To make them laugh or make them cry is what shapes a good presentation from an author. This year’s four-day Festival of the Written Arts in Sechelt offered many laughing moments and a few tears as well.
Many of the 24 featured speakers, starting with humorist Terry Fallis, were able to see the funny side of truly tragic events and turn them into tales worth telling.
Take Bill Gaston, for example, and his book The World. Three dysfunctional characters meet to dine at a Korean restaurant. One is dying and feeds herself through a tube, to the agitation of the waitress. The other is suffering dementia and repeats himself, while the third is intent on tracking down the insurance official who has denied his claim for a house fire. There’s more than a bit of Gaston himself in these stories, especially the description of the man who burns his mortgage and, accidentally, his house in the process.
“I did that,” Gaston admitted to the audience, still smiling.
Or take live wire Kim Thuy, author of Ru, a non-linear, non-chronological novel based on her own family’s efforts to flee Vietnam after the Communist takeover. What could be funny about a refugee camp in Malaysia, you ask? Thuy’s sense of humour was so effervescent that she talked constantly for one solid hour without reading from her book at all. Those who were laughing were also brushing back tears as she described how the so-called boat people arrived in Quebec, starving, lice-ridden and feeling ugly. The people of the town embraced them, and the Vietnamese, in turn, embraced Canada.
Audrey Thomas manages to find humour everywhere — in advertisements, newspaper clippings and stories about human foibles. She shared them with the audience, to their delight.
Her latest book, Local Customs, is a novel set in early 19th century Africa and is based on a true story of an English writer who married a local governor and who died in mysterious circumstances. Did she die of fear, or was she poisoned? Thomas was intrigued by this mystery when she lived in Africa years ago, and turned it into a well-crafted tale with a narrator who speaks from the grave.
Author Claire Cameron’s book about a bear attack on a family camping in the wilderness is not funny subject matter. Yet the story is told from the point of view of a five-year-old narrator and has the naivete of youth. Cameron’s publicist keeps reminding her to tell audiences that the story is ultimately uplifting, and the vivacious Cameron gives it a positive spin.
First Nations writer and journalist Richard Wagamese gave an intense presentation reading from his latest book Medicine Walk. There was nothing to laugh about in this story of Franklin Starlight, who never really knows his father and who goes to war with his best buddy. Wagamese’s golden-throated speaking voice and his evident sincerity captured many hearts. He described his connectedness to nature as vital to him, and shared that he had drawn strength from the giant cedar tree in the Rockwood Gardens before his presentation.
Chris Turner, who delivered the Bruce Hutchison memorial lecture this year — a talk that captures the spirit of Canada — made it clear he was no fan of the Harper government. But there was little Tory-bashing in his informative talk; the facts spoke for themselves.
His book, The War on Science, describes how scientists have been muzzled: lack of data, lack of budget for research facilities, lack of analysis leading to bad policy. Turner dwelt on positives and what could be done. He suggested that placard protests against Harper or the pipeline are necessary but limited.
“They don’t offer a competing agenda,” he said.
With 91 million barrels of oil used globally every day, fossil fuels are still our daily bread. Where will that new agenda come from? Turner pointed to the work of a German politician, the late Dr. Hermann Scheer, chairman of the Council for Renewable Energy, whose plans pushed Germany toward a greener future.
The date for next year’s Festival is set: Aug. 13 to 16, 2015. Throughout the year other writing events are listed on the website: www.writersfestival.ca
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