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Who'S Really Who
by Phil Hall

THE 10th International Festival of Authors (held October 13 to 21 in Toronto) ended with an awards brunch that left me, and, I suspect, most of the people in attendance, sockless! Tomson Highway won the Wang Festival Prize of $7,500 in cash, and a desktop publishing system from Wang Canada, Ltd., worth an additional $20,000! Why the exclamation marks? Why no socks? Because of how much money that is, because of what a prestigious award it is, and because of the judges' choice. I walked out through the plush silver light of the lobby of the Harbour Castle Westin, my recall stuck on instant replay: Tomson Highway, accepting his prize, had spoken in a way that cut beneath our English, his Cree, and all of the 17 languages that had been represented at the festival. He said that this was a stepping of his people and his language onto the stage of Canadian and international literature. From Brochet Reserve in northern Manitoba ... to the Wang International Festival of Authors at Harbourfront in Toronto -- my socks were off to the brilliance of the choice, for sure, but also to the haunting, impersonal chant of grassroots, grassroots that Highway's acceptance speech had restarted in my head and gut. A week of readings, a blur of greatness superimposed upon greatness, and 18 hours of acute, devoted listening had nullified that grassroots chant. You know what I mean: that Who's Anybody? that echoes back from each new edition of Who's Who. To bring together more than 10,000 audience members with 64 of the earth's best-known living writers in such an elegant place as the Premiere Dance Theatre at Harbourfront, and to have done so, annually, for 10 years, is a human achievement worthy of our respect and tempered awe. Greg Gatenby and his staff are heroes for what they have managed to do. By establishing the world's largest annual literary event on our home turf these people have brought to us, cared for, and sent home to speak well of us most of the world's most word-influential/talented writers of the last decade. So I would surmise that the Authors' Festival has done more to promote Canadian writing than any other institution in our history. The daily info-pulps have done their duty by this amazing achievement, this festival that is a great, well-oiled machine of transport, a machine that transports humans An airplane? No -- those crash. A train? No -- those are history. A time machine? OK -- but what is it taking us back to or toward? From all that we have read of an author's work, and from all the times we have stared at that same promo-photo, trying to weld his or her words to Kodak comes not one hint to prepare us for the reality of the actual presence of that person/author, nothing to buffer the fans we are from the shock of shared humanity forced home by proximity. "I never would have thought her so jolly (or cryptic), or him such a sweet man (or boor). The best argument for the star treatment that festival guests receive comes when we realize that the person on stage is overwhelmed by our applause and is smiling, blinded by the spotlights, out into the tiered darkness, humbly letting applause wash over her, soaking up our gratitude like a parched desert plant. And as that person leaves the stage, sits down and then must stand again and smile and bow again as the applause goes on ... as our hands grow weary from clapping ... we understand that this moment for that author may be the greatest moment Of acknowledgement in her whole career. The art on the stage behind the podium this year was a huge double enlargement of an illuminated letter B from an ancient psalter. It took a medieval monk two years of squinting to paint that letter; and its two images were a perfect stage-set for the festival -- because of the difference between the work of the monk hunched over his desk and the work of the top-of-the- line gadgets the Mediacom people must have used to reproduce and enlarge such an image twice. I began to see, by the end of the week, that this difference is the same as the difference between a writer's solitary work and the huge media event that is sometimes made of that work. Or the difference between cafe readings and this international festival. I got to thinking about cafe readings, and The Great Canadian Poetry Weekend that happened for a few summers in the late 1970s. Where has the casual equality of such events been transported to? How have we been transported into an age of Literary Giants, when we know that each Giant is only a talented monk no bigger than we are, enlarged by the spotlight? Well, for one thing, it takes big bucks to finance a festival of this size and quality. Greg Gatenby was the first host of a reading series in Canada to go after corporate funding instead of relying totally on the federal and provincial granting structures. And he got it. And how. And with all that executive sponsorship has come a star system and an awards system for creating stars, for spotlighting pencil pushers until they are seen as Giants. With corporate funding has come a festival so good at what it does that we don't give a second thought to paying $15 to hear authors read from their works. (That is, of course, if we have $15 to spend in such a way.) This is what Tomson Highway's acceptance words cut through, or dived under, or flew over ... transporting us back a moment to the vital reasons for words. Reasons, not reasonings. A vision shared, not accolades. And Merna Summers, who won the Marian Engel Award, also alluded to this sharing of vision when she spoke of "all the writers who are not getting awards and who deserve them." I am all for the International Festival of Authors. But I would warn us, the audience, against falling too easily into a star system, and against believing in Giants. I would tell us: believe in people and in words that are of use to people. I would tell us: it is intrinsic to a festival of this size and to the nature of its funding that its mechanisms lose the ability to hear the grassroots, grassroots chant that is always here for us to respond to by a generosity in our words and by non-competitive reading. (Or almost intrinsic -because someone in the festival works heard Highway loud and clear.)

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