Filmmaker Cheryl Foggo on the set of John Ware Reclaimed near Millarville, Alta. Foggo will give the keynote address at the Elephant Mountain Literary Festival on July 7. Photo: Bonnie Thompson

Filmmaker Cheryl Foggo on the set of John Ware Reclaimed near Millarville, Alta. Foggo will give the keynote address at the Elephant Mountain Literary Festival on July 7. Photo: Bonnie Thompson

COLUMN: Elephant Mountain Literary Festival takes on Writing in a Dangerous Time

Anne DeGrace on the theme of this year’s festival

by Anne DeGrace

Last week 167 Canadian writers penned an open letter to Prime Minister Trudeau requesting tooth, rather than lip service, in Bill C-12, the Climate Accountability Act.

“As writers, we know the power of words to unlock imagination and creativity. What gets enacted now will affect the future for generations. We also know that it is impossible to get everything right in a first draft,” the letter says.

Strongly suggested revisions followed.

In a world of swords the pen might look harmless, but it has clout. For nearly 100 years Pen International has defended writers who are persecuted, imprisoned and exiled for their words; writing can be a dangerous business. The Elephant Mountain Literary Festival’s theme for this, our 10th anniversary year, is Writing in a Dangerous Time.

The festival, which runs July 7 to 11, promises merriment as well: writers know how to laugh in the face of danger. It is 100 per cent online in this pandemic time because we’re not into endangering others. Events are by donation and accessible anywhere (fees apply to workshops).

The festival kicks off with a keynote address on Wednesday, July 7 at 7 p.m. by wordsmith Cheryl Foggo on the theme of Writing in a Dangerous Time. The talk is co-sponsored by the Nelson Public Library.

An acclaimed author, filmmaker, and playwright, Cheryl is descended from Black Oklahomans who settled on the Prairies in 1910. Her research into the lives of Black pioneers — a history absent from most curricula — has led her to create plays, films, and books, including Pourin’ Down Rain: A Black Woman Claims Her Place in the Canadian West, which chronicles five generations of her family. She’s written books for teens and kids portraying Black and mixed-race childhoods with positivity.

If Cheryl’s accolades are any indication, her words in their many creative forms have had impact. She has won multiple awards for screen and stage, among them for her film and her play about John Ware, an influential Black Albertan cowboy and rancher in the late 1800s. She recently served on the advisory board for Black on the Prairies, a multi-platform archive and resource initiated and curated by journalist Omayra Issa and CBC Radio host Ify Chiwetelu, now available on the CBC website.

It’s an impressive career that speaks to courage: courage to write about the things that matter, and to shine a light on things otherwise buried. I asked Cheryl for a teaser on her keynote address, and she offered this:

“You can’t change anything if you don’t know everything.”

In a world where we can feel increasingly powerless, it’s good to be reminded that knowledge is power — the power to change.

The list of Canadian writers who took up the keyboard for climate action include several who were a part of EMLF during its first 10 years: Camilla Gibb, John Vaillant (returning this year!), Angie Abdou, Briony Penn, Caroline Adderson, J.B. McKinnon, Micheline Maylor, and William Deverell. EMLF aims to showcase Canadian authors for years to come — with all their heart and humour, courage and fine words.

“As writers we often write into the heart of discomfort. We can chronicle a world in flames. Or tell a story of what might have happened if we had only come together. Stories to break the heart,” the letter says. “But these aren’t the stories we want to tell.”

What are the stories we want to tell, and what are the stories we must? Join us to experience all of the stories: the heartbreaking, the hopeful, and the humorous at the Elephant Mountain Literary Festival.

EMLF 2021 has a chock-full schedule of talks and readings by fascinating writers, panel discussions, and workshops. Follow this weekly column leading up to the Fest and go to www.emlfestival.com for all the details.

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