With eyeballs shifting from print to online, it’s not an easy time to run a published journal—least of all a journal about writing. That hasn’t been an issue for Room magazine. As Canada’s longest-running feminist literary publication, it shows few signs of feeling the financial pinch and has continued to expand its reach with projects like last year’s ambitious book Making Room, a collection of pieces published over the journal’s past 40 years. In managing editor Chelene Knight’s view, that success is because the magazine places great stock on inclusivity—or, in other words, its desire to create a Room in which everyone can fit.
“Room started more as this white, female, middle-class group who would write in their spare time,” she says of its conception 43 years ago, talking to the Straight from her Vancouver office. “Today, it’s evolved. We’re a platform to share a variety of different voices. We’re not going to censor you, or tell you what to say, or steer you in any direction—we’re here to listen.
“We’re a feminist magazine, and we publish women, but who are we to define what a woman is?” she continues. “We feature trans men and two-spirited folks and gender-queer writers. We feature people of colour or marginalized individuals. We can make space for anything—people just need to let us know.”
Room’s platform has become increasingly pertinent. At a time when #MeToo and #TimesUp are at the forefront of popular culture, the magazine sets out to provide a safe space for individuals to explore personal experiences through writing, and publish them without judgment. It’s a mandate that’s informed the journal for decades, but one that has found an explicit outlet in recent calls for submission like No Comment, a project that encourages writers to probe intimate thoughts and feelings. It’s also a concept that’s taking centre stage next week.
Last year, Room rolled out its first event: an ambitious festival named Growing Room. Attracting more than 500 guests over its four-day run, the collection of workshops, readings, and panels connected Vancouverites with some of the leading female writers in Canada’s literary community. Next Thursday (March 1) marks the launch of the second Growing Room festival, which will boast more than 50 speakers including novelist Caroline Adderson, poet Joanne Arnott, and CBC broadcaster and novelist Jen Sookfong Lee. Recurring themes for the workshops are race and intersectional feminism—and, fitting for the political climate, confessional and biographical writing.
“There are a few panels that speak to that idea,” Knight says. “I’m doing one that examines self-care when writing. How do you write trauma? When is it okay to write trauma? How does each individual approach it? Personally, I need to let a lot of time go by before I even start to write things down, and to give myself permission that it’s okay. It’s not a rant, it’s not self-help, but it can be a really useful process.”
Adèle Barclay, winner of the 2017 Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize, is also scheduled to lead a workshop at the festival that draws on personal memories. The critic in residence for the Canadian Women in the Literary Arts organization, Barclay pens essays and book reviews about writing by queer women, women of colour, and trans folk, and submits them to print and web journals. Finding a natural marriage with the ethos of Room, the poet is running a session named “Altars and Avenues” for the Growing Room event.
“Part of the process is that people bring objects that mean something to them to the class,” she tells the Straight, on the line from her home. “It creates a special atmosphere and helps people quite literally set out their intention for their writing. It can be really helpful and exciting if you’re thinking about a person in your life, or a certain feeling that comes up from looking at that object. Then we work through writing exercises and prompts to explore new directions.”
The festival is designed to act as a forum where individuals can share tips and techniques. As well as encouraging new connections, Growing Room offers the chance for attendees to connect on a one-to-one level with established professionals. New this year is the manuscript consultation service—an opportunity for writers to have their work critiqued by experienced editors and instructors.
“For my consultation, people will sign up ahead of time and then send me a couple of poems,” Barclay says. “I read them, go over them, and engage with them. It could be anything from a very formal edit to suggestions around their craft, or it could be a conversation about what the piece means to them, and what it is they want to do at the level of the line or in a larger context. I can help by recommending things for people to read, and where to publish.”
“We want to provide a space for people to share stories, and we want to remove more barriers for people,” Knight says of the new addition to the program. “It’s expensive to sit down with a professional writer or editor—you’re looking at about $300. We’re charging a minimal fee, and that person gets that individual attention. In one day, we sold out of one person’s consultations. It shows that there’s a need for something like this, and that not everyone can have their work reviewed ordinarily.”
In Knight’s view, the festival is an opportunity to present Room’s values in a real-world setting.
“We’re not paying people very much—or really anything—to put Growing Room together,” she says with a laugh. “It’s a labour of love. But we know that it is also changing lives, so that’s a driving force that keeps us doing it. Are we a little crazy? Maybe a bit. But we’re doing some great work, and I think that’s going to pay off for another 40 years of Room magazine.”
Growing Room: A Feminist Literary Festival takes place at various Mount Pleasant venues from March 1 to 4. See the Room website for details.
Follow Kate Wilson on Twitter @KateWilsonSays