Photo by Emily Macrae
If you were to ask me what words I would like to feast on, I would reply with a menu of my own imagining: a selection of silhouettes to start, followed by a course of observation and inquiry, and then finally something sweetly esoteric for dessert.
On a Sunday afternoon at Trinity Bellwoods Park, the Luminato Literary Picnic dishes up contemporary titles designed to whet the appetite. Amidst the regular crowd of locked bikes and lounging brunchers, boxy white tents shelter author talks while food vendors sell exotic snacks. There is a hearty serving of stroll and meander, with a side of linger and listen, though corporate jargon leaves a strong aftertaste.
Although the title of the event is full of whimsy, the Luminato Literary Picnic combines a taste for street food with an interest in local literature. Passersby are invited to sample a selection of urban eats and graze amidst a gathering of great names in Canadian writing.
The work of featured authors is as diverse as the items served by the city’s emerging foodtruck scene; even habits of consumption vary greatly. While reading is typically a silent, solo activity, the pleasure of street food comes from sharing a snack break with strangers in a public space. The writers are aware of the tension inherent in performing the ordinarily solitary act of reading.
At Tent A, author and essayist Ray Robertson exclaims, “You’re supposed to pimp your new book!”
Meanwhile, across the lawn, Maggie Helwig takes a more laissez-faire approach to attracting an audience. “Usually I just read from the beginning and go on for a while…Then finish up with the last few pages,” she says before giving a hushed reading from Girls Fall Down. Her novel opens with an outbreak of an unidentifiable illness on a crowded subway car. Helwig is a keen observer of the city, and by introducing a rose-scented poison within the first few pages, she injects an element of suspense into the banal daily commute.
In fact, Girls Fall Down is just one of many books at the picnic that shows a hunger for stories that reinvent daily life. At first glance, the combination of book stalls and food carts frames reading as an act of consumption on par with tasting a taco or sipping a smoothie. However, much of the fiction presented at the event focuses on fantastical disruptions of everyday routines. In literature as in food, the combination of the strange and the familiar encourages festival-goers to reimagine the mundane. In this sense, the fusion cuisine on sale throughout the park complements the books’ speculative approach to the ordinary.
Moreover, in the fiction featured at the picnic, descriptions of food play an important role in distinguishing ordinary life from speculative alternatives.
At a kids’ lit session, Marthe Jocelyn and Richard Scrimger discuss their children’s novel Viminy Crowe’s Comic Book. The book follows the adventures of two young kids who are sucked into a comic book. In the novel, food separates ordinary life from illustrated reality. As the story opens, Wylder Wallace agonizes over what to order at a concession stand when, inside a copy of his favourite comic, his dream food appears right before his eyes:
“And what on earth was this? A rolling counter with stools to sit on and driven by a guy with an apron and a pointed beard. He pulled up with a smile and asked if Wylder wanted a milkshake, compliments of the hotel” (77).
Food also acts as a frame of reference in adult fiction. Andrew Pyper represented horror writers at the Luminato Literary Picnic. His most recent novel, The Demonologist, tells the story of Professor Ullman, a scholar of demonic literature whose area of expertise becomes frighteningly personal after the disappearance of his daughter, Tess.
In the grips of an otherworldly plot, comfort food reminds Ullman of what he has lost: “I return to the apartment and make toast. Butter the slices and cut it into fingers the way Tess used to like it. Sprinkle them with cinnamon sugar. Throw them out without tasting them” (84).
Over the course of the book, Ullman negotiates with a series of shady characters. The simple gesture of buying a drink remains an indicator of power dynamics even in supernatural situations. At a meeting with a sinister specialist, “the man who calls himself George Barone buys [Ullman] a cappuccino but nothing for himself” (101).
Coffee may not be on the menu at the Luminato Literary Picnic, but creative energy makes up for the lack of caffeine. As passersby sample novelty icepops and pad Thai fries, novels, such as Pyper’s, suggest that our craving for the unknown comes from our overindulgence in reality.
Luminato is a sure sign that the festival season is in full swing in Toronto. In comparison to upcoming literary events, however, the Literary Picnic walks a fine line between corporate cross-promotion and artistic celebration. Over the summer, look for smaller gatherings of readers and writers through the Brockton Writers’ Series and the Chiaroscuro Reading Series. Remember to save your appetite for Word on the Street in September and the International Festival of Authors in October. I may have had my fill of speculative fiction at the Luminato Literary Picnic, but I can almost taste the banter as booklovers converge at the Harbourfront Centre this fall…
-contributed by Emily Macrae
Jocelyn, Marthe, and Richard Scrimger. Viminy Crowe’s Comic Book. Tundra Books: Toronto, 2014.
Pyper, Andrew. The Demonologist. Simon & Schuster: New York, 2013.
Chiaroscuro Reading Series
Brockton Writers’ Series
Word on the Street (Sun Sept 21)
International Festival of Authors (Oct 23-Nov 1)