Local Heroes

The triumph of a yearlong local-eating experiment can be found in a dodgy DTES drinking establishment where Loverboy blares over the sound system as Vancouver writer J.B. MacKinnon devours a plate of freshly roasted Fraser Valley turkey breast in golden-tarragon white-wine sauce (for $5.50, at that). “When local food has arrived at Pub 340, we know the battle is nearly won,” says the co-author of the best-selling book The 100-Mile Diet. “Somebody decided to create change here.”

MacKinnon’s simple, if challenging, experiment—to spend a year eating only food from within 100 miles of home, chronicling the experience for the local online newsmagazine the Tyee—boomeranged through the blogosphere, resulting in a New York book deal and foreign rights sold as far afield as Taiwan and Australia. The 100-Mile Challenge, a reality-TV series hosted by Mac­Kinnon and his partner and co-writer, Alisa Smith, debuts on Food Network Canada on April 5 and follows 100 Mission residents for 100 days as they abandon beer and Cheetos for local fare. “It still kind of makes my head spin,” says MacKinnon of the way his idea has become shorthand for a movement.

If local eating increasingly has global implications, it’s hardly surprising that Mac­Kinnon’s latest book strays far beyond a 100-mile radius. Back when MacKinnon and I worked together at Adbusters, where he was a senior editor, there were whispers of a side project by Adbusters design gurus Mike Simons and Paul Shoebridge, who were working with actress Mia Kirshner to push the visual/text hybrid format that the magazine pioneered in new directions. The result, published by Pantheon Books, is I Live Here, described as a “paper documentary” and ultimately authored with MacKinnon, who had previously written from Sudan and South America and is an adventure columnist for Explore magazine. The book tells the stories of those on the farthest margins of society through a stunning reinvention of literary journalism that is part graphic novel, part creative-nonfiction text, part something completely different.

“The starting point of I Live Here was the understanding that nobody really wants to hear the stories of displaced people or refugees or what I think of as post-crisis people,” says MacKinnon—who was pulled in for the last three years of the eight-year project—as he sips a pint of locally brewed beer. “If we produced the usual series of ‘Pity this person’ human-interest stories, the book would have been a cataclysmic failure. So right from the top we were trying to think of how to make stories that demand to be read out of this material that we know people don’t want to read.”

Covering Burma, Chechnya, Malawi, and Mexico, I Live Here assembles four composition-style notebooks with contributions from the likes of documentary cartoonist Joe Sacco, writers Ann-Marie MacDonald and Karen Connelly, and American multidisciplinary artist Phoebe Gloeckner. The latter’s puppet scenarios depicting some of the 500 young women murdered by a serial killer (or killers—the crimes remain unsolved and hardly even investigated) in Juárez are among the most disturbing portions of the book and have already earned Gloeckner a Guggenheim Fellowship.

Kirshner, better known as a star of The L-Word and Atom Egoyan’s Exotica, privately sponsored research trips organized with support from Amnesty International. The ephemera she brought back—from a bag of lottery tickets found on the road to Juárez to condom packages, photographs of prison cells, and interview transcripts—served as raw material for the artists involved, and her journals form the book’s narrative thread.

MacKinnon accompanied Kirshner to Malawi, where they spent time in a prison for boys. In an African nation decimated by poverty and AIDS, roughly half of the child prisoners are orphans, many permanently remanded by a justice system that can’t afford to try them. As a skinny guy with Rod Stewart hair and a gold lamé suit slides up to the bar (“That’s hard to carry,” MacKinnon observes), we discuss the forces that cause one to forsake the idylls of Vancouver for vastly more challenging terrain. International journalism—certainly that driven by social-justice concerns—is always fuelled by internal motivations, he says. “We’re all going overseas driven by our own personal demons in one way or another.”

While MacKinnon wrote for and edited every chapter in the book, the Malawi section contains his most personal contributions, from his first children’s story—a sort of folk tale about the “wasting disease” that has claimed so much of Malawi’s promise—to a composition derived entirely from transcripts of prison interviews. Touching, heartbreaking, it ends with the voice of a boy who reminds him: “Do you remember that I am being accused of killing a person?” It’s a journalistic trope for the poor and disenfranchised to appear as innocent victims who are morally superior to you and me—how else to generate the requisite pity?—but MacKinnon’s narrative permits his subjects to be who they are: mischievous teenaged boys, some of them certifiably bad ass, all of them human in their complexity. “You’d never get that from the Foster Parents Plan,” he says.

Help from western donors, however, is exactly what he hopes to get on his next trip to Malawi this year, financed by donations related to the book. (All of his work on the book, which hit the L.A. Times bestseller list, has been unpaid.) He will spend roughly a month working in the boys’ prison, establishing a storytelling workshop and connecting with groups that help orphans in the hope that parentless child prisoners can be released somewhere other than the streets.

If MacKinnon’s first book, Dead Man in Paradise, which won the prestigious Charles Taylor Prize in 2006, is an attempt to solve a crime (the murder of his uncle, a Catholic priest in the Dominican Republic in the 1960s), his purpose in Malawi is a crime-solving proposition of another sort. As he discovered on his first trip, many of the child prisoners remain in jail indefinitely for the simple reason that a family member must attend their court hearing, which he thinks could be made to happen by providing relatives with the transportation they cannot afford. At the same time, his journalism has taught him that apparently simple problems are almost always complex and good intentions can easily backfire—given the extent of Malawi’s poverty, for instance, improved prison conditions could have desperate families clamouring to send their sons to jail for some book learning and a free lunch. Yet the same experimental drive that galvanized an international food movement seems to be at work here, too: “All I really hope for from this trip,” he says, “is to see how naïve I might be.”