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Why are you telling me this?
Eleven Acts of Intimate Journalism

Elton, Heather; Moon, Barbara; Obe, Don
Publisher:  Banff Centre Press
Year Published:  1997  
Pages:  272pp   Price:  $17.95   ISBN:  0-920159-86-9

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If you believe journalists should stay out of their stories and concentrate on the subject, think again. In Why are you telling me this? Eleven Acts of Intimate Journalism, eleven journalists from the Arts Journalism Program at the Banff Centre for the Arts get personal.

The Arts Journalism program has existed for a decade. A Maclean Hunter fellowship pays for eight senior journalists' professional development each summer at Banff. Journalists live in cottages. Surrounded by the beauty of the Rockies, their task is to write essays on topics of their choice. Topics must cover some area of the arts. Banff Centre faculty editors Don Obe (Journalism professor at Ryerson Polytechnic University) and Barbara Moon (editor-at-large with Saturday Night magazine) guide the writers.

This anthology consists of creative non-fiction written by journalists from this program. Alberto Manguel, the program's chair from 1992-1996 (Robert Fulford was the first), writes in the book's introduction, "I have been intrigued, as have the program's two editors, by the recurrent phenomenon of a writer's arriving to work on some burning abstract issue only to discover part way through the month-long residency that the heat of his or her interest springs from private anecdotal fires and that, mirabile dictu, investigating these is a most productive way of grappling with the abstraction."

The eleven contributors grapple with a miscellany of fires including parents, sexism in sports, music, striptease, depression, romantic love, Natives, post-apartheid South Africa, and the political oppression of writers. Most stories heat up with innovative style and inspiration. A few reach burnout before the end.

David Layton and Marilyn Powell take different approaches in dealing with their parents. Layton, in "Irving Layton, Leonard Cohen and Other Recurring Nightmares" compares his famous father to his famous godfather. He mixes narrative with dialogue to show the relationships between the two men, his mother, Aviva, and himself. In emphasizing their differences, Layton also shows their similarities, e.g. both are poets and womanizers.

Marilyn Powell in "The Tyranny of Love and Affairs of the Heart" imagines what her parents felt towards each other because they hid their emotions. Powell transcends this exterior shallowness by digging deeply into love and the heroes of English Literature from 12th century France, interviewing British writer Doris Lessing, then touching on her own marriage. The style is somewhat disjointed.

More compelling is Rosemary Sullivan's "Romantic Obsession." Sullivan confronts her own romantic obsession by seeking out and meeting the poet Elizabeth Smart (whose biography she later wrote) in her English cottage. In narrating Smart's affair with poet George Barker, as well as artist Frida Kahlo's affair with another artist, Diego Rivera, Sullivan compares love to a collusive dance. "It makes some sense to me to see romantic love as the female artist's route to her own creative ego," Sullivan writes. Bingo. This one strikes a familiar chord.

Chords of different sounds emit from David Macfarlane's "Music for Music's Sake" and Myra Davies' "The Berlin Aesthetic." Macfarlane explores the world of contemporary jazz from the viewpoint of someone who can't hear music on his own but who once steered into it, passionately embraces it. His statement "Our own age, it seems to me is peculiarly inept at hearing music very well on its own," could be applied to the subject in Davies' story, the "Berlin Aesthetic," Berlin punk rocker, Blixa, whose performance with various bands mixes noise and fire.

In "Trick or Treat? What Kind of Indian are You?" Paul Seesequasis reconciles with his half-breed background by studying Native literature, particularly contemporary American Native writer Gerald Vizenor, whom he interviews.

Atkinson fellowship winner (1994-95) Sandra Martin writes on two levels in "Shedding Lives: Travels in the New South Africa": a report on the difficulty of developing workplace equity and a personal account of becoming lost driving at night in a remote section of Johannesburg.

"Inside the Copper Mountain," Myrna Kotash's account of Ukrainian writer Vasyl Stus' persecution by the KGB comes across as choppy.

Laura Robinson, in "An Athlete's Lament," reveals her growth from female athlete grappling with sport's sexism and competition to learning from Aboriginals the spirituality of running.
Morris Wolfe, in "Elizabeth and Me," discovers one of the best ways to work through depression is writing about it.

Lindalee Tracey 's "Growing Up Naked: Scenes from the Girly Show" presents a light-hearted look at exotic dancing from the viewpoint of a woman' first striptease.

As a journalist, I found the creative stretch of these stories inspiring. To answer the book's title, Why are you telling me this? Because we can find something of ourselves in these stories.

[Review by Sharon Crawford]

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