Every September since 1997, the Winnipeg International Writers Festival presents THIN AIR, a celebration of books and ideas. Their curated line-up is a perfect fit for curious readers who are ready to discover strong voices and great storytelling in practically every genre. For 2022, they're presenting a hybrid festival featuring more than 50 writers, live events, and a destination website.
All of these books inspire my sense of what a piece of writing can accomplish, and press me to be ambitious. I wrote short stories before my novel, Finding Edward, and had read Alice Munro for many years. But the other writers listed here have come to me more recently, particularly as my interest in questions of race, my own identity, and an historical Canadian context for both, became more urgent. All of these writers have informed who I am, and in doing so, shaped and inspired my writing.
Redemption Songs, by Jon Tattrie
Jon Tattrie’s Redemption Songs is an extraordinary social history told through the biographical details of two legendary characters who never met. The Jamaican Black activist, Marcus Garvey, visited Nova Scotia in 1937 and delivered a speech that included the famous line, “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery.” Those words became the foundation of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song.” That’s two books’ worth of material already, but Tattrie folds both stories into an adept and compelling exploration of racism. “The very idea of race is wrong; it’s witchcraft thinking,” he writes. Tattrie does all of this with a writing style that suggests reportage, but offers so much more. Who else could thoroughly research and tackle three major subjects, and succeed so beautifully in just 240 pages? I have lots to learn!
When I’m writing there are times when I know that I need to challenge myself, to raise the bar. That’s when I’m most likely to re-read something by Alice Munro whose every word is purposed and fluent. Her style and grace push me to try harder. She makes bullseye hits of emotional impact that come from what seem almost mundane, domestic details. Despite knowing what was coming, I was holding my breath as I re-read “Silence.” A story about an accomplished and grounded woman whose grown daughter has disappeared—by choice, for no fathomable reason. Toward the end comes the brief scene with its reference to "school uniforms." That detail always breaks my heart.
Brother, by David Chariandy
This beautifully written novel tells the hardest of human things: fear, anger, hopelessness. Love. Chariandy describes the all-too-real world in which being born Black is already a failing. So many immigrants have sacrificed self in order to make the better life that Canada promises for their children. Brother exposes this Canadian surety as a lie. But a bright cord of hope threads through Brother, and shines brightest in Aisha who has found the confidence to plot her own direction. But sadness is where the novel is housed. Nothing can turn a mother’s loss into hope. I knew much of this, but Chariandy makes it a visceral truth.
Shame on Me: An Anatomy of Race and Belonging, by Tessa McWatt
With this memoir, McWatt, whose DNA, like mine, spans the globe, articulates so much that I’ve felt but never quite understood. She has found answers where I am still searching. And I am forever grateful that she has shared her indispensable conclusion with me. She asks the question, “What am I?”, as she maps her own anatomy for physical clues; an accounting of her own peculiar ethnogeography of signifiers: her nose, her skin, her hair. But all of those racial descriptors become irrelevant when she realizes that: “To answer ‘writer’ when I’m asked what race I am is true, not because I want to avoid the issue of race, but because I want the questioner to think about why I need to be your brown girl in the ring.” I admire the courage and conviction and essential truth of that.
Galore, by Michael Crummey
How I love this book, a story so removed from any of my life’s experience but filled with a deep universal understanding of family and community. It’s an epic tale of generations, and what’s common to them all is the man born from a whale’s belly. He is so many things—supernatural, sad, human, lacking, knowing. There is magic everywhere here, in the smallest places, the grittiest characters. Crummey helps me to think beyond logical constraints. We’re only limited by our imaginations. I want mine to grow as wide as Crummey’s!
Cyril Rowntree migrates to Toronto from Jamaica in 2012. Managing a precarious balance of work and university he begins to navigate his way through the implications of being racialized in his challenging new land.
A chance encounter with a panhandler named Patricia leads Cyril to a suitcase full of photographs and letters dating back to the early 1920s. Cyril is drawn into the letters and their story of a white mother’s struggle with the need to give up her mixed race baby, Edward. Abandoned by his own white father as a small child, Cyril’s keen intuition triggers a strong connection and he begins to look for the rest of Edward’s story.
As he searches, Cyril unearths fragments of Edward’s itinerant life as he crisscrossed the country. Along the way, he discovers hidden pieces of Canada’s Black history and gains the confidence to take on his new world.
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