Open Book News

The Beauty of a Writers' Festival

Ian Keteku

Open Book's Ashliegh Gehl spent three days at the Ottawa Writers Festival speaking with attendees, taking photographs and tweeting the event. The festival featured a wide range of authors such as Vincent Lam, Ami McKay, Ian Keteku and much more. Here's her story and some of the photographs she took.

By Ashliegh Gehl

In the theatre of a church built in the 1930s, a space with limited natural light and soft floors, a handful of Canada’s finest literary talent took to the stage to tantalize audiences mixed young and old. Welcome to the Ottawa Writers Festival.

On the morning of April 26, I boarded an early train out of Belleville. It was a smooth three-hour ride on the rails. Ample time to catch up on missed episodes of Eleanor Wachtel’s Writers and Company.

As I listened to Eleanor’s soothing radio voice, I started to think about the reasons people attend literary festivals. Was it simply for the keynotes? Or was it for the opportunity to mix and mingle with a glass of wine in hand? As an out-of-towner I knew I’d be out of sync with Ottawa’s literary community, and that’s what I was looking forward to most.

In the theatre at the Knox Presbyterian Church writers, readers, bloggers, librarians and the occasional wayward pedestrian propelled by curiosity, fill the room. It’s a beautiful symbiotic relationship seething with ideas of grandeur. It’s the writer’s emporium. A perfect place to network, exchange business cards and in some cases, bubblegum wrappers scribbled with an e-mail address. It’s also a place to scan your mental vault of author headshots and match it with faces in the audience. It’s a little game I like to play in the fallow period between events.

For the most part, I like to believe people attend festivals to gain some insight into their lives; to tap into the writerly wisdom seasoned author’s harbour. To sit in a quiet room and watch as the arm of the stranger next you is coated in goose bumps all because Peter Hobbs’ reading from In the Orchard, The Swallows was so chilling.

Traveling to festivals also exposes the unknown. I had never heard of Ian Keteku before, and he was the highlight for me. With head and hands on the theatre stage, Ian contorted his body into a tripod balance yoga pose and recited poetry. It was a flash of poetic innovation in the pan. The audience – most being youth – was captivated by the fluidity of his verse. Whether it was realized or not, he was inspiring the next generation of poets through unconventional means. This is not your grandfather’s poetry.

When award-winning biographer Charlotte Gray brought fellow biographers Charles Foran and Carol Bishop-Gwyn to the stage, the conversation swanned to the importance of letter writing. As a prolific letter writer – tangible not digital – my ears were perked. The authors cited the letters as containing the voice of their subject, allowing them to fully construct novelist Mordecai Richler and dancer Celia Franca more accurately.

What may seem like on-stage banter about letter writing actually illustrates fundamental problems future biographers face. Amongst younger generations letter writing is less common and e-mail’s are a click away from trash. I wonder how future biographers will get beyond the skin of their subject without letters.

Be it a one-day small town authors festival or a large scale production like the Ottawa Writers Festival, it’s essential to taste the fruit various literary celebrations across Ontario offer each year. You’re exposed to homegrown talent that may never make it to your backyard. Organizers present attendees with an oasis of ideas to chew on long after the last author closes their novel, bids the crowd goodnight and steps off stage.

Ashliegh Gehl is a freelance writer and multimedia journalist.

She has written for the Women's Post, Montreal Gazette, Quill & Quire,, Northumberland Today and The Intelligencer newspapers.

Between countless cups of oolong tea, Ashliegh has been busy working on two books. Visit her website for more information.

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