About Wild and Beautiful is the Night Paulette and Danni grew up miles apart — Paulette in Hamilton and Danni in North Toronto — but they might as well have been worlds apart. Paulette’s family emigrated from Jamaica. Danni grew up Jewish in an affluent neighbourhood. Now both women find themselves on the streets of Toronto, working in the sex trade.
Paulette is a seasoned sex worker, supporting herself and her drug use. She is a reluctant and unlikely mentor to Danni, who is new to the street and whose crack use has set her on a similar path. Despite their differences, or perhaps because of them, they develop a difficult and troubled friendship that sees Paulette begin to pull herself together while Danni manages to survive everything that comes her way. Will her luck run out? Has Paulette learned to make her own luck?
With my friend Yves, there’s always an adventure. It shouldn’t have surprised me, then, when I joined his gay aerobics team on an excursion last March to a cabane à sucre outside of Montreal, that a year later, he would talk me into a costume party.
So much about that last sentence amuses me. First, if you’re speaking of men, saying gay aerobics is mostly redundant. Secondly, has nobody mentioned to Montrealers that aerobics hasn’t been a thing since the early nineties? At least where I live, in Toronto, it hasn’t. Have Montrealers been aerobicizing all this time, or, like the trend-setters they often are, are they at the forefront of a neon spandex revival? Who knows. Also, they don’t just do aerobics, they’re a team! Finally, just the idea of dozens of gay aerobic dancers swarming a maple sugar shack, well, who would say no to such an invitation? Continue reading →
International work has sporadically taken me to areas where poverty and politics—and sometimes conflict or terrorism—keep safety and security top of mind. I am not an inexperienced global traveller; my first real experience in the global south was on Canada World Youth in 1985, several months spent in a rural village in the Democratic Republic of Congo, back when it was called Zaire and under Mobutu’s military dictatorship. Since then I’ve backpacked in South America and Asia, done a degree in international development, and for the last ten years, global work in HIV has sent me on over seventy trips spanning every continent. Continue reading →
My brother Tony challenged me to name 10 books that have stayed with me over time. I am in a longstanding writing group, Big Canvas, with Elizabeth Ruth and Sally Cooper and that I shamelessly promote their writing because they are outstanding novelists.
Once, when our family was gathered at my parents’ house for dinner, my brother accused me of being an anti‑social worker. At the time, I worked in what people condescendingly call ‘the helping professions’. His little jab disappointed me; I did inform them, after all, that I had been telling a story. Did they really expect the humdrum reporting of facts? Continue reading →
A meeting I attended in December, in Khayelitsha, one of Cape Town’s poorest townships, opened my eyes to the human cost of the social science research that fuels good policy—the cost to the people who collect the data.
I spend a lot of time at conferences and meetings hearing about children and families living in the context of HIV and AIDS—about people who cope with the pandemic, sometimes succumb to its ravages, but mostly survive it and live on. I listen to presentations and read studies that report on statistics, studies that try to prove which inputs lead to which outcomes, and which inputs may lead to no outcome at all. These studies help policy wonks and philanthropists make better, more evidence-based decisions in the hopes that they’ll have positive and far-reaching impact. Continue reading →
Twenty-six years ago, on a beautiful marble balcony, I shook hands with Mobutu Sese Seko, the former dictator of what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. I was reminded of that day last month while on a work trip to Kenya. In Nairobi, I happened upon a clothing store with a t-shirt bearing the face of Patrice Lumumba. Lumumba was the Congo’s first democratically elected president, but months into his mandate he was hounded from office, then hunted down and murdered by Mobutu following a CIA-backed coup. Mobutu ruled thirty-two years. His regime was brutal and repressive and while his resource-rich country withered, he amassed a fortune so large that he became the third richest man in the world. Continue reading →
Flight attendant, loudly, to her seated colleague on the other side of the plane: “Is that smoke? I smell smoke!” Her colleague agrees. Minutes pass as my heart races. “It’s getting worse! Has anyone told the captain?” she gets up and strides quickly to the cockpit.
These are things you really *don’t* want to hear and see as your flight has just taken off, especially after a 3-hour delay due to electrical storms that the crew have been describing as “a code red situation” –a delay that has definitely eaten up your connection time to catch your flight to Nairobi. Continue reading →
Listen to John reading this essay on CBC Radio 1’s The Sunday Edition, Nov.17 2013
A demo I attended recently in the sleepy capital of Lithuania reminded me of my long and conflicted relationship with public protest. I know that some demonstrations have changed the course of history. But with a few notable exceptions, the protests I’ve attended have been less Tahrir or Taksim and more Toronto. Less Tiananmen and more… just Tiresome.
I started protesting young, tagging along with my mother to abortion rights rallies, peace marches, gatherings to decry violence against women. These were mostly in Canada, the land of small demos and vast spaces, the vast spaces making small demos look even smaller. But I learned early on that, in a functioning democracy, expressing public anger at injustice is important- alongside political organizing and the occasional snappy letter to the editor. Continue reading →
I’ll be going to Kuala Lumpur this July for a conference—a very different experience from my last trip twenty years ago during a backpacking adventure through Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. Though I’ll be heading to a meeting where treatment advances in HIV will be discussed, my hotel will be comfortable, I’ll be stuck in a conference centre and I will no doubt feel very much removed from the lives or ordinary Malaysians. Continue reading →
The events of Sandy Hook Elementary and other tragedies have me thinking again how storytelling can help heal. Twenty-four years ago, I lost my best friend to gun violence. Naomi was a bright soul extinguished at twenty-one and for a few years after her death, her mother and I met occasionally to check in and reminisce. Then one day I received a letter. Naomi’s mother explained that she had spent the better part of a year writing a small booklet, and would I like to receive a copy. She had written her daughter’s story, she said.
Her daughter’s story. At first, the phrasing rankled. Surely one story couldn’t possibly suffice. Furthermore, the attribution seemed wrong. In English, we have a convention of naming a story that is about a person after the person, but any writer knows that a story first belongs to the teller and once told becomes shared property. Finally, it seemed too definitive. Where was the room for my point of view? Continue reading →
For nearly eight years, I’ve had the good fortune to be in a writing group with two other published authors. We meet every month for three hours to discuss work and careers, and to give each other support. We’ve developed as writers and during that time we’ve all published second novels and made a significant dent in a third manuscript. Continue reading →