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Writers spread the words at STARFest, Edmonton Poetry Festival

STARFest Conversations and The Edmonton Stroll of Poets take place this weekend
Award-winning Theresa Shea, writer of The Shade Tree, is the featured guest at STARFest Conversations on Sunday, April 23 at Forsythe Hall in St. Albert Place. SUPPLIED

One of the most powerful Alberta writers of this decade will be a special guest at STARFest Conversations on Sunday. 

Theresa Shea, a historical fiction novelist, will discuss her latest book, The Shade Tree, winner of Canada’s Guernica Literary Prize. This blistering indictment of the Jim Crow era deals with topics of systemic racism, slavery, feminism and the destructive strictures of society. 

“I always wanted to write a book with characters I would want to go back and read. In fiction, you see what they think within the context of the world they live in. Sometimes, you understand why they do what they do,” said Shea.  

The Edmonton-based author has a doctorate in literature, and wrote the novel over a 10-year period using every tool available including YouTube to develop an understanding of character and circumstance. 

“I hope it blows up the myth that when slavery was abolished, it was fine. It wasn’t.” 

From the start, The Shade Tree follows the lives of three southern women living in Florida and later Washington from 1930 to 1963. Sisters Ellie and Mavis are entitled daughters of a white orchard owner. The third is Sliver, a Black midwife who lives on a more affluent neighbouring farm. 

Ellie, the older sister, is “smart, beautiful, bored and devious.” She lies about a sexual relationship with a Black man and he is lynched. Recognizing her power as a white woman, she develops a pattern of sexually exploiting Black men.  

“She sees what goes on – white men helping themselves to Black women. But she gets caught, is separated and sent away,” said Shea. 

Mavis, on the other hand, displays more sensitivity than Ellie, and attempts to look at ways to improve things. However, she gradually realizes she’s an accomplice to social injustice around her. 

Sliver, the most sympathetic of the three, is inextricably tied to the sisters through bloodlines and eventually rescues her "mulatto" grandson from his manipulative mother – Ellie.  

“She goes to Washington to save her grandchild. And Mavis goes North with her. She’s sympathetic and wants to get out of Dodge.” 

Shea, who was born in Maryland, is intrigued by big, global issues, and developed an interest in social justice following in her mother’s footsteps. Her mother Sharon was an activist at heart and attended a massive civil rights march in the 60s with two young children. At the time, Shea was barely three months old. 

“My mother was always interested in social justice. She was young, white and when she got married, she invited a Black girl friend to her wedding in 1962. She politely declined. My mother only found out afterwards the country club wouldn’t allow Black people entry. My mother’s friend knew this, but my mother didn’t.” 

Following Sharon’s traditions, Shea has taken her own children to Truth and Reconciliation events. 

“I really like what Mary McCarthy (American novelist-political activist) said. “Every age has a keyhole to which its eyes are pasted.” 

As a storyteller, she is careful not to pass judgment. 

“The power of fiction novels allows us to go places we might not other wise go.” 

STARFest Conversations takes place at Forsythe Hall in St. Albert Place on Sunday, April 23 at 2 p.m. Registration is at

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The 2023 Edmonton Poetry Festival celebrates poetry and spoken work from April 22-30. Under the banner of Ignite.Unite, one of its programs, The Blinks Ignition, revs up its engine for an evening of full throttle poetry and fun. 

Published St. Albert poet Dorothy Lowrie is one of a dozen who will dare to climb the podium delivering a new rapid-fire, succinct 30-second poem. Blinks has strict rules. Anyone who reads even one second longer is disqualified. 

“I’m inclined to write a haiku. It’s short and you can generally get a message across in a short space,” said Lowrie, who began writing poetry five years ago. 

She had lost close family members and poetry, “was a good way to heal and put my life in perspective.” 

While poets have a reputation for being dry, Lowrie said that couldn’t be further from the truth. 

“It’s a lot of fun and a lot of people get dressed up in a costume that relates to their poem.” 

The Stroll of Poets hosts The Blinks Ignition on Sunday, April 23 at The Aviary, 9314 – 111 Avenue from 6:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.  

Anna Borowiecki

About the Author: Anna Borowiecki

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