Canada’s longest-running book festival, now playing in earbuds near you
It’s been two years of virtual events for fans of The Word on the Street, Canada’s largest book festival. Now, they’re finally ready to head back to the streets of Toronto, and they’re kicking it off with a special, five-week podcast hosted by The Word On the Street’s own — and University of Ottawa alumna — Rebecca Diem.
The Fulcrum sat down with Diem to talk about the launch of Read the North, the festival’s history, and her involvement in both.
As far as titles go, Read the North is pretty spot on for the mini-series. The podcast focuses on both the history of The Word on the Street (WOTS), which is over thirty years old, and the broad world of Canadian literature itself.
Throughout the series, Diem speaks to a number of influential figures in the Canadian book world, including Carolyn Taylor, the very first executive director of WOTS, Jael Richardson, founder and executive director of the Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD), and Maria Zuppardi, a prominent bookstagrammer who goes by the user @readingmaria.
“We quickly realised that this is not a story about the festival,” said Diem. “The festival is a symptom of the story, but the real story is how interconnected we all are. The people that tell the stories, the people that seek out the stories, the people that make the stories accessible to as many people as possible.”
As Taylor tells Diem in episode one, when the first WOTS festival was held on Queens Street West back in 1990, “there had never been anything like it.”
Diem describes it best in the podcast’s introduction. “A place where books by Canadian and Indigenous authors are championed in a free, public festival right at the heart of our city, accessible to all.”
Diem joined WOTS as their digital strategy and communications manager back in 2019, after publishing her first steampunk novella, Tales of the Captain Duke. But before that, she was a student right here at the U of O. A graduate of the class of 2011, Diem was a political science and women’s studies student, and, in her own words, “had a very active campus life.”
Additionally, Diem likened herself to the many former University of Ottawa students who can look back and remember Cafe Nostalgica at its prime — though, depending on your graduating year, you may remember it a little differently.
While Diem was a student, Cafe Nostalgica operated out of a since-demolished brick house at the exact same location as it stands today. It was replaced in 2014 by a bigger, newer version, only to shut down at the beginning of the pandemic. “I’m very sad that Cafe Nostalgica is… there, but it’s not there there.”
After her time at the U of O, Diem spent about five years working as a bureaucrat for the Government of Ontario before she realised it wasn’t where she wanted to be.
“I’d just finished my first series, I quit my job at Queen’s Park, and I started applying for different literary organisations, because I knew that I wanted to work with books. The Word on the Street snatched me up right away.”
“I really went on this journey from… in 2012, being this baby, aspiring writer who was working at a ski resort, just kind of like showing up and being like, ‘Wow, I want to be like these people,’ to… In 2013, I think, was the first year I exhibited with my first two little novellas,” explained Diem. “It was such an experience, it was such a joy, because I was like, ‘Wow, I’m part of this now.’ ”
Now, almost three years later, Diem’s job has evolved to include host of Read the North. According to her, the mini-series itself was something of “a happy accident,” born from weeks of hard work, and a never-ending tree of connections.
It all started when a former WOTS assistant coordinator, Quinton Bradshaw, began working at CJRU 1280 AM, the campus radio station at Toronto Metropolitan University.
“Quinton came to us with this idea of doing a longer, scripted series, and I jumped on board,” explained Diem. “I thought it’d be really cool to kind of examine the festival from a number of different angles. You know, asking the question of what is WOTS, and why does this festival exist, and why is it important that continues?”
“We kind of looked at all the different components. So, you know, we have the publishers, we have libraries and bookstores, we have the authors and the readers,” explained Diem. “And of course, we have like the Arts Councils, the writers union, the kind of our professional organisation, and these are all, they all make up this festival. And the festival wouldn’t be what it is without any of these… these really important pieces.”
The mini-series was officially launched back in May, with the final episode having been released on Tuesday, just in time for the festival itself. The two-day event will take place this weekend over June 11 and 12 at Queen’s Park Circle in Toronto.
It will feature a number of Canadian authors, including (but very much not limited to) the #1 New York Times-bestselling author of the Book of Tea duology, Judy I. Lin, and award-winning novelist, Heather O’Neill. Additionally, there will be food vendors, a beer garden, and a number of exhibitors and booksellers on site.
To listen to Read the North, or for more information on The Word on the Street, click here.