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Feminist literary festival in Vancouver makes room for controversy

Meghan Bell, left, and Arielle Spence, right, seen in Vancouver on Wednesday, are two of the organizers of the Growing Room festival, celebrating Room magazine’s 40th anniversary.

An event celebrating Room magazine's 40th anniversary refuses to skirt around the recent divide in the Canadian literary scene

Well before there was a Steven Galloway case, a UBC Accountable letter or a Joseph Boyden controversy, there was an idea: a feminist literary festival in Vancouver. The festival would celebrate 40 years of Room magazine, mark the release of an anthology commemorating the milestone and coincide with International Women's Day. Topics were brainstormed, grant applications written, plans made and speakers booked.

Then came the events of the past few months that rocked the CanLit world: the firing of Galloway from his position as head of the UBC Creative Writing program, the release of the UBC Accountable letter calling for due process for Galloway and questions raised about Boyden, a key organizer of the UBC Accountable campaign. Factions of CanLit have been at one another's throats ever since, with divisions often along gender and generational lines; emerging writers frequently pitted against established writers.

At the height of the fracas, Room launched its "No Comment" project. Its intention was to criticize the letter and offer a platform for writers to express themselves about the issues brought up by the case, including sexual harassment and sexual assault.

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Galloway was accused of both. He has since said in a statement released through his lawyer that the main complainant (MC) was someone with whom he had an affair for about two years. The independent investigator hired by the university substantiated only one complaint against him; it wasn't the sexual assault complaint. MC has said through her lawyer that her complaint was not about an affair. Galloway, who was fired without severance, has grieved his termination. The issue is scheduled to go to arbitration in the latter half of March.

Growing Room: A Feminist Literary Festival, which launches March 8, is perfectly situated to respond to the controversy – but it also finds itself caught up in it: One of its speakers is a UBC Accountable signatory.

"I think conversation is the best antidote to conflict," Room's publisher Meghan Bell said. "I hope [the festival] will maybe get people talking in person."

The Room collective was formed in 1975 by women looking to create a forum for female voices in Canadian literature. The first issue was published the following year, under the title Room of One's Own. "The literary landscape, male dominated from the beginning of time, was undergoing tectonic shifts," Room co-founder Gayla Reid states in an interview that appears in Making Room: Forty Years of Room Magazine.

The new anthology includes work from each period in Room's history; dozens of pieces by writers including Carol Shields, Dorothy Livesay, Susan Musgrave, Lynn Crosbie, Annabel Lyon, Evelyn Lau and Eden Robinson. Forewords are written by broadcaster Eleanor Wachtel and poet Amber Dawn, former and current members of the collective, respectively.

Meghan Bell, left, and Arielle Spence, right, are two of the organizers of the Growing Room festival.

But in the small world that is CanLit and the tiny world that is West Coast CanLit, there are many connections between Room and UBC Accountable. A complainant in the Galloway case, Sierra Skye Gemma, is a member of the Room collective. Musgrave was an active anti-UBCA voice. Lyon became interim co-chair of the UBC creative writing program after Galloway's suspension. Two other writers included in the anthology, Lorna Crozier and Carmen Aguirre, are signatories. And Crozier – a widely admired Governor-General's Award-winning poet – will be speaking at Growing Room. This became a flashpoint.

"I was very disappointed in Room," said Julie Rak, a professor and associate chair (graduate studies) in the department of English and film studies at the University of Alberta and organizer of an open counter-letter about the Galloway case. "That's been an issue for me, to see somebody like Lorna Crozier, who not only is a signatory of the letter but whose statement … has some things to say about opposition that I think are potentially quite damaging."

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Rak is referring to the statement Crozier posted to the UBCA website after the Galloway controversy erupted, explaining her position (several signatories posted such statements). Crozier referenced nasty accusations and pressure to remove her name from the letter. She wrote that the issue has become the most divisive she's experienced in her writing career.

Rak took her concerns to Room, and a decision was made not to rescind the invitation, which had been made prior to the controversy.

"Although the magazine's stance is against the Open Letter, we decided … that it would be inappropriate to ask Lorna Crozier to leave the festival. She signed the letter, she didn't write it. She's a sexual-assault survivor, not abuser," Bell replied ( Rak posted her response to social media, with Bell's permission).

"As much as I disagree with her decision to sign the letter I don't think she's a bad person. She's not," Bell added in an interview. "She's a mentor and she may have done something that disappointed us, but I think you can publicly criticize someone's actions without taking an action that is essentially equivalent to a first step of blacklisting them."

Crozier has stayed away from the battles playing out on social media and said the people at Room have been warm and welcoming.

"I've been looking forward to being in a room with other women writers, discussing the issues of common concern, rubbing our unpadded shoulders," Crozier wrote in an e-mail. "The displeasure and vitriol about my participation at the festival came as a surprise to me, but I don't want to roll around in that dead, stinking fish. I'm a different kind of dog."

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Growing Room festival organizers Arielle Spence (left) and Meghan Bell.

While the spark that became Growing Room dates back to 2013, the festival takes on new resonance in light of the recent controversies.

"It's something that has deeply impacted many of us here and something that we've been thinking about quite a lot as we've been planning this event," festival director Arielle Spence said. "It's something we expect people are going to want to talk about,"

One of the festival's panels, Literary Gatekeepers and Accountability, will address the issue specifically. "We hope that that event will create space for discussion, for potential ideas of ways that we can move forward," Spence adds.

Rak is also disappointed, though, that Aguirre is judging Room's creative non-fiction contest. In addition to being a UBC Accountable signatory, Aguirre is the group's spokeswoman and wrote an essay for The Walrus, titled Steven Galloway is Innocent Until Proven Guilty.

Aguirre was selected, too, long before the open letter was published and Room felt it would be inappropriate to ask her to step down.

"We respect her and her work, even if we disagree with her decision to sign the letter," Bell said. "I still have faith that Carmen will bring all of the compassion, reflection and critical thinking in her own work to her role as Room's judge for this contest." (Bell also points out that Aguirre has written about her own experiences as a survivor of sexual assault.)

"As feminists … I think the way to grow is through debate," Aguirre said in an interview. "Sometimes we're not going to agree on everything and that's okay. If disagreeing on certain things means that people should be fired from their jobs – which is basically what that would mean, that's a job for me, it's not a volunteer position – then what are we saying?"

Elsewhere, Aguirre and Rak appeared on a panel together recently at the University of Calgary, which dealt with the controversy. And a panel is being organized for the Association for Canadian and Quebec Literatures conference in Toronto in May, called #UBCAccountable: Feminist Past, Present, and Futures in CanLit. Rak will participate in that panel as well, presenting a paper Star-Struck, Counter-Strike: the Galloway Controversy and the CanLit Industry.

If the discourse has been confrontational on social media, often escalating to toxic levels, the hope is that having people confront each other in person will get a different kind of conversation going – one that's less combative, more constructive.

"My whole form of activism," Bell said, "is I just want to provide a space for people to talk."

Growing Room: A Feminist Literary Festival runs March 8-12 in Vancouver.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story referenced a panel taking place at the University of Alberta. The panel took place at the University of Calgary. This is a corrected version.
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