After nearly a year and a half of searching, planning, and collaborating, The Blue Metropolis Montreal International Literary Festival is ready to transform Montreal into an international literary mecca from April 20 to April 26. This year’s lineup includes more than 200 events in eight languages, and about 100 authors from 12 countries.
With so much going on, planning a schedule is key, said programing director Gregory McCormick. The average festivalgoer participates in two to five events, and they fill up fast.
“You can’t do everything, so choose the events you think are more likely to turn into a reading experience you would enjoy,” McCormick said. “We have so many different series that are meant to appeal to people interested in fiction, people interested in self-help, people interested in Montreal, or in the Caribbean. We have lots of workshops this year. Probably more than we ever had.”
This year, popular series like Pan America, CBC Blue, and the Mental Health and Literature series return, and a few new ones will make their debuts. Here’s a look at some of what’s new for 2015.
Multimedia: a festival of words
For the 17th annual festival, organizers are presenting events that fuse traditional literature with an array of artistic mediums, including film, music, visual arts and dance.
This year is about “enlarging the events, bringing literature in all forms of art,” said William St-Hilaire, the president, general manager and artistic director. “It’s no longer a festival of literature. It’s opened up to ‘words.’ It’s words in cinema, publicity, of course literature and novels, but also in theater.”
The focus reflects what the contemporary reading and writing world is doing with multimedia outlets, said McCormick. The festival’s new Literary Film Series features movies that link literature to the screen. It includes, among others, Poetry is an Island, a documentary about Nobel laureate poet, playwright and visual artist Derek Alton Walcott, and Pelo Malo, a Venezuelan film directed by Mariana Rodón that follows a boy whose obsession with straightening his hair sends his mother into a homeopathic panic. Lewis and Lucie, a poetic dance performance, will be performed in conjunction with the festival’s mental health series. There will also be discussions and panels with comic book artists and graphic novelists.
“If all you have are novelists, it limits what you can do, as a festivalier,” McCormick said. “It’s a sense of reminding our public and exploring the way that literature is involved in other art forms. So visual art, dance, cinema and then just different forms of literature as well. We want people to interact.”
One of two new prizes being awarded this year is the Blue Metropolis Words to Change Prize, given to a writer who upholds the values of tolerance, multiculturalism and social inclusion, and encourages multicultural exploration. Chinese-American graphic novelist and comic artist Gene Luen Yang is the first recipient of the award. In conjunction, Blue Met is hosting another Words For Change competition. French and English CEGEP and university students can submit two-to-three minute video blogs discussing why diversity is important to creating a richer society. The winner of the juried competition will receive $1,000.
“It doesn’t have to be technically sophisticated. It can be in French or English,” McCormick said. “They can talk about diversity from a personal point of view or an academic point of view. It’s a prize to really enhance and underscore the importance of diversity in Quebec.”
Writing for well-being
Also new this year is a two-weekend mini-series on a genre that is often overlooked by the elite literary crowd: self-help. The idea for the series began to blossom about two years ago, when McCormick was teasing St-Hilaire about her affinity for the genre.
“The true story is, I’m always into self-improvement, and reading authors like Christophe André,” St-Hilaire said. “I’m doing a full time therapy through books and I’m very much into meditation…and [McCormick] was teasing me. It’s a huge market and I said, ‘Okay. Maybe that tells us something.’”
If they target the growing population of self-help and feel-good book enthusiasts, the event organizers figured, they could introduce those readers to literary novels at the same time. They hope to attract people who might otherwise be intimidated by literary festivals, and link literary events to self-help events such as a Zen Parenting lecture and Mental Health 101: Finding Nirvana in a Cup of Coffee and Other Secrets of Happiness.
There are a lot of so-so self-help books out there, McCormick said, but he promised that Blue Met has chosen good ones. The series features Buddha’s Book of Meditation by Joseph Emit and Let the Elephants Run by David Usher, among others. The recommended literary books feature heavy hitters like Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, The Help by Kathryn Stockett, and Naked by David Sedaris.
“I very much feel that literature should represent what people want to talk about,” McCormick said. “It shouldn’t be just people sitting in a room writing and just being intellectual for the sake of being intellectual. There has to be a real mad woman on the street aspect to it.”
The Mile-End Mystique
Two kinds of events work best with the Blue Met audience: Montreal and international-focused activities. When they feature Montreal topics, events are often sold out. Because of that, this year’s festival is kicking off what it hopes will be an on-going series focusing on one unique quarter of the city each year. This year, the Mile End got the vote.
“Mile End is a natural place to start because it’s a neighbourhood that has really changed in the last 10 or 15 years. It’s full of young people. It’s full of Anglophones. It’s full of people who come from other places. Mordecai Richler grew up there. There’s a whole Jewish community tradition there,” McCormick said. “To me, this is a test.”
The Mile End Series includes a Mordecai Richler walking tour, Mile End Fiction presented by the Montreal Review of Books, and The Metropolis Azul Prize winner Junot Diaz in conversation with Heather O’Neill presented by Blue Met and Drawn and Quarterly, among others. If the series is as popular as expected, future plans could include St. Henri, Point Saint Charles, The Plateau or N.D.G.
For more information about Blue Metropolis Festival and Blue Metropolis Children’s Festival events and prize winners, visit bluemetropolis.org.
Rebecca Fishow is a writer and visual artist living in Montreal. Her work has appeared in The Believer Logger, Necessary Fiction, the Fiddleback and elsewhere. She is the Interviews Editor for Cosmonauts Avenue.
– photo: Louis-Étienne Dor