October 26, 2020

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Into thin air

Writers festival expects to incorporate virtual events beyond pandemic

The latest chapter of the story of Thin Air, the Winnipeg International Writers Festival, has brought a plot twist no one could have foreseen at last year’s event — the move to an entirely online event.

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Thin Air

Winnipeg International Writers Festival

Sunday to Oct. 12

thinairfestival.ca

Back in the spring, as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold and book launches, author tours and publication dates were being cancelled or postponed, Thin Air director Charlene Diehl and her team had to take a long, hard look at how the festival could go forward.

"In April, I was pretty sure that, come hell or high water, I was going to find some way to run a festival," says Diehl. "I could feel the need for this. People who make stories never stop — in some ways, the intensity of their work increases. Suddenly they have material that is far more pressing, and a cultural moment to navigate or report on."

This year’s entire Thin Air festival will be presented online at thinairfestival.ca starting on Sunday and running through to Oct. 12. Rather than present dozens of day-by-day Zoom-type events, Diehl and her team approached the virtual festival more like a gallery than a series of standard readings.

Thin Air director Charlene Diehl calls Thomas King, author of Indians on Vacation, one the festival’s biggest catches.</p>

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Thin Air director Charlene Diehl calls Thomas King, author of Indians on Vacation, one the festival’s biggest catches.

"We approached writers with this idea — we want you to put together a reading from your book, or a presentation, anywhere from five to 30 minutes — your call, your comfort," Diehl explains. "I could feel across the board they were excited about doing whatever they wanted."

The resulting content submitted by authors reflects that excitement. "We started getting all this content pouring in… several people have sent us walks around their neighbourhood, talking about the places that might feature in the works they’re presenting, or places where they’re charting their own development as a writer," says Diehl. "We’ve had slide shows, archival photos with notations about how they fit with the writing project, we’ve had video art, original songs, even a cooking demo."

This year’s Thin Air, which received assistance from Canadian Heritage as well as a grant from the Winnipeg Foundation, delivers more talent than ever — even without the in-person panels, readings and workshops. Diehl estimates that at last count the roster includes 87 authors, well up from last year’s 60.

Francesca Ekwuyasi’s novel, Butter Honey Pig Bread, is on the Giller long list.</p>

MO PHUNG PHOTO

Francesca Ekwuyasi’s novel, Butter Honey Pig Bread, is on the Giller long list.

"I just couldn’t stop," she says, laughing. "And because we weren’t organizing travel and working around writers’ schedules, there was a lot more flexibility."

One of the most exciting catches for Diehl was Thomas King, whose latest novel, Indians on Vacation, was published in late August.

"He’s a writer who’s been carving a very important path for a long time — he’s the writer who’s had the machete. He made room for the blooming of an extraordinary Indigenous writing culture. And he hates to travel. I can’t even tell you how many times in 18 years I’ve tried to secure him for the festival," Diehl says.

Among the dozens of other writers featured at this year’s Thin Air are Emma Donoghue, Craig Davidson, Leanne Simpson, Lindsay Wong and Lorna Crozier, as well as locals such as Katherena Vermette, Anita Daher, David A. Robertson, GMB Chomichuk, Dennis Cooley and David Bergen, the latter of whom recently landed a spot on the Giller Prize long list for his collection, Here the Dark.

Bergen is one of eight of the 14 authors on the Giller long list this year being featured at this year’s Thin Air. "One of my younger readers on the team came to one of our outdoor backyard meetings and said, ‘We have to get Francesca Ekwuyasi and her book Butter Honey Pig Bread.’ And then to find that debut on the Giller long list… I was so thrilled for the writer, but also thrilled for the rest of us, who will be encountering that voice for the first time."

Author Emma Donoghue has been nominated for the Giller Prize for The Pull of the Stars.</p></p>

UNA ROULSTON / THE CANADIAN PRESS

Author Emma Donoghue has been nominated for the Giller Prize for The Pull of the Stars.

In addition to hosting dozens of presentations and videos submitted by authors — in English and French, and yet again with a strong Indigenous component — the festival’s website will also feature reading lounges that continue Thin Air’s tradition of bringing different books and authors together under a thematic umbrella.

"The lounges offer collections of books that we think talk to one another in interesting ways. They’re topical, quirky, a little bit open-ended," says Diehl, adding readers can create a profile, leave comments and interact with each other on the site as well.

This year’s festival also features an uptick in the number of writing workshops put on by authors and offered through Zoom. "This platform allows us a much broader reach — you don’t have to get people to come out of their homes and go to a room," says Diehl.

And while the Thin Air crew was disappointed to have to forgo in-person events, Diehl also sees an upside to doing a festival virtually. "I’ve cried my tears this summer about not having the in-person conversations, watching as people meet for the first time and finding out what they have in common," says Diehl. "But this also allows us to be a bit more environmentally responsible. It’s concerning to think about bringing people from all over the country to town for one night."

This year’s Thin Air has faced unprecedented challenges, but the move to a virtual festival has set the festival up nicely for future years, which will include more virtual events, regardless of the state of the pandemic.

Diehl says she knew early on in the pandemic there was a need for this year's writers festival to happen — come hell or high water.</p>

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Diehl says she knew early on in the pandemic there was a need for this year's writers festival to happen — come hell or high water.

It has also given Diehl a chance to reflect on the the state of the world and the role authors, writing and art play in it. "I think in the next six months we’re really going to start tangling with the deepest and most profound impacts of this experience, which we can’t see yet... It isn’t incidental there’s all this revolutionary energy at the same time; Emma Donoghue hits on that perfectly in her new book (The Pull of the Stars)," she says.

"As we really start tangling with the implications, we have to bring the dreamers to the table. We have to rebuild with people who are not just caring for their financial well-being, but rather what kind of world we’re living in.

"I think in a way what we’re doing in the arts is finally moving toward the front edge of ‘high relevance.’ We have to find ways to do what we do. The writers and artists have to find a way so they can show us where we could be going — and where we could be going wrong."

ben.sigurdson@freepress.mb.ca

Ben Sigurdson

Ben Sigurdson
Literary editor, drinks writer

Ben Sigurdson edits the Free Press books section, and also writes about wine, beer and spirits.

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