Stars Shining Bright at Thin Air


By Harriet Zaidman

The stars shone brightly over the skies of Winnipeg Tuesday evening, and inside the Manitoba for Theatre for Young People, six powerhouse female writers illuminated the main stage of  The Winnipeg International Writers Festival “Women on the Front Lines” event.

WIWF_BannerBoth the writers and their female characters took centre stage before an appreciative full house. Congenial host and festival artistic director Charlene Diehl introduced the authors with wit and admiration.

Vancouver writer Caroline Adderson led off the evening. A prolific writer for adults and children (she’ll have several titles out this year alone), Adderson read from her novel Ellen in Pieces, in which a single, divorced publicist allows her long-gone husband to move back home. This decision has serious and seriously funny implications. Adderson’s prose sparkled, despite the nausea her character Ellen experiences when she realizes she’s pregnant.

Monia Mazigh first achieved public recognition when she fought to free her husband Maher Arar from unlawful detention in Syria in 2002, an odyssey she chronicled in Hope and Despair. This time Mazigh, who writes in French and is then translated into English, read from her novel Mirrors and Mirages, an exploration of the lives of Muslim women from different backgrounds. One is the child of immigrants who rejects her parents’ dreams of emancipation and opportunity for her, and is drawn to radical Islamic sites through the Internet. Another is the pampered wife of an immigrant investor who loves partying, but still considers herself “a good Muslim.” A third is a young Quebecker who converts to Islam, to the consternation and confusion of her mother.

Joan Thomas received a warm welcome when she read from The Opening Sky, her long-awaited novel, four and one half years in the making. It’s a very Winnipeg story concerning Sylvie, a student involved with extreme environmentalists, so extreme that her boyfriend has signed a pledge on an Internet petition never to have children. Sylvie puts a wrench into the perfect human-free world her friends are planning when she gets pregnant. Her new situation gives her a different perspective, and as she listens to them planning their radical Fringe play thinks to herself, “I am so, so done with this.”

The second half of the evening brought poet, novelist, and now memoirist Alison Pick to the podium. Her work Between Gods takes her back to her early twenties, when she pursued psychotherapy to get her out of an emotional funk that developed when she began attending university. Her therapist made her admit that she had two truths to her life – one acknowledged and one hidden. “Here is a girl,” she writes, “used to silence, used to hid[ing].”

Veteran Canadian writer Audrey Thomas drew on her years living in Ghana for her novel based on the life of Victorian British writer Letitia Landon. Landon was a thirty-four-year-old spinster who left city life in England for the Gold Coast (now Ghana) when she married. Her sudden death only two months later is fodder for Thomas’s imaginings.

Former Winnipegger and Governor General’s award winner Miriam Toews (A Complicated Kindness among other books) wrapped up the evening with a sample of All My Puny Sorrows, her new novel. Toews says it is about life and death, and how we can best love each other. Toews’s own sister committed suicide in 2010. In All My Puny Sorrows her protagonist, Yoli, spends all her time trying to prevent her older sister from killing herself, much as Toews did with her sister. Despite the sadness, there is love, and characteristic of Toews’s writing, there is also wry humour, all factors that have undoubtedly contributed to the book’s inclusion on the star-studded long-list for this year’s Scotia Bank Giller Prize.

The Winnipeg International Writers Festival continues through Saturday, September 27.

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The Readings Report

Harriet Zaidman

Harriet Zaidman is a teacher-librarian in Winnipeg.