Thin Air 2019: Winnipeg International Writers Festival
- Various venues, Sept. 22-30
This year’s Thin Air 2019: Winnipeg International Writers Festival will certainly go out with a bang.
CanLit legend Margaret Atwood will close the fest at a sold-out Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre on Sept. 30 in support of her new novel The Testaments, a sequel to 1985’s The Handmaid’s Tale and the biggest international literary event of the year.
But Thin Air organizers are optimistic that curious readers will venture beyond Atwood’s instant bestseller and explore the many other new and established writers featured at the festival, which begins tomorrow and runs through to Atwood’s Winnipeg stop (which, organizers say, is still a go despite the death of Atwood’s husband, Graeme Gibson, on Sept. 18).
"She always runs ahead and been sending back the warning bells," festival director Charlene Diehl says of Atwood. "But I think things that are happening, especially around women’s rights and reproductive rights, have pushed The Handmaid’s Tale into a whole new area of readership. Then there’s the TV series, plus the ballet… that story has hit a lot of points."
Atwood isn’t the only one ringing the warning bells through dystopian fiction at this year’s festival.
"One book that comes to mind first, that hums in a similar way, is Michael Christie’s Greenwood," Diehl says. "It opens in 2038 — he’s tapping into sudden, dystopic futures, the climate crisis, political issues that are all folded together."
Atwood and Christie are two of four authors attending this year’s Thin Air who have landed a spot on the $100,000 Giller Prize long list, Canada’s richest fiction prize. The pair, along with Steven Price (Lampedusa) and Adam Foulds (Dream Sequence, also longlisted for the Booker Prize), are among the festival’s bigger names, along with local novelist Joan Thomas (Five Wives) and Penticton, B.C., spoken-word artist and author Shane Koyczan, the latter of whom will open the fest on Sunday at the Manitoba Theatre for Young People (MTYP) at The Forks.
"His recent book, Inconvenient Skin, is a big project where he’s trying to make some sense of a missing father who’s connected up through residential school trauma," Diehl says of Koyczan, whose anti-bullying poem To This Day has more than 23 million views on YouTube.
"It will be a very different audience and a very different performance than Margaret Atwood. But he’s also huge, with an international reputation. When I told my beautiful 19-year-old daughter he was coming, she was floored."
MTYP will play host to the nightly mainstage events, which bring a handful of diverse authors together onstage for an often-dynamic reading. Programming associate and audience development co-ordinator Bruce Symaka takes the latest titles from participating authors — he reads around 100 books a year, most in conjunction with programming the festival — and finds themes that run through each night’s books.
"We see who’s available on certain days and then build around that," Symaka says. "Once we have an idea of the schedule, I spend days and nights and evenings thinking, ‘What do these books have in common?’"
Themes this year revolve around trust, real life, coping, literature "on the edge" and more.
Many festival favourites are back again this year, such as the Pint of Bitter Murder and Bitter Chalice events, which take place at the Good Will Social Club (625 Portage Ave.) on the afternoon of Saturday, Sept. 28, featuring thrillers, mysteries and more, and the open-mic After Words: Club Jazz, a festival highlight that pairs aspiring poets with jazz musicians on the evening of Sept. 29 at the Centre culturel franco-manitobain (340 Provencher Blvd.).
In addition to the festival faves, organizers have branched out to offer some new programming sure to satisfy a range of literary appetites.
Local nature writer Ariel Gordon (Treed) will team up with Saskatchewan author Candace Savage (Strangers in the House) for the Roots and Branches event on Thursday, Sept. 26, at 1:30 p.m., which will see the pair lead a nature walk on the Gabrielle Roy Winnipeg Trail.
On the evening of Saturday, Sept. 28, East India Company (349 York Ave.) will host author Naben Ruthnum for the Talking Curry event. Ruthnum, who writes thrillers under the pseudonym Nathan Ripley, penned 2017’s Curry: Reading, Eating and Race, which examines cultural identity in food and literature. For $45, attendees get an in-depth chat and a buffet dinner.
Another new event, happening in conjunction with Nuit Blanche on Sept. 28, will be the Playing Games event, which will pair writers with improv performers in both French and English in a loose, edgy environment.
"I’m really excited about it — we’re trying to put just enough structure on it so it doesn’t blow up, but not so much they can’t just go for it."
At the core of Thin Air is the diverse array of literary voices from all manner of backgrounds tackling topics that range from the trivial to the tragic. The Voices in the Circle program, highlighting local and Indigenous authors, has been more intimately integrated into the bigger festival program this year.
"I think we tripped into a much more diverse lineup almost 10 years ago," Diehl says. "This is the country we live in, and it matters. A lot of other festivals are a little slow catching up, and I’m glad we’re out front.
"We hear it from Indigenous writers as well as from other festivals — we’ve set the bar high."
For more information on authors and events as well as tickets, visit thinairwinnipeg.ca.
Literary editor, drinks writer
Ben MacPhee-Sigurdson edits the Free Press books section, and also writes about wine, beer and spirits.