Cumyn, Alan

Alan Cumyn, writer (b at Ottawa 1960). Alan Cumyn was born and grew up in Ottawa. He spent one year at Royal Roads Military College in Victoria, BC, and then transferred to Queen's University, where he completed a BA in English and History. He also earned an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Windsor. Alan Cumyn taught English as a Second Language in China and Indonesia, and has worked for international development agencies and for Canada's Immigration and Refugee Board. These work experiences and his travels are reflected in the settings, characters, and themes of a number of his novels. Cumyn has published a best-selling nonfiction book on working and travelling abroad, titled What in the World Is Going On? (1988), and is an active member of PEN Canada.

Cumyn's first novel, Waiting for Li Ming (1993), concerns a young Canadian who has gone to teach English at a small town in China. Back in Canada, the protagonist Rudy Seaborn anxiously awaits news from and hopes for the arrival of Li Ming, his Chinese lover. Between Families and the Sky (1995) is a small-town coming-of-age story, in which the two adolescent protagonists struggle to understand their parents' and their own new and disquieting relationships. Reviewers praised Cumyn's humorous and convincing portrayal of both male and female sexual awakening in this book.

Cumyn turns to a more serious subject in his next two novels. Bone of Man (1998) and Burridge Unbound (2000) tell the deeply disturbing story of Bill Burridge, a Canadian diplomat who is kidnapped and tortured by rebel revolutionaries on the South Pacific island of Santa Irene. The second book examines Burridge's efforts, back in Ottawa, to recover from this ordeal. When Burridge returns to Santa Irene as part of a Truth Commission, he sees that struggling nation's parallel attempt to face its dark history of exploitation, corruption, and human rights abuse. These novels have the pace of political thrillers, but they also prompt our consideration of Canada's political and humanitarian interaction with developing nations. Cumyn received the Ottawa-Carlton Book Award for Bone of Man. Burridge Unbound was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and won the Ottawa Book Award.

Cumyn's 2001 Losing It takes up the subjects of familial and mental breakdowns. This novel, a dark comedy, draws on familiar elements of contemporary dysfunctional families: an aging grandparent with dementia, a young child who will not sleep, an unfaithful husband. Cumyn describes this work as "an exploration of various forms of madness." The book's frenetic pace and excruciating encounters evoke laughter and shudders.

Like the Burridge books, Alan Cumyn's next pair of novels, The Sojourn (2003) and The Famished Lover (2006), also focus on an individual caught up in and scarred by political turmoil. We follow WWI Canadian solider Ramsay Crome to Ypres in the first book; we see the long-term effects of his wartime experience, including time in a German prisoner of war camp and a lost love, in the sequel. The Sojourn's realistic depiction of life in the trenches has been compared to that Timothy Findley's classic The Wars.

Alan Cumyn is also a successful and acclaimed children's author. The Secret Life of Owen Skye (2002) won the Hackmatack Children's Choice Award and the Mr Christie's Book Award. It was also shortlisted for the Governor General's Award for Children's Literature. After Sylvia (2004) was a finalist for the TD Children's Literature Award and has been adapted, by Cumyn, for theatre.