Notes from Blue Met: Writing Women

Writing Women

Joyce Carol Oates speaks the the Blue Metropolis Literary Festival. Photo credit: Jean Bernier.

From April 18-23, 2012, the Blue Metropolis Literary Festival will take place in Montreal. CBC correspondent Maria Turner will report from the festival for CBC Books.


Earlier this year, the U.S. based organization VIDA: Women in Literary Arts published what they call "the count". The count (first published in 2010) is a tally of the numbers of women and men getting published in some of the world's most prestigious literary publications, from The Paris Review to the New York Times book reviews. The numbers, for women, are discouraging: we are underrepresented in all of these magazines with a few rare exceptions (Granta, to name one).

I was happy to see that this was not the case at Blue Met. Approximately half of the programming featured women, but there was such a stellar line-up of women writers, it seemed entirely beside the point.

On Friday evening, Marie-Louise Arsenault interviewed the irrepressible Quebec-based Vietnamese author Kim Thúy, who kept the audience laughing despite her painful accounts of living in a refugee camp. Saturday morning continued with Egyptian writer Ahdaf Soueif, who won the festival's Arab Prize, talking to Paul Kennedy about her memoir Cairo: My City, Our Revolution. An accomplished novelist, Soueif is also a political commentator and activist. She told her stories of the revolution with sorrow, grace, and even humour. When asked about her own fearlessness in the face of danger (she was an active part of the protests in Tahrir Square) she said: "You do feel invulnerable, but that feeling comes from seeing people killed. It suddenly isn't important what happens to you."

Soueif was followed by Esi Edugyan, the 2011 Giller prizewinner, who seemed a little stunned to find herself in front of a packed room, despite her recent whirlwind of success. Following Edugyan was an entertaining panel of Newfoundland writers, Mary Dalton, Kathleen Winter, and Mark Callanan (representing the male of the species).

The crowning moment for many was Joyce Carol Oates who was awarded the festival's Grand Prize for a lifetime of achievement. I am not a rabid Oates fan but she charmed me immediately. (One of the wonderful things about going to a literary festival is that you don't need to know or necessarily like the author to find her or him interesting in conversation.) Oates, at times, was close to having a stand-up routine going. She talked about growing on a small farm in Millersport, NY, which she categorized as a crossroads with "nothing there at all". Going to the neighbouring Lockport, with its population of around 20,000, was, she joked, like going to Paris. As a young girl, it was Oates' job to feed the chickens and she claimed to still have a predilection for them, as well as for the many pet cats she has had over the years. Not so for the rooster, who would peck her knees, an image she returned to several times over the course of her interview with Eleanor Wachtel. Oates was (to paraphrase a friend talking after the event) a real hoot.

If you weren't able to attend Blue Met, don't worry. The interview with Joyce Carol Oates will air on Sunday, April 29th on Writers & Company. You will also be able to hear Esi Edugyan on The Next Chapter and Adhaf Soueif on Ideas. Stay tuned.

Maria Schamis Turner is a writer and editor based in Montreal. Her book reviews have appeared in the Globe and Mail, the National Post and the Montreal Review of Books. She is the editor of the online literary magazine and the producer of the 2012 CBC Blue Literary Series /Radio-Canada série littéraire at the Blue Metropolis International Literary Festival.

Notes from Blue Met, Part I: A Blue Met preview

Notes from Blue Met, Part II: Crime stories