A Q&A w/ Chelene Knight, Director of Growing Room: A Feminist Literary Festival

Wednesday 06th, March 2019 / 14:10

By Yasmine Shemesh

WHAT: Growing Room: A Feminist Literary Festival
WHERE: Various venues
WHEN: March 8-17

Perhaps more than ever, conversations around inclusivity are getting louder. Room, Canada’s oldest feminist literary journal, has been encouraging such dialogue for almost 45 years with pages that champion diversity and, most recently, with Growing Room: A Feminist Literary Festival. The annual festival features over 100 authors in more than 50 events including workshops, panels, and readings. BeatRoute caught up with Chelene Knight, the Festival Director of Growing Room – as well as the Managing Editor of Room and an award-winning author in her own right – to discuss this year’s programming and the increasing importance of a judgment-free platform.

In a time where #MeToo and Time’s Up are significant parts of our cultural narrative, how does Growing Room exist as a place to encourage writers to feel like they can freely express themselves in a safe space?
I think that’s what Room Magazine is essentially known for. I look back at our No Comment project, which spun off from #MeToo and basically said, “Hey, send us your stories, and we’re going to publish them without judgement.” The festival really mirrors that. And I think people are beginning to trust that that’s what we’re all about. Even though we’re only in year three, folks know that Growing Room is that safe space where we can talk about anything. And this year, we’re going to have some anti-oppression training, some panel toxicity prevention going on, so we’re really thinking about creating that safe space. We pretty much programmed the whole festival around that idea of care and ethics.
Can you tell me more about Toxicity Prevention? 
Let’s say we’re having a wonderful in-depth panel, and we’ve got some marginalized folks on. And maybe somebody in the audience stands up and says something inappropriate. How do we deal with that? So preparing not only the volunteers, but also the venue managers and, of course, the moderators and hosts. Everyone in the audience is going to be aware that we’ve discussed this. We’re even looking at having that printed in our program. We’re going to have a two-page condensed [version of the] toxicity prevention discussion, because we also want to the audience to feel safe.

We’re also looking at having safe spaces at each venue. Say we have members of the audience who are triggered by something on the panel – and this could happen anytime, there’s really no way to prevent that from happening. So, offering someone a space to just step out, without having to physically leave the venue. I’m really excited to listen to the feedback around that.

Are these actual physical spaces?
Depending on the venue. I know with the Native Education College, we have various classrooms and different little nooks and crannies. We’re going to have a volunteer, and they are going to be aware that somebody’s coming into the room feeling triggered, and [there’s] an option for that person to approach [the volunteer] or just sit there quietly. It’s totally up to them how they handle it.

Specifically, what kind of things do you feel have impacted the literary landscape and writing community in recent years?
I think people are really recognizing that there are a variety of voices out there. There’s not just the traditional linear story, there’s folks who are bringing in their personal experiences and these are tough to share, and they might not fit a traditional template. They might come out a little fragmented or blurry. I think we’re really opening up the canon and we’re looking at what stories need to be heard. We have a good chunk of our program that’s giving space to folks without published books and people who haven’t even done a reading before. We have two youth showcases. And to have emerging writers, non-writers, even, and established writers in one space – what can happen? I don’t know, but it’s going to be really incredible.
How do you find those voices, especially ones that are unheard?
Yeah, that’s a tough one. I think it’s hard to find these folks, but having conversations with people in the know. Everyone at Room is doing a million other things and our programming committee will say, “I heard of this person, I saw them tweet this, let’s dive in and see what they’re doing.” So, it’s a lot of investigating, but having our ears open and having conversations with people. I think social media helps a lot with that. Twitter is a big one.

What are some of the highlights of the festival this year? You mentioned the youth showcases, but what other things can people look forward to?
We have a full day of Indigenous Brilliance at the Revue Stage on Granville Island, so that’s going to be absolutely incredible. We have various readings, we have Indigenous vendors on site, and it starts off with our burlesque show opening night and dance party. There’s Black Voices Raised, which I’m really excited about. We’ve got some killer black authors coming in to do a reading and it’s going to be really beautiful. It’s also going to be the semi-launch of Whitney French’s anthology, Black Writers Matter.
Are there any events you’re particularly excited about?
Aside from the Black Writers Matter event, I’m really excited about the opening night party – because I’ve never seen a burlesque show! And just to see what people come in, because I think we’re really open to not just bringing in the literary community, but folks who don’t necessarily feel included sometimes.
Room launched in 1975. The festival is now in its third year. In what ways have you seen Room’s editorial identity — the festival being a part of that — evolve and where do you see it continuing to go?
I would say Room has really been open to new ways of storytelling and I think that’s the key. We looking at re-defining what literature is, so we’re going above and beyond the standard creative non-fiction, fiction, poetry, all of that. We’ve published a few comics. I think that’s what’s really changed with Room. We’re basically saying, “We want the stories that shape us to our core and however you need to tell that, however you need to write it, we’re open to reading it.”