by Rebecca Wood Barrett
On an icy night in February, a hush falls over a Whistler theatre stuffed beyond capacity. Extra chairs have been squeezed onto the end of rows, and the opening presenter warns us that if there is a fire, everyone must leave in an orderly fashion. The audience laughs. They inch to the edge of their seats, eager for the presentation to begin.
But this is no show about hucking off cliffs, or shredding the gnar. There is no ski-bum speaker to regale us with tales of how they survived an avalanche, won a gold medal against all odds, or lived off-the-grid for two years in a van in Lot 4, chasing the powder dream. You won’t hear a pumping soundtrack, no tortured vocals by disaffected youth. This is no filmmaker showdown, no wet-T shirt contest, no homage to the extreme, featuring risky stunts in the mountains on boards or skis or bikes.
This is literature, baby. And it’s sold out.
If you didn’t snap up your tickets early, you can be forgiven. A literary reading and Q&A⎯even with a CBC icon⎯is not your typical high-octane Whistler spectacle. But it seems that the word-nerds have dug the spike of their literary crampons in and secured traction.
The apparent overnight success has in fact been germinating since 2003, when the Celebration 2010: Whistler Arts Festival and Whistler Arts Council granted seed money to the Whistler Writers’ Group to put on a literary event. The first plantings of the Literary Leanings Reading Series evolved in the attic space at a Creekside restaurant, where writers read to an audience of fifty. Along with up-and-coming authors Nancy Lee (Dead Girls), Lee Henderson (The Man Game), and Adam Lewis Schroeder (Kingdom of Monkeys), our own local writers read from their stories to an appreciative, but all-too-small audience.
Stella Harvey, founder of the non-profit Whistler Writers’ Group and organizer of the event, credits the annual injection of Olympic cultural funding as raising the profile of the literary arts by attracting quality authors to Whistler. Over the years, headliners have included Patrick Lane, Lorna Crozier, Michael Winter, Lisa Moore, Ivan E. Coyote, Noah Richler, Warren MacDonald, David Gilmour, John Valliant and Annette Lapointe. Harvey says “It also gives local writers from the Sea to Sky a chance to share the stage with their better known counterparts, to showcase their talents when they wouldn’t otherwise have this opportunity. The local writers come from Squamish to Pemberton, some of whom include Stephen Vogler, Lisa Richardson, Jude Goodwin and Pam Barnsley.”
Seven years on, Literary Leanings 2009 has grown in stature and become a must-see event at the month-long arts festival⎯which has now morphed into the Whistler Winter Arts Festival, co-presented by the Whistler Arts Council and Cultural Olympiad Vancouver 2010. The Whistler Winter Arts Festival was created in 2003 to build capacity and create excitement for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games.
Harvey says, “The funding allows us to bring in a big name. It makes for a marketable show, something unique and different, and of a quality that people will come and watch. Now people want to attend a literary event⎯it put us on the map.”
The Big Name this year is Joseph Boyden, fresh from his Giller Prize win for his novel Through Black Spruce. Boyden’s wife and author Amanda Boyden (Babylon Rolling) and Steven Galloway (The Cellist of Sarajevo) join him onstage as Shelagh Rogers of CBC Radio moderates the discussion and interviews each writer. Later, the show will be broadcast to the country on national radio.
Take a step back, and you might ask why this cultural convergence, taking place in the exquisite venue of the Squamish Lillooet Cultural Centre, is being funded by the world’s greatest sporting event? What do Canadian Joseph Boyden, who is Metis, and Amanda Boyden, who is American and a former trapeze artist, have anything to do with the pinnacle tournament of winter sports? What can Galloway, who is bookish in glasses and with a self-deprecating wit, offer to the 2010 Olympics? No world records for speed skating or ski jumping are being broken tonight.
However, there is something strange and serendipitous happening, and the audience senses it. Rogers asks Galloway a question about how he came to write his book. In it, a cellist plays in a bomb crater in Sarajevo for 22 days to commemorate the same number of people who died one day during the siege. “We have a tendency,” Galloway says, “in North America in particular to view art as a luxury item, things like music or books as almost a frivolity. But the way Europeans look at it, and kind of the way I look at it, is that one of the points of art and music is to remind us of our innate humanity.”
The audience nods, as though Galloway has expressed a collective thought⎯yes, this is why we are here, listening to these authors read.
Is it possible then, that the three pillars of the modern Olympic Movement⎯sport, culture and environment⎯are the combined values that honour our very humanness? That the link between the desire to race beyond physical boundaries in the extremes of winter, is not so far from the hunger of writers to explore, through literature, the edges of our humanity in times of extreme duress?
Perhaps the audience seems to think so, for at the end of the evening the applause lasts a long time.
In the great Native hall after the show is over, the audience members line up to buy the authors’ books, and ask them for their autographs. In one year’s time, the world will come to Whistler to watch our athletes, and at the same time honour our artists, the core of our community.