Searching for Swag in Montreal

Me at the Blue Metropolis International Literary Festival in Montreal

Me at the Blue Metropolis International Literary Festival in Montreal

So my 17 year old son asked me, with all the irony he could muster, “Mom, which value is more important to you: YOLO or swag?”

If you’re over 25 and this question makes no sense, that’s exactly how it should be.  This is the current youth lexicon at work, reminding – or warning – us older people that we aren’t the sole proprietors of our language.  However, as the beloved parent of generous teenagers I’m given a pass in a few areas of youth culture including permission to know the meaning and social function of words like YOLO and swag.  Thanks, boys.

I won’t define YOLO here like the old sociologist dork I truly am (and as if there’s no Google).  It’s just a simple acronym anyways.  Swag is more complicated.  It’s concrete and ephemeral at the same time.  It can be stuff, but not stuff.  It arises from what’s inside and outside.  It comes and it goes.  What’s swag on one person may be sad or silly on another.  Sometimes the very best swag comes from the most humble sources.  There’s irony and self-consciousness in swag.  And it descends differently upon everyone.

Follow any of that?  I know, it reads like old theology – swag is invisible, uncreated.  It can be a bit of a riddle. Just ask my 35 year old friend Christi who’s been trying to use the word “swag” appropriately in conversation with teenagers since the New Year.  It’s a process of trial and error but don’t worry, she’s got swag enough to keep trying and will pull it off eventually.

I can use the word swag but that doesn’t mean I can command swag itself.  Sometimes I worry I’ve never had it — especially when I’m doing my writer-thing out in public.

If anyone wants to know what I mean when I talk about good writer swag, I recommend a look at the Blue Metropolis International Literary Festival in Montreal.  It’s a gathering of writers, publishers, media, and book lovers from all over the world held annually in one of the great cosmopolitan cities of my country.  The festival is peopled with top literary talent – and me.  Believe it or not, I was given spots at three of the festival’s venues this spring.

With a gig like that, it was time to stop being awe-struck and turn on the swag.

Rightly or wrongly, I believe my best hope for swag begins with boots.  I packed a couple pairs and headed off on a cross-country flight, alone.

My first impression of Montreal was that the city is serious about Canada’s second (or first, depending on who’s asked) official language: French.  I knew most people in Montreal can speak both English and French but I didn’t realize Montrealers’ default is French.  I also didn’t realize how profoundly my French has atrophied since I left eastern Canada twentysomething years ago.

My first Montreal venue: the Atwater Library

When I was a high school student in Nova Scotia, I spoke French all the time – horrible French.  I understood it was bad and did not care.  The badness was part of the sport.  What I lacked in ability I made up for with confidence, enthusiasm and – wait for it – swag.  That bad-French swag is now history and I’m left with my sheepish grownup French – stressing out over masculine and feminine nouns.  At least I still have the comprehension to tell the nice lady asking me to donate blood in the street “Non merci.”  And by the time I left the city I was comfortable enough to be using my natural Acadian quack for “oui” again.

No matter how stupid I sounded, I loved the city.  I went to galleries, cathedrals, museums, and got to debut by reading my novel to a crowd at an old library.  At my publisher’s festival event, I witnessed the gorgeous writer-swag of some of my fellow Linda Leith Publishing authors.  As always, they astounded me.  They’re multi-lingual, well-traveled, well-educated, and each of them writes like a house on fire.  Even the new non-fiction book all about the prostate gland sounded amazing when I heard the doctor who wrote it presenting it at the festival.  Set on a sheltered patio, our party was everything I fantasized it would be.

I was set to appear late in the English portion of the programme.

Want swag even in death? You want a saint’s burial in a French-Canadian Catholic Church.

“Come on, Jenny.  Think swag.  Last winter the Montreal Gazette called your novel the ‘stand-out’ of this company.  Swag!”

I still don’t know if it was swag or not but I got up on stage and nodded to my misfit-ness in the Linda Leith Publishing stable of writers.  Unlike the others, I speak one language, have one degree, and have lived my whole life on one continent.  “But I have the same heart as everyone else,” I said, “and my heart is in this book.”

It wasn’t a confession or an apology.  It was more like bragging.  To be at the Blue Metropolis International Literary Festival with Linda Leith Publishing, I have to punch above my weight class.  There’s no shame in that.  It’s as if something has triggered a special dispensation.  The rules have been waived and I’ve been let into something I would normally have no right to approach.  It’s as if there’s something intangible about me and my work that lets me get away with this beyond all reason.

Must be swag after all.

I don’t know this woman but I do adore her.

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