As the sun set outside, the light streaming through the big skylights in the Christ Church Cathedral hall turned violet and dwindled away. The intimate mood set by the fading light was perfect for the stories told by the three memoirists chosen to read at the Saturday night Ottawa Writer’s Festival event. Inside, a hundred chairs were filled with a rapt audience. The concentric circles of the labyrinth design on the floor encircled all of them - audience, readers, and volunteers – serving as a metaphor for the way great stories draw us in, and bring us closer to the heart of what it means to be human.
After introductions, Craig Davidson was first to read. His memoir, Precious Cargo , tells the story of a year spent driving a bus for children with special needs, and the lessons he learned from their strength and innocence. Davidson was nervous at first, telling the listeners that it was his first public reading from the book. However, he quickly got a rhythm and revealed rich insight and imagery in his writing. He read with emotion, introducing the characters whose stories changed his perspective.
Following him, James Bartleman read from stories spanning 70 years of his life, Seasons of Hope . Bartleman, Ontario’s first Native Lieutenant Governor, demonstrated a long memory and his capacity for empathy, whether he was talking about the death of a friend when he was 6 or the spate of suicides happening now in Attawapiskat. Bartleman seemed unaware of his age as he delved into the past, and read and spoke clearly about his work creating programs to improve the futures for Northern youths. Bartleman has traveled extensively in the North and met with Aboriginal leaders to establish summer reading camps and mental wellness programs with the aim of preventing youth suicide and depression; none of the kids who attended these camps committed suicide, according to Bartleman. He focused on hope as a tool for helping people surmount obstacles including those in his own life, “turning disadvantages into advantages and those of others".
The third reader was Carmen Aguirre, winner of the 2012 Canada Reads Prize for her memoir Something Fierce. She read an excerpt from her new book, Mexican Hooker #1 , detailing how an acting class provided the passage through the memory of traumatic childhood sexual assault and allowed her to let it go. Her reading was infused with passion as she described the different kinds of risk she had encountered and told a tale of willpower and strength in overcoming challenges.
Each of the stories was very different, but weaving them together was the force the human spirit can show while being tested. In the Q & A following the readings, each author discussed the impact on their lives of maintaining perspective and taking positive action. Optimism, courage and hope are key in these stories, and the audience was moved to laughter and compassion. The event was a testament to the power of story; hearing and experiencing the stories around them brought meaning and strength to the lives of the authors, and in sharing them with readers, the stories are sure to change lives.