This year’s Vancouver Writers Fest features an impressive list of authors, including Rebecca Solnit, John Vaillant, and Naomi Klein. What doesn’t receive as much attention, however, are the efforts to increase accessibility.
“We have an accessibility roundtable that meets regularly and helps us program our events in such a way to appeal to the deaf community and the unsighted community,” artistic director Leslie Hurtig tells Pancouver by phone.
The Vancouver Writers Fest includes ASL (American Sign Language) interpretation at selected events as well as at all events on request. In addition, the festival offers closed captions, which are auto-generated, at some in-person events. It borrowed this technology, which is accessible via mobile phones, from the Indian Summer Festival.
Hurtig adds that the Vancouver Writers Festival helps people with vision issues reach events. Moreover, the website offers accessibility overviews for each of the 10 venues, including five at Granville Island. They all have gender-inclusive washroom facilities.
This year’s festival continues until Sunday (October 25) and includes about 125 authors. It offers free livestreaming of events for children and youths, which can be accessed in classrooms across B.C. and into the Yukon Territory.
“I feel that my biggest task programming the festival is to find the right balance between addressing issues that we’re all thinking about and showcasing authors with books that challenge us to think about things in new ways—with some events that are just pure joy,” Hurtig says.
Accessibility also comes with some fun
In the “fun” category, she cites two in particular. On Thursday (October 19), there’s a “Smells Like… 90s Lyrics Night” at Performance Works. This is the second year with authors reading their favourite song lyrics from that era.
Smells Like… 90s Lyrics Night features festival guest curator and CBC broadcaster Elamin Abdelmahmoud and writers Omar El Akkad, Mona Awad, Kevin Chong, Claudia Dey, John Freeman, Aisha Harris, Jen Sookfong Lee, Sean Michaels, William Ping, Sam Shelstad, Michael V. Smith, and Chelsea Wakelyn. Once they’re done, that will be followed by a 90s Dance Party, starting at 9:30 p.m.
When Pancouver asks why Abdelmahmoud is this year’s guest curator, Hurtig notes that he attended the festival last year to discuss his first book, Son of Elsewhere: A Memoir in Pieces.
“I was just so impressed with how he was able to connect with the audiences, the empathy that he brought to the conversations he participated in, but also his insight into everything from politics to pop culture,” Hurtig continues. “I loved the breadth of his interest. That’s what made me want to invite him.”
Son of Elsewhere also embodies Abdelmahmoud’s eclectic approach. On the one hand, there are deeply reflective sections on the Sudanese writer Tayeb Salih and the Clinton Administration’s bombing of a pharmaceutical factory near Abdelmahmoud’s childhood home in Khartoum. These are coupled with the broadcaster detailing his passions for video games and nu metal.
Giving a voice to authors
Meanwhile, Hurtig feels that Granville Island offers an intimate setting for many Vancouver Writers Fest events. Authors and publishing-industry types can stay at the Granville Island Hotel and stroll to the venues. It’s also easy to visit the pop-up bookstore, which is operated by Black Bond/Book Warehouse.
“It just creates a walking space for everyone that adds to the feeling of community and accessibility,” Hurtig says. “I feel really lucky that we’re down there.”
Hurtig is now in her sixth year as the artistic director and the festival is in its 36th year. There have been some obstacles for her along the way, most notably the pandemic.
“Certainly, we have a very good reputation now amongst the publishers and agents and authors,” Hurtig says. “So, we’re able to attract the talent. I don’t think that’s as much of a challenge for us anymore. But ensuring that we have regular sustained funding will always be something that we are thinking about and trying to ensure.”
The mother of three acknowledges that being artistic director is a seven-day-a-week job. On some of those days, work might simply entail doing some reading. Plus, she has to travel a fair amount.
Hurtig’s deceased father was the legendary Canadian writer, political activist, and publisher Mel Hurtig, who was no slouch when it came to hard work. According to Hurtig, he also worked seven days a week.
The father and daughter have something else in common: they’ve both been engaged in amplifying Canadian writers’ voices. Mel did it by publishing other authors’ books whereas she accomplishes this through the Vancouver Writers Fest.
“I wish that he was still around to see this,” Hurtig says. “He would have been so pleased.”
The Vancouver Writers Fest continues until Sunday (October 22) at various locations. Visit the website for more information. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia and on Instagram @PancouverMedia.