A meeting of minds on being human

By Amy Reiswig, March 2013

The WordsThaw symposium brings writers together to discuss how writing and social consciousness coalesce.

An upcoming symposium reminds us that when it comes to the question of how we keep our communities—our families, our markets, even our minds—healthy and vibrant, the wealth we most need to tap into is each other.

Malahat Review editor and poet John Barton describes the March 23 “WordsThaw” event as “an intellectual icebreaker at the cusp of spring where readers and writers come together to exchange and encounter new ideas. Quite simply, words thaw and the writing we love comes to life.” Focus and the Victoria Writers Festival are helping sponsor the event. With three panels plus an evening of readings, the symposium serves up a full day of brain food and an opportunity to engage with local authors talking big topics.

Malahat assistant editor Rhonda Batchelor, who is organizing the food writing panel, says the symposium is a welcome chance for the publication to step out of what some perceive as the “ivory tower” of literature, although she notes the event isn’t so much a change as an extension. “The Malahat publishes fiction and poetry, and we’ve recently started publishing non-fiction, but we’re primarily interested in ideas and forward thinking—in any genre,” she tells me. A poet with work forthcoming in Force Field: 77 Women Poets of BC (Mother Tongue, April 2013), she adds: “Part of being interested in writing is being interested in social consciousness.” 

Fiction panel organizer and Malahat marketing manager Susan Sanford Blades, herself a published fiction writer, similarly notes that social importance transcends genre: “A lot of people only read non-fiction because they think [fiction] is not relevant, but all reading is a conversation, a connection.” Hence panel number one: “Zoom In, Zoom Out: Focus on Fiction” (10am-noon) will discuss the question of what makes fiction relevant. Does it need to expose the broader world through social/historical commentary? Or can it be equally relevant by shedding light on its characters’ inner worlds? Local first-time book writers Yasuko Thanh (Floating Like the Dead) and Daniel Griffin (Stopping for Strangers) team up with veteran scrivener John Gould (his most recent novel is Seven Good Reasons Not to Be Good) and yours truly as moderator to dig into why fiction matters. 

“It’s interesting to think of the ways that writers sometimes shape the society in which they live,” Thanh muses: “How one’s outlook can be changed by fiction, and therefore how writing can be called a tool of social justice.” Gould notes that “The philosopher Richard Rorty distinguishes between ‘books which help us become autonomous’ and ‘books which help us become less cruel’—books fuelling self-creation and books fuelling social responsibility.” But he questions—and hopefully the panel will answer—“Are there really two kinds of books? Do they both matter? And we’re tackling all this before noon.”

“What’s exciting about a discussion like this,” Gould observes, “is that you’re feeling your way into ideas, listening with curiosity to yourself as well as your peers.” Thanh agrees: “Whenever there’s an opportunity for people to get together and debate and listen and learn and think along creative lines, ideas get sparked. I love sparks. It’s a wonderful chance to come out and meet your intellectual neighbours.” Short story writer and fiction panelist Griffin is looking forward to it precisely for this reason: “Any time I’m invited up from the basement of Canlit and into the bright lights of the world, well, that’s a good day. Talking writing, literature, ideas—I love it.” 

Rhona McAdam, author of the recent Digging the City: An Urban Agriculture Manifesto, will speak about how her food writing affords the opportunity to raise awareness of issues that affect all our lives: “The writing that most interests me has a political component: It seeks to address what the eating public has been deceived about, or at least encouraged not to think about. I think we all need to keep learning about food if we are to survive as healthy people in an increasingly unhealthy world and improve the situation for generations to come…food, after all, is a subject that all of us involve ourselves with at least three times a day!”

McAdam, a panelist on “A Sustainable Feast: The New Food Writing” (1:30 to 3:30), will be joined by Kimberley Veness, editor in chief of Concrete Garden, an environmental magazine by students in the writing department at UVic), and moderator Don Genova, a Vancouver-based food and travel journalist who, among many other activities, teaches a course in food culture at the University of Victoria.

From 3:45 to 5:45 the collaborative conversation continues with “In Our Names: Writers on Child Poverty in BC,” sponsored by the Victoria Writers Festival. Organizer and VWF artistic director Sara Cassidy says “the formidable” Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, BC’S Representative for Children and Youth, has been invited to moderate. 

“BC has the second-highest poverty rate in Canada (after Manitoba),” Cassidy reminds me. “We have somehow gotten used to hearing this…How did this happen? What does it mean? What are its costs?” A fiction writer herself, with a new book, Double Play, set for release in March 2013, she states that “Good writing makes us see things anew, lets us feel and allows us to grapple, even stupidly, even against our own resistance, toward understanding.” Panelist Patrick Lane will read from his work, which, says Cassidy, “has been influenced by the tumultuous lives of the working poor, witnessed by him as a boy and as a young father working in BC mills in the 1960s.” Sylvia Olsen, the author of many books that give voice to children living lives exacerbated by racism and poverty, and City of Victoria Butler Book Prize winner Madeline Sonik will complete the panel. 

Speaking of the value of a communal event like WordsThaw, Cassidy says, “Writers and readers are a community by the book and page and Kindle, but writing and reading are each solitary acts. Readings, literary symposiums and festivals—these are our opportunities to intersect and charge up that community, to plug us all in together at the same time.” 

That’s collaboration. The symposium, with its varying views, is therefore a different way for The Malahat Review, its partners Focus and the Victoria Writers Festival—and the Greater Victoria community—to come at what Rhonda Batchelor calls “issues of being human.”

 

The March 23 symposium will conclude with an evening series of readings by UVic 50th Anniversary writing contest winners Pamela Porter, Laura Kraemer and Katherin Edwards, as well as local authors Bill Gaston, Marilyn Bowering, Lorna Crozier, Lee Henderson and C.P. Boyko. All WordsThaw events take place at the University of Victoria, Human & Social Development Building, Room A240. Cost of passes and other details can be found at www.malahatreview.ca. 

Amy Reiswig recalls a time (after living in Nepal for a year) when fiction seemed like the height of Western self-indulgence. Now she recognizes how fiction can teach empathy and change our ideas, the seeds of action.