Though she was always ambitious about it, Chelene Knight didn’t exactly have a 10-day, hundred-author-strong festival in mind when she—along with Meghan Bell, Arielle Spence, and the rest of the Growing Room Collective—first laid out a plan for an independent literary festival in 2017. Hosted by Vancouver feminist magazine Room, the Growing Room Festival lasted only five and four days in its first and second years, respectively, with a guest count hovering around fifty. For 2019, a nearly-tripled duration for the festival and doubled author count has led to a Growing Room whose planning was “kind of like playing Tetris.”
“I think year one was pretty much, ‘okay, let's see if this works,’” Knight told me over the phone. “Let’s see how many amazing voices we can get in one space and what kind of stories will come from that.”
Some of the aforementioned amazing voices involved with this year’s Growing Room include RBC Taylor Award-winner Alicia Elliott, Giller-shortlisted multi-genre writer Eden Robinson, and internationally acclaimed local author Jen Sookfong Lee, alongside emerging artists like Brandi Bird, Emily Dundas Oke, and LJ Weisberg. In selecting the panellists, Knight stressed the importance of outreach and collaboration, noting that guest curators were essential to the project of ensuring a multiplicity of voices and depth therein: the Indigenous Brilliance events were curated by Jessica Johns, Patricia Massy, and jaye simpson, while emerging writer and Room intern Isabella Wang was in charge of youth programming.
“The conversations were just so rich that we lost track of time,” Knight said, chuckling as she detailed monthly meetings that ran for four, and one time nine, hours, as the programming committee pitched artists and fought for those they most wanted at the festival.
She also noted that Room made Growing Room even more of a community endeavour by opening the selection process up to the public: last autumn, interested citizens got the chance to pitch their favourite authors as guests for Growing Room 2019. This expanded the potential scope of this year’s festival so much that the committee chose to shelve some ideas for inspiration in the creation of 2020’s festival. In this way, Growing Room has crafted itself into the best kind of perpetual motion machine, forever forging a path forward by nourishing itself on the present and the past.
And while it’s a young festival, Growing Room is in constant conversation with that past in order to better itself. The double considerations necessitated by Growing Room’s relative newness and its centring of author care mean that the team behind it spends a great deal of time learning as they go, noting areas that ran smoothly and those that can be improved and learning from any missteps. To ensure a supportive environment, Growing Room has mobilized active listeners, provided anti-oppression training and documents for them and its volunteer venue managers, and emphasized the importance of being cognizant of authors’ and fellow audience members’ time. During question periods, for example, rather than seizing the mic to enact a monologue, Knight suggests that attendees “come in with an open mind[…]and in logistics terms, come with questions.”
“We have to make sure that we can provide the safest space possible,” Knight said. “If you need to tuck away from an event, put yourself in the corner for a bit and then come back, we want to have spaces where people can do that without having to physically leave the venue.”
We spoke on the phone in part because I was in Calgary, and in part because Knight is the definition of a busy literary citizen: aside from leading Growing Room in its most ambitious year, she’s spent the month hosting Black History/Futures Month events like “Where Are You Really From?” at the Vancouver Public Library, writing articles, teaching e-courses on writing, planning her new novel, Junie, and living life outside of work. It’s a tall order for anyone, even though Knight is “the type of person who needs to be working on multiple things at once.” Still, she mentioned that the support she’s received from Jessica Johns, Isabella Wang, Arielle Spence, Meghan Bell, and Yilin Wang, among others, is invaluable in helping her and her work thrive.
Going forward, Knight hopes to deepen and widen Growing Room’s reach in the literary scene, and to expand its impact beyond it. Already, 2019’s Growing Room shows evidence of electrifying the standard modus operandi of more established literary festivals—with features like an opening night burlesque show/dance party—while at the same time nodding to tradition by including the festival’s first-ever keynote speech, delivered this year by multidisciplinary artist and visionary Canisia Lubrin. Through this bringing together of diverse artistic practices and performances, Knight hopes that Growing Room 2019, and future iterations of the festival, will attract diverse attendees and open up the idea of what a literary festival can achieve.
“I would love to see more people attend [Growing Room] who have never attended a literary festival before,” said Knight. “I think the one thread that connects all of us, whether we’re writers or not, is the need to share a story.”
Growing Room 2019 will run from March 8 – 17, and feature over 100 authors in over 50 events, including workshops, manuscript consultations, panels, readings, an opening night dance party, and a closing keynote by Canisia Lubrin. Many events are Free or Pay What You Can! Info and registration can be found at festival.roommagazine.com.