Author Tags: Agriculture, Environment, Fiction, Literary Landmarks, Non-Fiction, Publishing
LITERARY LOCATION: Confluence of Snake and Peel Rivers
Along with Native elders, environmentalists and other artists, Brett and Yukon photographer Fritz Mueller participated in combined camping and canoeing expeditions along the Wind, Bonnet Plume and Snake Rivers, collaborating for The Wind River Variations (Oolichan 2012), an illustrated poetry travelogue celebrating the watershed that feeds the Peel River which flows into the Mackenzie River and the Beaufort Sea.
Brett's participation in the environmental consciousness raising expedition culminated with an Elders' Gathering at the junction of the Snake and Peel Rivers that included members of the Nacho N'yak Dun and the Tetlit Gwich'in. The Gwich'in had killed game and fish for the feast, including a moose and her calf. They greeted Brett's arrival with traditional volley's of gunfire into the air. The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society had partially sponsored their gas and food, enabling more than 100 Gwich'in to make the journey--the first time they had ventured up to the river junction in forty years.
Brian Brett of Salt Spring Island has been one of B.C.'s seminal literary figures ever since he co-founded Blackfish Press with Allan Safarik in 1970.
Born to a Cockney father and Italian mother in Vancouver in 1950, Brian Brett and Safarik mostly produced broadsides and fine print editions. He inaugurated Poetry in Schools workshops throughout the Lower Mainland in the early 1970s and he served as a White Rock alderman from 1980-84. Brett was Chair of the Writers Union of Canada in 2005 and he received the Lieutenant Governor's Award for Literary Excellence from the BC Book Prizes in 2012.
His memoir Trauma Farm: A Rebel History of Rural Life (2009) won both the Writers’ Trust of Canada Non-Fiction Prize and the Bill Duthie Booksellers' Choice Award. But arguably Brian Brett's most remarkable book is his confessional memoir Uproar's Your Only Music (2004), a harrowing tale of survival that elicits both admiration and sympathy. At times it reads like a Canadian suburban equivalent of Jerzy Kozinski's The Painted Bird. Whereas Kozinski's riveting tale or war-time privation was embellished to the realm of fiction, Brett, with the aid of Margaret Atwood as his editor, brilliantly relied upon matter-of-fact testimony. The result is a stunningly concise litany of torment ever since Brett's birth as an androgyne in 1950.
"For most of my adult life I was under the impression that I had XXY chromosomes, instead of the 'normal' male XY combination," he writes. In fact, he was born with a rare aberration called Kallman's Syndrome so that as he approached puberty, several doctors assumed he was starting to 'present' as a hermaphrodite.
Now that Brett is a hulking and articulate man, living comfortably with his family on Salt Spring Island, it's difficult to imagine how his hypothalamus was once stunting his pituitary gland so that he didn't have any male hormones. "When I was first diagnosed, I was told only one in four million have my syndrome... I've been told that with the development of modern technology for genetic testing, my kind have been placed on the 'recommended for termination' list, but I can understand it."
Growing up in relative poverty in East Vancouver, Brett assumed he was a boy and dressed like one, but his body was completely hairless, even under his arms. "The current term for conditions like mine is 'middlesex' Though I had a penis, what the medical profession tactlessly calls a micro-phallus, I guess it could have been mistaken for an enlarged clitoris... They sliced open my groin, and oddly, those six-inch scars have survived, though most of the marks my history has given me have faded. They encountered some vestigial testicles which they yarded down, pierced, and attached by long, tight, black cords sewn cross-legged through the skin and muscles at mid-thigh..."
Uproar's Your Only Music bravely recalls the horrendous consequences of being born a freak. "I wandered lost, and sexless through adolescence, dreaming of being a real human being, or at least a definable one." He developed osteoporosis and was prone to emotional fluctuations, adopting the Chinese characters for both the deer and the dragon as his personal emblems. One of his teachers beat his hands with a leather strap 36 times in the sixth grade because he could not tolerate Brett's penchant for inexplicably bursting into fits of weeping during class.
"It was a decade later that I learned one of the side-effects of Kallman's Syndrome is either mental retardation or, very differently, an early-maturing mind (not necessarily a more intelligent one)."
First assaulted at age 13 for his feminine features, Brett took LSD for the first time at age 15 and embraced the counter-cultural zeitgeist. "I fell into the Sixties like a fly into shit." At 20, he realized he had ansomia--no sense of smell. Finally he was treated with testosterone. "The initial shot was so strong my tiny organ developed an erection that lasted eight days." At 20, he was only 5'7" and weighed 114 pounds, but with the injections he reached 6' by age 30. With his lifelong diet of testosterone, Brett has now ballooned to 230 pounds.
Having survived the mean streets of Vancouver, among drugs and prostitutes and psychiatric wards, Brett somehow managed to start a publishing enterprise with Allan Safarik "in that brash, typical way of young hothead students" until they quarrelled and Safarik became the mainstay of Blackfish Press. Brett has provided this recollection of his unorthodox introduction to printing books and broadsides:
"The only thing I can remember doing at Joe Ritter's print shop on the King George Highway in Whalley was Allan [Safarik] and him doing Mock Java on his multilith or AB Dick. He did the printing and I arranged the type with Allan for On Flower Wreath Hill by Kenneth Rexroth which Joe printed pretty badly on his letterpress. He blamed the print problems on bad typesetting by Vancouver Typesetters. After that, I decided to do it myself and bought the multilith and installed it in the bathroom next to Leonard's painting studio at 15523 Columbia Avenue in White Rock. It was kind of crowded but we printed our earliest broadsides and books there. My dog (a husky cross) kept going into heat so I kept her with me in the press room. One time a horny little chihuahua jumped through the bathroom window and then got stuck in the bathtub and bloodied it all up before I could tend to the poor little thing.
"Then when I bought the Chandler and Price letterpress we moved it and the multilith to the back of Carl Casey's Compass Printing shop off 152nd Street. It drove the baliffs nuts because they could never shut Compass down and lock its doors due to Carl often falling far behind on his bills. We had a sublease for the room at the back and they had to give us open access. Those were the days. I once asked Carl why he kited bad cheques to nice people, and he said he could never refuse a man water in a desert, and he didn't seem to get it that an empty water jug wasn't much good. Sigh. I miss Carl. He was the sweetest man, but dangerous with a cheque...
"I'm sure he could tell more than a few far-fetched stories of our antics at the back of the shop with Blackfish Press. I think I printed our pretty little pamphlet, Green Light, Stones, Rivers, Trees (or whatever we called the danged thing which I had to hand sew later) while stoned on Acid. I was a dangerous man in those days. That's around the time I shot my finger off.
Compass Printing on 152nd near Thrift Road was where I ran my fingers through the multilith while printing the cover for the GG- [Governor General] winning F.R Scott selected translations from the Quebecois. There's a very unique red on the cover. It'll have my DNA because my blood flowed into the ink."
In 1980, living in White Rock, Brett wrote a fiery broadside against developers, enjoyed a meteoric rise as a local hero, and found himself surprisingly elected as an alderman. Disdainful of his fellow aldermen who he assumed were toadies to commercialism, he was re-elected for a second term, only to appear on election night, "drunk as a skunk, enraged," before the television cameras, berating the electorate for their stupidity. One of the local papers launched a stream of sustained invective and he failed by 11 votes to gain a third term. He sued for libel--and won.
After paying his lawyer and assorted debts, Brett bought a parrot named Tuco. Twenty years later Tuco was still living with Brett and his partner Sharon on their small, organic, mixed farm on Salt Spring Island. "The way I see it, I'm a lucky creature -- it's been a feast. A kaleidoscope... Bitter moments can't be denied, the nights crying into my whiskey -- until I go to bed and it starts again. Every warm-hearted dawn impresses me, every day is an adventure and an absurdity, and then the gaudy sunset leads to the magic that arrives with the night."
The title of Brett's first memoir was derived from a line by John Keats. 'There's nothing stable in the world: uproar's your only music'. That's a tad obtuse, and the cover photo of a fiery burning man tower also fails to adequately convey the subject matter. The back jacket of the memoir has two photos of Brett, one as the beautiful almost girlish youth, the other as a Jethro-like character near a woodpile, and that duplicity better reflects the cruel nature of his brave journey. Brett's philosophical view of it all is endearing, and probably wise. "Like Teresias, I've seen glimpses of the female and the male in one body -- and the intersex, the middlesex, the hermaphrodite, or whatever you want to call it. They are astonishing. And although I don't believe these glimpses gave me any more wit or intelligence or prophecy, they did give me a varied perspective."
Once at a Writers Union meeting, Brett was berated by some female writers for daring to say he could understand their problems. Audrey Thomas reportedly retorted, "Brian, you can never know what it's like to suffer the way women have." He replied, "You might be surprised," much to the annoyance of Thomas and others. "Give me a break," Thomas told him. But Brian Brett didn't defend himself and found himself being booed by a strident faction of the Writers Union. "I was a hair away from launching into my abused story right there on stage."
Eventually Brian Brett let the cat out of the bag in 2004, in the same year he became First Vice-Chair of the Writers Union of Canada, rising to the position of Chair of the national organization in 2005.
In 2003, Brett had released a CD entitled Night Directions for the Lost: The Talking Songs of Brian Brett and a novel called Coyote.
In Brett’s West Coast mystery and ethical thriller Coyote, Inspector Janwar Singh and Constable Kirsten Crosby investigate the disappearance of a woman linked to 'America's first eco-terrorist'. The key character is an retired environmental warrior, or urban guerilla, nicknamed Coyote, who has retreated to Artemis Island to live in a treehouse with a propane stove. Having blown up bridges to clearcut logging sites, torched shopping malls and 'liberated' zoos in the 1970s, the reclusive and meditative Coyote (aka Charlie Baker) is disturbed at the outset of the novel by a visit from a crazed younger man named Brian, posing as a writer, who purportedly wants to unlock some of the secrets in Coyote's past. This unwanted visitor also has a narrative voice in the story. "Yes, it's Brian again--as he was twenty years ago. This is my story, I'm telling it, so why can't I make myself a character?". A former lover of Coyote's named Rita Norman connects Brian, Coyote and Inspector Singh. The range of styles in this novel--conventional police procedural, post modern narrative, and distillation of West Coast manners--makes Coyote into an original concoction, complete with fembos, magic mushrooms, mackinaws, Tai Chi, a New Age retreat called The Last Resort and a talking parrot named Congo. The 'wildness' of the Gulf Island locale and emphasis on the enduring importance of kookiness and idealism could seem exotic or even unrealistic to some readers, but the blend is more realistic than might be imagined.
"All speeches by Congo, except three or four, are courtesy of the parrot I've lived with for twenty years--my companion, Tuco," writes Brett in an afterword, "Though the character of Congo is different and not nearly as clever, he couldn't have existed without Tuco, who is an endless source of inspiration, and orders me to work every morning. And that's no story."
Brian Brett is also the author of several poetry books and a novella about termites, The Fungus Garden, an allegory about the survival of artistic sensibility in a totalitarian world without exits.
The title of Brett's 2015 memoir, Tuco: The Parrot, the Others and a Scattershot World, is derived from the aforementioned. In a jumbled fashion, it revisits much of the material in Uproar's Your Only Music, a book that is no longer widely available. The book won the 2016 Hubert Evans non-fiction prize.
Review of the author's work by BC Studies:
Trauma Farm: A Rebel History of Rural Life
Tuco: The Parrot, the Others and a Scattershot World (Greystone 2015) $32.95 9781771640633
The Wind River Variations (Oolichan 2012). Photographs by Fritz Mueller. $22.95 978-0-88982-269-6
Trauma Farm: A Rebel History of Rural Life (Greystone, 2009)
Uproar's Your Only Music (Toronto: Exile Editions, 2004)
Coyote (Thistledown, 2003 $19.95) 1-894345-53-5
The Colour of Bones in a Stream (Sono Nis, 1998)
Poems New and Selected (Sono Nis, 1993)
Allegories of Love and Disaster (Exile Editions, 1993)
Tanganyika (Thistledown, 1991)
The Fungus Garden. (Thistledown, 1988)
Evolution in Every Direction (Thistledown, 1987)
Smoke Without Exit (Sono Nis, 1984)
Fossil Ground At Phantom Creek (Blackfish, l976)
[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2016] "Fiction" "Publishing"
Coyote (Thistledown, 2004)
In Brian Brett’s ethical thriller, Coyote, West Coast Inspector Janwar Singh and constable Kirsten Crosby investigate the disappearance of a woman linked to ‘America’s first eco-terrorist’ named Coyote.
Having blown up bridges to clearcut logging sites, torched shopping malls and ‘liberated’ zoos in the 1970s, Coyote has retreated to Artemis Island to live peacefully in a treehouse with a propane stove. The reclusive and meditative Coyote (aka Charlie Baker) is disturbed at the outset of the novel by a visit from a crazed younger man named Brian who poses as a writer who hopes to unlock secrets of Coyote’s urban guerrilla past.
This intruder has a narrative voice in the story. “Yes, it’s Brian again—as he was twenty years ago. This is my story, I’m telling it, so why can’t I make myself a character?”
A former lover of Coyote’s named Rita Norman mysteriously connects Brian, Coyote and Inspector Singh.
The range of styles in this novel—conventional police procedure, post modern narrative, and distillation of West Coast manners—makes Coyote into an original concoction replete with fembos, magic mushrooms, mackinaws, Tai Chi, a New Age retreat called The Last Resort and a talking parrot named Congo.
“All speeches by Congo, except three or four, are courtesy of the parrot I’ve lived with for twenty years—my companion, Tuco,” writes Brett in an afterword, “Though the character of Congo is different and not nearly as clever, he couldn’t have existed without Tuco, who is an endless source of inspiration, and orders me to work every morning. And that’s no story.”
The ‘wildness’ of the Gulf Island locale and emphasis on the enduring importance of kookiness and idealism could seem exotic or unrealistic to some readers, but the blend is more realistic than might be imagined.
Born in Vancouver in 1950, Brian Brett is also the author of poetry books and a novella about termites, The Fungus Garden, an allegory about the survival of artistic sensibility in a totalitarian world without exits. His next book after Coyote is now being edited by Margaret Atwood.
Brett inaugurated Poetry in Schools workshops throughout the Lower Mainland in the early 1970s and served as a White Rock alderman from 1980-84. Long involved in the Writers Union of Canada, Brett is also a ceramics artist who lives on a Salt Spring Island farm.
[BCBW Summer 2004]
Press Release (2009)
Vancouver, BC – November 25th, 2009.
Greystone Books is thrilled to announce that Brian Brett’s major work, Trauma Farm: A Rebel History of Rural Life, has won the Writers’ Trust of Canada Non-Fiction Prize!
The three member jury, comprised of Tim Bowling, Anne Hart and Bruce Meyer, called the book “a lively, well-researched blend of memoir and socio-political commentary; a rare celebration of youth, age, and the tumultuous, surprising journey between them.”
Brett was up against fellow non-fiction writers Wade Davis, Trevor Herriot, Erika Ritter, and Eric Siblin, and takes home a grand prize of $25,000.
For eighteen years, writer Brian Brett has tended a small farm in the Gulf Islands of British Columbia, affectionately named Trauma Farm. This illuminating memoir of his experiences is threaded with a deep knowledge of biology and botany and explores the gardens, orchards, fields, the mysteries of livestock and poultry, and the social intricacies of rural communities. Whether discussing the uses and misuses of gates, examining the energy of seeds, or contemplating the modern slaughterhouse, Brett reveals the miracles of life and the ecological paradoxes that confront the rural world every day.
Trauma Farm has also been long-listed for the BC National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction.
Trauma Farm: A Rebel History of Rural Life
from BCBW / Shane McCune
If you’ve lived in B.C. for more than a couple of years and you’re not a vegetarian, chances are you have fond memories of Salt Spring Island lamb.
You may be wondering why they are only memories. The end of viable commercial sheep production on Salt Spring is but one of many sad and infuriating lessons in Brian Brett’s award-winning Trauma Farm, an immensely satisfying meditation on farm life. [The title is derived from the name of his farm.]
It’s a vigorous meditation, if there can be such a thing. Brett’s confident prose, by turns earthy and lyrical, jaunts through the history of farming from the ancient domestication of the chicken to the twin juggernauts of bureaucratic over-regulation (bye-bye Salt Spring lamb) and corporate agribusiness (hello battery hens).
The book is subtitled A Rebel History of Rural Life, although it’s hard to say just what Brett is rebelling against. Or maybe what he isn’t rebelling against. Contrarian, curmudgeonly and often hilarious, he invites us to join him on a one-day tour of the farm that spans nearly two decades.
The conceit of an 18-year day is just that, a narrative fig leaf in place of plot. Which is good. It frees Brett to let fly with observations and opinions on a gallimaufry of topics in a corresponding panoply of forms— polemical rants, a smidgen of poetry, elegiac essays, and vignettes as short and sharp as a Post-It note. (Note to would-be authors: This is why you keep a journal.)
But everything leads back to the farm. Again and again he points to the promiscuous profusion and interconnectedness of plant and animal life on the farm (and the planet)—and to the consequences of our estrangement from that vitality.
Brett’s anger and frustration at the conversion of food production from hands-on vocation to soulless factory output is palpable.
The unrelenting assembly lines force the workers to clean and gut up to a steer a minute . . . It often leads to accidental piercing of the stomach and the spraying of shit and intestines and their bacteria all over the meat. By the time we see that steer it’s washed and wrapped in plastic. The bacteria aren’t necessarily eliminated. Then we eat it.
The author claims not to be sentimental or anthropomorphic about animals. Fortunately this is utter nonsense, as he makes a convincing case for the intelligence and individuality of horses, dogs, pigs and even chickens. But he can also be clinical or barnyard blunt. Sometimes he is all three at once:
At Trauma Farm our fastidious horse, LaBarisha, politely craps in the same general area each day, providing manure. The sheep waste hay, pulling it recklessly from the racks in their sheds and shitting on it. This provides another excellent compost.
Into the first of a couple of chapters on chickens (entitled, alas, “Fowl Play”) Brett shoehorns a history of the bird’s domestication, the rise and fall of its gene pool, an appreciation of its barnyard society, another condemnation of modern megafarms, and reflections from Sappho and Kenneth Rexroth on the perfection of the egg.
Then he describes in detail how he slaughters chickens. “That was extreme,” gasps a college student who witnesses this procedure, and so it is. Elsewhere the killing of a pig, and the reaction of its sibling, sears the mind in two or three stark sentences.
A comical description of an osprey nagged by its mate into snagging a goldfish from the pond’s farm is followed immediately by a description of the bird holding his catch like an ice cream cone, chewing the face of the still-wriggling fish.
But it’s not all gore and guts. There’s the crow that teases the dog and the mouse so fearless Brett can’t bear to kill it. There are Zen-like reflections on chopping wood and weeding. (“If you have a goal in a garden, you’re doomed.”) There are Rabelaisian accounts of casual breakfasts and extravagant feasts.
There are misadventures such as the time his tractor ran out of gas as he was using it to “fluff up” a fire, and Brett and his wife Sharon had to push the machine out of the flames.
There are the local characters and the politics of the community fair. For some reason Brett and his friends get big yuks watching every member of a work crew bang his head on the same projecting beam.
For all I know Brett may be an incompetent farmer—he cheerfully admits his estate is a money-loser—but gawd, he sure knows a lot about crops and livestock and how they have been cultivated and bred around the world.
As he rambles purposefully around Trauma Farm on this 18-year day, extraneous facts drop from his discourse like crumbs from a ploughman’s lunch. Did you know that Edward Jenner’s experiments in inoculation, while successful against smallpox, probably spread other diseases including tuberculosis, which killed most of his family? Or that “salaam,” Arabic for peace, evolved from a word for negotiations over salt?
These little nuggets are as addictive as beer nuts, but Brett’s editors might have reined in his didactic streak a little. Was it really necessary to explain that sashimi is sliced raw tuna?
If Trauma Farm held none of this information, or if all of it were wrong, it would still be worth reading just for Brett’s poetic turn of phrase. “As summer drives its hot fingers into the earth . . . the sky was a propane-fire blue . . . the pale armour of a crayfish haunting the stones in the creek bed;” every chapter has a dusting of these gems.
True to his love for the heedless, wanton nature of nature, Brett resists the temptation to tie up his treatise with a tidy moral.
“Absurdity has lived with the planet since the first cell divided,” he asserts. While he is nothing if not spiritual, he sees no personal god in “the gore, the parasites, the gorgeous birthings, those green leaves after a rain, the rusty nail in the foot, a nasturtium blossom close up, and the babies born headless while a tidal wave approaches.”
The only symmetry he offers is that at the end of this elongated day, as at the beginning, he pads naked into the woods.
Shane McCune is non-agricultural, non-trendy, former Province columnist who writes from Comox.
Nominated for Trauma Farm
BC Book Prizes (2010)
from BC Book Prizes catalogue
Beginning naked in darkness, Brian Brett moves from the tending of livestock, poultry, orchards, gardens, machinery and fields to the social intricacies of rural communities and, finally, to an encounter with a magnificent deer in the silver moonlight of a magical farm field. Brett understands both tall tales and rigorous science as he explores the small mixed farm — meditating on the perfection of the egg and the nature of soil while also offering a scathing critique of agribusiness and the horror of modern slaughterhouses. Whether discussing the misuses of gates or bantering with neighbours, he remains aware of the miracles of life, birth, and death that confront the rural world every day. Brian Brett is the author of Uproar’s Your Only Music and several books of poetry. His journalism has appeared in major Canadian newspapers including the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star and the Vancouver Sun. He lives on Salt Spring Island.
Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Literary Excellence
Press Release (2012)
Vancouver, BC – The West Coast Book Prize Society is proud to recognize Brian Brett as the recipient of the 9th annual Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Literary Excellence.
British Columbia’s Lieutenant Governor, the Honourable Steven Point, will present the award at the Lieutenant Governor’s BC Book Prizes Gala to be held at The Djavad Mowafaghian Cinema at SFU Woodwards, Goldcorp Centre for the Arts on Saturday, May 12, 2012 in Vancouver. The event will be hosted by author, activist, and comedian Charles Demers.
Brian Brett is the kind of man the 21st century needs. He sets a great example as a person who is mindful about the earth and its pure products, and equally mindful about the language we have been bequeathed.
—George Bowering, jury member
Brian Brett was born in Vancouver and studied literature at SFU. Writing and publishing since the late 1960s, he has been involved in an editorial capacity with several publishing firms such as the Governor General Award-winning Blackfish Press, which he co-owned. In the early 1970s, he began writing for numerous magazines and newspapers, including the Vancouver Province, where he was poetry critic for two years. His journalism has appeared in almost every major newspaper in Canada. He wrote a weekly and then monthly column, “CultureWatch,” for the Yukon News for more than a decade.
Always a cultural and social advocate, Brian Brett inaugurated the BC Poetry-In-The-Schools program, introducing all ages of school children to world poetry, and has given workshops on writing across Canada. He has been a member of organizations such as PEN International, the League of Canadian Poets, The Federation of BC Writers, and The Writers’ Union of Canada. The author of eleven books of poetry, fiction, memoir/natural history, and a CD, he has also performed readings on the CBC, television, the Internet, and various other media, as well as public performances funded by private organizations, universities, Harbourfront, the Vancouver International Writers Festival, The Saltwater Festival, the National Book Festival, and The Canada Council. He has also organized two writing festivals as well as special events for other festivals.
Elected chair of The Writers’ Union of Canada in 2005, Brian Brett promoted the rights of writers and Canadian culture, combating censorship, and supporting local bookstores and the publishing industry. Since 2006 he has been teaching students around the world via UBC’s innovative online Master’s Degree program in creative writing. He is the winner of numerous awards, including The Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction, the CBC poetry prize, the BC Book Prize (Booksellers’ Choice), etc.
Brian Brett’s Uproar’s Your Only Music (A Memoir in Poetry and Prose) was a Globe and Mail Book of the Year. He currently lives with his family on a Salt Spring Island farm and works with farm organizations and cultural thinkers across Canada as a strong exponent of local food and good agricultural practice, which culminated in his best-selling and award-winning book, Trauma Farm: A Rebel History of Rural Life.
The jury for this year’s Lieutenant Governor’s Award was: George Bowering, novelist, poet, editor, professor, and historian; Max Wyman, writer, critic, editor, cultural commentator, and arts policy consultant; and, Evelyn Gillespie, Owner, Laughing Oyster Books, Courtenay, BC.
This prize was established in 2003 by former Lieutenant Governor, the Honourable Iona Campagnolo, to recognize British Columbia writers who have contributed to the development of literary excellence in the province. The recipient receives a cash award of $5,000.00 and a commemorative certificate. The 2011 recipient was George Bowering.
Lieutenent Governor’s Award for Literary Excellence
Acceptance Speech (2012)
Brian Brett’s Lieutenent Governor’s Award for Literary Excellence acceptance speech:
“I think my first big surprise was the day I was born. There’s been many since. This is a special surprise for a couple of reasons. First, it really was a surprise! When I received the phone call asking if I was willing to speak to the Lieutenant Governor, I thought it was just part of the usual spam deluge. Fortunately, this original premise for a spam spiked my interest, so I said yes, out of curiosity, and lo, it was the Lieutenant Governor. I can actually say that I was speechless for one of the very few times in my life.
And then how surprising to see the award citation by George Bowering, with whom, years ago, I used to sword fight hilariously across Canada over various arcane literary issues that neither of us can even remember any more. Today, we can only laugh at how petty those disputes when faced with the greater issues of the world and baseball and good literature.
“But the real thrill of this prize is that it also celebrates those who support the cultural community. I guess I was born this way. I was never the boy who lied to my mother. I was the boy who lectured my mother. More than six decades and eleven books, hundreds-maybe-thousands of articles and essays later I can’t seem to stop. All I see is what’s ahead. The never-ending war against the legislated ignorance of censorship, the copyright legislation quagmire that could hand our culture to multinationals and expropriation without compensation to educational institutions. while making it too financially onerous for young writers to quote the words of our era for the first time in history. The thrillingly delicious threat and promise of e-books. The fact that despite everything thrown at it our culture survives gallantly. It’s a wild world to ride.
“Being a writer doesn’t just mean sitting in your room. It means confronting the world surrounding that room. The petty cultural and human cruelties of a government with a tar sands mentality – as if afraid that its ignorance will be discovered. The Franken-climate we will be leaving to our children. Local real food in local real communities versus factory agriculture and factory food, which was the subject of my last book, Trauma Farm. The delivery of public services to foreign corporate interests. Human rights legislation steering dangerously close to forced ‘cultural re-education’ mandated by star chambers. Libel chill. The dangerous, unprecedented collection and manipulation of our personal information by Big Brothers – Google and Facebook. Being a writer means asking questions. Like why hasn’t a woman won this award since its inauguration?
Yet when the businesses and corporations are all dusty footnotes it is our artists that will be remembered. Culture matters because culture is us. And we have made and are still making a great culture. Just look at the literature here today for this award. Many triumphs.
“Thank you to the committee, to Sharon, my great publishers, and to our terrific literary community for their support. After nearly forty-five years of taking suicidal runs at the walls of indifference, clueless arrogance, and the few moments of utter bliss where we do win, I can see there’s still a long road ahead and I intend to walk it as long as I can ... with your grace....”
[2012 B.C. Book Prizes, emceed by Charles Demers, in the presence of The Honourable Lieutenant Governor Steven L. Point, at The Djavad Mowafaghian Cinema, Goldcorp Centre for the Arts, SFU Woodwards, Vancouver, May 12, 2012]