Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Azure Scratchings: The End

Just a note to say that I have resigned my post as Director of Programming at Blue Metropolis after six Festivals. What an amazing six years it's been: our Festival attendance has massively increased and I've traveled the world, meeting amazing writers from every corner of the globe.

But! Time for a new challenge now - I've accepted a job in Toronto, doing something similar to what I've been doing at Blue Met but at a higher level in a bigger market.

Change is never easy but Blue Met will be better than ever...

Thursday, April 7, 2016

The Battle in Seattle and its Legacy: Sunil Yapa

I was living in Asia when the Battle for Seattle suddenly took over the news. This was 1999 and the WTO were holding their semi-regular meetings there. There had been smaller problems at past WTO meetings, in Berlin in 1989, but this protest - 40,000 young people taking over huge parts of downtown Seattle - took the media, the government, the city of Seattle, by surprise.

Today in hindsight it might not seem that revolutionary since we have been mired for years in anti-government, anti-globalization, neocapitalist arguments. But this was new in 1999. Again, I wasn't in Seattle but I had moved from Seattle to Shanghai where I was living currently and I had many friends involved in the protests. What struck me at the time was the discord between what the media reported and what my friends would actually tell me in emails they'd send about what was happening: the police brutality, the official government response, the notion that it was a bunch of stoner kids.

But these protests really set the stage in many ways for the situation we find ourselves in today: the outrage to revelations just days ago that wealthy people are hiding hundreds of billions of dollars offshore to avoid taxes is a legacy of WTO 1999. Fury at police brutality and shooting of unarmed young black men is, in part, a legacy of WTO 1999. Occupy Wall Street, the 1%, Thomas Piketty, etc., all have to varying degrees an important link to those protests.

Yet the new Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal has also been the result. Widening economic
equality has been the result. Government salesmanship has also been the result since most Western governments now realize that they have to "sell" these kinds of deals and economic realities to their subjects in ways that they never had to do previous. And they're getting good at it with media often lining right up to do the government's bidding.

American writer, Sunil Yapa, is the first writer to really look at this situation - these protests - in a fictional form. He's less interested, I think, in the legacy of the protests and more in the human story: who these protesters were, what motivated them. But oddly, the book isn't meant to be a diatribe. It also shows the "other side": WTO insiders trying to come to terms with the reality they see out of their shiny conference windows. Government hacks. And corporate America for the first time on the defensive.

The book, Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, will be the topic of conversation with the writer, Sunil Yapa, at Blue Met next week on Saturday, April 16 in the evening.

Yapa was recently on Late Night with Seth Meyers and talked about writing the book, growing up with a Sri Lankan father and Montanan mother, and the kind of power that comes from being "the voice" of a generation, particular a generation that was so tied to challenging corporate and government power.

There is so much in this book that is of relevance to young people today - and not just young people - with daily stories of economic inequality, fighting to keep our environment habitable, corporate power run amok, police brutality, so many issues that surround us today.

Come check out out Sunil Yapa and hear about why he wrote the book and what he envisions for our near and long-term future. Tickets are $10 and the event is on Saturday, April 16 at 5:30pm at Hotel 10 in downtown Montreal. Get your tickets here.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Blue Metropolis Premio Azul: Valeria Luiselli

I was very happy when Blue Met's Premio Azul was awarded to Mexican writer, Valeria Luiselli. I'd been trying for years to get her to come to Blue Met and this prize was the perfect way to entice her.

Currently in its fourth year, the prize is given to a writer whose work honours some aspect of Hispanophone culture. Often the prize is given for a work written in Spanish but there have been exceptions.

Junot Diaz won the prize last year and did an event at a sold out Rialto Theatre.

Luis Alberto Urrea won the prize in 2014. Nicaraguan writer, Sergio Ramirez, won in 2013.

Luiselli is one of Mexico's best-known and most talked about writers. Many critics called her fascinating book, The Story of My Teeth, one of 2015's best, and her earlier work, Faces in the Crowd, in my view, is one of the best novels written in the last ten years.

Everyone is always looking out for the next Marquez or the next Bolano and if that is anything worth doing, then keeping an eye on Luiselli's career can't go wrong. She's only in her early 30s and has already made a huge mark in the translated fiction world and even her first book to be translated into English, Sidewalks, explored the life and history of contemporary Mexico City via walking (introduced by Cees Noteboom) in a way that's fiercely intelligent, innovative and charming.

Luiselli will be given the prize on Friday, April 15 in the evening, interviewed by none other than Scott Esposito, editor and founder of The Quarterly Conversation and one of today's most respected young literary critics. Tickets are $10 and available here.

Luiselli will also be doing an event (#66 on page 56) on Mexican Modernism with Daniel Saldana Paris (another fantastic young writer to keep an eye on) as well as an event at Drawn & Quarterly with Anakana Schofield and Taras Grescoe. This event is called London, New York, Mexico City, Shanghai (#75 on page 57) and you can get more information by checking out the Blue Met 2016 Festival brochure.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Stories are All We Are

I've never really been able to understand how people who don't read books negotiate life. Yes, it's true today we have to carve out time, we have to shut out distractions, but books and the world of books has been such a vital and affirming way to negotiate the world for me - and many people I know - my entire life.

And it's not news but science backs up the notion that reading helps us understand and empathize with people. It's no surprise that people who don't read generally (IMHO) don't know as much about the world. And while on the one hand, reading anything is better than reading nothing, I still think that it's important to read novels, at least some of the time.

This fascinating story in The Atlantic about writers writing on solitude really struck a chord with me. We learn so much about life, about politics, about culture, through the reading of novels, not even overtly political novels. When I think about the current election, for example, all the hyperbole and bluster and media-shaping and outrage laid to the side, I'd much rather have a well-read leader than one who's made a billion dollars on some business deal.

But I suppose I am in the minority.

All of this to say that we try hard at Blue Met to bring writers in who appeal to all kinds of readers: we have short-story writers like Danielle McLaughlin (Ireland) and Ayelet Tsabari (Canada/Israel). We have non-fiction writers who look at gun culture (A.J. Somerset) and writers like Gabriella Coleman who wrote a fascinating book about Anonymous and hacker culture. We have big sweeping novels that explore generations of women (Christine Dwyer Hickey), books that make the political personal in funny and moving ways (Carmen Aguirre & Sunil Yapa), books that are edgy and experimental and give us new ways of thinking about what a novel actually is (Valeria Luiselli's latest book in English) and poetry that tells stories in the shape and form of a novel. Almost (Anne Carson). We have First Nations stories and migrants to Canada stories. We have stories by young women still trying to figure out their place in the world and we have told from the perspective of animals that teach us what it means to be human. Stories on others' lives, stories about childhoods and growing up different, stories that show us how to live in a world that wants to ridicule, even when greatness is the result of that difference. Stories that explore new histories, whether personal or public, and stories which are simply funny.

For those who love reading, there is so much on offer, new stories to help us continue to  make sense of the world. For those who used to read more and want to get back into it, there are plenty of new writers to explore. Check it all out at our website and block off your calendars: April 11-17 get ready for a whole new set of stories.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Anne Carson wins 2016 Blue Metropolis Literary Grand Prix

When The Autobiography of Red came out, this book traveled from friend to friend in my little circle of poetry nuts. Almost like a novel in verse form, the poems retells the myth of Geryon (which sounds far more precious and intellectual than the book actually is). This book changed my entire view of what poetry could do in contemporary society and it's often cited - even amongst my friends - as one of their favorite books, even people who don't consider themselves fans of poetry.

I immediately remembered this book and some of its lines when it was announced a while back that Anne Carson had won our Grand Literary Prix for 2016. I was excited because Carson has this amazing fan base: 22 year olds lover her, 75 year olds love her. This in itself is extraordinary but just about anyone who knows anything about American, Canadian or English-language literature knows her. This kind of writer, of course, is ideal for a Festival: she is a serious writer but one that is immensely popular.

The Autobiography of Red has been followed by many books that challenge our notions of what poetry can be, but also what art can be and how it can fit in our lives today. One thing I appreciate about the art of Carson is how she pushes form, she takes chances, she doesn't sit back and coast on reputation alone. She's published Fragments of Sappho, Decreation, Red Doc> (her titles tell one very little about the power of her work) and many more.

The themes she covers range from the nature of desire to grief to the nature of language and words. There is a cult-like aura about Anne Carson.

Carson will do two big events at the Festival. On Saturday, April 16 at 4:00pm, Writers and Company's Eleanor Wachtel will interview her on stage at the Grande Bibliotheque. She will receive the prize that night as well. Get your tickets here.

Later that evening, at 8:00pm at the Contemporary Art Museum, Carson will also be present at a staged reading of Antigonick, her highly entertaining and contemporary translation of Antigone. Get tickets here.

Blue Met's Grand Literary Prix is in being awarded for the 17th time this year and has gone to an illustrious group of writers from Carlos Fuentes to AS Byatt to Norman Mailer to Joyce Carol Oates to Colm Toibin. Carson joins the six other Canadians who've won the prize.

2016 Blue Metropolis Grand Literary Prize-winner
This year our Festival runs April 11 to 17 and a few Festival passes are still available online.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Blue Met announces its 2016 Festival lineup in Montreal

This morning we announce our entire 2016 lineup for the Blue Met 2016 Festival and wow are we excited! For one thing, an amazing roster of Canadian and international writers are here for the seven days of the Festival, but particularly from Wednesday, April 13 to Sunday, April 17 when the majority of our events take place. Highlights include:

Also coming in 2016: 
The entire 2016 program is online now: check it out and get your tickets soon! The Festival runs April 11 to 17 at Hotel 10 downtown. More than half of our events are free; ticketed events range from $5 to $17.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Art and our Fears: The Witch and Bus Stops

I saw two events last week that  both seemed to explore our fears as a society but from very different eras and it's been something on my mind all week.

The first piece was the big high profile movie, The Witch, which has been playing for a few weeks. No fan of hardcore horror, I was a bit reluctant to see it but the setting - 15th century Massachusetts - was appealing. It's a very interesting movie though not really a horror film at all in most ways and the way it was marketed was very misleading. The film tells the story of a family - parents, two boys and two girls as well as a newborn baby - who are kicked out of their religiously oriented village for heresy (the father is preaching his own brand of Christian doctrine) and are exiled to the wilderness. They set up their farm there, isolated, next to the woods and things continue until one afternoon when the newborn simply vanishes. It's assumed that a wolf came out from the woods and took him away but there are suggestions of something darker.

What struck me about this film is how we forget today how the word evil used to represent an actual thing: actual spirits or the devil himself. For us, the word evil is used more metaphorically to suggest almost always a person who acts in selfish or incredibly self-serving ways that somehow cause harm to others or society. So we say that a serial killer or terribly manipulative person or someone who exploits the poor, etc., we say those people are evil. It's more about the lack of social empathy or the fact that the person can't act in a way that we accept as normal social behaviour. But in the world of 15th century America, evil was an actual thing that existed. It had little to do with social interaction or being selfish or not understanding how to act in accordance with mores of the day. Evil actually resided deep inside the forest, was a thing or a person that simply meant to cause disorder in the world.

It also struck me that it's so surprise why forests have long been so frightening to people. Today,
forests are almost like the last remnant of the nature we have managed to tame and control. But 500 years ago (and throughout most of human history), forests were terrifying places: full of wild animals and very easy to get lost in. People probably very often did enter forests and never return simply because they were so vast and dark.

The Witch is a good film but it's not a horror film and anyone who goes expecting this will be disappointed. It's a film about evil but also about the fears that we as a society cultivate: in our children, in each other.

I then saw Bus Stops at the Centaur and though the pieces on the surface are very different, they both share commonalities in terms of showing us what we fear. This play, translated from the original French, was written by Marilyn Perrault, and simply shows a collection of various urbanites all killed in a terrorist attack on a public bus in Montreal. The story is framed from the point of view of a coroner trying to piece together what happened after the fact via her imagined interaction with several of the victims, trying to separate the public hysteria from the facts.

The acting was spotty at times  (I saw the opening show so maybe it's gotten better: some players are solid; others were less so) but the play is good, the writing is interesting and engaging and the production itself is innovative and entertaining. But again, the play shows us what we fear as humans: we fear the "unknown" terrorist. Evil. But this kind of evil operates in a vastly different way to the evil in The Witch: this is social evil, people who act in selfish ways that harm others for some bigger political or personal axe to grind. It also gets at another fear: the tendency we have to scapegoat people for crimes because of racism or prejudice.

The Witch is playing downtown for the next couple of weeks and is worth a couple of hours though it's not a fast-moving film in many ways. It's dreary and sad but also scary. The script, too, is written in a very dated English so it's not always easy to follow the dialogue. But it's a good film and gets at the heart of what evil used to represent.

Bus Stops plays at Centaur through March 27 and is a very engaging story about our modern contemporary fears of evil.