Graduates must take the time to explore the world unchained from modern technologies, Jane Urquhart, one of Canada’s best loved authors, said at the Friday afternoon session of Western’s 304th Convocation.
Urquhart spoke to graduates from the faculties of Arts & Humanities, Education, Information and Media Studies, Law, Science, Social Science and the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry.
Western conferred an honorary Doctor of Letters, honoris causa (DLitt) upon Urquhart in recognition of her distinguished career as a writer.
Fittingly, Urquhart’s advice to graduates came by way of a story.
Some 15 years ago, she found herself in a mountainous region in Ireland, in a cottage with no telephone or dependable source of electricity. A book she had ordered had arrived at an independent bookshop two hours away, and a postman delivered her a letter to advise her to pick it up.
The journey to get the book, on winding, remote roads, was treacherous and long, she said, with two mountain passes en route and an “unpredictable number of animals” along her path. Urquhart stopped to explore every so often, wandering through the ruins and unadulterated landscapes of “life-threatening beauty.”
“Valuable things happened on the road. First, I was browsing, getting out of the car, peering into waterfalls, stopping for sheep. I would recommend that you browse, and not the browser on your phone or computer. The trouble with browsers on your computer is, most of the time, we know what we’re looking for,” Urquhart said.
“The things most meaningful to my work and my life have come when I’ve just been wandering through.”
For more than 20 years, Urquhart has been recognized as a skilled wordsmith in a wide variety of literary genres and subjects. She has written a collection of short stories, Storm Glass, four collections of poems, including one that combines two earlier chapterbooks, Some Other Garden, and eight novels.
Among her internationally acclaimed works is The Stone Carvers, a novel which was a finalist for The Giller Prize and the Governor General’s Award. It was longlisted for the Booker Prize. In 1992, The Whirlpool became the first Canadian novel to win France’s Best Foreign Book Award. Her national bestseller, Away, won the Trillium Book Award in 1993. In 1997, her fourth novel, The Underpainter, won the Governor General Award.
Urquhart has received the Marian Engel Award and the Harbourfront Festival Prize and is an Officer of the Order of Canada and a Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in France.
“The breadth and depth of her work is staggering, and it is everywhere marked by a deep and empathetic understanding of Canada’s past and its people, be they the country’s early writers and artists, its Irish immigrants and settlers, or the carvers of the Vimy Ridge Memorial, a group to whom only her historical imagination, her painstaking research, and her beautifully chiselled prose could have done justice,” said English professor David Bentley in his citation.
“It is almost impossible in the cramped space of a citation to convey a sense of what makes Jane Urquhart’s novels so extraordinary. The 18th century poet and playwright John Dryden once credited imaginative writers the gift of moving ‘the sleeping images of things towards the light.’ Jane Urquhart’s luminous and painterly novels certainly do that, but I think they do much more,” he continued.
What they do accomplish, Bentley added by way of Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, is transcendent. Her works linger in our minds and connect us to something that is simultaneously dreamlike and tangible, something that is both ‘away’ and wonderfully, here.
“It is often true that we find what we need when we don’t know what were looking for, or even that we are looking at all,” Urquhart added, noting it is also important to have the privilege of unstructured time, something not easily accessible in our day-to-day lives.
If you see opportunity for unstructured time and self-education, observation and reflection, take it, she urged. This was the point of her journey down mountainous roads, a time she credits for acquainting her intimately with the world around her.
“I believe we must not lose our affection, our love for the real landscapes of the world, not the landscapes we look up on Google, but the real earth under our feet. We need to learn it, and love it. If we don’t keep on working on our relationship with the perceived world, the planet, we won’t care enough to protect it, and it needs protecting,” she said.
“Take your time – every now and then – throw the time table away and let life happen to you. Go to a bookstore, browse, stumble off into strange unknown landscapes, take detours, learn to love the real and perceived world, protect the planet. Enjoy the adventure of self-education for the rest of your life and keep your curiosity alive.”