Growing Room and the Future of CanLit: Hannah Macready interviews Chelene Knight

Chelene Knight is the author of the poetry collection Braided Skin and the memoir Dear Current Occupant, winner of the 2018 Vancouver Book Award. Her essays have appeared in multiple Canadian and American literary journals, plus the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star. Her work is anthologized in Making RoomLove Me TrueSustenanceThe Summer Book, and Black Writers Matter. Chelene is also the Managing Editor of Room Magazine and Programming Director of their Growing Room Festival, an annual literary festival which celebrates diverse Canadian writers and artists. This year’s Growing Room Festival takes place from March 8th – 17th on the traditional, unceded, and ancestral territory of the Musqueam, Tsleil-Waututh, and Squamish peoples (Vancouver, British Columbia).

HM: CanLit seemed to be transforming in 2018. Can you explain the need for this shift and where it’s going?

CK: Oh, I have so much to say on this topic, but I will try to keep it brief! CanLit is transforming in so many ways. We are now listening. I know that sounds simple and basic, but we are listening. You do not have to have a book published to have something important to say, and folks are finally seeing the value in including those who are just starting out. Being included as an author in a literary festival can help skyrocket a career. This year Growing Room is featuring a good chunk of authors without books (including two youth showcases). As always, we look at the need to mentor those who are just starting out. At Growing Room we are saying, we see you. We hear you. There’s a need to listen to these voices and I personally think it’s going to open the floodgates to some seriously important work. Authors like jaye simpson and Rabbit Richards are authors I am excited to give space to. We should always be asking ourselves what literature is and how we can include those voices that will take that definition to a whole new level. Having these emerging voices alongside the established is also something we thought about and planned for.

HM: Growing Room is now in its third year running, how does the festival and its lineup contribute to this changing artistic climate?

CK: I think my previous answer also applies here, but when looking at us being in our third year, that’s a very important distinction for folks to recognize. We aren’t in year 10 or 15 or 30, and sometimes folks can have the expectation that newer festivals need to be right up there with those who’ve been doing this for decades in terms of expertise, money, and streamlined systems. Like I always say, we are growing and learning, too! We consult with and watch the bigger festivals and we seek out advice from them. We also make sure that we stick to our values and our festival core while making sure we are being as ethical and transparent as possible. The artist climate may be changing, but the festivals and those who support these folks need to be flexible enough to change right along with it.

HM: Do you think we can broaden this shift in scope and diversity into something that affects our culture as a whole? 

CK: We can. Other folks need to be willing to do the work, come together and collaborate on new ideas, and recognize the changes that need to be done. For example, pooling resources and knowledge could totally change the game for newer organizers and curators. If the end result is to create a space for artists to thrive, then to me, it just makes sense that all of us doing the same work, collaborate. I have this vision of creating a living document where we can all add our tips and tricks. That whole “leave a penny take a penny” notion. So many organizations operate behind closed doors, leaving some of this work as a guessing game. If that starts to change, then we will of course see festivals broaden into something that might end up appealing to more than just literary folks. We all of a sudden become approachable and accessible in a whole new way.

HM: You have a wide variety of artists in this year’s Growing Room lineup, can you explain what the curatorial process looks like for a festival like this?

CK: We started by putting together a programming committee made up of folks from various backgrounds. We brought on an Indigenous Brilliance curating team, and consultants to help us see the program, as it formed, on a larger scale. We started our very first meeting talking about ethics and author care and I made Alicia Elliott’s Open Book essay, “On Literary Festivals and Crossed Boundaries” as required reading for the team. From there, we asked every committee member to pitch a handful of authors and fight for why they deserved space. We also publicly opened the pitching floor to publishers and authors!  We read every single pitch and included them in the discussion. The committee sat down and discussed these folks for hours. Our first meeting was around five hours long. One of the meetings went on for 9 hours. And we did this over the course of four months and it was the most intense yet incredible processes I’ve ever been a part of. My biggest hope is that we can open the doors to process more and more. Folks need to understand that we cannot have every single artist take part and so these decisions are difficult! And when it comes to the logistics of it, it’s kind of like playing Jenga; the pieces need to fit at the right time and right place. But we are very happy with the program and how it shaped up. There are many names that we wanted to include this year but couldn’t, and even had discussions about who to potentially include next year and added them to a list.

HM: On the topic of varied artists, what are some highlights we can look forward to at this year’s festival?

CK: Well I think everyone is hyped up about the full day of Indigenous Brilliance (curated by Jessica Johns, jaye simpson, and Patricia Massy). But the festival as a whole will be a highlight! I am very thrilled about the Black Voices Raised reading hosted by Whitney French, Body Politics, moderated by Andrea Warner, and of course, the return of Funny Feminists! I love that we were able to double the number of workshops offered, and the bringing back of mini manuscript consults!

HM: Looking forward, what do you hope for Growing Room and the CanLit community to achieve in the coming years?

CK: I hope we can somehow create something no one has seen before. One of the comments from an attendee from previous years that really stuck with me was “I didn’t know how necessary this festival was until it was here.” That really speaks volumes and I would love to see more people think this way and to experience that. I also hope that folks will see this as a journey and allow for mistakes and be open to growing with us.

Hannah Macready lives in Vancouver, BC.