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Alumni Interviews: Happiness is the road

Photo of: Charlie ForanBorn and raised in Toronto, Charlie Foran (BA 1983 English and Celtic Studies, St. Mike’s) is a writer, teacher and human rights advocate. He has published 11 books of fiction, non-fiction and journalism, among them the multiple award-winning biography of Mordecai Richler, Mordecai: The Life and Times, a collection of travel and literary essays, Join the Revolution, Comrade, and in 2014 the novel Planet Lolita, which explores the disquiet of the digital age in Asia. He has also made radio documentaries for the CBC program Ideas and co-wrote the Gemini-award-winning TV documentary Mordecai Richler: The Last of the Wild Jews. A past president of PEN Canada, he is a senior fellow at Massey College and a member of the Order of Canada. In January 2015, he was appointed the CEO of the Institute for Canadian Citizenship (ICC).

Looking back at your undergraduate years at U of T, what would you say was your most transformational educational experience?

I loved everything about my four years at U of T. Most of all, I loved how the entire campus was a learning and experiencing opportunity. For every lecture I attended in a course I was actually enrolled in, I likely attended another lecture, or saw a play, or heard music, for reasons related to my then inchoate need to start the process of wrapping my arms around the world. The campus was endless, boundless, one more thing to learn, to experience. It never ran out of energy. It never stopped offering me the chance to be less small and ignorant, less confused and alone. It never stopped unfolding the great mystery and joy of the human world.

At the macro level, what I loved most at U of T were brilliant old-school lecturers who crafted one-hour or 90-minute talks that opened my mind, and often blew it away. I’ll name just one: Professor Julian Dent of the Department of History, whose intro course to European history was a theatrical, transformative thrill.

After graduating from the University College in Dublin, you spent a few years teaching in China and Hong Kong, and, more recently, Irish literature here at your alma mater. As a writer, what is the draw of teaching?

Teaching in China, especially an early period my wife and I spent in Beijing, was wonderfully protean and new, near uncharted waters for my young Western mind and self. Every encounter, every exchange, in class or out in the city, was happily destabilized, positively challenging, a good, healthy risk to my own preconceptions and limited, parochial understandings.

Teaching is direct contact and conversation. It involves exchange, negotiation and reciprocity, two-way communication. Writing, in contrast, is one-way: you send the work out, and aside from a few personal responses from readers, hear little more about it. The exchange, the negotiation, is then between the book and the reader, with the author merely a name on the spine, maybe a photo. Teaching is the happy inverse — all sociable, all real people. The older I get, the more I crave that kind of encounter.

You were recently appointed CEO of the Institute for Canadian Citizenship (ICC), a non-profit charity, founded by U of T alumna the Rt. Hon. Adrienne Clarkson and John Ralston Saul, whose aim is to accelerate new citizens’ integration into Canadian life and to encourage all citizens to embrace active citizenship in their daily life. Why did you take the job?

I took the job for a couple of reasons. The institute has ambitions to develop a bold thought leadership dimension in Canadian society and beyond. That interests and excites me. The ICC already embodies much about our nation that I admire most: inclusivity, belonging, a deep instinct for how Canada is perpetually ‘becoming,’ rather than just ‘being,’ itself, a unique and vital conception of nationhood, and one well suited to succeed in the 21st century. What we were already doing as an institute, coupled with what we are planning to do, proved irresistible, and I am honoured to have been asked to lead it.

What do you see as the big challenges facing new Canadians and how will the ICC address them?

New Canadians have their challenges, of course, real, on-the-ground ones: how to find footing for themselves and their families, how to nurture their talents and opportunities, how to belong and participate. Of equal importance, to me at least, is the challenge our perpetually evolving society poses to ‘old’ Canadians. That would be to remain collectively open and welcoming, alert to the pleasing reality that Canada is, and forever has been, the sum of its newcomers. They are us, we are them. Better, we are One, and are far stronger for it. A parallel challenge for that ‘One’ is to recognize our First Nations as original residents of the land, and never forget that the ‘equation’ of belonging outlined above must be truly inclusive.

Is it a case that “all the roads you’ve taken have led you here”?

It’s hard to say for sure how exactly the continuous past informs the daily present. It’s easy to say that it does, obviously. Good news if that past is congruent with the present, in the broad sense of values and passions and what keeps you humble and fully alive.

At first blush, it may seem I’ve stepped away from being a writer and teacher to run a small NGO. On reflection, the two occupations are in harmony. They are about thinking and communicating and formulating ideas and pressuring those ideas into good public conversations, themselves aimed at positive change.

It’s true that a lot of my writerly work, starting back at U of T, has circled around notions of belonging and place: how things build up, how they fall apart, in the context of social and political upheaval, in the context of stressed individual lives. It’s true too that I published a short story in 1985 called “Boat People,” about Vietnamese refugees struggling to get by in Toronto. I was barely 25, and had already lived in Ireland for graduate school, and was soon off first to the United States for three years, and then to Beijing for two years. Now, in 2015, I am typing out these thoughts at the ICC offices at Spadina and Dundas, in the heart of the Toronto neighbourhood where the Vietnamese family in that story likely lived. In between the two experiences lie 10 years of living abroad, 11 published books, about a dozen relocations, two grown children, one long happy marriage. Definitely the same road!

Anyways, there is no road to contentment or happiness: contentment and happiness must forever be the road you are on, Grasshopper. (Sorry, ‘70s pop culture reference, likely obscure to most.)

You’ve been a vocal defender of free expression, as a fundamental human right, notably as president of PEN Canada. When you look at the world today, what do you see as the biggest threat to free expression — and why should Canadians be concerned?

Freedom of expression isn’t faring too well in 2015. More and more of the planet lives within nation-state borders where that most fundamental of liberties, the freedom that allows all the others, has either never been properly granted, or else has lost footing in recent years. Worse, there are trans-national movements of alarming force which will not countenance free speech. These forces range from the violent and provincial, such as the ghastly medievalists bannered under the Al-Qaeda/ISIL insurgencies, to the more corrosive and insidious, such as the growing acceptance in the West of surveillance on the Net and the parallel abandonment of privacy rights — rights thefts often justified, ironically enough, by security ‘concerns’ emerging from the post-9/11 rise of radicalism. Finally, there is China, a nation whose economic surge over the past three decades, all done without giving an inch to freedom of expression, is modeling a nasty 21st-century paradigm: ‘success’ and ‘stability’ without respecting human rights. Take your pick of which is most concerning but please do be concerned. Freedoms are much easier lost than regained.

You participated as an alumnus in the Backpack to Briefcase (b2B) mentorship event for English. What advice did you have for the students there who wanted to know what they can do with their English degree after graduation?

A degree in the humanities at U of T is no small achievement. At the b2B dinner I was astounded by how eloquent and poised and informed were the students. For argument’s sake, let’s declare those extraordinary young people the beneficiaries of how the humanities open us up to great traditions, great individual achievement, to the deepest, most enduring monuments from history. Let’s declare any employer who wishes his or her company to be staffed by alert, culturally-informed young people a fool not to want to hire a U of T graduate. Good companies know better, especially now, with digital literacy a low skill, easily obtained, but ‘analogic’ literacy — i.e. the great sea of learning and knowledge we stepped out of, as a society, some years ago, for reasons we now can’t clearly recall — a subtle but expansive skill set.  Which would you want in an employee?

But I don’t want to end with a banal pro-job argument. I want to end on the idea of how to keep being a human, in the sense of a freely thinking, feeling and acting being, one engaged with both the Private Conscience and the Public Age. My experience has been that the most successful humans are those who have wedded what they love, what they value, with what they do each and every day. They don’t only walk with their heads held high but with their hearts open and their minds in a happily restless state of ease. They never stop learning how to ‘be’ because there is no road to happiness: there is only the happiness of the road you are presently on. If you’ve taken a degree in English or history or philosophy at U of T, you are probably in love with the best stuff humans have had to offer. You really can’t go wrong.