Poet and editor Victor Coleman's instrumental role in nurturing Canadian letters will be recognized this year when he is presented with the Harbourfront Festival Prize on Oct. 28, the final night of the International Festival of Authors in Toronto.
"Victor has been a quiet, but powerful influence on Canadian publishing," said Greg Gatenby, artistic director of the IFOA, at a press conference yesterday. In an interview, Gatenby praised Coleman's editorial vision in helping to transform Coach House Press from a design and print shop into one of the foremost literary presses in the country. "He was there at the outset," said Gatenby, "and to my knowledge his contribution has never been acknowledged with a major award."
Widely praised as a model literary publisher and a seedbed for great writers, such as Michael Ondaatje and David Young, Coach House failed to make it as a "for-profit" publisher and closed its doors in the summer of 1996 amid much gnashing of literary gums. "Coach House was allowed to die because we Canadians are stupid and cowardly," lamented writer Alberto Manguel. "We don't deserve a culture," he wailed.
After this debacle, Coleman and Bevington took Coach House back to its innovative roots and resurrected the press as an online publisher of experimental poetry and fiction, refusing to settle for "the fetish object formerly known as the book," as Coleman has jokingly referred to the press's collection of e-books.
The Harbourfront Festival Prize is awarded annually to a Canadian author who has made an outstanding contribution to our national literature. Previous winners include Ondaatje, Manguel, Timothy Findley and Matt Cohen. The prize, which is sponsored by Le Select Bistro, amounts to a dining credit at the Toronto restaurant for $6,000. Besides Gatenby, the members of this year's jury were CITY-TV personality Ziggy Lorenc and Martin Levin, books editor at The Globe and Mail.
Gatenby also announced the line-up for the 21st annual festival, which will open and close this year with authors who transcend national boundaries. The IFOA kicks off with a tribute to Mordecai Richler and ends 10 days later with a gala reading starring Margaret Atwood and Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes. Other Canadian draws are: Marie-Claire Blais, Elizabeth Hay, David Adams Richards and Jane Urquhart.
Big names from around the world include J. K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books, who will join Kenneth Oppel, co-winner of this year's Mr. Christie award, and Tim Wynne-Jones in what Gatenby promises will be a themed theatrical presentation at the Sky Dome. Other literary stars on the roster include Susan Sontag, Ursula Le Guin, Maeve Binchy and Sex in the City novelist, Candace Bushnell.
The idea behind the IFOA has always been to showcase Canadian writers along with their international literary peers. Keeping to tradition, this year's festival features writers from six continents: Japanese novelist Hikaru Okuizumi, Chinese poet Bao Dao and Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh from Asia; Robert Drewe, David Foster and C. K Stead from Australasia; Kjell Espmark, Andrea de Carlo, Marcel Moring, Martin Winckler and Anne Enright and Colum McCann from Europe; Marcela Serrano from South America; Jamaican poet Edward Baugh from North America; and Tesfaye Deressa from Africa. Deressa, who has been imprisoned in his native Ethiopia since 1997, will be at the festival as an absence rather than a presence. He will be honoured as the occupant of the PEN empty chair, symbolizing writers who have been silenced for speaking their minds about repressive regimes.
The IFOA may have been the first and the biggest, but it is no means the only literary festival in Canada this autumn. The Winnipeg International Writers Festival runs Oct. 10-15 and features Anita Rau Badami, Stevie Cameron, David Arnason, Dennis Lee, Tim Wynne-Jones and Mark Anthony Jarman.
Close on its heels, The Banff-Calgary International Writers Festival runs Oct. 11-15 and stars Margaret Atwood, Alistair MacLeod, Kathy Reichs, Randy Bachman and Pat Carney.
Finally, there's The Vancouver International Writers Festival, Oct. 18-22, with Margaret Atwood, J. K. Rowling, Maeve Binchy, Jim Harrison, Douglas Coupland and Cordelia Strube.