Nfld. & Labrador

Knocked down twice in 2020, a literary festival is making a comeback this month

The Sparks Literary Festival is "a spell of unrestrained literature of all kinds being shared with any who care to listen," writes William Ping.

Only connect: Here's how Sparks is bringing people together during a pandemic

William Ping has moved from audience member to host for the 2021 edition of the Sparks Literary Festival. He says in times of isolation, literature remains a great way to connect with others. (Submitted by the Ping family)

Poet Mary Dalton has described the Sparks Literary Festival as a "word spree."

It is just that — a spell of unrestrained literature of all kinds being shared with any who care to listen. The St. John's festival founded by Dalton, a retired professor of English at Memorial University, is now an annual gathering of writers from here and abroad, engaged in readings and discussions of their work. 

In past years, I would sit in the audience, notebook in one hand, pen in the other, eager to transcribe any nuggets of wisdom from those on stage.

Last year, the lineup for Sparks looked incredible, featuring numerous local talents including Megan Gail Coles, Gemma Hickey, Michelle Porter and Xaiver Campbell.

But last year was a year where few things went according to plan. 

The festival was first delayed by Snowmageddon, the unforgettable, once-in-a lifetime-storm that kept us all locked in our houses.

Then the festival was rescheduled to March 29 — little did we know that when that date rolled around, we would once again be stuck at home, along with much of the rest of the world.

Poet Mary Dalton founded Sparks Literary Festival, held annually in January. (Palimpsest Press/Margaret Dalton)

Sparks was one of countless events cancelled by the pandemic, an unfortunate side effect in the virus's reign of terror. When we thought we would be talking about novels, we were talking instead about the novel coronavirus. Phrases like "social distancing" and "self-isolation" entered our vocabulary.

It was, and still is, an isolating time.

And yet, in these isolating times, it remains true that literature can be a great way to connect with others. The unique arrangements of words in a book can be a portal into the mind of another human being — characters and authors from around the world and across time, their thoughts and feelings made accessible to us through ink on a page or pixels on a screen.

Sparks returns

Screens appear to be the way forward for the time being, as Sparks is finally making its return this week with a central difference from years past: the festival will be a multiday event held online, with panels and discussions streamed on YouTube. 

In an effort to ensure that another storm or global pandemic does not cancel the event again, the panels have been pre-recorded and will be uploaded, two per day, from Jan. 28 to 31. In another departure from tradition, I have made the transition from audience member to host. 

In the time since the last Sparks occurred, I've finished my master of arts at Memorial University and written a novel of my own, Hollow Bamboo, a magical realist retelling of my grandfather's immigration to Newfoundland from China in the 1930s. After years of attending the festival, it was a great honour when the Sparks team invited me to conduct some interviews.

Sharon Bala is Memorial University’s writer in residence for 2020-2021. (Nadra Ginting)

I had the pleasure of interviewing two great writers, Benjamin C. Dugdale and Billy O'Callaghan. Benjamin is a close friend of mine and their forthcoming short story collection Out There In The Dark Is A Beckoning Candle is sure to be recognized as a landmark in Canadian literature.

Billy is a widely acclaimed Irish writer and it was a great treat to be able to talk to him as he joined us on Zoom from Ireland. The use of technology like Zoom has been one advantage that the pandemic has granted the festival, enabling us to reach out further into the world, across oceans and time zones, to talk with great writers throughout Canada and abroad.

Pandemic changes

As with many other events, the pandemic has changed the nature of Sparks. Everyone was physically distant while filming the panels and discussions, masks were always worn off-camera, latex gloves were provided and hand sanitizer flowed freely.

One downside of these online segments is the lack of a live audience, but moving the event online opens it up to an infinitely wider audience, not limited just to those who would be able to attend in person.

Jamie Skidmore has also filmed some segments to accompany the authors' readings, footage that captures and evokes the mood of the writing. 

Many of those who were scheduled to talk during 2020's cancelled iteration of the festival have graciously returned this time around. In addition to the names mentioned above, it's great to watch amazing local talents like Mark Callanan, Heidi Wicks and Sharon Bala in conversation with other local writers.

The Sparks Literary Festival will resume in 2021, this time as a series of online panels and discussions. (Memorial University)

The festival also kicks off Sharon's writer in residence placement at Memorial University, during which she plans to finish her second novel as well as offer a series of workshops.

"As a writer, especially when I was first starting out, I appreciated the writer in residence," Sharon said.

"I still rely on the lessons I learned from Anne Simpson and Michael Winter and Jessica Grant, and those residencies were years ago. I'm planning to recycle all that wisdom during my stint."

Rather than the usual one-on-one sessions, Sharon will be offering four online workshops. She noted that "with everything being virtual [this year], geography is no barrier to entry so I'm hoping to be of service to a wider range of authors in the province."

Ping's new novel, Hollow Bamboo, is grandfather William Seto Ping's immigration to Newfoundland from China. (Submitted by the Ping family)

In addition to interviewing Xaiver Campbell and Alexander MacLeod for Sparks, Sharon will participate in an in-depth "State of the Arts" interview hosted by Lisa Moore that will officially begin her residency.

Although the times have certainly changed and the pandemic casts a shadow over all of life, it is refreshing to have familiar events like Sparks return again.

In these isolating times, we can find connections in books that allow us to once again feel like part of a community. And although this time I will be watching the Sparks festival through my computer screen, I will once again be eager to listen and learn at Newfoundland's annual word spree.

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