Edition 11: Cultural Review: Literary Festivals: Why They Are Important
Reviewed by Sophie Yorkston
This year I had the pleasure of attending several events as both a patron and volunteer at The Vancouver Writers Fest, the annual celebration of all things literary on Granville Island, in the heart of downtown Vancouver. It is one of the city’s highlights for the fall and the largest literary festival for British Columbia.
Granville Island has a history as an industrial area, a past that is still celebrated by many warehouse-style corrugated buildings and spaces, but today it is a vibrant centre of the arts and education, housing the arts-centric educational institutions and local artisan stores. It is only appropriate that the wordsmiths of Canada, and the world, congregate here yearly for the festival.
Each of the main four stages has an intimacy that allows for the attendee to feel as if they are getting a chance to know the authors on stage, and several of the events are one-on-one, featuring this year authors of international acclaim, such as dystopian author Margaret Atwood, poets Paul Muldoon and Anne Carson, and editor and journalist John Freeman. There are too many authors to list individually.
A definite strength of The Vancouver Writers Fest is that there are events catering to young readers. They also cover many styles and genres of contemporary literature, from poetry to non-fiction and panels on the many evolutions of literature and the publishing industry in general. It is clear that the organisers of the festival try to cover as many areas of interest as possible.
It was by pure chance that I got to see as wide a scope of events as I did. I attended the only adult fantasy panel, called Fantasy @ 6, with Maureen Johnson and Maggie Stiefvater. Both are Young Adult writers with a current series with a paranormal theme. It was a largely unstructured panel but the two authors really enhanced each other’s energy and it was funny and entertaining. Their readings were interesting, particularly Maggie’s, as she had the audience participating.
The second event I attended on a free ticket that was part of the perks of being a volunteer at the festival, was a panel of four women discussing their confessional memoirs at the event In the Beginning. As I am not a huge memoir reader, it was not an event I would have normally chosen, but after seeing it, I thought it an event that it would have been a shame to miss. Each author wrote the memoir after other publications of fiction or poetry. The rawness and frankness present during each person’s interview refreshed my perspective on memoirs, particularly about how difficult it is to write about your own trials, not couching them in the safety of fiction. I left the event wanting to read How Poetry Saved My Life by Amber Dawn, about coming from a background of poverty and sex work to become a teacher at one of the most highly-respected universities of Canada, and also Priscilla Uppal’s story of meeting with her absconding mother in Projection: Encounters with My Runaway Mother.
Education institutions were not left out. Another event that I volunteered at was 50 Years of Stories, talking about 50 years of the Creative Arts program at University of British Columbia. It involved both teachers (those present at the festival are also prolific and published authors themselves) and alumni, talking about their experiences in the program but also about how it helped shape their writing. It was excellent to hear all on the panel come out and support the idea that creative skills can be taught but that to succeed a person needs to make creative endeavour their passion and goal. Amber Dawn’s input was unique, as she was all three: student, author and now a teacher in the program.
Another enlightening event, whose wisdom I hope to bring to SQ Mag, was John Freeman in conversation with Hal Wake. John Freeman is an editor and interviewer. Applying his background in journalism to interviewing authors, he was an engaging speaker with lots of anecdotes about how different authors are, and proclaimed that his role as an interviewer was to shed light on the work and life of the author. He also remarked that you have to be up to telling the story of the author, whatever that entails. My favourite remark of his was that he has the feeling of “having too many lives”, from having read all of the novels of the authors he’s interviewed; a comment I think we can all relate to as readers.
My favourite event was the Poetry Bash, where six well-known and lauded poets were given 12 minutes to engage the audience with their poetry. This is how poetry was meant to be seen and heard; the authors own reading gives each line all the weight and meaning that you might not fully appreciate reading on your own. Anne Carson stood out for me with her dry and wry wit reading selections from Short Talks, but Brad Cran stole many hearts with his poem Science Fiction (which you hear here in the first 12 minutes of this audio stream), circular prose teasing with science fiction and superpowers, but really about vital convergences, about life or death and what could have been.
The festival ended on a high with Colin Mochrie: Fractured Fairy Tales. Colin is best known for stand-up comedy and his work on the improvisational TV show Whose Line is it Anyway? It was light and full of crying laughter, and some talk about his improv style short stories in his new book, where he took the first and last lines of famous literary works and created an entirely different story.
With the special opportunity to be on both sides of the festival, both behind the scenes and as an attendee, I have to say that the organisation was seamless. I was astounded at how well each section was integrated and how friendly and professional all the festival staff were. They also ensured they went to great lengths to thank their volunteers, without whom the festival could not run. Each event was well planned, scheduling writers together who complemented each other. The panels were also interactive, which made it a great experience for the patrons. Each venue also had an intimacy that gave the attendees the feeling of being close to the writers they admired.
As a speculative fiction editor and writer, my only disappointment was that there were really only three events at the festival that covered speculative fiction at all. Two were events that featured Maureen Johnson and Maggie Stiefvater (one mentioned above), and another event to do with the supernatural with Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Johnson. Two of these events were aimed at young adults, and early in the festival, which were not the most attended. There were, however, some one-on-one sessions with authors Maggie Stiefvater and Margaret Atwood that could be considered part of speculative fiction events. There was not a single panel for horror writers or science fiction. Most of the authors with speculative fiction books or themes had a supernatural or paranormal bent. I was also disappointed that most of the events were aimed at youth, when there are so many fantastic writers in these genres in an adult literature that justify at least one panel, maybe two. All of the steampunk writers at the festival were relegated to one event discussing the digital evolution of publishing (which I did not attend).
From my perspective as both editor and writer, I have to say that being involved and supporting literary festivals is incredibly important to our industry. These events do not run to huge profits: it costs an incredible amount to get the authors out and to hire venues, some staff and equipment. They need people to volunteer just to keep exposing us to literary professionals that might open us up to new thoughts, new books and experiences.
These events opened up my eyes to some really fascinating new authors I would not otherwise have heard of, reinvigorated my interest in different genres and forms of literature and helped me improve my professional craft with helpful advice. I cannot say enough about how writers are a community and reading helps with your craft. Not to mention the perks of being a volunteer and the warm glow of altruism that follows.
Please support literature, literacy and the craft: support our festivals and writers.
Photographs Taken at the Festival
(all photos copyright Sophie Yorkston)
Sophie is a scientist, aspiring writer, sci-fi and fantasy nerd. She is an editor with IFWG Publishing and has been Editor In Chief of SQ Mag and SQ Magazine, the previous incarnation. She also contributes book and film reviews. She lives in Melbourne, Australia.