September 20, 2012

Looking Back: THIN AIR 2011

By Nan Forler

This time of year, as nights become cooler and pumpkin lattes start brewing in neighbourhood coffee shops, I find myself being drawn to local bookstores, eagerly anticipating the new fall releases. But this year, I am feeling a bit homesick for my new favourite autumn reading event: The Winnipeg THIN AIR Festival.  

Last September, I was very fortunate to have been invited to THIN AIR as a featured author in the Writers to the Schools program. I had taken part in writer’s festivals before, but this was the first time I was actually flown in, complete with a hotel room and hospitality suite. I am certain all future events will pale in comparison!

THIN AIR is led by Charlene Diehl, a fiercely passionate advocate of Canadian books, described by one of the authors as the kind of person who makes a party come alive. She very intentionally sets a social tone, encouraging interaction between writers and readers, and creating a celebration of books with lively discussion. 

Immediately upon meeting Charlene, she encouraged me to hop in the back of her car with Elizabeth Hay for an afternoon book chat at McNally Robinson. The evening readings carried on this atmosphere. They were held on a party-esque stage set, where audience members were invited onto the stage during intermission to mingle with the authors, or enjoy a drink on the comfy couch.

For me, the highlight of the week was my road trip to Winkler, Manitoba. Charlene and her fabulous team arranged school visits to this area, matching my new book, Winterberries and Apple Blossoms: Reflections and Flavors of a Mennonite Life, with the children of rural Manitoba, many of whom had a Mennonite background.  

I travelled with a fun and adventurous entourage, including Eva, a festival volunteer, her sister, Tina, and Charlene’s mom, Anna Grace. We braved relentless rain and 100 km/hour winds as we travelled from school to school, stopping in Roland, Manitoba, to have a blustery photo taken in front of “The World’s Largest Pumpkin.”

In the midst of this season of book releases and reviews, it was the children in the schools I visited who provided the true reminder that books are a living, breathing entity that come to life in their active imaginations.  

When sharing the message of the bystander in Bird Child, the children were anxious to relate their personal experiences to me about responding to bullying situations in the schoolyard. As I introduced Winterberries and Apple Blossoms, I was able to witness their animated reactions, as they recognized their own lives in the paintings and poems depicting coming-of-age in a Mennonite community.

From the rural kids in Winkler, many of whom were Mexican Mennonites, who filed in silently, then sat, arms crossed, listening attentively, hanging on every word, to the multicultural classes in Winnipeg the following day, who bounded in, uninhibited and curious, their arms around me afterwards to be first to ask a question, I was witness to the incredible joy children experience in being read to.

Sitting in the darkened theatre for the THIN AIR events that evening, being read to by the likes of Guy Vanderhaeghe and Lynn Coady, I was struck once again by the human connection that comes from this solitary act of writing.  
I felt so honoured to have been a part of this book-affirming week in Winnipeg and I wish all the best to you lucky souls who will be enjoying THIN AIR this month.

Happy Reading!

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