Relevance of the
Wakefield Writers Festival des écrivains La Pêche
in a Time of Upheaval and Crisis
by Ilse Turnsen
Hélène Giroux, of the Wakefield Writers Festival des écrivains La Pêche, and I were returning to Wakefield on a chartered bus from the Women's March in Ottawa—an inspiring event held in solidarity with the Women's March on Washington on January 21, 2017. Both marches, along with others across the globe, were deeply inclusive, with hundreds of thousands of people of all genders, colours and cultures embracing an ethos of equality.
We were musing about the relevance of a writers festival in the context of our current environmental and political predicaments and agreed that celebration of the written word was at the very heart and soul of relevance.
Hélène asked if I would be willing to write about my thoughts, and so I offer this essay.
We live in a time rife with challenges to our fundamental life support systems, to human rights and to democracy. Lies, propaganda, “alternative facts” and marketing strategies abound. We are bombarded with information and news, some of it fake, about crisis after crisis after crisis. Is the celebration of authors and the written word in the form of a writers festival relevant in such a context? My response: a resounding and unconditional, “Yes!”
Vandana Shiva is a seed activist and nuclear physicist. A graduate of the University of Western Ontario, she wrote her PhD thesis about quantum theory. In her 2014 lecture Cultivating Diversity, Freedom and Hope Dr. Shiva urges us to “develop the mental stamina and emotional capacity to recognize the fundamental inseparability of all facets of life.” This integrative perspective is crucial for making genuinely sustainable personal choices and political, economic and social policies.
Literary fiction, poetry and an array of non-fiction writing—which embrace all the quirks and quarks of our experience through memoir, biography, history, philosophy and science—contribute to the mental and emotional muscle required to understand the complex, subtle, indivisible biospheric and human relationships that constitute our “reality;” to navigate the dense, intense onslaught of political ideologies and agendas; and to develop the resilience, courage and creative energy to frame how we want to journey onward.
After a reading at Wakefield’s Solstice Books (I still miss that bookstore) from her book Seasick: The Global Ocean in Crisis, I asked Alanna Mitchell if she might suggest a first step to a would-be advocate for restoring the health of our oceans. She warned me that her answer would come as a surprise, which it was, but it remains one of the cornerstones of my social activism: “Forgive the polluters!”
Competition and conflict squander human and environmental resources. War never works. Compassion and forgiveness enable collaboration. Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation process has led to initiatives like Reconciliation Canada with its unifying principle “Namwayut: We are all one.” In realizing its vision of a “vibrant, inclusive Canada where all peoples achieve their full potential and shared prosperity,” we can learn to forgive and work together, and to respect a diversity of perspectives and experiences to build resilience.
I have encountered some of my most profound role models in literary fiction. Ishval Darji and Omprakash Darji in Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance allowed me to experience the complex social and historical forces that impinged upon the human rights of this uncle and nephew who, despite incredible hardships and brutal injustice, retain the resilience to survive, to love one another and to enjoy what the moment has to offer. Hagar Shipley, in Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel, reveals the corrosive impact of pride upon a human life—and the liberating power of forgiveness.
Viktor Frankl, holocaust survivor, wrote in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” Lucy Maud Montgomery, through her beloved character Anne Shirley, inspired me to understand how an apple tree in full bloom can nourish the soul no matter what the circumstances. (She also inspired me to adopt my darling Sarah, to whom I first read Anne of Green Gables on a canoe trip in Algonquin park when two days of driving rain kept us inside our little tent.) Bin Okuma in Frances Itani’s Requiem, and Xavier and Niska in Joseph Boyden’s Three Day Road remind me that healing is not only possible—it constitutes a critical priority in the face of such historical injustices as the Japanese internment camps in Canada and the heinous impacts of residential schools and world war.
These stories and characters move into and through us, teaching us what compassion feels like, nurturing our capacity to bear witness and seek the truth, turning us toward healing and mutual empowerment, and reminding us that:
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting--
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
The Wakefield Writers Festival des écrivains La Pêche provides an opportunity for citizens to nurture writers who, in turn, nurture our sensibilities, and to participate directly in a creative process which, rather than being frivolous, shines at the very heart of what it is to be human. We stand in solidarity with our writers and insist on freedom in the commons for artists to express themselves fearlessly.
Ilse Turnsen, Wakefield, Quebec