“But so many voices filled that space”

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Last night we drove down to the Arts Centre in Sechelt to hear Ted Chamberlin read from his forthcoming book, Storylines: How Words Shape Our World. The Centre was full. Ted’s reading was inspiring; he drew together threads of his life pursuing stories, listening to them, teaching them, and how we understand the world and its diverse histories by paying attention. After his reading, there was time for questions from the audience and more discussion.

The first reading we attended at the Arts Centre was in spring of 1985. I know that because we’d been invited to the dinner for the author, John Newlove, beforehand; and I remember I was pregnant with Angelica. (So much of my own personal history is brought to mind by these details!) In the years that followed, we were both invited to read as part of the series hosted by the Sunshine Coast Arts Council at the Arts Centre, a beautiful log building which is a gallery, a performance space, and a warm venue for book launches and other events. We hosted an evening there to celebrate John’s Governor General’s award in 2006. Over time, when the committee organizing the reading series was chaired by the wonderful Dick Harrison, we became involved in a deeper way. Not as involved as many–I think of Eleanor Mae, Paddy Blenkinsop, Anne and Geoff Carr, and others–but John helped to decide on potential readers, poets in particular, and we hosted some of those over the years at our home overnight: Sarah DeLeeuw, Evelyn Lau, Kevin Paul, Pauline Holdstock, David O’Meara, and more. A dinner was held before the readings, with all of us preparing a main course or a salad or dessert, a clever way of ensuring both an audience and a work-crew to set up the Arts Centre for the events and then to put away chairs, tidy the kitchen afterwards (because we all contributed baked treats to have with coffee and tea during the break), and turn out the lights after everyone had left. A lot of work, more for some than others (which you’ll know if you’ve ever filled out funding forms for the arts agencies), and a really valuable gift to the community at large. Bev Shaw at Talewind Books would arrive early to set up a book table featuring the author’s work. She’d also paint details on the window of her store a week or two beforehand.

Last night, listening to Ted, I was following his strands of thinking and telling, the ones that detailed the Rastafarian story traditions, the Indigenous ones (including Kalahari, Australian aboriginal stories, those of Mongolian horse cultures, and more), and I was glad we’d driven down the coast, under stars, to come. So it was a little unsettling to hear one of those who organized the event announce that the reading series was being terminated after this season. (There are three more readers over the winter and spring: Nicole Markotic, Sam Wiebe, and Tolu Oloruntoba.) No reason was offered but the one making the rounds is that a new Arts Council intends to “decolonize” the Arts Centre and its offerings. Think about that. It’s a careless use of language at the very least. Decolonize a venue that has always been welcoming and inclusive, has become even more mindfully so as our thinking about inclusion and diversity has evolved? Last night Ted’s wife, Lorna Goodison, was with him, Lorna is former Poet Laureate of Jamaica, the author of multiple award-winning poetry and short-story collections and a gorgeous memoir, From Harvey River: A Memoir of My Mother and Her Island; she was part of the reading series a few years ago. Eden Robinson came one spring, not long before Son of a Trickster was published, and I remember I introduced her and put a little jug of salmonberry blossoms on the podium.

I think of the diligence and hard work and grace, yes, grace devoted to the reading series at the Arts Centre over more than 37 years, with crisp press releases, generous intelligent introductions, good questions after, and I can’t help but think those who did this work deserve more than a careless wave of the hand in the grand scheme to “decolonize” the place. I don’t know these people with these plans, apart from one or two. I haven’t seen them at readings over the years, again apart from one or two. But so many voices filled that space, over more than 37 years, so many lines of poetry, stories (including Ted’s last night), so much laughter (if you’ve heard Eden laugh, you’ll know what I mean), so much community. On the dark drive home, we were quiet, and then we weren’t. By Middlepoint, we were sad, angry, hurt at the work we’d done over the years, with others, being so casually and thoughtlessly abandoned. I was awake, thinking about the ways stories can save us, salvage us, take our broken parts and put them together again. How they can take us out of a bitter place for a time and give us the sweetness of human connection. That sweetness, what’s happened to it?