Saturday, October 27th: Halloweekend. With parties happening all over the city, where should one go? To the Ottawa International Writers Festival, of course. The night featured not one, but two powerful authors: Dionne Brand and Vivek Shraya.

Brand read from her new poetry collection, The Blue Clerk, followed by a one-on-one conversation with Adrian Harewood of CBC. The following quote from their exchange sums up how amazing it was to hear Brand speak:

“What do you use language for?”
“To make the next moment different.”

Brand talked about her early education in a post-colonial Trinidadian school where she learned literature by rote. Sitting there, I was taken back to my similar schooling experience in Karachi. I didn’t realize then that literature and writing could be such a powerful tool for change because we focused so much on memorizing content and regurgitating it for the teacher. Now, studying literature in university means that literary analysis goes beyond surface elements of rhyme and meter.

After a poignant and hard-hitting talk by Brand, Vivek Shraya performed her song, “I’m Afraid of Men,” and read from her memoir of the same name. An interrogation of masculinity, the book takes as its point of departure Shraya’s observation that when “you talk about fear, what the oppressors hear is hate.”

Both Brand and Shraya talk about the writer’s responsibility to push readers to think. The world, as Brand puts it, is full of racism, violence, oppression, and hate. Writing might not change that completely, but it can start a conversation. Shraya hopes this will happen with I’m Afraid of Men, a work that seeks to show how we are all complicit in inequality and oppression fostered by assumptions that convene under the ethos of masculinity.

Language is a powerful instrument for change and going to the Writers Festival is always an eye-opening experience. I have a number of deadlines to focus on and tasks to get done, but I often take a few moments each day to think back to what both writers said that night. As Dionne Brand said, “writing is a decision between what is told and what is withheld.”

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