By Brian Brennan
“Meet acclaimed Canadian authors in San Miguel!” said the invitation. How could one resist? According to the program, three of the seven keynote speakers at this year’s Writers’ Conference & Literary Festival in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico – Emma Donoghue, John Vaillant and Joseph Boyden – would be Canadian. They would join American keynoters Wally Lamb, Jane Friedman and Rita Dove, and Mexican author Jorge Volpi, to talk about some of the “most pressing issues in today’s multi-cultural conversation.”
Other Canadian literary panellists, readers, and workshop leaders would include Leanne Dunic, Merilyn Simonds, Sandra Gulland, Myrl Coulter, Laurie Gough and April Bosshard. They would discuss experimental writing and the state of publishing today, read at a special outdoor Canada Reads event and facilitate workshops on writers’ craft. It all promised to be a grand opportunity for Canada’s travelling authors to hang out and talk shop.
As it turned out, Emma Donoghue was forced to cancel at the last minute due to her mother’s death in Dublin. But the conference organizers scrambled and substituted Benjamin Alire Sáenz, a New Mexico poet and novelist. He flew in and delivered an impassioned closing keynote on living in Trumpian America.
This writers’ gathering in San Miguel de Allende (SMA), a colonial gem of cobbled streets and revolutionary charm, has been held annually since 2005. The first one attracted an audience of twenty-six. Now, more than three hundred workshop participants attend, and the main stage presentations attract a total audience of ten thousand. Clearly, the five-day event is a hit.
What accounts for its success? The sunny location for starters. The SMA weather in February is as temperate as the May weather on Salt Spring Island. Plus, the city is culturally rich and diverse. You can attend an afternoon reading by a Spanish poet, then listen to a Calgary jazz singer-pianist and a Brazilian electric guitarist performing Great American Songbook staples while you dine in a pizza restaurant owned by a former Mexico City addictions counsellor.
Plus, and this is a major draw, the featured keynoters are some of the world’s best-known authors, including the likes of Yann Martel, Naomi Klein and Joyce Carol Oates. The keynoters come for the weather too. “If your conference was in Youngstown, Ohio, I don’t think I’d come,” Calvin Trillin told organizers in 2013. “But since it’s in San Miguel …”
And they certainly don’t come for the big bucks to this event, which draws no sponsorship from publishing houses. Barbara Kingsolver came in 2010 because she wanted to visit Mexico’s famous monarch butterfly wintering site, two hours’ drive from SMA. She also came because she shared an editor with conference executive director Susan Page, a published author. “Knowing people is huge,” says Page. “Most of our major writers come because we share a personal connection with them.”
Page takes pride in the fact it’s a bilingual, tricultural event, with as many people coming from Canada as from the U.S. and Mexico. “We coined the phrase: ‘the creative crossroads of the Americas.'” Or as Kingston’s Merilyn Simonds, author of The Convict Lover, likes to call it: “The NAFTA of literary festivals. The coming together of writers from all three cultures is both inspirational and provocative.”
Simonds, who was first invited to the conference – along with fellow keynoter Margaret Atwood – in 2012, now lives in SMA for half the year. She consults with the festival organizers on Canadian guests and has been successful in getting funding from the Canada Council and the Canadian embassy in Mexico City. “It’s a joy to see Canadian books and writers becoming better known to readers beyond our borders..”
For Simonds, the spark of this festival is the literary conversations between writers of different nationalities. “When you get international writers coming together you can see your own culture reflected in a way that you can’t when you’re conversing within your own borders. It broadens us all creatively, imaginatively.”
This year, as in other years, one of the conversations was about cross-cultural influences. An international festival often turns the conversation to this provocative and sometimes contentious topic. Witness, for example, the furious social media backlash caused last year by the former editor of The Writers’ Union of Canada’s in-house magazine when he wrote – in an issue devoted to the work of Canada’s Indigenous writers – that there should be an “appropriation prize” for the best book by an author who writes about people “who aren’t even remotely like her or him.” The editor, Hal Niedzviecki, subsequently resigned and apologized, saying he regretted that his words had “failed to acknowledge the profound and lasting adverse impact of cultural appropriation on Indigenous peoples.”
So, how has exposure to or immersion in another nation’s culture affected the work of the writers who participated in this year’s SMA conference?
Simonds’s forthcoming novel, Refuge, is set partly in Mexico, and her work-in-progress evolves half in SMA and half in Chiapas. “I couldn’t have written either without living here, getting to know the Mexican culture, and having access to their remarkable literature.”
For Vancouver’s Leanne Dunic, a writer, digital artist and musician who has a Chinese mother and Croatian father and speaks Japanese as her second language, cross-cultural exploration is about working within and beyond the hyphen of a transnational identity, exploring culturally diverse narratives. As artistic director of the Powell Street Festival, the largest Japanese-Canadian arts and culture festival in Canada, Dunic is constantly being inspired by other authors and artists. “I meet so many artists from so many different backgrounds that I’m sure we’re all rubbing off on each other. As we move forward, and the world is becoming what it is, a lot more people are living in these transnational identities.”
April Bosshard, a Vancouver writer and story coach with a background in film, finds inspiration in the work of Japanese-Canadian filmmaker Linda Ohama, with whom she has participated in several projects. “Her passion and dedication and the messages she wants to get out about real people have certainly had an impact. Some of the work I’ve done lately has been a bit commercial, producing for online markets and so on, but she inspires me to return more to art, what your heart wants to say, what you want to put out to the world, that deeper truth.”
Gordon Cope, a Calgary author of travel memoirs and mystery thrillers who has lived in Paris, London and the South Pacific, and now lives full-time in Manzanillo, Mexico, finds that living internationally draws him to topics reflecting something other than the North American point of view. “In some ways, I feel like an anthropologist. My memoirs follow a common construct: well-meaning but bumbling narrator undergoing frequent embarrassment while trying to understand the host culture. Living internationally exposes me to many different points of view. It sharpens my powers of observation and obliges me to delve deeper.”
Sandra Gulland, author of the acclaimed Josephine B trilogy, grew up in California, moved to Canada in 1970 and now lives half the year in SMA. She says her Cold-War Berkeley upbringing used to make her think the end of the world was always imminent. Coming to Canada – “a healing nation,” as Carol Shields once called it – was a bit of a surprise because it offered Gulland a more optimistic view. “I was soon healed and won over by the general calm civility of Canadians. I’m not sure how this may have impacted my writing life. Calm helps, certainly.”
Gulland adds, in an interview with CBC’s Talin Vartanian, that the colonial character of SMA makes it an ideal setting for her French historical fiction. “This is a place where you hear horses on cobblestones. It’s a place where you walk everywhere, and life used to be like that. It helps to be immersed here in a Catholic culture where everyone shares the same values. There’s also the sensual richness of it, focused on the feminine and the Virgin Mary. You don’t see much of that north of the Mexican border.”
Edmonton’s Myrl Coulter, author of The Left-Handed Dinner Party and Other Stories, has spent the last seven winters in Arizona. She says the drive back and forth to Edmonton inspired her to write a road novel and now she wants to do more. She and her husband have sold their Arizona home so they can travel the world. “I’m looking for wider writing experiences. So, I’m reading widely in other cultures. And I plan on writing in other cultures – with dignity and respect.”
Respect for other cultures also defines the work of John Vaillant and Joseph Boyden.
When Vaillant was researching The Golden Spruce, his award-winning nonfiction book about the illegal felling of a tree sacred to the Haida Nation, he was told the story was the property of the Nation and shouldn’t be used without permission. This came as a surprise to the Boston-born writer who had moved to Canada in 1998 so his wife could do a graduate degree in anthropology at the University of British Columbia. So, he sought permission from the Tsiits Gitanee clan and was given “some really wonderful assistance.” It changed Vaillant’s life and informed his writing accordingly. “It’s also informed the way I live and think about the world; what I felt and saw and had shared with me in Haida Gwaii. I’m really grateful.”
Boyden sought permissions, too, when he wrote Wenjack, a novella based on the true story of a 12-year-old Ontario boy who froze to death in 1966 while on the run from a residential school. “I’ve done that with all my novels. I either seek advice from people like Georges Sioui, the great Huron academic and poet, or I talk to the family members of people on which I base my characters. In this instance, I asked permission from his sisters. It was a frightening thing because they could say no, and then where do you go? But they didn’t say no. ‘Keep doing what you’re doing,’ they said. So that’s what I did. They allowed me to write about their beloved brother.”
At the conference’s co-cultural panel that included Boyden and Vaillant, American poet Rita Dove spoke passionately about freedom of the imagination. “Labels carry with them presumptions about what a certain sort of writer can do. My lifelong goal is to thwart those presumptions whenever I can.” And Mexican novelist Jorge Volpi said, “We live in a world of clichés and simplification. It is our role to keep the language alive and vibrant.”
There were many other engaging and provocative conversations at this year’s festival, including one on writers as activists in dangerous times. In a panel discussion on the subject, it was noted that the humane, compassionate world we have spent our lives working to make better is disappearing before our eyes. “So, what is our role as writers, right now?” The answer remains elusive.
Copyright © Brian Brennan 2018
Brian Brennan, an Irish journalist living in Canada, is a founding feature writer with Facts and Opinions and a contributor to Arts dispatches and the Loose Leaf salon. His profile of Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, the first original feature in the journal’s inaugural issue, won Runner-up, Best Feature Article, in the 2014 Professional Writers Association of Canada Awards. Brennan was educated at University College Dublin, Vancouver’s Langara College, the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida, and the National Critics Institute in Waterford, Connecticut.
Visit him at his website, www.brianbrennan.ca
Brian Brennan also plays jazz piano, for fun and profit.