The Ottawa International Writers Festival is taking place from April 22-28. Apartment613 is previewing some of the participating authors in a series of special posts.
If you enjoy Canadian fiction then Obi Simic is a name you should remember. The Ottawa-based author has just released Getting Over Yonder, her beautifully written debut novel that could very well be the start of a brilliant literary career.
This touching story revolves around the life of Olivia Ugochinyere, the daughter of a Jamaican mother and Nigerian father. Growing up in a small Quebec town outside of Montreal in the early 1990s, she faces discrimination because of her skin colour, as well as the fact that she speaks English as her mother tongue.
The novel follows Olivia as she grows into womanhood, a difficult journey filled with tragic and incredibly painful experiences. As I watched her become an adult, I became engrossed in her story. Sometimes I cheered her triumphs; at other times I wanted to yell at Olivia to smarten up.
Before continuing, however, let me pause to make one quick comment. Over the past couple of years I have reviewed dozens of authors from the National Capital Region for Apartment613. During this time, I have read such excellent writers as Peggy Blair, David O’Meara, Michael Blouin and Stacey Atkinson. To this list of personal favourites I now add Obi Simic.
From a technical standpoint, Simic’s writing is quite strong, especially in the first-half of the book. In terms of narrative, meanwhile, the book captured my attention completely. But what I particularly enjoyed abut this novel was the series of interesting questions that it made me ask. From race relations to English-French disputes to modern Quebec to empathy, this book is thought provoking.
For instance, would Olivia have had a different experience in Quebec if she were a French-speaking immigrant from, say, Senegal?
“It is difficult to prove which variable (language, race, nationality, or religion) plays the biggest role in the outcome of our idiosyncrasies and experiences,” replies Simic when I ask her this question.
“[However] . . . it is my belief that skin colour is the most divisive and unifying element within the human experience. There is no escaping the fact that when seeing someone, skin colour is the first thing that we perceive. We draw conclusions, assumptions and match existing schemas almost instantly. Before we even have a chance to introduce the auditory element, we have seen colour. For that reason, I think that Olivia, first generation Canadian, and Olivia, the immigrant, would be more alike in their experiences than they would be different.”
Fair enough. But as often is the case when you get to know someone intimately, physical characteristics become less relevant, and a person’s attributes, flaws, talents and failures is what are important. In the case of Olivia, even though she experienced some horrible moments, I couldn’t help but think that she sometimes indulged in being a quitter.
Her two older siblings also went through horrible experiences, but they didn’t make the same bad choices as their baby sister. Curious to know what Simic thought of this, I asked her to react to the claim that Olivia was, at least in part, a quitter.
“Olivia’s environment was slightly different than that of her sister and brother, as she had less interaction with peers of colour than they did,” says Simic. “Also, she was the only one out of her siblings to have such direct firsthand experience in the series of unfortunate events. That being said, you are absolutely right; her sister and brother did not have it easy either, yet, they did not turn to self-abuse. . . .
“Many readers justify her disastrous state, citing the harsh treatment that she received at various points in her life. I, like you, believe that it is a bit more convoluted than that. Why was she so broken? Whether her situation is due to cowardice, psychological/emotional factors, a desire to play into her own victimization, or a combination of all of the above, there is no doubt that Olivia’s personality is one that shies away from a challenge!”
Another interesting part of the book is the discussion on Quebec. While the novel does display ugly scenes of racism, it also shows a positive picture. This made me wonder what Simic thought of her native province, having been born in Montreal.
“There are a handful of loud and disruptive separatists who make their voices heard and influence policy in Quebec,” she replies. “[H]owever, I find that the everyday Montrealer, myself included, found no bases for the Quebec Charter of Values that had been presented by the Parti Quebecois. Also, many find the policies set out by the language police (Office québécois de la langue française, OQLF) to be completely absurd.
“For example, the overwhelming majority of this generation does not make an issue out of how they want to be addressed upon entering an establishment, so whether a clerk waves ‘bonjour’ or nods ‘hello’ makes no difference to any Montrealer that I know. Most are indifferent as long as both languages are available to them upon request.”
This book has so many wonderful elements it would be impossible to discuss them all in this review. What I can say is that I highly recommend you read this novel, and that if you have the time to make the trip this Sunday to see Simic speak at the Ottawa Writers Festival please do so.
Obi Simic will be speaking at the Ottawa International Writers Festival on Sunday, April 26. The event starts at 8:30 pm and will take place at Christ Church Cathedral (414 Sparks Street). Tickets can be purchased online and are $15 in advance ($10 reduced) or $20 at the door ($15 reduced). Writers Festival members can get in for free.