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Roland Gulliver, who will become the new head of the International Festival of Authors, is photographed on Jan 22 2020. Previously, Gulliver was Associate Director of The Edinburgh International Book Festival.

Fred Lum/the Globe and Mail

The 2020 Toronto International Festival of Authors, the first for its new director, will be held entirely online in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. The festival will feature 200 events and activities, all virtual, and most of them will be free.

TIFA is also launching new programs, including its first dedicated series for children; multilingual programming – with events in Bengali, French, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish; original commissions; and a Critical Conversations series, where authors and experts will discuss issues such as the pandemic, the climate crisis and the U.S. election – to be held days after the festival wraps up.

Theatre space at Harbourfront Centre is being converted into a digital studio for recording and streaming events, and the festival has hired a full-time cinematographer, audio engineer and livestream producer.

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“It’s a really amazing opportunity to beam into people’s homes, connect with people in a way that the live festival won’t be able to. So in that way, there are lots of positives to the huge challenges that we’ve had to overcome,” says incoming TIFA director Roland Gulliver, who announced the festival’s programming on Tuesday from quarantine in Toronto. Gulliver has recently returned from Scotland, where he planned most of the festival. Gulliver arrived in Canada to take over the festival in February but returned to Scotland after only about three weeks because of the pandemic.

“When I did come into the role,” says Gulliver, “I had all these ideas for what I wanted the festival to be as a live festival. And we’ve taken all those ideas and transformed them into making them a digital festival. And I’m really pleased and excited by what we will bring to the world.”

For opening night on Oct. 22, Gulliver will interview Margaret Atwood, who will also read from her poetry collection Dearly, to be published in November.

TIFA’s lineup includes 11 of the 14 authors long-listed for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, including Gil Adamson (Ridgerunner), David Bergen (Here the Dark), Eva Crocker (All I Ask), Emma Donoghue (The Pull of the Stars), Francesca Ekwuyasi (Butter Honey Pig Bread), Michelle Good (Five Little Indians), Annabel Lyon (Consent), Kaie Kellough (Dominoes at the Crossroads), Emily St. John Mandel (The Glass Hotel), Shani Mootoo (Polar Vortex) and Souvankham Thammavongsa (How to Pronounce Knife).

Each evening will feature performances such as poetry readings, storytelling and music. Those taking part include novelist Khaled Hosseini (The Kite Runner), poet and novelist Anne Michaels (Fugitive Pieces), dub poet d’bi.young anitafrika and Ivan Coyote (Rebent Sinner) in partnership with musician Sarah MacDougall.

A series of Masterclasses, presented with the Humber School for Writers, will be offered as ticketed events. The 90-minute sessions will be taught by Humber faculty, including authors David Bezmozgis, Omar El Akkad and Sheila Heti.

TIFA has also commissioned 10 original works by writers including Anosh Irani and Ian Williams for a pandemic-inspired series it’s calling Skin Hunger. Video readings of the pieces will be recorded – in some cases, in the language of origin plus an English translation.

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The festival has also commissioned a podcast, Write in the Neighbourhood, in which four authors will guide readers through a part of the city that has inspired them. Giller winner Sean Michaels (Us Conductors) will host a podcast featuring hybrid performances of readings set to music. And there will be an audio walking tour of Toronto’s Indigenous histories called Between the Shorelines: Storying Indigenous Presence.

In all, more than 200 authors and speakers will participate in the festival, including international best-selling writers such as Richard Ford, Nathan Englander, Carl Hiassen, Ian Rankin and Meg Wolitzer.

There is also a long list of best-selling and emerging Canadian writers on the schedule, including André Alexis (The Night Piece), Billy-Ray Belcourt (A History of My Brief Body), Catherine Bush (Blaze Island), Desmond Cole (The Skin We’re In: A Year of Black Resistance and Power), Helen Humphreys (Rabbit Foot Bill), Aislinn Hunter (The Certainties), Jesse Thistle (From the Ashes: My Story of Being Metis, Homeless, and Finding My Way) and Maria Reva (Good Citizens Need Not Fear).

“I think we’ll be the biggest digital literary festival in Canada and one of the biggest in the world,” says Gulliver.

Several other Canadian literary festivals have also announced fully digital lineups, including the Vancouver Writers Fest and the Whistler Writers Festival, both in October.

The Cabot Trail Writers Festival, which begins Sunday in Nova Scotia, will take place mostly virtually but is going ahead with its annual outdoor event, making it community-focused this year with local authors and musicians. Heard in the Highlands: Cape Breton Out Loud is scheduled for the afternoon of Oct. 4, weather permitting.

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The Kingston Writers Fest begins its virtual festival Wednesday, and the Winnipeg International Writers Festival has posted video content, with several live Zoom events planned. The Ottawa International Writers Festival has scheduled a combination of podcasts, pre-recorded video interviews and live online events now underway. Calgary Wordfest has programmed live online events through December.

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