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Word Vancouver executive director Chelene Knight resigns, leaving fate of literary festival unclear

Chelene Knight.

greg ehlers

On June 1, author Chelene Knight officially began a dream job: executive director of the free annual literary festival, Word Vancouver. On June 7, Word Vancouver issued a news release announcing the move. “Chelene’s extensive experience in the literary community of Vancouver will be an excellent addition to this festival, and the board is excited to work with her to see Word Vancouver grow and flourish,” board president Mary-Ann Yazedjian said in a statement.

But three weeks into her position, Ms. Knight has issued her resignation, leaving the fate of this year’s festival uncertain.

“My goal was to be the face of Word and create this new vision but I was given no tools to do that,” Ms. Knight said.

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The development director, Meghan Bell – who was included in Ms. Knight’s application proposal, and with whom she had programmed nearly the entire festival – has also stepped down. (Ms. Bell is publisher of the feminist literary journal Room Magazine and co-founder of its new literary festival, Growing Room).

Ms. Knight said they had a look at the books, and felt they couldn’t in good conscience continue their plans for this September’s festival.

“We really just did not feel comfortable going forward,” Ms. Knight said. “We couldn’t ethically say come join us in this festival and not know if we can pay people.”

Particularly alarming, in addition to the organization’s level of debt, was the discovery that grants and other payments that had already been made for the 2018 festival had been applied to the previously accumulated debt – and yet the organization was still in the red.

There were other worrying signs, she said, in particular a lack of transparency, a haphazard leadership handover and concerns with past grant applications.

It is unclear what will happen to the festival, which had been scheduled to run Sept. 24-30. An e-mail to The Globe signed by The Word Vancouver Board said changes in personnel “have necessitated reviewing our plans for the 2018 Festival.” The e-mail said a public statement would be issued “in due course.”

Word Vancouver – formerly The Word on the Street – is a free annual event that offers workshops, panels and readings, as well as a book fair that takes place around the downtown public library. Exhibitor registration was scheduled to close on June 25. On Wednesday, The Word Vancouver website consisted of only a logo – no information.

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Ms. Knight is a graduate of The Writer’s Studio at Simon Fraser University. She recently published her second book, the memoir Dear Current Occupant. Her book of poetry, Braided Skin, was published in 2015. This was her first stint as an executive director, but she said that her inexperience isn’t the issue.

“It’s an issue of being handed something broken and then tying someone’s hands behind their back and saying go ahead and fix this and do it in three months,” said Ms. Knight, a single mother who gave up a steady job at the Vancouver Public Library to take on the position.

The Vancouver Book and Magazine Fair Society was founded in 1995 and hired Bryan Pike, who runs Rebus Creative, as its executive director in 1998. He announced he was stepping down from Word Vancouver earlier this year. A nationwide search for his replacement followed, according to the news release.

Phone calls to Mr. Pike on Wednesday were not returned by deadline. In response to an inquiry, Rebus Creative directed The Globe and Mail to the Word Vancouver board. The board did not respond to specific questions sent by The Globe but reiterated that it is “in the midst of reviewing some of the plans for the festival so please bear with us as we do that work.”

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