News and Interviews

The Word on the Street's Sienna Tristen on Programming 100+ Writers to Create an In-Person Version of Bookstagram & BookTok

Dark grey banner image with photo of The Word on the Street programming manager Sienna Tristen. Text reads "The Word on the Street's  Sienna Tristen" and "WOTS is like an in-person version of Bookstagram or BookTok". Open Book and The Word on the Street logos bottom and top left

The Word on the Street returns to Toronto this weekend, May 27 and 28, for their second year back in Queen's Park after a long absence. The two-day schedule is packed with programming that would make any CanLit lover swoon, and though WOTS is created by a small and mighty team of dedicated staffers and volunteers, readers have one person in particular to thank for the stellar 2023 line up: Sienna Tristen, the Programming Manager at The Word on the Street. 

It's no small feat to coordinate dozens of events with more than 120 creators. With topics and writers for every taste, from romance to children's literature to hard-hitting nonfiction and much more, WOTS is the original Toronto literary smörgåsbord. 

We're speaking to Sienna today to learn about what it's like to manage the festival's programming, its artistic identity, and just what goes into pulling off a literary event with this kind of massive scale.

They tell us about why representing diverse genres (and especially ones sometimes overlooked in festival programming) matters to them, the roller coaster of planning a huge public event in a setting where "your access to electricity and internet is... not a guarantee", and a few particularly special events they're looking forward to this year at the festival.

The Word on the Street is a free festival open to all, featuring readings, panel discussions, workshops, a huge book and magazine marketplace, street food vendors, and more. It has taken place in Toronto since 1990. 

Open Book:

The Word on the Street has undergone a lot of changes in recent years, and something new this year is the addition of new stages, focusing on particular genres, like your Love & Letters and Twist Endings programming. Why were those additions important to the festival?

Sienna Tristen:

So the seed of the idea started with our Across The Universe stage, the science fiction and fantasy stage, which has been around since 2019. It’s been massively successful since we unveiled it, and it got us thinking: are we doing a good job of representing other genres in our programming? What could we be paying more attention to?

So we took a fresh look at the literary landscape and saw these powerhouse genres—romance, mystery, and the difficult-to-define “nonfiction”—that were attracting huge, enthusiastic readerships. The decision seemed obvious to properly reflect the tastes and interests of the bookloving community in Toronto, and in Canada more broadly. We also examined individual panel discussions from previous years and saw that, as an example, our 2022 romance panel received great turnout, so we had some precedent to go on with regards to whether our audience cared about the same sorts of stories as the general market trends dictate.

A fun WOTS history fact is that once upon a time, we did have a parallel to the Big Ideas stage—I think it was called the Lifestyle stage—back when we were at Queen’s Park the first time. It attracted quite the audience back then, too, so I’m excited we get to resurrect it alongside some altogether new stages!


Last year was the festival’s first time back at Queen’s Park in several years. How did it go and what can guests look forward to, being back in Queen’s Park for 2023?

artwork for the Word on the Street 2023 festival, with graphics of books creating a geometric building

Artwork for the Word on the Street 2023 festival


Oh it was very much a homecoming! We heard from so many long-time attendees that they were ecstatic to see the festival at Queen’s Park again. For a lot of fest-goers, that stretch of road is where WOTS belongs.

Something I like about a festival set on a street is that it’s easy to see everything—there are no tiny nooks or crannies where you can overlook an exhibitor or a cool piece of programming because it’s not in the main traffic flow. There are unique challenges that come with an outdoor street event—your access to electricity and internet is suddenly not a guarantee, for instance—but there are unique benefits too, such as accessibility and the world’s best ventilation system, wind power. Hard to beat buying a book and then reading it on a bench under the dappled light of an oak tree.

In general, this year’s WOTS attendees can expect the same mix of solo interviews, readings, and multi-author panel discussions as per usual. One of the most important things fest-goers should remember is that the genre stages—Across The Universe, Love & Letters, Twist Endings, and Big Ideas—are single-day stages. Be sure to check the schedule to see which day features what!


You’re also running a series of virtual workshops leading up to the festival weekend (presented by Toronto Metropolitan University’s Chang School of Continuing Education). Can you tell us a little about those workshops and why they’re a complement to the festival?


Something we’re always trying to balance at WOTS is serving the portion of our audience who are (aspiring) writers as well as readers. For many years we had the Wordshop Marquee, which hosted conversations geared towards initiating would-be writers into the ins and outs of publishing. This year, we’ve chosen to offer those writer-geared conversations in virtual format: people can tune in from all over the place, and there’s not so much festival hubbub happening that you can’t concentrate!

The topics of these events are memoir writing (May 23), editing speculative fiction and fantasy (May 24), and a personal favourite of mine, “Creating Time and Space to Write” (May 25), which is a fancy way of asking “how do I be a writer while also managing the ten thousand demands of everyday living?” Space is limited for these events, so check out our Eventbrite and reserve a spot!


It must be hard to choose, but can you tell us about one or two events you’re especially excited about in this year’s festival?


As the Programming Manager, this is truly like choosing between children. You are making me put my own creations in a fight bracket. (I love it though.)

In terms of solo conversations, one that I wouldn’t miss is the Sunday event with Sarah Raughley and Tanya Turton on our Across The Universe stage [editor's note: this event takes place at 2:30pm on May 28]. Both of them are captivating speakers and brilliant minds, and I can’t wait to soak up the energy they’ll probably bring to that chat.

In terms of panel discussions, one topic I’m really looking forward to is “Transforming Grief into Art” with Janika Oza and Brooke Lockyer, and Casey Plett [editor's note: this event takes place 3:30pm on May 27]. The story of our time is currently in a very heavy chapter, and I think this talk will impart a sense of grounding companionship as we figure out how to weather it. And I’m excited for this panel’s sister, “Laughter is the Best Medicine” with John Brady McDonald, Annahid Dashtgard, and ryan fitzpatrick [editor's note: this event takes place at 4:00pm on May 28]. None of these authors are “comedy” authors, but each one has a knack for bringing (sometimes dark) humour to the topics they write about, and I’m keen on hearing about the relationship between humour and human resilience.


The Word on the Street has been a highlight for Toronto book lovers for decades now. What is special about being an integral part of Toronto’s literary community?


On the reader side, WOTS is like an in-person version of Bookstagram or BookTok—a place for likeminded booklovers to gather and gush about the stories they adore. Sometimes it can be tough to find your people, but coming to a huge free-to-attend festival where everyone also loves to read is a great head start. At this point, with nearly 35 years behind us, WOTS doesn’t just celebrate stories—The Word On The Street is a story, or at least the setting for one. We know fest-goers who met at WOTS and later got married! Some of the authors on our stages this year decided they wanted to be authors when they came to WOTS, years ago! So many wonderful connections happen under our tents, it’s honestly very humbling.

On the author side, personally, I love being able to give back to the creative spirits who give us the art we enjoy so much. Being an artist of any sort is demanding work—it can feel like you’re spending all your time and heart labouring over something no one will care about in the end. I cherish how through WOTS we get to tell authors, “you matter, your art matters, we all want to throw a party for you”. That’s the kind of nourishment that I hope encourages our artists to keep being creative for years to come.


The Word On The Street Toronto is an annual celebration of storytelling, ideas and imagination, hosting Canada’s largest FREE book and magazine festival, and promoting great books by Canadian and Indigenous authors year-round.

Sienna Tristen (they/them) is a poet, author, cultural worker, and perhaps secretly also a prunella plant! They love stories that feel nourishing and discussions that brighten the mind. Sienna’s had a hand in every WOTS department, but now calls Programming home. Sienna manages artistic programming and relations with programming partners.