September 16, 2012

Thin Air in Two Cities

Méira Cook on the inspiration for her new novel...
and why THIN AIR always surprises her

I was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, where I lived for twenty-five years before immigrating to Canada. When I was growing up in the seventies it was customary for white middle class families to employ a nanny to look after their children. The nanny was, of course, black although she could have been of Zulu or Xhosa or Sotho or Tswana descent but these important distinctions were not considered by the affluent and largely oblivious white society of the time. Since the nanny had to live with the white family — invariably in the servant’s quarters behind the kitchen — she was separated from her own family because in those days of Apartheid black folks couldn’t live in “white neighbourhoods.” Her own children were sent to live with relatives in the townships if they were lucky, in the homelands if they were not.
I’ve always found the relationship between what South Africans once called “maids and madams” to be a source of great curiosity, vast exasperation, some shame, and in the end — because all that turmoil of emotion has to find its outlet — creativity. My novel, The House on Sugarbush Road, tells the story of two families, two “houses.” Beauty Mapule has worked for a prominent Afrikaner family for more than thirty years, her reign has spanned successive du Plessis generations. What I loved exploring was the idea that the relationship between domestic servant and employer is not necessarily submissive, or even particularly domesticated. There is enormous potential for subversion and unruliness, for surprise and even for tenderness between people who are not family, not friends, not compatriots, and yet who’ve lived together for many years.
That’s sort of how I feel about reading at Thin Air too. I mean the part about unruliness and surprise. Charlene and her crew run a splendid event but the part I love best is the element of quirkiness and, yes, subversion that always creeps into the proceedings. Think, for example, of the festival’s name which is a masterful stroke of creative misdirection. Thin Air always seems to me to evoke a rarified atmosphere of highbrow, pointy-headed Bookistes who ply their craft in a menacing, slightly precarious city largely populated by consumptives. Au very contraire!
The Winnipeg Writers’ Festival is famous for its rollicking good humour, its throngs of word-greedy readers, its crowds of page-turning omnivores hungry for the gloriously eclectic selections that are offered up. You have to love the eccentricity of it, the exuberance and joy, and the way a kind of prestidigitation seems to be at work. A wave of the hand and it could all vanish into . . . 

Méira Cook joins Stella Leventoyannis Harvey and Festival Director Charlene Diehl for Afternoon Book Chat, Monday, September 24th, 2:30-3:30pm at McNally Robinson. Admission is free.
That evening, at 8:00pm, Cook and Leventoyannis Harvey, along with Carrie Snyder, Cordelia Strube, Richard Van Camp, and Jess Walter, feature on the Mainstage for "Life Lessons" at MTYP at the Forks. $12/$10 students and seniors.

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