Sunday, October 30, 2011

Island cultures, island identities – and don’t forget the weather!

There are dozens of things I love about doing a PhD – particularly since my topic is islands –  specifically how artists on the islands of Newfoundland and Tasmania express their "islandness" through their art.

One of the perks is getting to travel to so many wonderful islands – mostly for meetings or conferences or to do my research, but sometimes for pleasure, too. Over the years I’ve noted that most of these islands have been cold-water islands: Iceland, the Faroes, and Ă…land; the Isle of Man, Guernsey, and Herm; Bornholm in Denmark and Ven in Sweden; Kagoshima in Japan; and Tasmania and Bruny Island in Australia. And then there are those closer to my home island of Prince Edward Island: Newfoundland and Cape Breton Island – not to mention the island on which I spent many of growing-up years: Vancouver Island. But in recent years, I managed to find a few warm-water ones, such as Maui; Isla Mujeires and Isla Holbox, off Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula; and Hamilton Island, in the Whitsunday Islands in North Queensland. The cold still outnumber the warm, but I keep dreaming. I think it's part of my conditioning that the warm-water islands seem so much more exotic than the cold, but are they really?
Isla Holbox, Mexico

Isla Holbox, Mexico

All these islands have their different and distinctive attractions – but there are a few things – beyond the obvious water that surrounds them – that bind them together. Sometimes it’s difficult or expensive transportation links, isolation, or the insular nature of the island. Other times it’s jobs (or lack thereof), environmental concerns, or migration (mostly “out-“ but sometimes “in-“). Indeed, I first noticed the excitement generated by discovering shared traits of islandness at my first island studies conference, “An Island Living,” which we organized at the Institute of Island Studies back in 1992. The 50-some delegates didn’t stop talking from the time we picked them up at the airport until the time we dropped them off. It’s still the same. Usually the conversation begins with comments about the weather, with the conclusion: “If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes.” And it goes from there.

Two weeks ago I was in St. John’s, Newfoundland, attending NorthAtlantic Forum 2011, a biennial conference that focuses on economic development and governance issues of North Atlantic islands. (And it rained most of the time, but at least it didn't snow!) Hosted by the North Atlantic Forum (which is based out of the Leslie Harris Centre for Regional Development at Memorial University of Newfoundland), the national Canadian Rural Revitalization Foundation (CRRF), Cruise Newfoundland and Labrador, and Memorial University, this year’s NAF had the added sponsorship of the Small Island Cultures Research Initiative (SICRI) – which looks at comparative island cultural studies. The theme of the conference was “Culture, Place and Identity at the Heart of Regional Development.” 
Over a hundred delegates came from all over Newfoundland and Labrador, various regions of Canada, as well as Iceland, Denmark, and Tasmania. They included academics and business people, civil servants and rural development practitioners, and artists and musicians. At the heart of the discussion was how to keep our distinctive (mostly island) cultures dynamic in an increasingly globalized world, and how to share those cultures with tourists without ruining what made them special to begin with.

The keynote speaker who generated perhaps the most buzz was Zita Cobb, a native of Joe Batt's Arm on Fogo Island, off the northeast coast of Newfoundland. Zita did what many young Newfoundlanders do: she left for central Canada to get her education and find work, but ended up one of Canada's wealthiest women after leaving a top post at the fibre optic company JDS Uniphase.
Zita Cobb
A multimillionaire, she has now returned to her home to create Shorefast, a registered charity that encourages economic growth and revitalization in Fogo and Change Islands. Shorefast takes its name from the line and mooring used to attach a cod trap to the shore, and “is a strong symbol of the cod fishing heritage of the islands and a metaphor for being bound to place and community.” Zita believes in the power of authentic connections between individuals and their communities, culture, and physical place. She noted that many people suffer from a profound sense of disorientation, having lost meaningful connection to the natural world. Through “geotourism” – tourism that connects with the earth – and by supporting arts and culture by creating such offerings as international artistic residencies in purpose-built studios and an eco-friendly inn with art gallery, she hopes to create a place where, “if ever you feel lost in this world, you go there and you’re instantly found.” Zita Cobb’s efforts have not been without their detractors, but she is the first to admit that she’s continuing to learn about doing things at “the right scale, and the right speed.”

Midway through the conference, Godfrey Baldacchino, Canada Research Chair in Island Studies – and never one to mince words – did a reality check by talking about the pitfalls of place, culture, and identity, taking particular aim at the practice of “place-branding” by asking some searching questions.
Godfrey Baldacchino
Why, for example, are people leaving their place? Why are those most passionate about their place the CFAs or come-from-aways, or those who have left and returned? Why do we malign “the tourist gaze,” yet we construct cultural tourism products and package them for the tourist? Why, if we’re so concerned about the effects of global warming, do we want tourists to travel to us? Why do we encourage everyone to “buy local,” yet we export our goods and expect others to buy them? Why, when we are saddened by our own population decline, do we encourage newcomers, but we don’t question when they’ve left their loved ones behind? And where are the Aboriginal voices in all these discussions? Suddenly people started thinking about their presentations differently – and the final hours of the conference were dedicated to some solid brainstorming about how to be true to place, culture, and identity without sacrificing our integrity.

And, after listening to several presentations about strategies to attract refugees from the city – usually upper-income retirees – by citing quality of life, psychic renewal, and “belonging” in stunningly beautiful rural areas (e.g., Newfoundland’s Fogo Island), I ask: is there a danger that “place” will become the luxury domain of only the very rich?

Hard questions, yes, but ones that even now I ponder as, two weeks on, I find myself on what is almost an island – and a warm-water island at that: a little village called Puerto Morelos just south of Cancun on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. I say “almost an island” because the town is bounded by the turquoise waters of the Caribbean to the east and a government-protected biosphere of mangrove swamps to the north, west, and south – only passable via a three-kilometre stretch of road from the village to the main highway that runs along the Yucatan’s east coast. And occasionally the road becomes impassable when the mangroves flood, making it a 100 per cent island.
Puerto Morelos
We came for the first time last year and fell in love with the small-town feel of a working port that’s been brushed by tourism – unlike the overcrowded and over-indulgent tourist meccas of Cancun’s hotel strip to the north and Playa del Carmen’s Fifth Avenue to the south, and the luxury all-inclusive resorts that are popping up like mushrooms after rain on Isla Mujeres, Cozumel, and along what was in 1999 branded the “Mayan Riviera.” 
Isla Mujeres ("Island of the Women")
Mayan ruins at Ek-Balam
Swimming in a cenote
Whereas some towns in the area showcase Mayan culture through folk dance and music, or offer guided tours to the ruins and cenotes, Puerto Morelos just is what it is: fishing boats tie up to posts along the sugary-soft white-sand beach, with mostly Mayan men alternating between fishing for a living and taking tourists out to snorkel on the second-largest coral reef in the world.
Puerto Morelos
Puerto Morelos
A testament to weather...
Young and old whoop with delight when they catch a particularly big fish off the public pier – because they now know what’s for supper. Children walk home for lunch in their school uniforms and play hide-and-seek in the town square in the evening. A dull-sounding bell calls people to church on Friday night. Dozens of friendly and healthy-looking dogs roam the streets – some with collars but more without. Restaurants showcasing authentic dishes from all over Mexico – Acapulco, Guadalajara, Mexico City – featuring rice and beans and hot sauce, and lots and lots of fish – sit alongside David Lau’s Gourmet Chinese and Pizza. Vegetable markets and butcher shops across the highway at La Colonia is where you do your shopping. On the collectivos over and back to La Colonia you bump into farm workers and fisherfolk, locals and ex-pats, and young women and men on their way to and from work at the resorts that bookend the town, all the while passing air-conditioned tour buses carrying tourists to and from the airport or other tourist attractions – but rarely into the village.
El Cid Resort, south of Puerto Morelos
I’m selfish enough to hope it never changes, but at the same time I’d love to be able to organize my life so I could live here for six months of the year, thus contributing to what would seem to be inevitable. Here in this coastal paradise, it’s even more apparent: is place, culture, and identity a luxury that only the rich can afford? Or is this place resilient enough to hold onto what’s important while still benefiting from people who like it as much as I do?

And then there’s the weather…

We were here only three days before hearing about Hurricane Rina. On Monday morning, October 24, it was going to be a tropical storm. On Tuesday morning they were forecasting a Category 1 hurricane; and by the evening it was up to a Category 3. Wednesday it went back down to a 1, and by Thursday, when it hit, it was a tropical storm again. But all along the beach, and throughout the town, people boarded up their windows, brought in extra water and food, hauled out their boats, and generally prepared for the worst. They'd even evacuated the 3,000 residents of Isla Holbox, where we'd been just last year...
Ready for Rina
The massive sound and light show went on for hours; the rain bucketed and the winds whiplashed the palms. Always one to enjoy a good snowstorm at home, I was excited to see what it would be like – and I wasn’t disappointed. In the end, I was glad it was “just” a tropical storm…

But in the way of small places the world over, on the Friday-morning-after we were walking downtown, surveying the damage – which was pretty much non-existent – when we saw some guys with a TV camera. One of them asked, “Are you by any chance Canadian?”
(l-r) David Agren, CTV's Tom Walters, Brad (the cameraman) and Mike
We ended up on CTV news (October 28, 2011, part 3), one of Canada's leading national broadcasters, being interviewed by Los Angeles Bureau Chief Tom Walters about what it was like to be here during the storm. Only on an (almost) small island would we end up on national TV talking about the weather…

Monday, October 3, 2011

Singing Jane's praises

Last year at this time I was in Tasmania.

I remember it well: the last weekend in September was the Grand Final - where I experienced my first Australian Rules Football championship match, and all the passions that went with it when St. Kilda tied with Collingwood in the last few seconds of the game. Collingwood went on to demolish St. Kilda team the following weekend, much to the dismay of many of my Tasmanian friends. And I just heard this year's result: Collingwood lost to Geelong - much to the delight of those whose credo is "anyone but Collingwood!"
On October 1, 2010, I travelled the Midland Highway to Launceston, in the centre of Tasmania, with friends Ralph Wessman, Jane Williams, and Emily Kelly where we attended the Tasmanian Poetry Festival, described in last year's blog post.
Now I find myself doing similar things on the opposite side of the planet. There was no Grand Final, but I was privileged to be part of the Pen and Inkling Festival in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. Organized by the PEI Writers' Guild as part of Charlottetown's 2011 Cultural Capitals designation, the festival featured author readings, workshops, a gala dance, and the 24th annual Island Literary Awards, where dozens of prizes were handed out to islanders of all ages and stages of their careers.

On the Festival's opening night, I was asked to introduce one of my favourite authors, Newfoundland's Wayne Johnston, who was one of the writers whose work I explored for my master's thesis: "'The Circumscribed Geography of Home': Island Identity in the Fiction of Wayne Johnston and Alistair MacLeod." Wayne was on tour with his latest book, A World Elsewhere. I read it and it's hilarious... I recommend it highly. But don't just take my word for it: here's what The Globe and Mail has to say. Unfortunately, Wayne was in a bit of pain for his reading, having broken his toe in St. John's the day before. But despite this, he had the hundred or so audience members in stitches with his droll humour, consummate storytelling, and spot-on imitations of John Crosbie, former Canadian fisheries minister from St. John's. I'm looking forward to interviewing Wayne for my PhD research later in November.
Wayne Johnston
The final event of the Literary Awards is always the Award for Distinguished Contribution to the Arts on Prince Edward Island. This year I had the honour of writing the citation and presenting the award to Jane Ledwell. Here's what I said.
Jane Ledwell

Award for Distinguished Contribution to the Literary Arts on Prince Edward Island 2011

If you grew up with your dad’s words ringing in your ears, “Never do anything practical when you can do something creative,” how would you have turned out?

Writer, editor, reader, music and art and pop culture aficionado, fiercely passionate Islander and supporter of what’s fair and just in the world, and, most importantly, friend… Jane Ledwell is all this and more.

Jane Ledwell tells me of her earliest memories of me: out-to-here pregnant with my first child, Heather, in 1985 – probably at some writing event, maybe at the Faculty Lounge at UPEI, maybe at the first ever Island Literary Awards, where she’d accompanied her dad, writer and UPEI professor Frank Ledwell. She was just a teenager and probably embarrassed because Jane’s mom was pregnant, too, with her youngest brother, Christian. 

A few years later I remember her dad proudly showing me something she wrote – a gorgeous poem about making bread. She may have written it while she was away doing her BA in English at Mount Allison University or her master’s at Waikato University in New Zealand – where she was homesick as anything – but it evoked the feeling of family that has been her touchstone throughout her life.

Jane is the oldest child of six growing up with mom Carolyn and dad Frank on the Loyalist Road, along with Patrick, Thomas, Emily, Danny, and Christian. She talks about being a geek in school, in love with the trumpet section at Bluefield High School and listening to The Police while carrying Sting’s love-child.

I got to know her when she came to work as Conference co-ordinator at the Institute of Island Studies, working on “Message in a Bottle: The Literature of Small Islands.” She went on to succeed Harry Baglole as Institute Director before becoming a researcher and policy analyst at the PEI Advisory Council on the Status of Women, where she still works. She and I co-edited, with Frank, the conference proceedings, called Message in a Bottle, published in 2000.

I REALLY got to know her when we were band mates in KissinGord, a five-woman music ensemble specializing in Canadian-American-lesbian-feminist-indie folksongs, where she played guitar and sang lead and fantastic harmonies with Sasha Mullally, Janice Ployer, Shannon Hartigan, and me – all of us having worked at the Institute at one time or another. Jane always made sure band practice included wine and baked goods. Jane was the first of us to write her own songs, including “Five Days of Weeping” and “Island,” which Tasmanian Pete Hay says is one of the finest songs ever written about Prince Edward Island; he quotes it often: “Here I stand, here I stay. Among my family and my mistakes. And the people and land have long memories. And forgiveness is slow, but it’s on its way.” We also sang side-by-side in the Holy Redeemer Choir alto section for many years.

Jane was my right-hand person at The Acorn Press from pretty much the beginning in the mid-1990s up until I sold it last summer to Terrilee Bulger. Along with her dad, she helped with manuscript selection; she gave great feedback on grant applications, and edited several Acorn books – rarely for money, but just to get the experience.

Here’s what a few of those authors had to say…

FROM DIANNE HICKS MORROW, author of Long Reach Home, Kindred Spirits, and What Really Happened Is This: Jane inherited her father's diplomacy -- the nicest way of making you see the wisdom of her words. She has profound insight into what makes a poem tick, or bomb! I've never seen anyone else able to hold the lines of a poem in her head, with no printed copy to look at, only hearing workshop participants read aloud, just once. She did this repeatedly in her three-hour workshop on "where to turn the line" in poetry! Now that's one amazing brain!

Jane was respectful, insightful, intelligent, and wise. I think she spoiled me by being so good! She is a real gift to the Island’s writing community.

FROM MARGIE CARMICHAEL, author of And Her Name Is: Stories from the Quilt: Jane’s poet's eye can spot the essence of the piece, but she also has an acute sense of hearing what is not being said in a writer's work, and is gifted in extracting what is missing. She pulled out the best out of me, teaching me so much.

FROM CATHERINE EDWARD: author of The Brow of Dawn: Jane reads the middle and all around the edges. She sees what one meant to say but didn’t; what one did say but could do better. How pleased one is to fix these things. How excited and relieved and honoured. How does she do that? I want to know what her mother Carolyn fed all those little Ledwells for breakfast... it’s seems to be a family thing, this portioning of genius.

FROM KATHLEEN HAMILTON, author of Sex After Baby: Why There Is None: Having Jane Ledwell as your editor is like putting on a tailored suit. She makes you look smarter than you are.

Jane always amazes me with the power of her pen. She writes quickly and elegantly, churning out documents such as the proposal for a Master of Arts in Island Studies (which has changed my life immeasurably); briefs to Standing Committees; letters to the editor – always demonstrating her strong appreciation for the value of using the written word to interpret Prince Edward Island to Islanders. Her creative writing has brought her prizes in the PEI Literary Awards, and BOTH poetry and short story categories in 2001 in the Atlantic Writing Competition. She has been published in anthologies and broadcast on CBC Radio, and is author of Last Tomato, published in 2005 by Acorn Press, which was a finalist for the Prince Edward Island Book Award.

Jane was a researcher, publication co-ordinator, and writer of the literary section for First Hand: Arts, Crafts, and Culture Created byPEI Women of the 20th Century, a public history project featuring Island women's creative works, and created by the PEI Advisory Council on the Status of Women and PEI Interministerial Women's Secretariat to celebrate women's history at the turn of the millennium. I still find myself referring to it in my own work.

Jane continues to write, edit and publish: indeed, she just finished an essay about Elaine Harrison, soon to be released in an exhibition catalogue co-published by Confederation Centre of the Arts and Acorn Press. And she has agreed to edit my poetry book. I mean, after all the fantastic feedback I got about her editing prowess from my authors, how could I not go to her?

She is also doing artistic collaborations with her husband, artist Stephen McInnis. You may have seen them with their most recent in Rochford Square in August: they were the creators of “The Rumour Mill,” a gossip-powered human machine for generating poetry out of tourism. It was one of the hits of “Art in the Open," part of This Town is Small.

But I leave mentioning her perhaps most important job til last: being mom to Anna, aged 5, and Sam, aged 2. One of the best revenges a mother can have on her child is for that child to grow up and have a child just like she was. Well, Carolyn can correct me if I’m wrong, but I hear Anna is just like Jane was. For example, I understand that she insisted from the age of two that her parents read her the REAL Anne of Green Gables, and NOT the baby version. I just wonder if Sam will grow up refusing to play board games like his Uncle Patrick

I’ll leave you with some of her words echoing in your ears: from her poem, “Why I stay”: “because I have already crushed too much stone to red dust / under my feet and I wear all this sand on my tongue.”

It seems only fitting that we should honour Jane today; coming full circle celebrating the accomplishments of the daughter of Frank Ledwell, the first recipient in 1985 of the Award for Distinguished Contribution to the Literary Arts on Prince Edward Island. He’d be proud of Jane, just like her mom Carolyn and family members and all her authors and friends - including me! - are today.

I present to you Jane Ledwell, the 2011 recipient of the Award for Distinguished Contribution to the Literary Arts on Prince Edward Island.