On Saturday, April 5th, 2014, I travelled from Toronto to meet up with my sister in Hamilton, Ontario to attend three events on day three of gritLIT’s 10th anniversary of Hamilton’s annual literary festival. While it’s the second year in a row that I’ve attended this Canadian literary festival, it’s the first time that I planned to luxuriate in words for most of the afternoon and a good deal of the evening. It’s also the first time that I covered the events that I attended for YABookShelf.com. While none of the authors I saw were writing specifically for a teen audience and most of them writing fiction or creative nonfiction with adult protagonists, I have to admit that my to be read list has grown tremendously upon returning to Toronto.
Over the course of the day, I attended the following panels:
- The Mother and Child Reunion with Jowita Bydlowska and Priscila Uppal
- Lives of Girls and Women with Krista Bridge, Jennifer Lovegrove, and Lauren B. Davis
- Putting the grit in gritLIT with Craig Davidson and Lynn Coady
For several reasons that aren’t very interesting, I ended up arriving a little late to the first session I attended, which meant that I missed the moderator’s introduction of Bydlowska and her memoir Drunk Mom. I did, however, catch most of her reading from her dark narrative of addiction that seems to vacillate between poignant and humorous moments. She read from a section in which she attended a counselling group for men and women with substance problem, so it featured dialog from the other attendees and Bydlowska’s interior responses to their complaints and justifications of her own drinking. Everyone in the audience was laughing and so was I, but at the same time, there was another part of me that was dying a little inside for a woman who was trying to cope in the only way she knew how, no matter how destructive it might be for herself and her family. Uppal, who is a professor at York University, read several sections from her memoir, Projection: Encounters with My Runaway Mother, which is about being reunited with her mother after her abandonment at a young age. While she focused on several sections that brought her mother and one of the uncles she met to life in vivid ways, Uppal also engaged the audience in a way to connect these disparate moments together and give attendees an understand of the larger structure of the book in a way that an academic is adept at doing, giving me a greater understanding of what I could expect than would be possible from reading one section straight through. While I felt more emotionally connected with Drunk Mom, I can see how readers who have been abandoned by one of their parents would get a lot out of Projection.
When my sister and I first discussed attending readings at gritLIT, I immediately tried to convince her of the merits of going to the 3:00 pm panel called, Lives of Girls and Women. In particular, I was interested in Bridge’s novel, The Eliot Girls, which takes place at a fictional, boarding school called George Eliot Academy, so I knew that it would relate most closely with my audience. I now have a signed copy of this novel, so at some point soon, I hope to read it to the world that had been Audrey Brindle’s dream school, but ended up being a world full of sly bullying, intolerance, and social standards that are hard for her to understand. In the section from which the author read, the girls are in a school assembly where one of the students sings and plays the guitar in a sensuous way, and which Bridge described as demonstrating a character who is completely unaware that she’s revealing too much of herself. While I was most interested in checking out that novel, I have to say that during the reading I became taken with Lovegrove’s Watch How We Walk, which alternates between a woman’s childhood in a small town as a member of the Jehovah Witness religion, and as an adult in the city, and Davis’ The Empty Room. In the former, Lovegrove stuck mainly with scenes from the MC’s childhood, including her experience of being caught trying on her older sisters immodest bra and her interaction with another child who was raised as a member of the Pentecostal Crusader’s, and she had the good sense to leave off at points that whet the audience members’ reading appetites. By far, Davis seemed like the most experienced public reader; she was engaging, funny, and consistently brought up her other novels (where relevant) to a question asked by the audience. She introduced The Empty Room as a novel where she asked what if she hadn’t gotten sober years before, what would her life be like, and proceeds to say that her main character, Colleen Kerrigan, wakes up to begin a day that starts bad and continually gets worse. However, when she read from the novel, it was clear that while some other writer might have turned this into a melodrama, Davis uses dark comedy to engage the reader in a powerful portrait of addiction. For different ways, each of the novels presented in this panel grabbed my imagination, so I can’t wait to read all three.
After the afternoon sessions, my sister and I decided to take a break from the festival for a few hours, and it was probably a good thing that we had some time to spare because we didn’t realize that the last panel we were attending for the night was in an entirely different section of the Art Gallery of Hamilton. First up was Davidson, who read a scene from Cataract City in which Owen and Duncan, as children, share some candy and eventually get around to discus fears that they have about a story someone told them. My sister has already read and loved this story, but I was sceptical until I heard him read. It’s hard to describe, but the world seen through the main characters’ eyes held a kind of magic that I gravitated toward. Similarly, I’m not a huge reader of short stories, but when Coady took the stage to read the titular story from her 2013 Scotiabank Giller Prize winning short story collection, Hellgoing, I was hooked. Her voice is gritiness personified, which really appeals to me as a reader. Beyond their books, though, the Q&A session at this panel was really interesting as well. Davidson and Coady answered questions as diverse as, “Do you make a living from your writing?” and “Do your publisher’s require that you do a lot of your own marketing?” to “What is your writing process like?” and “How do you build your characters?” No matter what the question was, both of these authors answered the audience in a way that felt very honest and authentic. For example, Davidson said that he was able to keep the bills paid…right now…because he’s not only an author of literary fiction, but also writes horror novels, such as The Troop, under the pseudonym, Nick Cutter. However, he was insistent that this year’s successes might very well not be repeated next year if his readers don’t keep coming back. In short, it felt like anything and everything to do with the writing life was fair game, which would’ve increased my interest in their books, even if I hadn’t already wanted to read them.
As a long time fan of Canadian literary fiction, I’ll likely be attending gritLIT again in years to come. Now, can I get back to my increasingly long to be read list?