Monday, March 14, 2011

from churches to caskets: the hermit road show winds across nova scotia

i was on the road a lot the last month, visiting churches, schools and prisons to talk about the hermit of africville. it took me a while to remember that february is black history month, hence the cluster of invites.

a few weeks ago i found myself back in the pulpit at united memorial church in north-end halifax. the minister, catherine macdonald, first invited me to speak to the church on dec 6 2009 - the anniversary of the halifax explosion. the congregations of the church had had their church buildings destroyed in the disaster and built the current church as the city rebuilt. i spoke then about black snow and this year about the hermit. i had been thinking about matthew 25 and the impressively simple moral guidelines offered there: 'when did we feed you, visit you, cloth you and give you drink?' 'when you did this to the least of these brothers and sisters, you did it to me.'

at first, i thought about it just on the surface - and the simple pleasure i get from bringing eddie food when he's hungry of coffee when he's thirsty (i'm not sure jesus had tim hortons in mind, but i'm sure he'd approve). later, i started thinking about the deeper meaning of the words. jesus doesn't say it's as though you did it to me - he says you did it to me. and i thought: when halifax destroyed africville, it did it to itself. and when (if?) it rebuilds that church, it will also do that for itself. we need to tear down the mental walls we inherited that teach us that 'black' or 'mikmaq' history is somehow not part of our collective story. it is.

so that's what i spoke about, and got a very warm reception - as well as a handful of donations to take to eddie. thanks united memorial! i'm not a religious person - in fact i'm an atheist - but a fan of jesus and i am pleased to be an honorary member of their church.

in late february, i was invited to the women's prison in truro and gave two talks to a small group of inmates and staff. it was my first time inside a prison. the strange thing is how much it felt like a summer camp, only the 'campers' weren't allowed to leave. people seemed at liberty to walk around and pass their days as they pleased, but within its concrete confines. i spoke about eddie, africville, and particularly his own prison experiences. how in the end, the last and greatest prison he needed to get out of was the one inside his head.

as bob marley sang, quoting marcus garvey, 'emancipate yourself from mental slavery; none but ourselves can free out mind.' powerful advice for all of us.

in the last two weeks, i had two school visits as part of the writers federation of  nova scotia's wonderful WITS program. one was in caledonia, a pretty little village near keji park (i took advantage of the visit to get in a short, crusty walk in the snow-packed and beautiful park) and then on the other side of the province in heatherton, near antigonish. the students were great and, as usual, riveted from the moment i started talking about eddie's life.

a reporter from the casket newspaper dropped by and wrote the following article:

Students learn from Halifax writer

Posted on March 8, 2011 Richard MacKenzie,
Rev. H.J. MacDonald School Grade 4 students Lesley Wallace and Andrew Green talk to Halifax writer Jon Tattrie, who paid their school a visit on Friday. (Richard MacKenzie photo)
Students in Grade 4 at Rev. H.J. MacDonald School in Heatherton were treated to a literary presentation on Friday as Halifax writer Jon Tattrie spoke about his work and also conducted a workshop.
Tattrie talked about his first book Black Snow, a fictional work set against real-life events from the Halifax Explosion. He also spoke, in greater detail, about his recent non-fiction work The Hermit of Africville, the story of Eddie Carvery and his more than 40 year protest of the destruction of his childhood neighbourhood.
Tattrie, who also works as a freelance journalist, said he has done around two dozen presentations on his writing over the last couple of years and the venues have been as diverse as the Grade 4 class in Heatherton to a church group in Halifax to the women’s prison in Truro.
He noted he was especially busy last month talking about The Hermit of Africville and Carvery because it was Black History Month.
Of course, he adds, that while the presentations may be on the same topics, they have to be different considering the wide-ranging audiences.
“With a group this age (Grade 4s), I don’t end up talking about his problems as much,” Tattrie said.
“His addiction to speed for a decade, crack for a decade, in and out of prison, alcohol, violence… it was just a complete train-wreck of a life but the protests, he kept coming back to that and he kept healing himself through this protest. He sort of made himself into the man he is today (through the protest).”
The tales of struggles do connect with the other audiences Tattrie said, adding that Carvery himself gives talks about the dangers of drugs.
“In the prison, I talked more about his experiences in prison and journey through that. (Speaking) at the church, he’s a very spiritual man, deep Christian, so I talked to them about that,” Tattrie said.
“With older grades, he (Carvery) did a speech at a school in Halifax a couple of months ago to kids who were, more or less, like him at that age. He talked about drugs, temptations and really presented the ‘why’. It wasn’t just ‘don’t do drugs’, but this is why you may be tempted and this is what will happen. This is what happened to me and this is how I got out of it. For those older kids, I kind of talk about the same sort of things.”
With the younger students, Tattrie said, it’s about the overall story and maybe a youngster exploring it in more detail as they grow older.
“I keep it to broader strokes and stay away from the too dark stuff. But I let them know the story is there and as they grow up, maybe they’ll remember the story,” he said.
As for the workshop, Tattrie said it’s about helping young students recognize where stories and writing originates.
“Usually what I do is show a clip from Africville, an International Film Board video and then get the kids to write at least a sentence or a couple of sentences,” he said, noting the genre worked on is, like his novel Black Snow, historical fiction.
“So they listen to it and hopefully they hear a character’s voice they think is interesting and start to write. It just kind of shows them that books and newspaper articles don’t come out of nowhere. You hear something and think, ‘that’s interesting’ and start to write about it. It’s the link between books you see on a bookshelf and things going on in your head. Hopefully they’ll see that’s the pathway.”
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