Ottawa Writers Fest: Megan Gail Coles reveals the real Newfoundland

Megan Gail Coles. Photo: David Howells

Megan Gail Coles hails from Savage Cove on Newfoundland’s windswept and beautiful Great Northern Peninsula. Savage Cove is the most northernly sheltered harbour in the straits on the island. As a child, Coles used to look across the Strait of Belle Isle she could see the lights of Labrador.

She is of mixed English, Irish and Mi’kmaw heritage and her hometown and her family history have cultivated a penetrating view of her home province and the people that live there.

Coles is a playwright and a poet and now, with her first novel Small Game Hunting At The Local Coward Gun Club (House of Anansi), she is nominated for the Giller Prize. This coming week she’ll be at the Ottawa International Writers Festival.

These days, however, she’s in Montreal working on an interdisciplinary PhD at Concordia University combining performing arts, Indigenous studies and history of economic theory.

It’s a weighty combination but it’s not as heavy as her novel, which is a clear-eyed examination of the real Newfoundland as Coles sees it.

“I think it’s very important to acknowledge that members of your community are struggling; to educate members outside of your community what the context of that struggle is because it really doesn’t service any relationship. It doesn’t foster positive interactions when people feel what they are experiencing is being negated.”

She is also debunking perceptions of Newfoundland and Newfoundlanders.

First of all, “people think the island of Newfoundland is geographically and demographically all like the Avalon Peninsula where St. John’s is. That’s the dominant narrative for our island. But the west coast demographic and geographical isolation makes it very different.

“The conditions we live under are very different I guess all of that has informed how I approach storytelling.”

Coles started in the theatre world.

“I’m playwright and I run a theatre company in St. John’s. I think it is fair to say that I think dramatically and think very much in terms of character. This is a character based (novel). This story is more focussed on the human aspects and the human interactions than say how the landscapes are portrayed. There is not a lot of description of where the characters are.

“You feel the environment but it’s always through the character’s perspective. It describes how the environment acts upon the character rather than how the environment is acted upon.”

The book is set in a February blizzard in St. John’s inside the Hazel Restaurant where a clutch of archetypal Newfoundlanders gather and prepare to do battle with each other.

Inside are people like Iris, a young hostess pulling a double shift, Damian, a hungover and self-loathing server, and Olive, a young woman far from her northern home, watches it all from the frozen street.

The characters are clearly defined. The reader can see them in her mind’s eye — so real and yet:

“The characters are fictional. They are not based on any particular person. I think all writers derive their characters from their own personal lived experience and interactions. To some some degree, they are all composites of a certain kind of person who exists in Newfoundland.”

Coles says people approach her and tell her “they know them (one of the cast) John. You do know John because the Johns are all predictably horrible in the same way.

“Iris and Damien, these are members of our community so everyone thinks they know exactly who I am talking about and that is by design. You are supposed to be able to recognize your own community members in the book.”

Coles says her fiction differs But they are not actual people. They are archetypes.

The fiction in Small Game Hunting is very different from the theatre and the poetry she writes, she says.

“Certain stories I place inside a specific genre because I think that is the genre that would best tell that story. With regard to Small Game Hunting, this is a very private experience.

“I know that people meeting this material will need to have the opportunity to dictate how they read the book. That doesn’t work inside of a theatre because you are in a socially designed agreement that you will watch this piece of art within the next 90 minutes together.”

The intensity of the novel could trigger emotion, she says, and the reader may need to  put the book down. You can’t do that easily in a theatre.

“You read the book in private and it’s your own experience. I know for a fact and I also knew when I was writing it that between lunch and dinner, people are going to need a little break.”

Coles is driven by an understanding of her province that examines the kinds of economic oppression that occurs in a resource based economy.

“Our province, especially the island of Newfoundland, has been founded on the cycles of resource exploitation.

“But I think the resource that we often exploit to the degree of destruction in Newfoundland specifically is the Newfoundlander. This is ultimately the resource that the powers that be exploit to a point of total annihilation.

“We have a labour force that is so alienated from their labour that we have an epic substance abuse issue today.

“People try to romanticize it or they try to dismiss with very jolly sense of humour. We are those things to but we do have some of the highest domestic violence rates in Canada, the highest youth unemployment, the second lowest minimum wage. These are realities in our communities. We have a mental health crisis on the island of Newfoundland. We have increased suicide ideations.

“This is happening now and has happened before, multiple times.”

She believes that the portrayals of Newfoundland society miss this or perhaps ignore it.

“It is nuanced. There has been  lack of focus on the nuance and the complexity of Newfoundland society. That’s typical of cultures where there has been a lot of oppression. You try not to focus on the bad stuff.”

Seh says she takes issue with this and with anything that is binary — black and white.

“I take issue wth anything that says a person is one way or the other way. The book is almost a response to this notion that we are dancing a jig every evening and running through the long grass as quilts are hanging on the clothesline. This is the romantic view that visitors like to think of when they come to the island.

“And I want them to come to the island. I am so proud of my home. I love Newfoundland I can’t imagine living anywhere else really.”

She said she is getting her doctorate “so I can go home and help in a better way and be a stronger member of my community.”

The novel is offering context. It will help the observer understand why a car has been abandoned on a ditch.

“It’s not that these people don’t take pride in their homes. They have others things going on in their lives. If a woman in the grocery store is yelling at her kid you understand that she has reasons why she is acting this way.”

Coles believes empathy and compassion are needed.

Her own heritage fits into this lack of nuance.

“My ancestry is English, Irish and Mi’kmaw. That is another thing that has been repressed. The country has been told since Confederation that Newfoundland is a Eurocentric place. There are endless jokes about how pale and Irish we are.

“It’s not correct and it actually erases all the people in our community that do encounter racism in their lives.”

She says she writes, first and foremost for Newfoundlanders. “But I don’t not write for other people. I think individuals from other marginalized communities may pick up the book and can see themselves and relate. They have similar lived experiences.”

She said she has tried to say this differently, more diplomatically in different mediums, but “when a woman speaks in diplomatic tones, it’s easy to dismiss what she is saying. So I took a different approach here.”

That did make her nervous.

“I don’t come from a position where I have had a lot of access to power and resources so there is a certain amount of personal risk when you criticize individuals who have authority over the various different components of your life.

“There are lots of functions where I will not be asked to come and speak at. I don’t know if the oil and gas industry will have me in to be a keynote speaker because my relationship to the environment comes across quite clearly. Young Newfoundland capitalists wont have me in for a luncheon.”

There is always personal financial risk when you take a shot a people of privilege, she said.

Making the Giller shortlist is “amazing,” and she knows it means more people are going to find the book and they may not agree with it.

“If people read the book and find it disturbing or take issue with the things I want to discuss then at least we are acknowledging there is opposition to it. A conversation is started. When I am writing the thing I want the least is for the book or the play to have no impact.

“I don’t write escapism. I don’t write entertainment for their sakes alone. There are other people better at that than me. They do that and I do this and we need all of the different things to have a balanced arts and culture community.”

In Town: Megan Gail Coles will be at the Ottawa International Writers Festival on Oct. 27 at 8:30 p.m. in Christ Church Cathedral on a panel with Sara Peters and Anakana Schofield. For tickets and more information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.