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A glimpse into what Wordfest’s 2023 Imaginarium Festival has to offer

By Ansharah Shakil, October 12 2023—

Since its early inception, Wordfest has been one of Canada’s most vibrant non-for-profit arts organizations, producing events all year long in addition to its major event, the literary festival Imaginarium, taking place this year from Oct. 11 to 15. In an interview with the Gauntlet Shelley Youngblut, CEO and Creative Ringleader of Wordfest, spoke about what to look forward to for the festival. 

“I think when people think about a literary festival, they think it’s gonna be boring, that it’s something you should do, that it’s gonna be edifying,” Youngblut said. “What we wanna do is show you how exciting it can be, to be around smart, funny people who are communicating ideas.” 

This year’s Wordfest will include a number of entertaining events, like the Writers’ Family Feud, which involves four related pairs of writers who will be competing against each other. 

“[The festival has] always been about bringing the best writers to Calgary,” Youngblut said. “It’s 28 years now, but what we’ve done over the past years is try to make it accessible to everyone so it doesn’t feel like it’s your mother’s festival, it feels like it’s something for you.” 

Her recommended reading list from the festival’s authors’ selection for university students includes Roaming by Jillian and Mariko Tamaki as well as Daughter by Claudia Dey, Rogue by Mona Awad, The Circle by Katherena Vermette, The Berrypickers by Amanda Peters, A Grandmother Begins the Story by Michelle Porter, Satellite Love by Genki Ferguson and The Underworld by Susan Casey. 

The festival has a long list of bestsellers attending, but also debut authors and ones whose books have been made into TV shows or films.

“You’re going to have your finger on the pulse of what’s going on in terms of big ideas,” Youngblut said. “The theme of the festival this year is Think Bigger, and I think coming out of the pandemic our world has gotten very small. The possibilities we feel in our lives got very small. It’s important to encourage people that know that there are larger things, things worth caring about and connecting to.” 

Calgary isn’t often seen as a literary-focused city, but Wordfest encourages the idea that its book scene is burgeoning and spirited.

“Here’s a secret,” Youngblut said. “I talk to people in Toronto all the time and they’re jealous of Calgary. We have a really active, engaged, supportive scene here. When authors are on tour they actually ask to come to Calgary now. The biggest writers in the world now know that Calgary is a friendly, wonderful place if you’re a writer, and that’s the kind of reputation that we wanna carry on.”

She added that Calgary audiences in particular show up to these sorts of events. Wordfest has had sold-out shows all year, with a recent example being Zadie Smith in September.

“One thing that’s utterly unique about a book event is you are guaranteed to meet the author,” Youngblut said. “After every single show — and we call them shows because they’ve got full theatricalities, in fact, our technical director just graduated from UofC’s drama department — there is a signing line. That piece of connection is utterly unique to a literary event.”

You don’t have to read the book to attend a festival event, though Shelf Life Books and pop-up bookstores will be available in the festival’s main venues, which include Memorial Park Library, Alexander Calhoun Salon and DJD Dance Centre. 

“What we hope is that you’ll be so lit up by what you hear that you’ll want to read the book,” Youngblut said. “Think about it like the T-shirt after a concert. Never feel like you have to do your homework before you come to a Wordfest show. Afterwards, if you want to savour it, if you’re really intrigued by what you heard, then you can get the book.”

There are so many authors attending this year’s festival that anyone can attend and find something that they like, or something they weren’t looking for, whether it’s a new book, a new favourite author, advice about publishing and writing or just a riveting conversation.

“Part of the great thing about a festival is the show you know you want to see, the band you know or the author you know, but it’s the other authors that are going to surprise you. That’s what a festival should do,” Youngblut said. “There’s a lot of free shows, so if money’s an issue, go to a free show. There’s so much going on, just open yourself up to it and the best thing you can do is to show up. I think that’s true in all aspects of life.”

To view the full festival schedule and get tickets, visit the Wordfest website.

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