At the Toronto International Festival of Authors’ (TIFA) opening party, two writers gave me their business cards, and I was caught on camera three times by the event photographer. The shindig also boasted an Irish Flight as its signature cocktail, fitting for this year’s festival theme: taking flight. I had drunk two, felt a bit tiddly, and started asking everyone when Margaret Atwood was going to show up — she didn’t. I left at 9:00 pm, grabbing as many mini cherry pies as I could elegantly haul to The Maddy, and feeling slightly awestruck, I took my BeReal.
Call it one-too-many, but that evening marked the beginning of my first foray into the Toronto literary scene and the excitement alone deserved a wistful smile up to the stars.
What had brought me there? I am an exchange student from Scotland, and having worked at the Edinburgh International Book Festival (EIBF) this past summer, I was in Toronto to be a moderator of children’s events and sleuth the literary festival scene.
TIFA is Canada’s largest literary festival: an annual 11-day celebration of stories with events for children and adults, including performances, readings, conversations, and masterclasses from globally renowned authors and artists. Since the festival’s birth in 1974, it has welcomed thousands of authors to its stages from over 100 countries, including 22 Nobel Laureates. TIFA 2023 took off on September 21, with performances and readings around the various venues of the Toronto Harbourfront Centre until October 1.
The world of literary festivals is smaller than you think. I got my moderator gig at TIFA through my Edinburgh colleagues who had a contact in Toronto. In fact, the current festival director, Roland Gulliver, was associate director at the EIBF for over a decade before joining TIFA in 2020. Most literary festival positions appear to be not year-round but temporary — many staff members I’ve spoken to are students or teachers who work the circuit during summer vacation or retirees looking for a hobby rather than a career.
Lack of government funding for the arts and the aftershocks of the COVID-19 pandemic have been forcing arts festivals to strip back. However, a newer threat looms large at these festivals: the ‘greenwashing’ of sponsorship, which is a term used for when companies advertise themselves as eco-friendly without it being true. At this year’s EIBF, authors raised concerns over claims that the festival sponsor, Baillie Gifford, was linked to fossil fuel investments. The investment firm is also a sponsor of TIFA but has not — yet — received the same condemnation in Canada.
‘Greenwashing’ has been an issue for other arts festivals here. A group of A-list actors, including Mark Ruffalo and Joaquin Phoenix, demanded the Toronto International Film Festival renounce the Royal Bank of Canada as a sponsor, declaring the corporation “one of the most polluting companies” in Canada. I was anxious for TIFA, having just suffered the backlash at EIBF — authors cancelled last minute, and some even walked out during the event. To my relief, no outbreak of media backlash took hold of TIFA.
Five extraordinary, ordinary storytellers, one hilarious host, and an award-winning violinist walk into a concert hall, and you get a fireball of a warm-up to the festival. The pre-festival performance came by way of The Moth Mainstage at Koerner Hall. The Moth — a non-profit group based in New York centred around the art of storytelling and founded by American novelist George Dawes Green in 1997 — collaborated with TIFA to bring together five stories on the theme of Between Worlds.
I attended alone, having bought the tickets in Scotland before arriving in Toronto. The evening was indeed a convergence between my two worlds, yet I felt strangely connected to the people around me: the pair of elderly women to my left who told me they were getting stiff sitting and the young couple to my right who laughed at anything and everything.
There’s something incredibly emotional about being in a live audience and hearing these intimate stories reverberate in such a large space. It was so different from my ritual listening to The Moth podcast. Oral tradition is part of our humanity — we are social creatures, and we need to tell our story. I walked out of the theatre, called my brother, and told him the story of my day.
At the heart of this year’s festival were The Swings — a part performance and part installation conceived by Edinburgh-based All or Nothing Aerial Theatre — which encompassed an aerial dance duet followed by an open invitation to the public to try the five-metre-high swing set.
I accepted the invitation, and it was surprisingly wonderful. There’s something quieting about being on a swing — I felt time suspended, held back by the incessant pull of gravity. On the last weekend of the festival, I interviewed the public on their experience of The Swings. People of all ages and backgrounds joyously told me how much they love to be on a swing.
I asked one child, “What does it feel like to be on a swing?”
“Like a bird,” she said.
Toward the end of the festival, I did get to see Margaret Atwood — she gave a dramatic reading of her version of Giovanni Boccaccio’s 1348 Patient Griselda alongside actor Jesse Eisenberg. The event, in collaboration with Theatre of War Productions, took place on Orange Shirt Day and explored themes of power and control, domestic violence, and family dynamics. It was a heavy two-hour panel performance and discussion, which brought to the fore Theatre of War Artistic Director Bryan Doerries’ question, “What are stories for? And what can they do?”
It felt fitting to end the festival with an open question because my experience at TIFA was eclectic and, indeed, hard to define. And that makes sense, considering Canada’s diverse literary voices. Stories, however diverse, are for connection — they can be the bridge between worlds. After the 11 days of the festival, I didn’t feel homesick anymore, but I didn’t feel at home either. I was stuck between worlds. My only option: to take flight.