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Wordfest 2016 illuminates the modern manuscript

Thursday 06th, October 2016 / 12:13
By Christine Leonard
Wordfest general director Shelley Youngblut.

Wordfest general director Shelley Youngblut.

CALGARY — It wouldn’t be autumn in Calgary without a little leafing through, and Wordfest 2016 is the perfect occasion to pick up a new tome or two. An inspiring and informative whirlwind that whips the city’s literary circles into a frenzy of activity this annual gathering of readers and writers has exceeded its original scope and now extends to events staged throughout the year. The locus of Wordfest’s focus, their 10-day “main event” festival in October, has become both a valued proving-ground and a hallowed institution of cultural exchange for audiences. According to general director Shelley Youngblut, this year’s festival will be one of enlightening encounters with some 70 writers who are actively plotting-out the shape of Canadian literature to come.

“We’re now in the 21st year of Wordfest and it’s my second year and first full year of programming,” says Youngblut. “I’m really emphasizing the idea that we’re connecting Calgarians with life-changing ideas. We have brought in this second-tier of Canadian writers; people who are writing with such brazen originality. There’s one writer named Andrew Sullivan his book is as if the Coen Brothers had given up on the lightness. He’s got a book called Waste where his main characters are Skinheads. There’s another author Jay Hosking ‘Three Years with a Rat’ that’s deeply original. And Affinity Konar ‘Mischling,’ so watch out for those.”

Building showcases around the festival’s roster of award-winning and emergent authors, who are considered “Ones to Watch,” Youngblut hopes to draw eyes and attention to the works of cutting-edge writers from across North America and beyond. Designed to dive between the lines and dig beneath the surface, Wordfest manipulates the template of literary workshopping by facilitating provocative and interactive presentations that illustrate the written word by engaging audiences with potent doses of live performance and, more often than not, contagious laughter.

“We’ve also got fantastic late-night events at the Big Secret Theatre. The first one is Literary Death Match, anybody who’s been to Wordfest in the last four years knows that you have to go to it. We’ve got this guy Adrian Zuniga from Los Angeles who does them all over the world, it’s a must-see thing. Friday night it’s The Naughty Bits Read-a-Thon, in which our Festival writers are going to read aloud not-safe-for-work passages from either their books, or other people’s books, from a bed on the stage. And then on Saturday it’s the Adult Spelling Bee! We staged it last year for 50 people and there were no pictures allowed because of a certain amount of nudity. People loved it. So, we’re bringing it to the Big Secret Theatre where we can have the potential for full-nudity and, of course, the bar. It’s not your Mother’s literary festival and that’s part of what makes Wordfest in Calgary so special!”

Food for thought will not be in short supply as Wordfest strives to shed light on the inspirational storytelling of novelists such as Madeleine Thien, who will be conversing on her trade during a private Breakfast Talk at Sidewalk Citizen Bakery in the Simmons Building. Likewise, author Mark Leiren-Young will be anchoring the Curiosity Showcase, providing insight into his humourous approach to history and the penning his CBC Ideas documentary “Moby Doll: The Whale that Changed the World.” The celebration of creativity claims its space with a retinue of envelope-pushing artists such as Karen Hines, a two-time nominee for the General Governor’s Award for her avant-garde dramatic works, and a powerhouse line-up of female authors who translate their experiences to text without trepidation.

“I hope everybody checks out Karen Hines,” says Youngblut. “Her alter-ego, Pochsy, is really big on the alternative theatre scene. Anybody who’s been to Fringe plays, or has seen her collaborations with Canadian clowns of horror Mump & Smoot, will recognize her. We’ve got her for five nights in the Arts Commons’ Motel Theatre, performing a staged-reading called ‘Crawlspace’ for 30 people, where Karen starts talking to you about her experience with a real estate horror story. We also have a panel called the Bionic Women Writers,” she continues. “I’m really big on the idea of women with strong voices, the Festival is filled with them. I think for anybody’s who’s a part of Femme Wave, this is your literary version of Femme Wave. I think it’s going to be a real talker.”

An articulate answer to Calgary’s increasing demand for reliance and sustenance, Wordfest’s decision to engineer life-changing opportunities for readers is to be applauded. There’s no denying that a timely exploration of non-fictional topics that address an array of practical concerns and concepts, without setting foot in a waiting-room, is just what the doctor ordered.

“Canada’s leading psychiatrist, Dr. David Goldbloom M.D., is coming on Saturday October 8th. He’s written a book called ‘How Can I Help?’ I think all of us have some mental health concerns right now, and so for 15 bucks you can come and actually listen to someone who knows what he’s talking about. We also have a couple of panels coming up in the area life-changing ideas; the first one specifically deals with inclusivity, it’s a really diverse panel. And then the following week we have a provocateur’s Uncivic Politics panel that is perfect in terms of Calgary’s upcoming civic election (when nobody seems to be able to listen), which features James Hoggan, the author of ‘I’m right and you’re an idiot’ and Board Chair of the David Suzuki Foundation.”

Add to this reckoning a massive Wordfest Youth Program that attracts some 11,000 student-attendees and you have the makings of a literary happening capable of rivaling the most prestigious writers’ festivals in the world. As an annual occasion that has bloomed into a perennial platform for the exchange of ideas, Wordfest has come to represent the consumer’s thirst for knowledge as much as the creator’s impetus to share their innermost thoughts.

“It’s absolutely necessary to stress that the most important person in all of this is the reader,” Youngblut asserts. “This year in particular, if you come to any of the showcases you’re going to be hearing from, and getting a sense of, the writers who are going to be setting the agenda nationally and internationally. These are the authors people are going to be talking about and you will have heard of them first. So, it’s also a festival of discovery. It’s really diverse and really electric and kind of like the equivalent of having the New Yorker Magazine come alive but in Calgary.”

Wordfest 2016 runs Oct. 7-16 at various locations in Calgary. For a detailed schedule of events and complete list of artists appearing go to

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