Doing the Dance with Words


By Harriet Zaidman

Writers aren’t known for their prowess on the dance floor, but the authors featured at the Winnipeg International Writers Festival’s first Mainstage event on Monday night showed off their talents at boogying, strutting and shimmying through the game of words.

The title for the evening came from the book Dancing Lessons, the latest novel by Olive Senior. Festival director Charlene Diehl described the process of reading as a dance, where readers sometimes find the steps easy to follow, but other times find the dance, or the book, doesn’t fit and have to choose another.

Along with Senior, the evening, held again at the Manitoba Theatre for Young People (MTYP) at the Forks, featured Genni Gunn, Andrew Steinmetz, Lewis deSoto and Wayne Grady reading excerpts of their latest works.

Genni Gunn

Genni Gunn

Genni Gunn led the audience of about 100 people on a voyage through Burma in an essay taken from her latest book, Tracks: Journeys in Time and Place. A writer, musician and translator, Gunn’s travelogue gave an account of the extremes in this cloistered county. Her dance had to be carefully choreographed. Her group had arrived in a place where they were completely vulnerable, where everything was ambiguous, yet of necessity they had to trust what they were told. It was a tenuous situation. They witnessed the brutal beatings and mass arrests of pro-democracy monks and activists in the city and then were transported to the Shangrila perfection of the misty blue hills, where time seems to stand still. A whirlwind of complicated steps, to be sure.

Andrew Steinmetz

Andrew Steinmetz

Montrealer Andrew Steinmetz orchestrated his own dance when he decided to satisfy a ten-year obsession to find out about a long dead distant relative. The result was This Great Escape: The Case of Michael Paryla, an investigation of the places shown on screen for 57 seconds in the 1963 movie The Great Escape. Those precious seconds captured the performance of his cousin, who played a Gestapo agent. Steinmetz’s search took him back to Germany, where his family originated. The result is a poignant personal memoir, the story of his family, a rediscovery of someone long lost – a promenade through time.

Lewis DeSoto first appeared at the Festival for his 2003 debut novel, A Blade of Grass. He expressed his gratitude to be included again. “Writers either work in a vacuum or a pressure cooker,” he said. “They address themselves to imaginary readers. It’s only when they get to come to events like this that they actually meet them.”


Lewis DeSoto

DeSoto read from The Restoration Artist, a novel about a man who gives up on life after he loses his family. He flees to an island off the coast of Normandy, where he encounters someone equally wounded who teaches him to find purpose again.  The music in his story begins with jarring atonality, but through the distance of time and the filter of memory softens to become a gentle lullaby, a wonderful waltz of love.

A landscape artist, DeSoto painted verbal pictures with his elegant, poetic prose, the audience spellbound by his mellow voice.

Olive Senior

Olive Senior; photo by Caroline Forbes

Olive Senior joked that her character’s life was not only filled with lots of dancing, but lots of mangoes as well. Senior, who writes for children and adults, infuses her work with the Jamaican reality. In her novel an older woman reflects on the bad choices she made, missteps she attributes to the lack of guidance she had about life. Thirsty for attention, she takes up with the first man who paid attention to her, seduced by his gift of rare Bombay mangoes. It was only later that doubts rose in her mind about others he had tempted with this fruit. That one fateful day began a sad sway across the years, creating bad relationships with her children, and regrets.

Windsor, Ontario native Wayne Grady is doing a happy dance these days. The respected author has been nominated in two categories for the Giller Prize this year, once for his first novel, Emancipation Day, and again for his translation of Quebec author Louis Hamelin’s book October 1970.

Wayne Grady

Wayne Grady

Grady has a large oeuvre – fourteen books of non-fiction and fifteen books as a translator. His novel was a slow dance with words – it took him fifteen years to complete a story of race relations in postwar Windsor, when an African-Canadian who can pass for white brings home his Newfoundland bride. But he hasn’t told her about his family heritage. Grady imagines this tentative tango between partners in love, within families, races and worlds.

The Mainstage events continue this week at MTYP, all promising readers unique and enjoyable takes on doing the dance – with words.


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The Readings Report

Harriet Zaidman

Harriet Zaidman is a teacher-librarian in Winnipeg.