40 Below Vol. 2 invites readers to celebrate Alberta's defining season

One surprise for Lamya Asiff upon the release of 40 Below Volume 2 was learning about the winter of 1969.

From Jan. 7 to Feb. 1, the temperature never topped -20 C. The Edmonton Journal printed “I was there” certificates with blank spaces for “survivors” to sign. When the latest 40 Below anthology launched in November, readers “flooded the inbox” with digital copies of their own proof of hardiness, says Asiff (Radio and Television ’99).

Based on that response alone, the collection of 55 stories, essays and poems from Alberta writers may already qualify as a success. The idea, in part, was to contribute to a movement encouraging Albertans to embrace winter. Vol. 1 – spearheaded by Asiff’s partner, Edmonton writer and editor Jason Lee Norman – followed the 2012 launch of the capital’s Winter City Strategy.

“People were like, ‘We’re going to brave it. We’re going to do things outside. We’re just going to celebrate and not complain about it,’” says Asiff, who handled elements of production, promotion and distribution for both volumes.

"We’re going to brave it. We’re going to do things outside. We’re just going to celebrate and not complain about it."

The NAIT Radio and Television instructor was also part of the selection process, reading some of the roughly 200 pieces submitted in early 2015. She recalls being struck by the range of emotions inspired by our common geography and climate.

In “The Standstill,” for example, Charlotte Cranston, Edmonton Youth Poet Laureate, sees unexpected hope in the “movement in tossing snowdrifts and the last of the birds.” Coal miner Nathan Waddell’s story, “Escape Velocity,” relies on a tense coming-of-age episode of bullying in sub-zero temperatures. “Modern Times,” by Lori Hahnel, is a poignant examination of the connection between cold and home.

That variety is the reason 40 Below is a book to which Albertan readers seem eager to relate. By early December, Vol. 2 had sold roughly a third of its first print run (Vol. 1 is half way through its second run). At the anthology’s launch at Audreys Books in downtown Edmonton, Asiff was among what she estimates were 100 attendees, including about 20 of the authors.

“People would take the book around like a yearbook and get the stories signed by the different contributors,” she says.

Which brings us to another surprise 40 Below provided Asiff: “I had no idea whether anyone actually wanted to talk about winter.”

Perhaps that signing and sharing at the launch holds parallels with those “I was there” certificates of ’69. As the stories and poems demonstrate, pride (however perverse) motivates us to claim aspects of the Alberta winter as one’s own, to have it as part of our identities. 40 Below is an opportunity to reflect on that, and celebrate the season and our relationships to it.

“The goal is to get people to come together during winter as a community,” says Asiff. “I can see how both those books have done that.”

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