A Conversation with Leslie Hurtig, Artistic Director of Vancouver Writers Fest, on Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion

Arty Guava – Three Figures

Margaret Atwood. Margaret Laurence. Robertson Davies. Timothy Findley. These were the big names in Canadian Literature (CanLit) who emerged in the 1960s and 1970s and formed an initial literary canon.

Now in 2021, while these names continue to be highly recognized, new and diverse writers increasingly make up the national literary scene.

“They were the canon of CanLit. Clearly, that’s just not a good representation of who we are here in Canada, and I think finally, we’re catching up to that. The result is we get to add many, many different voices to that list of CanLit superstars,” says Leslie Hurtig, Artistic Director of the Vancouver Writers Fest.

Hurtig is really excited about this year’s Vancouver Writers Fest, which reflects the range of talent, both new and established that are publishing locally, nationally, and internationally. “I think that most good literary organizations are paying close attention to the kinds of books that they’re curating and the kinds of conversations that they’re putting on their stages. This is something that the Vancouver Writers Fest has been doing for a very long time. When I was hired, it was with the idea to increase that even more,” says Hurtig, who took the helm of the Fest four years ago.

Leslie Hurtig; Photo: Yasmeen Strang

The 2021 Vancouver Writers Festival takes place October 18 to 24 and features both digital as well as in-person events at various venues on Granville Island (e.g., Performance Works and Waterfront Theatre). This year’s programming speaks to the kind of necessary conversations, like #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter, Truth and Reconciliation, and Stop Asian Hate, that have been happening over the last few years.

Events this year range from “Home Truths with Jen Sookfong Lee and Lois Peterson” (October 19, 11am, virtual), which will deal with migration and homelessness to “One-to-One with Lisa Bird-Wilson and Katherena Vermette” (October 18, 7pm, virtual), which will talk about community, intergenerational trauma, and the power of current Indigenous writing. The Vancouver Writers Fest will spotlight the richness of Indigenous literature at many other events as well, such as “Walking in Two Worlds: Wab Kinew” (October 18, 2pm, virtual, Youth Program), which will discuss a new work about an Indigenous teen navigating the virtual and the real, and “Permanent Astonishment: Tomson Highway in Conversation” (October 21, 8pm, at-home viewing), which features the iconic writer’s new memoir.

Hurtig says it takes a year or two for published works to emerge that reflect current societal conversations. For example, “the swelling of the Black Lives Matter movement resulted in some truly remarkable works being published, and we’re seeing a wonderful stream of those now coming through that we can pick and choose from and invite to our festival and represent on our stages. I think we’re in a wonderful position as an organization that presents writers because they are really the ones who are at the forefront of these movements,” says Hurtig.

Odera Igbokwe – Black Lives Matter

A primary means to create more varied content at the Vancouver Writers Fest is through their Guest Curators. Hurtig is open about the need to invite others into the curatorial process: “I am just one White, cis-gendered woman sitting here. I love books and this industry but I am just me. If you want to have a very well-rounded, interesting festival, I think you need more voices.” In previous years, Cherie Dimaline and Tanya Talaga served in the role, curating special panels that spoke to concerns related to Indigeneity, and last year Ivan Coyote, a spoken word performer and filmmaker who challenges normative gender and sexuality, was the Guest Curator.

The 2021 Guest Curator is Lawrence Hill, known for his novels The Illegal and The Book of Negroes. “I’ve been a fan of his writing for a very long time and just jumped at the chance to engage him here. He has a special interest in talking about Caribbean Black culture, Black writing on the Prairies, and the enhancement of Black CanLit. Having him join us this year is a gift,” says Hurtig.

Lawrence Hill; Photo: Lisa Sakulensky

Hill has curated five engaging panels, including “Black Literature on the Prairies with Cheryl Foggo and Karina Vernon” (October 22, noon, virtual) and “Defying Stereotypes in Memoir with Ben Philippe and Ian Williams” (October 22, 1:30pm, Waterfront Theatre).

Another event that Hill curated, “Caribbean Masterpieces with Myriam Chancy and Cherie Jones” (October 21, 7:30pm, Performance Works), promises to be especially provocative. Jones, who hails from Barbados, has published How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House while Chancy, who was born in Port-au-Prince and grew up in Haiti and Canada, just published a new novel, What Storm, What Thunder. Both of their works feature strong female characters as they grapple with trauma, injustice, and personal and community upheaval.

“I know it sounds heavy but that’s one of the pleasures of the conversations that we present. You can take topics like these, which are so intense and make you almost gasp, ‘I don’t know if I can do this,’ and break them down to a human level that makes us empathize and sometimes even laugh. And isn’t that just the human condition right there?” says Hurtig.

The Fest also has a Spoken Word Curator, Jillian Christmas, a local poet and former director of Vancouver’s Verses Festival of Words. Christmas has put together two events that celebrate the spoken word and young, talented writers: “Word! Spoken Word for Adults with Lili Robinson, jaye simpson, and Brandon Wint” (October 21, 8:30pm, Revue Stage) and “Word! With Sofia Fly, Janice Jo Lee, and Cassandra Myers” (October 19, 2:00pm, virtual, Youth Program).

Hurtig herself enjoys inviting authors and crafting panels. “That’s the fun part of the job. It’s the puzzle,” she says. She explains that putting events together involves finding overlaps or points of contact between various writers, as well as moderators. “For bigger topics, like #MeToo, for instance, I would look for a few different writers that are expressing these themes in a new way that excites me, and put them in conversation and see what happens. Most of the time there’s some magic that brews when you get to overhear these conversations on stage,” she says.

Hurtig says that it’s illuminating to watch as writers who don’t know each other map out their commonalities, in addition to debating points of disagreement. An engaging event, which Hurtig herself is moderating is entitled “The Spectacular Complexity of Womanhood with Mona Awad, Zoe Whittall, and Rachel Yoder” (October 21, 8pm, Waterfront Theatre). Their works are unique but all examine womanhood in its complexity, like Yoder’s book Nightbitch, which depicts a stay-at-home mom who thinks she’s becoming a dog. “The event looks at some of the things that happen when you push women to the brink,” says Hurtig.

Hanna Lee Joshi – Surreal Door

The Writers Festival aims for balanced representation in terms of geography, with one third each of local writers, Canadian and American authors, and international ones. They also try to give a platform to both emerging and established writers, sometimes putting them side-by-side. In addition, the Fest features French-language programming, like “Entre Nous with Elisa Shua Dusapin, Valérie Perrin, and Anne Serre” (October 20, 7:30pm, at-home viewing), which will have English subtitles.

The digital portion of the events allows the Fest to reach an audience beyond Vancouver, as well as expand their inclusivity. All their venues are accessible for those with mobility considerations, and ASL interpretation is also provided at select events, plus on request. Meanwhile, virtual events have live captioning. “It is both a return to normal that we are all so desperate for, but also taking the very best pieces of what we’ve learned over the past couple of years, which includes digital technology and the ability to present some of this wonderful art further afield,” says Hurtig. Lower prices for seniors and students and Pay-What-You-Can options overcome financial barriers.

Ultimately, Hurtig expresses deep passion for the work that she does to make the Vancouver Writers Fest more diverse, equitable, and inclusive. “I feel very fortunate to be in this role and to be surrounded by books and smart people. My vision is bringing these conversations to people in Vancouver and beyond who are hungry for knowledge, enlightenment, and also entertainment,” she says.

And while she’s heartened at the progress made, Hurtig stresses there is still much more work to be done. “There’s a long way to go still. I’m not by any means suggesting that it’s all been solved. But it’s improving,” she says.

Further info on the 2021 Vancouver Writers Fest can be found online.

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