- Ashok Mathur (Author)
A Little Distillery in Nowgong. Arsenal Pulp Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Adrian Fowler (Editor)
The March Hare Anthology. Breakwater Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Jennifer Bowering Delisle
Adrian Fowler’s The March Hare Anthology celebrates Atlantic Canada’s largest literary festival, the annual March Hare in Newfoundland. Adrian Fowler’s introduction to the collection explains that since the late 1980s the festival has grown from a small event at a golf club in Corner Brook, to an event that spans the island and attracts writers and musicians from Newfoundland and Labrador, other parts of Canada, and abroad. The anthology boasts the work of participants like Michael Ondaatje, Patrick Lane, Alistair MacLeod, and Susan Musgrave. It also includes some of the best writers who hail from Newfoundland or make it home, including festival co-founder Al Pittman, Lisa Moore, Michael Winter, Wayne Johnston, John Steffler, Tom Dawe, and many others.
Two of the original organizers have now died, and Fowler notes that documents from the festival’s early years have not been preserved. His well-researched introduction to the anthology plays an important role in documenting what history has been recovered, and in fondly conveying the flavour of the festival to new audiences.
Fowler explains that the March Hare is unlike other literary festivals: “poets, musicians and patrons sit around tables, bar-style, and break during the intermission to replenish their glasses or line up to partake of the Hare soup. After the readings, the stories and songs go on, as they would in a kitchen party, until the wee hours of the morning.” The festival’s mandate is to bring literature to the community at large, and to emphasize performance and entertainment. A democratic philosophy prevails, with established writers appearing alongside little-known local poets, and traditional stories alongside experimental poetry.
Because of this egalitarian spirit, the anthology overall is uneven in quality. Pieces like the powerful prose monologues of Michael Crummey and the rich narrative poems of Lorna Crozier stand out. But there are also contributions from local participants that are anecdotal rather than literary, which, without the benefit of hearing them performed, strike an amateurish chord. The book has the feel, then, not of a carefully selected anthology but of an artefact, a document that attests to the growth and variety of the festival. The written text could never capture the interactive, musical “kitchen party” atmosphere of the festival itself. Perhaps then this anthology will best serve those who have been lucky enough to attend the festival over the years, as a reminder of two great decades of literature and music and a testament to its founders’ legacy.
Ashok Mathur’s A Little Distillery in Nowgong also has a life that extends beyond the pages of the novel, as an art installation that showed in Vancouver, Ottawa, and Kamloops, incorporating visual art and interactive performance. This spirit of play and innovation is also evident in the text itself, which tells a fantastical tale spanning more than a century, three countries, and four generations of a Parsi family.
A Little Distillery begins with the birth of a boy named Jamshed to a Parsi couple in late nineteenth-century India. Jamshed grows up struggling with questions of spirituality and destiny as he is torn between two paths: to become a dastur like his father or to take on a career as a businessman. We follow Jamshed, and then his daughter and granddaughter, through life-changing choices and devastating personal losses, against the back of India’s independence struggles, Partition violence, and finally modern diaspora to England and Canada. Yet throughout these serious events, the novel maintains a sense of whimsy that builds into an unpredictable finish.
The novel is narrated by Sunny, a genderless, ethereal voice who speaks both to us and to Jamshed, and who claims to be Jamshed’s yet unborn grandchild. Sunny’s playful interactions with Jamshed and other members of the family raise powerful questions about inter-generational connection and the formation and preservation of identity and faith in a globalized world.
Sunny wonders if the role of storytelling is “not to bring newness into the world, but to tell us what is already there.” This notion of “what is already there” haunts the novel, as the characters strive both to find themselves within a future that seems predestined, and to honour a genealogy across the ruptures of diaspora. As a storyteller himself, what Mathur tells us is that the vectors of personal identity—gender, faith, ethnicity, nationality—may be in constant flux, but do not disrupt powerful familial connections that sustain the passage of time.
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MLA: Delisle, Jennifer Bowering . Staying Power. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 25 Apr. 2015.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #206 (Autumn 2010). (pg. 132 - 133)
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