Something on the shelf for everyone

Vancouver Writers Fest will return to Granville Island from Oct 18 to Oct 24 with a long lineup of exciting in-person, online and hybrid events featuring celebrated authors from all over the world.

“There is a little bit of something for everyone; there are events for kids. Our mission statement is to connect people to books, ideas and dialogues. If you are looking for that human connection, what you will get from our events are new perspectives and fascinating conversations about what it is to be human,” says Leslie Hurtig, artistic director of the festival.

Every year the festival invites a different guest curator to program a few events in their own voice. This year’s guest curator is Lawrence Hill, one of Canada’s most renowned writers and the winner of multiple awards.

A plethora of events at the festival

Hurtig says COVID-19 made it necessary to pivot to digital events but this has also been a positive change for the festival as it widens its audience reach. At this year’s festival, one can get a digital pass with access to 35 different events.

“We also have these hybrid events, where we have a moderator in theatre or on stage, and someone else will be beaming in. The author of Fight Night, Mariam Toews, will be joining us on screen; the same with American writer Anthony Doerr, who wrote All the Lights We Cannot See,” she adds.

There are also events that revolve around books but delve much deeper into critical global issues through interesting dialogues.

Omar El Akkad, award-winning journalist and author of the acclaimed dystopian fiction American War, will host a discussion with American National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Evan Osnos about Osnos’ latest book Wildland: The Making of America’s Fury. Through individual stories, the book tries to illuminate the origins of America’s political turmoil that resulted in a divided country with civil unrest last year.

A writer’s mind, craft and spirit

El Akkad will also be featured in another event with Globe and Mail editor Mark Medley to talk about his own work and his new novel What Strange Paradise, which sheds light on the tragedy of the refugee crisis.

The book opens beautifully:

“The child lies on the shore. All around him the beach is littered with the wreckage of the boat and the wreckage of its passengers… Facedown, with his arms outstretched, the child appears from a distance as though playing at flight… A wave brushes gently against the child’s hair. He opens his eyes.”

Alluding to the real-life tragedy where Alan Kurdi, a Syrian boy who was washed ashore dead in 2015, What Strange Paradise also starts with the arrival of a nine-year-old Syrian boy Amir on a Greek island after his perilous journey away from his war-worn home. Luckily, he meets a local teenage girl, Vanna, who tries to protect and save him.

Loosely based on the American fable Peter Pan and told from the perspectives of two children who don’t speak the same language but are bonded together against a hostile environment, the book examines the us-against-them mentality that El Akkad feels is still all too common in today’s world.

“I think the overarching thing that I write about, and I will continue to write about, is the idea that there is no such thing as them, there is no such thing as those people over there, what happens to them is exotic and different. I try my best to demolish that idea in my writing,” he says.

El Akkad further explains that he tends to explore the collision between systematic injustice and individual morality in his writings, what individuals try to do when the system tries to crush them.

Omar El Akkad. | Photo courtesy of Omar El Akkad

“Often the things I write about are the things that make me angry. A lot of times that just means the things that most people in this part of the world would have the privilege to ignore… I am trying to make an impact personally; if I can do that then I think I have done my job,” he says.

Regarding his craft, El Akkad says the trick is to narrow the distance as much as possible and take away the privilege of assuming something is very far away.

“For example, in American War, I took killing drones, refugee camps and the general state of warfare, and I made it happen in Alabama and Mississippi,” he says.

His award-winning debut novel, American War, tells of the second American civil war for the use of fossil fuels after climate change.

Born in Egypt, El Akkad grew up in Qatar and moved to Canada when he was 16. Although he had a passion for fiction since he was very young, he pursued a computer science degree at Queen’s University, where he quickly found himself spending most of his time at the student newspaper. After graduation, he spent 10 years with the Globe and Mail and his work earned him the Canada’s National Newspaper Award for Investigative Journalism and the Goff Penny Award for young journalists.

A writer’s role in society

El Akkad wrote three unpublished novels during his time at the Globe and Mail until the success of America War, after which he gradually moved into writing fiction full time. He believes that a writer’s role in society is to act as a barrier against fraudulence.

“Fiction is obviously fictional, but it is the truth about being human,” he says.

Hurtig agrees about the important role of writers in society and feels the festival can offer much more than stories or books.

“In order to become an empathic person or emphatic society, which is what leads to a peaceful existence in this world, we have to understand what it is to walk in someone else’s shoes. So, to hear from different writers who come from different backgrounds is to understand the world better, to hopefully have empathy for those who are different from ourselves,” she says.

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