Vancouver Writers Fest: Lishai Peel

Interview by 
Isabella Wang
author photo of Lishai peel with a sunset backdrop

From October 19-25, the Vancouver Writers Fest inspires 40+ events with local and international writers. As they write, “Words shape our worlds. They can delight, inspire, provoke, comfort and unite—as do the authors, journalists and poets who wield them.” In anticipation of the festival, I have sat down with several of the festival authors over email, to hear about their books, what it means to be a writer in the present moment, as well as what they are most looking forward to. 


ROOM: Hello Lishai, thank you so much to take the time to join me in this space. First of all, how are you feeling in your body? With less than a week leading up to the festival, what excites you?

LP: It’s been a while since I shared a stage with the other poets in the line up and I’m excited to hear their work and see them, albeit through a screen. I have no doubt that sharing alongside these poets, the magic that each one brings, will make for a high energy and vibrant event.  I’m also very excited for some of the other events in the festival. There is such an incredibly stacked line up of brilliant authors. 

ROOM: Will this be your first virtual performance this year? What does it mean to you to be situated in the current moment—both as a community citizen and as a writer—sharing your words to an online community of audiences? 

LP: I have done several virtual performances this year, most recently hosting my own online event with musicians, poets and even a dancer! The challenge is to convey the thrill of live performance on the screen and what I’m learning is that the more audience participation (in zoom chat rooms, solid attendance numbers, Q&As, digital quizzes at the end of events, or any other form of online participation), the more successful the event. Coming from a background in live performance, I was skeptical about online performances and showcases until I attended and participated in a few that really shifted my ideas about human connection and its potential. What I am learning is that it is possible to still feel a profound sense of community and togetherness through connecting in this way. There is a shared commonality and an understanding that we are (quite literally) all in this together, and that art is important for our survival, our commitment to community and our ability to see and experience beauty in the world, even when the world is on fire. 

ROOM: I am so intrigued to hear about your work in both spoken word and writing. What first draws you to the fields? 

LP: I am drawn to the vulnerability, intensity, and risk of live performance. I’m drawn towards performances that make me feel raw, seen, or connected in some way either by shared experience or empathy. There is nothing more mesmerizing that watching a dancer improvise or hearing a poet share a new piece for the first time or listening to a songwriter share a tune that brings a tear to their eye. Often, I find that spoken word can be quite literal, sometimes over-the-top, but there is an edge, a sweet spot of emotive restraint, which is extremely compelling. It takes a lot of fine-turning, finding that edge of vulnerability and quiet power. But it is truly breathtaking when someone delivers a poem with mastery and you are part of the audience that leaves feeling awed and connected by the shared experience of having witnessed it.  

ROOM: How does your work as a mentor, educator, and workshop facilitator inform your own creative work? 

LP: I really enjoy the opportunity to facilitate growth and learning through storytelling. The Toronto District School Board has been fantastic about bringing in artists to run specialized arts-based programing, recognizing the need to cultivate creativity and storytelling in their students. While working with the TDSB, I’ve witnessed some powerful bridges being made between parents and students, students and teachers and between classmates. I see in a concrete way how storytelling brings young people together, sharpens their propensity for civic engagement, deepens their empathy and improves their listening skills. 

I think as writers we have a certain type of responsibility to young artists to encourage storytelling in all the different forms they take. In these educational and mentorship spaces, where there is freedom to share and create, I learn how much people are yearning to tell someone something, to be heard and seen. It serves as a reminder of the necessity to continue to carve out spaces for young voices to shine, especially BIPOC youth who have historically been excluded from traditional literary spaces. This practice of being in community also allows me space to work through questions and ideas that inform my writing.

As I grow as a writer, I realize just how important and valuable mentorship is in own practice. I share what I learn with emerging writers and younger generations and learn from those who came before me and are generous enough to see my potential and help me realize it. I was fortunate to work with Alicia Elliott last year through Room Magazine’s mentorship program and this year with Ayelet Tsabari through the Writer’s Trust mentorship program. These opportunities are vital in the lives of emerging writers and it’s great to see more and more literary organizations and Canadian funding organizations gravitate towards learning opportunities and carve out these spaces for mentorship.   

ROOM: Id love to hear more about your current writing/projects. Has COVID-19 interfered at all with your focus, productivity, well-being, and work trajectories? How do you navigate that? 

LP: I am currently writing a book of poetry which is being edited by Alessandra Nacarrato and published by Write Bloody North. I am also working on finishing the creative nonfiction manuscript that I started in the Writer’s Trust program. Outside of writing, I also work as an EDI consultant within the arts and culture sector in Toronto. 

My work trajectories definitely changed with the pandemic and lock-down. My priority shifted from finishing a manuscript to keeping my child happy and engaged while out of school. Thankfully, during quarantine, we were living in east Hamilton and had access to the Bruce trail in the Hamilton escarpment. So instead of writing, I was spending everyday hiking with him, birdwatching, and chasing squirrels. Now that he’s back in school, I have more time to work. But I miss the squirrels. 

ROOM: What are you thinking about right now?

LP: These days, I spend a lot of time thinking about how to give my kid a healthy and happy childhood in the middle of a global health crisis. I think about the world he in inheriting, how politically fractured and socially inequitable it is, and I want to work towards giving him tools to navigate this world and contribute positively towards it. This pandemic has shown us the importance of small gestures of kindness - even a five-year-old can participate! 

In my writing life, I am working with ideas of transactive memory, the way people collectively encode, store and retrieve knowledge. Also, thinking about identity formation and how generational memory plays a strong hand in the development of different groups’ culture, identity and history. 

ROOM: What are some books that have really resonated with you lately? 

LP: I’ve been reading dystopian fiction by Dimka Drewczynski about a world that is genetically grown and overrun by biological consumption and advertisements. Energetically written and many parrels with our current relationships to consumption and marketing. In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Manchado was stunning. Also, the graphic novel Good Talk by Mira Jacobs is so politically and socially topical and resonates deeply with the times we’re in. In terms of children’s books, The Fog by Kyo Maclear is such a beautiful book which speaks to what so many have experienced this year – social isolation and coming together in new and surprising ways. 


Lishai is a writer and performance poet based in Toronto. She has spent a decade designing and facilitating performance and creative writing workshops in schools throughout Canada and has also worked as a poetry coach with The Toronto Public Library. Her creative nonfiction won first place in Malahat Review’s 2019 open season awards and her poetry came second place in Vancouver Writers Festival in 2017. Her work has also been shortlisted for The Puritan Poetry Prize and Room Magazine’s Creative Nonfiction contest. She is the co-author of a graphic novel, ‘Why Birds and Wolves Don’t Trade Stones.' In 2020, she was the Writer's Trust fellow for their inaugural mentorship program. Her second book of poetry is forthcoming with Write Bloody North Publishing. She can be found on Twitter and Instagram @lishaip 

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