The show will go on.
Despite a pandemic that has cancelled nonessential international travel and grounded flights around the world, the Vancouver Writers Fest is still taking place this week.
“I think we had a bit of luck there because our festival, of course, happens each year in the third week of October,” artistic director Leslie Hurtig told the Straight by phone. “That gave us many months to figure out how to present a virtual event properly.”
From Monday (October 19) to Sunday (October 25), there will be a mixture of podcasts, Zoom-style one-on-one conversations, panel discussions, and events livestreamed from theatres, complete with professional camera operators and proper lighting.
“After a bit of trepidation on some people’s parts, we all learned how to use this technology and it became more comfortable,” Hurtig said. “And in fact, the silver lining to all of this from our perspective is that there are authors attending our festival this year that never would have been able to visit us in Vancouver, due to tight schedules or just pure distance.”
As in past years, the fest is offering up a who’s who of local and international writers, including, for the first time, Tegan and Sara Quin. The Juno Award–winning twins will discuss their memoir, High School, with Baharak Yousefi, co-editor of Feminists Among Us: Resistance and Advocacy in Library Leadership.
Another festival highlight will feature Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist Marilynne Robinson, author of Jack, the fourth and final book in her Gilead quartet. The festival has already videotaped her discussing her new novel with UBC creative writing associate professor Ian Williams, who won last year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize for his novel Reproduction.
“She and Ian had a remarkable conversation that I’m really excited to share with our audience,” Hurtig said. “Just beautiful. It brought tears to my eyes.”
Another prerecorded event, entitled What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, features writers with perspectives from different continents. Celebrated Japanese novelist Mieko Kawakami (Breasts & Eggs) joins National Book Critics Circle Award winner Daniel Mendolsohn (Three Rings: Tale of Exile) and Belarus-born poet Valzynha Mort (Music for the Dead and Resurrected) in conversation with LitHub executive editor John Freeman.
Hurtig described this discussion about love as “a salve for the soul at this time”.
There's a long list of B.C. writers at the festival, including guest curator Ivan Coyote, Annabel Lyon, Wade Davis, Caroline Adderson, Thomas Homer-Dixon, Nancy Lee, Aislinn Hunter, Charles Demers, Shaena Lambert, Lorna Crozier, Cicely Belle Blain, Seth Klein, and Tanya Lloyd Kyi, among others.
There are also several Indigenous writers who will speak, including poet and Indspire Award winner Billy-Ray Belcourt of the Driftpile Cree Nation.
Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg writer and musician Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, Norway House Cree Nation children’s writer and educator David A. Robertson, Inuvialuit story teller and residential school survivor Mararet-Olemaun Pokiak-Fenton, and Red Pheasant Cree Nation poet and essayist Michelle Good are also scheduled to appear.
Prominent authors from outside B.C.—such as historian Margaret McMillan, Room author Emma Donaghue, Ireland’s David Mitchell, and PEN America Lifetime Achievement Award winner Walter Mosley—are in this year's extensive lineup.
All the events are being offered for free or for “pay what you can”, according to Hurtig.
“They’re very accessible,” she said. “You can sign up last-minute if you like.”
She added that it’s possible to become a member and get access to all the events or choose just one or two off the website.
“These conversations that we’re presenting make one feel better about being a human being,” Hurtig said. “I feel proud about that. We may be able to offer a bit of an escape—and insight into this world that we live in.”