Boundary breaking books

Thin Air showcases some of Canada and the world’s most creative authors

Charlene Diehl, director of Thin Air 2013.

Daniel Crump

Writing outside the margins.

Charlene Diehl – director of Thin Air 2013 – is determined to change people’s perceptions of what the festival actually is.  

The 17th annual Winnipeg International Writers Festival – Sept. 20 to 28 – contains many events that aren’t your standard book reading or author talk.

Take Forewords for instance. The event – Saturday, Sept. 21 at the Winnipeg Free Press News Café – is a celebration of spoken word, featuring performances by the Winnipeg Poetry Slam Team and a contest called Haiku Death Match.

A huge hit at last year’s festival, Haiku Death Match sees competitors facing off, battle rap-style, dishing out their best 17 syllables. The audience votes and after several rapid-fire rounds, a Haiku Master is declared.

“It lets us tap into a much more rowdy, more improv and less book kind of crowd,” Diehl says.  

“A lot of people came to (Haiku Death Match) last year and went ‘Holy crap! The festival isn’t this elitist bunch of snobs who have no social life.’ That’s an image we have to pay attention to and find creative ways of smashing.”  

The words “death match” might scare off your average Oprah’s Book Club member, but Diehl insists that spoken word is as literary as any book.

“They’re writers on a different platform, in a different register,” Diehl says. “They have much more connection with theatre than a book writer, but the same raw materials are there. It’s that same ultimate impulse at the front end and the back end, having a story and wanting it to be received.”

It’s not just the spoken word artists that are deviating from the norm.

Ottawa-based writer Andrew Steinmetz has reinvented the biography with his new book This Great Escape: The Case of Michael Paryla.

Paryla is Steinmetz’s father’s cousin. Born in Vienna in 1935 to German parents – a half-Jewish mother and an actor/communist father – Paryla spent the war years in Switzerland, eventually moving to Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. as a teenager. He went on to attend McGill University and became interested in acting, moving to Germany to pursue a career there.

In 1962, Paryla landed a 57 second role as a Gestapo agent in John Sturges’ The Great Escape. The American film – starring Steve McQueen, James Garner and Richard Attenborough – details an escape by Allied prisoners from a German POW camp during the Second World War.

A few years later, Paryla died of a drug overdose in Hamburg, consuming a lethal mix of alcohol and sleeping pills.

In researching Paryla’s story, Steinmetz found many interesting connections to his relative’s life and role in the film and the actual POW camp escape.

“It became this mediation on escape,” Steinmetz, 47, says. “There’s the original escape of the prisoners, the escape of my family leaving Germany, the escape of the actor, escaping yourself to identify with a role, Michael escaping his past and with his death, was he trying to end his life or escape his life and is there a difference between the two? The movie is also an example of escapism, escaping your life for a moment.”

This Great Escape isn’t written in your typical biography, chronological, third-person style. Steinmetz says the voice isn’t consistent, changing from chapter to chapter, be it oral history, letters, photographs or Steinmetz own speculations of Paryla’s life while watching the film.

“For myself, it was escaping genre, escaping my own self,” Steinmetz says. “I try to weave all this in to the ultimate question of Michael’s ending and what happened that night?”

Shawna Dempsey and Lorri Millan are also all about taking liberties. The local lesbian performance artists are re-writing history with Bedtime Stories for the Edge of the World.

The book contains eight short stories spanning the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries which according to Dempsey “look at how women of different times and places negotiate this idea of invention in a colonial context.”

“I think we’ve always tried to write better endings for women and to a large extent that’s what these stories are doing,” Dempsey,who has been working with Millan for 25 years, says.

“They contain a feminist politic and a lesbian perspective. The body is very present and the desire is present in situations in which history has denied that. We insert it whether it was there or not.”

Bedtime Stories features such subjects as alleged axe murderer Lizzie Borden, the wives of Latter Day Saint leader Brigham Young, a Manitoban Medusa and a female Lone Ranger and Tonto. With the stories, Dempsey and Millan are critiquing North America myths of justice and equality.

“There’s this idea in North America that anyone can make it,” Dempsey says. “If you work hard, you can make it. That’s not true for many, many people who are ‘othered’ in this culture.”

From playing with history to playing with a potential future, Lauren Carter’s Swarm imagines a world where the oil has run out, the financial and social structures have collapsed and a family inhabiting a small island is just trying to survive.

“The book is optimistic in the sense that the people keep going,” the 40-year-old author from The Pas says.

“The whole idea is ‘OK, after this kind of a lifestyle ends, where everybody can get what they want, what keeps going?’ Well, what keeps going is survival.

“That’s the idea of the swarm. Bees swarm. They may overcrowd the hive and have to leave the hive but they find another place to live. It might not be perfect but they keep going.”

Diehl keeps going. This is her 11th year as director of Thin Air and while she says prepping for the festival is always a bit crazy, the stress completely dissipates on opening night.

“It’s nine days of bliss out party,” Diehl says. “You haul yourself to bed every night and your head is just busting open with all the conversations you’ve had and the readings you’ve heard, the eloquence, the wit, the humour and the bravery. You drop into sleep with your head buzzing and then you do it all over again the next day.”

For a full schedule and more information on Thin Air go to

Published in Volume 68, Number 3 of The Uniter (September 18, 2013)

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