Michael Ondaatje and Teju Cole chat with Dionne Brand at the Kingston WritersFest

Teju Cole at the Kingston WritersFest. Photo by Bernard Clark.

To kick off the 2012 Kingston WritersFest last Wednesday, Michael Ondaatje and Teju Cole took to the stage of the Kingston Grand Theatre. Following opening remarks by Merilyn Simonds, the festival’s artistic director, Teju Cole began with a reading of two passages from his novel Open City.  Set in New York several years after 9/11, Open City follows the observations and remembrances of its main character, Julius, a German-Nigerian psychiatrist, as he wanders the streets of the city.  Cole describes the important relationship between memory and place; he invites the reader to see Julius’ journey as an encounter with the real space of the city and the space that exists in reminiscence. His reading wove deftly between past and present and conjured rich images of a boyhood swimming pool misadventure and an afternoon picnic interrupted by a trio of rogue parachutists.

Michael Ondaatje began his reading with the poem “The Great Tree” and followed with a short passage from Anil’s Ghost before giving two longer readings from his latest book, The Cat’s Table.  This novel chronicles the journey of a young boy named Michael who travels by ship from Colombo to England. Although it is based on a trip that he took when he was eleven, he claims that his only memories of the voyage are of playing ping-pong. After reading the scene in which Michael and a friend tie themselves to the ship’s deck to experience a great storm before being rescued and disciplined by the crew, Ondaatje added cheekily: “every word is true.”  The audience laughed and he grinned from the podium.

Dionne Brand joined Cole and Ondaatje onstage for a conversation about their writing processes.  Cole said that he “writes like a reader” and he assumes that his readers are readers, too, so he does not shy away from referencing other texts in his own work or allowing his writing to be taken within broader literary contexts.  Brand points out this intertextual connection in Cole’s novella Every Day is for the Thief in which a character references Ondaatje’s Running in the Family.  There was a nice camaraderie between the authors as Cole admitted a great reverence for Ondaatje’s work.  Ondaatje, in turn, spoke highly of Cole’s writing.

The Kingston WritersFest began in 2006 through the efforts of volunteers from Kingston Literacy and the local library system. The festival has expanded rapidly since its inception and currently brings Canadian and international authors to take part in a four-day festival of readings, workshops, discussions, and film screenings. The 2012 festival closed yesterday.