Always challenging the status quo

Once during a lecture about Catholicism, the cell phone of a student in Stewart Donovan’s class began to ring. Without missing a beat, Donovan told the student to “pick it up, it’s probably Jesus. Tell him to f**k off, we’re learning here!” (Tom Bateman/AQ)

Stewart Donovan slides a box out from under his desk and grabs a copy of his new book From Ingonish Out.

He then finds a pen buried beneath papers on his desk and, after asking my name, scribbles a message on the inside cover.

“For Patrick with best wishes – Stewart (Donovan).”

This impromptu book signing takes place as I get ready to begin our interview, and it’s a curious first move. Before I have a chance to open my notebook to my questions, Donovan has launched into an explanation of some of the themes in his writing.

Suddenly, I’m clinging to his words in fascination while also trying not to get left behind.

With each work or influence Donovan references, he directs me to a bookshelf to find a particular volume of the literary magazine he edits, The Nashwaak Review.

“That’s it, the red one. No, no, the green one to the left. There, and you can keep those.”

After 20 minutes, I have enough books to read for a year and I’m wondering how hard it will be to get up the hill to my job afterwards.

Then, with a hint of annoyance, I realize something else: my interview just might have been hijacked.

***

“I’m a poet of place,” Donovan says. “And I was lucky to come out of a very strong place.”

He grew up in Igonish, a fishing village in Cape Breton. At home, thanks to his two working-class parents, Donovan developed the ideas and outlook that shaped his future.

“I came to my Marxist, sort of leftist stances there, I think,” he says. “My father was very conservative, so most of my political views came from my mother on that level.”

It was at home that he also realized the power of education and how it could help him escape his situation and see the world.

Eventually he landed at the National University of Ireland where he would receive his PhD.

While there, he was taught by some of the biggest names in Irish literature. Legendary writers like Seamus Heaney and Seamus Deane were just a couple of his professors.

“I arrived in Ireland during a time when the going was good. I was lucky,” he says.

While his political views in Cape Breton were based more on instinct than anything else, they began to take form in his new home.

Attempting to take a stance against the Irish Republican Army at the time, he refused to learn to speak Irish.

Years later he would regret not taking the opportunity, and by then had even developed a respect for the struggle of the people of Northern Ireland.

“You see these people who have been fighting against these odds and fighting against this oppression, but still maintain their dignity.”

Donovan would eventually take his love of Ireland’s culture and establish the Irish studies program when he came to St. Thomas University years later.

He makes frequent visits to Ireland each year, seeing old friends and his son from his first marriage.

***

“Theatre was one of my first loves, you know,” Donovan tells me, speaking of his teaching style.

He’s handed over the reins now and I’m asking him the questions. It’s when we start talking about the performances he’s known for in his classes that he appears to be more candid.

That persona – loud, in-your-face, and constantly challenging – has led to what some now call “Donovan Moments.”

Earlier in the week a former student shared one of his own with me.

During a lecture about Catholicism, someone’s cell phone began to ring. Without missing a beat, Donovan, doing his trademark Irish impression, told the student to, “Pick it up, it’s probably Jesus. Tell him to f**k off, we’re learning here!”

That is the shock, he says, he goes for in his classes. A sort of defibrillator blast meant to stir the minds and emotions of his students, to “shock them out of complacency.”

“My way has always been to get history through the back door,” he says, about the films in his curriculum.

Often times those lessons can be uncomfortable, involving aspects of our nation’s history that we would rather forget.

To Donovan, there are hard stories to hear and lessons to learn, but that’s sometimes how knowledge is passed on.

“A teacher isn’t earning his pay if you’re not challenging the status quo, if you’re not putting yourself out there. That’s what you’re there to do.”

***

After an hour or so the conversation slows, and Donovan asks, “So, is that everything? I have something I need to write before my class.”

Packing up my recorder, I hesitate, then mention I’m planning on writing a critique of Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby.

As I tell him my ideas, he nods his head at some and shakes it at others. He encourages, becomes excited, and all of a sudden the teacher is in full swing.

Within moments we’re looking at reviews by Roger Ebert and David Thomson, and Donovan is telling me facts about Polanski’s life.

By the time we’re finished, he’s already helped me flesh out a thesis for the critique, and just before I walk out the door he grabs one more book from a shelf: “Here, this might help too.”

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