Storytelling from around the world at the Vancouver Writers Festival

Writers, poets and literary enthusiasts will get together on Granville Island again between Oct 17 to 23 for the annual Vancouver Writers Festival.

This year’s festival has a lineup of over 115 authors across 80 events ranging from performances, panel discussions to master classes.

“Vancouver has a really unique thing – there’s an amazing intimacy because it’s on Granville Island, but the festival also has the power to bring in almost everyone they want,” says Omar El Akkad, the festival’s guest curator this year. “They make sure the spectrum is as wide as possible and focus on the diversity of form and of geography. The collection of writers is so varied that it’s really hard not to find something you’re going to like.”

Festival highlights

Tara McGuire. | Photo by Jane Thompson Photography

Akkad has curated six events centering around themes of culture, heritage, self and the meaning of home.

“There is one on writing across cultures when you’re not fully in one culture and not fully another. I’m quite excited about that,” he says. “And there is one on what home means where two panelists are debut authors. Elamin Abdelmahmoud wrote a memoir about growing up in Kingston after moving from Sudan as a child. Deborah Thompson wrote a memoir about being black where she was quite often the only black academic in her research. Those two books I thought were really amazing pieces of work and I really want to see how they act in conversation.”

Akkad also recommends Aamina Ahmad’s new book The Return of Faraz Ali, which he reviewed for the New York Times earlier this year. He says it is based on a detective story in Pakistan in the 1960s where a police officer is dispatched to the red-light district to cover up a murder of a girl by powerful men. But he had a crisis of conscience because that is where he grew up.

“It is a beautiful and deeply human story about all these characters and how their lives spiral out from there, and the novel also spirals out into the history of Pakistan, the partition and the creation of Bangladesh,” he says.

Among the marquee events, Akkad says he really looks forward to the literary Cabaret where acclaimed authors read their work accompanied by professional musicians. Sally Zori and their band Sally Zori & The Allegories will be performing.

“Sally is an incredible band-leader. Last year they made that one of the best experiences I have had in a literary festival,” he adds.

Akkad will be performing again in another session of the festival, Don’t You Want Me, Baby?: Authors Do 80s Lyrics.

“I will get up and read the 80s Pop Music lyrics out loud as if it were poetry and talk about how it has changed our lives. I think that one’s going to be really fun,” he says.

A debut about loss and the opioid crisis

There are a number of debut authors at the festival this year. In Vancouver, there is Tara McQuire, whose book Holden After & Before was just released on September 27.

The book is a hybrid of memoir and fiction exploring grief and the opioid crisis in the aftermath of the death of her son, Holden. A graffiti artist, Holden passed away in the summer of 2015 when he was just 21 years old.

McQuire wrote the book in a two-voice narrative – one is her first-person memoir and the other is fictional from her son’s point of view. She did a lot of research, talking to Holden’s friends and went to places he has been to reflect on his life path.

“When something so shocking happens, especially when someone is still so young dies, it’s called an out-of-sequence death. When this happens, it’s a very foundational shift. So, there are a lot of questions. I was compelled to try to understand more about what had happened. I’m not saying my questions have been answered but the process of exploration of those questions definitely teaches me more about the world that we live in,” she says.

Through the grieving and writing process, McQuire says she slowed down and became a better listener.

“I used to be very judgmental. Why is this certain person behaving that way? Now I think I’m much more open and less judgmental of people’s choices. Understanding that we don’t know people’s histories such as the trauma and the pain that people are existing with. A lot of people right now, especially young people, are really struggling with the world. It’s a lot of pain and drugs can make that go away for a while,” she muses.

Always wanting to be a writer, McQuire had hoped she would have been given a better context for her debut but she feels the book is a way to keep Holden alive.

“I think Holden’s humor is very apparent in the book,” she says. “Probably that was the most joyful part to write his dialogue and him walking around the city with his friends and doing his crazy stuff. The scenes around Holden’s death were the hardest to write. Because I had to spend so much time imagining myself in that place in order to describe those scenes.”

For the future, she hopes that she can transfer her skills and has the ability to write other books that are not quite so sad and so personal.

On grieving, McQuire says she doesn’t think people are ever over the loss of loved ones but it is also a natural part of our lives even if grief never leaves.

“In Western culture,” she says, “we don’t really have a dialogue around grief. It’s very isolating. I would say it’s normal for people to die but it’s not normal for them to die when they’re young. And that makes it extremely painful. I would just say, feel that pain fully and talk about it if you feel like it.”

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