2018 Leacock Medal - 10 months in the Making


April 2019

I will always remember the 2018 Leacock Medal banquet because of the people who did not attend.  

One was me.  Another was the winner of the medal.  

Both noteworthy absences from my perspective.

But, for many others, the most glaring nonappearance was that caused by the passing of an exceptional local woman six months earlier.  For different reasons, all of these failures to appear made it difficult for me to follow up the event with a column.

I’ve tried to attend the Leacock Medal banquet in Orillia every year since 2012 when I began writing about the medal winners for blogs and books. But the birthdays of three women in my immediate family fall around the June award weekend, making it inevitable that conflicting obligations would keep me away someday, and last year they did.  Too bad.  The 2018 award celebration was unique.

Attendees at a dinner on the eve of the banquet would have found the affair particularly striking.  Eighty-four-year-old Jennifer Craig, the B.C. writer shortlisted for the medal and destined to win, fell ill in the midst of the dinner festivities and had to be rushed to Soldier’s Memorial Hospital.  As Jennifer, a former nurse, had correctly presumed, she had a stroke.

The writer would recover in the following days to return to the mountains and savour her literary award among friends and family.  But her sudden illness obliged her daughter Juliet to accept the medal in her mother’s stead.  Juliet’s banquet speech was genuine, touching, apt, and funny as you can see in this Youtube recording.  She not only spoke of the award-winning book, Gone to Pot, but also outlined her mother’s interesting life.  It ran from hospitals in England to academia in Canada after a return to school in later life to earn Bachelor’s, Master’s and Ph.D. degrees. Now, in what she derides as “the golden years,” she writes books with enthusiasm and humour.  

This alone would have made good fodder for a post-banquet, medal-award blog on Jennifer Craig.

I would have also found it easy to write about Jennifer’s novel, Gone to Pot, a first-person account of an older woman’s adventures growing marijuana for illicit purpose. The book’s 64-year-old heroine Jess lost her job after a restaurant fire leading her into the cannabis career and a new circle of friends.  

It is kind of a simple premise.  But when I read it, I thought the book worked because it reflected sound research and maintained a consistent voice throughout.  I learned later that the voice was based on cassette recordings of a deceased English aunt and the research included direct participation in the kind of gardening described in the book. This blend creates an authentic feel and the quality that defines good fiction, believability. I was ready to extol Gone with Pot, and this inclination combined with the quirky events around the award ceremony should have made the task of writing an account easy.  
Furthermore, the subsequent legalization of marijuana makes this book a snapshot point in Canadian history, and this fits with my frame for judging the consequence of the Leacock Medal books.

But it is almost ten months later, and I am just getting around to tapping at the keyboard now. One reason probably rests on my banquet nonappearance and the need to rely on second-hand information. But I struggled with other concerns as well.

Others 

I wanted to write my account of the 2018 Leacock Medal banquet in a way that acknowledged the other finalists to a greater degree than usual.  For the first time in the award’s history, all three were women. 

Television personality Laurie Gellman and BuzzFeed columnist Scaachi Koul were the other two.  Together with Jennifer Craig they not only represented the humour capacities and inclinations of a particular gender, but also three different generations and three different styles (conventional storytelling, episodic narrative, and essays).  I had a blog title ready to go: “Bugger, Baby, Bullshit,” drawing on recurrent words from each of their books and ones that seemed to capture the different themes.

Ms. Gellman’s book, Class Mom, chronicles the experience of a volunteer tagged with notifying  fellow parents of events deemed important by school administration.  The class mom role draws few kudos and no formal remuneration, so Laurie’s edgy heroine draws reward from trying to laugh.  Blunt, acerbic email messages to parents usually preface the chapters, frame what is to come, and remind readers to not take some jobs too seriously.

Scaachi Koul’s book also introduces its chapters with words that are crude, brisk, and blunt.  But, more often than not, the essay that follows explores racism, sexism, alcoholism, and other topical issues in a semi-serious way intertwined with candid emotion and personal experience.  



(Later, I learned that all the 2018 winners of the Leacock Medal Student Essay competition were also  women: Naama Weingarten (third place), Sydney Force (second place), and Atara Jurievsky (first)).
Thinking about these women reminded me of the long-held view of the Leacock Medal as a male-dominated arena.  In spite of a recent surge (six of the nine shortlisted authors and two of the three winners in the last three years), women still form a small minority of medalists over the Leacock Medal’s history. 

But I think that this statistic understates the profile women have had in the Leacock Medal over the years.  I believe a more accurate picture would be presented if attention was not limited to overall winners.  I have met a lot of people short-listed for the award who call themselves losers because they did not win.  Ottawa journalist Charles Gordon, who was short-listed and “lost” three times, but is most wistful about his sister the sports writer Allison, a twice-shortlisted non-winner.

If one expanded the concept of winning to include those and other finalists in the past, the alumnae of the Leacock medal would not only grow, but would be more diverse.  This expanded list includes Jane ChristmasZarqa NawazPatricia PearsonSusan Juby (before her win in 2016), Robin Michele LevyRupinder Gill, Shari LapeñaKathyrn Borel, Lynn Coady, Sandra ShamasMiriam ToewsSusan MusgraveChristie Blatchford, Sheree Fitchand yep, Margaret Atwood and Carol Shields.  Kind of crazy to think that some of these women might consider themselves Leacock Medal losers.

So, I was glad when, a couple of years ago, the Leacock Medal elevated the finalists with larger cash awards and the status of “finalists,” but wondered whether a blog or column on the 2018 Leacock Medal should use the occasion to acknowledge all of the women short-listed in the past as well as those top three honoured in 2018.  And this was another cause for my hesitation and explains, in part, why I am writing these words a year later.


But there was another reason ... 

But the principal reason I could not bring myself to work on this blog until now was the desire to honour the other woman who did not attend the 2018 banquet.  Her name was Jean Dickson.

Like Jennifer Craig, my friend Jean was a nurse who worked in different countries before moving on to  other careers, had a passion for humorous literature, and was a recent guest of Orillia’s Soldier’s Memorial Hospital.  But Jean did not leave alive.
She was in her 87th year.  Her obituary says her death followed a brief illness, and this might have been the way Jean would have described her last days.  But many people with similar experience would say they had been fighting health challenges for close to fifty years.

In the early 1970s, a car accident ended Jean’s nursing days.  So, she turned her mind, spirit and body to other work and to volunteering, specifically in support of the Leacock Medal.  For decades, she served as the Chair of the Awards Committee.  But this title makes a modest description of her contribution to humorous literature and the award.   
When I started digging into the Leacock Medal and the project it embraces, I heard repeatedly that the medal program would not exist today were it not for Jean Dickson’s work and persistence during lean years.

When I drafted the dedication to my book, in fact, I wanted to acknowledge the Leacock Associates in general and key members in particular.  My research produced a list.  But the late broadcaster, historian, and community volunteer Pete McGarvey and Jean were the only ones that survived to publication.  Others  declined to be mentioned because they did not feel they were in the same league as Pete and Jean.  So, the dedication follows their names with  “… and the other members of the Leacock Associates.”
McGarvey’s contributions to charitable and public institutions could warrant a full biography and a separate tribute too.  But Jean has a special place in my heart.
I got to know her through correspondence and phone conversations in the preparation of
my book as well as personal encounters, the last one being at the 2015 award banquet where she presented the medal to Terry Fallis.  By then she was in failing health and living in a senior’s residence in Barrie, but still very keen about humorous literature and the Leacock Medal. 

Knowing that Jean Dickson had had a ringside seat for decades of medal presentations, I mined her memories for material.  She not only attested to key elements of my book, but also gave me a wonderful gift before passing.  Aside from her kind words of support, she flattered me by going to the trouble of engaging a CNIB volunteer to read my book aloud in a series of sessions in her room in Barrie.

This personal tie made me want to use my 2018 blog as a venue to pay tribute to Jean and her army of Leacock Medal volunteers.  As many, if not most, of these people were women, I see the influence of women readers and writers throughout the award’s history. 

So my excuse for not writing my annual blog update to my book until now flows from stewing over the many possible angles: a focus on Jennifer Craig; the three women nominees in 2018; all women short-listed over the history of the medal, or the woman who sustained the medal program and selection process that honoured them.  

Or all of the above, which is what I tried to do here. 




1948 Sarah Binks by Paul G. Hiebert

Story of my copy of Sarah Binks

“The bookshelf at home holds a first-edition, first-printing copy of  the 1948 Leacock Medal winner, Sarah Binks, which I bought from a used-book store in Winnipeg. The store considered it a treasured “old  friend” and sent it to me inside two layers of packaging.”


I made this reference to my copy of Sarah Binks in What’s So Funny? Lessons from Canada’s Leacock Medal for Humour Writing because I thought its physical nature paralleled the content. 

The book that I own was signed by the author, Paul Hiebert, but it also has a notation in the front pages addressed to the original owners, a couple who changed laws and affected the practice of medicine in Canada. In their seventies, they left Canada to work for a decade helping hospitals in Africa. 



So, my copy of Sarah has a story wrapped around it just as Sarah Binks, a poetry collection, has a biography-style narrative wrapped around it. 

The imaginary Sarah writes bad poetry, lots of it, and this ability to produce quantity over quality brings her the Wheat Pool Medal and fictional fame in her native province.
Among “the highest awards . . . ever . . . bestowed upon one of Saskatchewan’s Daughters” and the “highest award in the bestowal of Saskatchewan people,” the Wheat Pool Medal recognizes increased production in unspecified fields and, like crop planting, does so through a rotational system. 


You might laugh at some of Sarah’s quirky poetry in isolation, but that over-the-top, gushing account of her modest life amplifies the humour. 

As the biographer, Hiebert tells us that Sarah’s literary influences include the hired man and a neighbor, Mathilda, the least cross-eyed of the Schwantzhacker sisters. 

He reports with admiration that the Horse-Breeders Gazette and other farm publications profiled her poems and that an agricultural fair honoured her work with the presentation of a horse thermometer.  Sarah dies tragically trying to take her own temperature with the poetry prize. 


          Like all great satire, Sarah Binks invites interpretation. You could even say the book, as a pretend life history that mocks literary awards, won the Leacock Medal for Humour for making fun of the Leacock Medal for Humour.

For more on Sarah Binks and Paul Hiebert go to -



Leacock and Lin - Chinese Humour


“If we could only learn to live our life
 in harmony with the rhythm of nature.
But we will not. We want to run forever in the scorching sun.”  

Lin Yutang


Knowing that I like to study the resident sense of humour when travelling, my friend Jane Tsai said “definitely Lin Yu-tang would be the Chinese author that you are looking for” after I told her I would be going to Taipei in the fall of 2017.

“When I was growing up, he was the revered master of humour in China and Taiwan,” she said. “You should have fun exploring his work.”

Jane pointed me to two of Lin’s books: My Country My People, an attempt to address some myths “Westerners” had about the Chinese, and The Importance of Living, a book that promoted the inherent rationality of human beings. Lin wrote both books in the mid-1930s as those humans swirled toward the brutal irrationality of war.

A Window on Chinese Philosophies

Dr. Lin tried to build a porthole to Oriental mentality and, particularly, the thinkers of the past. Though a scholar with graduate degrees from Leipzig and Harvard, Lin eschewed the label of philosopher and presented himself instead as a humble purveyor of the thoughts of Confucius, Buddha, and others. 

“I often study the joys and regrets of the ancient people,” he said. “As I lean over their writings … (I) see that they were moved exactly as ourselves.”

Lin tells his readers that respect for the  wisdom of the past is a feature of daily Chinese life. This shows in the “the premium  placed upon old age in China” where “it is a privilege of the old people to talk, while the young must listen and hold their tongue.”

Always wrapped in an amiable case for tolerance, Lin’s books pull up many ideas from the past that sparkle with a thoughtful kind of optimism.

“The mature Chinese is always a person who refuses to think too hard or to believe in any single idea or faith or school of philosophy whole-heartedly,” he writes. “Only an insane type of mind can erect the state into a god and make of it a fetish to swallow up the individual’s right of thinking, feeling and the pursuit of happiness.”

In the early 21st century, we might find solace in his suggestion that when a small man “casts a long shadow,” it means the sun is about to set on him and in his hope that as machines assume a bigger role in our world, we will be edging “nearer to the age of leisure, and man will be compelled to play more.”

Taipei Tips on Humour Writing 

Lin also spends a lot of time thinking about the craft of writing, and perhaps because he sought to speak to one culture from a footing in another and to give voice to ancient times today, he stressed the need to keep the perceptions of the audience in mind. He reminds us that writing and reading are acts “consisting of two sides, the author and the reader.”

But as the “scorching sun” comment above suggests, the Professor couples his lessons on writing and scholarly research with a case for finding time to just take it easy, to slow down, to live “in harmony with the rhythm of nature,” and to contemplate life with a smile.  He argued that to achieve brilliance, we need, like good wine, to sit still, let time pass, and mellow.  It occurred to me that this slowing down and taking life in a light-hearted way advice might also be useful in any quest to be a clear thinker and humorous writer.

Amused and intrigued, I wanted to know more and searched for other quotes and biographical material.  I learned that though Lin was born on the Mainland (1865) and died in Hong Kong (1976), he spent the last ten years of his life in Taiwan.  He designed and built a house on the slopes of Yangminshan mountain just north of Taipei, and his body  lies entombed in the garden behind the home. Now known as “Lin Yutang House,” it serves as a library, museum, and education centre open to the public.

Lin and Leacock 

If my trip to Taipei had not been short, work-related, and laden with meetings, I would have made plans to visit Lin Yu-tang House from the outset. 

But when I arrived in Taipei, I learned that a visit to the House would mean walking several miles up winding roads from the closest subway stop. 

I couldn’t see how a visit to the place could fit into my tight four-day schedule and tried to push the idea out of my mind.

But this grew harder and harder to do that evening as I read more of The Importance of Living and particularly when I came upon sections that spoke directly to my interests in the Chinese sense of humour, mused on the craft of humour writing, and, to my surprise  - talked about Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock.  Under the dark clouds of his times, Lin suggests in The Importance of Living that the world’s humorists might be the key to averting war and says that Leacock, in particular, should be called upon to ensure peace.

“Send for instance, five or six of the world’s best humorists to an international conference, and give them the plenipotentiary powers of autocrats,” Lin says. “and the world will be saved.”

He puts Stephen Leacock in the chair of this imagined peace conference explaining the Canadian humorist would win the world over with a general apology for the foibles common to all of humanity, “gently reminding us that in the matter of stupidity and sheer foolishness no nation can claim itself to be the superior of others.”

Lin admired other Western humorists as well. In their writings, he saw the means of tying man’s dreams to the physical world saying while it is important to dream, it was equally important to retain the capacity to laugh at those dreams and integrate them with the realities of life.

Lin did not immediately see a parallel in Chinese literature and even undertook to create his own, original wording to translate the notion of Western humour for the Chinese.  Yet, when describing Chinese culture and its ideal human manifestation, he cites “the happy go lucky, carefree scamp,” and his views and insights on humour and humour writing draw on Chinese philosophy as much as the literature of the West.

In reading these references, I realized that the tangled lines and box-like symbols of Chinese writing make people laugh and feel not in literal meanings but rather in the memories and images that those sounds and words evoke.  Recognizing this, Lin notes that Chinese poets and scholars always gave themselves evocative names, like – Tu Fu (“The Guest of Rivers and Lakes”) and Su Tungp’o (“The Recluse of the Eastern Hillside”) and other names with original meanings like the “Carefree Man of a Misty Lake” and “The Old Man of the Haze-Girdled Tower.”  Single Chinese words can alone compel one to envisage multifaceted acts like walking out into a courtyard after a full meal, staring at the sky, and waiting for the moon to rise. Other words can evoke nuanced images such as a man travelling the world in his imagination while lying in bed.

Knowing that the ancient Chinese poets had access to tools like these, it becomes easier to understand how their work became so powerful and enduring.

A Pilgrimage to the Humorist's Home 

I loved the thinking, the style, and soft wisdom of Lin’s books and decided I had to slip out of my meetings for a few hours and make a to Lin Yutang House.  With the help of a volunteer translator and a fist of New Taiwanese dollars, I arranged with a cab driver to take me up the mountain on the understanding that he would wait while I made a heated tour of the property and home.

As our cab moved through Taipei, it became clear that neither the driver nor the ambient traffic recognized the need to make this a quick trip. Clogged streets in a big Asian city shouldn’t shock, but light rain and slippery pavement slowed everyone a bit on this day, and my driver kept pulling over in the midst of traffic, chatting in Mandarin and pointing out the sites.  I grinned, nodded, and gently waved to keep going.  When he stopped on an overpass and tried to get me to photograph the National Palace Museum, I grew a bit tense, glared, and shook my head.

As we moved on and climbed the mountainside, rounded the wet curves, and looked out on the city, I tried to forget my schedule and relax. Giant, colorful flowers filled the cab, maybe there to offset the smell of smoke in the front and the sweaty tourists in the back, and I pointed my nose toward the pleasant part of the air and thought about Lin Yutang’s counsel.

Spotting his house as we approached, I pulled out my phone, checked my watch, and plotted my hasty tour of the site.  On this drizzly weekday afternoon in October, only a few others were at the site and it took a while to find someone who could sell me a ticket.

Coming back to the counter, I noticed that my cab had disappeared and wondered exactly what the Chinese speaker back in Taipei had actually said to the driver.  

Not sure when he would return and not wanting to run up the fare, I checked out the house as quickly as I could.  The exhibitions do not consume a lot of floorspace.  Arguably, the best part - Dr. Lin’s study - lies immediately to the right of the entrance.  With crammed bookshelves, an old desk and padded chairs, it certainly feels like a philosopher’s thinking chamber. The other rooms display furniture and photos, paintings and sculptures, clothing and personal items. I took pictures with my phone, finished my tour in about fifteen minutes, and again looked out front hoping to see my taxi and wondering if the staff could call another. 

The cab driver didn’t come back for another hour.  During this time, I kept going around the house again and again.  I made three tours of the rooms, checked out the café, and circled the exterior twice. Slowing down a bit more each time, I always noticed something I had missed before, each time appreciating the experience and Lin Yutang a little more.

In his den, I noted the eclectic collection of books, most in Chinese, which I assumed were poetry or philosophy for no other reason than their aged appearance. The books in English were a mix of popular novels, history, and academic works.  I recognized manuscripts of Lin Yutang’s Chinese-English Dictionary, and this seemed to exemplify his role as a bridge between two worlds. 

In the other rooms, I realized that the paintings and calligraphy were actually works done by Lin himself, and when I saw the photos of his wife, I could feel the affection and warmth of life in this home. The glass cases that at first seem an odd, haphazard assortment actually spoke in a thematic way to that blend of thinking, doing, smiling, and relaxing expressed in his books. The variety of pipes, for example, reminded me of Lin’s funny essay on smoking and his tribute to its capacity to relax and induce reflection.

I knew that Dr. Lin had invented, built and sold a Chinese typewriter, the first workable model some suggest, and I had noticed drawings of the device when I first made my tour of the House.  The second time I paused in front of the display and absorbed that this was only one of a number of inventions and that Lin was not merely a tinkerer who built a particular tool for his own trade, but had a creative mind that dipped into many arena.

“Today human progress still consists very largely in chasing after some form or other of lice that is bothering human society,” he said in speaking generally of the process of invention.

I had checked out the courtyard with its waterfall when I first arrived, but now I noticed how it affected the entire home and how most rooms felt its calming influence. It reminded me of the home’s purposeful design as an integrated feature of the natural world.  Built in layers, it starts with the park-like mountainside property rim, followed by the outer walls around the gardens, then the main structure and its rooms, and finally the courtyard in the middle.

“This is the house, in which there is a garden, in which there is a home, in which there are trees, above which is the sky, in which is the moon,” as the Lin Yutang House publicity states.

As I strolled around outside, I noticed the tangle of tree roots and the random rock piles that seemed to flow around the building and embrace it. The property slopes down at the back, and the author’s tomb sits in the gardens below the rear balcony.  It gleams and stands out as a shiny badge in the midst of the green and reminds you that there is something special here even though the rest of the home feels humble, natural, and otherwise unadorned.  

Standing at Lin’s grave for the second time, instead of looking down, I turned to a break in the leafy trees that framed a view of the valley, and immediately, I thought of Lin’s claim that the poorest man on a mountainside lived a richer life than the wealthiest one in the city.  

I knew he must have been looking at this view when he formed those thoughts.

Coming back to the entrance, I saw my smiling cab driver waiting by the entrance.  I went over to him and signaled that I wanted a little more time.  Inside once again, I peered into the only room I had not explored, initially thinking it was an administrative office.  The narrow hall actually holds a reading room, space for lectures and research, and a modest bookstore. I bought a few copies of My Country My People and The Importance of Living as gifts for people I like, and the young guy who sold them to me offered to take my photo outside the house.

He told me to stand in the sun for better light.  I did, but it didn’t feel quite right.

Heading back to town and the blazing sun of meetings and work, I resolved to seek out the shade once in a while, slow down a bit, and align a little with the rhythm of nature, smiling and laughing more. 

“For if this earthly existence is all we have, we must try the harder to enjoy it,” said Lin, a man who often waffled on the subject of religion and blind adherence to beliefs.

Out the cab window rainwater bubbled in streams along the roadside, and I thought about Lin’s ode to “Three laughs at the Tiger Brook,” a story represented by a famous painting in Taipei’s National Palace Museum. The painting shows three religious leaders laughing with the realization they had just passed into tiger territory engrossed in conversation. Their unity in humour and the story came to represent the ideal of harmony among Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism in ancient China and is an enduring symbol of the potential for peaceful co-existence with nature. 

This time as we went onto the highway overpass by the National Museum, I asked the driver to slow down and pull over, and I took a photo.


October 2017

The Nigerian Max Ferguson

Segun Sofowote

(February 2018) I had to cancel a trip to Nigeria this month, and I am wistful for a few reasons.

One comes from not being able to attend my final meeting as a member of the International Council for Science (ICSU) Committee on Freedom and Responsibility in the conduct of Science (CFRS). The CFRS pursues its mandate through advisory-style policy statements, advocacy for scientists whose rights are infringed, and scientific events. The Committee’s session in the Nigerian capital Abuja will be coupled with one such event, a workshop on “Shaping the future of researchers in developing countries.”

A collaboration with the Nigerian Academy of Science and the ICSU Regional Committee for Africa, the workshop would have been an opportunity to contribute to something meaningful, to listen to thoughtful speakers, and to learn. But looking at my resumé and into the mirror, I admit that I would not have brought much to the issue and would have participated more for my own benefit than anything other

Science in the developing world can probably adapt to my absence.

But, on a personal level, I have a harder time knowing that the cancellation of the trip erased a unique opportunity to see my friend Segun Sofowote.

To call Segun an interesting person trivializes his eight decades of life. He is a celebrated actor, poet, playwright, singer, musician, broadcaster, journalist, scholar, and, of import to me, humorist and humour writer. Because I try to learn a bit about the regional sense of humour and humour writing traditions wherever I go, a visit with Segun while in Abuja would have checked this obligation off my list in a simple and enjoyable way.

Mr. Sofowote’s humour credentials include those earned as a founding member of “Nineteen-Sixty Masks," Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka’s acting troupe known for biting political satire in a place that often rewarded critique with imprisonment. The Masks established its reputation for daring with the performance of The Dance of the Forest, a play that mocked Nigeria's political elites, in front of dignitaries gathered to mark the country’s Independence Day in October 1960.

Daughter
My wife Michele and I met Mr. Sofowote a couple of years ago at the Gatineau, Quebec home of a colleague from work, his daughter Loradé. He has children and friends in other places, but he chose to come to Canada to live and to regroup in the wake of his wife’s passing

I was prompted to meet him, not so much by his artistic accomplishments and reputation, but because I was so moved by his country-to-country-to-country, hospital-to-hospital, treatment-to-treatment quest to save his wife’s life.

Funke
Mrs. Motunlayo Adefunke Sofowote – Funke Sofowote – was a singer and performer of a renown that rivalled her husband’s. Funke had thousands and thousands of fans drawn by her talent, but also by her generosity and application of her artistic gifts to fundraising and serving others through her charity the Glowing Channels Foundation. In September 2014, after a long ambulance road trip from Northern Germany, she ended her three-year struggle with cervical cancer inside a Spanish medical facility. She was sixty-seven. Her husband sat at her side, held her hand, and sang softly without rest for over forty-eight hours.

Last fall, after a couple of years rebuilding his emotional will here in Canada, he returned to Nigeria to live with friends, to renew professional acquaintances, and to spend the next phase of life within the embrace of the culture that formed him, continues to celebrate his wife, and better understands his passions.

With the cancellation of my trip this month, I wondered what I could do to connect and synthesize another encounter with Mr. Sofowote. I recalled that his daughter regularly used the video messaging service WhatsApp, that it was inexpensive, and that it was said to be easy. Not too easy though. My Ipod does not have a phone number linked to it and my old Samsung refused to connect so repeated efforts to access the app failed.

I shelved the idea of downloading WhatsApp and instead pulled down what was up on my bookshelf.


I thought I might be able to simulate a meeting with Segun by re-reading Three Tales of the Tortoise, the book that he gave to me shortly after we met.  I remember reading it, smiling, and thinking that it was something unusual and a window on a different culture. But I wasn’t sure I really appreciated the humour.

Segun writes in a very flowery way with extreme kindness and extravagance. His hand-written inscription calls me “One of so few such well-rounded ones to be met anywhere in the world.”

When his daughter left my employ, I tried to make her smile with a pretend letter of reference imitating her father’s style in testimonials like “she graces every room she enters.”  Loradé thanked me politely, pointing out only that I was mistaken in identifying her as a fan of “reggae rock.”  At that point, I realized that majestic courtesy might be a routine feature of Nigerian communication and, once again, that we might have different takes on what is humorous.

Three Tales of the Tortoise is different too. It is a collection of funny fables unlike any stories I have read in Western literature. Segun admitted to me that he twisted the stories around to formats, features, and content that pleased him more than their original forms.

He labelled his book as the “Retold Retouched” versions.

“It’s like a chef using the basic food materials and prescribed ingredients in his own recipe,” he said.

 So, these are fables that are fables of fables.

The first story tells how the Tortoise passes a royal test and gains the right to marry a princess: in fact, the right to marry a few of them. I knew I was reading something different when I came upon the pages calling for the storyteller and book readers to break for songs and drumming and to return to the narrative only when the drums and the singers have had their say.

“You can’t have a good African story without drums,” I learned from Segun.

The second chapter of the book tells a tale at least one, perhaps two or three steps removed from the actual storytelling. It is the story of the telling of the story complete with accounts of people interrupting the inaugural storyteller and with the current narrator questioning his storyteller-protagonist’s original account. The final tale in the book relates the unfolding of a national storytelling contest designed by a king. The storytellers in the competition were challenged to stretch their stories over three complete days with only very minor biology-based breaks. The Tortoise wins with an increasingly tedious tale that features a mouse eating a barn full of corn one kernel at a time.

When I put the book down the first time, I wrinkled my brow and thought that this was different, maybe even a little weird, asking myself “WhatsApp with this?” or words to that effect. I filed this reading experience in the back parts of my brain as a package of sensibilities with few parallels in our uncomplicated Canadian context.

But this week when I broke open the pages of Three Tales of the Tortoise for a second time, I had other knowledge and experience to frame my reading.

A few months after I first read Segun’s book, I gave him a couple of books that I had written. One was a story collection that parodies Machiavelli’s The Prince. The other attempts to delineate a Canadian sense of humour with reviews of all of the winners of our country’s national award for humour writing, the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal. I wasn’t sure how my African friend would react.  Although I like the Leacock Medalists a lot, they have been criticized by some as a compilation of white-bread humour and the veneer on the bland, innocuous, anglo-oriented (non-African) side of Canadian culture.

So, I was a little surprised and confused when Segun told me he had read the book and shared his reaction.

“When I read it, I said to myself – this is my story !” he said.

My first thought was that he must have been talking about a different book.

But Mr. Sofowote explained that my chapter on the 1968 Leacock Medal winning book, And Now … Here’s Max, an autobiography by the late Canadian broadcaster Max Ferguson described an experience he had had around exactly the same time, but in Nigeria. Segun said the parallels were uncanny and undeniable.

My book review covered Ferguson’s account of his early days at CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) radio in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

There he fell into the role of performer rather than announcer when he was told to host a “cowboy” music show called After Breakfast Breakdown. Ferguson told of his distaste for this kind of music. He was embarrassed and decided to cloak himself on air in the persona of "Old Rawhide," an elderly cowboy who ridiculed the music he was playing. To Ferguson’s surprise, Rawhide was a hit. Thousands of listeners believed the character to be real and wrote to CBC requesting photos of Old Rawhide. The program and its host moved to Toronto and the national stage.

Through the 1950s and on, Ferguson, as Rawhide, anchored one of CBC Radio’s most popular programs. Yet, as the Leacock Medal book reveals, he was not paid a cent for his Rawhide work during those glory days. Formally, Ferguson was just a regular CBC staff announcer then and thus paid only for routine on-air duties at union-contract scale. In a circumstance many in government bureaucracies would recognize, CBC management said his job classification would not allow for a raise or any incremental money for this “optional work” though it was for one of the network’s most popular programs. Ferguson decided to test the “optional” nature of the arrangement by staying home. 

With his termination in the works, a CBC executive suggested that he leave his job, become a private sector producer, and provide the Rawhide show to the network as a contractor and non-CBC employee. Ferguson took the advice - and immediately received a fee that was four times his former CBC employee salary.  The deal also gave Ferguson the freedom to move his family back to Nova Scotia and to mock his meal ticket, now as an outsider.

This story and the irony around it have become firmly entrenched in the annals of Canadian broadcast history and are considered as iconic of funny Canadiana.

So, when this elderly West African claimed it as his story, I was unsure.

But I became convinced as Segun slowly described virtually the same experience. We worked  as a staff announcer at the Nigerian national broadcasting agency during the same era as Max Ferguson was playing cowboy music for listeners in Canada. Only in the Nigerian case, the music was Latin American, and to hide himself, Segun assumed the on-air persona of an elderly, crusty Latino that he christened “Fernando Martinez.”

Just like Max Ferguson’s Rawhide, Segun’s Fernando was presumed to be real by thousands and attracted a following for his mix of music commentary and humour. Demand eventually compelled the visibly African Segun to take his imagined Latin American persona on the road in stand-up performances at venues across the continent.  The in-person performances in turn amplified the popularity of the radio program. The position of Fernando as an icon of a nation's sense of humour and a peculiar element of West African culture told hold. Just like Canada’s Rawhide did in our country.

With this knowledge, I thus re-read Three Tales of the Tortoise last week through a different lens, one not distorted with bias or the assumption that it was the product of something foreign and unrelated to Canadian sensibilities.

Michele and SS
Now when I read the opening chapter with the drums, I recalled how African drumming had been recognized by Canadian students of the information age as a sophisticated early form of distance communication, one capable of nuanced messaging including jokes and satire. I now saw the drums and singing as integral to the stories, as adding colourful layers of information, and as embellishments to the humour not disruptions to it.

The second story, the story of the story being told two steps removed, struck me now as something closer to a truth. The challenges from listeners and the narrator’s queries made the tale more believable than a simple, unfettered recounting of a folk tale.

It also made the story a lot funnier.

In the final chapter, the descriptions of a mouse slowly eating kernel after kernel in order to consume a barn of corn now seemed logical and the only way to convey the sense of the story, to describe the reality of the momentous task, and to properly exploit the three-day story format. The process embodies a broad concept and a technique that could enhance writing in any language and in any land.

Closing the book yesterday, it also struck me that Segun’s Tortoise echoed a device used in many of the Leacock Medal books, in the narratives of Indigenous people across Canada, and in stories told throughout the world.

The Tortoise is just another “Trickster” – a character that literary scholars like to analyze and to classify, but has many forms. He can be a she, can be human or animal, can play tricks or be tricked, and can be silly or smart. In whatever guise or role, the Trickster gives writers an outlet to think outside ordained norms, to absorb a different persona, and to comment on society in a mischievous way.

Rawhide and Fernando, Segun Sofowote and Max Ferguson were Tricksters just as much as the Tortoise and were more alike than not.

Album Cover - CD by Daughter Loradé
I will give WhatsApp another try. But whether I connect with Abuja or not, I am going to think of those various Tricksters, what we all have in common, and what we can learn from each other whenever I hear country and western songs, Latin American music, or from my Nigerian friends.