Victoria Festival of Authors offers platform for powerful voices

Culture

VFA panels show exciting future for Canadian literature

victoria festival of authors
Screen capture of VFA brochure.

The fifth annual Victoria Festival of Authors (VFA) wrapped up its online events on Oct. 4 after four days of lively panel discussions about the present and future state of Canadian literature. 

Selected authors from across Canada tuned in to speak at seven virtual panels, and the festival concluded by awarding the Victoria Book Prize Society’s Butler Book Prize and Children’s Book Prize. Though usually held as separate events, this year, the VFA partnered with the Victoria Book Prize Society to organize a shared online event. 

Festival Producer Laura Trunkey and Guest Curator K.P. Dennis selected the panelists, but many of the festival’s themes and selections were informed by recommendations received from the festival’s newsletter subscribers. All selected panelists had to have had a book published in the last calendar year. From there, says Trunkey, “a theme started to emerge.” 

Topics including environmental crisis, social upheaval, diversity, futurism, and past trauma were explored in discussion panels featuring authors from multiple disciplines.

In the panel discussion “Writing in a Time of Slow Disaster,” moderator Verena Kaminiarz spoke with writers Jenna Butler, Jessica Johns, Joanna Lilley, and Shaena Lambert about their books, which explore grief, loss, and hope in the face of environmental crises. The multi-disciplinary panel, which contained two poets, a novelist, and a poet/essayist, explored the human impact on mass extinction, the power of personal action, and the importance of having a connection to the land we live on. 

Of the books discussed, one of my stand-out favourites was Butler’s collection of essays, Revery: A Year of Bees. The book chronicles Butler’s life as an off-grid organic bee farmer in Northern Alberta. While weaving together topics of invasive species, environmental laws, and the effects of bee population collapse, the book also explores Butler’s personal trauma and demonstrates how beekeeping became part of her own story of resilience.

Another panel, “Simply Unbelievable: Fresh Fiction for Unfathomable Times,” moderated by Matthew J. Trafford, focused on separate social issues of our time. Panelists Zsuzsi Gartner, Catherine Hernandez, Doreen Vanderstoop, and UVic writing department’s Mallory Tater, explored a wide range of topics such as climate change denial, motherhood, and the constructions and control of queer, feminine, and disabled bodies. 

Hernandez’s novel Crosshairs is an ambitious exploration of her characters’ complex identities and relationships to their bodies as things to own and reclaim. The dystopian novel follows multiple queer, disabled individuals who are placed in a work camp after an enviromental and economic collapse. Hernandez seeks to portray the lives of disabled individuals alongside queer refugees in an accurate and insightful way. The novel is dedicated to the victims of the Orlando Pulse massacre.

One of the highlights of the festival, in this journalist’s opinion, was past UVic student and 2016 Youth Poet Laureate K.P. Dennis’s panel, “Queer Existance is Resistance: the Power of QT2BIPOC Futurisms.” The panel featured novelist Danny Ramadan and poets jaye simpson and Serena Lukas Bhandar.

When asked what prompted them to choose this topic, Dennis said, “I just think it’s something that is really important to me, and I’m really intrigued by futurism and the way that art shapes the future and what we’re stepping into.” 

Futurism has a clear relationship to the past for Dennis and other panelists: to know where you are going, you need to know where you are from. 

“How we get the future we are dreaming of is by taking everything that exists and reframing everything that it could be,” said Dennis. 

The possibility for world-building within futurist genres such as science fiction creates an exciting opportunity to create and explore new liberated worlds for BIPOC folks who are queer/trans/2-spirited, says Dennis. As Guest Curator, Dennis believes that it is the job of festivals like the VFA to help create platforms for discourse and allow progressive voices to be heard. 

Of the panelists, jaye simpson’s new poetry collection it was never going to be okay stood out to me as a powerful collection focusing on simpson’s life as a trans and Indigenous individual, as they explore intergenerational trauma, urban Indigenous diaspora, and the limits of sexual understanding. simpson’s poem “inheritance,” which they read during the panel, is a testament to the depths of their emotional expression and poetic intelligence. I highly recommend checking out this brilliant new collection. 

The panel discussions closed on Oct. 4 with the awarding of the Victoria Book Prize Society’s Butler Book Prize and Children’s Book Prize. Judges for the prize were picked by the Society based on consultation with community members and industry professionals. The awards were limited to individuals living in the Victoria Capital Region. 

Due in part to their regional restrictions, the awards lacked some of the diversity of perspectives and identities found in the panel discussions. Although the Society does not currently have policy in place to promote diversity amongst its nominees, its president, Alyssa Polinsky, says that such initiatives are being discussed on a board level to increase the diversity of prize nominees as well as the board itself: it is “something we are cognisant of and want to move towards,” says Polinsky.

This year’s Butler Book Prize was awarded to famous Canadian poet, and  former chair of the UVic writing department, Lorna Crozier for her newest collection The House the Spirit Builds. The poetry collection is inspired by the photography of Diane Laundy and Peter Coffman and focuses on exploring both artificial and natural landscapes to inform how we experience and develop a connection between words and images and develop conceptions of place in our lives.

The Children’s Book Prize was awarded to Mark Leiren-Young for his book Orcas Everywhere: The Mystery and History of Killer Whales. One anonymous juror described the story as “hard-hitting journalism filled with life-affirming stories about the whales themselves and the slow evolution in human comprehension of them as intelligent and emotional beings.” The story mixes facts and statistics with the magical and spiritual qualities of orca whales in a captivating and educational children’s book.

Though reorganizing this year’s festival to accommodate COVID-19 restrictions was a difficult feat, Trunkey is already beginning work on next year’s festival, which is currently planned to be a mix of in-person and virtual events.