The Festival of Words is simultaneously one of the most popular arts and culture events in Canada and, seemingly, Saskatchewan’s best-kept secret. Even though I grew up knowing about it and have been attending for the past seven years, whenever I bring it up in conversation, the response is, “Oh, what’s that?”
Its history is a peculiar one. Perhaps this expresses it best: The Festival of Words should not exist. Located in the fourth-largest city (34,000) of a sparsely-populated hockey and bingo-loving province, a Festival that celebrates the imaginative uses of language would appear to have no raison d’etre.
Those are the words of the late poet and English teacher Gary Hyland who had a vision for a national book festival, and then, in a stroke of brilliance or insanity, decided it should be located in the sleepy town of Moose Jaw.
The Festival of Words was founded in July 1996 with the intention of being a literary festival focused exclusively on Canadian authors. Since then, the lineup has expanded to include songwriters, filmmakers, storytellers, journalists and illustrators. It is a cornucopia of creative minds, all from within Canada.
At this year’s festival, like in all years, the action happened within downtown Moose Jaw, which is different from downtown Saskatoon in that it is easily accessible, easily navigable and contains a reasonable amount of free parking. The home base is the Moose Jaw public library — the century old marble-columned building situated in scenic Crescent Park — with other locations utilized when necessary. The setting provides a romantic atmosphere that wouldn’t be there if the conference was shoved into a boxy grey building.
Each year the Festival of Words starts off with a film of some literary note; this year Barney’s Version played. What follows is a “readception” that provides a preview of many of the festival’s presenters — and some delicious hors d’oeuvres.
Friday, Saturday and Sunday are devoted to an array of presentations, performances and discussions from the festival presenters that feature fiction, sci-fi, non-fiction, children’s literature, comics, drama, poetry and Aboriginal storytelling. The all-inclusive festival pass also gets you into two lunches and one night of entertainment.
This year’s headliner was best-selling science fiction author Robert J. Sawyer. Sawyer has published 20 books, including FlashForward, which was recently made into a TV series. He also had the distinction of being the only person to be named writer-in-residence at the synchrotron in Saskatoon.
While I was there, I had the opportunity to take in a workshop by Sawyer: “A Thematic Approach to Science Fiction.” He said that you can have an excellent idea for a science fiction story, but in order for it to be successful it has to be distilled down to an “elevator pitch” — a single, high-impact statement that gets across exactly what it is about.
Other topics included why Star Wars is not really science fiction, why no one talks about the Planet of the Apes reboot, why Jules Verne is never studied in university and why Sawyer hates the term “speculative fiction.”
While the festival has had some major headliners in the past like Yann Martel and Margaret Atwood, a great reason to come back to it year after year is precisely because of all the presenters without such name-recognition. The festival introduced me to Ryan Knighton, Ruhksana Khan and Angie Abdou, writers whose works I never would have noticed on a cursory glance at the bookstore before this year.
The festival is also not only hum-drum literary talk. Even a literary festival is not without drama. There were plenty of awkwardness when in the middle of a panel discussion Giller Prize-nominated author Kenneth J. Harvey bitterly announced his disgust with the publishing industry and his decision to quit the book business. The discussion then veered into a venomous heart-to-heart between him and historian Charlotte Gray.
The Festival of Words is a beloved event. People return to it every year from all across the country and even cross oceans for it. It’s the kind of festival that makes presenters choose Moose Jaw over Toronto. It’s just that good.
If you have any interest in words, imagination or Canadian culture, you would be doing yourself a disservice not to check this festival out.
More information about the Festival of Words is available at www.festivalofwords.com.
A full festival pass costs $160. For a student, it’s $55. Get it while it’s hot.
photo: Ian Muttoo/Flickr