By Gareth Watkins
CALGARY — A literary culture is one of those really basic elements that make a city livable rather than simply habitable. Good coffee, a thriving gay scene, dog walking parks and the ability for a man to get a close shave with a straight razor from somebody who only speaks Italian are also important, but we’re here to talk about books.
Wordfest has been bringing literature and the people who write it to Calgary, Banff and the Bow Valley for the past 19 years, curating a series of talks and workshops by international writers at venues across the area. Think of it as a quieter Sled Island, and, like a music festival, it’s a mix of essential headline acts and smaller artists who you and a handful of other people will discover buried deep in the event’s program who nonetheless will be life-changingly brilliant.
Naomi Klein is the first of many big names. Her book No Logo became a touchstone of the anti-globalization movement in the ‘90s, while her follow-up The Shock Doctrine anticipated the concerns of the Occupy movement. Her new book This Changes Everything makes an explicit link between climate change and capitalism, one that will infuriate the right wing as much as it will energize those of us that would prefer to not be extinct by this time next century.
Sheila Heti’s latest book How Should a Person Be? dared to answer that question through a mix of fiction and real transcribed conversations and emails, and Wordfest’s director Jo Steffens quite rightly calls her a “literary darling.” She has collaborated with Canadian artist Leanne Shapton on a 500-page book of interviews with women across the world on the subject of clothes. They will be speaking about the book following a pre-show clothing swap.
Representing the more commercial end of the spectrum are Veronica Roth, whose young adult book Divergent was made into a film released earlier this year, and Tahereh Mafi, whose Shatter Me books about a girl with a lethal touch has also been picked up for a film adaptation.
There will be a wealth of local writers reading their work, including former Kids in the Hall and Saturday Night Live alum Bruce McCulloch, but Steffens has booked plenty of other talent.
“For the local authors I actually invited a lot of poets to the festival. We have a great emerging and established poetry scene here in Calgary.” She mentions Nikki Reimer and Natalie Simpson, both Calgarians who have returned home: the former uses hashtags and YouTube comments; the latter explores the tension between sound and meaning. They couldn’t be less alike or more cutting edge.
As Steffens notes, we don’t live in a culture where writing is given much press coverage, so the majority of artists at Wordfest will be new to you. Don’t worry. If you’re not of the literary mindset, then just judge them by their covers: go see Joshua Ferris because he has nice teeth, or Sjón because he has an interesting name, or Emily St. John Mandel because she has a cute haircut. It’s guaranteed that something somebody has written will climb inside your soul and live there, because that’s kind of what books are there for.
The 19th annual Wordfest takes place in various venues in Calgary, Banff and the Bow Valley October 14-19. For a full list of events, visit www.wordfest.com.AB, Alberta, books, Wordfest