By Maurice Mierau
The gang reading has become a fixture at writing festivals, and now that gerbils have the same attention span as humans, it is probably a necessary thing. Friday night’s mainstage event at the Winnipeg International Writers Festival featured no less than six readings, each of which lasted exactly twelve minutes. The near-capacity audience knew this because nearly all the writers referred to the time constraint.
Introduced on stage as having Winnipeg relatives, Clark Blaise actually lived in Winnipeg as a boy, something I learned just this spring in his 1993 book, I Had a Father: A Post-Modern Autobiography. The Winnipeg Public Library copy includes, at the back, a handwritten list in pencil of every reference to the city, complete with page numbers: there are more than a dozen. I Had a Father also lists Blaise’s Wolseley Avenue address from the 1950s.
Anyway, at the festival Blaise read from his new book of linked short stories, The Meagre Tarmac. A compact, unassuming person, Blaise’s prose is as brilliant and sharp as ever. He read from a story called “A Connie Da Cunha Book”:
Before her Ramonah! incarnation—the exclamation point suggested by a chance-sighting of a Utah! license plate—Cynthia Freeman had been a Bronx-based paralegal with dreams of Africa. She’d gone to Kenya and Tanzania on a photo safari and fallen in love with a Masai herdswoman named Mbala. Mbala had pressed Cynthia’s face to her bare breasts and through those mighty gourds intoned ancient tribal wisdom….
CBC journalist and debut short fiction writer Waubgeshig Rice followed Blaise. He spoke a few words in Ojibway, and had a charming and relaxed stage presence, looking more comfortable than any of the veteran writers. Rice said he wrote his book of short stories, Midnight Sweatlodge, “to explain why our spirits are broken.” Unfortunately it was hard to get a sense of the stories because Rice hopped rapidly from one to another, and did more explaining than reading from the actual book.
Guy Vanderhaeghe read next, from his much-anticipated new novel A Good Man, which completes his western historical trilogy that began with The Englishman’s Boy (1996) and continued with The Last Crossing (2002). He began by saying that he’d discovered the only set piece in his novel to be “rather bawdy.” He wasn’t kidding:
Well, I sat up in bed and ran my eyes every which way looking for that girl. But she wasn’t to be found. It was old Fancy himself talking in that high, sugary, girly voice, addressing his very own carrot. And it was the same thing next night, and the night after that, and the night after that. Now he might been old as dirt, but Fancy worked his peeder just as hard as he did his bucksaw. No sooner we crawled into our pallets of a night and Lurleen would start whispering to Fancy’s doowinkle, telling how she’d been wanting it all day, studying on exactly what she was going to do to it, and what it was going to do to her.
Vanderhaeghe’s voice became nervous and high-pitched as the phallic euphemisms accumulated, which added to the humor. The passage will remind long-time fans of the salty, hilarious dialogue in his first book, Man Descending. Really devoted (old?) fans will also be reminded of his first novel, the somewhat neglected satire My Present Age (1984).
After the half-time break Calgary writer Rosemary Nixon read a stark and striking passage from her recent novel Kalila. She claimed to be “terrified” of the evening’s host, Thin Air artistic director Charlene Diehl, which was another reference to the twelve-minute time limit.
Montreal author and translator David Homel appeared at the festival representing two novels, one which he translated (Dany Laferriere’s The Return), and his own book Midway. An account of a male midlife crisis, this reading was the evening’s most broadly comic, with a pair of toy dinosaurs carrying on dialogue like this:
“I’m afraid I’m turning into a cliché,” the stegosaurus lamented to the tyrannosaurus. “You know, the one with the discontent middle-aged male. The mid-life crisis from which there is no escape. The red convertible and the blond girl with the wind in her hair.”
“Sounds delicious. But don’t worry about being a cliché: there are no new emotions,” the tyrannosaurus answered in his pontificating manner. “The genius is in how you experience them.”
Homel has a wry stage presence and punctuates dialogue by sweeping an arm or pointing a finger. He too behaved with due respect for time limits.
Miriam Toews was up last. She was of course too modest to mention it, but she’d had a very good day. The New York Times ran a glowing review of her latest novel, Irma Voth, and her memoir Swing Low (just out in the US; published in Canada in 2000). Swing Low happens to be my favourite of her books, an astonishing, moving novelistic re-creation of her bipolar father’s difficult life and death.
Toews told an amusing story about getting a lecture from a fellow-passenger as her plane landed in Winnipeg. Winnipeg, as everyone knows, was her long-time home until recently when she abandoned us for Toronto, and the advice on the plane was that she should be “more objective” about her relationship to the Peg. Then she read for precisely eleven minutes, raffle prizes were duly distributed, and we all got home by ten o’clock.
Which reminds me. Wouldn’t it be great to close one of these evenings the way they do at the Ottawa Writers Festival, with a panel discussion that includes all the writers? Winnipeg arts audiences are notorious for wanting to drive back to the burbs as early as possible, but maybe if Thin Air served coffee and locked the doors at the back we could all extend our attention spans slightly longer than it takes to shut off an iPhone.