November 26, 2010
Memory needs words; where there are no words, there is no memory. That’s why the 2010 Vancouver Memory Festival was awash with words: spoken, written and on film. Sponsored by Geist magazine and Simon Fraser University’s writing and publishing program, the festival ran Nov. 10-19 at the Roundhouse Community Centre, another co-sponsor.
Memory cards adorning the centre’s walls had a Vancouver memory printed on it, together with the name of the entrant. Some entries were one-liners, others rambled, stretching long into paragraphs.
Also included was an exhibition by photographer David Campion and writer Sandra Shields, who presented their series Memory and the Valley, with individual pictures of the Fraser Valley, each accompanied by a story. Goran Basaric introduced his black-and-white photo show Emigrant and Immigrant, juxtaposing his new hometown, Vancouver, with his old one, Belgrade, and Christopher Grabowski showed his photographs of people posing in a golden frame in front of a Whistler mountain backdrop in Constructing Memories. Of the talks and readings at the festival, two events stood out: Rewind: Memory on Film and Big Graphic Stories, presented Nov. 12 and 13.
Rewind was presented by Thursdays Writing Collective in collaboration with the Bladerunners-W2 media training program for youths. The Thursdays collective is a group of writers who live and write on the Downtown Eastside. A short documentary captured four members of the collective declaiming their pieces on video; each piece a scream of pain, a memory of suffering and adversity, as if each of participant had his or her floodgates opened by their work and the memories could rush out.
Irit Shimrat, who read her poem “Milonoa,” was one of the storytellers. Born in Jerusalem, Shimrat grew up in Canada. In her 20s, because of a mental illness, she spent two years locked in a psychiatric ward. “Before that, I liked to write. I wanted to write fiction. Afterwards, as the result of the psychiatric drugs, I lost my creative abilities. I couldn’t write anymore,” she said. After she left the institution, she got involved in the Mad Movement, a psychiatric survivors’ group, documenting her experiences in her 1997 book, Call Me Crazy: Stories from the Mad Movement.
She told the Independent that the collective helped her reclaim her creativity. “We are a diverse group. We meet every Thursday and write to a writing prompt. Then everyone reads aloud. It’s very enjoyable.” The poem she read at Rewind was written to the prompt “filling the blanks.”
“It shows where I’m from. It’s the memories of my childhood in a semi-secular Jewish household,” Shimrat explained.
Big Graphic Stories presented three writers-cum-artists, among them Sarah Leavitt. Leavitt’s graphic memoir Tangles: A Story About Alzheimer’s, My Mother and Me, was published in September 2010 and was a finalist for the 2010 Writers’ Trust of Canada prize for non-fiction. In Tangles, the whimsical black-and-white illustrations with text unfold a grim story of the author’s mother’s struggles with Alzheimer’s. The book is a memorial to Leavitt’s mother and a portrait of her loving family.
“I wanted to share with others what it was like, wanted to preserve mom’s memory. It’s a story about me and my mom,” Leavitt said. By the time of her mother’s fateful diagnosis, Leavitt was 30 and living in Vancouver, while the family remained in Fredericton. During Leavitt’s visits home, she kept a diary with pictures, recording everything. It helped her cope. At about the same time, she started writing classes at SFU. The two – drawings and writing – didn’t become one until after her mother’s death, when the first version of her graphic memoir served as Leavitt’s thesis for her master’s degree in creative writing.
Tangles has generated a lot of feedback from readers. “I get e-mails every day,” Leavitt said. “I’m overwhelmed by the response. I didn’t think it would have such an impact on so many people. The main impact on myself? I had to grow up.”
Olga Livshin is a Vancouver freelance writer. She’s available for contract work. Contact her at email@example.com.