A Conversation with Author Stephen Law
Stephen Law is the author of Tailings of Warren Peace, a social justice thriller just released by our fiction imprint, Roseway Publishing. The novel is about the struggle to expose the crimes and human rights abuses of a corrupt Canadian gold mining company in Guatemala, taking place in both Toronto and rural Guatemala.
While being a work of fiction, Tailings of Warren Peace is strongly rooted in and inspired by real-life events. HudBay, the Canadian gold mining giant went to court in March, accused of human rights abuses and crimes ranging from assault, murder and rape.
We spoke to Stephen about his inspiration behind the book, his experiences working as an activist in Latin America and the challenges of turning real life into fiction
Tailings of Warren Peace is a book that covers a lot of ground, both thematically and geographically. Where did your inspiration come from for the book originally?
Latin America was where I became awakened to the world. It is where I first met human rights advocates, revolutionaries, radical nuns, farmers, peasants and folks who were struggling in ways that I previously had no understanding of or exposure to. And Latin America is a place that infuses into your skin, it is vibrant, alive, passionate, troubled, and complicated. And the people I met there were courageous in ways that I wanted to understand and share.
I know you’ve spent some time in Guatemala and Latin America, how long were you there? What were some of your experiences and how did they affect Tailings of Warren Peace?
I first went to Latin America when I took a hiatus from University. I spent 3 months on an exchange in Costa Rica with Canada World Youth where I lived with a communist organic farmer in a small idyllic village outside of the capital of San Jose. Upon my return to Canada I became involved with the Arusha Centre in Calgary and met up with the Salvadoran exile community that was supporting the armed struggle against the oligarchy. Scenes from the novel around a fundraising event in a church were drawn from some of the events from back at that time.
In the early 1990’s, the war in El Salvador was still raging, and I tried to think of ways to get into the country to become more directly involved in the struggle, to understand more deeply the challenges people were facing and to move myself out of the comfort zone that allowed me to proselytize the struggle without really having experienced it. I was able to do that through an internship arranged through the University of Toronto.
My time in El Salvador indelibly impacted me. I was able to live and work with repatriated communities who had been forced to flee from the violence perpetrated by the military and return to resettle their communities under the watchful and malicious eyes of the state. I spent a year there which coincided with the signing of the Peace Accords. It was a very fragile time, with ongoing threats of violence, rumours of coup d’etats, curfews, travel restrictions and human rights violations. And in the midst of the repressive state there were people working night and day, scraping and struggling, and advocating, and building a new, peaceful society based on justice and human rights. It was a pretty heady and sobering experience for a young guy in his twenties.
I returned to Canada, finished my University degree and then went to work with the Inter-Church Committee on Human Rights in Latin America which was based out of Toronto. We supported human rights defenders throughout the region, and tried creative ways to affect public opinion. We once crashed a press conference when Peruvian President Fujimori came to town, met with members of Parliament, hosted speaking tours and lobbied at the United Nations.
I also became involved in the Latin American exile community, not unlike the Lalita Arayo Solidarity Association. We organized fundraisers, educational events, and even created a Latin American variety program for cable television called Que Pasa Aqui, where I played the witless Canadian official.
Through this work I realized I wanted to go back to Latin America and, specifically to Colombia. I felt that I could use my “Canadian’ness” to be in solidarity with folks in Latin America, participating as an accompanier. So, my partner and I volunteered with Peace Brigades International as human rights accompaniers – in my book, I refer to them as “…lighthouse beacons who could signal at signs of danger.” We basically used our “standing” as Canadian citizens to try to prevent attacks against communities and individuals threatened with violence.
We lived in the department of Uraba, one of the most war torn areas of Colombia in a small town that was dominated by the paramilitaries. It was also an area that had rich natural resources that were desperately sought after by multinational companies. We accompanied communities that had been violently displaced so companies could have unrestrained access to these resources. The communities we accompanied were forced to live in internally displaced camps surrounded by the butchers who had sent them fleeing from their homes. It was an intense and brutal time, marked by a massacre of friends and colleagues perpetrated by the military and their paramilitary allies. My novel in many ways was an attempt to honour those folks and others who gave their lives to imaging a different world.
Just prior to going to Colombia, my partner and I and some friends had purchased a farm in rural Nova Scotia. After our volunteer stint in Colombia, we took a breather from the international solidarity work and moved to the farm, making our little attempt at creating and building an alternative community. I started working at the Tatamagouche Centre on justice issues, and become connected with the Breaking the Silence Network, which eventually took me to Guatemala. I was able to go to Guatemala a number of times, leading educational delegations exposing Canadians to the human rights genocide that had occurred there, and the current reality of exploitation by mining companies and the communities which have resisted them.
Tailings of Warren Peace is the summation of all those experiences in some way. I originally set the novel in Guatemala, even though originally I had hoped to write a novel about Colombia. But that experience was still too raw. And Guatemala is a tapestry and embodiment of all that is beautiful, inspirational and life-giving, juxtaposed with all that is wrong and unjust, and so given the context and what was happening there, it became the canvas the story was written on.
Perhaps on paper, tying together stories in Cape Breton, Toronto and Guatemala seems disparate, but what larger point(s) does the geography of the book make?
It is much easier to see a correlation between corporate activities in Latin America where human rights violations are mounted with impunity, then being able to tie them back to our activities or the activities of the corporations that come from our communities and are supported by our economic contributions (through investments, pensions, etc). But as I became more deeply involved and as time has gone on, it has become increasingly clear that the issues faced by folks in Guatemala are the same issues we are facing here (fracking as a recent example of this, where companies exploit resources and the health and well-being of the local community be damned). For instance, one of the Mine managers who was involved in the Westray mining disaster in Nova Scotia relocated to Guatemala afterwards. Toronto is the financial hub of the worldwide mining sector which has governed these businesses. So, you have a mining disaster in Nova Scotia, a subsequent mining disaster in Guatemala, strung together through the purse strings of the economic hub in Toronto – the links are clear. I don’t think you can’t get a more visceral connection then that.
Activism and labour rights are two themes (among many others) that are very present in the book, why are they important to you?
For me, once I had been to Latin America, I couldn’t let it go. And I believe once you’ve witnessed and experienced injustice, you can’t turn away. Or at least, I couldn’t. I have felt most alive in my life when I have been engaged in struggles for justice. And I have such profound admiration for people who courageously, at times joyfully, and at other times with deep sorrow, sadness and frustration, work towards creating a better world. For them, it’s not a luxury, a hobby or a pastime, it’s a question of survival.
Was it a challenge to write a nonfiction book that is strongly political? Does it become difficult to juggle the story, plot and characters as well as the politics?
I think it was at first, trying to ensure that I was really honouring the struggles and not diluting them for the sake of the story. But, in the end, it really was the story that carries it through, where the politics is the plot and is as integral to the story as the characters. I grew up on cold war thrillers that pitted the valiant Western world against the evil and corrupt Soviet empire and their minions. And yet, these were profoundly political books, even more so, they functioned as populist propaganda. And yet, I found them deeply satisfying to read, not for the politics, but for the story, the excitement and the thrill. So, I’ve felt for many years that we needed to develop a leftist thriller genre, one that would tell our stories. And if anything, I probably did dilute the story down from one that I could have told. Because the stories of rapes, killings and assassinations done under the auspices of prosperity and economic development are in fact far more stark and extreme than what I ended up depicting in my novel.
What do you want readers to take away from reading Tailings of Warren Peace?
That ordinary people can do extraordinary things, that we need a bit of magic and mystery to sustain our struggles, and that we can’t simply abide the injustices perpetrated by economic elites, be they mining companies, oil companies, insurance companies or investors, whether they are elsewhere, or our own backyard. And solidarity is a solution, and if all else fails, haunt the bastards…