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  • Jennifer Houle

On the hunger for words. . .




Our banner up on stage at the Playhouse

Last week, Fredericton hosted it's third annual literary festival - Word Feast. It brought me to tears (quiet, discreet, sitting-in-the-audience-and-listening tears) at least three times.


I wonder about the quiet reactions being had by other audience members. Words, after all, have a lot of power and carry a lot of emotion, a lot of complex thought. Just like people do. When like meets like - however antipathetic the types of power, emotion and thought being carried might actually be - there is bound to be a reaction.


Our authors spoke and read about injustice, pain, love, terror, grief, illness, beauty, silence, regret, uncertainty, anger, outrage, personal and cultural history, instability, and joy.


They were funny and incisive and heart-pounding and gut-wrenching.

Listening to them, I found myself cycling though wonder, bliss, sorrow, agitation, frustration, ache to create, fear and love, worry and love. Or, to quote the title of our first festival headliner, Rebecca Rosenblum's novel: So Much Love. So much. I imagine it was the same for many. I imagine the words did their propulsive and sometimes trajectory-changing work.


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I have had the great good fortune of being part of the festival's Board since almost the beginning. In late 2016, I eagerly signed up to volunteer, excited for the opportunity to help build something that would bring authors into our city and help to inspire the next generation of readers and writers. I had NO idea how much work went into putting on a lit fest. So much love, yes, but also, so much work. A staggering amount of work, but worthwhile, for the sorts of seemingly magical connections made possible by events like Word Feast. Connections known only to those who make them, but no doubt travel outwards in a ripple effect, changing things. I have been changed.


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The festival was founded by Ian LeTourneau, Fredericton's first Cultural Laureate, as a legacy project. I offered to volunteer, saying I could probably help with communications. Next thing I knew, I was on the board, sitting around a conference table with other local writers I admired and a number of dedicated volunteers.


I had been wanting to get more involved with the local literary community for years. My first book had recently been published, but with two young children and a full-time job, I rarely made it out to events. My writing and literary life felt like something that happened only in stolen moments, not a part of my actual (i.e. real) life or self. I wanted to change that if I could. Two and a half years later, I have been gifted with new friendships and connections that have contributed to a fundamental transformation of my sense of community, belonging, and purpose.


Supporting others in the literary community means more to me now than ever, because I know how precious the work being done by writers is, and how difficult it can be to connect the right readers with the right books. Very difficult. While there is absolutely magic at play when it comes to readers finding their special books, opportunities for that magic to happen are also key. I have long believed in the importance of having a vibrant arts sector, knowing what it can mean to a city, a region, a province. What it can mean for vulnerable populations. Now, I see even more clearly the challenges that exist in terms of connecting the arts community with the larger public - not that there really is a "larger public" when it comes to books. There are just myriad, myriad people with different vulnerabilities, longings, needs, hopes, curiosities, aches, interests, and personal quirks and quests. Young and old.


Who needed the words we were proffering as a feast? Would they find us? Would we connect?


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I can't speak for anybody else, but I connected deeply. This year, I felt nourished by listening to lunchtime talks: Sue Sinclair and Elizabeth Effinger discussed an erasure poetry project that involved incarcerated women. Doyali Islam gave a compelling and mindful talk on the gifts of silence in a poetic practice. In a life.


I got to see my mother enjoying Amy Spurway's reading of her raucous novel Crow, which takes place in Cape Breton. I drifted off into the humour and awkwardness of young love as Carrianne Leung read from That Time I Loved You. I welled up when our musical performer Adyn Townes cranked it up with a catchy riff that made me want to run, run fast towards what I most care about.


I welled up for the first time at our official launch, when Ian read the long list of community sponsors who had supported the festival. I'm sure that for some audience members, hearing the roll call of local businesses, individuals and artists was a bit tedious. For me, hearing the names of so many supporters all at once struck something, and I realized how fortunate we are to have received so much unhesitating and generous support. Businesses are asked for donations all the time, as are local artists and writers. Choices have to be made, and it is really heartening to know that so many believed in what the literary festival wants to do.


My emotions remained high as Fredericton's current Poet Laureate Jenna Lyn Albert took the mic to recite a poem commissioned specially for the festival. This poem was then translated into French and Wolastoqiyik. Hearing the piece in all three languages, and appreciating the effort that went into the translations, was powerful.


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A few days post-festival, and I am still reflecting, still thinking about the real goals. I'm sure each member of our board has slightly different passions and hopes, but as for myself - it's all about creating opportunities for connections to happen. I'm not entirely sure how I would have survived my childhood and young adulthood had it not been for books and the imaginative strength I drew from them, and I want to help bring that to others.


We aren't so much about fostering literacy as we are about fostering creativity and inspiration. Literacy is critical, but our festival is aimed at those who can already read (or will soon be learning how to). A society that places a high value on reading will, of course, also buoy literacy rates. Aiming to foster creativity is an important distinction - to create an appetite for written expression, clear, hard-hitting language deployed in the quest to entertain, educate, inspire, uplift, upset, or unsettle. Or even just amuse. We need this, as a culture. We need our really good stories. Our powerful words. Our healing words. Our beautiful, beautiful turns of phrase. . .


But, probably because this is an election year, I have also been spending a lot of time thinking about the power of words to stir up hate, negativity, and skim over atrocities. Another word for a story after all is a lie.


But that's not what we're on about when we talk about the power of story is it? I know the kind of words, the kind of stories, essays and poems I am hungry for. They aren't all politically correct, but none of them are hateful. Some of them may be furious. A little bit dangerous. A whole lot wild. But none of them were created to stir up hatred or animosity or unfounded fear. Or to promulgate outrageous falsehoods about our actual world and the people in it. The words I am hungry for go higher - they trigger insight, sympathy, empathy, and connection. They are beautiful. Stunning. Staggeringly so. They know they are sharp and dangerous and hold power. But they want to cast light. For all that they may glory in the shadows - the goal is always to bring light, bring emotion, bring a burning question, bring water, bring food - contribute to the feast.


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When I was eight years old, I found an old book that had been my father's when he was in university, and I fell in love with poetry. Life changed.


When I was 18 years old, I found an old novel someone had given my mother when she was pregnant with me (which she never read - must have been busy with something else) and it sparked a massive creative hunger in me. I became braver. Life changed.


When I was 22, I found an old book in a used bookstore. Next week, I fly to Europe to research some of the passions sparked by that book. Life continues to change.


I was a lonely kid, but I had books.


Adulthood can be even lonelier and more frightening than childhood.


Bringing books to the public. . .contributing to the feast. It is immensely rewarding.


And, like so many others, I am hungry still.



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