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Exploring the Imaginarium: WordFest 2018 Recap

By Frankie Hart, October 26 2018 —

I’ve started to look forward to October every year for the past six years for WordFest, where my dad and I hang out and bond over books. Over the years I’ve seen changes in authors, audience size, venue, events and theme. Though the festival is always evolving, it always brings something worthwhile. This year I tried going to events I normally wouldn’t, revisited my favourites and got lit and literary. (Not sorry.) Here’s how I spent WordFest’s Imaginarium:

Literary Death Match:

Literary Death Match (LDM) is a reading series that has occurred over 480 times around the world and hosted by WordFest six times. Four authors (Dave Bidini, Ali Bryan, Benjamin Hertwig and Joshua Whitehead) face off with one-on-one readings in the first two rounds, with winners facing off in the finale, which may lead into sudden death. Three authors judge based on literary merit (Patrick Weekes), performance (Jordan Tannahill) and intangibles (Alice Kuipers).

This year’s LDM was off-kilter in the best way. Highlights included Bidini’s reflections on his neighbourhood hash dealer becoming premier, Bryan’s acknowledgement of the orgasmic power of IKEA hot dogs, Hertwig prefacing his intense poem, “A Poem Is Not Guantanamo Bay,” with an explanation of why he refers to his club soda as “Schweppie-pee,” Whitehead’s rhythmic, trance-inducing delivery of RuPaul’s Drag Race references and the complete disregard of proper chair usage by all three judges.

Whitehead took home the W after the authors were confronted by host Adrian Todd Zuniga’s cruellest sudden death challenge yet — math.

This event is likely the most accessible to anyone interested in attending WordFest that is unsure of where to start. Though it will include a fresh batch of authors next year, Zuniga’s electric and literary reference-packed hosting always glues the show together. I’m not convinced that he ages, so there’ll probably be another 400 shows.

Friday Night Showcase: True Crime & Suspense:

Just in time for Halloween, this event explored the experience of writing true crime and suspense as both fiction and non-fiction. A Killer Harvest by Paul Cleave is about a boy who receives an eye transplant from his father, who was a detective killed during an investigation. Robyn Harding’s Her Pretty Face is inspired partially by Karla Homolka and focuses on adult female relationships. Iain Reid’s Foe explores the concept of feeling restrained in a marriage, set at a rural farm. The only non-fiction book of the group, The Real Lolita by Sarah Weinman, looks into Sally Horner and the influence of that case on Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita.

The authors discussed the appeal of the genre, how fiction provides closure in ways that the news does not, the compulsive nature of true crime writing, daydreaming about murder, readers being worried about your personal life and feelings of responsibility versus exploitation.

On closure, Weinman said, “I don’t like closure because it’s impossible to get. Even when there’s justice, it doesn’t make up for someone who died and isn’t coming back.”

Adult Spelling Bee:

A cross between a spelling bee and an amateur strip competition, this was by far the most unhinged event at the festival. There was a strict no-photo policy. Audience members were encouraged to snitch on anyone breaking the rule, for which they would be rewarded with a free drink. Comfort of the participants came first, though some participants were… notably comfortable.

Due to a, “What happens at adult spelling bee stays at adult spelling bee” policy, the most specific detail I can give is that no one spelled a single word right. I heavily advise you to not make the same mistake I did in attending this event alone.

Bionic Women Writers:

In discussing their books, this panel of four authors ended up discovering many links between each other, from hybrid forms and Indigenous issues to river motifs.

Chelene Knight’s Dear Future Occupant tries to locate a concept of home while hopping from prose to poetry, essay and flash fiction surrounding her own childhood memories. The pieces she read focused on her relationship with her mother, who was dealing with addiction while raising two kids. Knight also spoke about her work as editor of Room Magazine, which she said creates a safe space for women to speak in a raw way.

Paula Morris read an essay about her mother from False River, a book she said was inspired partially from “eavesdropping and pilfering from women’s conversations.” The book has pieces from various places around the world. Morris spoke specifically about her experience of being in Louisiana during Hurricane Katrina, where during the evacuation, a woman took the opportunity to leave her husband and take their kids instead.

Unraveling Oliver by Liz Nugent flips through seven different narrators in a story centring on uncovering the dark past of a man after an act of domestic violence. Nugent said she enjoyed writing from most of the narrator’s perspectives and found it somewhat liberating to write a morally reprehensible character.

Katherena Vermette’s River Woman was meant to be a poetic break from writing that was depressing, though she found it to also come out depressing, as well as angry and political. Métissage, the five-part poem she read, harkened back to the early days of the Hudson’s Bay Company and bodily connection to land. In discussion, she spoke about the notion of Métis nationhood and reconciliation between identities of Métis and Canadian.

Nugent noted that all four women came from colonized backgrounds — “but we never stopped telling stories,” she said.

Dick Lit’s Festival Edition:

Going out with a bang, this iteration of WordFest’s trivia night was not only the festival edition — it was also the PowerPoint edition and the last time it would be hosted by the eponymous Richard. The introduction of the PowerPoint brought visual-based questions as teams were challenged to identify celebrity noses, various animal poops and guess the prices of doors. In forming your trivia team, remember that the best team name receives a bonus. A bonus that my team — CAPITALISM = CLIMATE DEATH — was unjustly robbed of.

Workshop: Adapting Books To Screen:

This session with Dennis Foon went over the process of screenwriting as well as the logistics of being in the film and TV industries and the frustration of dealing with indecisive producers. Foon explained a big reason for discrepancies between books and their screen adaptations lie in their different intended audiences.

When asked for advice on what to do with a finished screenplay, Foon advised to get involved in various organizations such as the Canadian Film Centre and enter respectable screenwriting competitions to get feedback, but to be mindful of scams and not to enter anything that costs more than $100.

Foon stated the best advice he could give was to take some acting workshops to explore how to inhabit and shape a character.

WordFest Presents Tanya Tagaq:

The “Imaginarium” was brought to a close in an event that was a conversation-therapy session hybrid, an intense reading and a brief concert. I can think of no better host than Vivek Shraya for Tanya Tagaq’s multidisciplinary event, a fellow musician and author. Rapport between Tagaq and Shraya built fast, as Shraya commended Tagaq as a “possibility model” for racialized people, Tagaq later said to Shraya, “I genuinely like you, I’m not just lying!”

Tagaq kicked off her shoes, somehow giving the grandiose venue of the Bella Concert Hall the atmosphere of a casual living room chat. Split Tooth, her debut book, is composed of prose, poetry, memoir and contains writing up to 20 years old, much of it taken from Tagaq’s personal journals.

Split Tooth contains illustrations from Jaime Hernandez, stemming from Tagaq’s love of the Hernandez brothers after her discovery of Love and Rockets.

“When Jaime said yes, I almost peed. He called me and I tried to be normal,” Tagaq commented.

The conversation between Tagaq and Shraya often walked the line between a book discussion and a group therapy session. On the subject of privilege in empathy, Tagaq explained the importance of protecting yourself, that people who seem kind will take from you until they suck you dry and that a truly equal relationship where you can let your borders down is a beautiful privilege to have.

Tagaq and Shraya also spoke on racial topics, such as the importance of taking charge of their own sexualities, as the sexuality of people of colour is often fantasized and representation is lacking. Tagaq urged the audience to be aware of Indigenous injustices and hopes her art provides a way to humanize Indigenous people and to provide representation beyond Pocahontas.

Tagaq did readings from throughout her book, most notably a section viscerally detailing her eighth-grade experience right down to frosted eyeshadow and a section referred to as “the fox blowjob story.” Her vocal awareness lent itself to the readings, her every word was intentioned and her rhythmic delivery tied into the throat singing she performed in between pieces.

At the end of her last reading, she performed some throat singing alone and somehow didn’t even need to leave her chair to mesmerize the entire audience, who gave her a standing ovation.

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