Each August my small town plays host to the Sunshine Coast Festival of the Written Arts. It is the longest running writers festival to feature solely Canadian authors. For four days every summer, readers and writers come together to celebrate the written word. It is a small festival, fun and intimate, held in a beautiful pavilion in downtown Sechelt. It’s always a highlight of my summer. Last year I created my own Writers Fest Challenge and attempted to read work from each of the 22 writers who would be in attendance. I planned to do the same for the 2020 Festival and the final line-up of authors had already been announced before COVID-19 changed all our lives this spring.
Obviously, the festival was cancelled this year. While many literary festivals moved to on-line platforms, ours didn’t, for various reasons. Instead, the directors invited each of the scheduled writers to contribute an unpublished piece that could be a reflection of our experiences in 2020. As Jane Davidson, the festival director, says in her introduction, “We look to writers to interpret and help us process the world we live in.” Fifteen writers have contributed to his unique collection and the focus and style of each piece is unique.
Paul Seesequasis writes a short essay on the strangeness of a newly-emptied calendar while Farzana Doctor’s poems offer a countdown of the endless weeks of lockdown. Harold R. Johnson shares about his remote home on his family’s trapline and the gift of self-sufficiency. Michael Christie shares something similar, talking about building a house for his family on Galiano Island and the gift of distance from the rest of the world. Sarah Leavitt, a graphic novelist, offers simple and compelling illustrations. Amber Dawn uses the beauty habits of her grandmother and her mother to subtly show the stability and instability of our world through history in her poem “working women”. Dawn’s poem “White Bodies Needed” addresses the growing protests against racism and begins with the heart-stopping line, “white women / when we doom scroll our news / feeds and feel powerless / it is an act of racism”. Jack Wang focuses on the experience of being Asian and living in America during an epidemic the (former!!) president refers to as “the China flu”. This is only a handful of the works collected here.
A collection like this is, by definition, very of the moment. It is a snapshot of time and place. Someone a year ago could never understand what’s written here. In ten or twenty years, many of the references will be lost. Readers may not understand why Bill Richardson’s narrator in “Loss Prevention” has a job offering masks to grocery store shoppers but no power to insist they wear them. They may not understand the references to the cheers at 7:30 – the connection they offered or the way they faded out. It’s a collection that speaks to the reader now, here in 2020, a way to say, “You are not alone.”
I’ve read some of these authors before though not all. (I gave up on my 2020 Writers Fest Challenge when the libraries closed.) While I wouldn’t say this represents their best work, I believe its value lies in its unique circumstances. And I enjoyed it as a glimpse into the voices of writers I would otherwise have heard and seen in person. I look forward to the time when that can happen again.