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The plot thickens for STARFest

Readers' Festival has so much to offer engaged citizens and literary fans.

DETAILS

Festival runs until Nov. 2

Tickets for all author events are $5 each.

All author events are to be held online. Existing ticket holders will receive emails outlining changes to any in-person events they were registered for, including information about their options regarding the difference in ticket prices for online events. For more information, please email [email protected].

Full details are available at STARFest.ca.

When festival producer Michelle Steinhusen speaks about the broad appeal of this year's St. Albert Readers' Festival, she means it. She said she wanted to put together a strong list of compelling, engaging authors to make virtual appearances between Oct. 12 and Nov. 2.

"I also wanted to have something for everybody," she continued, "So making sure that we had those genre titles in there,  and genre authors: the thriller authors and the horror authors and the romance authors. I made sure that nobody's being left out."

We are now reaching the height of the plot for the course of this year's festival, with several author appearances already fait accompli — including Oct. 19th's Romance Panel — and several more to go — including Oct. 30th's Monsters at the Movies film screening and discussion with screenwriter and former writer in residence Susie Moloney and director Eva Colmers, both hosted by Steinhusen herself.

The Gazette continues its comprehensive preview series with the last feature to come in the Wednesday, Oct. 27 edition.

Omar Mouallem — Friday, Oct. 22 at 7 p.m.

When you think about his past projects, Omar Mouallem could easily be considered the most interesting writer in the room. Seriously. Just skip to his website (at omarmouallem.com) and try to stay there for less than five minutes. You’ll undoubtedly end up with at least eight tabs open with stories from his journalistic CV (covering both newspapers and magazines), his book publications, and his films.

These range from the bestselling book Inside the Inferno about the brotherhood of firefighters who saved Fort McMurray; to his Rolling Stone piece on a weed-dealing, cat-breeding wrestling star; to an Eighteen Bridges magazine piece he wrote about terrorist/civil-rights hero Eddy Haymour that inspired a film documentary; to his own documentary about the incredible true history behind the Burger Baron restaurant chain.

He has also written for The Guardian and WIRED. In his spare time, he runs an advice column for freelance writers and journalists called At Large and recently created Pandemic University, the pop-up school of writing that has an astonishing list of talented faculty members and an even more jaw-dropping list of future alumni members.

Oh yeah ... he also has a new book. Just published last month, Praying to the West arose out of his interest in exploring his Muslim identity, despite growing up without developing a strong attachment to it. After becoming a father, he decided to visit 13 mosques across the West as a form of religious examination and cultural discovery. This journey takes him through the unknown history of Islam from Canada to California to Brazil; the philosophical journey takes him even farther.

If there's one non-fiction book to pick up that does the most to make this world a better place, it's Praying to the West.

"There's a lot of misconceptions about Muslim people and Islam ... honestly, a lot of misconceptions that I think I harboured myself," he began.

Witnessing how extreme Islamophobia has become over the last few years, he came to realize he could do something "to stem the flow of hate." It started with demystifying Islam in front of the North American looking glass that primarily sees the religion obscured within its own world and culture. Mouallem knew he had to swing open the doors to "humanize and normalize Muslim communities."

"I'm largely a travel journalist, or was before the pandemic, so my way of doing that was to travel to go to disparate mosques across the western hemisphere in what is the most Christianized land mass in the world, and see how these different communities [are] experiencing this moment and how they are responding to this moment, but also to see, to understand how they've evolved and how they ended up in these regions in the first place," he said.

"Over the course of it, of course, I'm also weaving in the lost and overlooked history of Islam in the Americas. A lot of people think that the Muslim migration and just the Muslim presence here started a generation or two ago, basically like in the 1970s. Actually, Muslim people have been here since basically the start of the post-Columbian Americas. As many as three million enslaved Africans are Muslim. There's a lot of cultural traces there if you know what to look for."

The research for the book was as transformative for the author as he hopes it is for readers.

"It certainly changed my interest in it. It didn't really change my practices, but it certainly changed my perspective, and it also opened my eyes to another way of looking at Muslim identity, which is through a cultural lens, not necessarily as someone who upholds the Scripture, but maybe someone who embraces a lot of the cultural traditions, and just frames their world view through a lot of those religious values."

Mouallem will be hosted by CBC political commentator Zain Velji for what will certainly be one of STARFest 2021's most engaging and relevant conversations.

Genevieve Graham — Saturday, Oct. 23 at 2 p.m.

Historical fiction is huge at the library, Steinhusen confirmed. Enter Genevieve Graham, whose new book Letters Across the Sea was inspired by a little-known chapter from the Second World War, but set in Toronto. It features the friendship of a young Irish Protestant woman and her Jewish neighbour. The tensions of the larger unrest usurp their friendship and it takes years for one to come to terms with what happened to the other.

"We've brought in historical fiction authors almost every single STARFest, and they always bring in big crowds," the festival producer said.

What makes Graham's Oct. 23 even more historical is that her host will be Elinor Florence, the author of historical novel Bird's Eye View, who is also a STARFest alumnus, having made her appearance here in 2018.

"She's very excited to come in as an interviewer for Genevieve. I think what's really cool about Genevieve's books, her newest one, Letters Across the Sea, is [Second World War] historical fiction, but she's also pulling parts of Canadian history that maybe we weren't aware of.

"She's looking at those parts of history that don't always make it to the history books. So that, I think, is very interesting."

Amanda Leduc — Sunday, Oct. 24 at 2 p.m.

If you guessed that Amanda Leduc's new novel The Centaur's Wife has elements of fairy tales in it then you are a good guesser. Maybe it has something to do with that title ...

The story is still fictional: the world ends — metaphorically at least — when meteors destroy the city. Heather and her family are among the few survivors, and they escape to the mountain. There's magic there and things are still green and growing. But the mountain isn't only a refuge; it might be a hunting ground for whatever the meteors brought with them, too.

This isn't magical realism, but even fairy tales can have elements of allegory to them. Read into this story what you will. Steinhusen describes it as a fable for the times.

"It's a fantastic mix of fairy tale, but it's like fairy tale mythology of Amanda's own creation. There are elements that are familiar but it's almost like a brand new fairy tale, but also mixed in with a dystopian, post-apocalyptic story ... a lot of things mixed together," she offered, adding she loves speculative fiction and considered the book a fantastic read.

Joshua Whitehead — Monday, Oct. 25 at 7 p.m.

If you haven't read Calgary two-spirit Oji-nêhiyaw author Joshua Whitehead's fantastic Canada Reads-winning book Jonny Appleseed then what rock have you been hiding under? It's time to join the crowd, and understand the power of beautiful writing.

"When I finished reading it, I just held it against my chest for a while. The character, Jonny Appleseed, was so well done. His memories with his kohkum are just beautiful," Steinhusen enthused.

Appleseed lives off the reserve, perhaps in more ways than one. While trying to make it in the big city, Jonny — a Two-Spirit Indigiqueer young man and proud NDN glitter princess — becomes a cybersex worker. But the rez calls him back to attend his stepfather's funeral, forcing him to take stock and face some things in the past he would have otherwise preferred to leave alone.

"Even though he went through all these struggles, there was a lot of lightness to the book to it, a lot of humour ... he was an optimistic character throughout all of that," she continued. "It's just beautifully written. That's very exciting."

Whitehead's virtual visit will be hosted by Emily Riddle, the nehiyaw member of the Alexander First Nation in Treaty 6 who was shortlisted for the 2020 CBC Poetry Prize and selected for the 2021 Writers’ Trust of Canada mentorship
program. She has been published in The Globe and Mail, Teen Vogue, Canadian Art, and The Malahat Review, among others, and is currently the senior advisor for Indigenous Relations for the Edmonton Public Library.


Scott Hayes

About the Author: Scott Hayes

Scott Hayes joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2008. Scott writes about the arts, entertainment, movies, culture, community groups, and charities. He also writes general news, features, columns, and profiles on people.
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