Notes from the Blue Met: Reading in public


An audience enjoying a discussion during the 2011 Blue Metropolis Festival in Montreal. (Image courtesy the Blue Metropolis Festival)

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.


For an avid reader like me, going to a literary festival gives me the rare chance to indulge my literary inclinations in public: I can exchange bits of literary gossip with fellow readers ("did you see Gore Vidal drinking vodka at the hotel bar?"), share my literary crushes with them and rub shoulders with those I know only from small square photos on inside back-covers.

Memories of the authors I have seen over many years at the Blue Metropolis International Literary Festival are now stored in my mind alongside their stories. I can still hear the sound of the late Dutch author Hella Hasse's voice as she read from her book The Roads of Imagination, Andrew O'Hagan's lovely Scottish lilt as he talked about growing up in a house with no books, and A.S. Byatt's captivating reading of The Children's Book. There was the year I was too shy to introduce myself to Paul Auster (despite my desire to let him know that my name was Maria Turner, the name of one the characters in his novel Leviathan), and the year I saw Pico Iyer on so many panels I felt I knew him personally.

Working behind the scenes of Blue Met has given me a whole new appreciation of what is, in many ways, an improbable event. Somehow, a small group of people manages to corral a bunch of writers from around the world, each with his or her own demands, scheduling issues, insistent handlers and linguistic constraints, into a central location over five days to present, read and talk about their work.

For me, the most exciting part of the festival is discovering new (to me) writers. This process usually begins well before the event itself. In anticipation of the crime writing and Cuban themes of this year's Blue Met, I read the detective story Havana Red by Cuban writer Leonardo Padura, an evocative portrait of Padura's home city of Havana. As I write this, I am finishing Cairo: My City, Our Revolution by Egyptian writer Ahdaf Soueif (who will be interviewed at this year's festival by CBC's Paul Kennedy) and reading selections from Merrybegot by Newfoundland poet Mary Dalton, a book that has been waiting for me on my bookshelf for some years.

I have also gone back to some old favourites. This year's winner of the Blue Metropolis Grand Prize is the very well known and prolific writer Joyce Carol Oates (who will be speaking with Eleanor Wachtel at the festival). My introduction to Oates was, perhaps unusually, through her nonfiction; her writing on boxing was recommended to me by an amateur boxer. Rereading her essay on Muhammad Ali, I wonder "Who is this woman who can write so seamlessly about so many things?" Will she mingle with her fans in the hotel lobby like Gore Vidal, or will she slip quietly back to her room?

The 2012 Blue Metropolis Festival begins this Wednesday. Discoveries await.

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.

Find the complete CBC Blue listing of events here.