“Art is powerful, art changes people, and people change the world”.
As part of the 2014 Queer Arts Festival, acting Artistic Director, Rachel Kiyo Iwaasa, stood center stage to introduce Kickstart REVERB’s literary reading night. Kickstart Disability Arts and REVERB: A Queer Reading Series had collaborated to produce this event in order to provide a safe platform for queer writers from unceded Coast Salish Territories, with and without disabilities; to share their personal stories as unique and inspiring individuals.
What’s the most striking aspect of sitting in a dimmed theatre tucked into a far corner of the Roundhouse? The people. The unrestrained volume and fullness of their laughter, the way conversations carry with ease over rows of seats, between obvious friends and total strangers. It is the community of people gathered together to share in and support those amongst them in the intimate act of being vulnerable. Iwaasa concludes her introduction in saying that, “We seek art to be uplifted by beauty, to be not alone, to see the world through someone else’s eyes and to imagine, at a gut level, what it is like to be them”. It is here, in this dimly lit theatre, that for two hours normalcy is escaped for something freer and more accepting.
The show was comprised of six readers who presented personal pieces, all written by themselves. To promote acceptance, gender-neutral washrooms are provided. Additionally, for full accessibility to all of those present, specially provided wheelchair seating is available, and ASL translators accompany each performer, ensuring that people of all walks of life could attend and feel included. Each of the six readers brought a message to the stage, some uplifting, andothers bearing an honest reflection on what is sometimes a harsh reality. The result was an eye-opening event, where differences pertaining to gender, sexuality, ability, and circumstance, were disregarded and replaced by the unifying affirmation that we can all relate to, what is, the human experience.
What defines us? How do we come to define ourselves? Alex Lu, the first reader of the night, recounted in a personal narrative, the day that he chose to stop wearing his hearing aids. For Lu, the use of his aids to manage his disability had given the aids themselves the power to define him as “an object”. The choice to throw them away returned this power solely to Lu. It was an act of self-love and self-acceptance. It was the “path of least resistance” towards defining himself. Lu works as a community organizer with Vancouver queer communities with specific regards to disability justice. His aim is to foster intersectional practices around accessibility. He is otherwise engaged in biological research and recently contributed to a body of research on tendon disease with the University of British Columbia.
Irit Shimrat, the second reader of the night, read the story of a psychiatric patient who questioned, “How it can be that all of the things that happen to me, happen on the same planet?” How is it that good and bad co-exist in our lives? Shimrat’s narrative described the experience of a woman who had been institutionalized for mental illness. She steals away during visiting hours to be intimate with her past lover, the sole other person to recognize her as something more than a mental health case. The narrative identified how in society’s effort to combat the “bad” of this world, it rather enhances its presence and takes away opportunities for good to exist. Shimrat is co-founder of the Ontario Psychiatric Survivors’ Alliance of 1990, and author of the book, Call Me Crazy: Stories from the Mad Movement, published in 1997 in Vancouver. She views psychiatric diagnosis as a hate crime and compares the treatment of mental health patients to that of torture.
The third reader, Katrina Elisse Caudle, presented a short and speculative fictional piece on dreams. Caudle’s writing seems to embody her motto of, “make it enchanting, make it exquisite, it will be” with its dreamy nature. However, it is Caudle herself who captures the attention of the audience. Caudle is a biracial Caribbean femme, involved as a community organizer, and artist, with experience in working as a sex worker. Her presence on stage is soft, her voice gentle, and her demeanor genuine and sweet. Caudle perfectly exemplifies what can be the very significant difference between perceptions developed based off of false presumptions, and reality.
The fourth reader, Romham Padraig Gallacher, opened the second half of the night with another personal narrative, describing his own journey towards self-love, including the struggle he faced to love his body. “I’m a white fat queer trans genderqueer/imp sober anarchist survivor working-class-turned-feeble-ass, accordion-playing-but-barely-dancing-bear”. Events of his past, including an accident and childhood abuse have left Gallacher disabled and bound to his chair, as well as pushing onwards of twelve years sober. It is from within his chair that Gallacher has adopted a new meaning to the phrase, “to fight fire with fire”. For Gallacher, it is not a matter of getting burned as a result of playing with fire, but rather of facing our troubles and harnessing the same power to “burn our shit the fuck down” in return. He describes himself as a “variously successful work-in-progress”, and despite difficulties and frustration with the limitations posed by his body and chair, “[he chooses] to always come back to, ‘I love you’”.
The fifth reader, Seema Shah, is a queer South Asian writer, whose writing typically stems from places where she “lives on the margins”. Tonight she presents, “Jane Wayne”, an autobiographical creative nonfiction, published last year in the Archives’ anthology, ‘Keeping Our Stories Alive’. In it, Shah recounts a childhood memory of going horseback riding where she likens herself to a sick horse named Lady, describing the ill treatment and attitudes expressed towards the animal for its failure to complete a trail ride. To Lady, to herself, and to others, she says,“[we] are more likely troubled than [trouble-makers]”. Shah found her interest in writing spurred after she was forced to leave the practice of medicine several years ago due to chronic illness and disability. She brings together art and health care in her work. Her writing has been published in various anthologies, journals, and interdisciplinary texts, and she is currently working to revive a couple of creative projects that use a combination of text and image.
Finally, the sixth reader of the night, Jotika, presented four pieces, including three song-poems. Her first piece, which was entirely spoken, addressed her years of working through body-shame that have led her to now accepting her body and to, “wanting a summer of [appreciating her] belly and thighs”. In her second piece, her gorgeous voice filled the theatre as she opened in song and transitioned into spoken word. She described the process of replacing old and negative narratives constructed in her own mind, with new ones to achieve self-love. Her third piece, which was entirely sung, expressed sentiments relatable to many a person, as she lamented an unreciprocated love. Finally, in introducing her fourth piece, Jotika gave a surprise dedication to her partner, who was seated amongst the audience members. This piece included verses occasionally done in song, and was comprised of all of the little details unique to their relationship. Jotika is a mixed media artist, a singer, writer, community organizer and aspiring social worker. She is a queer, poor, brown, femme with roots in Fiji and Northern India and identifies as a settler on land stolen from the xʷməθkwəy̓əm, sḵwx̱wú7mesh, Stó:lō, Burrard and Tsleil-Waututh peoples.
The Queer Arts Festival in Vancouver runs annually for three weeks and features a curated visual arts show and community art show, and includes performances and workshops. The festival is directed by artists and centers on queer art, culture, and history, expressed through music, dance, theatre, literary and media arts. The festival is born out of the Pride in Art Society, which began in 1998. It has expanded from its early years as a community art exhibition put on by and featuring largely queer visual artists, to what is now an inclusive festival that features all disciplines and art forms. It received its new name in 2010, when it was rebranded as the Queer Arts Festival.
This year’s Queer Arts Festival, Regenerations, runs from July 23rd – August 9th.
“It explores fecund, generative, and innovative queer heritage, handed down by artists across generations and national boundaries”. Featured in the festival is a visual arts exhibition called, Queering the International, curated by Laiwan and Anne Riley, and made available for viewing in the Roundhouse Exhibition Hall. Works are by queer artists who are immigrants, indigenous, undocumented, or displaced “and/or creatively working toward a liberating diaspora and/or indigeneity.”
KickStart Disability Arts & Culture is a sixteen year-old program in Vancouver, British Columbia, originally named, the Society for Disability Arts and Culture. KickStart enables artists with disabilities to produce works of many disciplines, as well as provides showcase opportunities. Uniquely, REVERB is a quarterly reading series that likewise showcases both, up-and-coming and established queer writers. As a part of the organization, artists write and read on unceded Musqueam, Sḵwxwú7mesh, and Tsleil-Waututh land, and are aimed at being an all-inclusive series, in direct defiance of the still-restricted access and freedom in the world of writing, literacy, and queerness.