(Ottawa, April 12, 2017) In it’s most eclectic edition to date the Ottawa International Writers Festival celebrates writers, books and ideas against a backdrop of rising world populism, Islamophobia, and a growing democratic deficit. From April 27 to May 2, forty acclaimed writers from across Canada and around the world will engage the Nation’s Capital in conversations about our cultural differences and similarities, our political and artistic leanings, and most of all our personal histories and public personas.
“This spring we are dedicating opening night to outspoken women who know what it is like to live and work in the changing landscape of our country. The personal has never been more political,” says Artistic Director Sean Wilson. The evening will bridge the age gap as student activist Raiyah Patel, speaking as part of the Nobel Women’s Initiative, joins Sandra Perron, one of Canada’s first infantry soldiers, and Ottawa author Monia Mazigh to talk about the important role women play in advocating for change and human rights. Following this trifecta of inspiring women, BuzzFeed writer and cultural critic Scaachi Koul will be talking about her witty and moving book of personal essays that cover everything from social anxiety to family squabbles, body shaming to racism.
Women will also own the stage the festival stage on the second evening with a focus on fiction. “We’re really looking forward to having Barbara Gowdy and Claire Cameron return to Ottawa with new novels that explore our complex relationships with family, history and the ones we love. Then in one of our best pairings yet, we’ll get a taste of humour and talent with Montreal’s Heather O’Neill and debut novelist (but experienced comedian) Mary Walsh .”
Throughout the festival, the writers will cover a range of genres and themes.
Seeing into Science
Peer into the origins of the universe on Saturday April 29 with theoretical physicist Sean Carroll, whose book The Big Picture explores the complexities of how the world functions at the quantum, cosmic and human level. The exploration of science will continue with popular science journalist Jay Ingram whose new book The Science of Why , get to the scientific reasons for every day occurrences.
Identity and Inclusion
“We are really excited to have writers from Ottawa, across Canada and around the world coming to our city to talk about our personal and cultural identities and how storytelling can foster inclusion on a local and international scale,” says Wilson.
On April 30, the festival will shine a light on the Jewish and Palestinian diaspora as playwrights Samah Sabawi and Peter Orlov sit down with GCTC’s Arthur Milner to talk about their groundbreaking collection of plays. Following this discussion, the festival will host the launch of The Muslimah Who Fell to Earth , a collection of essays about the experience of Muslim women in Canada, featuring readings by Ottawa contributors. In the evening award winning author Lawrence Hill and CBC host Joanne Chianello look at how fiction can build understanding around refugees in his acclaimed novel The Illegal. The following day, three time Booker Prize nominated author and 2017 Blue Metropolis Grand Prix Award winner Anita Desai will discuss her decades spanning career and what it means for her fiction to resonate from India across the globe.
The festival will also hear from veteran storyteller and gay rights advocate Jan Andrews whose new performance about coming out late in life explore the different experiences of coming out and acceptance for gay and transgendered individuals of yesterday and today. Earlier in the weekend, three Irish writers whose YA fiction explores consent in personal relationships suggest once again that the imagination is our most precious natural resource.
History, Politics and Protest
“Looking back is one of the surest ways to move forward,” says Wilson, “and this spring our non-fiction writers will give readers an opportunity to reflect on where we have come from and where we are going.”
To mark Canada’s 150th, storyteller Douglas Gibson will cover 150 years of storytellers, English, French and Indigenous, on April 30th. That evening, social activist and organiser Mark Engler will look at the history of protest around the world and offer tips for the activists of today and tomorrow.
Marking another significant anniversary, Carleton University professor and award winning historian Tim Cook will take us back to Vimy Ridge to better understand the facts of the day and why it stands out as a significant moment in Canadian history. The festival will then look at the politics dominating headlines today with Tom McMillan and host John Geddes, of Maclean’s Magazine, as they look at the history of the Conservative Party of Canada and the rise of the radical right in Canada and abroad.
Good Stories and Good Food
As always, the festival will feature some of the best canadian fiction writers of the day including Governor General Award Winner Karen Connelly on May 1, Steven Heighton and Andrew Westoll on May 2, and a free fiction event featuring Ray Robertson at The Manx on April 30th.
“At its heart the festival is about more than books, it is about bringing people together and sparking conversation and debate, and food is a sure way to bring people together,” says Wilson. Now in its second year, the Writers Festival Cafe will offer local beer by Bicycle Brewery, coffee and snacks from Bridgehead, as well as wine and nonalcoholic beverages which guest can pair with a home cooked meal from Dash Mobile Cookery .
The Ottawa International Writers Festival runs from April 22 - May 2 with most events taking place at Christ Church Cathedral. For details, dates and the complete line-up please go to writersfestival.org .
Corned beef. Shreddies. Life jackets. Pablum. Butter tarts. Zippers. Snow plows. Long johns. Whoopie cushions. Canola oil. Egg cartons. Coffee Crisps. What do these seemingly disparate items all have in common? They’re Canadian inventions.
If your feelings fall anywhere on the spectrum of “mildly surprised” to “wildly astonished” at this revelation, then you’d have fit right in to the audience at Library and Archives Canada last Tuesday night, where the His Excellency the Right Honourable David Johnston, Governor General of Canada, and Tom Jenkins (CEO of OpenText) launched their new book
How Canadian Innovators Made the World Smarter, Smaller, Kinder, Safer, Healthier, Wealthier, and Happier
Ottawa Writers Fest Artistic Director Sean Wilson kicked off the event by admitting his own lack of awareness regarding many of the items in the book, saying, “This book reminds me of how little we toot our own horn in this country.” However, while it may be true that Canadians are historically modest, the event that followed suffered from anything but a lack of horn tooting. Hosted by CPAC’s Catherine Clark, the evening was full of revelations about our nation’s collective cleverness. “Really? I didn’t know we invented that,” was the crowd’s continually delighted refrain. “Yes, really! We invented that!” was Johnston and Jenkins’s typical response – or in the rare case of a popular board game, “Well actually, we only invented the wooden tile used to play Scrabble.” Even the most cynical of readers would have found it difficult to walk away from this event feeling anything but pride and affection for Canada.
Johnston and Jenkins said they decided to write Ingenious because they felt that Canada was lacking a “collection of our own stories,” by which they meant stories of our country’s history of invention and innovation. They both felt that a collection of these kinds of stories was crucial to advancing the culture of innovation and pride into the future. They expressed that they want the book (which has been released in English and French simultaneously) to inspire average Canadians everywhere – and even children – to think innovatively. “Innovation comes from an attitude rather than an IQ,” said the Governor General. Throughout the evening he repeated that “It’s about looking at things from a different angle” and “being willing to collaborate.” The launch of Ingenious will be followed by a children’s version in the fall, as well as becoming integrated into elementary school curriculums.
As the conversation turned more directly towards patriotism and nation building, audience members questioned the role that contemporary immigration has to play in Canada’s culture of innovation. Jenkins cited the example of the zipper, which was invented by a Swedish immigrant in Canada, and spoke fondly of an earlier time when “anyone could come to Canada and make anything.” Johnston cited the example of barn raising from his childhood in rural Ontario to show how collaboration has a big part in the Canadian narrative. Both authors seemed to agree that a culture of openness has practical value when it comes to situating Canada ahead of the technological and industrial curve of innovation. Their hope is for Ingenious to find its way into every Canadian home, and that includes new Canadians as well.
People packed the pews at Centretown United Church, surrounded by its seasonal garlands and poinsettia, on a cold, rainy November night in Ottawa. They came to hear Lt.(Gen) (ret’d) and former Senator Romeo Dallaire share a battle story, a battle taking place far from any field.
Dallaire’s most recent book recounts his personal, 22-year struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder. A story he says he wrote to raise awareness of and support for this “invisible, honourable injury,” and to inspire other military members suffering with it to come forward to access support and treatment. “I didn’t go through hell a third time [to write this book] because I enjoyed it,” he said.
CBC Ottawa’s Adrian Harewood hosted the evening and pressed Dallaire to describe, as he does in the book, the nightmares and resulting sleepless nights that inspired the title. Dallaire described graphic images, including adult soldiers facing child combatants, and working through the evening and late into the night to avoid sleep. He described post-Rwanda re-integration into his family, Defence headquarters, and Canadian society as “lonely.” He says he knows other returning service personnel to have the same experience.
Harewood invited Dallaire to try to recall himself as a young man, prior to his experience as United Nations Peacekeeping Force Commander in Rwanda in 1994. The Lieutenant-General’s (re’td) sense of humour showed itself and remained present throughout the evening. “A shit disturber,” he said. Dallaire frequently added moments of levity to an evening full of clearly distressing recollections for him.
Dallaire was born into, married into, and has raised, a family of military members. He sees a shift in how conflicts are fought, between his father’s time and that of his sons and daughter. He argues that new types of conflict will require new thinking about how to prepare the next generation of personnel psychologically, and that more remains to be learned about how to prepare them.
He believes that the more military members come forward the more medical and psychological treatment and support methods will be employed. The more they are employed, the better and more quickly they can be refined and improved. He told the audience that he hopes this will spare future generations of members the sort of solitary war he waged, which he describes as “living between the paint and the wall.”
A crowd gathered at the Library and Archives Canada to hear Ami McKay talk about her latest book, The Witches of New York. Sean Wilson welcomed McKay back to the Ottawa Writers Festival for the second time to talk about her third novel and the story behind it.
McKay’s latest novel is the story of young witches something of a sequel to her previous novel, The Virgin Cure, though the books can be read in either order. The book is a fictional story about three young witches in New York living during a time when teashops were a place for women to gather and discuss taboo topics.
McKay’s talk was full of interesting information based on her research for the book. In writing the book, McKay researched the history of Manhattan in the 1800s, the suffrage movement, women’s rights, all of which are themes that come up in the book. Naturally, she did some research on witches as well. The origin of witch was not always the disparaging term it is today, she told the audience. The word used to mean, “she who sees things others cannot.” Witches were women who understood healing and medicine as well as seers who offered people guidance.
The story was also impacted by McKay’s research into her own ancestry. When researching her genealogy, McKay found that one of her ancestors Mary Ayer Parker, lived in Salem during the late 1600s. A woman who was unafraid to speak her mind, she was accused and hung as a witch in 1692.
The talk was full of interesting factual tidbits and drew the audience into the stories of the witches of New York and the world they live in. In McKay’s words, the book contains, “little Easter eggs” hidden throughout the novel for observant readers to find.
McKay is an interesting and engaging speaker, providing the audience with just enough information to interest them in the story without giving away too much. McKay’s ability to weave historical facts, significant issues and relevant information from her personal life into her novel and her talk is truly inspiring.
“Storytellers change the world,” claims Wade Davis, a man often regarded as one of Canada’s best. Whether he is writing about Haitian vodoun or George Mallory’s ill-fated expeditions of Everest and the Great War, Davis has spent his career telling us stories of the human spirit. His impressive body of work as an anthropologist, ethnobotanist, photographer and author has earned him admittance to the Order of Canada. It’s hard to think of someone more deserving of one of our country’s highest honours.
The crowd at the Christ Church Cathedral swelled to one of the largest I’ve seen for any Writer’s Festival event, populated by a healthy mix of young and old, all eager for Davis to take the stage and tell them a new story, this time through photographs. “Photography means to write with light,” a teacher at Harvard once told him. “So go out there and find something to say.” Obviously, Davis took the advice to heart. There’s no time to talk at length about any of the one hundred and fifty photos chosen for his new book ( Wade Davis: Photographs ) but through brief anecdotes and descriptions it becomes clear that they were selected with care from many thousands more.
In his position as Explorer-in-Residence for National Geographic (a happy oxymoron), Davis tells us he tried his best not to exoticize the other, acknowledging that every culture has something to say. “Other cultures aren’t failed attempts at being you,” he tells the crowd. He set out instead to create a relationship with his photographic subjects, and to listen. The pictures on display behind him are evidence of his success in that regard. They are often striking in their simplicity, and unlike the well-intentioned photographs plastered on social media of voluntourism, there is a sense of equality to them, between the subject and both the photographer and the viewer.
When the time came for audience questions, Wade was asked to explain his inherent optimism. He quickly told the crowd that despair is an insult to the imagination, adding that his Buddhist faith teaches that negative things are a part of life, and his focus has always been to help, not lose hope. Another audience member asked if Davis saw a way back from colonization, to which he responded that there is no way back, but there is a way forward.
The last question came from a reader of Davis’s book Into the Silence , who asked him how he had separated himself and his voice so successfully from the lengthy narrative. Davis thanked him for the compliment and told the audience that he never set out to be a writer. He received his first book deal on somewhat of a whim and had to teach himself along the way. He claims he didn’t realize it at the time, but he wrote Into the Silence for his grandfather and the men like him, men who went to war, who fought and died or lived and went on to climb mountains, real or imaginary. “We’ll never know men like our grandfathers again.” It was an answer so perfect you’d be forgiven for thinking it had been a set up, due to the proximity to Remembrance Day. But it was simply a display of Davis’s skill as a storyteller. A well-earned standing ovation followed, from an audience perhaps remembering the grandfathers and grandmothers they once knew.