Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Terry Glavin

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On Writing, with Terry Glavin

Terry Glavin is the author of Come from the Shadows: The Long and Lonely Struggle for Peace in Afghanistan (Douglas & McIntyre). He has worked as a reporter, editor and columnist for the Vancouver Sun and the Globe and Mail, amongst many other outlets. In 2009, he received the British Columbia Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence.

You can catch Terry Glavin reading tonight at The Dora Keogh Irish Pub on the Danforth. See Open Book's Events Page for details.

Terry Glavin talks with Open Book about his new book and the heated debate in Canada about our role in Afghanistan's future.

Open Book:

Tell us about your book, Come from the Shadows.


The book started as an idea about the strange country Canadians call Afghanistan, and how it’s so radically different from the Afghanistan that exists in the real world. The book I originally intended to write was going to be about Absurdistan — that strange and unreal country that has ended up embedded in the Euro-American imagination, perhaps most noticeably in Canada. When Scotty McIntyre at D&M and I were first discussing the book, he quite sensibly wanted a book about Afghanistan and my travels "outside the wire," But I was more interested in exploring why Afghan voices had been so thoroughly drowned out in the Canadian debates. Scott made the case that if I wanted to draw attention to the way we ignore all those Afghan voices, I should focus on making room for those voices in the book. He wanted to hear those voices and meet those people.

So when I went back over my notes from my visits to Afghanistan, I realized I actually had more than enough to write a book of the kind Scott wanted, and I made a couple more trips to Afghanistan and accumulated even more notebooks full of material. In the end, I think we got the best of both worlds. The book is a synthesis of Scott’s idea and my own. It’s about Afghanistan and Absurdistan, about the deep chasm between the real and the imagined, and why it’s there.

I focus on very real Afghans and the brave struggles they’re waging, the sufferings they endure and the small kindnesses that sustain them. A key figure in the book is my friend Abdulrahim Parwani, an Afghan intellectual and activist, and his life story. But you get to meet all kinds of people, from young women who coach boys’ soccer teams to some of the key political figures in the country. And you also get a look at the archeology of Absurdistan and an account of its weird origins in September 11, 2001. So I think it is much better book than either of the two different books Scotty and I were originally talking about.


What have been some of the biggest changes for average people in Afghanistan after September 11, 2001?


There’s a lot of crazy talk among pundits in the NATO capitals about how things haven’t changed for Afghan women, and you’ll even hear that things are as bad as they were during the Taliban time. People who say these things are either hysterical or they simply have no idea what they’re talking about. When the clouds parted after September 11 and the world looked back down on Afghanistan, it was a country utterly destroyed by barbarism and war. Just to look at the basic infrastructure of the place, it was worse than Europe after VE Day in 1945. It was worse than Somalia, its people were more brutalized than North Koreans and it was as poor as the poorest countries of sub-Saharan Africa. Women were slaves. A quarter of the population was living in refugee camps in neighbouring countries or wandering the world homeless. There was no currency, nothing even resembling a police force, and the people had been reduced to eating rats and grass. The place was run by a multinational joint venture in sadism called the Taliban and al Qaida had the run of the place.

The distance the Afghan people have traveled over the past decade is absolutely staggering. The GDP has tripled, the economy is growing faster than anywhere else in South Asia. Afghanistan has a freer press than any country in Central Asia, a dozen universities, millions of girls in school and on and on. To point this out in Canada is to be met almost unvariably with a “yes, but” or a “well, what about” or some other dodge, to change the subject. Even after all the astonishing progress, Afghanistan remains one of the most blighted countries on earth — that should tell you something about how bad things were before the NATO intervention. The rates of mental disorders from the war years are still through the roof. We talk about the “war in Afghanistan,” but in fact the NATO intervention brought peace and order to most of the country for the first time since 1978. The overwhelming majority of Afghans have been supportive of the UN-NATO intervention, perhaps most fervently the country’s liberal-left leadership, the democrats, reformers, secularists and women’s rights leaders. That’s the real Afghanistan, the one that exists in the real world. But if you merely point this out in public in places like Toronto or Vancouver, chances are good that you’ll have people shouting at you and calling you a warmonger.


What assumptions about Afghan life are you interested in challenging?


One spectacularly wrong assumption that you routinely encounters in Canada goes something like this: “We shouldn’t be trying to impose our values on Afghanistan, and we can’t impose democracy out of the barrel of a gun.” There are so many wildly wrong assumptions compacted into that, one hardly knows where to begin.

Firstly, what are these things we call “our values”? The right of girls to go to school? The right to a transparent and accountable government? The right to decent work for decent pay? How are these somehow only “our” values? These are universal values, and millions of Afghans risk their lives to defend them every day. Afghans aren’t waging these struggles because “we” are forcing democracy on “them.” But you’ll hear that kind of thing from precisely the kind of people who will be the first to declaim racism, and it’s usually asserted as a sort of proclamation of anti-racist bona fides, even. I find this astonishing.


How did you cross paths with Abdulrahim Parwani? How did you first become interested in Canada's role in Afghanistan and the lives of the people there?


Abdulrahim and I go back years now. He and his wife Sima were raising their kids in the same neighbourhood where I grew up in my own immigrant family when I first encountered him, around the autumn of 2005. Back then I was writing a column for the Georgia Straight, a weekly Vancouver newsmagazine that used to have quite a solid reputation for serious left-wing journalism. I’d started writing for the Straight almost right out of high school, and after years of working for the dailies and then going on to write books, I returned to writing a column for the Straight. It started with a fairly innocent column that merely pointed out a sort of paradox.

Almost everyone I knew was completely animated against the so-called war in Afghanistan. “Troops out” was the pose all the clever people struck, as though they were doing Afghans some big favour, but I couldn’t find a single Afghan in Vancouver whose position was not “troops in.” Nobody even talked to Afghans about it. Among those Afghans I met back then were some of the most principled liberals and “left-wingers” you would meet in a day’s walk.

So I started writing about that, and what I found especially fascinating was the anger my impertinence elicited, especially from people who fancied themselves to be “left-wing.” So I wanted to go deeper, to try and sort it all out. The effort to get to the core of the paradox became a kind of joint venture between Abdulrahim and me. He was just as perplexed as I was. Much of what I know about Afghanistan, I learned from Abdulrahim, and he’s the best sort of teacher. He wasn’t content to just explain things to me. He wanted me to see for myself, to go to Afghanistan, to make up my own mind. So I did, and the result is the book.


Who are some people who have deeply influenced (fellow writers or not) your writing life?


George Orwell, perhaps more than I have understood until only recently. As a craftsman, John McPhee. Among contemporary journalists, I’d say Nick Cohen is always close to the top of my favorites list. Among the Canadian journalists I most admire are Michael Petrou and Andrew Potter. Early influences: Stan Persky, Silver Donald Cameron, Alden Nowlan (the poet) and a bunch of Irish writers. I also have a great deal of admiration for Joan Didion, John Krakauer, David Adams Richards, Joan Skogan, Christopher Hitchens, Jimmy Breslin … and I better stop there or it could go on for a while.

Terry Glavin is the author of six books and the co-author of four. He has won more than a dozen literary and journalism awards, including the Hubert Evans Non-Fiction Prize. He has been hailed as “one of the finest journalists writing anywhere in the English language” (Canadian Forum) and “one of the prophets of our time” (Literary Review of Canada). Glavin is a co-founder of the Canada-Afghanistan Solidarity Committee, and he has been described by the National Post as “one of Canada’s leading voices in support of our Afghanistan campaign.”

For more information about Come from the Shadows please visit the Douglas & McIntyre website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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