What to hear and do at the 2023 Toronto International Festival of Authors
Roland Gulliver is endlessly enthusiastic. Whenever he talks about books or the festival of authors, whether at the front of a room full of people or on the phone, his enthusiasm is palpable.
He became the director of the Toronto International Festival of Authors in 2020 — obviously a difficult time for a festival that had always been in person, attracting some of the best known writers in the world and many sold-out audiences.
This year’s event runs Thursday to Oct. 1.
“I love walking around Toronto and seeing people reading,” Gulliver said. “I’d like to think that — maybe after food — Toronto is a city of readers. I love how people just do it all the time, in the park and underneath the street lights. I’m fascinated to explore … do they know what the festival is? Do they know what a book event is?”
This is his fourth festival, although it’s only the second he’s been able to do live, and attracting new audiences is very much on his mind. Last year, there were many events that attracted only a few audience members live, although Gulliver pointed out there were many sold-out events, too, including marquee ones such as an appearance by English author Ian McEwen. But some events at which they thought readers might be more adventurous weren’t “quite as successful as we hoped.”
Coming out of the pandemic, the festival has its eyes on efforts to “build a new festival,” Gulliver said, “and we have to build that energy and atmosphere and build it so that it’s, in all the traditional ways, engaging and exciting and eye-catching, but also in a way that works for traditional audiences, but also how to find new audiences.”
That includes engaging people who might be near the harbourfront for a Blue Jays game or who live in the area. It’s about the books, yes, but it’s also about the experiences.
Some of the things the festival has put in place include a Pulp Fiction stream of events to appeal to fans of genre fiction, introducing horror and romance and fantasy as part of the program. There’s also a manga series with Makoto Yukimura and his Finland saga: “it’s set in Canada with Vikings, but he’s never been to Canada before.” Until now.
There will also be a giant, five-metre swing set. It will be part of an aerial dance storytelling performance, but it will also “offer people the opportunity to have a shot on the swings and a sense of fun and joy,” said Gulliver, and make “the festival feel more engaging and accessible and open to different kinds of audiences.”
Five reasons to come to the fest of authors
Come for the big names …
There are always marquee draws at TIFA, which has been attracting audiences for 49 years. This year, big-draw international authors include U.S. writer Richard Ford, Irish writer Anne Enright (full disclosure: I’ll be interviewing her on Saturday, Sept. 30 at 2 p.m.). Domestically — although most of these authors are internationally celebrated — Margaret Atwood, Sarah Polley, Michael Crummey, M.G. Vassanji, Alberto Manguel, Michelle Good, Catherine Hernandez and Emma Donoghue, among many others, are slated to appear in the “Conversation” series of talks. Crummey’s event will be off site in what’s being dubbed a “Kitchen Party” at the Supermarket venue in Kensington Market. And Atwood is taking part in two quite different events: the first, on Sept. 30 at 5 p.m., is a collaboration between Atwood and Theatre of War Productions, in which she’ll perform her short story “Impatient Griselda,” included in her latest book, “Old Babes in the Wood.” That story is in response to “Patient Griselda,” written by Giovanni Boccaccio in 1348 during the bubonic plague, which will also be performed by a group of actors including Jesse Eisenberg (of “The Social Network” and “Fleishman Is in Trouble” fame). Atwood will also take part in the PEN Canada Graeme Gibson Talk on Sept. 24.
… stay for the new discoveries
One of the joys of TIFA has always been the serendipity of discovering new authors, whether debut authors from here or international authors who are in Canada for the first time. You can also discover some of the secrets of writing from first-rate authors: for example, Shyam Selvadurai is holding a workshop/master class on elements you can incorporate in your own writing to create a sense of place. Other writers sharing their craft secrets include Kyo Maclear on “Finding Your Narrative Edge in Memoir” and David Bezmozgis on tone. Even if you’re not a writer, a workshop like this will make you a better reader.
Toronto is one of the great multicultural cities of the world and this year’s festival features a number of multilingual events that unite writers and translators. Events will be presented in Arabic, Bengali, Tamil and other languages, as well. For instance, Walid El Khachab, an Egyptian Canadian poet, and Jackleen Salam, a Syrian Canadian poet, will read Arabic poetry and talk about changes in Arabic poetry under the heading “Born Free? Taking Flight — Dreams of Democracy.”
It’s going to be a swinging time
Instagram feeds are going to fill up with photos of audiences and authors on a five-metre-high swing set that will act as a centrepiece for the festival, a sort of user-friendly massive art installation. Musical performances, too, include Tara MacLean for “an evening of music and stories,” or try meeting a new generation of Black Canadian poets in an event curated by Britta B. that pushes the rules of language and music.
Stay for a day, the weekend or a week
TIFA has become more flexible in its pricing, perhaps reflecting its desire to attract audiences on their own terms. Single day passes are $39.99; a weekend pass is $69.99, while a full festival pass is $199.99. The website at festivalofauthors.ca has become better at suggesting events. For example, if you bought a day pass for a day — let’s say Sept. 23 — to see the “Born Free?” panel, it will show you what else is available on that day, including a performance titled “A Musical Journey to the Middle East,” a book signing by Makoto Yukimura or “Brontës Reimagined” with writer Rachel Cantor.
Deborah Dundas is the Star’s Books editor. She is based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @debdundas