Dorothy Ellen Palmer's novel Kerfuffle uses comedy to reframe the G20 Toronto summit protests
The Ontario author of Kerfuffle spoke with Shelagh Rogers about writing her latest book
Dorothy Ellen Palmer is a writer, accessibility advocate, retired teacher, improv coach and union activist. She serves on the accessibility advisory committee for the Festival of Literary Diversity as well as the Disability Justice Network of Ontario.
Her first novel, When Fenelon Falls, featured a disabled teen protagonist in the Woodstock-Moonwalk summer of 1969. In her memoir, Falling for Myself, Palmer makes a passionate case for disability justice. She was born with congenital anomalies in both feet.
Her new novel Kerfuffle takes us back to 2010 and the G20 protests in Toronto, where a large group of protesters were wrongfully detained. Palmer uses this politically charged backdrop to delve into the lives of five young members of a fictional improv group called kerfuffle.
Palmer spoke with Shelagh Rogers about writing Kerfuffle.
Improv on the page
"I was lucky enough to witness improv by young people for about 20 years, when I ran the only two credit improv courses in high school. And I saw them bring humour to even the most difficult moments. And I wanted to try to figure out if the art I love could be transferred to the page, and I had to learn a number of things.
It was a really interesting artistic challenge, and one that I think the improvisers themselves would have respected.
"Among them, not to step on my own jokes and to try to bring the pacing to life, while also admitting that there were moments that needed explication in a book because it wasn't visual. It was a really interesting artistic challenge, and one that I think the improvisers themselves would have respected."
The fictional Ms. Palmer
"Ms. Palmer in the book is a much better teacher than I was, I would say. I think I wanted to break down that wall between observing theatre and being in theatre, just the way improv itself has what we call 'audience participants' who are playing along in their head or playing along by offering suggestions.
"I wanted the idea that there wasn't going to be a rigid barrier between my life and this book. So I decided, after a bit of hemming and hawing, that I would give the teacher my name."
Writing a role model
"I was in high school when Lives of Girls and Women by Alice Munro came out. That was the first living woman Canadian writer I had ever encountered. So I very much wanted to have the main voice in Kerfuffle be a woman's voice. Secondly, I really wanted to have a disabled character who was funny.
I really wanted to try to break that stereotype by having a disabled character who wasn't just funny in her personal life, but actually that was part of her professional life.
"The trope is that our lives are miserable and we're unhappy, and that there's nothing joyous about the disabled experience.
So I really wanted to try to break that stereotype by having a disabled character who wasn't just funny in her personal life, but actually that was part of her professional life. She worked on stage as somebody in comedy, and there are very, very few disabled people and almost no disabled women in comedy. It was really important to me for Nellie to be that role model."
"I interviewed several of the people that were caged in the old film studio in the east end. I drew on their experiences very heavily because I wanted to try to talk about the details of what that was like. There were also quite a number of police reports and individual reports covered in the media of what it was like to be incarcerated in that building.
There were also quite a number of police reports and individual reports covered in the media of what it was like to be incarcerated in that building.
"Many of the people from the kettle or from the initial set of arrests around Queens Park that day went to that building, and many of those were part of the future lawsuit that was eventually settled for $16.5 million for the 1100 people that were illegally arrested.
"I drew on all of those things to try to make Nellie's experience as one of the incarcerated people there as realistic as possible."
Showing the other side
"When I looked at the protesters I saw my generations of students. I didn't see what the media claimed to see, which was rabble and criminals. There was a vilification of protesters that I thought was an escalation and quite horrific.
"I really wanted to make it clear that the right to protest was the main thing under attack that day. It wasn't those people and it wasn't their ideology. It was the right to protest itself that was under attack and that we have to protect that right all the time.
When I looked at the protesters I saw my generations of students. I didn't see what the media claimed to see, which was rabble and criminals.
"I think I also really wanted to say that in dedicating the book to them, that the struggle continues, that many of the people involved in the Toronto protests were still 12 years later actively involved in their community and good on them. I have great respect for that — someone who devotes that many years of their lives to building change."
Dorothy Ellen Palmer's comments have been edited for length and clarity.