one is that of carbon emissions. Emissions above 350 ppm represent unacceptable danger to the welfare of the planet in its current state; and humanity—adapted to this current state. This threshold has already been surpassed during the postwar capitalism period decades ago.

Our Literature in the Anthropocene

greatderangement-climatechangeIn Amitav Ghosh’s diagnosis of the condition of literature and culture in the Age of the Anthropocene (The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable), he observes that the literary world has responded to climate change with almost complete silence. “How can we explain the fact that writers of fiction have overwhelmingly failed to grapple with the ongoing planetary crisis in their works?” continues Jonsson, who observes that, “for Ghosh, this silence is part of a broader pattern of indifference and misrepresentation. Contemporary arts and literature are characterized by ‘modes of concealment that [prevent] people from recognizing the realities of their plight.’”

“By failing to engage with climate change, artists and writers are contributing to an impoverished sense of the world, right at the moment when art and literature are most needed to galvanize a grassroots movement in favor of climate justice and carbon mitigation.”

According to Ghosh, the “great derangement” stemmed from a certain kind of rationality. Plots and characters of bourgeois novelists reflected the regularity of middle-class life and the worldview of the Victorian natural sciences, one that depended on a principle of uniformity. Change in Nature was gradual and never catastrophic. Extraordinary or bizarre happenings were left to marginal genres like the Gothic tale, romance novel, and—of course—science fiction. The strange and unlikely were externalized: hence the failure of modern novels and art to recognize anthropogenic climate change.

flight-behaviorJonsson tells us that bourgeois reason takes many forms, showing affinities with classical political economy, and—I would add—in classical physics and Cartesian philosophy. From Adam Smith’s 18th Century economic vision to the conceit of bankers who drove the 2008 American housing bubble, humanity’s men have consistently espoused the myth of a constant natural world capable of absorbing infinite abuse without oscillation. When James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis proposed the Gaia Hypothesis in the 1970s, many saw its basis in a homeostatic balance of the natural order as confirmation of Nature’s infinite resilience to abuse. They failed to recognize that we are Nature and abuse of Nature is really self-abuse.

Jonsson suggests that these Enlightenment ideas are essentially ideological manifestations of Holocene stability, remnants from 11,000 years of small variability in temperature and carbon dioxide levels, giving rise to deep-seated habits and ideas about the resilience of the natural world. “The commitment to indefinite economic growth espoused by the economics profession in the postwar era is perhaps its most triumphant [and dangerous] expression.”

memory-of-water-emmi-itarantaLouise Fabiani of Pacific Standard suggests that novels are still the best way for us to clarify planetary issues and prepare for change—even play a meaningful part in that change. In her article “The Literature of Climate Change” she points to science fiction as helping “us prepare for radical change, just when things may be getting too comfortable.” Referring to our overwhelming reliance on technology and outsourced knowledge, Fabiani suggests that “our privileged lives (particularly in consumer-based North America) are built on unconscious trust in the mostly invisible others who make this illusion of domestic independence possible—the faith that they will never stop being there for us. And we have no back-ups in place should they let us down.” Which they will—given their short-term thinking.

“To counteract this epidemic of short-term thinking,” says Fabiani, “it might be a good idea for more of us to read science fiction, specifically the post-apocalyptic sub-genre: that is, fiction dealing with the aftermath of major societal collapse, whether due to a pandemic, nuclear fallout, or climate change.”

year-of-the-flood-atwoodIn my interview with Mary Woodbury on Eco-Fiction I remind readers that “science fiction is a powerful literature of allegory and metaphor and deeply embedded in culture. By its very nature, SF is a symbolic meditation on history itself and ultimately a literature of great vision. Some of the very best of fiction falls under the category of science fiction, given the great scope of its platform. More and more literary fiction writers are embracing the science fiction genre (e.g., Margaret Atwood, Kuzuo Ishiguro, Michael Chabon, Philip Roth, Iain Banks, David Mitchell); these writers recognize its immense scope and powerful metaphoric possibilities. From science fiction to eco-fiction is a natural process. Exploring large societal and planetary issues is the purview of both.”

Let’s see more. We need it.

You can find an excellent databank of eco-fiction books on Mary Woodbury’s site Eco-Fiction. Mary Woodbury also includes “12 works of climate fiction everyone should read.” Midge Raymond of Literary Hub lists “5 important works of eco-fiction you need to read.” And then there is the Goodreads Listopia for “Best eco-fiction

naturalselectionMy own works of eco science fiction can be found on my author’s website, Nina Muneanu Writer and at a quality bookstore near you.

 

Why not find a work of eco-fiction and share it with someone you care about this Christmas.

 

nina-2014aaNina 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.

 

 

A Rose By Any Other Name…

Bernese Oberland, bern…Would it smell as sweet? When Shakespeare first used that now famous line spoken by Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, he was no doubt evoking the importance of representative symbolism while suggesting that the true nature of the thing had its intrinsic value beyond its icon. Or did it? “’Tis but thy name that is my enemy,” Juliet goes on to say. “Thou art thyself.” Surely, in society, a name embodies the thing; the part the whole. We even have a word for that kind of metaphor. It’s called synecdoche.

It does bring to mind the importance of names in culture and literature. The name of a thing may often link it to its invariable destiny. Or is it the other way around? And does it matter, in the final analysis, whether “the name” is the function of existentialist predilection or the end result of fatalistic determination. Of the egg and the chicken, which comes first? And does it matter? Even for a writer—artist and “God of story”—this is not totally clear. How will we choose and how will we be interpreted?

 

My Name…

Nina_Woods_5

Nina hiking in an Ontario forest

Take my name, for instance. When I tell people my name I often add that my last name, Munteanu, means “from the mountain” in Romanian. I often fanaticized that my ancestors had come from the Transylvanian Alps of Romania. What I often forget to tell people is that my first name, Nina, means “little girl” in Italian, Spanish and Russian and God knows what other language in the universe. If you were to put the two names together, you would get the archetype represented by Heidi or Pipi Longstocking—depending on what kind of attitude you cared to promote. While I admired the feisty Swedish redhead’s unconventionality and fortitude, I, gravitated to the Heidi image—I identified with that spirited but ever-so-cute Shirley Temple version of an orphan girl who comes down from the pure fresh mountains and brings joy and laughter to the cynical world around her. As a child, I empathized with her stubborn crusade for truth and justice: that famous pout and little stomp of her foot as Heidi stood up to those big bullies and managed to endear herself into the hearts of everyone.

Okay. I’m not Heidi. But that archetype resonated with me as I was growing up. In some way, my empathy with the Heidi archetype played a role in my life-choices. Whether this resulted from gestalt psychology or universal determinism is likely not important. What is important in storytelling is how we as artists use this in our choice of names: all kinds of names, from places to events, to people and things (which for me as a science fiction and fantasy writer is equally important, given that many of the terms I use I created from my imagination). Let’s look at some examples…

 

Names in Literature and Film…

the MatrixNeo in The Matrix is an anagram for “One”. Before he changes his name to Neo, he goes by the name of Thomas Anderson. Thomas is Hebrew for “twin” (e.g., Agent Smith tells Neo, “you have been living two lives.”). Of course, Thomas was also one of Jesus’s disciples, the one who doubted. The Wachowski Brothers chose the names of all their main characters with careful purpose. Morpheus (the god of dreams, who takes Neo out of his dream); Trinity (who connects and unifies the “father” the “son” and the “holy spirit” through her faith).

Atticus in To Kill a Mockingbird is a true country gentleman and modern knight, espousing the chivalric code of courage, humility, justice and service. Atticus draws an association from Attica of ancient Greece in which Athens was located. A place renowned for its wisdom, rational approach to life and its belief in justice. 

Luke Skywalker in George Lucas’s Star Wars is another clearly allegorical name that evokes the hero’s journey. Luke, besides reflecting Lucus’s alter-ego, also means “light”. The name Skywalker effectively portrays a god-like individual who must wander far in a heavenly walkabout on his quest for freedom and justice and the light of truth. George Lucas created allegorical identities with most of his Star Wars characters from Han Solo to Princess Leia Organa.

Becky Sharp in William Thackery’s Vanity Fair dispensed her “sharp” wit to manipulate her entire world from the dull-witted Amelia Sedley to her high society suitors. Her last name also carries connotations of a “sharper” or con-man.

Scarlet O’Hara of Margaret Mitchel’s Gone with the Wind was a woman who breathed fire and passion.  She epitomized the famous quote of Victor Frankl:  what is to give light must endure burning. She burns all right; and lives—humbled and enlightened and even more determined.

John Crichton-S1

John Crichton (Ben Browder)

John Crichton in David Kemper’s Farscape. Choosing the name John for the main character identified him as a “universal everyman” and representative of humanity, from his frequent references to pop culture to his off-colour jokes about humanity in general. The name also identifies the kind of hero he portrays. He is not some super-hero with extra-ordinary powers or qualities. He is an ordinary man who finds himself in extraordinary circumstances; he is you and me. Together with the name Crichton, this associates him with adventuring, generosity, idealism and inspiration. Indeed, this character proves himself a very different kind of hero. John Crichton is a diplomat, a humorist, a clown, an intellectual and strategist all rolled into one. A warrior poet.

Inner-diverse-front-cover-WEB

Rhea Hawke, Galactic Guardian

I chose the name Rhea Hawke in my trilogy The Splintered Universe to represent the complex and paradoxical nature of the lead character. The Titan Goddess Rhea is the mother of all gods, including Zeus, giving birth and nurturing all that she has created. Those of you who have read Outer Diverse, Inner Diverse and Metaverse (Books 1 to 3 of The Splintered Universe Trilogy) will recognize that Rhea Hawke is, in fact, an agent of death. She is essentially an assassin for the Galactic Guardians; one who invented a much coveted devastating weapon of mass destruction, the MEC (that selectively maims, kills or leaves alone any species based on their unique DNA signature).  This aspect of her character of course fits with the hawk, the stealthy keen-eyed predator. A creative predator. But, there is a nurturing, soft and “mothering” side to Rhea beneath her predatory bravado. It reveals itself through sub-text and subtle metaphor. Rhea Hawke is ultimately a paradox. Like her name. Like most of us.

Cover1_LastSummoner-frontcoverLady Vivianne Schoen, the Baroness von Grunwald, in my historical fantasy The Last Summoner, is a being of light who can travel time-space and must alter history starting with the Battle of Grunwald in 1410. Her first name derives from the Latin vivus meaning alive or the French word vivre for life. And live she must—for over six hundred years— if she is to succeed in recasting history to make this a better world. There is an ironic layer to her name, but I can’t reveal it here for those who haven’t yet read the book. In future Paris she meets François Rabelais, named after the 15th Century satirist, philosopher and dissident. While this youth on the surface represents the antithesis of the medieval scholar, he finally reveals himself as a philosopher warrior and humanist like his 15th Century namesake.

 

Names as Symbols of a Changing Culture…

Names—what we call things—are supreme icons for a culture of a time and place to identify and define its archetypes, values, symbols and hegemonies. Names define an entire zeitgeist.

Think of the word chivalry. Derived from the 11th Century French term chevalier (horseman), the term came to be understood in the 12th Century and later as a moral, religious and social code of knightly conduct. The code generally emphasized the virtues of courage, honor, purity and service. The term also described an idealization of the life and manners of the knight at home in his castle and with his court, embodying notions of “courtly love” and devotion to God and country. However, when it originated in the 11th Century, chivalry meant simply the “status of fee associated with military follower owning a war horse.”

The Sufi word futuwwa shares similar connotations to chivalry and virtue. Futuwwa was also the name of ethical urban guilds in Medieval Muslim realms that emphasized the virtues of honesty, peacefulness, gentleness, generosity, avoidance of complaint and of hospitality in life. However, Al-Futuwa was also the name of the Arab-Nationalist Young Arab Association and the Hitler-Jugend style pan Arab fascist nationalistic youth movement in Iraq in the 1930s to 50s.

Speaking of Hitler and Nazi Germany, another name and symbol, the swastika—which in Bernese Oberland, bernthe modern post-WW2 world has become synonymous with fascism and anti-Semitism—was in fact an ancient symbol of prosperity that represented the revolving sun, fire or life. In the ancient language of Sanskrit, swastika means “well-being”. It was used widely in ancient Mesopotamia, South and Central American Mayan art, by the Navajos and continues to symbolize the four possible places of rebirth in Jainism and night-magic-purity-destruction to Hindus.

Choose your names carefully and with purpose.

 

nina-2014aaNina 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. Read Nina’s climate/eco-fiction Darwin’s ParadoxAngel of Chaos and Natural Selection.

 

When Art Tangos with Science

purple mountainsImagination is more important than knowledge—Albert Einstein

 

I tell stories. I’m also a scientist. I use the scientific method in my research to seek truth; I also find truth presented to me through the symbols of intuition.

A few years ago, I was introduced to Krista Fogel, a University of British Columbia masters student, who was investigating the use of creative art in high-ability scientists. She named her thesis: “The Self-Perceived Experience of Investigating Science with an Artistic Spirit: A Hermeneutic Phenomenological Study of High Ability Scientists Who Also Engage in the Arts”. Hermeneutic, by the way, is the development and study of theories of the interpretation and understanding of texts (I had to look it up) and phenomenology is an approach to philosophy through the study of phenomena.

Krista wanted to interview me as part of her project. I was flattered, of course. Me, a High Ability Scientist? Who’d told her that? Once I got past my own humble angst, I found Krista’s questions bracing; they reopened a world of compelling ideas I had carried with me for some time. The concept of using art to do good science has dwelled inside me since registration day at Concordia University when I quit my fine arts program to pursue a science degree only to come full circle and write fiction. I got my Masters Degree in Ecology and Limnology and was then working as a scientist for an environmental consulting firm (I now write and teach writing full time). I did research, drove boats, collected samples and analyzed data then wrote up my findings and made recommendations. I wrote science fiction novels on the side.

“History shows that eminent scientists, such as Leonardo da Vinci, also engaged in the arts,” said Fogel. She went on to cite 400 other famous scientists who also practiced art at a high level. “If not entirely engaged in the arts, scientists throughout history have at least engaged in science with an artistic spirit. Scientists and artists use common tools for thinking such as intuition and imaginative processes.”

Krista and I met several times at the local Starbucks, where I “toked” on coffee as she fumbled with her notes. A young gal with a direct but unassuming gaze and a gentle smile, Krista asked me to share my personal experience of mixing art with science. Every good scientist is an artist at heart: science is the tool and art is the process.

Fogel concluded that when conducting scientific investigations with an artistic spirit, the scientist holds her heart central, from which the artist springs. This “allows us to connect with serendipitous occurrences, which breed discovery,” Fogel added.

You can train your mind as both artist and scientist to become more aware of serendipitous occurrences around you. I call it being in sync and wrote about it in a previous article here (“Writing in Sync”). Often, when I’m researching a novel, I pick up things serendipitously. Something will come up that just fits with what I was searching for. An article pops up in the news. Or I’m talking to someone and they bring up just the topic I am researching. These things always happen to me. This occurs not only in my fiction writing but in my scientific pursuits. Some years ago, I was doing a pollution study using glass slides for colonizing algae to compare communities of an urban stream to those of an agricultural stream. I was really looking to see the difference between communities of these different stream environments when I discovered that the algae were colonizing the glass surfaces according to the current. Compelled with more questions of why, how and what if, I pursued this new line of research (which turned out to be far more interesting than my original research premise) and wrote several ground-breaking papers on it.

Indeed, questions like “why” and “what if” are germane to both art and science; the ‘what if’ question is the science fiction writer’s mantra and the premise, which comes from the artist part of you: imagination and an inquisitive and open mind. The idea of seemingly unrelated events intersecting to produce meaningful patterns has spawned new notions of thought from the scientific study of spontaneous order in the universe (synchrony), to Synchromysticism — the discovery of convergent archetypal symbols in pop culture (e.g., books, music and film).

Writer and philosopher Jake Kotze suggests that, “Synchronicity happens when we notice the bleed-through from one seemingly separate thing into another — or when we for a brief moment move beyond the mind’s divisions of the world.” Synchronicity and serendipitous discovery, like metaphor, appears when we change the way we look at things.

Serendipitous discovery comes to us through peripheral vision. Like our muse, it doesn’t happen by chasing after it; it sneaks up on us when we’re not looking. It comes to us when we focus outward and embrace our wonder for this world. When we quiet our minds and nurture our souls with beauty. It is then that what we had been seeking naturally comes to us. Like a gift.

Author Sibyl Hunter tells us that “Sync operates as an undercurrent of divine awareness personified through the myriad processes and symbols that make up the building blocks of our reality. Within that current, we spin our modern-day myths into books, fairy tales and movies, subconsciously retelling ourselves the same story over and over.” This also holds true in the models and metaphors of scientific genius, which often spring from the creativity of an intuitive heart and imaginative mind.

According to Mark A. Runco (California State University) “creativity depends on originality, while accomplishment and achievement reflect other problem-solving skills. Creative thinking involves at least three things: 1) the cognitive capacity to transform experience into original interpretations, 2) an interest in producing original interpretations, and 3) discretion.” The title of Piaget’s monograph, To Understand Is to Invent, reflects the fact that we do not have an authentic understanding of our experience until we construct that understanding for ourselves. In other words, “it is one thing to memorize some datum; it is quite another to discover it for one’s self; only then do we understand,” says Runco. Fogel concurs: “what Piaget called invention is a kind of creation, a creation of personal meaning. Piaget tied assimilation to imaginative play into creative interpretation.”purple mountains

According to Dean Keith Simonton (University of California), even the most illustrious creative geniuses of history have careers riddled by both hits and misses, both successes and failures. He uses Albert Einstein as an example. A man who has achieved almost mythical status as a genius, Einstein’s career “was plagued by terrible ideas, false starts and surprising disasters.” Simonton tells the story of Einstein’s debate with Niels Bohr over the implications of quantum theory, in which Einstein offered a series of arguments that Bohr countered. Bohr once even pointed out that Einstein failed to take into consideration the theory of relativity! According to some, Einstein wasted the final years of his career working on a unified field theory that was almost universally rejected by his colleagues. Einstein defended his missteps by noting that errors can advance science so long as they are not trivial; the greater the error, the greater the opportunity for new perspective and discovery.

It is left for us to simply recognize the dance.

 

nina-2014aaNina 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. Read Nina’s climate/eco-fiction Darwin’s ParadoxAngel of Chaos and Natural Selection.