The Halifax Giller Light Bash is happening tonight at the Atlantica Hotel at 8pm, and I’m delighted to be one of the six panelists who are defending the books shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. I’ll be championing Frances Itani’s beautiful and powerful novel Tell, which is set in the small town of Deseronto, Ontario, not long after the end of the Great War.
After we each make the case for why our chosen books ought to win the Giller ($100,000), everyone at the Halifax event (and at similar Giller Light Bashes in Vancouver, Calgary, Regina, Winnipeg, and Toronto) will watch the live announcement of this year’s winner. The event is a fundraiser for Frontier College, “Canada’s original literacy organization.” If you happen to be in Halifax this evening, I hope you’ll join us! Tickets are $8 for students, $12 in advance, and $15 at the door. Come out, have fun, and support a good cause.
After I agreed to defend Tell, I decided to go back and read Itani’s 2003 novel Deafening, because there are many links between the two books. In Tell, she focuses on four characters who appeared in the earlier novel, but weren’t central to the story. Deafening (which won a Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and was shortlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award) takes place in Deseronto before and during the war, and the central character is Grania O’Neill, a young deaf woman who falls in love with a man who can hear, and who loves to sing. Deafening was Itani’s debut novel, and it received tremendous – and well-deserved – accolades for its depiction of silence, noise, and the challenges of communicating in Grania’s world.
As a critic and book reviewer, I have to say that I found it a little odd to sign on to praise and defend a book I hadn’t read yet – but I’m happy to say that I can recommend both of these novels highly, and that it will be very easy to cheer for Frances Itani and Tell tonight.
One of the things I found most moving about both Deafening and Tell is the way Itani draws connections between the experience of those at the front and the experience of those left behind. In Deafening, she traces the path of a stretcher bearer serving in Europe while she also follows the fortunes of his relatives in Deseronto during the influenza pandemic of 1918. In Tell, Kenan, a soldier who’s returned home disfigured and psychologically unable to leave his house, links his wife’s unfulfilled desire for a child with his own experience of the landscapes of war. The word “barren” startles him. “We’re barren, the two of us,” he thinks. “He had seen barren. Charred landscapes where nothing would grow. Trees without leaves, branches without birds. Razed earth that supported no life. Villages without people. Oh, yes, he had seen barren. He had known it intimately.”
As Tell opens, the war is over, and yet, of course, it will never really be over for these characters who endured those years and who will spend the rest of their lives coming to terms with the consequences. Itani asks, what do we tell each other about our experiences, and what do we conceal, and what is the cost of both concealing and revealing?
Kenan was adopted when he was very young, and he has no idea who his birth parents were, because someone “had sent out a great hush, a devouring, silencing hush, a wave that had rolled over anyone who might have knowledge of [his] birth.” Sometimes truth is hidden with silence; sometimes it’s hidden with lies. “When you learn that someone is lying to you,” says one of the other characters in Tell, “you start to lose your bearings.”
I read Deafening first, and I was interested to see just how often the word “tell” appears in the earlier novel. “Tell,” Grania says to her sister Tress, demanding that her hearing sister pass on what their parents are saying about her own future. “There’s nothing to tell,” replies Tess, trying to conceal the painful truth that Grania will be sent away to a school for the deaf.
Later, Grania’s husband says, “Tell me, so I’ll know. About being deaf. Start with the worst thing.” She thinks for a while and responds, “Not having information that everyone else has. No – worse is when information is withheld – the smallest detail – by someone who thinks it isn’t important enough to pass on.” She asks him to reciprocate by telling her some crucial detail that she can’t know:
“You tell something, something I can’t know about you.”
He laughed. “You’ll never know how I sing. Sometimes I wish you could hear me.”
The contrast between the experience of a deaf person and that of a hearing person is no longer central in Tell, because Grania is away from Deseronto for a time, but the focus on information withheld is still at the heart of the novel. Both Deafening and Tell raise important questions about the stories we tell each other, and the stories we never tell anyone.
If you’ve read, or plan to read, either of these books, I do hope you’ll tell me what you think.