The magic is in the words

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author: quinn bell  a&c  writer

 So many pages / Jeremy Davis

Read, read, and read some more.

On Tuesday, I got the chance to attend a reading by acclaimed local author Ven Begamudré as part of the Readings by Contemporary Canadian Writers series. After helping myself to free food and tea, I found my way to an old and way-too-comfy seat. Initially distracted by a guest who was laughing about us sitting on the bridge of a Star-Trek ship, I realized I hadn’t yet looked for the author. There: he sat quietly at the front of the room, not moving or speaking with anyone. He just sat, appearing content, looking down at the table in front of him. To be honest, I was a little worried as to how the evening would go. Already slouching in a comfy lecture seat after a full day of classes, I wasn’t sure if I’d make it through a sleepy book reading.  

Begamudré would be reading from his ninth and newest novel, Extended Families: Journeys in Time and Place. Built on a backbone of journal entries from a trip he made back to India from Canada when he was 21, Extended Families blends subjective non-fiction with prose poetry, old family photos, and funny fictional retellings of his family memoirs. After being introduced, Begamudré briefly described himself as a mystic-realist writer, and warned us that his novels contain “a fair amount of magic.” He would later share some advice from his MFA supervisor, which has stuck with me for the past few days: “the magic is in the words.” He was pointing out that authors need not always fill their stories with actual magical elements in order for them to seep magic. Language itself is magic; words are power.  

As he read, I realized that Begamudré’s words really are steeped in magic. While my earlier intuition was right (the author’s presentation was not the most animated one I’ve seen), I was still drawn into the world he painted almost immediately. Whether it was the largely unedited opinions of his 21-year-old self-commenting on the latrines of India’s trains, or the funny and chaotic memories he shared of when he was just a toddler, Begamudré’s storytelling hooked me. At one point, the author began singing a lewd military song about “syphilitic British pricks” — that was a surprise! We all had a great laugh. Begamudré giggled too, a broad smile breaking over his face. It was a magical moment. 

There’s also a bit of magic in how Begamudré writes. He explained to us that he begins his projects by hand, writing and re-writing the first paragraph until he’s happy with it. Finally, he’ll move it on to the computer and type away — only then will he know what genre it is. He doesn’t even always know whether it will be fiction or non-fiction; it might even become poetry. “The words write themselves,” he said. “They decide for themselves what they want to be.” The reader or listener also has a say in what it is. if they want to believe that a story is true or that non-fiction is really poetry, Begamudré wants them to believe that. He allows these to blur together, and it’s both refreshing and challenging. He told one story on Tuesday about a relative who apparently looked like a bit like Gandhi. Begamudré crafted a tale about this relative where a whole community mistakes him for Gandhi and treats him as such, even though he’s a rather harsh and impatient man. I can just imagine some kid in the future coming across this story about his great-uncle and believing it to be true. For now, it’s just a funny story. 

There’s one more magic thing about Begamudré’s newest book: the format. He described it as being “like a Blu-Ray disk or DVD” (it even comes with a bonus features section at the end, and it’s actually called that!). The book can be read in any order you like, and one can jump around from episode to episode and not worry about the timeline. All the same, in whatever order you read the memoirs, there is a narrative to follow. We all had a taste of that at the reading. Begamudré jumped around Extended Families, and yet I never felt disconnected from his stories. I can’t wait to read the rest of the book. 

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