Words have a way of grabbing our attention and thrusting us towards new horizons. Through words we communicate with each other, define our culture, and expand our knowledge. Words written today become the bedrock of tomorrow.
In the last chapter of STARFest 2023, the literary festival hosts three of Canada’s most dynamic writers. Unafraid to challenge society’s norms, the trio offers visions of alternative cultures.
Emi Sasagawa is celebrated on Friday, Oct 27 for creating an extraordinary character in her debut novel, Atomweight. Two days later, on Sunday, Oct. 29, Bianca Marais is acclaimed for her eccentric best-selling novel, The Witches of Moonshyne Manor. And closing STARFest on Wednesday, Nov. 1 is Waubgeshig Rice’s dystopian novel, Moon of the Turning Leaves.
Brazilian-Japanese journalist now living in Vancouver, Emi Sasagawa, taps into a range of themes in Atomweight, a novel that follows Aki, from Vancouver to London where she enrolls into the London School of Economics. Raised in a multiracial family, the 19-year-old has always followed parental expectations.
But in London, she makes new friends and discovers a lesbian side that previously lay buried. During a violent incident at a bar with a strange man, Aki gives an unexpected response. She fights back and craves more violence.
Growing up in a family of mixed cultures that prized masculinity, Sasagawa was not permitted to show certain emotions.
“It was not OK to be angry or demonstrate anger in a tangible way. As a woman, if you were angry, you had to remove yourself from the situation until you could control yourself,” said Sasagawa. “But anger can be productive and we as women shouldn’t be denied the opportunity to explore that.”
Atomweight first emerged as a non-fiction piece based on Sasagawa’s experience living in London and being away from family. As the short piece grew, it morphed into a cathartic experience where characters took on a life of their own.
“Aki was an experience of fearlessness and recklessness, a gift to myself where I could let out the anger,” Sasagawa said. “The characters began to speak for themselves. Through this process, unknown truths that weren’t apparent to me were released.”
The author sees Atomweight as a coming-of-age story and love letter to queer youth.
“The book helps me recognize and have a better grasp of what it means to belong in the world. It doesn't have clear-cut good and evil, right and wrong. That would have been overly simplistic and even harmful.”
Five octogenarians are in The Witches of Moonshyne Manor. There is Queenie, the coven leader; Ursula, the clairvoyant; Ruby, who has been mysteriously absent for three decades; Jezebel, the seductress; and Ivy, the botanist who spikes her brew with calming herbs.
The witches are behind in their mortgage payments and their home is about to be repossessed by the mayor and his cronies eager to revitalize the area. Enter Persephone, the mayor’s teenage daughter who overhears her father’s plans. She’s incensed and rushes to assist the witches.
For Bianca Marais, this breezy, magical tale is a sharp deviation from her past literature that dealt with serious subjects: South African apartheid, women’s rights, homophobia, and social justice.
Several years ago, the author developed the idea of writing about two women in their eighties sharing a dysfunctional relationship.
“It was COVID, and I realized I could not read a serious book. I saw a picture of a haunted house and it gradually became more of a fun romp. I decided what kind of witches I wanted, and I even came up with my own game – bilious. You play billiards with fire and basketball hoops,” said Marais.
Five years ago, Marais was uninterested in writing fantasy.
“When you write fantasy, you need great characters, a great plot and the reader has to keep turning pages. And you have to create a world that makes sense which is a great deal of work.”
For her fantasy novel, Marais built a framework after a friend drew up a blueprint of an imaginary manor.
“I had pictures done so I could fully understand the space, and the manor became a character. At times, the manor is like a creaky, grumpy old lady. The plumbing is shot and it’s an embodiment of the witches.”
While the novel has strong feminist leanings, it is also a rollercoaster of emotion filled with heart and soul.
“It’s a love letter and a big hug to our sisters.”
The best seller has already caught the attention of an agent interested in selling its film rights.
“I already have my dream cast. I want Cher to play Jezebel.”
When Waubgeshig Rice wrote his breakout bestseller, Moon of the Crusted Snow, the Anishinaabe author assumed it would be a one-off. However, fans requested a follow-up. On Oct. 10, he released Moon of the Turning Leaves.
In the original, a massive cataclysm and blackout destroyed social and political structures around the world. The world is in anarchy and Evan Whitesky leads his people to a remote northern Ontario community.
Moon of the Turning Leaves picks up a decade later when resources are drying up around the isolated community. A party of explorers including Evan and his daughter, Nangohns, lead a scouting party to discover if life still exists down south.
Throughout this novel, Rice becomes more speculative. As a writer he wanted his characters to re-examine their purpose living in the community and how to regenerate a land gradually being depleted of resources.
“I also wanted to give the story a new theme and fully explore the south and take them to the north shore of Lake Huron. Evan has been displaced from there and by making the journey, there are themes of renewal and reconnection,” Rice said.
Interestingly, the story starts from Evan’s point of view and shifts to Nangohns. For the 15-year-old, living in an isolated community immersed in her Indigenous heritage is the only one she knows. Evan, on the other hand, is aware of the damage residential schools created, and the interplay between the two presents different perspectives.
“The focus on Nangohns is to offer a sense of hope and renewal. She sees a wider world with an untainted perspective, whereas her father is more tainted by colonialism.”
Rice is disturbed and saddened by current world events.
“But I’m encouraged by the resilience of my ancestors who survived and rebuilt their culture despite horrific events. I have seen first-hand what people are able to accomplish. There are moments of darkness, but hope prevails."
All talks take place at St. Albert Public Library. Sasagawa and Rice appear at 7 p.m. whereas Marais speaks at 2 p.m. Single tickets are $7. Visit starfest.ca.