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Urban Compass Calgary

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Alberta is full of interesting stories. It's time to start telling them

We live in a land of interesting stories.

It’s taken Albertans awhile to clue into this. In Edmonton, novelist Thomas Wharton recently complained on his blog about the number of his writing students who refuse to set stories in their own city because they hate it.

“It seems to be the attitude of most beginning writers here that only New York, London, or Big Gritty Generic City USA are proper settings for a story,” wrote Wharton, who teaches at the University of Alberta. “These students have absorbed the idea — wherever from? — that this place is too dull, boring, and characterless to be worth setting a story in.”

But if you don’t tell the story of your own home, Wharton argued, somebody from somewhere else will take it from you, and sell it back.

He’s right. Even worse: In recent years, our federal and provincial governments have dumped millions of dollars on PR campaigns that aim to “share our energy story” with the rest of the world.

A few years ago, a journalism colleague asked me when we’d see a novel about Alberta and the oilsands. What he meant was, when would somebody take on what’s happening right here, right now? Twentysomethings raking in six-figure salaries in Fort McMurray. Newly homeless families amid Calgary’s boomtown affluence. Tightening tension between industry and indigenous communities along the Athabasca River.

All the elements of a good story were there. Heck, look at all the film celebrities — stars in the business of storytelling — who have flown to Fort McMurray to see it for themselves.

It was all right in front of us.

So why, my colleague wondered, had no Alberta novelist tackled this?

It seems this is changing. We now have that oilsands book, for one thing. Giller-nominated author Fred Stenson, one of western Canada’s best and most accomplished storytellers, recently published Who by Fire, a novel set in contemporary Alberta.

Stenson, who lives in Cochrane, begins in southern Alberta in the 1960s, where farmer families suffer after the arrival of a new sour gas processing plant. Stenson then brings us to modern Alberta, exploring the tension between industrial development and neighbouring communities. I’m only partway through the book, but I’m glad Stenson chose to write about his own home, his story. Our story.

I’m sure a few Alberta novelists are looking at Stenson and wondering: Why didn’t I think of that? With storytelling confidence comes maturity. When the New York Times published a story last week on Calgary’s flourishing cultural scene, for example, the local response on social media was measured satisfaction rather than gobsmacked ecstasy. It wasn’t, “I can’t believe it! We got written up in the New York Times!” It was more, “Hey cool, the New York Times is noticing what an interesting city this is.”

This is a place with interesting stories. We shouldn’t hesitate to keep telling them.

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