Having grown up loving the folk and fairy tales of my father’s own Irish childhood, and then later, transitioning to reading some of the literary greats of that country’s notable array of authors, poets, and playwrights, I was particularly excited for Friday’s noon hour session on “Children’s Literature from Ireland”. I was looking forward to being inspired by these three descendants of an artistic culture that is known for its knowledge of the classics, for its easy sense of familiarity with and occasional irreverence for Western tradition and culture, and for its darkly hilarious cynicism bred of a combination of enduring survival and cultural vibrance in the face of poverty, starvation, and oppression. Needless to say, I had great expectations.
The event was conducted as a conversation with three authors: Deirdre Sullivan, a YA writer and award-winning author of
, among others; Oisin McGann, an outrageously prolific YA author specializing mostly in science fiction and fantasy; and Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick, a children’s book author and illustrator. Unique to an event profiling those who write for young people was the palpable sense of enthusiasm and desire to support and love whatever it was that these authors had to say – stemming from the widely-held belief that, in a world saturated with devices and virtual activities that compete and often win the attention of young people, whatever gets them reading books must be a good thing.
And what sorts of ideas and tactics do these particular authors deem best to draw in their young audiences?
Sullivan was asked about her book relying on the tradition of fairy tales (the pre-Disney, horror-filled, cautionary ones, that is) and responded, saying that she tries to build upon the difficulties that are actually being experienced by teens today in her writing, in the belief that sharing experiences is a key way to build empathy. And empathy, as all of the writers agreed, is a key purpose of fiction. Fitzpatrick, speaking about whether the ideas in her children’s books are conceived for the parents or the children reading them, pointed out wisely that adults reading the books can only look back and remember what it was to be a child, while children can only look forward, and thus each will perceive the books in quite different, but hopefully equally enjoyable, ways. McGann spoke about the storyline of his recent book Ancient Appetites, that in some ways, seemed to follow the entrancing horror of in-group sacrificial murder bound by complex rules made popular by Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games . Speaking as he did later about writing being a craft, and imitation being the best way to perfect this craft, McGann himself would likely not resent this comparison.
Although hearing selections from each of their books was enjoyable (particularly Fitzpatrick’s wordless delight
Owl Bat Bat Owl
), when each author was then faced with the question of how they viewed their role as a contributor to forming the ideas and worldviews of young people and to cite this with one or two main points that they hoped to communicate through their work, their answers were more lacklustre than anything. Sullivan faltered a bit, and then relied on the ever-popular but culturally damaging and, not to mention outright falsehood, of saying “I write for me”, following up with a mention of hoping to nurture teens through the difficulties of their lives through her writing. Fitzpatrick admitted (perhaps disturbingly) that she hadn’t really thought about the question before, but came up with ultimately the most satisfying answer of the three by saying that in all of her books she focused on moments in which small children overcame fear and loneliness. And McGann ignored the question entirely, instead stating that in YA fiction, it was important to get rid of the parents and any other adult authority figures in order to “give children the ability to solve their own problems”, this perhaps being a reactionary overcompensation for the helicopter-parenting of today’s culture. However, pitting parents and adults as the bad guys who hold teens back from doing what needs to be done? This seems hardly healthy or logical.
“Usually when I write something I don’t think about how it will feel to read it in front of 180 people,” says Scaachi Koul before launching into an essay on oral sex and body hair from her debut book of personal essays One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter. But she feigns no shyness, recounting aloud the events that led to her first knuckle-shaving attempt at age eleven (a boy from her class who was a “Hollister t-shirt personified” asked why she was so hairy) and reflecting on the politics of female body hair in 2017 (when Lena Dunham does it, it’s a rebellion, but when a woman of colour does it, it’s a mutiny). The reading set the tone for the evening - equal parts discomfort, vulnerability, and hilarity – kicking off one of the most rousing literary events I have personally ever attended.
Koul is known for her wit and her outspokenness, usually online and usually on matters of race and feminism. Depending on who you are, this makes her either a hero or a villain. In person, she’s as admirably antagonistic, smart, and clever as she is online, giving CBC’s Lucy van Oldenbarneveld a run for her money when it came to the interview portion of the evening. When Oldenbarneveld asked her how she made her book relatable to a wide audience, for instance, Koul was quick to point out that this question is typically only asked of non-white people and women. She also admitted that she had not given relatability much thought when writing, that her book was primarily for “brown girls”, and that if other people liked it too, that was fine. While some interviewers may have gotten defensive at a moment like this, Oldenbarneveld was as good humoured as ever. She retorted, “Well I mean, I read this book and liked it and I’m not young and cool like you,” to which Koul laughed, “I’m not cool. This is my bedtime.”
Though Oldenbarneveld and Koul covered a wide range of topics, the theme of the night seemed to be anger. Take Scaachi’s relationship with her parents (“I get my anger from my dad…the immigrant experience creates pathways of anxiety”), or her writing process (“this book was written on rage”), or even her online persona (“there’s this sense of women having less of a right to be angry about men”). Naturally, this led to a discussion of the one major time in Koul’s life that anger wasn’t enough to protect her. She made headlines last year when, as Buzzfeed Canada’s senior editor, she tweeted a request for pitches from only women of colour, drawing the ire of online trolls led by Ezra Levant, Milo Yiannopolous, and Ottawa’s own Scott Gilmour (who accused Koul of committing a human rights violation). When the trolls finally went as far as to threaten her life and her family, she removed herself from social media for a period of two weeks. Speaking emotionally to Oldenbarneveld, she said the experience felt like a loss of safety and access: “I can’t play on the Internet like I used to.” She says now she never posts pictures of her family online, never has location services turned on, and only picks fights that “seem fun.”
Ultimately the evening was fun and full of laughs, but Koul and Oldenbarneveld also did an exemplary job of discussing uncomfortable topics like race, gender, and sex openly and honestly in public. There was a refreshing, no bullsh*t air about the entire event that more literary panels and journalists, especially in Canada, would do well to take note of.
The spring edition of the Ottawa International Writers Festival kicked off on Thursday night, ushering the city ’ s beloved celebration of storytelling into its twentieth year. Despite its popularity, the festival ’ s anniversary huddles in the shadow of a more vexing historical milestone: that is, one-hundred-and-fifty years of Canadian confederacy. In her introductory remarks to the evening ’ s first panel, “ A Woman ’ s Work, ” director of media and communications for the Nobel Women ’ s Initiative, Rachel Vincent, commented on the role our public intellectuals play in ensuring that the “ Canadian future [is] better than the Canadian present. ” How fitting, then, to open the festival with a glimpse at the risks and possibilities that arise when those touted as the bearers of national futurity refuse to reproduce its dominant narratives.
Indeed, while the panelists offered very different reflections on their relationship with Canadian-ness, each woman testified to the profound influence of ‘ private ’ familial histories on her public advocacy. Sandra Perron, a self-professed “ army brat, ” grew up in a military family before joining the Canadian Infantry ’ s 22nd Regiment as its first female officer. Her new book, Out Standing in the Field , details her twenty-five year journey to speak out against the unrelenting sexual harassment and abuse that she suffered within the armed forces: an institution for which she still feels much “ love and loyalty. ” In lieu of addressing her memoir ’ s more uncomfortable truths about white-masculinist supremacy and nation-building, Perron delivered an optimistic message of solidarity that imagined no contradiction in the pursuit of both military advancement and gender equity. Notwithstanding her efforts to amplify those voices that have been smothered by patriarchal violence, Perron ’ s talk left one audience member wondering, “W here, ” exactly, “ is the place for anger? ”
Offering one partial, provisional answer was Monia Mazigh, a local author born and raised in a politically active Tunisian household. Mazigh ’ s name first entered public consciousness in 2002, when her husband Maher Arar was detained in Syria based on unsubstantiated RCMP evidence of terrorist ties. Her passionate campaigns for her husband ’ s release are narrativized in her first book Hope and Despair ; however, in her new novel, Hope Has Two Daughters, Mazigh explores the legacy of two revolutionary women: Nadia, a member of Tunisia ’ s increasingly poor middle class who flees to Canada during the 1984 Bread Riots, and her daughter Lila, who, when sent to Tunis to explore her maternal history, gets caught up in the furor of the Arab Spring. As Mazigh pointed out, the English title of her book comes from a quote by St. Augustine: “ Hope has two daughters: one is anger, and the other is courage. ” Well acquainted with the dangers of being the “ angry Muslim woman ” in a society that hears “ about Muslim women rather than from them, ” Mazigh nonetheless testified to the importance of anger and dissent in forwarding more equitable futures. While Western nations are know for “ exoticizing ” the struggles of those they have colonized, Mazigh noted, there is nothing so fragrant or “ delicate ” about the pursuit of political freedom.
Riayah Patel, a seventh-grade student at Hadley-Philemon Wright High School and activist for indigenous rights, rounded out the panel. During her impassioned speech on the plight of indigenous children ’ s education, Patel acknowledged that she was schooled in the ethical necessity of activist work from an early age. Her father, a survivor of South African apartheid, and her mother, an immigrant from Lebanon, encouraged their daughter to heed the words of African American abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who argued that “ power concedes nothing without a demand. ” Though much of the evening ’ s conversation was directed towards Mazigh and Perron, Patel spoke eloquently on the Canadian government ’ s amnesiac approach to indigenous children ’ s welfare and on her own indebtedness to the legacy of Shannen Koostachin, a fifteen-year-old activist from Attawapiskat First Nation who died tragically in a car accident in 2010. Patel ’ s self-deprecating jokes about her social media obsession aside, hers was a crucial commentary on the privilege of ignorance and the responsibilities that the young bear for their ancestors ’ traumatic and violent histories.
As the festivities of July 1st, 2017 approach, the stories of Perron, Mazigh, and Patel challenge us to move beyond empty ceremony. Diversity — in national narratives and in the politics of everyday life — is more than just a buzzword: it is an enduring labour. And, like a woman ’ s work, it is never quite finished.
No matter who you are taking out – a friend, family member, partner or someone new – date night calls for tasty food, a good drink, and conversation that brings you together. With delicious dinners served up by
Mike Beck of Dash Mobile Cookery
, local beers from Bicycle Brewery, delicious wines, Bridgehead snacks, and more, our festival is the perfect place for your next evening out. Want to treat yourself? Forget about taking a book with you – you are sure to make a new friend in our Festival Café. Here are five festival pairings to help you plan your next date night out in Ottawa.
4. Spice Up Your Monday with the Art of Seduction
Does your date consider tantric sex research? Are you exploring polyamory for the first time? Bisexuality? Curious?
Let award winning novelist
and the personal and sexual exploration that went on behind writing this titillating new novel. Too hot under the collar? Don’t worry –
watery caves and
keen eye for human interaction will balance the evening and add a few laughs. If you are planning on joining us for dinner, well then we have to recommend the grilled vegetable pasta salad with artichoke dressing, and a bottle of Steam Whistle or a glass of our light white wine so that you and your date (or just yourself) are ready to go home and unwind.
5. Tuesday Night Politics Punch Close to Home
Does your date follow Question Period daily? Are they consumed by the NDP and Conservative leadership races? Can’t get them to stop talking about Macron and Le Pen? We take a look at
the rise of the radical right in Canada
with Conservative Party insider, and former Mulroney Cabinet Minister,
with the aim of answering the question: Can it happen here? It will take more than a spoonful of sugar to wash down these truths that hit a bit too close to home, so we recommend our favourite local brew, Bicycle Brewery’s Velocipede IPA, and a mouthful of Dash Mobile’s signature Walnut Flax Burger. To take the edge-off
escape with some fiction as
take us around the world
through the beautiful and the absurd.
So grab a different date for every night of our festival, or bring yourself and come meet someone new. Treat yourself with some good food and a new book at the our festival from April 27 - May 2. Our Festival Café is open at 5PM every day and our events are always serving up something new.
Past Date Ideas
1. Thursday Night: Smash the Patriarchy with White Wine and a Rueben
Your date was part of the Women’s March earlier this year, attended The Ghomeshi Effect in January, or keeps talking about feminism. If this sounds like the one you want to take out on Thursday night then you have two fierce memoirs to choose from. At 6:30PM we host Canada’s first female infantry officer Sandra Perron whose stark and honest memoir details her experiences and the reality of many women in the military. From verbal abuse, to physical harassment and sexual assault, Perron exposes the threads of one of our most patriarchal systems. During the break grab a hearty veggie Reuben sandwich with sauerkraut, swiss and special sauce, then order a glass of Angel’s Gate Riesling and get ready to smash the patriarchy with Scaachi Koul. With wit, sarcasm and irony, Koul’s essays cut close the bone as she discusses everything from family to friendship, racism to feminism, Indian weddings to Twitter trolls, because one day we’ll all be dead and none of this will matter – but these issues matter to us all today.
2. A Saturday Swim through Science and Conciousness
Do discussions about the universe, conciousness and our existence fill your time together? Come with open hearts, minds and bellies on Saturday night as science and philosophy collide when we sit down with theoretical physicist Sean Carroll to talk about the origins and meaning of the universe and life itself(!). An event that is sure to leave you craving sustenance, grab a Chickpea and rice burrito with curry crema and coleslaw, and a glass of our Malivoire before the event or chow down in the cafe once it'd over.
3. Sunday: Snack on Some Food for Thought
For those who prefer a mid-afternoon date and are eternally curious, Sunday is for you. Canadian science writer and Discovery Channel host Jay Ingram is back in Ottawa exploring The Science of Why. This event is for people of all ages who want to learn more about the natural – from cats to campfire smoke – and unnatural worlds – including subliminal messaging and bigfoot. Grab a coffee and some fresh tasty treats from Bridgehead or samosas from Rinag, and stick around for a conversation about theatre from the Jewish and Palestinian diasporas with Stephen Orlov and Samah Sabawi.
Check out our full festival schedule for more great date ideas.
“We should give more than we take.”
These words, spoken by award-winning Nishnaabeg storyteller Leanne Betasamosake Simpson Saturday night, illustrated one of the evening’s themes. In observance of Earth Day, the Ottawa International Writer’s Festival brought Betasamosake Simpson together with Ian Hanington and David Suzuki for an evening of storytelling, reflection, and calls to action.
It can often seem difficult in the bustle of modern living to appreciate the impact of our species on our planet, and many people struggle with connecting to the natural world. The stories shared by Betasamosake Simpson reflected upon the fundamental relationship between humanity and this sphere we call home, and the responsibility we have to ourselves, our ancestors, and our descendants to become actively engaged in protecting and improving it. Her reading—a mix of modern legend, traditional stories, and insightful commentary—held the audience in thrall. She used an understated yet direct approach, skilfully using her storytelling to deliver a compelling message about the responsibility of individuals to take action.
For people seeking solutions to the environmental crises facing our planet, it can be overwhelming to consider their complexity and discover ways to make a difference. Ian Hanington and David Suzuki co-wrote Just Cool It! in an effort to describe not only the current state of climate science, but also the actions that can still make a difference. When Hanington described the early days of the book, he said the goal was to make it, “at least two-thirds about solutions.” His discussion of the book, and the importance of becoming scientifically informed and taking part in the movement which is demanding change, provided a backdrop for Suzuki’s insight and passion.
It goes without saying, David Suzuki is a powerful speaker. His depth of knowledge was readily apparent, and his scientific approach, very convincing. Suzuki, too, understands the power of storytelling to motivate people to action. His stories, about meeting with business people and politicians from the other side of the divide, shed light into one of the major obstacles to the environmental movement: the force of the economy. His stance begins with fundamentals. He says that the cleanliness of the air, water, and soil along with the biodiversity that keeps food chains and natural cycles intact are the highest priorities of humanity. Yet the economy has no measure for the value of these things, and this is a crucial problem. He said, “We’re constantly asking nature to fit our constructs - to feed our economies. It’s the other way around.” His call to action involves making it clear to elected representatives that the environment is a priority, “we have to inform the leaders what we expect them to do.”
(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 .