by Janet Nicol
by Janet Nicol
Jessie Hughes and Oiyo Uno lived in separate worlds during the war years, though their homes were in the same Vancouver neighbourhood. In the tense winter days after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour on December 7, 1941, these two women became known to each other through circumstances neither would have predicted or desired.
So begins a story centred on a hold up and murder and told from the perspective of two mothers.
Published in BC History, Winter, 2014
by Janet Nicol
Last February 2014, Vancouver secondary students in Social Justice 12 courses around the city came together to learn more about local and global issues of concern. Participants agreed to continue to meet to plan a way to connect with people living in extreme poverty in Vancouver. Their action plan concluded a day of guest speakers and thoughtful discussions. See the full article at
Many thanks to the BC Teachers’ Federation for their support through an “Ed May Social Responsibility Education” grant.
By Janet Nicol
“It was my mother’s idea for me to be a comedian,” Paul Bae says. But back in the 1990s, Bae had other ideas. He wanted to become a teacher. He says his parents tried to talk him out of it. Check out my interview with teacher and stand-up comedian Paul Bae, at Our Times magazine’s on-line “Between Times” feature, Fall 2014 at -
How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun?by Doretta Lau. Nightwood Editions, Gibsons, BC, 2014, 120 pp, softcover $19.95
Reviewed by Janet Nicol
Lau takes risks in her lively collection of short stories, inviting the reader to imagine young Asian Canadians who are sassy, guilty, funny, angry and much more. The poetic title of the book is also the final story, previously short-listed for the Journey Prize. A character with the moniker ‘Sick Man of Asia’ narrates. He describes life hanging out with his “Chinger” pals who are “Slanty-eyed teenage disappointments with no better place to haunt but the schoolyard….” The writing sings with teen slang of an Asian bent, as the group taunt each other and scheme on “Lotusland” (Vancouver) streets.
In “Robot by the River” a character named Oliver Andrews provides the female narrator with a diversion when her Japanese boyfriend leaves Vancouver. When Andrews introduces himself, there is a “pause” between the two. He then explains he is a Korean adoptee, “…as if I had queried the dissonance between his surname and his appearance.” A story of love and separation follows.
A more humorous plot evolves in “Two-Part Invention” when a single woman decides to date dead men. She sets her sights on the late Toronto-based pianist, Glenn Gould. In the process the reader learns a fair amount of true information about the internationally acclaimed—and eccentric–musician.
Vancouver is the dominant setting for these stories. The Burnaby ghost at Deer Lake, the Sugar Refinery live music venue and the historic neighborhood of Strathcona are among familiar landmarks mentioned throughout, sometimes in detail. This gives place an importance, in contrast to characters grappling with belonging. Lau possesses an impressive talent and beneath her often playful writing there is much for the reader to consider.
Behaving This Way Is All I have Left, by Gonzalo Riedel, Insomniac Press, London, Ontario, 2013, 119 pp, $19.95
In his first collection of short stories, Winnipeg author Gonzalo Riedel provides concise, snappy situations with ordinary people who, more often than not, make bad decisions. They commit crimes, live outside the mainstream or have unworthy thoughts which lead to wrongful deeds. Riedel gets inside the head of these characters and as a result, readers gain insights in to their motives. The prose is spare, each narration leading to an end that jolts or twists.
Child acrobats from Russia appear in “The Trained Performers.” A sudden unscripted tightrope performance leaves the reader in suspense up to the final sentence. “Clubbers” tells the story of a man’s collapse after taking a recreational drug and the reaction of the drug dealer who is responsible. Male fantasies are played out in “A Matter of Degrees” as Adam provokes a brawl with his rival over a love interest at a “downtown dive that pulled in a crossover crowd of either punks or old prairie rednecks, depending on the night.”
In “The Escort Agency” Paul nervously sets up a paid encounter with a woman over the telephone. The voice of the man he calls to arrange the service is “deep, impatient, ambiguously accented.” Paul’s tentative feelings become out of control by story’s end. The content of each story is original and contains humor and truth.
Developing a stronger presence of place, such as Winnipeg, would give more dimension to this otherwise thoughtful and entertaining collection.
Republished from Maple Tree Literary Supplement, Sept-Dec. 2014 – an on line journal at http://www.mtls.ca
The Lynching of Peter Wheeler, by Debra Komar. Fredericton, NB: Goose Lane, 2014. 346 pp, $19.95
Reviewed by Janet Nicol
Debra Komar, a former forensic anthropologist, illuminates Canada’s past once again in her second historical true crime narrative. Peter Wheeler was found guilty of murdering 14 year old Annie Kempton in Bear River, Nova Scotia in 1896. The story details the crime and aftermath, including the villagers’ participation in the rumors and lies leading to Wheeler’s hanging. Komar believes exploring “how and why” Wheeler was falsely accused and convicted is more compelling than attempting to figure out the actual killer. She also asserts in the preface “…this is the first factual public examination of the case since his trial and the first credible attempt to challenge his conviction.”
It was Wheeler’s misfortune to discover the murder victim. A well-travelled labourer born on an island off the African coast, Wheeler, aged 27, had settled in the Maritimes village, boarding at an unmarried woman’s home. When Nicholas Power, a Halifax-based detective assigned to the murder case, arrived to the scene, he immediately decided Wheeler was guilty. Power is depicted by the author as rigid and self-serving.
The newspapers played a shameful role as well, marking Wheeler as guilty from the start and even fabricating his jailhouse ‘confession.’ Journalists were not about to let the truth get in the way of a good story—even at the cost of a man’s life. The weaknesses within the judicial institutions are also exposed under Komar’s sharp gaze—from the inexperienced coroner to the court room professionals. A jury found Wheeler guilty based solely on circumstantial evidence. Wheeler claimed he was innocent to the very end, yet his sentence was upheld in a final appeal at the federal level. Komar also describes people who tried to bring reason and truth to the situation—but they were few in number and ultimately dismissed.
Komar meticulously traces the lives of key people involved, bringing the distant past to life through the smallest details. She deciphers technical reports and testimony in a way which is accessible to the reader and gives a rich dimension to the narrative. The prose is concise and fast-paced, with 46 short chapters—starting with setting the scene (And So It Begins) to Wheeler’s execution (“Lord, I Am Coming”). The last three chapters describe the aftermath of the execution and the author’s reflections. Photographs and newspaper illustrations are also included, as well as sources and an index.
Komar’s relish at digging for the truth comes through, though she sometimes loses impact when overstating a point, such as her contempt over the newspaper coverage. It’s a story that “runs the gamut of negative and painful emotions,” she observes in her summation, “fear, prejudice, lust, deceit, cowardice, indifference, insecurity and unfathomable rage.” In this gripping story aimed to clear a man’s good name, Komar succeeds in delivering timeless lessons for the reader to ponder.
Reprinted from Maple Tree Literary Supplement, Sept – Dec 2014 – an on-line journal at http://www.mtls.ca
by Janet Nicol
The sun is sparkling on the calm waters of Deer Lake as I set off from the parking lot along Burnaby’s Sperling Avenue. The lake is the centrepiece of the city’s unique 207-hectare Deer Lake Park and a walk around its 2.4-kilometre perimeter takes less than an hour. But Colleen Hale, a local volunteer who leads walks in the area and is my guide for the day, suggests we explore farther afield.
“It smells like fruit in the late spring,” she tells me as we veer off the north shoreline to a trail. I later learn that the Coast Salish gathered wild cranberries here, and farmers established strawberry fields and orchards in the late 1800s. While in operation, nearby Oakalla Prison Farm produced vegetables, along with dairy and livestock.
We pass the Townley Mansion; its all-white stucco exterior and “Colonial Revival style” harkens back to plantation life in the old American south. The house is one of a dozen city-owned heritage properties scattered around the lake. Visitors can wander the landscaped grounds and even step inside some of these former homes—including Ceperley Mansion, now the Burnaby Art Gallery, and Hart House, a finedining restaurant. Other trails lead to the Shadbolt Centre for the Arts and the Burnaby Village Museum, a replica of a 1920s village complete with carousel, blacksmith shop, and ice cream parlour.
We arrive at Price Street and turn west down the road, looping back into the park’s expansive field of tall brown grass. “You don’t want to go off these trails,” Hale cautions. “You will sink to your knees in the bog.”
Eventually a sloping trail to the southwest takes us to higher ground along the park’s border. We reach the preserved concrete stairs of Oakalla prison, all that remains of the institution. Its meadows west of the lake were incorporated into the park and in 1991 the old brick Oakalla Prison Farm was torn down. We duly read the historic marker before continuing on.
We come to the “312 Stairs,” as they are named, adjacent to the Royal Oakland Park residential neighbourhood. Small plaques on some steps tell Aboriginal stories, including the legend of an underground stream connecting Deer Lake to False Creek in Vancouver. The story reminds us of the sacred web of waters beneath our feet.
A panoramic view of the mountains gives us a good reason for rest stops as we head down a trail back to Deer Lake. At the south shoreline, we peer through floor-to-ceiling windows of the Baldwin House, built in 1965 and designed by renowned architect Arthur Erickson. Set further back is another city-owned property, the Eagles Estate.
A stack of rental boats catches my eye before we return to the parking lot. As we say our good-byes, I am already planning my next visit to this urban oasis— when I will eat strawberries and float in a canoe.
Re-published from British Columbia Magazine, Fall, 2014
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by Janet Nicol
In October last year, 188 UN member states voted to oppose the continued US trade embargo on Cuba. While the Obama government has eased up on some of the embargo’s restrictions, many food and medicine products are still banned from export.
Full article available in Peace magazine, July to September, 2014
“Ruptures in Arrival” at Surrey Art Gallery, April 12 to June 15, 2014
Reviewed by Janet Nicol
This powerful group exhibition is one of several events this year to mark the 100th anniversary of Canada’s refusal to allow entry by 376 Indian migrants aboard a Japanese steamship, the Komagata Maru. Much has been written about the incident, part of Canada’s troubled history of thwarting immigration from Asia, but curator Jordan Strom believes this is the largest exhibition to engage the topic. The show includes 10 artists who use painting, drawing, sculpture, photography, video and installation to reflect not only on the specific incident, but also on more recent histories of oceanic migration. It features work by Vancouver artists, including notable figures such as Ken Lum and Paul Wong, along with artists who live elsewhere in Canada, as well as India and the United States.
Full article in Galleries West magazine, Fall/Winter, 2014.
Link at http://www.gallerieswest.ca/art-reviews/exhibition-reviews/%22ruptures-in-arrival%3A-art-in-the-wake-of-the-komagata-maru%2C%22/
Artwork shown above is created by Raghavendra Rao