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Memoir rising



Like most local writers, I look forward annually to the Whistler Writers Festival and its critical mass of talent that always blows me away. Last week's incarnation was no different in delivering a full slate of fantastic events, readings and workshops. As has become custom, I took the helm in leading a non-fiction session, this one involving five authors each launching a new memoir. Non-fiction is a broad category and past sessions have involved a range of works that often included memoir, but never just that. So I had a lot of questions, which was good because there's always some discussion after readings: Was memoir respected? Did people construe it simply as the realm of celebrities, athletes, and politicians, or were there many ways to investigate a life, and many lives worth investigating? Whether you normally wrote fiction or non-fiction, how did approaching yourself as subject compare; how much of your "usual" approach were you able to import? Finally, when we write memoir, are we honestly mining life's complexities and struggles — or just retelling stories we tell ourselves?

At the minimum, I reasoned, the best memoir writing would not only illuminate the experience of a person, but expand a reader's understanding of the world. I needn't have worried on any count because, as one guest writer put it "the genre wall has fractured."

As I read through the five very different experiences of five very different people told in five very different ways, at times I found my own understanding expanding so rapidly I thought my mind might explode. But that's the thing about a book: you can put it down for a bit and let your brain catch up — a good thing to do even with books you can't put down.

In the end, the honesty, candor, style and information delivered by these titles couldn't help but impress. When the panel finally convened to read from their works, I welcomed five people I'd never met, but whom I didn't exactly feel were strangers.

Saskatchewan native Shelley A. Leedahl lives in Ladysmith, B.C., and has a publishing résumé packed with poetry, short fiction, novels, kid lit and non-fiction. She described her latest book I Wasn't Always Like This (Signature Editions) to me as "a potluck of experiences — none particularly dramatic, just writerly life-being-lived stuff." This was beyond modest, as the sum of this book is far greater than the whole of its parts, and the essays — which read like finely crafted short stories — contain many astute observations, stitched into a tight and meaningful bundle at the end by one simple razor insight.

Winnipeg reporter Jane Harris said writing Finding Home in the Promised Land (J. Gordon Shillingford ) saved her life. It's both a personal journey into homelessness and a deeply researched, scathing indictment of Canada's "poverty industry," a telling phrase whose explanation changed the way I now think about charity.

Jan Drabek, a Vancouverite and former head of the B.C. Writer's Union, had the most wide-ranging history. Born in Prague, his family escaped on skis from newly Communist Czechoslovakia in 1948. Subsequently working all over the world as a taxi driver, refugee resettlement officer, high school teacher, radio broadcaster and ambassador, it's no surprise he has penned 20 books in both English and Czech. His reissued memoir Thirteen (Caitlin Press) is a window into the zeitgeist of Nazi occupation during World War II that brings the city's many recognizable landmarks to life through the eyes of both a young boy moving among them, and the measured adult recalling it.

Victoria's Trisha Cull has published a good amount of poetry and won many prestigious awards. She also wrote the death of small creatures (Nightwood Editions), an amazingly intimate book that swims with grace through the heavy seas of bulimia, bipolar disorder, self-mutilation and substance abuse. I learned the most from this one: it both drew me in emotionally and delivered better understanding of things that, unless you can appreciate them from the inside as here, are only labels.

Brian Brett is a prize-winning author from Salt Spring Island who was no stranger to Whistler: once upon a time he was our writer in residence. The last installment of his memoir-trilogy is Tuco: The Parrot, the Others, and a scattershot world, which explores the lives of a smack-talking bird and a once-marginalized man that became intertwined. Brett skillfully blends elements that belong together but too often drift apart: an understanding of the world as delivered by science, an understanding as delivered by nature itself, and an understanding of attitudes towards nature and the animals we often set ourselves apart from — including other people.

I was fascinated by the many parallels between Brett's subjects and my own — in the creatures and ideas he fixed on, and in the particulars he took note of. He'd come upon these as important issues while writing memoir, while I had been writing about these issues' import and stumbled into memoir. Many reviews of my own book, Snakebit: Confessions of a Herpetologist had lauded it as memoir — the first I'd heard of that. Ditto White Planet: A Mad Dash through Modern Global Ski Culture. With both I had set out to spin tales of mountains, travel, and the natural world, but memoir became the unintended connective tissue on which to spin them.

When you think about it, much of outdoor literature is, in fact, like this. After all, adventure = experience = de facto memoir. A great example is a book I read last year.

The reasonably sycophant-free climbing world had heralded Canmore-based Barry "Bubba" Blanchard's The Calling: A Life Rocked by Mountains the "most anticipated book of 2014," and it well fit the bill. Sure there was the usual heart-pounding descriptions of sketchy climbing situations in far-flung locales and more than the occasional dead friend, but it was more the parallel chronicling of his ascent from poor Prairie kid on the wrong side of the tracks to one of the world's most accomplished alpinists that make the book. As a portrait of climbing culture in the days of punk rock, the rhythms of adrenaline and youthful arrogance that run through the book are deeply personal — so much so it comes with an accompanying playlist.

A playlist? Indeed the genre of memoir has cracked wide open.

Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn't like.

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