What is Thin Air?
At the 2003 Festival, Margaret Atwood flashed one of her devilish smiles, pulled a scarf up across her face, and quoted Shakespeare’s Prospero: “These our actors, as I foretold you, were all spirits and are melted into air, into thin air.” Then she pirouetted and ducked into the maze of milling people. That passage—and that moment—hold everything in balance: the ephemeral quality of art-making, the durability of memory, the powerful impact when an artist meets an audience… This is THIN AIR. Each September, the Winnipeg International Writers Festival welcomes writers from Canada and around the world for a week of readings, lectures, interviews, conversations, book launches, and other events. With programming for adults and children, in English and in French, in the city and outside the city limits, THIN AIR is an infusion of energy into the thriving literary culture of the province. The Winnipeg International Writers Festival programming spills over into the off-season as well, allowing us to showcase special writers and events at Winnipeg venues throughout the year.
Our purpose is to strengthen and support a broad reading community by curating and presenting an annual festival celebrating writers and reading, and by acting as a reading resource. To serve those ends, we showcase quality writing, we create forums for conversation, creativity, and learning, and we share our enthusiasm.
The Winnipeg International Writers Festival was created in 1997 by three individuals from the Manitoba Writers Guild. Their goal was to create a week of literary events that featured some of the best writers around. Director Charlene Diehl took the helm in 2003, and over the past two dozen years, the organization has branched out in many directions: we now host two annual festivals, a monthly poetry open mic, several annual programming initiatives, and we maintain a long-term collaboration presenting literary events with McNally Robinson.
We’re grateful to the vision and determination of our founders, Robyn Maharaj, journalist, poet, former arts administrator, and true crime author; Mark Morton, award-winning author and journalist now based in the Centre for Teaching Excellence at the University of Waterloo; and the late Andris Taskans, founding member of the Manitoba Writers’ Guild and co-founder and long-time editor of Prairie Fire Magazine.
In 2011, they shared their memories of the first festival:
Robyn Maharaj remembers…
“My memories of the start of what would become THIN AIR: the Winnipeg International Writers Festival is of a lot of meetings. Meetings with potential community partners, non-committing funders and somewhat skeptical eastern-based publishers that took place in various locals around the city and in short order, the country as we attempted to strengthen ties and connections with as many people as we could in an effort to get a festival off the ground. We flew as many of the go-to people in the Canadian literary festival world to Winnipeg as we could, and they were patient as we pummeled them with questions, draft budgets and first drafts of what we hoped were sincere and earnest sounding invitation letters to our ever-growing list of writers who made the various short-lists.
Having been mostly hands-off for the last several years yet able to observe the Festival—its accomplishments and successes—from here and afar, it must be said that the people involved from taking it (still a fledgling) from the core of founders and volunteers to those who work steadily each year to make it happen are why it is a thriving, going concern. Looking back, I have to say that the time, energy, wrist-wringing (at the size of some of our early audiences in the vast cave of the West End Cultural Centre) and yes even the meetings were worth it to see this organization that now brings many thousands of readers and writers together in a magical, profound way grow into a world-class adventure for the mind and soul in the form of THE annual literary Festival in Manitoba. Here’s to THIN AIR!”
Andris Taskans remembers…
“The Winnipeg Writers Festival was supported in its early years by both the Manitoba Writers Guild and Prairie Fire Press. To get things off to a proper start, we incorporated the festival with the three of us [Maharaj, Morton and Taskans] as officers. I believe I got to be president. Somehow we found money to hire Paula Kelly as our sole (and indispensable) employee. A wild roller coaster ride ensued.
With little money and no time to read new books, I had to choose potential guests by relying on people’s reputations, my colleagues’ advice, and even publicists’ bumf. Although a few of the line-ups were a bit shaky, most worked well and were reasonably attended, despite our puny publicity budget. Our mainstage venue was the old West End Cultural Centre. The two most memorable evenings for me were the poetry bash and an onstage interview with Pierre Berton conducted, I believe, by Ron Robinson.
The poetry bash was headlined by Al Purdy; warm-up readers included George Amabile and Anne Szumigalski. Purdy was a wonderful reader and was buoyed by a turnout of around 200.
The Berton conversation was billed as the main feature following some readings. Mr. Berton was in ill health and couldn’t stay up late. Just as the intermission was announced, the WECC’s sound system blew out with a loud pop. Paula and I fretted as staff worked frantically to restore sound. We knew that if there was a delay, Berton’s handler had threatened to take him back to the hotel. The intermission ended all too soon. When Ron Robinson spoke into the mic and we knew it was working again, Paula and I were so relieved we hugged each other.”
Mark Morton remembers…
“My recollection of how the Winnipeg International Writers Festival began is a bit fuzzy, because (like many things that take root and flourish) it was an organic process, one that grew out a prior literary event that the Manitoba Writers’ Guild had coordinated, and one that evolved incrementally from a notion to a plan to a reality.
I do remember an initial meeting in the offices of Prairie Fire with Robyn Maharaj and Andris Taskans, mostly because it began with Andris asking us if we would like a “refreshing beverage” (of tea or diet-Coke). That offer of a “refreshing beverage” was reiterated at the beginning of dozens of subsequent meetings, and Andris always uttered it in a tone that hovered between whimsy and solemnity. It became, I think, our unofficial “call to order,” a small tradition that helped buoy us through the flux and quandaries that emerged as we tried to figure out how to invent and launch a literary festival.
I also recall that the three of us—Andris, Robyn, and myself—worked well as a team. I think that Andris saw the forest, Robyn saw the trees, and I raked up the leaves. I’m not exactly sure what the metaphor means, but somehow it captures the essence of how the festival came to be.”.
Thin Air, qu’est-ce que c’est?
Chaque année au mois de septembre, Winnipeg ouvre son coeur culturel et artistique pour accueillir des écrivains d’ici et d’ailleurs. C’est une semaine de lectures, d’entrevues, de lancements de livres et de bonnes conversations. Ce buffet de littérature s’appelle THIN AIR, le Festival international des écrivains de Winnipeg. Livre en fête est la composante francophone du festival THIN AIR. Le Festival comprend des programmations pour adultes et pour enfants, en anglais et en français. THIN AIR, c’est une infusion d’énergie littéraire !
Énoncé de mission
Notre but est le renforcement et le soutien d’une collectivité élargie de lecteurs en organisant et en présentant un festival annuel qui célèbre les auteurs et les lecteurs, et en servant de ressource pour la lecture. Pour atteindre ces fins, nous mettons en valeur des œuvres littéraires de qualité, nous créons des forums de conversation, de créativité et d’apprentissage, et nous partageons notre enthousiasme avec le public.
Le Festival international des écrivains de Winnipeg a été créé en 1997 par trois personnes de la Manitoba Writers Guild. Leur objectif était de créer une semaine d’événements littéraires, mettant en vedette certains des meilleurs écrivains du pays. La directrice Charlene Diehl a pris la barre en 2003 et au cours des deux dernières décennies, l’organisation s’est développée dans de nombreuses directions : nous organisons maintenant deux festivals annuels, un micro ouvert mensuel de poésie, plusieurs initiatives de programmation annuelle et nous entretenons une collaboration à long terme avec McNally Robinson pour la présentation d’événements littéraires.
Nous sommes reconnaissants envers la vision et la détermination de nos fondateurs : Robyn Maharaj, journaliste, poète, ancienne administratrice des arts et auteure de romans policiers, Mark Morton, auteur et journaliste primé, qui travaille maintenant au Centre for Teaching Excellence de l’Université de Waterloo, et le regretté Andris Taskans, membre fondateur de la Manitoba Writers’ Guild et cofondateur et rédacteur en chef de longue date du Prairie Fire Magazine.