In Conversation with Julie Salverson
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 28/01/2017 (2138 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Kingston-based essayist and playwright Julie Salverson was an anti-nuclear activist for most of her adult life.
In her 40s, she was starting to lose faith in activism when she got a call from a colleague, academic Peter C. van Wyck. He suggested they collaborate on a project that traced the uranium used in the bombs dropped on Horoshima and Nagasaki back to a Dene community in northern Canada.
The project took Salverson and van Wyck from the shores of the Great Bear Lake to New Mexico and then Japan and resulted in Salverson’s memoir, Lines of Flight: An Atomic Memoir.
Salverson will be in Winnipeg on Feb. 2, reading from Lines of Flight at McNally Robinson.
FP: What do you want people to know about Lines of Flight?
JULIE SALVERSON: Readers tell me they can’t put the book down, until they keep putting it down — they want to absorb and think about it. This makes happy! I wanted the hugeness of life to be experienced on the page. It’s a kind of everyperson story of being a witness to the world: how do we respond to what’s difficult and cherish what’s beautiful? Stay awake without going to Disneyland or buying a gun. With the Trump’s talk about nuclear weapons and the deep divisions over how to live, the book tries to imagine a future that acknowledges the past but isn’t shackled to it.
FP: You call Lines of Flight “an atomic memoir.” Can you explain what that means?
JS: There are two storylines. One is me following the path of Canadian uranium, the other my experience growing up with alcoholic parents, navigating the explosions in my childhood, becoming a peace activist trying to save the world and hitting a wall. The book starts when I stumble on a secret corner of atomic history I’m not sure I have the right to tell. In 1998, the Sahtúgot’ine Bear Lake people, North West Territories, sent a delegation to Hiroshima to apologize to the survivors of the atomic bomb. Until then, this community didn’t realize the uranium ore mined on their land was used in the research for, and the deployment of, the first atomic weapons. I took up this story because I needed to show my respect and to understand what it meant for these people — also victims — to go beyond the call of duty and take on that level of responsibility and reconciliation. I also needed to find my own voice and connection to an event not evidently mine. My journey of discovery took 10 years and made me face the inescapable half-life of my childhood secrets.
FP: Tell me about your Winnipeg granny, the writer Laura Goodman Salverson. She was the first woman to win the GG and she did it twice, for a novel in 1937 and a memoir in 1939. What did she teach you?
JS: When I visited my grandparents on weekends, LG (as she was called) would sit me on her knee and show me photographs from all over the world. She taught me curiosity and showed me there was a big world out there. I was eventually forbidden to visit them. This was a terrible loss.
FP: Tell me about your collaboration with Peter C. van Wyck. Is your Lines of Flight a fraternal twin to his The Highway of the Atom?
JS: Yes, that’s a great way of putting it. Peter is the person who first told me about the Dene apology and the uranium — he had seen Peter Blow’s documentary Village of Widows… We (Peter Virgil and I) went into the dark woods together and found light. We went to Fukushima last year, and we often read publicly together, a kind of oral duet. Peter describes what we do with a phrase I love: friendship as methodology.
FP: What are you reading right now? What are you writing right now?
JS: I just finished Wallace Stegner’s gorgeous novel Angle of Repose, a perspective on settlers in the 1870s that is complex and valuable to read at this moment, as we respond to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I’m writing a book connected to my father, George Salverson, who was a CBC radio and television writer. In 1962, he flew around the world shooting a documentary on world hunger. I’m following his path, with a mix of fiction and non-fiction. Wish me luck!
Ariel Gordon is a Winnipeg writer. Her mother, Karin Gordon, was a radiation safety officer.