Festival 2023 memories

by Stewart Goodings

While they are still fresh, my memories of the 2023 version of the Denman Festival…from the opening by our Island Raconteur Des Kennedy to the closing panel discussion, also led by the same Des Kennedy, this year’s event was a constant delight, a true literary treat. These are my memories, but what about yours, loyal Denman festival-goers? Let’s hear from you and we’d be happy to post some of your most vivid reminiscences of this year’s event.

Des regaled us with stories of past festivals, going back almost 20 years, both triumphs of author presentations, as well as unexpected glitches (the streaker Captain Thunderpants, for example!).  Humorous and moving, Des got us in the mood. He was followed by another Denman ‘institution’, the Ukulele Ensemble–all appropriately dressed in 1960s hippie garb—strumming and singing a re-worked version of the Doors’ classic “Riders on the Storm”, this time re-named as “Writers on the Stage” with lyrics mentioning every author at this festival.

Omar El Akkad, winner of the Giller Prize in 2021 for “What Strange Paradise” might have been daunted to follow such lively examples of Denman culture, but it did not faze this likeable and articulate author who spoke and answered questions with spirit and humour for 50 minutes about his two critically acclaimed novels and his writing experience.

Our second solo session was by Bruce McIvor, noted Metis lawyer and advocate on Indigenous issues. He spoke with passion about what he sees are the failures of much of the “Reconciliation” agenda, and the need to focus on the land rights of First Nations. Bruce is no ‘dry lawyer’, as he joyfully admitted, and laced his talk with stories of his engagements with recalcitrant Government officials and the deep satisfaction he gets from representing his Indigenous clients.

The afternoon solo sessions were kicked off by Britt Wray, whose talk about her book “Generation Dread” was enhanced by a series of video slides. She reported on her research which demonstrated the deep concern felt by younger people all over the world about the climate crisis, but also reminded the audience of many practical and hopeful initiatives being undertaken which address the most challenging aspects of environmental damage.

Tsering Yangzom Lama’s origins are in Tibet and Nepal. She has since lived in the USA and Toronto, and now lives in Vancouver. She displayed confidence and commitment as she read excerpts from her “We Measure the Earth by our Bodies” novel, and described the history of how the novel came to be written and the research she did to complete it. I was moved by her story of Tibetan exiles as well as her assurance of the continuation of Tibetan culture and values despite the control imposed by China over her homeland.

The final solo of the day was presented by Seth Klein whose book “A Good War: Mobilizing Canada for the Climate Emergency” is both a stark reminder of the gravity of the climate crisis, and also a positive diagnosis of how emulating Canada’s highly effective actions in responding to World War Two could be the way forward. For me, Seth’s message of “we did it once before” was an effective rallying as we all look for inspired and urgent leadership on the climate front.

The Friday evening Main Stage panel of Susan Lundy, Suzette Mayr and Ruth Ozeki was moderated by our Writing Week instructor, and well known BC author Angie Abdou. We learned a lot about these three authors, what motivated them, and why the writing life is so important to them. One of the things our authors have told us that they like about the Denman festival is being able to meet each other informally, and to share opinions on stage.

Our second day was kicked off by Suzette Mayr, who was introduced by her high school English teacher, local Denman resident Dennis Forsyth! How moving it was to see former student and teacher hugging on stage, and then have that now-famous writer tell us about her long journey thinking about, researching and then writing several drafts of what was to become her 2022 Giller-winning novel, “The Sleeping Car Porter”.

Following Suzette was Governor General Poetry prize-winner, Tolu Oloruntoba, who read several poems from his most recent book “Each One a Furnace”. He interspersed the poems with thoughtful comments and video images about the origins of the work. He was a soft-spoken and utterly charming presenter.

There were two more solo sessions on Saturday: Ruth Ozeki and Susan Lundy. I was personally pleased to introduce Ruth as she had come to the Denman festival years ago and now was presenting her latest best-seller, “The Book of Form and Emptiness”. She was generous and open in her remarks about writing and noted that the two main young characters in her latest books were related to her own search as a young person for meaning and direction in life.

Susan read several amusing excerpts from her memoir “Home on the Strange: Tales of Motherhood, Marriage and Mayhem” reminding her audience that everyday events in a family’s life can indeed be the inspiration for creative and witty writing. She got a laugh for telling us she had to check to make sure there were more references in the book to her current husband than to her first husband…

That evening, the focus of the Main Stage was on climate change, with Basil getting the crowd in the mood by singing two songs on environmental themes. Moderator Brad Hornick then engaged both Seth Klein and Britt Wray in a lively conversation about the challenges of dealing with environmental damage and how individuals and families are adjusting their values and trying to cope with their angst about climate disaster. 

Our final morning, informally called our ‘social justice’ session had two scintillating components: first local Denman lawyer Noah Ross posed some leading questions to Bruce McIvor who expertly shared his experiences and strong views on why Canada is not doing enough to address Indigenous concerns, and why Reconciliation efforts are often ineffective in acknowledging and acting on the most fundamental land and treaty rights of First Nations.

Then, the final panel of Omar El Akkad, Tolu Oloruntoba, and Tsering Yangzom Lama, who were skilfully led by Moderator Des Kennedy into the distressing world of migration, exile, and displacement from one’s homeland. Whether originally from Egypt (Omar), Nigeria (Tolu), or Tibet (Tsering), all three authors were eloquent in describing their personal journeys which led them to Canada, and the still powerful ‘tugs’ of their homelands on their lives and writing.

A special feature of our festival is the opportunity provided for local island writers to read their work in public. For three—Bill Engleson, Lorraine Martinuik, and Annie Siegel—winners of this year’s Writing on the Rock—this meant ‘opening’ for three of the invited authors at solo sessions. For six others—Graham Hayman, Stewart McNutt, Daniel Terry, Cas Evelyn, Laura Busheikin, and myself—we read at the Local Writers session on Saturday afternoon.

While I did not attend the five day Writing Week led by Angie Abdou or the four shorter workshops led by Jo-Anne McLean, Susan Lundy, Tsering Yangzom Lama, and Tolu Oloruntoba, I’ve heard glowing reports from those who did and these obviously added to the complete package that is the Denman Festival.

But the 2023 festival was more than what I’ve mentioned so far: informal chats with visiting authors, meals in the Back Hall, Happy Hour conversations on the Back Hall deck–with the Randy Duncan Trio on Friday and Kevin Mitchell on Saturday playing in the background–book-signings with the authors in the Activity Centre Garden, meeting up with fellow festival-goers—all this helped to make this year’s festival one to remember. 

For us organizers, this literary weekend was a heady experience. Now it’s over. And soon, we will turn our attention to planning the 2024 festival…so for now, that’s it from us…BUT, please if you’ve read this far, don’t forget my invitation to share your own highlights from this year’s festival—send them in, to [email protected] and we will add your memories to this website!

To view more photos of the 2023 Festival, go to this page.

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