‘Unknown’ writers changing literary landscape

The legendary back stage of The Rivoli played host to a wide variety of writers Thursday night at the 16th annual Totally Unknown Writers Festival.

Those featured came from a diverse cross section of cultures and nations including India, Hong Kong, Scotland and The Philippines. The unpublished writers vocalized their gritty real life stories of everyday experiences.

Host Guy Allen, co-founder of Life Rattle and director of the professional writing program at the University of Toronto, believes up-and-coming writers always benefit from public exposure.

“The mission is to find new writing talent and to launch people,” Allen said. “A lot of people have had their first experience with us, and nights like these branch off into first publications for a lot people.”

In the audience were a number of professional writers who first launched their careers at the festival.

Donna McFarlane has since been nominated for the Governor General’s Award for various short stories she has written.

Kwai-Yun Li has also been successful since reading at the event and went on to publish a book about her experiences growing up as a Chinese woman in Calcutta.

Victoria Martinez, who was born in The Philippines, believes writers can find some recognition and exposure by reading at events such as the Totally Unknown Writers Festival.

“It’s important because my story could have happened to someone who is not an immigrant, but they still can find it relatable,” she said. “Nights like these are great ways for immigrant writers to be heard.”

Laurie Kallis, curator of the festival, also finds the ethnic aspect of the event an essential element for those wanting to gain recognition.

“There are a lot of people who are part of the event where English isn’t their first language,” Kallis said.  “I think it’s a lot more satisfying and rewarding for them to use this as an outlet for their work. With events like these, they are able to polish a new language and receive some recognition.”

Allen believes Toronto is a city of composite yet contrasting cultures: “The immigrant groups in Toronto are Toronto, as far as I’m concerned,” he said. “They are the essence of the city. This is a city of people that come from other places.”

By telling stories and experiences which aren’t on the horizon of mainstream Canada, Allen believes immigrant writers have changed the literary landscape.

“The literature that I was seeing 25 years ago didn’t reflect the Toronto that I saw on the streets,” Allen said. “But that’s changed now, because these immigrant people are now teaching in universities, writing and publishing. They are the people that make our city.”