Every year thousands of Canadians tune into that most Canadian of conflicts. The annual book brawl on Canada Reads. If you are not familiar with it the premise is that five celebrities choose five books and then argue about which book should be The One that all Canadians read. I haven’t watched it in years but I did watch the 2018 clip of Jully Black react to Jeannie Becker’s white lady tears by telling her to “take it to the altar.” I watched that take down several times and applauded and cheered along with all the other racialized people in Canada who long to respond to white tears with the same phrase.

This year Omar El Akkad’s What Strange Paradise, which I’ve written about before, was one of the contenders along with Five Little Indians by Michelle Good which was the eventual winner. I couldn’t bear to listen to other authors argue against El Akkad’s book, I couldn’t bear listening to criticism of it. The book is so beautiful and brutal and there will be spoilers in this essay so if you haven’t read it, please bookmark this page and come back when you have. Unless you don’t mind spoilers. I generally don’t. That gasp of the twist just makes me want to re-read the book and find the clues I missed, see it differently, see it .. correctly maybe I don’t know. To me getting spoilers is just a short cut to that second reading.  And I hadn’t read Good’s book, to be truthful I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to read another Indian Horse. I didn’t want to revisit the horrors of residential schools, I didn’t want to immerse myself in that trauma. Maybe people who crossed the Mediterranean Sea feel that way about El Akkad’s book.

But I did order it, and then I did read it. And was I ever wrong.

These books are about the horrors of residential schools and the horrors of war. We experience them along with Amir and the five little Indians. But they are the backdrop against which the rest of their lives unfold, or don’t. The trauma isn’t the point of the story, but it is the background against which life takes place. It is the casual cruelty of those who call themselves civilized against which we feel the persistence of hope, of what may yet be.

There is death and loss. In one, there is the immediate suicide of deliberate drug overdose and the long suicide of alcoholism. In the other there is the immediate death from bombing and the long death of migration.  Both of these books are the stories of lost children and the myth of survival. Because as at least one of Good’s five little Indians remarks, I got out of the school but I didn’t survive. And Amir too, he survived the shipwreck .. until he didn’t.

There are also mothers left behind. Relationships that change beyond repair and like the five little Indians, Amir too leaves behind his mother, finding substitute mothers in Umma and Vänna who provide transitory care just as Clara finds Mariah. Substitute mothers who protect and provide what colonialism ripped from birth mothers. But substitute mothers are no substitute and the children raise themselves. Until they can’t. There are mothers who provide care and kindness, until they can’t, and fathers who are unable to protect.

These stories, the old stories of residential schools and the contemporary stories of migrants, may seem like different stories but they are not. Colonialism continues to grind on, extending it’s borders and it’s reach. Provoking war and chaos and then, with casual cruelty, presenting itself as the redeemer. The bringer of civilization. It is a strategy of toxic religion, to tear you down and rebuild you and colonialism does this. It tears down cultures and societies and then rebuilds them in its image, according to its needs and we participate in that. We encourage others to find peace inside its borders and we become the lie.

I write a lot about reclaiming histories. About looking at the way we are told what to believe about the past and how we got here and I try to hold it up to the light. To weigh it against a feather and see if it holds and it does not. There is a new generation of historians who are joining their voices to those who have always told a different history and they are pulling those stories into the light and these two novels are part of that. They are pulling these stories into the light and revealing civilization for what it is. The casual cruelty of it, tearing everything from us and then blaming us for having nothing.

I was annoyed by a quote from the man who defended El Akakd’s book. He said that the book showed that any of us could be a refugee and that annoyed me because it seemed like he missed the point. That is not true, not any of us could be a refugee. Some are well insulated from it. Amir washed up on an unnamed Greek island, an island that tourists come to and when the beach was closed while the bodies were removed management apologized for the inconvenience. I don’t know. Maybe he’s right and it could happen to anyone. Maybe the insulation is itself the myth and that once those in power don’t need you anymore you too will be cast aside. And Management will apologize to others who are inconvenienced by your losses.

That line. Management apologizes for the inconvenience.

People read books like Five Little Indians and What Strange Paradise and they have several reactions. Often they are horrified. They can’t imagine how people could be so cruel. They say things like “maybe I’m naive” and that enrages me. Because you need to think about why you didn’t know. Don’t burden me with your white tears about our tragedies. Take those to the altar. Then think about why you didn’t know. How you were insulated from the actions of your church and your government. Think about how you insulated yourself. The relationships you did not have, the questions you did not ask, the stories you did not listen to. Think about how many times you demanded that management apologize for the inconvenience of our death.

I participated in a mandatory anti-oppressive practice workshop once. A two day event with Black and white facilitators and it got heated at times because it is hard to think about the ways in which we experience privilege or benefit from oppression and it wasn’t well done. These things rarely are. The following day HR sent out an apology to those who felt unsafe. There had been few racially marginalized people in the room, so we knew who they were apologizing too. Who it was that felt unsafe.

Management apologizes for the inconvenience.

These books speak to each other of death and loss, but they also speak of possibility. They challenge us to think about what may yet be. Not by giving us happy endings. We are conditioned towards happy endings and tidy resolutions and neither of these books provides that, although Good does give us something to temper to grief.  But it is in that stripping away of happy endings that these books challenge us. We are given moments of respite and happy ever after only to have them taken away. No soup for you, as the catch phrase goes. And yet strangely I find possiblity in that ripping away. Because you cannot change what you do not identify and if we cling to the myth of happy endings we won’t really get them. All we’ll get is insulated from the trauma of others. We’ll get apologies from management.

I think about how quickly I would rush in to rescue clients when I did social work. Talking with them about challenging things, about addictions or broken relationships and things they had done and then rushing in to rescue them from emotions that threatened to overwhelm them. I apologized for the inconvenience and in that moment I stole possibility from them. I stole the opportunity for them to see and feel what must be seen and felt and I allowed them go to back behind the curtain, back behind whatever insulated them.

The fact that Canada’s national broadcaster spends a week talking about books is an extraordinary thing, but I wish it was less of a brawl and more a conversation about what these books say to each other. Their common themes. The different lights they shine onto who Canada is and what may yet be.

Casual cruelty

And what may yet be