Drive-by Saviours
  • Published by Roseway
  • Paperback ISBN: 9781552663691
  • Paperback Price: $19.95 CAD
  • Publication Date: Sep 2010
  • Rights: World
  • Pages: 352

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Drive-by Saviours

Chris Benjamin

Chris Benjamin masterfully, magically weaves together the seemingly disconnected worlds of Mark, a failed social-worker-turned-unhappy-grant-writer coming to the end of an even unhappier relationship, and Bumi, an Indonesian illegal immigrant on the run from his past and the ocd that dogs his present. Their chance encounter on a Toronto subway launches them on a complicated friendship that allows both men to finally confront the demons in their pasts and to find the hope in their futures.
 — Stephen Kimber, author of Reparations

Chris Benjamin’s debut novel is part contemporary fiction, part social commentary and part kick-in-the-ass storytelling. Although refreshingly unique in its portrayal of Indonesia’s cultural landscape, with its universal themes of greed, betrayal, family and redemption, Drive-by Saviours transcends both time and place. Through weaving Bumi’s tenacity with Mark’s ennui, Benjamin skillfully elucidates how globalization entangles us all in an artificially exploitive web and how escape can only be found through creating genuine bonds, those that deeply connect us one to another.
— Carla Gunn, author of Amphibian

 

Demoralized by his job and dissatisfied with his life, Mark punches the clock with increasing indifference. He wanted to help people; he’d always believed that as social worker he would be able to make a difference in people’s lives. But after six years of bureaucracy and pushing paper Mark has lost hope.

 All that changes when he meets Bumi, an Indonesian restaurant worker. Moved from his small fishing village and sent to a residential school under the authoritarian Suharto regime, Bumi’s radical genius and obsessive-compulsive disorder raise suspicion among his paranoid neighbours. When several local children die mysteriously the neighbours fear reaches a fevered pitch and Bumi is forced to flee to Canada. 

 Brought together by a chance encounter on the subway, Mark and Bumi develop a friendship that forces them to confront their pasts. Moving gracefully between Canada and Indonesia and through the two men’s histories, Drive-by Saviours is the story of desire and connection among lonely people adrift in a crowded world.

 

 

Drive-by Saviours Trailer on YouTube

Drive-by Saviours on MySpace

Chris Benjamin’s website

Drive-by Saviours on Facebook

 

About the Author

Chris Benjamin stumbled from Nova Scotia’s suburban badlands at the bewildered age of 21 years, clutching a hard-earned Marketing Communications degree from Dalhousie University. He has since been a market analyst in Waterloo, a forestry officer in St. Lucia, a farm worker in British Columbia, an environmental consultant in Indonesia, a researcher in Indonesia—-he published a summary of his work there with the University of Waterloo Press—-a hitchhiker across North America, an advocate for new Canadians in Toronto, a reclusive novelist in Finland, a reluctant train tourist in Russia, Mongolia, China and Japan, a journalist in Ghana, and an environmental lobbyist in Nova Scotia.

Sometime along the way he picked up a Master’s degree in Environmental Studies from York University and a small grant from the Toronto Arts Council to write this novel, which won the Percy Prize for best novel in the Atlantic Writing Competition. Chris has been a freelance writer throughout and has published hundreds of news stories, features, essays, and editorials in various anthologies, newspapers, magazines, and online publications.  He is now the Sustainable City Columnist for The Coast weekly newspaper in Halifax. Chris has written fiction and features for The Toronto Star, VoicePrint Canada, This Magazine, Now Magazine, Descant, Nashwaak Review, Pottersfield Press, Rattling Books, the University of Waterloo Press, Z Magazine, Briarpatch Magazine, The Chronicle Herald, Progress Magazine, The Maritime Policy Review, and many others. He lives with his wife and little boy in a house owned by two cats in Halifax, Nova Scotia. 

 (photo: Molly Crealock)

Excerpt

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Reviews

American Book Review

 One of the most famous opening lines of US postmedern fiction is “–Money...? in a voice that rustled.” Chris Benjamin, born the year J R (1975) came out, begins Drive-by Saviours with the birth of one of his two main male characters, Bumi, in Rilaka, a seemingly ficional island in Indonesia. “From the beginning Bumi’s eyes pierced harder than any other’s, glowering while his father forced him to try football, glowing brightly at the chance to help the man count market money from mainland fish sales. By age four he’d humbled his father by becoming a faster and more accurate bookkeeper.” Like JR Vansant, Bumi is an apparent innocent and he doesn’t find the “sandy paradise” of his island nearly as interesting as numbers, languages, and engineering. He invents a fishing net so that his father, Yusupu, can spend less time at sea and more time with him. “The lighter workload and greater cash flow that came [the fishermen’s] way...resulted not in more play time with his father, but less,” and with time to kill, the men drink more. Things become difficult for Bumi, his mother, Win, and his mentally challenged sister, Alfi, as their father changes, just as life on Rilaka does. The lesson, unlearned by Bumi, is that innovation, if not accompanied by sufficient thought about its ramifications, can lead to troubling social and domestic problems. 

Further changes come in the young boy’s life when Indonesia’s dictator-president, Suharto, sees “ a chance to get some easy money from the World Bank,” as one mentor tells Bumi, by enacting a policy to better educate the population. Benjamin prioritizes the effects: “Rilaka was hard hit by this development and the new needs it created. Twenty percent of the labour force was to be siphoned away like overpriced gas, the twenty percent that ate the least. And with Bumi’s departure they would lose their top engineer, bookkeeper and translator. But all these losses were nothing compared to the departure of fifteen children aged six to eleven years.” Maybe the villagers feel that way, but Benjamin underlines the economic impact. From the first pages, he establishes a narrative in which people are objects that can be moved around, disposed of, and treated as commodities. Under the auspices of enlightenment, education, like commerce, is an insturment of oppression.

A sizable part of the novel has chapters that alternate between showing Bumi as he grows up, gets married, becomes a father, and gets into serious trouble, and the adult life of Mark, a social worker in Toronto, Ontario, who is married to a model, estranged from his family, and afraid  of much that life has to offer. Where Bumi is the spark, the person who creates opportunities through his precocious intelligence, Mark is the grump who states, “I was content when I was twenty-five years old.” He can only fall from here. He has little connection with the clients he sees: “They gave me the Coles Notes version of all their problems and I made suggestions, like a drive-by saviour.” His one talent is writing grant proposals that put a sheen of respectability on this eleemosynary activity. Though separated by thousands of miles, he and Bumi are connected by an ability and interest in finance that results in benefits primarily for others.

It doesn’t spoil anything to say that Bumi winds up in Toronto and both characters meet. Well before this,the reader will have recognized from Bumi’s rituals, constant washing, and other indicators that he has OCD, though in Indonesia it appears he’s practicing black magic. Mark manages, in one of his few succesful interventions, to get him to a doctor so he can learn that he’s not alone in his illness, and that there are medicaitons and ways to control his thinking and behaviour. Mark also realizes that his sister Michelle, who he hasn’t talked to for some time, must have suffered from the same condition since they were children. He reaches out to her, and their relationship is one that Bumi and his sister can’t have. We’re given a sustained look at how Bumi operates under his condition, but, wisely, not so much what Michelle goes through. This neat parallelism could threaten to turn the novel into the equivalent of those malady-of-the-moment books. After seeing an Oprah Winfrey show about OCD, she recognizes she’s not the only one suffering from it:

”Standing on the roadside before a milelong stretch of impatient authomobiles with her stop sign held loosely in hand, Michelle wondered about all those undiagnosed geniuses in prisons, on streets or trapped in lonely nightmares throughout the world. She wondered if they had their own version of Oprah to diagnose them. She doubted it. She wondered how the world would look if they did.”

This almost bland moment is immediately overturned when the “loosely held stop sign flip[s] around in her hand,” allowing traffic to flow both ways at a road construction site. In the bureaurcratic parlance Benjamin occasionally mimics, she’s “laid off due to insufficient funds.” OCD is taken seriously but he keeps his distance, keeping away from sensationalism or mawkishness. 

Outside of Mark’s interpretation of her, Michelle is not given much depth beyond her OCD and her lesbianism, while Mark, adept at being selfish, rarely  engages one’s sympathies. Greater, or more natural, energy is put into Bumi and the picture of Indonesia, based on Benjamin’s worldwide travels and an interest in social justice. Here, his references to perhaps indonesia’s best-known and banned writer, Pramoedya Ananta Toer (1925-2006), are nicely done, and he’s careful to let his anger come out in his themes. Mark’s girlfriend, Sarah, and Michelle are somewhat underdeveloped, and the policeman, Robadise Paradise is a stock figure, as are others. But that strikes me as deliberate. Instead of placing characters at the forefront, Benjamin has chosen to write a roman à thème
(though more subtle than that often implies) to get us to think about immigration (legal and illegal), authoritarian  rules, monetary and social policies, from a political standpoint. This is meant to clash with the omnipresent theme of commerce, as when we’re reminded here and there that “cold hard cash” is what’s needed to free Bumi from his obligations, and for other purposes. 

Some people may prefer books with less social content. Paul West addressed this in the first volume of Sheer Fiction (1987) when he wrote about the “anti-style rabble” who, among other targets, dislike writing that ventures, heaven forbid, into areas not ‘traditional’ to the novel, such as science, instead of the ups and downs of little people with mortgaes and fireplaces that leak smoke.” Chris Benjamin has chosen legitimate and important subjects for his first novel, whose ending allows limited hope for positive change. Bumi, in Rilaka, composes a letter at the end of every month. “He sits down in the moonlight and, inspired by the constant rhythim of the waves,” Mark says, “writes me his latest symphony.” For Bumi, the commerce has been replaced by a form of peace with the world; as for Mark, who now works for Mexico, it remains an open question how he’s doing.–Jeff Bursey, American Book Review, July-August 2011, Volume 32, Number 5

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Drive-by Saviours Worth Stopping For

One of my favourite things about living in Halifax, N.S. is that the writing community is a manageable size and in my experience, overwhelmingly supportive. I do my bit by occasionally reading a book by a local author and that was my main motivation behind purchasing Drive-by Saviours by fellow Haligonian Chris Benjamin. I’d also been following Chris on Twitter and while we’ve never met, we’ve had brief on-line conversations that led me to expect he would be a thoughtful and articulate writer. He is, and so much more.

Drive-by Saviours is the type of debut novel I’d like to write–ambitious, impactful and sweeping. It boldly creates characters that are flawed yet sympathetic, and a plot that is unpredictable, tragic and hopeful. Rarely does a book feature strong characters and plot, one usually coming at the expense of the other, but this book has them both in equal doses.

One of the two main characters, Bumi, grows up in Rilaka, a small Indonesian fishing island. As part of Suharto’s educational reforms, Bumi is forced from his home into a city school where he is expected to forget his peasant upbringing and accept a highly censored curriculum without question. Bumi is incredibly bright and rebellious, traits that prohibit his immersion into this new culture and continually land him in trouble.

 

The other main character, Mark, is a young social worker living in Toronto during the 2003 blackout that left the city without power for several days during an August heat wave. The blackout profoundly affects how Mark sees and relates to his fellow citizens. As I, too, lived in Toronto at that time, I found the descriptions of how people interacted during the blackout totally accurate and insightful. Chris’s writing about it and his observations about multicultural Toronto in general are so astute I felt (and rather wished) I’d written them myself.

 

I struggled initially with Bumi’s storyline and was confused by some of the Indonesian names and political events of the time. In the early chapters I yearned to stay with Mark’s story. It focused on the paralyzing stasis of his relationship with his girlfriend, Sarah, and his work. The further I got into the book, however, the more I yearned to read about Bumi. His struggles were with demons real and imagined, while Mark’s were more with a lurking discontentment that seemed self-indulgent when contrasted with Bumi’s problems. It took a long time for these two characters to meet but as expected, they had profound influence upon one another once they did and for me, that’s when the book became exciting.

 

While the second half felt more rushed than the first, overall the writing is well paced in that it moved the story forward but paused when necessary to paint a picture or evoke a feeling. The tale is sad but it’s a beautiful melancholy. The author ambitiously weaved many important social issues into the story and managed to present them in sufficiently informed and respectful ways.

 

Drive-by Saviours proved to me yet again that when you buy local and read local, you discover some of the best writers live close to your home.

—Alison DeLory, alisondelory.com, Apr. 27, 2011

 

 

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Atlantic Books Today–Review of Drive-by Saviours

Readers in Halifax will be familiar with Chris Benjamin from his environmental column in The Coast newspaper, but those weekly dispatches do not hint at the giant storytelling talent unleashed in his first novel, Drive-by Saviours(Roseway Publishing).

 

Set in Indonesia and Toronto, it follows Bumi, an ill-starred boy growing up under the Suharto regime, and Mark, a morose Canadian social worker. In alternating chapters, we learn about Bumi and Mark. Bumi invents a new fishing system on his remote island to give the men more time to relax with their children, but it leads to a population of lay about drunks. He dreams about going to school, only to be forced into an education system that rejects his inquisitive mind. Things get worse for Bumi when suspicion falls on him for the unsolved murders of children, compelling him to stage his own death and flee to Canada, packing only his obsessive compulsive disorder.

 

Poor Mark, meanwhile, is coping with a job that isn’t quite what he’d like to be doing. It gets worse when he discovers a hidden talent for grant writing that lands him his dream job. To top it all off, his relationship with his charming girlfriend, who is a model, is not quite as dreamy as he dreamed. After a blackout sends Toronto into an alternative-universe version of itself, with packed buses chugging along darkened streets as commuters struggle to get home, Mark takes to staring at strangers in public. One of the strangers he stares at is Bumi, freshly stranded in Canada. The two embark on an insightful, darkly funny relationship wherein Mark seeks salvation as Bumi tries to shore up his own collapsing existence.

 

Despite a few lapses (Bumi’s oceanic journey to Canada seems surprisingly pleasant when contrasted to the real-life summer arrival of Tamil refugees in British Columbia), Benjamin does a superb job of weaving the two tales together in a way that belies legends of the “white man’s burden” to save the world. The lyrical unraveling of Bumi echoes Rohinton Mistry’s sweeping narrative power.

 

Drive-by Saviours is confident proof that great Atlantic Canadian literature need not involve kilts or Cape Breton. 

—Jon Tattrie, Atlantic Books Today, Holiday 2010

 

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Book Club Questions for Drive-by Saviours
  1. Were you drawn more to Mark or Bumi? Why?

 

  1. Which of the two men did you most identify with? Why? Was the one you identified with the same as the one you were drawn to? Does that tell you anything about yourself as a reader? As a person?

 

  1. Mark suffers from paralysis by analysis – he wants to help but he has so many questions and he is so overwhelmed by uncertainty that he usually fails to act at all. Did this irritate you? What would you say to Mark if he asked for your advice?

 

  1. Between the two men, Bumi faced greater challenges in life, yet Mark was the more disillusioned of the two? Why do you think that is? Did Mark hold your interest as a character despite his negativity and boredom with his own life?

 

  1. The novel was half set in Indonesia and half in Canada. Which scenes were most compelling for you and why? Was Bumi’s life in Canada as interesting as it was in Indonesia? Were his struggles with life as an illegal immigrant and his homesickness and culture shock compelling?

 

  1. The novel alternates between a chronological third-person account of Bumi’s life and a first-person non-chronological narration by Mark. Why do you think the author chose this unusual structure? What was he trying to convey? Did he succeed?

 

  1. The novel dealt with many themes: mental illness, social isolation, international development, Canadian multiculturalism, culture shock, immigration, cultural preservation, the question of what it is to help, the psychological impacts of authoritarianism, and indigenous healthcare. How do you feel about political literature? Did these issues serve the plot? Or did the plot seem like a device used to discuss political issues? Were politics too abundant in this work? Or a necessary component of a complex story?

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Shelf Monkey reviews Drive-Saviours by Chris Benjamin

If there is one genre of art almost guaranteed to raise hackles (mine, anyway), it’s that of ‘liberal guilt.’

You know the genre. There’s a person who feels guilty, and takes it upon him or herself to somehow ‘better’ the life of someone less fortunate. When done wrong (and it has been done so, so wrong), it usually takes the form of overly-sentimentalized Hollywood hokum (The Blind SideFreedom WritersDangerous Minds, etc). The kind of movie, book, or television show that ends with the audience so damned pleased with themselves, feeling themselves better for having shed a tear for those plucky immigrants/inner-city students/sick kids. And please don’t think ill of me, I promise this is not a conservative screed disguised as a book review; I’m as lefty as all get out, but I call shenanigans on such saccharine drivel.

The genre does have highlights, works that somehow transcend the genre with though, imagination, and a lack of bathos. Friday Night Lights, for example, presents realistic portrayals of all involved without over-varnishing of the travails of everyday life (and Ihate football, so for me to watch it, it must be freakin’ good). Dead Man Walking was a movie that could have gone wrong in so many ways, but gripped me from beginning to end. Half Nelson found a good balance.

My point? It’s a fine line between writing a theme and bashing people over the head with it. And I should know; I mean, have you even read Shelf Monkey? Sledgehammer, baby.

Drive-by Saviours, by newbie author Chris Benjamin, skirts this line time and again. But through skill and subtlety of character, Benjamin for the most part pulls it off.

Drive-by tells in alternating chapters the stories of two men; Bumi, an Indonesian immigrant, and Mark, a Toronto social worker. Bumi’s life has been one of hardship; brought up in the island of Rilaka, he is removed from his family to enter a newly-established residential school. Bumi is eager to learn, intelligent to a fault, but he suffers from variety of obsessive compulsive tics that make it difficult for him to concentrate, and earn him a reputation as a fairly strange man:

his incessant purification rituals that crossed the line toward self-abuse; his long morning routine of dressing, undressing, and redressing multiple times until he got it just right . . . His use of elbows and feet instead of hands, which were often protected in plastic bags; his strange and complex series of patterned twitches . . . his harassment of strangers as they passed on foot, writing down their names and purposes or fretting inconsolably if they refused to provide the information.

Through a series of mistakes and assumptions, Bumi is forced to flee for his life, leaving his family and taking up a life as an illegal immigrant in Canada.

Mark, on the other hand, is a fairly well-off Canadian with little in common with Bumi save a less than perfect childhood. His job as a social worker at a community health centre is undemanding, Mark writing up proposals and plans, seeing people less and less; his clients would “give me the Coles Notes version of all their problems and I made suggestions, like a drive-by saviour.”

It doesn’t take a genius to see that these two men will cross paths, and it’s a tribute to Benjamin’s talent as a writer that the trek to that point is almost sheer pleasure. Perhaps by necessity, Bumi’s tale is far more interesting, and Benjamin pulls off the neat trick of taking a potentially dark tale and never succumbing to despair. Bumi’s life is harsh, but the bleakness never overwhelms either Bumi or the reader. Mark’s life, likely more familiar to the average North American reader, is more comfortable than Bumi’s, but his life too is full of pitfalls and disappointments. Benjamin is working with a universal theme here, the idea that happiness comes from within, and it is how we strive against obstacles that defines us. It’s a far more palatable motif than the aforementioned theme of ‘let’s help those who cannot help themselves and feel better about ourselves as a result.’

And when the two finally meet, not as social worker and client but as two figures on public transport, Benjamin takes great pains to avoid any clear-cut resolutions. Mark understands Bumi’s dilemma, and recognizes his OCD, but such a revelation does not lead to triumphant resolution. Bumi appreciates Mark’s efforts, but knows that his life in Canada is not the life he wishes.

At times, Drive-by Saviours veers perilously close to polemic, telling rather than showing, especially with regard to Mark’s efforts to help Bumi, but Benjamin’s novel only uses their relationship as an anchor to tell the stories of two sad and lonely men, each trying to find their place in the world. While it’s a common theme, it’s only as strong as the storyteller, and Benjamin proves himself a natural.

— www.shelf-monkey.blogspot.com

—Jan 8, 2011

 

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An unlikely friendship that offers a lifeline

The Daily Review, Tue., Dec. 21

An unlikely friendship that offers a lifeline

REVIEWED BY CAROL MOREIRA

From Tuesday’s Globe and Mail
Novels with big themes can make dull reads. In Drive-By Saviours, first-time novelist Chris Benjamin examines the chains of culture and politics and the barriers between established and new Canadians. There’s an unusual plot and a character whose vitality and energy illuminate the novel, which took first place in the 2008 Atlantic Writing Competition.

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Literal Life reviews Drive-by Saviours

This novel is Chris Benjamin’s debut work and is brought to readers via Roseway Publishing, a small Nova Scotia-based publisher that “…aims to publish literary work that is rooted in and relevant to struggles for social justice.” Roseway was acquired by , also based in Nova Scotia, in 2006. Fernwood operates under a unique principle:“…to provide authentic opportunities to first time authors and to groups who are often silent or silenced in today’s media. We are not afraid to take risks in this regard and, because of our confidence in the quality of the work we choose to publish, many of our first time authors remain with us throughout their publishing career.” Armed with these two pieces of information, I can understand why the publisher was drawn to Benjamin’s meaningful new novel.

 

Chris Benjamin has, to this point, led a varied and interesting life and it feels as though he has drawn from all of these aspects in creating a memorable work. While not a social worker, Benjamin did have the opportunity, during his time living in Toronto, to work with immigrants new to the country. He was drawn to people who had come to Canada, willing to start life over again. In a recent interview with Arts East magazine, Benjamin described it like this:

 

“The stories I heard from new Canadians blew me away. These were people who – by choice or not – picked up their entire lives, everything they’d ever known, and relocated on another planet – a cold planet. I’d lived abroad a fair bit but seeing these folks out of their cultural context, trying to rebuild their lives from scratch, I wanted to write about that.”

I read Drive-By Saviours quickly, beginning it this past Sunday and finishing last evening. It was a book I had trouble stepping away from, or even finding moments within where I felt comfortable taking a break. I was so keen to follow the path Benjamin was taking me down. We are introduced to Bumi first, in chapter one, on the day of his birth on Rilaka, an Indonesian island. We meet Mark, in Toronto, at the start of the second chapter. Mark looks back on his younger years, and career trajectory then tells us he was “content by 25″. Going forward, the novel alternates chapters, with each character having their own arc and unique timbre. Each young man is on a different course – Bumi’s complicated by the regime of Suharto and undiagnosed obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and Mark’s fraught with emotional personal entanglements that lead to choices of self-sabotage.

We know these two characters will, eventually, cross paths and that the resulting relationship will change both of their lives. With each of these young men, and with the novel as a whole, I have been left with the feeling Benjamin has written a novel about the importance of personal connection with others. The author offers us contrasting views of relationships, with all of the complexities these entail. Bumi, though less fortunate because of political impositions on personal freedoms, has a wife, daughter and son he loves, then loses. Marc, with all of the advantages the Western world has to offer, has a common-law relationship with his girlfriend that is on the decline and barely any relationship with his own family.

Benjamin underscores his study in humanity with a theme of social justice (or injustices) while informing readers about OCD. Ideas this big could have proved labyrinthine, but Benjamin is a deft guide and as a reader I never felt as though he was preaching or cloaking his personal feelings under the guise of fiction. The characters of Mark and Bumi are so well developed that you can’t help but feel empathy for them. For Bumi, in particular, I marveled at his strength and determination. I only have two minor criticisms of Drive-By Saviours. First, perhaps the background story about Mark’s family – particularly the relationship with his sister Michelle – could have been addressed more thoroughly earlier on. For me, the depth of their troubled relationship was not strongly evident until Mark tried to reengage with Michelle. Second, Bumi’s ocean travel seemed a bit tidy. These are so minor though, and I mention them only because I ended up curious about several things within the story, once I had finished the novel.

 

Overall, Drive-By Saviours is a very strong debut and Benjamin has some serious writerly chops. I look forward to his next novel, which he hopes to release in 2012. 

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LiteralLife reviews Chris Benjamin’s New Book

 This novel is Chris Benjamin’s debut work and is brought to readers via Roseway Publishing a small Nova Scotia-based publisher that “…aims to publish literary work that is rooted in and relevant to struggles for social justice.” Roseway was acquired by Fernwood Publishing, also based in Nova Scotia, in 2006. Fernwood operates under a unique principle:“…to provide authentic opportunities to first time authors and to groups who are often silent or silenced in today’s media. We are not afraid to take risks in this regard and, because of our confidence in the quality of the work we choose to publish, many of our first time authors remain with us throughout their publishing career.” Armed with these two pieces of information, I can understand why the publisher was drawn to Benjamin’s meaningful new novel.

From the cover description:

Demoralized by his job and dissatisfied with his life, Mark punches the clock with increasing indifference. He wanted to help people; he’d always believed that as social worker he would be able to make a difference in people’s lives. But after six years of bureaucracy and pushing paper Mark has lost hope.

All that changes when he meets Bumi, an Indonesian restaurant worker. Moved from his small fishing village and sent to a residential school under the authoritarian Suharto regime, Bumi’s radical genius and obsessive-compulsive disorder raise suspicion among his paranoid neighbours. When several local children die mysteriously the neighbours fear reaches a fevered pitch and Bumi is forced to flee to Canada.

Brought together by a chance encounter on the bus, Mark and Bumi develop a friendship that forces them to confront their pasts. Moving gracefully between Canada and Indonesia and through the two men’s histories, Drive-by Saviours is the story of desire and connection among lonely people adrift in a crowded world. Chris Benjamin has, to this point, led a varied and interesting life and it feels as though he has drawn from all of these aspects in creating a memorable work. While not a social worker, Benjamin did have the opportunity, during his time living in Toronto, to work with immigrants new to the country. He was drawn to people who had come to Canada, willing to start life over again. In a recent interview with Arts East magazine, Benjamin described it like this:“The stories I heard from new Canadians blew me away. These were people who – by choice or not – picked up their entire lives, everything they’d ever known, and relocated on another planet – a cold planet. I’d lived abroad a fair bit but seeing these folks out of their cultural context, trying to rebuild their lives from scratch, I wanted to write about that.”

I read Drive-By Saviours quickly, beginning it this past Sunday and finishing last evening. It was a book I had trouble stepping away from, or even finding moments within where I felt comfortable taking a break. I was so keen to follow the path Benjamin was taking me down. We are introduced to Bumi first, in chapter one, on the day of his birth on Rilaka, an Indonesian island. We meet Mark, in Toronto, at the start of the second chapter. Mark looks back on his younger years, and career trajectory then tells us he was “content by 25. Going forward, the novel alternates chapters, with each character having their own arc and unique timbre. Each young man is on a different course – Bumi’s complicated by the regime of Suharto and undiagnosed obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and Mark’s fraught with emotional personal entanglements that lead to choices of self-sabotage.

We know these two characters will, eventually, cross paths and that the resulting relationship will change both of their lives. With each of these young men, and with the novel as a whole, I have been left with the feeling Benjamin has written a novel about the importance of personal connection with others. The author offers us contrasting views of relationships, with all of the complexities these entail. Bumi, though less fortunate because of political impositions on personal freedoms, has a wife, daughter and son he loves, then loses. Marc, with all of the advantages the Western world has to offer, has a common-law relationship with his girlfriend that is on the decline and barely any relationship with his own family.

Benjamin underscores his study in humanity with a theme of social justice (or injustices) while informing readers about OCD. Ideas this big could have proved labyrinthine, but Benjamin is a deft guide and as a reader I never felt as though he was preaching or cloaking his personal feelings under the guise of fiction. The characters of Mark and Bumi are so well developed that you can’t help but feel empathy for them. For Bumi, in particular, I marveled at his strength and determination. I only have two minor criticisms of Drive-By Saviours. First, perhaps the background story about Mark’s family – particularly the relationship with his sister Michelle – could have been addressed more thoroughly earlier on. For me, the depth of their troubled relationship was not strongly evident until Mark tried to reengage with Michelle. Second, Bumi’s ocean travel seemed a bit tidy. These are so minor though, and I mention them only because I ended up curious about several things within the story, once I had finished the novel.

Overall, Drive-By Saviours is a very strong debut and Benjamin has some serious writerly chops. I look forward to his next novel, which he hopes to release in 2012.–Jennifer Oakes, Dec 2010

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Atlantic Books Today Runs Review of Drive-by Saviours

 Readers in Halifax will be familiar with Chris Benjamin from his environmental column in The Coast newspaper, but those weekly dispatches do not hint at the giant storytelling talent unleashed in his first novel, Drive-by Saviours (Roseway Publishing).

Set in Indonesia and Toronto, it follows Bumi, an ill-starred boy growing up under the Suharto regime, and Mark, a morose Canadian social worker. In alternating chapters, we learn about Bumi and Mark. Bumi invents a new fishing system on his remote island to give the men more time to relax with their children, but it leads to a population of lay about drunks. He dreams about going to school, only to be forced into an education system that rejects his inquisitive mind. Things get worse for Bumi when suspicion falls on him for the unsolved murders of children, compelling him to stage his own death and flee to Canada, packing only his obsessive compulsive disorder. 

Poor Mark, meanwhile, is coping with a job that isn’t quite what he’d like to be doing. It gets worse when he discovers a hidden talent for grant writing that lands him his dream job. To top it all off, his relationship with his charming girlfriend, who is a model, is not quite as dreamy as he dreamed. After a blackout sends Toronto into a alternative-universe version of itself, with packed buses chugging along darkened streets as commuters struggle to get home, Mark takes to staring at strangers in public. One of the strangers he stares at is Bumi, freshly stranded in Canada. The two embark on an insightful, darkly funny relationship wherein Mark seeks salvation as Bumi tries to shore up his own collapsing existence.

Despite a few lapses (Bumi’s oceanic journey to Canada seems surprisingly pleasant when contrasted to the real-life summer arrival of Tamil refugees in British Columbia), Benjamin does a superb job of weaving the two tales together in a way that belies legends of the “white Man’s burden” to save the world. The lyrical unraveling of Bumi echoes Rohinton Mistry’s sweeping narrative power.  

Drive-by Saviours is confident proof that great Atlantic Canadian literature need not involve kilts or Cape Breton.–Jon Tattrie, Atlantic Books Today, Holiday 2010 edition.

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Arts East Magazine Interviews Chris Benjamin

Halifax-based author and journalist Chris Benjamin recently released his debut novel, Drive-By Saviours. AE spoke with the 35 year-old about crossing the fine line from fact to fiction.

 

AE: What inspired you to put this story together?

CB: Working with immigrants, the love of a good woman and faith in a good story. I’d taken a few stabs at novel-writing and was never that satisfied with the results. In 2003 I was working at a large Toronto-based environmental organization as their diversity coordinator. The stories I heard from new Canadians blew me away. These were people who–by choice or not–picked up their entire lives, everything they’d ever known, and relocated on another planet–a cold planet. I’d lived abroad a fair bit but seeing these folks out of their cultural context, trying to rebuild their lives from scratch, I wanted to write about that. I met my wife Miia right around that time and we shared lots of travel stories and life stories, and I guess somewhere in all these mini-narratives what became Drive-by Saviours emerged, or struck, and I plotted it out and started writing it on the TTC, to and from work. Before I knew it I had 50,000 words and plenty of plot left, and it was pretty good stuff.

AE: Did the book come together quickly or did you really need to work at it?

CB: It started quickly, all on the TTC, but then I missed reading so I got away from working on the bus. Three years later I wrote the second third of the book in a cottage in Finland. I finished it another year after that, on a grant from the Toronto Arts Council, back in TO. Then there were three years of editing. I guess you could say it came in spurts. SCOOP

AE: What was the most challenging aspect of the process?

CB: Finding a publisher. It’s hard for a new writer, an unknown. In some ways being a journalist helped because I had publications under my belt, but they weren’t (for the most part) literary publications. It’s a daunting, slow process that breaks your heart so many times you wonder if you’ll still be able to feel joy should you ever get a positive response. But of course you do–Miia and I had a movie moment dancing and jumping around our kitchen when I told her that Roseway wanted to publish it. It was up there with when she told me she was pregnant.

AE: What was the most rewarding part of the experience?

CB: It’s a tie between the above-described kitchen dance and holding the finished product. The latter is maybe slightly more rewarding in that you can hold it any time you want and know you achieved something–you imagined something and then made it real. Writing a book is a massive leap of faith–you’re just hoping a publisher will like it enough to complete the process you started, by bringing together an artist, an editor, a proofreader, a printer, so you can see/feel/smell a finished product, an actual book in your hands. And your imagination fills in the rest, the same book in the hands of billions of readers across the lands.

AE: What did you learn during the process?

CB: I learned I could do it, that I wasn’t deluding myself when I believed in the story and my ability to deliver it. I’ve also learned a lot about how publishing works, who does what, how little money there is in it for almost everyone involved, how it’s not just my labour of love, it’s the same for everyone involved–at least with a small press. I learned what it means to make a living as an artist, how scary that can be, but also how satisfying at times.

AE: How much of “Chris” found its way into the storyline?

CB: I suppose there is some “Chris” in Mark, the Canadian protagonist in the story. I was that office drone, though I dare say I was a lot better at it than Mark. I think I was pretty good at it actually, and managed to help a few people by believing in them and responding to the needs they identified. But I share Mark’s frustrations with the systems in place that keep people out, that fail to hear the powerful stories of people’s lives. And my politics probably leaked into the story, thematically, in terms of what I chose to write about and how the characters looked at things. I think there’s probably a lot of any author in their work; it’s inevitable. But the mix of characters in Drive-By Saviours forced me to look at the world, the story, through various lenses: those of Bumi, Yaty, Sarah, Sherry, Michelle, Yusupu, Robadise, Pak Syamsuddin, Pram, Arum, and Win. So whatever “Chris” is in the book isn’t necessarily the same “Chris” who started writing it. My own characters influenced me and changed me as I researched and wrote them.

AE: How did you feel once you were done?

CB: I’m not sure I’m done yet. I felt relieved on completion of each stage of the process, like I could get these people out of my head and get back to reality. But then I tire of reality and the work keeps calling me. Now that it’s out there I’m anxious, afraid for how the world will treat my characters, hoping it’ll be kind to them but knowing the world doesn’t exactly have a history of kindness to the vulnerable. And I’ve transformed from Chris the Writer into Chris from Marketing. Or Chris from Logistics: planning book launches, readings, a book tour, writing blurbs and hiring musicians. These aren’t my strengths but I guess it’s what we (writers) do when our books come out, to make sure it sells and gets award nominations and allows us the chance to publish another one, in the vain hope that one day we can do what we love to do without worrying about the phone and power being cut.

AE: Are you working on something new?

CB: I’ve got a rough draft of a novel–set in Halifax County in the 80s/90s–that needs attention but won’t get it until January at the earliest. At the moment I’m writing a nonfiction book for Nimbus called Green Soul, which is about inspiring people in Atlantic Canada who have done innovative things to give humanity a future in this region. It comes out Sept 2011. I’d love it if I could get the second novel out in 2012.

—Arts East Magazine, October 2010

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Immigrants’ stories inspired debut novelist Halifax Herald, September 19, 2010

As most writers will tell you, there is often a fine line between fact and fiction — a small, grey space where worlds collide, and where imagination, inspiration and perspiration conspire. Halifax author and journalist Chris Benjamin recently crossed that line with his debut novel Drive-By Saviours.

“The stories I write as a journalist are simple because I’m just assembling the facts and the opinions in a readable way,” said Benjamin, who is best known to local and area readers as a key columnist with Halifax’s alternative weekly newspaper, The Coast.

“With fiction I have to bring readers into an imaginary world and convince them that it’s real,” he continues. “It’s more of an art and comes more from the heart. In fiction I can ramble. I may cut later if it’s too much, but it’s always worth it to follow the words where they take you. This is how you learn about your characters — you take them places, make them do things, see how they react and what thoughts and emotions they experience.” Benjamin notes that the new book — the story of an Indonesian-born restaurant worker, a Toronto social worker and the chance encounter that changes their lives — was born out of a lifelong love of storytelling.

“It’s something I’ve been doing since I was six, when I started making up stories and writing them down, and later inventing characters and challenges for them to work their way through,” he said. “When you write stories you create worlds. You are godlike. Then you can invite people to visit that world, to take a tour of it. When they come home they see this world, the real world, differently.”

Readers will appreciate his perspective; Drive-By Saviours is one of the finest first narratives to emerge from Atlantic Canada in recent memory. Well-balanced and masterfully crafted with a prose that is both poignant and poised, the work is certain to be considered for literary awards. Inspiration came, he said, while he was working as a diversity co-ordinator at a Toronto-based environmental organization in 2003.

“The stories I heard from new Canadians blew me away. These were people, who, by choice or not, picked up their entire lives, everything they’d ever known and relocated. Seeing these folks out of their cultural context, trying to rebuild their lives from scratch. … I wanted to write about that.

“I had also met my wife Miia around that time,” he said, “and we shared lots of travel stories and life stories. Somewhere out of all of these mini-narratives Drive-by Saviours emerged.” The novel also contains a number of autobiographical elements. “I share (character) Mark’s frustrations with the systems in place that keep people out, that fail to hear the powerful stories of people’s lives,” he said. “And my politics probably leaked into the story, thematically, in terms of what I chose to write about and how the characters looked at things.

“Whatever part of me that is in the book isn’t necessarily the same part of me that started writing it, however. My own characters influenced me and changed me as I researched and wrote them.” That metamorphosis, he points out, is still in process.

“I’ve transformed from Chris the writer into Chris from marketing. Or Chris from logistics: planning book launches, readings, a book tour, writing blurbs and hiring musicians. I guess it’s what writers do when our books come out to make sure it sells and gets award nominations and allows us the chance to publish another one.”

Stephen Patrick Clare is a freelance writer who lives in Halifax.

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The importance of making human connections at the heart of Drive-by Saviours

Drive-by Saviours is the story of the relationship between two men from different backgrounds who meet by chance.

 

”One, who is originally from Indonesia, comes to Canada illegally after getting into some trouble at home during the Suharto era,” says author Chris Benjamin. “The other one is a social worker living in Toronto, originally from Nova Scotia, who has a bit on ennui with his life and job. When (Mark) meets (Bumi), things finally get interesting for him.”

 Benjamin, a freelance writer, was living in Toronto when he first began writing this story.

 ”I wasn’t a social worker, but I had kind of a social work-y job where I was working with new Canadians with backgrounds in environmental work, trying to help them connect to employment in that field,” he says.

 ”Some of them opened up to me and shared some really amazing stories about their lives. I was really inspired and found their lives so interesting.”

 These people had picked up their entire lives and gone to a whole new world, either by choice or because a situation forced them to do so.

 ”They gave up everything and tried to start something new,” he says. “I just found it took an enormous amount of strength and creative intelligence to do that and to get by and to make their way in this big Canadian city.”

 This is Benjamin’s first fiction novel. He views writing non-fiction as more craft, he says, whereas a novel is more art.

 The key to non-fiction, he says, is finding the people to make the stories and issues interesting.

 ”With the novel, you’re creating an entire new world and you have to make it believable. ... My job is to do meticulous research to make that world believable and make it vivid,” he says.

 ”That’s more of a creative process, though there is a lot of research behind it.”

 Though Benjamin lived in Toronto for several years, three years ago he returned to his Nova Scotia roots and now calls Halifax home.

 When it came time to launch this novel, however, he decided to do so in both cities.

 ”Toronto is even a character in the novel, in a sense. It’s about the multiculturalism in that city because of immigration, so I thought it important to have a launch there as well as here,” he says.

 Benjamin is looking forward to getting out on the road, doing readings and meeting people as he promotes this novel. It’s quite an exhaustive schedule, he notes, as he’s making at least 13 stops over a three-week period.

 One of those stops will be at Westminster Books in Fredericton on Saturday, Oct. 16, at 3:30 p.m. for a reading and signing.

 ”I’ve selected four scenes for readings and, time permitting, I’ll do all of them. They’re very dramatic scenes, somewhat educational if people aren’t familiar with Indonesia,” he says.

 ”(Bumi) is a compelling character. I wrote the kind of character I find really interesting in books. Just from the reading, I hope it’s enough to get people somewhat attached to Bumi and want to read the whole book.”

 Benjamin loves chatting with people, especially if they’ve started reading the book or are interested in doing so.

 ”I slaved by myself with this thing for years and got it out. Now to hear how people respond to it and how they interpret it and how they understand it, it’s wonderful to take it out of my head to other people.”

 He hopes that, first and foremost, people enjoy the book.

 ”In the story, there is a lot of desire to help people, and I think we all have that. We all know the world is kind of messed up, we all want to make it better, but most of us aren’t sure how,” he says.

 ”The book won’t tell you how, the characters don’t know how and I don’t know how. If there is a message in there, it’s the best help is just making human connections, and building those communities in your own backyard.”

 You can’t help people you don’t understand, points out Benjamin.

 ”Hence the title. The drive-by saviours are the ones not getting to know the people they are trying to help.”

 To learn more about Benjamin, his novel and other upcoming projects, visit www.chrisbenjaminwriting.com.

 — Lori Gallagher, The Daily Gleaner, Sept. 4, 2010

 

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Bumi & Benjamin

For Mark, a social worker in Toronto, and one of two main characters in Chris Benjamin’s debut novel, Drive-By Saviours, that idea has lost its meaning. Then Mark meets Bumi, who immigrated (rather, fled) to Canada from Indonesia. “The driving theme of it is that idea of trying to help people without knowing what you’re doing, or knowing enough about the people you’re trying to help,” says Benjamin over coffee in Halifax, where he works as a journalist specializing in stories on sustainability, social justice and culture.

 

Bumi grew up in a (fictional) fishing village on a small island off Makassar, a city of about two million. “He’s a bit of a boy-wonder,” Benjamin says.

 

As a kid, Bumi designs an innovative fishing net. He repurposes pop bottles on the shore for flotation. He’s good at math and languages. And he attends a school in the city funded by international aid, money that actually trickles down from the corrupt and authoritarian Suharto regime, which ruled for 31 years ending in 1998.

 

While taking a master’s in environmental studies at Toronto’s York University, Benjamin went to Indonesia, just after Suharto, through the school’s exchange program.

 

He visited fishing villages and learned of the real fear parents had about losing their kids to this educational system, which he describes as similar to the residential schools in Canada. They disrupted local, natural community and family practices: “This is children at a young age helping their parents do what they do. This is how it works. It’s not a sweatshop by any means.”

 

At school in the city, Bumi develops obsessive compulsive disorder, political outspokenness to a degree some view as radicalism, especially for those times. All this, coupled with his uncommon intelligence, makes him a figure of fear and ultimately blame when a group of children die mysteriously.

 

Fearful and facing accusers, Bumi flees to Canada. On a subway in Toronto, he meets the social worker. Benjamin wrote much of the early draft of Drive-By Saviours during his long commute by public transit in Toronto starting in 2003. He worked for the Toronto Regional Conservation Authority and Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants. He and his wife, a social worker, moved to Halifax (Benjamin grew up in Beaverbank) three years ago.

 

Issues such as immigration and environment inform the novel. “I didn’t want to force all these issues in there but they kind of came out.”

 

- Sean Flinn, Telegraph-Journal, Sept. 4, 2010

 

 

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