A Writing Community

by: Amy Jones

Delegates banner - Amy Jones

The Delegate Programme is an opportunity for local authors and journalists to enrich the level of discussion at select events throughout the International Festival of Authors. Amy Jones—author of We Are All in This Together—wrote about her experience as an IFOA 2017 delegate and for her, the Festival became a community for writers.

In the six years I lived in Thunder Bay, I never missed a Lit on Tour event that came to town. Every year, it was the event I looked forward to the most—the chance to see writers I admired, to meet up with other book lovers, to attend master classes taught by CanLit superstars, to talk about writing and reading and all things literary.

When November rolled around, we all bundled up and headed out to the Prince Arthur Hotel or the Airlane or the Thunder Bay Art Gallery to see Jane Urqhart, or Ania Szado, or Alexander MacLeod, or Michael Winter. It felt like we had a community; it felt like we were part of something. And for myself at the time, an aspiring writer living in a city that seemed worlds away from the rest of the writing world, that meant everything.

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Writing is a Dialogue

By Sheniz Janmohamed

IFOA and I have a long history. When I was a bright-eyed student in the University of Guelph’s MFA in Creative Writing programme, students had the fortune of attending master classes, readings and round tables at IFOA. I remembered thinking, “This is where the professionals come to play.” I shook hands with Wole Soyinka (and swore to never wash mine again), interviewed Mohsin Hamid and sat in a master class with Mark Strand. It was an enriching and inspiring experience for all of us, and the words of mentors and literary idols come to mind when I’m faced with a writing roadblock.

Back then, I was in love with the idea of writing (I still am) and the perks that come with it—meeting the greats, dining with publishers and writing for a living. Almost eight years later, I have come up against the hard truth of being a writer. The uncomfortable truth that being a writer is rarely glamourous, often tedious and mostly fulfilling.


Lee Maracle at IFOA by © ifoa.org/George Lobb

And so, returning to IFOA as a Delegate, I had difficult questions to ask. Questions about survival, appropriation and labelling. I wasn’t sure if I’d get the answers I was looking for. Part of me already knew that asking those questions would require action, not words.

I found myself in an IFOA van with the gloriously funny Lee Maracle, en route to the Woodland Cultural Centre for IFOA Branford. As we left Toronto, she pointed out where the wild rice fields used to grow, the meaning of Toronto (“Gathering Place”) and reminded us that water remembers. It was a fascinating conversation—a conversation that did not separate the political from the personal, the communal from the individual. She listed off the vegetables she grows in her garden with the same passion she listed off her favourite poets: “Dionne Brand is Canada’s greatest poet—elegant, direct, simple. Every poem is a feast.”

The length of the journey and the casualness of our conversation allowed us to jump from storytelling to our traveling experiences in a matter of minutes. I learned that Maracle travelled to India for a conference and theatrical collaboration. We spoke of the politics of class and the caste system as well as our disdain and love for Indian-style bucket baths.Maracle reminisced about the days when she set up her living room with mats and blankets for her children and children’s friends—and they’d spend the weekend reading an entire book aloud.

We laughed, paused to reflect and returned to the discussion with thoughtful questions. It was fulfilling because I was speaking to Lee Maracle, not the literary idea of Lee Maracle. We talked about writing that is deemed “too ethnic,” the fine balance between tradition and evolution, and the challenges of writers who do not speak in their mother tongue. Maracle spoke of storytelling as an interwoven web that is linear and simultaneously spirals in/out. Characters’ names have positions, not just meanings.

Maracle reminded me that writing is a dialogue with your community, not just yourself. And that’s what IFOA is really about—bringing together writers who have never met, who haven’t seen each other in a long time, who have nothing to say to each other, who have too much to say. It raises questions that require contemplation, action, change. It provides answers that are sometimes unexpected, often understood and at times, complicated.

It doesn’t end when the curtain closes. It has just begun.

Let’s continue the dialogue.

Sheniz Janmohamed is an author, artist educator, spoken word artist and the Artistic Director of Sufi Poets Series. She has been published in a variety of journals, including West Coast Line, Catamaran Literary Reader and SUFI Journal. She has published two collections of poetry: Bleeding Light and Firesmoke. Janmohamed is also an IFOA Delegate.

A Whirlwind Weekend

By Amanda Leduc

Here’s a bookish no-brainer: when the IFOA gets in touch with you and asks if you’d like to come to their Festival in exchange for attending some events and writing a wee blog post about some of said events, you do it. You do it especially if you’ve been reading books since before you really understood what words were all about. (Picture a two-year-old Amanda, book open on her lap, making up the story and “reading” as she goes. That book was a doorway even back then, even when I hardly knew what it meant.)

Most readers think that books are magical, and I am no exception. As I’ve gotten older and ventured out as a writer myself, I’ve discovered that peeking behind the pages—as it were—of a book and hearing what the author has to say about their process can be every bit as magical as letting that book world take you away. And so: a weekend of author events? A chance to mingle with the literary luminaries themselves? Yes, please! Where do I sign up?

This weekend, I heard the Irish novelist John Boyne discuss the role that the Catholic Church abuse scandals played in his latest book, and watched him talk about how the interviews that he conducted for his novel increased his empathy for villains and victims alike. I watched him speak passionately about how he refuses to “write down” to his younger readers. I’m trying to get them to think, he said. I’m trying to get them to move.

At another panel, I watched Marianne Ihlen—the muse behind Leonard Cohen’s “So Long, Marianne”—be gracious and gently funny about her time with the poet. What does a muse do, she was asked. Her reply? Well, she keeps the house. She had us all in giggles.

_TB11245In another room, another discussion, another panel filled with writers, I watched people grapple with the question of how to plot a novel. How to understand words on that deepest of levels. How to wrestle them together. The consensus of this particular panel was that no one knows, really, how to wrestle words together at any given time. It just happens.

The message: sometimes, no matter how long you’ve been doing this, reading and writing and making your way around, things still keep their magic.

I watched Alison Pick and Shelly Oria tease apart the question of how their respective Jewish heritages have shaped their works. I watched Adam Sol, Matthew Thomas and Russell Wangersky talk about how teaching has influenced both their writing and the way that they approach books.

Every talk brought me something new—some different insight, some other side of the writing process. They were all talks about books, and yet they managed to talk about so much more than books at the same time. As a reader, as a writer, as someone who just loves stories no matter how they’re told, I can say that every moment of my first Festival weekend was like holding that long-ago book in my lap and stepping into a new world all over again. People telling stories. People telling life.

There’s a whole week of the Festival to go yet. I can’t wait to see what stories we’ll uncover next.

Amanda Leduc holds a Master’s degree in writing from the University of St. Andrews and has had her short stories, essays and articles published in Canada, the USA and the UK. She is one of the co-creators of Bare It For Books, a calendar that features nearly nude Canadian authors and is being sold to benefit PEN Canada. Leduc is also an IFOA Delegate.

A Boy and a Man

By Anthony De Sa

About a month ago, my 12-year-old son, Simon, came home from school with a new book he had selected from his school library. It was John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. He read the first few pages at school, and when he came home, he stole himself in his room to continue reading. I had never seen this behavior from him. My three sons have always been terrific readers—something I’m very grateful for—but Simon had never immersed himself in a book quite like this. He gobbled it up and a day later asked if I could bring him another book, one that dealt with the Holocaust or WWII.

Yesterday, I realized I was covering an Artist Talk for IFOA with Irish author John Boyne as the guest artist. He is the author of nine novels for adults and four for children, but I didn’t know this. I must admit, other than Boyne’s big hit, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, which sold over 6 million copies worldwide and was recently made into a feature film, I knew little about him as a writer. What I learned from him deeply affected me as a writer, a teacher, a father, and it has remained with me still.

John Boyne is fascinated with “telling stories about people that never existed,” and writing for him is “an ‘active release’—part of my writing process.” That’s how any other author might answer the question posed about the creative process. But what made John’s response more interesting was his lack of distinction between the ways he treats a novel geared for a young reader and his other novels, those that are written for an adult audience. In fact, in his experience he sees the distinction between the two treatments as greatly diminished. The forms share the same process: “my process is simply to write the book I feel most passionately about.” It is incredibly refreshing for an author, working in both YA and literary fiction, to make such a candid admission. It speaks to him as person, first, and it resonated with me as a high school teacher, as a father of three young boys and as a writer, who at times feels the pressure to be everything to everyone. I think Steven Beattie, the moderator of the event, said it well when he suggested one of the reasons his books work so well with children, books that are often centered around difficult topics, like the Holocaust or gender and sexuality, is that he doesn’t condescend to children. Boyne recognizes how sensitive and smart his readers are; they understand things that adults are often too jaded to fully realize. More about this point later.

DSC04203The discussion then turned to religion, in particular, Catholicism. Now, most authors would shy away from questions of faith or ideology of a spiritual nature. These questions are always answered with the preamble, “Now this is just my belief,” or the apologetic, “I don’t want to offend anyone, but…” When Steven Beattie asked if he was Catholic, Boyne responded that he was not, and then went on to explain his personal stories, many of which could not be told fully because we simply did not have the time. “In Ireland the Catholic Church destroyed itself—they didn’t believe in their own tenets.” Although he recognized there were good people in the church now, the kind of young boys who had been groomed to become priests in Ireland didn’t have the opportunity to develop and mature fully. It is no wonder there were so many issues of abuse. This will be the focus of his upcoming adult novel, The History of Loneliness (February 3, 2015 from Doubleday Canada). It has taken Boyne 15 years and 12 novels to write about his home country of Ireland, but he has done so now in what many say is his most powerful novel to date, a novel about blind dogma and moral courage, and about the dark places where the two can meet.

Pressed further, Boyne went on to say, “Even in silence, there is criminality.” He didn’t hold back. There was nothing “safe” about what Boyne said. It was unflinching—a word reviewers use far too often and badly—and honest.

So I asked my son Simon, what he liked most about The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. Here’s what I got. First response: “I don’t know.” Typical. I thought about what Boyne said, how he tries to get children to think, tries to get them to read and move them. He said, “I write about the most extreme violent event in the world, without the violence.” Using this as my springboard, I asked Simon how he felt about the violence in the novel, and this is what he said: “I liked it because he [the author] didn’t hide anything. He just wrote it like it was.” It’s real life. It’s what John Boyne wants to write about, and for me and my 12-year-old son, it doesn’t get better than that.

Anthony De Sa grew up in Toronto’s Portuguese community. His critically acclaimed debut, Barnacle Love, was a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and a Toronto Book Award. His most recent novel, Kicking the Sky, was also a finalist for a Toronto Book Award and a national bestseller. He attended the Humber School for Writers and currently heads a high school English department and creative writing programme. De Sa is also an IFOA Delegate.

Connecting at IFOA 35

By Ania Szado

At IFOA 35, several industry folk have been invited to participate as Delegates. We’ve promised to attend events and contribute our thoughts via discussion, social media, blogging and so on.

Julie Joosten at the IFOA 35 Poet Summit

Poet Julie Joosten at the IFOA 35 Poet Summit

Me, I think of it as making connections. I’m not talking about networking, though that’s almost inevitable at a festival that brings together so many industry peeps, both on stage and off. The connections I’m referring to are the unexpected kind. The ones that remind you that being a writer need not be isolating or lonely. The ones that come of being open to possibilities. Serendipitous encounters that prove that—as in the pursuit of writing—the first and most important act is to show up.

Sometimes the click comes when tossing 140 characters into the Twittersphere. In the dark of the Studio Theatre yesterday, thumbing away, I broke into a grin at seeing the #IFOA35 hashtagged tweets of Delegates and pals Anthony De Sa (@antiole) and Amanda Leduc (@AmandaLeduc) pop up in my feed. I couldn’t spot the tweeters in the audience, but the real-time awareness of our shared enthusiasm for author John Boyne‘s forthright, thoughtful comments on writing and religion added a certain energy to the experience—the zing of connectivity.

Jacob Scheier at the IFOA 35 Poet Summit

Jacob Scheier at the IFOA 35 Poet Summit

One hour later, one step beyond. As Mary Ito introduced a half dozen amazing poets, I posted a plea: “Tweeting as an #IFOA35 Delegate…with a raging toothache. Take me outa my pain, poets! Root canal is Monday.” From somewhere in the room, blogger Vicki Zeigler (@bookgaga) picked up the signal, sending condolences—which alerted me to the chance to retweet her play-by-play while my nerve endings went into high buzz.

And then, suddenly, I was okay. The poets’ voices took hold of me. Their bold, beautiful, mesmerizing words sent me out of myself, made me forget about pain, made me think about possibilities—for writing, for living, for learning. Sitting in the dark, ears alert and thumbs poised, I savoured the gifts I’d been given: a kaleidoscope glimpse into other worlds and other minds. Inspiration. The pain-busting thrill of connection.

In 2014, CBC called Ania Szado one of “Ten Canadian Women You Need to Read.” Her short fiction has been nominated for the Journey Prize and the National Magazine Awards, and her bestselling novel Studio Saint-Ex has received international acclaim. Szado’s debut novel, Beginning of Was, was regionally shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. Szado is an IFOA Delegate.

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