In 2015, Steven Heighton packed a small bag and a notebook and left his home in Kingston, Ontario, for the Greek island of Lesvos where refugees – mostly Syrians fleeing war – were arriving by the thousands in rafts and rubber dinghies, sometimes swimming to shore. sinking boats. He was between drafts of his fourth novel (and 15th book), The Nightingale won’t let you sleep, a work of fiction about refugees in the Mediterranean, and he felt a futility in writing, which led him to want To do something, be the kind of person who takes action. During the month he worked as a volunteer – registering refugees by lamplight, offering dry clothes and blankets – he took a few notes, although he mostly worked: boarding buses , making sandwiches. In the meantime, he studied the bleachers and veils of the Greek landscape – to which he was connected by his mother’s Greek heritage – and he spoke to the people he helped and those he volunteered with. He did what he lived for a large part of his too short life: act as a witness.
Three years later, these notes have become Reaching Mithymna: Among the Volunteers and Refugees of Lesbos – a book that Mr Heighton said was made necessary by the current humanitarian crisis. In 2020 Reach Mithymna was shortlisted for the prestigious Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction, confirming Mr. Heighton’s reputation as one of Canada’s finest writers.
Poet, short story writer, novelist, essayist, memoirist and songwriter, Mr. Heighton was a central figure in the Canadian literary community and Canadian letters, admired by many for his thoughtfulness, generosity and grace. An exuberant, friendly polymath and conversationalist, he widely shared insights into the creative process and literary craft. He is interested in writing as an art form, as a mode of communication and kinship, as a stake in existence.
Mr. Heighton embarked on a life of writing early on: a risky vocation at a time when most Canadian writers (especially those who publish poetry and short stories) risked living at or below the poverty line if they did not accept a second job or work as educators. He understood these vagaries and moved between genres and forms not only because of the themes that appealed to him, but because, as he once said, “really, the novel is the only form that can put bread on the table. Its editor, John Metcalf, acknowledged that Mr Heighton was “juggling a lot of things to preserve that freedom” and that he “lived in – what he described as – mad frugality”.
Although it has been widely acclaimed – shortlists or awards, writer-in-residence positions, bestseller lists or acclaim arriving with almost every book – it wasn’t until its collection of poetry 2016 The alarm clock comes late won the prestigious Governor General’s Award which he received the kind of national recognition based on awards that many thought he deserved. In the Canadian Literary Review, Donna Bailey Nurse notes, “Heighton’s 2016 Governor General’s Award for Poetry is long overdue. It is amazing that this brilliant storyteller has never received a major fiction award.
There is a scene in Reach Mithymna which sheds light on some of Mr. Heighton’s concerns as a writer: He sits on the beach at Efthalou on the morning shift for the refugee boats, trying to translate a passage from the writing of the Greek poet Kostas Karyotakis. Mr. Karyotakis, he notes, had once tried to drown in the sea, but, being an excellent swimmer, he eventually saved himself. This theme of near-drowning, of self-affirmation; to descend and resurface (literally or psychologically) is present in many of Mr. Heighton’s works.
He edited a collection of stories called Drowning Instructions until his untimely death at age 60 from pancreatic cancer on April 19 in Kingston. In the collection, his interest in the tension between romantic, hoped-for life and the inevitably harsher reality is once again palpable. Of the titular history of this latest and forthcoming collection, Mr. Heighton’s editor, Mr. Metcalf, says: “Instead of a wasted lakeside idyll [the story] becomes a struggle of life: the world as it is.
John Steven Heighton was born on August 14, 1961, in Toronto to John McEwen Heighton, a former naval officer and high school and post-secondary English teacher, and Lambie George Stephanopoulos, who had earned a degree in social sciences at the University of Ottawa before focusing on his family.
Mr. Heighton and his younger sister, Pelly, grew up in the Toronto area and in Balmertown, near Red Lake in northwestern Ontario, a landscape that marked him. A reader from an early age (his father reciting Anglo-Saxon and Middle English tales to him at bedtime), Mr Heighton went on to study English Language and Literature at Queen’s University between 1981 and 1986, graduating a bachelor’s and a master’s degree. It was during his undergraduate studies that he met his future wife, Mary Huggard, and also met the poet Al Purdy who appeared in one of his English for Reading classes. Mr. Purdy would become a mentor to Mr. Heighton, not so much in terms of style – the young poet was busy absorbing and to some extent emulating the work of writers like Hopkins, Thomas, Yeats, Plath and Dickinson – but in terms of treating him seriously as a writer and introducing him to Canadian literary culture as it then was. Increasingly interested in language as “a sprawling, living, changing thing”, Mr. Heighton began, in one of his classes, to transcribe passages from obscure Icelandic sagas – an act of translation or of “approximation” that would become central to his later poetic work. .
After graduation, Mr. Heighton traveled with Ms. Huggard to Tibet, Nepal, and other parts of Asia, which influenced his earlier and later books. The two settled in Japan, teaching English for a year before returning to Canada. They married in Caledon, Ontario, in 1988 and had a daughter, Elena, in 1996. For many of those years Mr. Heighton wrote full-time, consciously mastering one form after another – first poems, then stories, then the novel. Later in life he sometimes worked on manuscripts in three different genres during the same period, but never on the same day.
Mrs Huggard, his wife of 30 years before their amicable split, describes him ‘nestled up there in his office, working’, then adds with a laugh that ‘Elena called him ‘pushing buttons’. ”
“I used to sit in his office with him while he worked,” recalls Elena Heighton, “and ‘worked’ on my own poems and stories as a young child. He would read them and give me genuine feedback. He never criticized me and “edited” my childish poems with the same thoughtful sincerity as he would the work of his peers. Sincerity meant that every time he told me he was proud of me, I felt deeply accomplished. Mr. Heighton acknowledged writing as a labor of love during a recent CBC interview, saying, “There’s a sense in which I put my head down and started working really hard. And when I looked up, 30 years had passed.
As in all life, there were difficult years between successes: the death of his mother from brain cancer on Christmas Day 2001, bouts of insomnia, including two years of living with four hours of sleep per night. In 2010, he suffered a broken larynx during a pick-up hockey game, with his doctor telling him he might never speak again if he didn’t rehabilitate properly and was likely to could never sing. He overcame such prognoses and returned to music in the last years of his life.
In 2021, he releases an album, the devil’s share, with the Wolfe Island records. Cohen-esque at best, the songs feel situated in the river between poetry and song. Mr. Heighton’s partner, Ginger Pharand, notes that his love of music came, in part, from his father’s love of the musicality of literature. “He told me his father recited poetry with the fervor of an evangelist, banging the dashboard or the table to crash the meter. The opportunity to experience this blend of passion and rhythm in the language helped build his relationship with her. “It was like being raised by a minister that way,” he said. She adds that “Anyone who has ever seen Steve read would have recognized that same passion in him, the way he tapped the beat with his foot as he read, hearing in his head the score he had incorporated into the work. “
Widely acclaimed as one of the finest writers of his generation and, with increasing frequency, as one of the best writers in the Canadian literary canon, Mr. Heighton had an unwavering gaze. “In all life, he wrote, two impulses clash: the aspiration to be more awake – conscious, intentional, passionate, committed – and the desire for anesthesia. In a recent CBC interview, he said, “It’s something you want to do, until the moment you die – keep your curiosity and your enthusiasm.
In his final days, Mr. Heighton did just that, calling Mr. Metcalf, his editor, from his hospital bed to talk about the final edits to the story collection. “His attitude towards life was essentially reverential,” says Mr. Metcalf. This reverence was palpable in his work and in the depth of his love for his family and his partner, Madame Pharand, in his devotion to his closest friends, and in the extent of his relationship with the literary community.
Writer Michael Redhill said: ‘I think Steve could have been particularly close to a hundred people. He had a caring way that made you feel important, and he had time for everyone.
In The hidden pleasures of life, the philosopher Theodore Zeldin wrote that “The adventure of our time is to discover who inhabits the earth.” This is how Mr. Heighton lived: he waded deep into the sea for us, but being a good swimmer, he came back to shore and wrote.
Mr. Heighton was predeceased by his mother, Mrs. Stephanopoulos, and leaves behind his father, John McEwen Heighton, and John’s wife, Christina Heighton; his sister, Pelly Heighton; ex-wife, Mrs. Huggard; his daughter, Elena Heighton, and his partner, Liam Fenton; his partner, Mrs. Pharand, as well as his five nieces and his nephew.