Acts of Resistance

This morning I woke with the weight of grief in my chest. I didn’t know anyone who died in the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre on Saturday, but the news of it hit hard amid a climate of rising fascism and I remembered the Pinkas Synagogue in Prague. Built in 1535 and the second oldest in that city, it’s a sombre building that holds palpable grief and sorrow. Two painters, Václav Boštík and Jiří John, inscribed the walls with the names of the Holocaust victims from Czech lands, row upon row of hand-lettered names no taller than a paperclip: all of the walls of the old synagogue, top to bottom, room after room of names. 80,000 dead because an unfathomable evil took hold of Europe in the person of Adolf Hitler, the Nazi party, and a world that didn’t act fast enough.

I saw the old synagogue in Prague when I visited earlier this year. While I was there, I read Laurent Binet’s brilliant HHhH, a chronicle of the rise of Nazism as well as the story of two Czech resistance heroes, Josef Gabčik and Jan Kubiš, who gave their lives to carry out Operation Anthropoid: to assassinate Richard Heydrich, the most lethal man in the Third Reich.

On my last day in Prague, I finished reading the novel and went to the church crypt where Gabčik and Kubiš holed up in their last hours, now a museum. A former member of the Anthropoid team betrayed their identity and location to the Nazi party, who were tearing up the country in search of them. With Binet’s words fresh in my mind, I imagined I could see the marks the spoons made in the rocky earth as they dug a tunnel and the sound of six hundred pairs of SS shoes clattering on the street above.

 

 

The brutality of the search for Gabčik and Kubiš throughout the Czech Republic—the Nazis burned down an entire village where the men were thought to be—helped bring about their eventual demise as the world gradually awakened to what was happening. Allies would later drop bombs with the village’s name, Lidice, scrawled on them.

It’s almost reflex for me to envision the last terrifying moments of the eleven killed in Pittsburg, one a 97-year-old woman who was a Holocaust survivor herself, just as I suspect it was for Binet to imagine himself into the persons of Gabčik, Kubiš, and Heydrich. Besides telling a gripping story, HHhH interrogates the possibility of historical fiction—can he recreate a time now past?—but he doesn’t question the creative empathy required for him to try to understand how a monster like Heydrich or heroes like Gabčik and Kubiš were built. It was creative empathy that fueled those imaginative acts and he exercised it because he could, because as an artist he’s built that way. His father first told him the story of Heydrich when he was nine and the story never let him go: this novel, which acquainted so many with this part of WWII, is his act of resistance. The story of the rise of fascism in Germany was never as real to me, though I knew it well, as it was when Binet was telling it.

Though Gabčik and Kubiš did eventually succeed in the larger goal—to help bring down the Nazi regime—Heydrich himself would have easily survived the minor wounds from their botched assassination attempt if the resulting infection had been treated with recently-discovered penicillin. He wasn’t, and he didn’t, because the British refused to hand it over when the Nazis asked.

Václav Boštík and Jiří John, Josef Gabčik and Jan Kubiš, countless resistance fighters, a British governmental official in charge of the penicillin, Laurent Binet. Resistance can take many forms.

Lucy Stone’s suffrage wagon

This morning I’m busy reminding myself that I’m an optimist. An anxious, cautious one, but an optimist all the same. I went to bed before the result were in, having avoided social media all evening, and then woke with nonspecific anxiety (mine are usually very specific). I guess I knew he’d won. Last night I’d thought it would be close, but that the US would reject, if only by a narrow margin, a narcissist demagogue whose only real platform was hatred.

My 17-year-old daughter came to me while I was reading through the news and reaction early this morning and still sorting through my own shock. For those of us with children, our most important job today will be to guide. Start by reading Ta-Nehisi Coates, for instance. Right now. A choked up Anthony Van Jones wondered what he’d tell his children. “You tell your kids don’t be a bully, you tell your kids don’t be a bigot… and then you have this outcome…This was a whitelash against a changing country. It was a whitelash against a black president in part. And that’s where the pain comes.”

It’s painful but necessary to recognize that bigotry and racism are alive and well, not only in North America but worldwide. It’s horrifying but instructive to watch the white supremacists and the neo-Nazis and the misogynists gloat and claim victory. It’s also the clearest of signs that the glass ceiling is still fucking hard to break. The job isn’t finished. We aren’t done. It isn’t over.

Last month I had the chance to see Lucy Stone’s suffrage wagon at the American History Museum in Washington, DC. If was a tangible reminder of how far we’ve come (it’s just over one hundred years old), it can also be a weapon against despair. Look at it. That humble recommissioned milk wagon helped change the face of North American politics.

The US came within spitting distance of electing the first female president—and they did, by popular vote. Maybe this time the electoral college will do something unexpected in December. Or maybe the US wasn’t ready for a woman to lead them—not yet.

This is not the time to concede defeat to the bigots and the racists and the anti-Semites and the misogynists. This is the time to get up again and again and again and keep working to create a world of tolerance and fairness and equality. It’s time to redouble our efforts. It’s time to guide and mobilize our kids to keep fighting, and to fight harder. The middle-aged white guys who turned out in droves won’t live forever.

I’m going to keep the words painted on Lucy Stone’s suffrage wagon close to mind and heart, and make sure my kids see them too.

THOUGHTS HAVE GONE FORTH WHOSE POWER SHALL SLEEP NO MORE.

 

 

suffrage-wagon

Occasional artist series, No. 2: Joseph Beuys

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Infiltration-homogen für Cello (Homogenous Infiltration for Cello)
Joseph Beuys
National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa

 

 

 

 

Beuys made several of these for musician and performance artist Charlotte Moorman.

This piece developed out of a work in which Beuys wrapped a grand piano in felt. “In a normal sense a piano is an instrument used to produce sounds,” he said. “When not in use it is silent, but still has sound potential. Here, no sound is possible and the piano is condemned to silence.”

 

 

 

Authors for Indies 2016

I never worked in a bookstore, but when I was fourteen the Kitchener Public Library opened a branch in my suburb. I couldn’t get there fast enough. It was raining and I slipped, ass over teakettle, on the wet floor. They hired me anyway.

I’m sure I held the record for slothful shelving. I could take up to two hours to return with the empty book trolley, and NO ONE CARED. I read my way through the stacks indiscriminately: three pages of Jean Auel, half of a Danielle Steel, the juicy bits of Leonard Cohen and Irving Layton, obviously. It was the best job going.

Fast forward a few (ahem) years. I have a book of my own out now, and for the second year in a row, I’ll play bookseller for a day. Janie Chang’s excellent stewardship has made Authors for Indies the best book party going. Last year I pressed Helen MacDonald’s H is for Hawk, Alissa York’s Effigy, and Helen Oyeyemi’s Mr Fox into readers’ hands.

I have a new list of favourites this year.  Maybe they’ll let me work the cash register. One can dream.

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page from my notebook

 

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Text: Madeleine Thien, from her Avie Bennett lecture at University of Toronto, March 3, 2016 (The Field of Sound: JS Bach, China, and the Possibilities of Personhood)

Photograph: New York Armories, December 2014, Hélène Grimaud/Douglas Gordon’s tears become… streams become…