Register Monday | June 17 | 2019

Blue Metropolis day 5

It was clear from the outset that Saturday would be the festival’s busiest day, with book lovers and frightened tourists alike wandering the premises of the hotel and getting their mug shots taken by yours truly. As a matter of fact, I this year’s festival broke the record for attendance figures; according to the press release, a total of 16,900 Average Joes perused the festival grounds – an increase of 5% over last year. In other news, only two of those visitors had to be forcibly removed by hotel security for their belligerent and/or drunken verbal attacks on literary personalities. (You know how passionate readers can be.)

Saturday also gets the award for “ the coolest thing I saw all festival.” The “Free Lutz” interactive event, created by a German fellow named Johannes, was basically a computer script of some sort that created sentences out of the volunteer inputs of the audience. Laptops were set up around the ballroom foyer as curious people typed in their one adjective and a noun, and the process went to work adding the words every, is, therefore, an, but, and not. The input words were mixed and mashed, sentences began to appear on a projector screen, and the afternoon’s MC – local poet Kaie Kellough – went to town on them.

Input:

REMARKABLE PET

HARD READER

ANGRY ELEPHANT

Output:

no PET is REMARKABLE but not every PET is HARD

not every READER is ANGRY but every ELEPHANT is REMARKABLE

Decked out with a checkered golf hat and a scraggly goatee, our MC was making fists and waving wrists as he belted out both the generated sentences and his own commentary, injecting passion and a different voice-tone into each soliloquy.

“a GRANDE is GRODY or every POUTINE is DARK,” he read off the screen. Then, as if wondering aloud, he queried, “Is every poutine dark?”

“TERRORIST… T-E-R-R-O-R-I-S-T… tee-eee-arr-arr-ohh-arr-eye-ess-tee … tee-eee-arr-arr-ohh-arr-eye-ess-tee!”

I highly recommend you check this guy out sometime, somewhere.

* * *

Sunday started off with a visit to an event. (Actually, Sunday started off with an early wakeup and a dizzying hangover from the post-film screening celebration, but I digress.) Entitled “The world around us,” the panel discussion featured a sampling of non-fiction writers whom had written about subjects as evolutionary as Darwin or as strange as fruit hunting. Two of the authors, Taras Grescoe (Bottomfeeder) and Adam Leith Gollner (The Fruit Hunters) are both reasonably well known on the Montreal scene, having won Quebec Writers’ Federation awards last fall. I had had a chance to phone interview them at the time and I figured today was a good opportunity to pick up on that.

When I spoke with Adam after reading his book, it was clear that this was a guy who had inadvertently discovered some innate temporary obsession for fruit (the book details his journalistic quest to discover the fruit hunters and historians of the world). When asked about his current psychological status by host Geeta Nadkarni of the CBC, the writer was quick to note that his obsession ended with the completion of his book.

“And I will certainly never go on a trip again to taste a fruit,” he added.

“Well, never say never…” began the host.

“No,” Adam interrupted, to a smattering of chuckles. “I can say never.”

Joined by Erika Ritter and Tijs Goldschmidt, the group delved into their own experiences and opinions on the state of the world around us. Sure enough, considering the subject matter and focus of their recent writings (for example, Taras on the shrinking fish populations and the havoc wrecked upon our oceans) the conversation naturally revolved around the question of sustainability. More specifically, as the subject of Darwin (and the Nile perch introduced by colonialists into Africa’s Lake Victoria) came up, the consensus was that 1) homo sapiens are the most invasive species and 2) our technological advances have allowed us to artificially sustain a ridiculous population growth. Indeed, thoughts that I can’t help but concur with.

Asked about fruits, Adam couldn’t help but offer up one of his philosophically frivolous analogies: “But what do we know about what fruits are supposed to stay where? Do fruits use us; have they enlisted us to further their travels, their cause?”

Meanwhile, already daydreaming, I can’t help but find my attention being drawn to the moderator, what with her beautiful soft skin and soothingly accented voice…

“As depressed as I get about humanity, I believe we can change things with ingenuity,” said Taras. “We live in the privileged North America and Europe, and we don’t make the link between what’s on the end of our fork and where it comes from. It’s a privilege to travel, and we’re often willfully naïve, so I think we’re sheltered from this [responsibility]. The lower classes that provide our wealth are hidden, and most people don’t travel to the manufacturing countries, and I think that’s our responsibility as travel writers.”

* * *

I stumbled into the Cartier room to catch the end of the “India and Pakistan” discussion (as for how I feel about the apparent necessity of labeling each event with a ‘regional’ theme, that’s a whole other can of worms). But I was supremely impressed with the words of author Tariq Ali, appropriately – as the theme of the festival is “Words that Matter” – on the subjects of language and discourse.

He talked about the widespread use of English as the common language for literature, relating its particular usage in South Asia to the colonial history of its countries, and the emergence of young authors whom today write in their own languages.

“There’s some idea that the British pushed through modernization in India, yet when they left there was a 90 per cent illiteracy rate in the country. It was in fact the new Indian government that pushed through the necessary [programs].”

And when asked about why he thought British MP George Galloway was banned from entering Canada last month, Ali replied, “I have no idea why he was banned. Why he was disallowed by the Immigration Canada authorities escapes me.

“Now, as to why they let me in, I don’t know why either.”

Saleema Nawaz, a emerging author who recently wrote Mother Superior – a collection of short stories – was also part of the panel. I sat down with her a day earlier for an admittedly impromptu interview at the hotel, and thought I’d ask her opinion on her being invited to speak on a South Asian-themed panel, despite not having any relation to the region other than the birth of one of her parents.

“My relationship with India is very tenuous,” she said. “I’m on this panel with these extremely illustrious panelists, and I feel like ‘Oh my God,’ I’m going to talk about the idea of becoming an Indian writer – not realizing you were one.”

We chatted about her book; both the challenge of having short stories published and her apparent luck in having done so, and I brought up one of her quotes that I’d read in Friday’s Gazette that seemed to praise the multicultural dynamic in Mile End. We could agree that the neighbourhood has a nice international quality to it, but there’s still much to consider about what “successful” multiculturalism" means. "I think that some of our attempts to be ‘multicultural’ do not go deep enough,” added Saleema. “They don’t necessarily take into consideration the complexities of it, or a person’s upbringing, or their connections.”

And Sunday was a great day for portrait taking. (Plug: Be sure to check ‘em out!)

* * *

Lastly, I’d like to throw out a ‘pro and con’ of my festival experience, now that it’s all said and done.

The pro: I was impressed with how Blue Met extended invitations to journalists and photojournalists alike, and with the ethical questions they raised during panel discussions. (I also finished my festival visit by attending a talk given by Reza, who on first glance seems to be an incredible photojournalist and human being.)

The con: For an apparently progressive festival, there sure is a lot of unnecessary waste. First of all, waaay too many festival programs and flyers printed and placed around the hotel. Everyone and their mother could have a copy of this and there’d still be too many – not to mention the fact that a huge billboard at the hotel entrance told you everything you’d possibly need to know. Perhaps just putting out a few binders at key locations would suffice. And on day one, I was stunned and thrilled at the sight of the copious pitchers of ice water accompanied by actual glasses. But I’d spoken too soon. The next day, and each subsequent day thereafter, I searched in vain for a glass but repeatedly came up with those shitty plastic cups.

All in all, though, I did enjoy my wandering presence around the festival and the chance to… well… wander around the hotel. Though aside from some nice photo ops, I definitely enjoyed my time chatting with people outside the scope of the actual events, where the atmosphere was much more lively and the lighting a bit better.

(Note to festival organizers: Can we think up a better venue for next year than a hotel basement? With the good weather of late April, perhaps some outdoor pavilions at Parc Jean-Drapeau?

And beer tents?