Vancouver Writers Fest – 30 years of including contested identities

Photos by (from left to right) Ayelet Tsabari, Joy von Tiedermann and Jonathan Bloom

Hundreds of international authors and book lovers will be celebrating the 30th birthday of the Vancouver Writers Fest, this year again hosted on Granville Island from October 16–22.

Jónína Kirton, David Chariandy and Ayelet Tsabari are three Canadian writers who will present their literary works throughout Granville Island’s many venues. A common thread through most of their stories is their experiences of dealing with mixed race and feelings of otherness, a recurring theme in their lives.


You can recognize an author’s identity by looking closely at his or her writing style,” says Ayelet Tsabari, a Toronto-based Israeli novelist with Yemeni background, whose debut The Best Place on Earth was released in 2013.

“Israeli writing tends to be more sentimental, it steers less away from emotion and drama, while Canadian writing feels a little more polite, which says something about the culture.”

Tsabari is still startled about the success of her novel, which won the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. “The success of my book feels kind of unreal. After my emigration, I had some difficult years in which I hardly wrote. I was in between cultures, places and languages,” she says. A feeling that she was already familiar with in Israel, where she lived with her Jewish Jemeni family. “My mission in writing is to tell stories from a ‘Mizrahi’ background, which is a term we use to describe the Jews that came from Arab and Middle Eastern lands. Growing up, I never saw myself in the books that I read, and so I wanted to create characters that are like me and my family,” she says.


Although born in Canada, David Chariandy, writer of successful bestseller Soucouyant, also feels a strong connection with the background of his parents, who emigrated from Trinidad. “In both of my novels I have consciously explored what Trinidad represents to me. People sometimes do not see me as a Canadian, although I was born here. That is a real contradiction.”

Many elements in his novels drop back on his own life. His new book Brother describes two Trinidadian brothers, living in Scarborough (Toronto) with their black mother.

“I grew up in Scarborough, and I’ve always wondered what my life would have been like if certain events took another turn. What would have happened if my parents were not able to provide. What kind of pressure would that have put on my brother and me?” wonders Chariandy.

Writing the novel was not easy. He worked for ten years on each of his books. “At first no one wanted to publish my debut book. People took notice of it only when it was nominated for awards,” says Chariandy, who now teaches literature and creative writing at SFU. He supports new writers in their efforts, and tries to guide them through the hardships of their chosen career. “‘To become a writer is a difficult process that needs effort and dedication. I’d just like others not to encounter the same obstacles that existed for me,” he says.

A person of between

Métish-Icelandic author Jónína Kirton also followed a long path before she graduated from the SFU Writer’s Studio in 2007, of which she is now a member of the advisory board.

“As a girl I was not that interested in marrying and so I made my way through many careers. I worked ten years in banking, ten years in the airline industry and then I became a facilitator, enforcing child and social support. The only place I wrote was in my journals,” she says. At one point, she even worked as a night-psychic on a 1-900 number when her son was a baby. “That psychic job did not last long. I lived many lives over the years and all these experiences offer no end of material for my literary work,” says Kirton.

She is also highly influenced by her mixed background. ‘I write what it is like to be a person of between, to be what we used to call ‘part Native.’ A lot of confusion and rejection comes with being an indigenous woman with a white mother, especially when you’re born in the fifties,” she says.

Both of Kirton’s grandparents from her paternal side were Métis, her ancestral roots originating in the Red River Settlement in Manitoba. Her maternal grandfather however, was Irish, and her grandmother of pure Icelandic blood. “Apparently, there are other Métis Icelanders in Manitoba, and I would like to spend next year studying in what way these two cultures differ from each other. A funny difference is that Icelanders are notorious for their bluntness but Métis are less inclined to say things directly and use a lot of storytelling,” she says. Kirton feels very connected to both of her cultural backgrounds. “Even if I cannot speak the language or do the jig, my culture is in my blood.”

Most of Kirton’s books and poems are loosely autobiographical and describe her experiences with mixed race, but also her experiences with violence against women. At the Writers Fest, she will read from her second collection of poetry, An Honest Women, published in 2017. “I write about sexualized violence and how I could break those chains of dysfunction that were passed on to me. We all know that there are far too many murdered and missing indigenous women. I don’t want to keep my mouth shut about that.”

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