Festival’s diversity focus unites writers

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November 14, 2014

Victoria Writers Festival

At Oak Bay United Church

Nov. 6-8

Reviewed by Senica Maltese

If you were to pass me on the street, you would see a white, middle-class, straight woman. You would not be wrong to see me this way, but it isn’t the whole story.

This year, the third annual Victoria Writers Festival gathered writers from a variety of literary backgrounds, ethnicities, orientations and genders to tackle ideas around diversity and unity.

As Victoria Youth Poet Laureate Morgan Purvis stated in the first reading on Nov. 6, “the only thing that ends in death is the illusion of our separateness.” Though many of the events and readings focused on the unique pain caused by this separateness, and the labels that inevitably arise as a result, I think the closing line of Purvis’s stunning spoken-word poem remained relevant throughout the entirety of the festival.

The opening event on Nov. 8, a multi-generation panel on queer women’s writing entitled The Queer Sentence, was one of the first all-queer events to appear in a mainstream festival. The panel, which was hosted by early queer activist, editor and critic Chris Fox, included Betsy Warland, Leah Horlick, Arleen Pare, Jane Byers, and Alie Blythe. Each of these writers shared portions of their most recent works before engaging the audience in a supportive and open discussion on queer literature, history and the complexity of labelling oneself and labelling others.

Though the panel seemed to agree that having access to an umbrella term like “queer” is useful, Betsy Warland’s designation, “a person of between,” is the most inclusive and accurate definition that I have heard. Warland concluded the event, declaring, “There is no straight line.”

The lack of a straight line reappeared in this year’s Carol Shields Lecture, which also dealt with the complexities of separateness, but from an indigenous point of view. The lecture, entitled “Islands of Decolonial Love: Exploring Love on Occupied Land” was presented by Leanne Simpson (pictured above), a Nishnaabeg storyteller and activist.

Simpson’s presentation, told in four timeless Nishnaabeg stories, explored the impact of colonialism on the lands and bodies of First Nations peoples and fearlessly delved into the ways that colonialism has damaged their intimacy and caused generations of shame in indigenous communities.

According to Simpson, storytelling spurs the creation of what she calls “islands of decolonial love”; however, she clearly stated that story telling is only the first step in the long and labyrinthine path to indigenous resurgence.

Though complex in its implications, Simpson regarded her ability to give her lecture in a branch of the United Church, which was responsible for much of the pain in Simpson’s cultural history, as a tremendous success.

Darrell Dennis’s reading, which appeared in “The World Before Us” gala, also addressed the damage caused by colonial occupation on First Nation’s land, but from a place of searing wit. Reading from his newest book, Peace Pipe Dreams: The Truth and Lies About Indians, Dennis deconstructed some of the common misunderstandings and stereotypes pushed onto indigenous individuals.

As a person who is easily slotted into the mainstream, I am acutely aware of my privileged position in Canada, and in the world. The pain and historical weight behind these presentations allowed me access into worlds where I do not often feel openly welcomed. Without a doubt, the third annual Victoria Writer’s Festival has encouraged me to rethink and reread history, literature, the body and the self. I would call it a tremendous success.

Senica Maltese is a writing and English literature undergrad at UVic. 

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