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A stellar lineup, and some literary controversy, highlight the Ottawa Writers Festival

By Alejandro Bustos on October 6, 2013


The Ottawa International Writers Festival is one of my favourite times of the year.  With a spring and fall session, as well as several literary events in between, this celebration of the written word is manna for book lovers.

The 2013 fall edition, scheduled from October 24-30, continues the proud tradition of promoting intelligent discussion on a wide range of topics.

One writer bound to pique local interest is Canadian author and University of Toronto English instructor David Gilmour, who recently started a firestorm after telling a journalist that he only taught books by “serious heterosexual guys.”  The comments were denounced by some, while others insisted the brouhaha was overblown.

While Gilmour was booked to come to Ottawa well before his words became front page news, his master class on October 28 is now bound to be seen in a new light.

“The question that is being posed (by this controversy) is if you can talk about the things you love, even if it’s not politically correct,” says Sean Wilson,  artistic director of the Ottawa International Writers Festival, who will be hosting the master class.  “When we invite someone to the festival it is not an endorsement of everything in their life, but because they have something to say.”

Wilson expects that Gilmour’s appearance at the festival will result in an interesting and passionate discussion with audience members.

Steve Paikin

Steve Paikin

The festival, however, will cover much more than this one event.  For political junkies, three key events should be highlighted in their calendar.

The first is a talk by Michael Ignatieff, former leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, who will be speaking this coming Wednesday, October 9, in a pre-festival discussion.

The second is a talk by Steve Paikin, arguably Canada’s best television journalist and the host of TVO’s The Agenda, who will speak on October 28 about his new book on a half-century of Ontario political leaders, such as Bill Davis, Bob Rae, Mike Harris, Ernie Eves and Kathleen Wynne.

Then, on October 29, three of Canada’s best political writers – John Ibbitson of The Globe and MailSusan Delacourt of the Toronto Star, and Paul Wells of Macleans – will discuss Canadian politics.

Readers interested in current affairs can also attend sessions on human rights advocacy, Ontario’s justice system and the international campaign to ban landmines.  The issue of human rights also appears in some of the new novels being showcased at the festival.

“Community experience is more than national affairs, and it’s there in the fiction,” says Wilson.  To support his point, Wilson refers to David Gilmour’s new novel Extraordinary that looks at assisted suicide, Wayne Grady’s recently released book Emancipation Day that discusses race, and Joseph Boyden’s new work The Orenda that touches on aboriginal themes.

Poetry is also well represented at the festival.  Events include readings by Jenna Jarvis, the 2012 recipient of the John Newlove Poetry Award, the launch of Ottawa poet David O’Meara’s new book, and a special event at the Manx Pub (370 Elgin St.) with three poets, including local writers Michael Blouin and Sandra Ridley.

David O'Meara

David O’Meara

When the Writers Festival first started in 1997, journalists would ask the organizers if they were afraid that they would run out of local authors to showcase. This question no longer comes up.

“We have never, ever, had trouble finding local writers who fit the bill,” says Wilson.  “Ottawa writers are among the best of the best and deserve to be on that stage.  If I was organizing a festival in another part of the world there would be a lot of Ottawa writers.”

The Ottawa Writers Festival runs from October 24-30.  Festival passes are already sold out, but tickets for individual events are available.  Carleton University students can attend events for free by booking online, and then bringing their student card to the event.