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Writers Fest: Ottawa’s literary cure for cynicism

By Kenneth Ingram on April 15, 2015


Celebrate the International Writers Festival as an Ottawa-success story, an antidote for cynicism, and quite possibly the epitome of Canadian hospitality.

The 2015 spring edition of Ottawa’s International Writers Festival begins April 22.  This essential literary gathering, however, offers us more than award-winning writers, poets, musicians and thought-provoking intellectuals, according to the festival’s Artistic Director Sean Wilson.

“What the festival does for me is it’s an antidote to cynicism,” he explains.  “It’s hard to read the newspaper and to watch television without getting cynical about the state of the world and yet no matter how bad it is, I’m lucky because I get to be in a room surrounded by people from my community who are enthusiastic and passionate and curious.”

Together with his father Neil, Wilson launched the first Ottawa Writers Festival in 1997 when he was in his early 20s.  “It’s saved me time and time again from a really poor, negative world view,” he says.

Junot Díaz

Junot Díaz

Seated at the festival’s headquarters, Wilson offers a few examples for the spring 2015 line-up.  After thinking carefully – “I can never narrow it to just one thing,” he tells Apartment613 – he notes short-story writer, novelist and Pulitzer Prize winner  Junot Díaz.

“He’s the only writer that I’ve seen use terminology from Lord of the Rings or superhero comics right alongside English and Spanish,” Wilson explains.  “The characters are not necessarily always likable and I appreciate his willingness to let people be three-dimensional.”

Other guests include Guy Vanderhaeghe, who returns to Ottawa, as well as Sean Michaels who was awarded the 2014 Giller Prize as a debut novelist, only the second author to do so in the prize’s 21-year-history.

Wilson points out that local musician Mike Dubue will also be performing three new songs during the festival, each inspired by a book.

Guy Vanderhaeghe

Guy Vanderhaeghe

“The beauty of the Writers Festival is always the combination,” says Wilson.  “[W]e get to hear from people that are the best in the field whether it’s music, playwriting, film writing, fiction, poetry, non-fiction; they’re there to inspire us but the thing that is for me equally important is the people sitting next to me in the room. This coming together as a community to look at issues of interest.”

In addition to offering an antidote for cynicism, the festival also represents an Ottawa-success story. Wilson reflects on its 19th anniversary and genesis when in 1997 Ottawa was “the town that fun forgot.”

“At the time, all of my peers, those who were content doing a nine-to-five, stayed in Ottawa. Anyone who had any kind of creative ambition left. And I found that to be insanely weak and bizarre, to flee your home in search of what you could build. What appealed to me was the idea of making Ottawa the place you want it to be. Making it the place where artists would come instead of the place where artists would flee.”


The festival is known for occasionally causing a stir, notably for topics ranging from sexual politics (same-sex marriage, blaming lesbians for 9/11), as well as religion and The Big Bang.

“There’s controversy from time to time but that is the nature of talking about ideas,” says Wilson, who adds that the festival’s audience reassures him every time.  “What we’ve seen is time and time again, the audience, even if they disagree with somebody’s perspective, is wonderfully polite and respectful.”

He specifically recalls 2011, when the Writers Festival welcomed Irshad Manji and it was decided that the event would not be made invitation-only.  “We do public events. That’s our job. We want the community,” says Wilson,  describing how he managed Manji’s expectations before the reception.

Mona Eltahawy

Mona Eltahawy

“What’s going to happen is that you’re going to meet our city and our city is full of people that are very thoughtful. And you’re gonna have people here who totally disagree with you but that’s okay. That’s freedom and that’s what we do.”

“Half the room adored her and half the room thought she was full of crap,” he recalls.  “But no matter how angry, every question began with thank you for your time and thank you for your perspective.”

As for potential controversy concerning the festival this spring, Wilson mentions Mona Eltahawy.

“Because she is talking about gender inequality and the need for radical shifts within the Islamic world with how women are dealt with . . . there will be people who disagree with her,” says Wilson.

“Our goal, always, is we want light – not heat,” he emphasizes, adding that people will be welcome to the stage regardless of their political affiliation but the line is drawn at hate-speech.

“The festival has reinforced my sense that plurality is important and that monoculture is death. It’s reinforced and reinvigorated my sense that the more diversity we have in our lives, the more diversity we have in terms of what we consume, be it food, be it music, be it literature — the stronger we will be.”


While the spring festival is only seven days and acts like a “super-condensed marathon” according to Wilson, he explains that the special events scattered beforehand (starting April 9th) and afterwards (spanning out to June 7th) are to help the festival remain in contact with the community throughout the year for ongoing dialogue.

Sean Michaels

Sean Michaels

Apartment613 asked for his advice on how to manage the spectrum of event listings.

“It’s often the events that I think ‘uhmmm, that one is maybe not for me’ that I get blown away by.  Be fearless and be curious,” he replies.

Encouraging the public to resist feeling overwhelmed or as if they may fall behind, he notes that the festival is designed to be accommodating and to help you avoid picking one event only to miss out on another.

“The festival is such an omnivorous beast that there’s constantly new things to think about,” he says.  “There’s constantly new perspectives and so I think that’s what our core audience loves too.”

“A lot of people have this sense that you need to know the work before you show up, and that’s crap,” he concludes.  “Reading a book is an investment in time. What better way to figure out if you want to make that investment than to listen to the writer talk about what they do.  And if you feel that buzz at the end of it, well then you buy that book,  and if not, you’ve saved yourself a week!”

The spring 2015 installment of Ottawa International Writers Festival runs from April 22-28. There is a Vimeo channel for selected events with more coming. Students from University of Ottawa and Carleton University can attend events for free by booking online and bringing their student card to the event.

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