30 Novels, day 26: Call Me Humiliated
When my first novel, Icefields, was nominated for the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize in 1995, I traveled to Harare, Zimbabwe for the award ceremony. The nominated writers were treated to a week of dinners and activities and field trips to nature preserves. One day they sent us all out separately to various schools around the city to read to the students. I was taken to an all-girls academy that was so British in look and atmosphere that I thought I’d somehow been transported to England.
The auditorium where I was going to read was filled with at least a hundred schoolgirls in uniform, and suddenly I was more nervous than I had been for a long time in front of an audience. Could there be a tougher crowd to impress than a roomful of teenaged girls?
I read the scene from my novel in which a young woman dies tragically in a mountain-climbing accident. I think I got their attention with that. They seemed to be ... well, riveted. This was going quite well, I thought. Then it was question time, and one of the first questions was: “What are some of your favourite books?”
I started listing a few of the books I loved, The Lord of the Rings, War and Peace, Ulysses. This is really going to impress them, I thought. And then I added, “Oh, yes, and I can’t forget Moby-Dick.”
At the mention of that title, a quiet titter started somewhere in the back of the auditorium and spread, until it rippled across the entire room and swelled to full-fledged laughter. The laughter of a crowd of densely-packed, forcibly-detained teenagers at some doofus who’d just inadvertently said a dirty word. I felt myself flush crimson.
“Yeah,” I chuckled, struggling to recover some poise. “It’s a pretty ridiculous title. But it’s a wonderful book. Trust me. You should read it.”
I hope a few of them took my advice. And if you haven’t read it, you should.