After graduating from Dalhousie with a BA in English and Theatre, Shandi Mitchell began making short films like Tell Me, Baba’s House and Gasoline Puddles. Her adventures in filmmaking netted her stellar reviews, festival showings and more awards and accolades than you can shake a stick at. But she never published a novel until 2009’s Under This Unbroken Sky – a novel, which like her films, picked up a bevy of awards including the Commonwealth Regional Prize, Thomas Head Raddall Fiction Award, and Margaret and John Savage First Book award.
Now Ms. Mitchell is about to undertake another new experience; she’s visiting Dal for the first time since she graduated. She'll read selections from her debut novel at a reading tonight in the Special Collections Reading Room of the Killam Library.
When asked to describe her book, Ms. Mitchell first laughingly warns that “It’s always sudden, trying to encapsulate your work.” She then explains (with a coy succinctness that belies her disclaimer) “It’s about pride, and hunger, and the cost of surviving.” The novel, which follows the lives of Ukrainian immigrants to the Canadian prairies, was in part influenced by Ms. Mitchell’s own background; she has Ukrainian heritage and lived in the Prairies as a child.
“The inspiration came from a fact I discovered years ago,” she says of the book’s inception. “I was always told then my grandfather had died of the flu in the ‘30s, and the fact was he had not.” As for the significance of the titular reference to the sky, “It’s the one thing that’s not broken in this book.”
Though Under This Unbroken Sky is her first novel, Ms. Mitchell says its composition was “exciting. I found it exhilarating. To have the freedom to create without the need of permission… I could be inside a character, and that’s very different from the experience of a filmmaker… I’m hoping to start working on the next book.” She’s keeping the fine points of that project a secret for now. “I’m superstitious. I actually don’t like talking about a work until I know what it is.”
She’s more comfortable talking about her new film, which is further along in development. “That story’s actually set in Nova Scotia… in the Atlantic Ocean. Six men, two dories and the fight to get home.” Ms. Mitchell isn’t concerned about juggling prose writing and film. “So far I’ve been able to leapfrog.”
'They understand the horizon'
Whether the open ocean or the lone prairie, Ms. Mitchell almost compulsively orients herself around the implications of location in her writing. “The geography for me and the character are almost inseparable,” she says. “It’ll inform your values, your point of view.” She says the geography of the Prairies and of the Maritimes have a lot more in common than one might think. “There’s something about an infinite horizon,” whether it’s rolling wheat fields or the endless sea. “People can find it quite oppressive to be in that environment. It challenges you.”
She even asserts that in her experience, Prairie natives rarely get as seasick as their landlocked counterparts. She recounts being told by a ship’s captain that “The Prairie people come out here and they’re okay. They understand the horizon.”
When asked about her inspirations, Ms. Mitchell is mild. “Just ordinary people inspire me… I don’t have heroes. I’m interested in the good, I guess.” And what advice would she give to aspiring writers who might also enjoy winning various prizes and giving public readings at Dal? “Read. Write. Travel. Live.” I point out that it is likely anyone reading this article will at least nominally be living (Dal News’ zombie readership is down) and she clarifies. “To live, I would define it as to be open, to go beyond your world… for me it’s about listening, and observing, and receiving what’s given to you. It’s about living in the world that you’re in.”
That belief in “living” informs Ms. Mitchell’s work as both a writer and a filmmaker. “I don’t know if you can be fully inside yourself to be an artist. You have to be in tune with the world around you… you have to find your own voice.”
Shandi Mitchell will read from her debut novel, Under this Unbroken Sky, Thursday, Oct. 28, 7:30 p.m. in the Special Collections Reading Room of the Killam Library.
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