They love their literature on Saltspring Island, B.C. – and their politics. The population of 10,000 supports five independent bookstores, and includes many writers (Ronald Wright, Kathy Page, Kevin Patterson and Derek Lundy among them). The community theatre is run by a Charles Taylor Prize-nominated writer (George Sipos). If you'd been there during the last federal election, you would have seen all kinds of Green Party signs – handcrafted by the residents.
So a literary festival on Saltspring with a political bent makes a lot of sense. Perhaps the only surprise is that there hasn't been one earlier. Or that in its first year – running this weekend and kicking off Freedom to Read week – the Words Without Borders festival has managed to attract a who's who of politically engaged Canadian writers, including Esi Edugyan (who won the latest Scotiabank Giller Prize for Half-Blood Blues); PEN Canada president Charles Foran (whose Mordecai: The Life & Times cleaned up last year, winning the Charles Taylor Prize, the Governor General's Literary Award and the Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize); and Carmen Aguirre (whose Something Fierce just won Canada Reads).
"Saltspring has come to occupy a place in the public imagination as a place of ideas [with]a maybe slightly eccentric but exceptionally engaged community," says John-Michael McColl, a key organizer with the event. "As long as I've lived here – and I grew up here – the idea of a Saltspring festival has kind of swirled around."
The idea began to solidify last year, arising out of the Salt Spring Forum, a series of salon-type talks, dreamed up by McColl (its executive director) and author/University of British Columbia professor/Saltspring resident Michael Byers. Money raised through forum events has provided the seed money for Words Without Borders.
You'd never know it from the lineup, but McColl, a rookie on the literary festival scene, faced some severe challenges, including "starting from scratch with little to no idea of how exactly a literary festival is supposed to be organized," he says, noting that he'd wished he'd sought the counsel of festival administrators elsewhere. "The idea of a small literary festival sounds great at the outset, then when it blows up, you realize how big it is," he says.
McColl, 27, started work on this late last spring. But by October, only one guest had been secured. "I sent out frantic e-mails everywhere," recalls Chris Oke, 28, a part-time Saltspring resident and creative writing student who was hired last fall as festival co-ordinator. "It seemed like everyone I contacted on my own – going through normal channels [such as]people's agents was impossible. I either wouldn't hear back from them or I'd hear that they wanted $25,000 per speaking engagement, which we definitely didn't have."
So they brought out the big guns: Saltspring writers with connections, who started going through the back door and contacting the authors personally.
"I guess I've got enough reputation on the scene now that people don't ignore my phone calls," says Brian Brett – a Saltspring-based author ( Trauma Farm) who came on board last fall as festival chair. "That was one of the ways we were able to assemble such a list so quickly." (Brett also knows a thing or two about running such an event, having organized an erotic literary festival on Saltspring in the late 1990s.) Brett helped secure Edugyan and poet Susan Musgrave; Saltspring resident and author/UBC professor Deborah Campbell ( This Heated Place) got Ann Jones ( War Is Not Over When It's Over). Both Wright and Sipos contacted Foran; Sipos and Foran had both been on last year's Charles Taylor Prize short list. Byers and Patterson reached out too, in the group effort.
The result is a star-studded literary festival that will include panels about freedom of expression, writing on Afghanistan, and representing marginalized women in literature. Other participants include the CBC's Shelagh Rogers, spoken-word artist C.R. Avery, and rogue Senate page Brigette DePape, who is also a playwright ( She Rules with Iron Stix).
When asked about the budget for the event, McColl's response is "hope and prayers that people will come to this thing." Appearance fees are closer to a $250 honorarium than the $25,000 figure that first rocked Oke's world a few months back; some guests are being put up at locals' homes, and flown over on the seaplane service owned by McColl's dad.
With a few days to go, some events have sold out or are close, and that has organizers hoping that this will be the inaugural Words Without Borders, rather than a one-off. "If the festival's a success, it'll be great," says McColl. "We'll pay all our bills and it'll happen again. Otherwise, we'll just go out with a blaze of glory and remember a great weekend on Saltspring."
Words Without Borders runs Feb. 24-26 on B.C.'s Saltspring Island.