I first met Shaun Hunter in Calgary through the city’s writing community. Shaun is known locally for her non-fiction, personal essays and memoir writing, but I’d like to focus on this brilliant concept for a blog she has been publishing lately. Here’s Shaun to tell you all about Writing the City: Calgary Through the Eyes of Writers. Welcome, Shaun!
I have lived in Calgary most of my life but have only rarely seen the city imagined on the page. About a year ago, I went looking for the city in novels, poetry and creative nonfiction. I was curious: what could writers’ stories tell me about the city that shaped me and continues to confound me? In the spring, I shared a few of my findings on a literary Jane’s Walk through downtown Calgary. The idea for the blog grew from there: Writing the City: Calgary Through the Eyes of Writers would be a virtual walk through Calgary’s literary history as I was discovering it.
For me, and I hope for readers, the blog is a treasure hunt: every week turns up a fresh surprise tucked away in the city’s literary history. The series roams Calgary’s past and its geography, following the meandering path of my own curiosity. The featured excerpt has to be from a published work of fiction, poetry or nonfiction, and has to capture some aspect of the city – no matter how uncomfortable. The blog is not intended as a travelogue or an exercise in civic boosterism. The series offers the city as writers have engaged with it and lets readers make their own connections.
The blog launched at the beginning of Stampede Week 2015 with daily posts. Since then, I’ve been posting a new excerpt every Friday. I plan to wrap up the series after this year’s Stampede, but there is more material than I can feature on the blog. A book proposal is in the works. Stay tuned!
I know from my own experience that Calgary is more than its stereotypes of cowboys and oil barons. But seeing the city through the eyes of writers, I am continually surprised by the different responses writers have to this place. As the series unfolds, my own connection to the city is deepening in ways I had not imagined. I have kept that story out of the blog series, but it’s simmering underneath.
So many of the posts have stories behind them, but one in particular stands out. I am a latecomer to local history. Only recently have the stories of early Calgary begun to capture my imagination. Last summer, I set out to correct my historic deficit and showed up for a tour of Union Cemetery during Historic Calgary Week. The guide, Ruth Manning, had deep roots in the city and was a trove of stories about the people buried on Cemetery Hill. On a ridge overlooking downtown, she talked about what she believed to be the first lines written about the site that would become the city of Calgary. With her eyes closed, Ruth quoted from memory the words of NWMP officer Sir Cecil Denny as he stood above the confluence of the Bow and Elbow rivers: “Our first sight of this enchanting spot was one never to be forgotten, one to which only a poet could do justice.” In that moment, on that historic hill, I felt myself sinking a little deeper into the city’s soil.
This seems to be a golden age in Canada for literary mapping. Noah Richler offers a compelling exploration of the country’s literary landscape in This is My Country, What’s Yours? A Literary Atlas of Canada (though he doesn’t stop in Calgary). To date, Project Bookmark has installed sixteen plaques across the country, connecting poetry and fiction to specific Canadian landmarks. You can take literary tours of Vancouver and Toronto through these excellent public library projects: Vancouver: Literary Landmarks, Toronto Poetry Map and books set in Toronto neighbourhoods. 49th Shelf also offers an annotated literary map of the country.
Calgary is not just one story. Talk to people who live or have lived here, and you discover that each one has a unique connection to this place. I hope that in discovering writers’ stories about Calgary, readers experience the city as a complex urban landscape with fascinating contradictions, ambiguities and humanity.
Calgary’s Grand Story (University of Calgary Press, 2005) by Donald B. Smith
In Calgary, we often wear change like a badge. But go back to the city’s first gilded age in 1912, and the story of two of its landmark structures (the Lougheed Building and the Grand Theatre) and you will see that Calgary is consistent with its beginnings.
The Calgary Project: A City Map in Verse and Visual (Frontenac House, 2014) by Dymphny Dronyk and Kris Demeanor
I’ve featured a few of the fine poems in this anthology on the blog, including those by co-editors Kris Demeanor and Dympnhy Dronyk, as well as Cecelia Frey, but there is much more to discover. My only caveat in recommending The Calgary Project is that you won’t be able to fit the book in your back pocket as you explore the city’s streets.
Long Change (Random House, 2015) by Don Gillmor
Don Gillmor’s fictional take on the city’s illustrious oil sub-culture is at once excoriating and compassionate. There is an unforgettable New Year’s Eve party at an oil baron’s estate west of town you won’t want to miss, and a dinner party that will change the way you look at geology. I’ve posted a glimpse of Gillmor’s novel on the blog.
Shaun Hunter is the author of five biographies for young readers about the lives of celebrated women writers, artists and scientists, African-American Olympians and Canadian entrepreneurs. Her personal essays have appeared in literary magazines, anthologies and The Globe and Mail. In July 2015, Shaun launched Writing the City: Calgary Through the Eyes of Writers, a weekly blog series that explores the way writers have imagined the city in fiction, nonfiction and poetry. She leads occasional guided literary walks of Calgary. Shaun has a master’s degree in Canadian Studies from Carleton University. She lives in Calgary, Alberta.
I’m working on a proposal to turn Calgary Through the Eyes of Writers into a book, and making notes toward the personal story percolating underneath the blog series.
Thank you, Shaun! I suggest that everyone reading this check out previous posts Shaun has published on her blog. You’ll find writing by many talented and accomplished authors, some very surprising (such as Graham Greene, Rupert Brooke and Nancy Huston) and quite a number who I have promoted on my blog, Reading Recommendations … such as Katherine Govier, Aritha van Herk, Bruce Hunter, Lori Hahnel, Barb Howard, Betty Jane Hegerat, Fred Stenson and Don Gillmor.