An annual highlight of Toronto literary calendar, The Word on the Street brings together authors and book lovers for reading, discussions, workshops, and a massive literary marketplace. This year, of course, things are necessarily a little different, but the festival is shifting online via their YouTube channel and continuing to bring their signature literary fun, this time reaching beyond the city, to any reader with an internet connection.
To celebrate the new virtual festival, we got to speak with three of the authors appearing as part of the 2020 Word on the Street lineup: Lamees Al Ethari, author of Waiting for the Rain (Mawnezi House), Karoline Georges, author of The Imago Stage (Coach House), and Michelle Parise, author of Alone (Dundurn).
They tell us about the books they'll be sharing with Word on the Street viewers, how it feels to be part of a the new virtual literary event landscape, and the Ontario spots they've found most inspiring.
Don't miss all three of these talented writers, and many more, at The Word on the Street, September 26 and 27. You can register (for free!) via Eventbrite for access to all the festivals events, and to find out the full festival line up.
Tell us about the book you're featuring at The Word on the Street this year.
Lamees Al Ethari:
In Waiting for the Rain: An Iraqi Memoir, I reflect on my experiences of the 2003 American invasion, life and culture back home, and the challenges of immigrating to Canada (among other things). Through poetry, photographs, paintings and diary entries I tried to introduce an image of Iraq that we don’t usually see in the media. I wanted people to see the beauty of the country and the determination of its people.
The Imago Stage is a fiction set in the near future. The narrator has been isolated in her apartment for a very long time, cultivating her existence as an image through her virtual reality avatar. But when her mother develops cancer, she is forced to leave her cocoon – surrounded by her posse of augmented reality superheroes – and interact with the world and her parents without the mask of her perfect, virtual self.
Alone: A Love Story is a narrative memoir told through a series of vignettes that are at once personal and universal, heartbreaking and hopeful. Even though it's my specific story, don't be surprised if you find yourself between the lines, there in the disappointment, isolation and wonder. We've all been lonely, uncertain, exhausted and scared. And we've all found the strength to climb back out of our own personal pit of despair. Alone: A Love Story is really a way to connect over our shared experiences of loss, resilience and redemption. I'll make you laugh and cry (and sometimes both at the same time!) because we are in this beautiful mess together. The book, which came out in May 2020, was the inspiration behind the hit CBC Podcast of the same name which I adapted from the unpublished manuscript in 2017. Performed and co-produced by me, the podcast has been downloaded over 9-million times and has won international acclaim, including three New York Festivals Radio Awards and recognition from The Atlantic.
This year the festival will be live streamed as a virtual event. Does this change your approach to a literary event? What challenges or opportunities do you foresee?
I think that we have more opportunities to reach wider audiences and be more inclusive with virtual events and festivals. I have been part of The New Quarterly’s Wild Writers Literary Festival in Waterloo for the past few years and this year we are going online for the festival in November. We no longer need to think about booking/renting spaces or limiting registration, which allows us to focus on the writers, books, and conversations we want to engage in. I do miss the in-person connections we make over a meal or after a talk, but I am sure we will find ways to establish these opportunities.
I’ve been exploring virtual reality for a long time... Being in front of my computer is most of my life. It’s kind of my natural habitat, more and more. So, to say the truth, it’s easier for me to attend a virtual event than a real life one…
This is my first book, so all of the literary events I have done to support it have been online. It's definitely not how I imagined it! I was looking forward to connecting with other writers and audiences across the country, but obviously had to adjust that expectation! I really get my energy from people and face-to-face interaction, so to have all of these festival experiences through screens has definitely been strange, but I've also quickly acclimatized to it. In some ways, I think the online interviews and panels have helped to broaden the audience beyond book lovers who go to festivals, to book lovers who have now come to know about me and Alone: A Love Story through social media and in the comfort of their own homes. At the end of the day, it's still been an exciting experience for me, and I'm grateful the technology is in place to allow this kind of connection, so needed in the midst of a global pandemic.
The Vibrant Voices program at The Word on the Street celebrates Ontario authored and published books. Tell us about a favourite book by an Ontario-based author that you've read.
I do have a long list, but one of my favourite authors is Tasneem Jamal. I remember reading her book, Where the Air is Sweet, and not being able to put it down. While the experiences she presents are very different from my own, I still found a powerful connection to the work.
I’m a big fan of Margaret Atwood (of course). It’s hard to pick one title. Awfully hard. But I’ll say Oryx and Crake. Because the ambitious and prophetic bioengineered apocalypse she imagines is just mind-blowing.
I love Fifteen Dogs by André Alexis. I mean, I really really really love this book. When it came out, it was the most original and exciting thing I'd read in a long time. Conceptually, it's so surprising and strange (two things I value highly in writing) and I find myself thinking about it and referring to it often, even all these years later. With Fifteen Dogs, André masterfully leans on philosophy, mythology, humour, and the psychology of interpersonal tensions, to create a story that teaches us something about the human condition. Bonus points that most of the scenes take place in the same neighbourhood in downtown Toronto that I happen to live in!
Is there a place in Ontario that has been inspiring to you as a writer? If so, what do you love about it?
I recently visited Huntsville, Ontario with my family and I was so inspired by the beauty of the area. There is a perfect balance of rugged nature and serenity that is very inviting.
Ottawa’s Pure Kitchen restaurant. I can’t really explain why, but I feel joyful there. It feels like the future. The good one. I love the menu (the Mystical hot bowl is a pure delight) and the ambiance is perfect for a long, vibrant, intellectual conversation leading to some writing filled with optimism.
I was born and raised in Toronto, so there are many places in Southern Ontario that are fixtures in my life and make their way into my writing. In Alone: A Love Story, there are scenes that take place at Wasaga Beach, The Cheltenham Badlands (or as we called them growing up: The Red Hills), The CNE, and many Toronto landmarks like Honest Ed's, the Don Valley Parkway, and Kensington Market. I'm not sure I'd describe these places as directly inspiring my writing, instead I think of them more like another character I'm writing about.
Lamees Al Ethari immigrated to Canada with her husband and two boys in 2008. She holds a PhD in English Language and Literature from the University of Waterloo, where she has been teaching creative and academic writing since 2015. Her writing and research focus on Iraqi North American women’s life narratives of trauma and migration. She is also a Consulting Editor with The New Quarterly and co-coordinator of The X Page: A Storytelling Workshop for Immigrant Women in Kitchener-Waterloo. She is the author of a poetry collection titled From the Wounded Banks of the Tigris (Baseline Press, 2018) and her poems have appeared in About Place Journal, The New Quarterly, The Malpais Review, and the anthology Al Mutanabbi Street Starts Here. She lives in Kitchener, Ontario.
After studying film and art history, Karoline Georges began a multidisciplinary artistic approach where video, audio art, photography, literature, and 3D modeling coexisted. She is the author of seven books, including Under the Stone (finalist for the 2012 Quebec Booksellers' Prize). In 2012, she received the Artistic Creation Award from the Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec. Her latest novel, The Imago Stage, has won several honors in French, including the Governor General's Literary Award in 2018.
Michelle Parise is an award-winning journalist, writer, and performer. She has worked for the CBC for more than two decades, in everything from children’s television to music programming and documentary making, as well as at the helm of many national radio programs. She’s also a soccer player, parent, and champion campfire builder. The daughter of Italian immigrants, she was born and raised in Toronto where she still lives today.
The Word On The Street is a national celebration of literacy and Canadian writing. Each September, the festival hosts hundreds of author readings for visitors of all ages and a vibrant marketplace featuring the best selection of books and magazines in Canada. Join this year's virtual festival (for free!) on September 26 and 27.