By Joe Howell
The final Vic One Plenary of 2023 featured a multi-award-winning author who challenged students to consider how depictions of the self can both illuminate and threaten our sense of identity. On Nov. 29, Rawi Hage, this year’s Shaftesbury Creative Writer-in-Residence, delivered a memorable lecture to close out the series for the year. The acclaimed author began by reading “The Colour of Trees,” a short story from his Giller-nominated 2022 collection Stray Dogs, as a lead-in to a multimedia talk that gave a glimpse into his artistic methods as a writer and incorporated his lifelong passion for photography.
“My engagement with the medium goes back to my days in Beirut,” said Mr. Hage, who survived the Lebanese civil war during the 1970s and 1980s before emigrating to Quebec in 1992. “During the war, my cousin and I decided to chase after falling bombs, attempting to capture and photograph the image of a bomb on its descent toward us. Later, I portrayed this unusual obsession in a story called ‘The Whistle,’” also part of Stray Dogs.
Mr. Hage also shared pictures he took on film of Montreal artists in the 1990s. “I asked if I could enter their private spaces in order to take their portraits,” he said. “Subconsciously, it could have been a desire to break through the divide between our two communities, since I was both an artist and an immigrant.” When he later shared his work with the people he’d photographed, he was surprised by their reactions: “Many were pleased with the inclusion of their creative spaces and work. Mostly, the images of the self were secondary to them.” In fact, their expressions often revealed uneasiness and discomfort with being photographed, he said.
Contrasting these shots from a bygone era with the modern phenomenon of taking “selfies” with cellphones, Mr. Hage reflected that by allowing us to continuously capture and diffuse our own images, the devices “relegate us from a private existence to a mass existence” that prizes the exterior over more profound interior value. “We are all suffering from this advancement of technology,” he said. “The only therapy is reconnecting with something tactile.”
All five books by Mr. Hage have been shortlisted for either the Governor General’s Literary Award, the Giller Prize or the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. He has won the Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction twice, and in 2019, Mr. Hage received the Writers’ Trust Engel Findley Award, which recognized his entire body of work. As the 2023-24 Shaftesbury Creative Writer-in-Residence, Mr. Hage plays a key role in mentoring and inspiring students in Victoria College’s Creative Expression and Society (CES) program and the Norman Jewison Stream of the Vic One program. The Vic One program has a long history of offering students access to some of the most high-profile artists, political leaders and public policy figures.
Christina Jennings, C.M., an alumna of Victoria College and one of Canada’s leading producers for TV and film, helped establish the Shaftsbury Creative Writer-In-Residence Program through a generous philanthropic gift. “I am so pleased that Rawi Hage is the third writer appointed to the Shaftesbury Creative Writer-In-Residence Program,” said Ms. Jennings, chairman and president of Shaftesbury, the Toronto-based entertainment company behind hit shows like Murdoch Mysteries, Hudson and Rex and Departure. “As an alumna myself, it is especially rewarding to see that our continued support of the program will allow for Rawi’s mentoring to inspire and foster the careers of burgeoning creatives.”
Next semester, Mr. Hage will teach an upper-year CES course called Visual Culture and the Written Word: Exploring the Aesthetics of Creativity. (CRE449H1; application required; contact program coordinator Adam Sol for info at firstname.lastname@example.org.) Mr. Hage will also participate in events and hold office hours where undergraduate students can seek guidance on their literary works in progress.
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