The oud is one of the greatest instruments in the world. Here it is in the hands of a master: Naseer Shamma – Hilal-alsaba:
Originally appeared in The Vancouver Sun, September 17, 2011:
by Brad Frenette
Imagine yourself on Powell Street on a sunny Vancouver afternoon in 1921, past the tea houses and schools, past Morimoto & Co. Dry Goods, into the heart of bustling Japantown. You would hear things typical in any town across North America at the time: the splintering of the baseball bat, the warm thud of a ball hitting a glove, the proclamations of a confident umpire.
At Powell Street Grounds, now called Oppenheimer Park in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, a legion of baseball fans would be crowded around the dirtpatched diamond.
On the field, a remarkable story was starting, starring a band of Japanese-Canadian baseballers called the Asahi.
Birthed in 1914 by Harry Miyasaki, the Asahi assembled the best amateur Japanese players in the area to compete against Vancouver’s Caucasian clubs, at a time when the popularity of the sport was at a frenzy across North America’s West Coast.
Faced with a clear height and weight disadvantage, Miyasaki, a drycleaner by trade, developed a winning strategy dubbed “brainball,” a combination of speed, harmony and a perfected execution of the squeeze play.
“We didn’t have muscle,” says Kaye Kaminishi with a laugh. The Kamloops resident, now 89, is one of only three surviving Asahi. “We usually stole bases and bunted. And squeeze plays. Not too many homers.”
Joining the Asahi as a rookie in 1938 was like being welcomed into the “family home,” Kaminishi remembers. His first hit, a line drive that left the humble boundaries of Powell Grounds, is his favourite memory.
“From first to second base I stumbled. The ball was on the street, so I should have had a home run. All the players gave me a laugh.”
After winning Vancouver’s International League in 1919, the team’s renown grew over the next two decades. Their exploits were praised in the press and by the cross-cultural fan base who packed the humble Powell Grounds.
The field was so small that the Asahi used to break windows in nearby buildings during the games, “so they’d have to pay for a few windows each game,” recalls Grace Eiko Thomson, the former executive director of the National Nikkei Museum & Heritage Centre in Burnaby.
“The bleachers didn’t hold everyone, so there were people all over the place.”
Baseball, notes Thompson, was that rare thing that could close the generation gap between the immigrant parents and Canadian-born children within the Japanese community. It also transcended racial divides. In 1926, the Asahi were voted the most popular sports franchise in Vancouver, at a time when Japanese-Canadians were confronted with rampant and blatant racism: “They responded to the times, and became incredible. When they went home, they didn’t have the right to vote. When they were playing on the field, it gave a lot of hope and pride to the community.” Despite the Asahi’s popularity, there was nothing any baseball team could do against the cause and effect of a world at war. After Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, the Japanese became the enemy, and by proxy, so did Japanese-Canadians. Citizens were forced from their homes and businesses and Japantown soon was emptied.
The Asahi, too, were displaced, sent to internment camps and the “ghost towns” of B.C. and across Canada.
The team’s dominating run ended with their last game on Sept. 18, 1941, but their verve continued. Ex-Asahi, including Kaminishi, soon began to organize games with other interned baseball fans. A makeshift league was born in the camps and by July 1, 1943, a championship series was held in the Slocan Valley, drawing RCMP officers and other white fans and spectators.
The Asahi excelled, says Thomson, because “this was the only place they could level the playing field.”
Despite not being a baseball fan, Thomson’s interest in the team’s story inspired her to curate an exhibit about the team for the museum and in 2006, she petitioned Parks Canada to honour the team. The request was granted a few weeks ago, and on Sunday, a plaque will be hoisted in Oppenheimer Park, 70 years to the day since the team played its last official game.
“Each year it wasn’t easy,” says Kaminishi.
“It wasn’t just playing ball. The fans gave us encouragement – that’s the reason we lasted.”
Originally published in The Vancouver Sun and The Calgary Herald on October 20, 2011:
by Brad Frenette
Imagine you’ve spent years crafting a novel, endlessly poring over drafts and re-drafts and negotiating its publication. Then picture a moment when the phone rings and the voice on the line explains that this novel has been selected by a distinguished panel to compete for the Man Booker Prize, one of the world’s most prestigious literary awards. Imagine then how that moment might be enough to make one’s stomach flip with joy.
For Victoria-based novelist Esi Edugyan, the movements in her belly were happening well before the phone rang: “I was eightand-a-half months pregnant when I heard. I was humongous. I couldn’t sleep and I was tossing and turning in bed. It was awful. And then the phone started ringing off the hook. My husband ran to get it, came back and said: ‘You’re on the Booker long list.’”
While it was announced Tuesday that the Booker had gone to Julian Barnes, that call from London was just the first of a long list of nominations that have helped make Edugyan’s second novel, Half-Blood Blues, one of the most discussed books of the fall literary season. A few weeks later Edugyan’s daughter was born, and the phone kept ringing.
By early autumn, the 33-yearold had become part of an exclusive list of Canadian writers nominated for the country’s most coveted trio of fiction awards: the Giller Prize, the Governor General’s Award for Fiction and the Writers’ Trust Award.
“What are the chances?” she recalls with a quiet laugh from her home in Colwood, just south of Victoria.
Half-Blood Blues pilots between present-day Baltimore and the smoky clubs of German-occupied Paris at the beginning of the Second World War. The novel tells of a 20-year-old Afro-German jazz prodigy named Hieronymus Falk and his bandmates, as they attempt to record under a regime that dubbed the style fremdländisch, or “alien” music. After young Hiero is arrested by the Nazis, his bandmates scatter, and the band’s only surviving recording becomes a cult hit. Decades later, Sidney Griffiths, one of Hiero’s American bandmates, is forced to revisit the events that led to the young virtuoso’s disappearance.
The idea came while the author was undertaking a residency in Stuttgart, Germany: “It got me thinking of the history of black people in that country,” she said. “I’m very interested in these diaspora histories, so I starting doing research and learning about these amazing people – diplomats and African royalty – and I started specifically looking at the era of the Third Reich.”
Among the stacks, Edugyan read about a small group of men and women referred to as the Rhineland bastards – “children of German women and the French colonial soldiers who were sent over from France’s African colonies to police the Rhineland” – and therein found the genesis for her mixed-race jazz genius.
“The book plays with different identities – Afro-Germans and Afro-Americans, an Afro-Canadian, a blond German-Jewish man, a rich German gentile – all with different skin tones, and examines how that affects how they navigate society. It was interesting to explore.”
The novel certainly deals with heavy material, but moments of lightness spark throughout, often in the playful, colloquial dialogue between the bandmates. To find the cadence of the day, she referenced works such as the autobiography of the great American jazz saxophonist Sidney Bechet, who dictated his book from his deathbed. Given that “there isn’t tons written about what the book is about,” Edugyan says she was free to take some licence. “Half of it is this authentic way of speaking, and half of it is invented. You extrapolate. What would these guys call the Nazis in this patois? I came up with ‘the boots.’ ” Edugyan was born in Calgary, the daughter of Ghanaian immigrants, in 1978.
After high school, she moved further west, enrolling in the writing program at the University of Victoria. There, she worked with the great Canadian novelist Jack Hodgins – “a huge mentor for me. I learned so much from him, and I can’t thank him enough” – and found the man she would eventually marry, poet and novelist Steven Price.
Her debut novel, The Second Life of Samuel Tyne, which focused on the travails of an immigrant from the Gold Coast (modern-day Ghana) and his family, was published in 2004 as part of Knopf’s “New Faces of Fiction” initiative. Well-reviewed in Canada, it was published internationally, nominated for several awards in the U.S., and selected as one of the New York Public Library’s “Books to Remember.”
However, despite the successes of her debut novel, Half-Blood Blues’ path toward the literary limelight was shaky. After buying the book, Key Porter, Edugyan’s Canadian publishing house, went bankrupt. The manuscript was suddenly on the table again, and spent months bouncing around before being sold to Thomas Allen & Sons.
It was “disheartening,” says Edugyan, but she credits an “obsessive” streak in pushing past the setbacks.
“I think you need to be obsessive, or you’re not going to get through it. Writing is such a difficult profession. Actually getting the work written, then on top of that the whole publication situation can be very stressful and unpredictable.”
Though maybe one morning the phone starts ringing and, suddenly, the things you can’t predict become very rewarding.
Half-Blood Blues (Thomas Allen & Sons) is available now.
Originally appeared in Vancouver Sun and National Post, Sept 21, 2011:
In Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table, an 11-year-old boy named Michael boards a passenger ship for a three-week journey from Colombo to England. It is a trip familiar to the author, who, as an 11-year-old, boarded a similar boat, and crossed the same sea. However, the similarities between the two Michaels are divided there – between the real life of the man and the fictional life of his creation.
Ondaatje has worked this tricky space before – poetically transmitting his interpretation of the life of an outlaw in The Collected Works of Billy The Kid, of a missing Canadian theatre magnate in his novel In The Skin of The Lion, and of a desert-roaming count in The English Patient. With The Cat’s Table, Ondaatje serves forth another work based on real events; however, as the author assures, this book too is a “work of fiction.” Read more…
Originally appeared: The Vancouver Sun, June 17, 2011
Following the riots in Vancouver, one photo was shared more than the rest among users of Twitter and other social media.
The photo shows a young couple tangled in each other’s arms on the street, kissing, while the police and mayhemmakers clash all around them.
“I was trying not to get my ass kicked,” says Vancouver freelance photojournalist Richard Lam, who took the photo, when asked if he had stopped to talk to the couple.
Indeed, it was a hectic and unexpected path that led to the photo, he explains: “I was shooting the game -and me and another photographer decided to go. By the time I got out there it was out of control. I started out in front of the Sandman Hotel and ended up at the Bay. There were still looters coming out, two cars were on fire.”
Soon, he was forced onto Seymour Street, corralled by the tide of rioters and police, who were “waving sticks and shields.” There, between Georgia and Robson, he spotted the couple.
“I thought people were hurt. Next thing I knew there was some guy running toward the riot police, another waving a mannequin leg. I really didn’t know what they were doing.”
Lam got the shot, and several more, and didn’t think much of it. He returned to the media room at Rogers Arena, where his editor took his memory card and imported it.
“I didn’t even look at it. A colleague said, ‘Nice photo.’ Then I went back to the editing room, and looked at it. My jaw dropped.”
The photo has kept Lam busy, with media outlets such as NPR and MSN interviewing him.
“I’ve been fascinated by [the response]. I don’t want to sound idealistic, but I was just doing my job.”