As in the realms of film, TV, and music, those who exist outside the accepted standard within the Canadian literary sphere—or, to put it frankly, those who, for the most part, aren’t heterosexual, cis white men—often face heightened harassment, obstacles, and scrutiny in their paths to success. It’s an unfortunate reality built on decades of systemic discrimination that has wrongfully sidelined many writers who identify as women, people of colour, or LGBT, or are otherwise marginalized for far too long. Locally, though, we’re lucky to have grassroots festivals like Room magazine’s feminist Growing Room to help centre these voices, and this fall, Vancouver will welcome another inclusive literary event to its calendar: AfterWord.
Spearheaded by Room’s managing editor, Chelene Knight, the free one-day function features a lineup of more than a dozen established and up-and-coming novelists, playwrights, poets, librettists, and other writers living and working in Vancouver. All of them identify as women, and many are Indigenous or people of colour, and fall somewhere on the LGBT spectrum. In other words, they’re people who have historically been denied space in Canada’s literary arena—and are now reclaiming these spaces as they share written works that touch on everything from ’90s Canadian pop and queer relationships to one’s lived experiences of growing up as a “free-spirited tomboy” in Whitehorse, Yukon.
“The Canadian literary community is so small already, and so these spaces are quickly dwindling, I find,” Knight tells the Straight by phone. “There are people who come in and quickly take over, but let’s remember there are also people who need that uplifting. They need someone to come behind them and give them kind of a little nudge, and say, ‘You know what? This is a space for you. You can totally occupy this space.’ ”
AfterWord was conceived after Knight resigned from her role as executive director of Word Vancouver in June. The local poet and memoirist was appointed to the position earlier that same month, though chose to leave due to “undisclosed financial issues” involving the annual event’s organizers. Knight, who had already begun curating a lineup of writers for Word, then decided to launch AfterWord as a “postfestival celebration” that would still offer a platform to the essayists, screenwriters, and others she had reached out to. Word Vancouver is scheduled to take place at venues around Vancouver from September 24 to 30.
“Because we programmed an entire festival in two-and-a-half weeks, we thought, ‘Okay, now we’re kind of leaving these authors in the lurch. And we still want to be able to provide that space for them, so what can we do?’ ” explains Knight, who adds that, with AfterWord scheduled following Word Vancouver’s last day of readings, participants still have the opportunity to appear at both events.
AfterWord follows Room’s mandate of spotlighting only writers and artists who identify as womxn—including transgender, two-spirit, and nonbinary folks—though attendance is open to all. Among the names featured are past Vancouver Book Award recipient Amber Dawn; broadcaster, podcaster, and Georgia Straight theatre critic Andrea Warner; and Indigenous writer and two-spirit warrior jaye simpson, who Knight says has an energy that is “mind-blowing”. There are also emerging talents like Chinese-Canadian poet Isabella Wang, who holds the title of youngest writer to be shortlisted for the New Quarterly’s Edna Staebler Personal Essay Contest.
For Knight, it was important to support such authors who are early in or just starting their careers. “We’re always talking about new books coming out; we’re always talking about this up-and-coming author who might not have this big Twitter following or a big publicist or publisher behind them,” she says. “We’re always in the nooks and crannies, having conversations.”
At AfterWord, organizers will accept donations toward Room’s Growing Room festival for 2019 and the Indigenous Brilliance reading series, which the magazine coproduces. The reading will also include a free buffet; the venue, meanwhile, is fully accessible and includes nongendered restrooms. Attendees may come and go from the event, which takes place from 6 to 9:30 p.m., as they please. Knight hopes that this relaxed atmosphere, in addition to the diverse lineup of readers, will help facilitate meaningful dialogue between writers and attendees.
“That’s really what I’m really looking forward to as well,” she says. “Not just the readings, but the conversations that will take place once we’re all in that space together.”
AfterWord takes place at the Native Education College on September 30, from 6 to 9:30 p.m. See event listing for details.