Canadian LGBTQ literature is having a moment, and this Montreal festival is showcasing that
Violet Metropolis features onstage interviews, readings, discussions...and a new national literary prize
Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens.
This weekend, Montreal transforms into a lit lover's dream when Blue Metropolis — the world's first multilingual literary festival — kicks off its 19th edition. And within the massive program lies a specifically queer bent: Violet Metropolis, a sort of festival-within-the-festival programmed by author and editor Christopher DiRaddo that's also behind a brand-new national prize for LGBTQ-specific literature.
DiRaddo talked to CBC Arts about that prize, what we can expect from the Violet side of Blue Metropolis and why this is such an exciting time for Canadian LGBTQ literature in general.
Blue Metropolis has a pretty exceptional focus on LGBTQ events this year with Violet Metropolis. Could you speak to that?
Ever since L'Androgyne (Montreal's gay and lesbian bookstore) closed in 2002, there have been few opportunities for LGBTQ book lovers in our city to discover new work. Similarly, there are few chances for Canada's queer writers to bring their books to new audiences. Since 2014, I've been trying to fix that with the Violet Hour reading series. When I approached Blue Metropolis with the idea of hosting one during last year's festival, they asked if I'd be interested in curating an LGBTQ series for the festival. Well, it was a hit — and so much fun that they asked me to do the same this year.
This year's "Violet Metropolis" features onstage interviews, public readings, panel discussions and a new national literary prize. There are English events, French events and a bilingual brunch for LGBTQ families and their allies — all with queer Canadian writers who have new books.
This year was the first for the Violet Metropolis Prize. Can you speak to its genesis and tell us a bit about its first winner?
Blue Metropolis hands out a series of literary prizes every year, and last year we explored the possibility of adding an LGBTQ one. Although Canada's writers are eligible for international LGBTQ literary prizes (Lambda, Publishing Triangle), there is only one bestowed by a Canadian organization: the Writers' Trust of Canada's Dayne Ogilvie Prize. That prize celebrates the work of emerging writers. We thought if we're going to create a new prize for the country, it should honour the contributions an established writer has made to queer literature in Canada. We also wanted a prize that would alternate between English- and French-language writers. We brought this idea to Air Canada, who has a long history of supporting Canada's LGBTQ community, and they were more than happy to sponsor the prize.
For the inaugural year, the jury chose poet, novelist and essayist Nicole Brossard as the winner. Nicole Brossard is a multi-faceted activist, whose work is avant-garde, formalist and radical. She has written more than 40 books during her career (many of them translated into English), and her writing has left an indelible impact on Quebec's literary landscape, as well as in feminist and international lesbian culture. (Read one of her poems here.)
What's really exciting you about LGBTQ literature in Canada right now?
The attention it's getting. The great thing about our literature is that it's not relegated to the sidelines. Our writers — and their works — get taken seriously: our books are reviewed, recognized by juries and read by more than just LGBTQ people (a favourite Good Reads review for my book is by a straight bus driver in Halifax). I'm not sure you can say the same of south of the border. If you're not Edmund White, Michael Cunningham or Colm Tóibín, it can be difficult to get attention. Also, we publish a diverse selection of queer voices in Canada and I'm thrilled that we will hear from so many at this year's Blue Metropolis: Kamal Al-Solaylee, Amber Dawn, Catherine Hernandez, Casey Plett and Joshua Whitehead, to name but a few.
I'm also really jealous of Glad Day Bookshop and how they have become a beacon for Toronto's — and dare I say Canada's — LGBTQ community. I was at their Naked Heart festival in 2016, and it was phenomenal. It too inspired me to do something in my own backyard.
The great thing about [Canadian LGBTQ] literature is that it's not relegated to the sidelines. Our writers — and their works — get taken seriously: our books are reviewed, recognized by juries and read by more than just LGBTQ people...I'm not sure you can say the same of south of the border.- Christopher DiRaddo, author
Why do you think events that bring together the LGBTQ lit community matter?
I started The Violet Hour and got involved with Blue Metropolis because I missed the conversations we used to have at the counter of L'Androgyne. I missed talking to other book lovers about their favourite LGBTQ stories, and everything else that came from those discussions. I learned so much in those days and made great friends. Today, there are few opportunities for such exchanges.
LGBTQ literary events are important because they bring people together to discuss ideas and take the pulse of where we are in the world. They permit us to share our truths and tell other people who we are. They create bridges and make us feel less alone. And they help us meet new friends, and maybe even dates (I used to always go husband hunting at literary events).
What are your hopes for LGBTQ initiatives at the festival going into the future?
I hope we can continue to grow this series to the point where we have the budget to invite more writers from across the country and around the world. I'd also love to take a mini version of Violet Metropolis on the road to small towns across Canada.
Blue Metropolis Festival. April 20-29. Montreal. bluemetropolis.org