Point of View

Why diverse literary festivals are essential for emerging voices

Toronto's Naked Heart kicks off its second edition this weekend, and it's already the largest LGBTQ literary festival in the world.

Toronto's Naked Heart is the largest LGBTQ literary festival in the world — and it matters

Inside Glad Day Bookshop, the community organizers of Naked Heart Festival. (Michael Erickson)

This weekend marks the second edition of the Naked Heart, the "LGBTQ Festival of Words." With over 90 participating authors, it may surprise you to know that Naked Heart is the largest LGBTQ literary festival in the world. Along with the Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD), it is also the most diverse literary festival in Canada with numerous Indigenous, transgender and racialized authors represented. It cannot be understated how important this is.

While literary festivals introduce readers to new authors and often profile emerging writers at a critical stage in their career, they also build community between writers and other members of the literary community. The broader Canadian literary arts scene can feel exclusionary to many new writers, especially writers from diverse backgrounds. Many of my author friends talk about being the only writer of colour or Indigenous author at literary festivals, pigeonholed into the role of being an advocate for diverse literature. I joke with other transgender writers about always being on the "tranel" — the singular transgender or LGBTQ-specific panel at a literary festival. With festivals like Naked Heart, we are connected to each other and allowed to build networks outside of the mainstream Canadian literary scene.

(Naked Heart)

One thing I've learned as an Indigenous writer is that community is does not occur organically. Many writers are too busy to facilitate broad connections across cities and provinces. We lack the financial resources to engage with each other outside of our day jobs. One of the central goals of the Indigenous Writers' Gathering, an annual Indigenous-specific literary festival in Toronto, is to link Indigenous writers so we can nurture each other. Connection with other writers is essential for great literature, and festivals like Naked Heart, FOLD and the Indigenous Writer's Gathering make those connections happen.

I joke with other transgender writers about always being on the 'tranel' — the singular transgender or LGBTQ-specific panel at a literary festival. With festivals like Naked Heart, we are connected to each other.- Gwen Benaway

The importance of the bonds between writers was recently brought home to me at the annual Writer's Trust Awards in Toronto. Two leading Indigenous writers, Eden Robinson and Gregory Scofield, were honoured at the awards, as was Métis poet and novelist Katherena Vermette. A group of Indigenous writers came to the awards to support them. We ended up occupying a conspicuous corner of the pre-award reception, laughing and gossiping shamelessly before the awards. All of the female Indigenous writers went for dinner together afterwards and spent four hours talking about literature.  

These casual conversations with other writers form the basis of my literary practice. We trade stories about writing and bad audience Q&As, and form bonds which mean more to the creation of our art than any other experience. As a poet, I rely on the work of the other poets to inform me. As a transwoman writing in Canada, I look to other transwomen authors like Vivek Shraya, Jia Qing Wilson-Yang and Kai Cheng Thom for inspiration. I'll be seeing them read along with many other Indigenous and racialized writers like Farzana Doctor, Fan Wu and Cherie Dimaline at Naked Heart this weekend.

I volunteered and read some of my work at the first Naked Heart festival, and my time at the festival became one of my favourite memories of the year. I met so many fearless writers. We danced to Boy George and Cyndi Lauper after a day of panels, writing workshops and open mics. It was the most fun I've had at any Canadian literary festival or event. There was a feeling around the Naked Heart last year, sustained by the community organizers from Glad Day Bookstore, that literature and writing meant more than just telling a good story.

Naked Heart presents literature as the cornerstone of a fundamental relationship between diverse communities, sexualities and genders. The festival showcases how the stories we tell ourselves are bridges between us. It lets us, as writers and creators, be leaders in our communities and connect directly with our audiences. If I have one thing to say about the importance of diverse literature in Canada, it is simply that nothing we encounter in our lives offers a richer window into the lives of fellow human beings than writing. We may see strangers and people who are not like us in the streets, but we rarely connect with them in any significant way. Literature brings us closer together, and literary festivals are one of the best ways I know to expand the connections of literature into meaningful conversations with the world we are all caught up in.

Naked Heart: The LGBTQ Festival of Words. November 11-13. Toronto. nakedheart.ca

About the Author

Gwen Benaway

Gwen Benaway is a trans woman of Anishinaabe and Métis descent. Her first collection of poetry, Ceremonies for the Dead, was published in 2013, her second collection of poetry, Passage, was released in 2016 from Kegedonce Press and her third collection of poetry, What I Want is Not What I Hope For, is forthcoming from Bookthug in 2018.In 2015, she was the recipient of the inaugural Speaker’s Award for a Young Author and in 2016 she received an Dayne Ogilvie Honour of Distinction for Emerging Queer Authors from the Writer’s Trust of Canada.

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