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Hear from acclaimed Okanagan writers at Valley Voices reading

Brian Thomas Isaac and Harold Rhenisch will be hosted at the Feb. 7 reading in Vernon
Okanagan writers Brian Thomas Isaac (left) and Harold will each do a reading and talk at the next Valley Voices event Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2024, at Bean Scene Cafe. (Submitted photos)

An Okanagan reading series will feature two celebrated local writers who will share their thoughts on how writing can contribute to reconciliation.

Guests will have the chance to be immersed in the worlds of Brian Thomas Isaac and Harold Rhenisch at a Valley Voices reading Feb. 7 at Bean Scene Cafe.

Rhenisch, a Vernon poet, grew up on a Similkameen valley orchard, flying kites and pruning fruit trees under the winter stars to make space for light.

West Kelowna writer Isaac grew up flying kites and fishing in storms on the Okanagan Indian Reserve near Falkland, in a shack without electric lights or running water.

Rhenisch went to university to study poetry and has since published 34 books. The book that was 55 years in the making, Tree Whisperer, is about what trees and orchards can teach us about how to speak with the land, even in a post-colonial society.

Isaac quit school in Grade 8 and eventually went to work in the oil field. He was 71 when his debut novel, All the Quiet Places, was published to acclaim in 2021.

The reading will be Isaac’s first in Vernon, which was the city in the ‘50s and ‘60s where Eddie Toma comes of age in All the Quiet Places. Isaac says his protagonist’s story is not biographical but is “emotionally true.”

“In school I had always loved to write poetry and to read, so when I retired, I was happy to have more time to read. When I began to write, my life and a lot of tears poured out of me onto the paper,” says Isaac, whose wife submitted one of his first stories to a Penticton writer’s festival. The story won, and so he continued.

“It took me years to hone my writing skills and to realize writing fiction was easier than biography. But all the prior years of work provided fodder for many stories. When All the Quiet Places was completed and ready to be published, the emotions I felt were enormous and freeing. I had allowed myself to be vulnerable.”

Isaac’s debut won the 2022 Indigenous Voices Award, was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award and the Amazon Canada First Novel Award, and was longlisted for the prestigious Scotiabank Giller Prize, as well as CBC’s Canada Reads.

This past fall, after a bidding war, Isaac signed a two-book, six-figure deal with Penguin Random House. His second book, Bones of a Giant, will be released in 2025.

Considering endings and paying attention is also at the root of Rhenisch’s work — both in his poetry and pruning. A theme from Tree Whisperer is listening to the body’s conversations with the earth to shear, shift weight within, give rhythm and let a line bask in light.

“It’s a dance,” says Rhenisch. “If people leave Tree Whisperer feeling like poetry is a real thing and the places in their lives have been more communicative than what they’ve been taught in school, that would be a great takeaway.” He will expand the theme with poems on the craft of landscape from his book: Landings: Poems from Iceland.

One story that features in Rhenisch’s forthcoming book, The Salmon Shanties — a sequence of Cascadian poems and fancy dances — is that of Paul Terbasket, a smelqmix farmer jailed for watering his Blind Creek orchard in 1923, the last year of Indigenous fruit growing in B.C. One of Terbasket’s apricot trees has survived. Recently, Rhenisch and Terbasket’s grandson grafted wood from the 100-year-old mother tree. Her daughters are now growing in Cawston, Penticton, Kamloops, Castlegar and Vernon.

“It’s a reconciliation project that doesn’t take place in words,” says Rhenisch. “We don’t have to be locked in settler culture’s rules. The land is leading us.”

At the Valley Voices reading at Bean Scene Cafe on Feb. 7, the doors will open at 6:30 p.m. with the reading starting at 7 p.m. Admission is by donation and books will be available for sale.

READ MORE: Valley Voices features award-winning Okanagan authors

READ MORE: New reading series in Vernon back for second session after successful launch

Brendan Shykora

About the Author: Brendan Shykora

I started at the Morning Star as a carrier at the age of 8. In 2019 graduated from the Master of Journalism program at Carleton University.
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