Whistler Writers Festival founder takes readers to the frontline of refugee crisis in Greece
Stella Harvey's novel offers a space to understand the refugee crisis through the eyes of fictional characters
The Whistler Writers Festival came from humble beginnings and is now one of the most widely attended literary events in Canada celebrating 15 years in October.
Stella Harvey, the woman who started it all from her living room, is not only the founder of the festival, but is also an author herself.
She sat down with the CBC's North by Northwest to talk about her latest novel, The Brink of Freedom, which drops the reader right into the current day refugee crisis on the shores of Greece, a topic that resonates close to home for Harvey because of her Greek heritage.
"It's a way to reconnect to that heritage, to try to understand it and get close to it," she said. The novel centres around several characters including a refugee couple from India with their sickly son, a Greek police officer, a gypsy couple and a Canadian aid worker.
"It was really trying to understand what the issue was. We hear the numbers. Last year in 2015, of the million people that came and were seeking asylum in Europe, just over 850,000 came via Greece. Close to 4,000 people died in the Mediterranean. It's hard to capture what that means," Harvey said.
On the frontline
Harvey was in Greece most recently during the height of the economic crisis in 2012. She immersed herself in the conflict of the country to better understand the situation.
She organized the trip through the Greek consulate in Vancouver before she left which helped her gain access to refugee processing centres and government officials.
"By the time I left Canada, I had appointments booked in Athens. The Greek government was totally open, everyone wanted me to understand the situation," she said.
"That was the most important thing. I really felt like they wanted to see the success of the book. They wanted to see me succeed."
During that time, she witnessed a change in the Greek people who she remembered as famously hospitable. Racism and the rise of the far right party, Golden Dawn, skewed her initial impression of her native country.
"By the end of the writing of the book, I had totally changed my mind, because I saw quite a lot more than hospitality.
"People who have very little, going out and helping their fellow man, Syrians, other refugees, et cetera, come off boats and provide food and do whatever they can. My opinion changed considerably."
The Brink of Freedom deals with how Westerners approach foreign aid. The character of the Canadian aid worker exposes the divide between what many believe is the right way to help, and the impact those actions have on emergencies such as this.
Harvey draws from her history as a social worker for this character and a question that had always stuck at the back of her mind: "what would happen if you take helping to an extreme?"
"On the societal, global picture, I often think that … we try to help from our perspective of helping, but we never ask, or we rarely ask," she said.
"So, that's what I wanted to show in terms of that character. Thinking about the the Indian refugee child, what she thinks will help that child, and what he actually needs are two different things."
"She takes him home because she thinks she can offer a better life for him. That is an example, both of how an individual can get out of control, in terms of trying to help, but also how, globally, we go to help and somehow we miss the mark."
The transition of coming home to idyllic Whistler, B.C. from the conflict in Greece was a challenge for Harvey.
"I think it's mostly guilt, I feel as though I miss my original career. Especially, when I came home right after, I felt like why am I here? Why am I writing a book, I should be there," she said.
But as the festival continues to expand and her audience grows, Harvey says fiction can be a tool to help the world understand situations of devastation like the refugee crisis.
"How do you put a face to those numbers so you understand it? A lot of times fiction is a good way to do that."
Tickets go on sale Monday for the weekend of Oct. 13 to 16 where workshops for writers and emerging writers as well as reading events and panel discussions will be held at the Fairmont Chateau Whistler, the Whistler Public Library and other locations in the area.
With files from the CBC's North by Northwest
To hear the full interview listen to audio labelled Whistler Writers Festival founder takes readers to the frontline of refugee crisis in Greece