Talking Books

The Talking Books series features events hosted by JHI faculty fellows or grant recipients, often based around a literary anniversary or best-selling author, with a focus on public appeal.

Dionne Brand

by Karina Vernon

Having the opportunity to host Dr. Brand in our Black Canadian Literature course at UTSC was not only a deep honour, but a profoundly heart-uplifting experience. Dr. Brand began her visit by reading from her book Thirsty, and then we moved into a relaxed conversation in which she engaged students with her characteristic openness, humour, and generosity of spirit. Students had particular questions about how a Black writer sustains and protects her imagination, particularly in the current context in which she is awash in the never-ending spectacle of anti-Black violence. Dr. Brand shared the importance of "reading -- reading for your life." She said that when she is reading -- Borges, Morrison; Achebe; Dangaremba -- "I am in the room with a lot of people." She also emphasized the importance of bearing witness to the unfolding moment by writing. As she put it, "If I don't do it, who will?" After Dr. Brand's visit, students -- many of them writers themselves -- said that Brand's optimism about reading and writing as tools for survival and social transformation gave them "a second wind."

'Dirty Laundry' Mixes Poetry and Laundromats

The Dirty Laundry poetry series is a unique performance experience that mixes poetry readings with laundromats. The creation of U of T PhD student Zak Jones, the series has been running for a few years. During 2019-2020, Zak will host 10 events at monthly intervals. Dirty Laundry is sponsored by JHI’s Program for the Arts and is also part of JHI’s Talking Books. Information about each event is shared on our Twitter and Facebook pages and in our monthly newsletter. Recently, the JHI asked Zak to tell us a little about himself and Dirty Laundry.

JHI: What's your background?

ZJ: I’m an American who grew up in rural North Carolina. I’m an Army veteran and was a proud “mature student” attending undergrad here at UofT on the Post-9/11 GI Bill. In my PhD I don’t feel like much if any of that matters. It feels more like my “background” has been abstracted to a description of my studies. If that’s the case I’m a student of American Literature, specifically 20th century novels and particularly a re-examination of what we can learn from American “epics.” I just finished my master’s thesis in Creative Writing here at UofT, as well.


Zak Jones in front of a crowd in a laundromat
Zak Jones in front of a crowd. Photo by Neil Rimmer.


JHI: What attracted you to poetry?

ZJ: When I was about 12 or 13 my mom went on a crusade to try to get me into poetry like she was rescuing me from some precipice I was about to walk off – the end of the world for her is a world without verse. She spent a good amount of her very little money on Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell CDs and we would read the lyrics together as the songs played. She took me to see Rita Dove recite some of her work at UNC shortly thereafter. I’ll never forget that. It worked and I’ve been writing and reading poetry ever since.

JHI: Who/what are your influences/inspires you?

ZJ: In terms of poetry readings and how one might go, I draw my biggest inspiration from my fellow grad student and friend Fawn Parker. She has a great eye not for what’s “good” in a subjective sense but what type of work and what type of literary readers give a damn and runs her poetry readings and her magazine, Bad Nudes, accordingly. She’s also a great and humble writer.

In terms of my own creative influences, I tend to really “feel” and understand Karen Solie’s poetry as incredibly important to me. I’m inspired by Cody Caetano. “Inspired by” is the only way I can describe how I feel about him.


Sophie McCreesh reading at laundromat for Dirty Laundry session
Sophie McCreesh reading. Photo by Matthew David Sleep.


JHI: Why laundromats?

ZJ: Well, at first, I decided that they worked for “flash-mob” or “pop up” type poetry readings, and the events are still widely about that feeling of spontaneity. Also, most Laundromats are accessible (or at least profoundly inaccessible in an egalitarian way, with no bathrooms for anyone) and they create the polar opposite atmosphere that bars do. These are spaces of work and introspection and a kind of ablution and domesticity. They’re sinless, mostly, and a strange place to gather people. My dream is to host readings that are “relaxed performances” and there is something so un-stuffy about laundromats that evokes a sense of relaxation and unpredictability because these readings are so unusual. I like that.

JHI: What kind of response have you gotten?

ZJ: With the help of the JHI’s Program for the Arts I’ve been able to pay the performers for their time. It used to be the case that I’d “pass the hat” to try to raise some money for the poets, but now when I pass the hat it’s for a local charity. That has gotten a great response from the now-well paid readers and the audience who feel like in addition to an aesthetic experience, they’re given the chance to do a little philanthropy. Those two groups are happy. The laundromat owners, however, and for whatever reason, are always quite suspicious of the whole event until the end. When it is revealed to him that their laundromat hasn’t burned down – they usually come around to the idea.


Cody Caetano reading. Photo by Matthew David Sleep.
Cody Caetano reading. Photo by Matthew David Sleep.


JHI: What can someone expect if they've never attended a Dirty Laundry event?

ZJ: Excellent poetry, excellent poetry readings (the two are not mutually exclusive, usually). They can also expect a really welcoming crowd and something like a party after. They should not expect some kind of gala or polished performance but instead expect to be surprised.

JHI: What do you hope people take away from attending your events?

ZJ: I hope that attendees realize that there is a lot more to their communities than they imagine. There is an incredible amount of creative work happening in this city, and people are willing to come out and see it, regardless of where it’s presented. I hope that they brag to their boring friends about “this wild thing” they did on the weekend. I hope that they remember the poets and buy their books and come out to more traditional readings.

The next event features MLA Chernoff, Catherine Fatima, Fawn Parker, Natasha Ramoutar.

Dirty Laundry
Thursday, February 27 | 10:00pm
Harbord Coin Wash
292 Harbord Street
Toronto, ON

The Worlds of Sappho

image of Sappho

The archaic Greek poet Sappho (ca. 600 BCE) continues to engage and inspire. Famous in antiquity for the high quality of her works - some even called Sappho ‘the 10th Muse’ - her poetry has prompted admiration, vitriolic comic ridicule and, most of all, a long and varied history of imitation and creative adaptation. A model of the educated, confident, articulate and sensual ‘strong woman,’ Sappho has been variously co-opted as a role model for diverse types of political and sexual equity. A fragmentary poet preserved only in quotations by ancient authors and partially resurrected from papyrus scraps among the garbage dumps of ancient Egypt, Sappho remains a somewhat elusive figure whose broken voice forcefully appeals to our imagination to generate some sense of completion.

This outreach event place in the splendid, brand-new Collaborative Research Space on the UTM campus and combined a talk by the Sappho expert Prof. Ellen Greene with an open panel discussion and student-led group activities.

What the Migrant Knows: A Long View of Climate Change

Amitav Ghosh
Photo Credit: Ivo von Bent

In October 2019, our Distinguished Visiting Fellow Amitav Ghosh gave a public lecture titled What the Migrant Knows: A Long View of Climate Change. Ghosh also gave a public reading of his recently released book Gun Island, a public discussion titled Crafting Climate Stories and attended a reading circle with our fellows.

Amitav Ghosh was born in Calcutta and grew up in India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. His two books of non-fiction, a collection of essays and eight novels. His most recent book is The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (2016). Gun Island, forthcoming in the fall of 2019, is his ninth novel (read an excerpt here).  

His books have won many prizes and he holds four honorary doctorates. His work has been translated into more than thirty languages and he has served on the Jury of the Locarno and Venice film festivals. He is married to the writer Deborah Baker and divides his time between Brooklyn, Goa and Kolkata.

In 2018 the Jnanpith Award, India’s highest literary honor, was conferred on Amitav Ghosh. He was the first English-language writer to receive the award. In 2019 Foreign Policy magazine named him one of the most important global thinkers of the preceding decade.

Reading Frankenstein: Then, Now, Next

A Celebration of the 200th Anniversary of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818-2018)

Frankenstein Symposium Ad“In Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein’s creature embraces evil after his creator rejects him and denies him human status because of his repulsive appearance. This brings into focus how recent scientific and technological developments—artificial life, artificial intelligence, androids—increasingly challenge our concept of humanity. Will our technological progeny turn into monsters? Will we repeat the mistakes of Victor Frankenstein? Will artificial brains and deep learning software piece together what it means to be human, or shall humanists collaborate with scientists to instill, rather than design, “humanness” in our creatures? Can we imagine a future when humans read to machines, instead of letting them read us?” Excerpt from Reading Frankenstein: Then, Now, Next

Literary scholars, historians, ethicists, computer scientists, science fiction writers, futurologists and students participated in a three part symposium to discuss the ethical dimensions of technology. The symposium also included two film screenings – the 2014 science fiction hit Ex Machina and the 1974 classic horror spoof Young Frankenstein. After the symposium, there were a number of off-campus events, including a multimedia exhibit of Frankenstein editions at the Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation and Fantasy (Lillian H. Smith branch of the Toronto Public Library), and a full public reading of Frankenstein, hosted at the Toronto Reference Library.