Laughter, dancing and conversations at the Vancouver Writers Fest

From Oct. 16 to 22, writers, students and book lovers will gather at Granville Island for the Vancouver Writers Fest.

With over 80 events highlighting more than 125 authors, the 36th rendition of this popular literary festival will feature the classic conversations with authors and masterclasses, as well as a lyrics-inspired dance party and spoken word poetry performances.

Programming with audience in mind

Leslie Hurtig. | Photo by Yasmeen Strang

According to artistic director Leslie Hurtig, themes of the Writers Fest have often been inspired by current events, and this year is no different with panels on racism, immigration and climate change. Alongside these important discussions, Hurtig also emphasizes her intention to curate events that appeal to all readers, including those who do so just for entertainment.

“Some people read to escape their lives, and it’s really important to find those authors as well and to make sure we have a well-balanced collection of events that both uplift as well as inform,” says Hurtig.

Joining Hurtig and her team as this year’s guest curator is Elamin Abdelmahmoud, host of CBC radio’s Commotion. Abdelmahmoud has programmed five events – all of which are most welcomed by Hurtig who notes the fresh perspectives his voice brings to the festival’s offerings. An event that Hurtig is excited about, which will also feature Abdelmahmoud, is on Oct. 19: Smells like… 90s Lyrics Night, where authors will perform readings of a 1990s song that resonated with them. A dance party will then follow the readings.

“The results last year were absolutely hysterical, and I’m expecting the same thing this year,” says Hurtig while noting a previous event that focused on 1980s music. “It’s a celebration of song writing but also just very funny for anyone who loves music from the 90s.”

To make the most out of the festival and experience its enriching community, Hurtig suggests scheduling back-to-back events while also making time to visit Granville Island’s other attractions, including the market and the pop-up bookstore that will be on Cartwright Street.

Collapsing fiction and reality

Eddy Boudel Tan | Photo by Chantal Stermer

A regular at the Writers Fest, Vancouver-based writer Eddy Boudel Tan returns to moderate the Marvelous Meta-Fiction panel, featuring novelists Kevin Chong, William Ping and Sam Shelstad. Taking place on the Revue Stage on Oct. 17, this panel explores how authors innovatively collapse the boundaries between reader, writer, fiction and reality.

“I’m really interested in understanding what experiences from each of these authors’ lives have made their way into their books because each of these books is so unique and singular in vision and style,” says Boudel Tan.

For his role as moderator, Boudel Tan prefers to create an organic environment where conversation flows naturally. He also notes that the three books up for discussion – Chong’s The Double Life of Benson Yu, Ping’s Hollow Bamboo and Shelstad’s The Cobra and the Key – are unlike anything he’s ever read before.

“If you look at these three authors and their works, they are very different, but what these novels share is that they pull from reality – from their own lived experience,” says Boudel Tan. “I’m really curious to chat with these authors about how they separate fact and fiction.”

Boudel Tan, whose novel After Elias was a finalist for the 2021 Edmund White Award for LGBTQ Debut Fiction, is no stranger to meta-fictional elements. In fact, he notes that it is difficult for writers to avoid drawing on their personal experiences. Part of this meta-fictional quality also lends itself to conversations of representation.

“As a queer Asian Canadian myself, I personally feel a responsibility to represent those identities in my work, and I want to be a voice for those communities and put out stories that affect my identity,” says Boudel Tan.

He hopes that those attending his panel will feel inspired and invigorated to further engage with stories – either as a writer or a reader.

Writing with compassion for children

Renowned children’s author, Michelle Kadarusman, shares similar sentiments about the festival’s ability to build community. Kadarusman’s We the Sea Turtles, a collection of short stories featuring characters experiencing natural disasters and eco-anxiety, will be featured at the Oct. 18 panel, The Strength of Owls, Turtles… and Kids, at Waterfront Theatre. Suitable for grades 4 to 7, this panel celebrates the strength of nature and children through storytelling – themes that Kadarusman is deeply passionate about.

Michelle Kadarusman.

“In all my stories, there’s always a celebration of differences, of self-acceptance, and always a theme of self-empowerment – with an environmental backdrop,” says Kadarusman.

To empower children in the face of anxiety-inducing topics, such as climate change, Kadarusman takes an empathetic approach to writing. She notes that this approach emphasizes the importance of thinking about the child throughout her writing process and using imaginative elements in her work.

“Middle school writing can be quite sophisticated – there isn’t a subject matter that hasn’t been broached with this age group,” says Kadarusman. “It just needs to be written with compassion and understanding that you need to instill inspiration.”

Aside from her interest in environmentalism, Kadarusman, who has received nominations for the Governor General’s Literary Award and the Green Earth Book Award to name a few, also finds inspiration in her multicultural background. Having lived in Australia, Indonesia and now Canada, Kadarusman’s writing helps her deal with homesickness.

“I write about my original homelands,” says Kadarusman. “Being able to share my Indonesian culture with young Canadian readers has been my most fulfilling creative work.”

Kadarusman will also be featured at the resilience-themed, Oct. 17 panel, Finding Your Way, likewise curated for grades 4 to 7 at the Revue Stage. For Kadarusman, at the heart of children’s writing is, after all, creating an enjoyable reading experience that emphasizes their individual ability to create societal change.

“You can lead a child into a darkroom, but you can’t close the door,” says Kadarusman.

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