Writers’ fest – freedom in writing

Photo by Diane Smithers

Photo by Diane Smithers

For the past 27 years, the British Columbia Writers Festival has been bringing people together through the love of reading. This year, more than 100 authors, poets, spoken word performers and graphic novelists will gather to share their stories at this 28th annual event, which takes place Oct. 20–25 on Granville Island.

Two authors share the history behind the stories they tell.

Stumbling into his chosen craft

British Columbia’s own TJ Dawe stumbled into his crafts of writing and directing, rather than planning for them. Dawe is a writer and performer, whose plays have been performed and published across North America, and he is well known for his solo shows, including Tired Cliches, Totem Figures and Medicine. Canadian Theatre Review recently dubbed Dawe as “Canada’s most prolific writer of autobiographical monologues.”

Originally, Dawe aspired to be an actor, despite his, what he calls, “terrible” auditioning skills. But when he noticed that some of the artists he admired, including Spalding Gray, Daniel MacIvor, George Carlin and Charles Bukowski, made original works, he thought about following suit.

For years Dawe had been writing poems, coming up with sketch ideas and journaling. When he finally started writing and performing his own material, not only was it more successful than his attempts at acting, but also made him feel gratified.

“After a few years of doing this, I started working with other people, helping them midwife their own stories and ideas into shows. I gave feedback; I acted as a sounding board. And after a while, realized that you could describe what I was doing as directing,” says Dawe.

Influences and inspiration

Dawe is largely influenced by the theatre; he has been on the fringe festival circuit across Canada since he was cast in a touring show at the age of 20. Writers almost always create these shows based on the interests and ideas of the person, or group of people, on stage.

“I got to see a great deal of this kind of theatre that mostly existed outside the gaze of the mainstream theatre world. When I started writing my own stuff, the fringe seemed a natural place to try it out, and I found receptive audiences there,” recalls Dawe.

Touring for more than 21 years, Dawe has now seen thousands of fringe shows.

“I’ve learned from every single one of them – the mind-glowingly amazing, the good, the average and the unbelievably awful. The best learning in any art form, I believe, is done by osmosis and by doing. The fringe involves both,” he says.

Activism in writing

Alberta’s Tracey Lindberg, Professor of Indigenous Studies and Professor of Law at Athabasca University and adjunct Professor of Law at the University of Ottawa, describes herself as “next in a long line of argumentative Cree women.” She recently wrote her first novel, Birdie, and was awarded the Governor General’s Gold Medal. She describes the novel as a love letter to all the women in her life, including her mom, aunties, the female friends around her who raised her, and even to herself.

“Ultimately, it was a recognition – that everything I have, everything I am, every gift I have been given has been given to me by women,” she reflects.

Initially, she thought writing was part therapy, part creative outlet and part cerebral spring-cleaning.

“There were so many ideas, images and stories in me that it felt like I could not be effective until they were out. The problem was, they never stopped!” exclaims Lindberg.

Seedlings of activism

When she was in her early 20s, Lindberg was arrested for chaining herself to Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC), even though AANDC would not acknowledge her family or her Nation as status Indians.

“I was an activist because I knew that there were issues larger than me that would require me to be dedicated and make sacrifices in order that others could have some notion of “fairness” in their lives,” says Lindberg, who is of Cree and Métis ancestry.

She sees that activism requires a commitment to the community, because she wants the larger community to understand and to receive fair treatment.

Journey to becoming an activist

Lindberg believes being born female and Indigenous means there is a known risk of being exposed to violence. She became an activist to gain some sense of societial sanity.

“Living through violence is an activist story. Not being violent though you have lived through violence is an activist story. Having been exposed to colonial violence and deciding to fight and eradicate it is an activist story,” she says.

Lindberg was born into a family where generations of women, children and men knew what colonial violence was. It morphed, changed shape and assumed the cloak of family, community and strangers.

“We didn’t know whom to trust and sometimes trusted the wrong people, organizations. We were damaged. Cocooned. Woke up. Instilled in each generation a little more know-how. The survival mechanism, the steel of our backbones, took its place in our voices, our brains and our tongues,” she says. “Activism is not just doing something; for some of us it is refusing to sit silent, be ignored, to die. I refuse. In person and in writing. I suppose that makes me an activist.”


For more information, please visit www.writersfest.bc.ca.