When the Ottawa International Writers Festival launched in the fall of 1997, it was a rather chaotic one-week event. Now, artistic director Sean Wilson programs two festivals, each close to a week long, in spring and fall, as well as a myriad of stand-alone events in between. Now 20 years old, it’s fair to say this festival is all grown up.
The beautiful (and strange) thing about the OIWF is that it means so many different things to so many different people. Ever changing, it’s almost like a pick-and-choose book club, the focus of which changes from season to season.
Recently, there’s been more politically-minded events, ones with a strong current affairs thread, creating a forum for the in-depth discussion of timely ideas. The focus in spring 2017 was the aftermath of the election of Donald Trump, while 2016 events included a retrospective of urbanist Jane Jacobs and an event that dissected the lure of ISIS. Human rights, gender issues, racial identity, and sexual harassment in the military have all been debated at OIWF events.
Of course, there’s always heartfelt fiction and science and poetry, and there’s often a music-based event (Alan Doyle this season). The writers and their books provide the starting point, the audience the continuum.
The 20th anniversary edition is no exception, offering a selection to please all literary palates, but with a focus on Canada during her 150th years, there are a few standout events this fall that it would be a mistake to miss:
For Opera lovers: Canadian opera singer Measha Brueggergosman will be in Ottawa on October 6, talking about her memoir, Something is Always on Fire with CBC host Alan Neal. Brueggergosman is a huge character, who has seen great success on international stages, but also great personal sorrow. This is sure to be a funny, quick-witted, touching, and memorable evening — and if you’re really lucky she just might burst into song. Southminster United Church, 15 Aylmer Avenue, 7 p.m.
For International culture cognoscenti: For fans of the New Yorker, Canadian Adam Gopnik, who is a staff writer at the magazine, is a big catch. Here, October 15 to talk about his memoir At the Strangers’ Gate: Arrivals in New York, a book that captures the energy, ambition and romance of New York in the 1980s, Gopnik has asked that there be no on-stage interviewer as he has a longer presentation that he wants to give. I wonder what he has up his sleeve? Centretown United Church, 504 Bank St., 7 p.m.
For truth seekers and historians: October 19: Truth and History with Chelsea Vowel, Lee Maracle, and Bev Sellars, hosted by Louise Profeit-LeBlanc. “Given all the hoopla about Canada’s birthday, I’m excited to be drilling a little deeper into our shared history with three amazing women who offer the much-needed perspective of our First Peoples on where we are now and how we got here,” says Wilson, who points out that Sellars is a residential school survivor — and all three have so much to say about our past and the way forward.” Christ Church Cathedral, 414 Sparks St., 6.30 p.m.
For political scientists and sociologists: October 22: Why 35 Million Canadians Are Not Enough, with Doug Saunders, hosted by CBC’s Adrian Harewood. “These days, I’m as interested in the true ‘old stock Canadians’ who were here long before the first European settlers arrived, as I am in the newest arrivals,” explains Wilson. “In an era of global displacement and reactionary right-wing backlash, Saunders’ prescription to essentially double Canada’s population is intriguing and I want to hear more about why welcoming even more new Canadians is a good idea not just in humanitarian terms, but also in the best interests of our collective economic prosperity.” Christ Church Cathedral, 414 Sparks St., 2 p.m.
For fiction lovers looking to address a contemporary issue: October 23: Past and Present, with David Chariandy, Alison Pick, and Linden MacIntyre, hosted by Peter Schneider. These three works by accomplished Canadian novelists address important contemporary issues through the lens of fiction. Chariandy’s book is a heartbreaking and eye-opening look at the multi-generational drive to succeed in Canada as an immigrant and the ways in which social mobility can be limited by economic inequality, crime, and systemic racism. Pick’s book examines the fist wave of Zionist settlers in the 1920s–mostly Russian Jews fleeing the Soviet pogroms, while MacIntyre dives into how the violence of the past haunts the present via the conflict in Lebanon in the 1980s. Christ Church Cathedral, 414 Sparks St., 6.30 p.m.
The Ottawa International Writers Festival celebrates 20 years this fall. Visit www.writersfestival.org for full programming information.