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Looking back at Wordfest’s 2023 Imaginarium Festival 

By Reyam Jamaleddine, Ansharah Shakil, October 24 2023—

Wordfest’s 2023 Imaginarium Festival had all sorts of bestselling authors, international and local attending, and a variety of events to solidify Calgary’s place in the literary scene. With 40 events over the course of five days, there were enough options to keep anyone’s interest, but below are some of the standout events from the festival.

What a Pair! Mona Awad & Emma Donaghue

Photo by Dianne Miranda

With the release of their new books Rouge by Mona Awad and Learned by Heart by Emma Donoghue, the pair’s combined Wordfest event took us on a journey into the nuances of both worlds. Both of these books feature female leads with curious minds. 

Learned by Heart, written by the Oscar-nominated author Emma Donoghue, is a historical love story. It takes us to a boarding school in York where two young schoolgirls fall in love with each other’s polarity. Donoghue told the audience about the extensive research she conducted before writing these books. The book features two female leads, the reserved Eliza Raine and the courageous Anne Lister. As Donoghue read to the audience the apparent fierceness of the lead character Anne was over-achingly beautiful — a triumphant queer and feminist tale.

Rouge is written by TikTok’s famous author of Bunny, Mona Awad. As Awad spoke to the audience, she explained how the book will take us on a journey with the protagonist who is obsessed with skincare. This is something that most of us can now relate to, with the new skin-care rave, and even Awad herself professed that the character was in relation to her own experiences. Awad described her new book as Snow White meets Eyes Wide Shut. The female lead grieves her mother’s death and is faced with mystery and unanticipated revelations about her and her mother’s obsession with mirrors. As Awad read a few pages for the audience, the satirical and simultaneously eerie mystery immediately became apparent and persuasive in the writing. 

Although the similarities between these two novels are not so apparent, they both feature strong female leads, who are created by strong female authors. The authors did an amazing job of describing who the characters were and what the stories entail. At the end of the event, eager to unveil the tales of these characters, I couldn’t help but buy both of these books. 

Not Quite a Book (Yet): Mastering Longform with Susan Casey, Christina Frangou & Charlotte Gill

Photo by Daman Singh

Calgary-based independent journalist, writer and editor Christina Frangou joined Canadian writers Susan Casey and Charlotte Gill for an enlightening panel on how to write long-form non-fiction books in the festival’s venue Memorial Library. Frangou, Casey and Gill are all celebrated writers who have written in major publications such as the Guardian. It was a treat to see these three talented women keeping up a lively dialogue with clear respect between all of them, offering fascinating insights and clever advice about the writing industry. 

Frangou had a number of interesting questions to ask Casey and Gill, opening the panel up to questions from the audience half an hour in, but her own answers to audience questions were equally entertaining and moving. She discussed a viral young widowhood piece she wrote in response to a question from the audience about handling rejection and encouraging people in the crowd to be vulnerable and brave.   

Photo by Daman Singh

Casey spoke about her mantra for non-fiction being to impose a narrative, and in the words of Virginia Woolf “arrange whatever pieces come your way.” Her obvious care for the sea and the environment shone in one key piece of writing advice she offered: to show the reader you’re passionate and make it worth their while. Both Casey and Gill shared their difficulties and excitement over writing non-fiction. Gill spoke about how the personal can begin bleeding through in essays, an experience which led her to write her newest book, Almost Brown: A Mixed-Race Family Memoir, and about how we are still trying to wrestle with decolonization when we write. 

How to Survive Academia with Richard Kelly Kemick, Anne Koval, Amanda Peters & Michelle Porter 

Photo by Dianne Miranda

This event was especially useful to those currently studying or working in academia. Host Richard Harrison led the session, equally splitting up the time between the authors, who discussed their jobs outside of writing and how to balance those two things. Academic and creative language, the authors said, are two very different things, and it’s important not to lose sight of your creativity in academia. Harrison shared that he was once asked if he was a teacher who happens to write or a writer who happens to teach, and said it took him some time to realize it was the latter, but that he encourages others not to lose sight of what they truly enjoy in life. 

Photo by Daman Singh

Both educational and entertaining events were on offer for this year’s Imaginarium festival, but if you missed out, don’t worry — there are still ongoing Wordfest events year-round, available to see on the Wordfest website.

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