September 18, 2011

Opening Night under Open Sky

Thin Air turns 15 in the fall chill. Oodena Circle’s great acoustics ring with birthday applause as festival director Charlene Diehl thanks employees, founders, and volunteers. A young boy in a yellow & green football jersey clambers among the circle’s standing stones while the evening crowd fills the staircase/bleachers, settling onto blankets and folding chairs. (I sat on my Thin Air tote bag – alas for the blanket still sitting in my car!) Two young girls are enjoying ice cream cones despite the wind, as a couple in shorts strolls by. Am I the only person here at The Forks tonight who feels cold?

A board member brings greetings from the mayor, a short speech. Did he write it himself, in honour of a festival for writers? Is Mr. Katz a writer, too? Clare McKay speaks next, giving the history of Oodena. Archaeological records indicate that Oodena was a meeting place, and the ground for Inn at the Forks was a treaty site for five tribes, as far back as 6,000 years. The voices from Oodena tonight will mingle with those from the past.

The board chairwoman is up next, telling a beautiful story about the importance of being read to, or reading aloud to someone. In the story, a father promises his daughter that he will read aloud to her for 10 minutes every day, for the next 100 days. When they reach 100 days, father and daughter agree to continue for another 1000. What happened when they reached that milestone? They kept going, without setting another limit. This story calls to mind my father and I, who read every book in the Little House on the Prairie series aloud together when I was in elementary school. Apparently my voice is soothing (or boring?) because as I grew up, he requested that I read those books to him if he was sick or unable to fall asleep.

First of five authors is David Alexander Robertson, renowned for his graphic novels: a stand-alone biography of Helen Betty Osborne; and a series about residential schools and their effects, called Seven Generations. He is shivering in just a dress shirt, slacks and tie, as Diehl introduces him and remarks “Education and conversation are the best ways to combat racism and sexism.”

Powerful words, and what follows is even more powerful – a love poem read aloud by Robertson in the style of freestyle rap, embracing Winnipeg and Riding Mountain National Park. This poem resonated so heavily with me because I remember spending summers with my family at the same Thunderbird Bungalows mentioned by Robertson! I wonder if we met as kids…and then I am away, under the spell of Robertson’s voice. “You are a kite in the breeze…and I will tie you to my wrist so you’ll follow me wherever I go.”

Sue Sorensen reads second and I remember her strong voice from my second-year English seminar at UW a few years back. She’s reading an excerpt from her new novel, which “is not called ‘A Large Harmonica,’” she informs the crowd, to much laughter. A Large Harmonium is set in a place that is Winnipeg and yet not Winnipeg, and the scene she reads – about the perils of attempted sign vandalism – is witty, funny, and somehow sad. As she describes it, her book revolves around a husband and wife who are both professors at the same university, and “Little Max, their hellion child.” Sorensen isn’t sure where her book will travel, but is looking forward to interpretations. “We’ll wait until the students of the future take this on,” she says.

Rhéal Cenerini is author number three. His writing has been part of Cercle Molière’s repertoire, and his latest book offering is titled in Mitchif, a truly Canadian language that combines French and Cree. Cenerini is also in touch with his Italian heritage, and the story he weaves for us is about his grandmother, Amabilia. Called “Ode to a Stranger,” the piece reflects the isolation this woman felt as she was transplanted into a harsher climate across two continents and one ocean. It seemed for Amabilia to have been a journey in which her soul never caught up with the distance her body had travelled: alone on farmland, away from neighbours, giving birth to ten children without a doctor’s help, and never learning French nor English – this was Amabilia’s Canada. Nor did the place seem to have accepted her – Cenerini points out to his audience that her tombstone is crumbling into the hill it rests upon, and her name is misspelled on it.

“She writes for kids of all ages,” is Diehl’s introduction of author Anita Daher, and it is fitting. Daher’s voice has a sprightly energy as she enters the mind of a busking mime in her short story “Thinking Inside the Box.” Through first-person narration from our nameless protagonist, we learn that he ran away from home, misunderstood by his well-meaning mother. He befriended a mime who taught him the tricks of the trade, as well as how to ‘open a window, make yourself a sandwich, and leave the way you came.’ Though it doesn’t sound like life has been a bed of roses for our mime, his tone suggests that he has found a way to live life at his rhythm. ‘Inside is in-finite,’ he says, to explain that the mind is a huge huge place for all kinds of imaginings, but society pares that space down as we get older – if we let it.

Darkness has fallen, and George Amabile, the fifth and last but not least reader of the evening, expresses his happiness with the ambience. I blink – is it really dark? I find that not only are the Oodena stairlights shining, but almost no one else has budged from their places. It may be windy, but we are all under the same spell. Amabile’s new book, Dancing with Mirrors, is due to be published within days, so he shares his poetry with us. First is a winter poem, “Zen and the Art of Cross-Country Skiing.” Having cross-country skied as a child, I shivered at the aptness of the line ‘…wind like raw silk through the lungs.’ The rhythm of his poetry is akin to jumping from a huge bank of snow left behind by a grader – and then he shifts to a summer poem about sailing Lake Winnipeg, ‘an open-air school for one.’

I am still lost in that image of summer, still caught in the sun-warmed sails, when the final round of applause signals the end of the evening. Diehl invites the audience to come and speak with the authors, but only a few brave souls have accepted this invite as I take my leave. Come out and talk to the writers! I want to shout, having met a few of them just prior to the opening night ceremony. They love language, and they enjoy sharing ideas.

I look forward to many more days of idea-sharing at Thin Air.

--Danielle Conolly, guest blogger

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