“I never expected to have been recognized for any of my writing,” says Phoebe Lau, a fourth-year UTM English student. “This [is] the first time I’ll be published in print, and I haven’t shared any of my work orally in the past, so this is pretty exciting.”

Lau, with her short story “Little Bird”, written under the pseudonym Anna Li, is one of the talented UTM writers selected to read her short story at the 20th annual Totally Unknown Writers Festival last Wednesday. The festival took place at the Rivoli, a small bar and restaurant nestled in Toronto’s historic Queen Street West area. The festival consisted of 10 short story readings, carefully selected by Life Rattle Press, which has held the event for the past 20 years. An anthology of these works and others selected by Life Rattle for their radio podcast has been published and was sold at the festival.

Life Rattle Press was founded in 1988 as a non-profit publisher of short stories written solely by new writers. Their first Totally Unknown Writers Festival took place in 1993, and it has been held annually since. In addition to the festival, Life Rattle, through the work of its founders Arnie Achtman and Guy Allen, continues to publish the stories of new authors, features them in an online radio podcast, and showcases the 10 stories that best exemplify the true nature of Life Rattle Press’ mission statement: to “stress the expression of censored experience, experience that schools and other guardians of ‘culture’ ignore or marginalize”, as stated on the Totally Unknown Writers Festival webpage.

The festival began at 7 p.m. and carried on for several hours. Attendees were encouraged to give whatever they wanted (with a suggested amount of $5) for admission. The doors opened at 6:30, at which time friends, family, UTM students, and other guests took their seats in the cozy, dimly lit room. The crowd fell silent as the readings began; the readers and those who introduced them took turns presenting on the small stage in front of a single microphone stand.

The stories evoked various responses from the audience, from hysterical laughter during the reading of Reade Domazar’s caught-in-the-act story “Valkyrie vs. Busybody” to shocked gasps following Raja Asimi’s “Tweety” to a sad silence after Belinda Grayburn’s “Letting Go”. The other new writers included Sami Karaman with “Counting Time”, Vincent Gao with “Broken Mirror”, Kiranjyot Chattha with “Lights Out”, Mitchell Pateman with “Roll It Up”, Niall Carson with “The Wedding”, and Andrew Ihamaki with “Yellow”.

Ihamaki, this year’s associate editor of UTM’s non-fiction publication Mindwaves, explained the origin of his story: “It’s about me at my Grade 8 graduation dance, awkwardly dancing with my first crush, and thinking about how much I love her, and being utterly incapable of not telling her that, but not even being able to really speak to her at all.”

“It’s an overwhelming yet surreal experience [to be selected],” he continued. “After reading the work of other writers and seeing just how much talent they all have, it makes me feel that much more proud of my work.” Ihamaki’s story made the audience laugh, smile, and reminisce about their own preteen awkwardness.

While there were plenty of UTM students reading and in attendance, story submissions were also accepted from non-UTM students, and they were welcome to attend the festival. The students’ works were mainly submitted through their UTM professional writing professors. “[Prof.] Laurel Waterman asked if she could send three of my stories written for a class last year to Laurie Kallis, one of the cofounders [of] Life Rattle Press,” said Lau. “Laurie mentioned that she had passed my stories along to the festival committee and they had chosen one of my stories, ‘Little Bird’, as their top choice.”

“I was thrilled and was so honoured to have been chosen,” she added. “Writing was my first love in elementary school, but I hadn’t written creatively for years, though I journal a lot.”