By Janet Somerville
For many years the PEN Canada Benefit has had the privilege of the opening night slot at IFOA. Its essential work defending writers, promoting literature and preserving freedom of expression makes it a natural partnership. This year the Empty Chair on every IFOA stage is filled by Eritrean journalist and playwright Dawit Isaak, imprisoned since Fall 2001.
Thursday night’s event found a robust crowd filling the Fleck Dance Theatre eager to spend an evening in the rare company of Giller Prize-winner Rohinton Mistry, a longtime supporter of PEN Canada and its mission. Billed as an evening of words and music, I wondered if the notoriously shy Mistry would break into song, accompanying himself on a ukelele.
There were no stringed instruments on the stage, but Mistry’s warm buttery baritone filled the room as he read from a new piece grounded in his father’s gramophone records and he sang in Gene Autry’s voice “Don’t Fence Me In”—”Oh give me land, lots of land, under sunny skies above, don’t fence me in.” Utterly charming.
Musing “where did it begin for me the journey from there to here,” Mistry suggested that his “long and winding road from Bombay to Toronto” started with the shellacked discs of 45s, 78s and 33s his father spun on his gramophone—that magical machine that “shouldered the weight of his dreams.” As a boy, he pressed his cheek against the polished wood and “could imagine the music becoming a part of me.” And, it has.
If you were lucky enough to share in the joy and diversion of the songs that tripped wondrously off of Mistry’s storytelling tongue, you’ll understand why he referred to himself during his conversation with Eleanor Wachtel as “the vocal Zelig.” Next time Mistry appears on stage I hope he brings his guitar and harmonica and performs Dylan AS Dylan. That’d be really something.