First, Leslie Hurtig ordered a big bulletin board from Staples. Then a pile of Post-it notes, yellow and pink. The new artistic director of the Vancouver Writers Fest (VWF) devised an elaborate system as she planned her first festival. Yellow for wish-list authors; pink once they were confirmed.
“The more pink there was, the more excited we got,” Hurtig says.
She and her team started to group authors together by discussion themes. Then they vetted those groups to ensure diversity – gender, age, region, genre, sexual orientation, and cultural and racial diversity. If one panel seemed too homogeneous, “we would try to switch it up,” she says.
Hurtig ultimately moved the operation to an Excel spreadsheet, but the long list of considerations stayed the same. As if this wasn’t enough, she and other programmers at Canadian literary festivals must now navigate what is arguably the most divisive era in CanLit’s history.
Were there events, I asked Hurtig, where she felt she couldn’t put certain people together?
“I’m not telling you that. But of course that happens,” she responded. “There’s a big divide right now; you have to be careful and sensitive to how people are feeling.”
This deep and acrimonious conflict in CanLit erupted in the wake of author Steven Galloway’s dismissal from the University of British Columbia, followed by the UBC Accountable open letter supporting him and several other controversies.
The wounds from these battles have, at times, bled into literary gatherings, splitting rooms and bubbling up at Q&As, workshops and other forums. Adding to the sometimes fraught dynamic are pointed discussions about cultural appropriation and power structures, as well as the potent #MeToo movement.
Now, the literary community many would have once described as fairly staid has become, as with many arts scenes, a flashpoint for gender and identity politics, with sometimes angry clashes amid an overdue cultural awakening and controversies spilling over from the news cycle. The festivals themselves, perceived as pleasant – even, dare I say, at times soporific (who hasn’t fought off sleep during a particularly monotone reading?) – clubby get-togethers have become at times charged, heated gatherings, run by organizations working to reflect this new socially aware reality, as timely issues roil around them. Behind the scenes, on all sides, there has been some upsetting impact on friendships, mental health and careers. Revolutions can be messy, and CanLit is not exempt.
‘Raging dumpster fire’
The now infamous UBC Accountable open letter is at the root of much of the polarization still palpable in the community.
"Of course it was the thing that made CanLit convulse, as it has been for the last while,” says Jill Goldberg, chair of the Canadian Creative Writers and Writing Programs organization.
The letter called for due process for Galloway after he was mysteriously fired as the head of the university’s creative writing program. Promoted as being written by author Joseph Boyden, it was signed by dozens of Canadian literary types, including Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje and the director of Toronto’s International Festival of Authors (IFOA), Geoffrey Taylor.
Some – especially, but not exclusively, younger emerging writers – perceived it as an aggressive act of intimidation by CanLit powerhouses.
“The UBC Accountable letter is a perfect example of how change has not come and continues to not come to CanLit,” says Gwen Benaway, an Indigenous writer and trans woman who has been a vocal critic of the open letter.
The polarization only deepened with the addition of other, in some ways related, controversies: questions surrounding Boyden’s Indigenous ancestry, the cultural appropriation prize fiasco involving the Writers’ Union of Canada and allegations of sexual harassment emerging from Concordia’s creative writing program.
Alicia Elliott, a Tuscarora writer from Six Nations, wrote an essay dealing with some of these issues, titled CanLit is a Raging Dumpster Fire. She wasn’t the first to use that term to describe the scene, but her essay, which spoke to the marginalization of Indigenous and black writers in particular, was specifically referenced in a description for a panel at Hamilton’s gritLIT Festival this past April. But in a bizarre move that seemed to exemplify the very issues Elliott was describing, she was not included on the panel, and neither were any other BIPOC (black, Indigenous and people of colour) authors. “It struck me as particularly ironic,” Elliott tells The Globe and Mail.
After some social media outrage, the festival apologized, cancelled the panel and replaced it with one called CanLit REALLY is a Raging Dumpster Fire, featuring Elliott and two other BIPOC panellists, writer Carrianne Leung and Jael Richardson, who co-founded the Festival of Literary Diversity, or The FOLD, in Brampton.
But things went uncomfortably awry with disruptions during the Q&A. First with a white male audience member “essentially speaking at length about how we were too negative,” Elliott recalls. Then an older white woman “went into a rant about how we were ridiculous to be pessimistic about CanLit,” according to Elliott.
Richardson says it was awful – if not entirely surprising. “This is exactly what we encounter all the time as writers of colour at these events.”
‘Potential for a bun-fight’
Even without the gritLIT debacle, directors of literary festivals are well aware of what could erupt at their events. It was during an audience Q&A at the Sydney Writers’ Festival in Australia in the spring that Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Diaz was accused of sexual harassment, causing a furor. Festival directors know if they can’t entirely avoid severe conflict, they should be prepared for it.
At Kingston’s WritersFest this year, artistic director Barbara Bell programmed a panel called The State of the Book, billed as a look back on the golden age of Canadian publishing and reflecting on what the future holds for the country’s contemporary writers and publishers. “Can we and should we keep alive the canon of Canadian books and authors? How do we then give space to emerging writers,” the event description asked.
The panel was made up of three older white writers, and moderated by an older white man. Bell, who, like Hurtig, was juggling all sorts of scheduling balls when she programmed the event, was justifiably concerned.
“There was potential for a bun-fight,” she says. In the end, audience feedback was overwhelmingly positive.
Bell – whose festival over all was far more diverse than this event suggests – anticipated there might be issues ahead of time and worked to diffuse them. She framed the event as a lively conversation rather than a debate, chose an experienced moderator – Hurtig’s predecessor in Vancouver, Hal Wake – and asked him to acknowledge the lack of diverse voices up front. Addressing the point head-on at least reassured anyone concerned that the festival and participants were aware of the panel’s limitations, Bell says.
In a different kind of pre-emptive move, the organizers of this year’s Winnipeg International Writers Festival added a line to the letter of agreement it sends authors, stating that the festival is committed to providing a respectful environment. Director Charlene Diehl added the sentence in response to what she describes as “wildfires” across CanLit. And in Vancouver, Hurtig has provided instructions to hosts and moderators on how to alleviate tension created by an audience member’s question.
As festival season continues, the goal is to avoid debates that cross the line into ugly, causing discomfort and anxiety for authors and audiences.
Given these sensitivities, it’s not surprising that some people point to the schisms in CanLit as having an impact on the scheduling at writers’ festivals.
Keith Maillard, who teaches creative writing at UBC, has been outspoken against the open letter on social media. He thinks that is why he has found himself with a dearth of festival invitations this year.
“It’s something that you can’t prove, but that’s what I believe,” says Maillard, whose 14th novel, Twin Studies, was published this fall. “No one you talk to involved in any of these festivals or various media who have not reviewed [my book] is going to admit it, but I firmly believe that it’s a retribution or revenge against my quite public persona on Twitter.”
Maillard was invited to Wordfest in Calgary (because his publisher is based there, he speculates), but not Vancouver where he lives, or a long list of other cities he typed out and sent to The Globe. “Old CanLit, or whatever you call it, is really honest to God run by a dozen people and they don’t like me,” he says.
I asked Hurtig, whether Maillard’s theory about why he hadn’t been invited was true. She was adamant – no. (Maillard is appearing at one VWF event, but it was programmed by UBC.)
On the other side of the great UBC Accountable divide, you will find authors who have also felt censored or bullied out of opportunities or, at the very least, off social media. It is an extremely sensitive topic; nobody The Globe approached who might fit this description wanted to speak about this on the record. (Although some point out that it’s impossible to prove why you aren’t invited somewhere.) And while if you’re Atwood or Ondaatje your appearance requests likely won’t suffer, lesser known signatories could face a different experience, as festivals try to shield their events from criticism.
There was some blowback, for example, when poet Lorna Crozier, who signed the letter, was invited to speak at the new Vancouver feminist literary festival Growing Room last year. The festival stuck by its decision and Crozier did attend.
In Kingston, Bell had scheduled Boyden into her festival last year. When the issue about his ancestry blew up, his publicist told her the author would probably withdraw from all of his events.
“I said let Joseph know if he wants to come, he is welcome. He is a literary writer of merit and we will not revoke our invitation,” Bell says. “That might have incensed the Indigenous community. I know there are very, very strong feelings about it out there.” Boyden withdrew.
Shelley Youngblut, chief executive and creative ringleader (her actual title) of Calgary’s Wordfest, was pitched Jordan Peterson last year by his publicist, but she declined after reading his book. “It’s not that I’m censoring Jordan Peterson,” she says. “There are a lot of people that I would much rather put into the zeitgeist.
“Which voices we choose to amplify matters.”
A new chapter
A loose coalition of literary-festival directors from across the country meets about every two years to discuss matters of mutual concern. Kingston WritersFest will host the next conference, tentatively planned for May. Questions around programming in this new era are guaranteed to be on the agenda, Bell says.
A lot has changed over the past few years – the implementation of safe-space policies, diversity strategies, even the vibe. Jen Sookfong Lee recalls that when she published her first book, The End of East, in 2007, festivals felt more hierarchical.
“It really did seem like the most powerful, famous author in the room, which was almost always a man, would be in the centre of the festival,” she says.
“It was like moths to a flame. … Everybody just seemed to laugh at all their jokes and fill up their drinks,” says Lee, who prior to Elliott’s essay wrote a piece subtitled How the Steven Galloway Open Letter Dumpster Fire Forced Me to Acknowledge the Racism and Entitlement at the Heart of CanLit.
Lee says with festivals programming more inclusively, the power dynamic on and offstage has shifted, for the better.
Youngblut notes that out of 76 authors programmed at Calgary’s Wordfest this month, fewer than 20 self-identify as straight white men.
Alternative festivals such as Growing Room and The FOLD are pushing the needle. And directors of the more established festivals know that to ignore this is to do so at their festival’s peril – and, anyway, why would they?
“If you’re doing a panel on a specific type of topic, you probably would look more closely at who’s going to be on that panel than you might have before,” IFOA’s Taylor says.
He points out, though, that the change might not be as drastic as it appears. “I think what’s happening now is people are more willing to wear a label, and with festivals historically that hasn’t necessarily been true. We’ve been presenting writers of books. We haven’t been sorting them into different piles,” he says. “And I think now, we have to do a bit more of that.”
On the opening weekend of Winnipeg’s festival this year, Diehl mounted Voices in the Circle, three days of programming meant to “shine a bright light,” as she puts it, on Indigenous writing. The weekend events were funded by a Canada 150 initiative that sought “visionary and life-changing” projects.
Diehl says the outcome lived up to that, with extraordinary performances that left her speechless after one session, and the audience in tears.
When the Governor-General’s Literary Award nominations were announced a few days later, four writers from the event were on those lists.
“At this point I think it’s very clear that BIPOC writers don’t need CanLit, CanLit needs us,” Elliott says. “Literary festivals, spaces and events can either create programming to reflect that reality or get left behind.”