Writing grad Kai Conradi explores words, life and how they fit together

While it’s not unusual for a Department of Writing student to get their first publishing credit while still an undergraduate, it is rare when their story gains national attention and a shot at a $10,000 prize. But as an emerging poet and short-story writer, there’s no question Kai Conradi offers a fresh voice to Canada’s literary scene.

Despite having just completed their degree, Conradi’s work has already appeared in The Malahat Review,Poetry, Grain and PRISM magazines, and has been nominated for the Journey Prize, the Pushcart Prize and the National Magazine Awards.

Their first published story—“Every True Artist”, which also appeared in Best Canadian Stories 2019—earned them national recognition and a trip to a Toronto literary gala as one of three shortlisted finalists (all UVic alumni) in the 2019 Journey Prize.

“I was really nervous, mostly because if you win, you have to give a speech—and I really didn’t want to give a speech,” laughs Conradi about their shortlist experience.

“It was weird to step into that Toronto literary world—it was very fancy and I very felt out of place; it’s a different writing atmosphere out there.” (When asked if any literary big-wigs slipped them a card, Conradi just chuckles: “Everyone said that was going to happen to me . . . but then it didn’t happen at all.”)

Creating a literary identity

Toronto’s literary scene would be different indeed for a kid raised in small-town Cumberland, who then moved to Comox as a teenager before coming to UVic to pursue their writing degree.

“Working on a line level is what excites me the most—words, and how they fit together,” says Conradi of their writing process. “In that sense, I feel really excited by poetry, but I like that it can be applied to fiction as well. My work tends to be quite narrative, so there’s a lot of crossover.”

As a queer and trans writer, Conradi admits to struggling with issues of representation . . . and the obligations that come with it.

“It seems like there are a lot more diverse voices writing about identity than ever before, which excites me—I think about what I wish I’d been reading when I was younger, so it’s important for me to be one of those voices for other people.”

But that doesn’t mean Conradi only wants to be known for their gender identity.

“It’s overwhelming at times—especially when it comes to writing about trans people or queer people—because there’s not that much out there, so I feel a lot of responsibility to get it right. It’s important to be open and visible to a certain extent . . . but it’s also important to write about all the things I care about, and not just one facet of my personality.” 

Next steps

Already enrolled in Writing’s MFA program with a poetry focus, Conradi’s first poetry chapbook is due out this fall: Notes From The Ranch is being published by Vancouver-based Rahila’s Ghost press (run by fellow Writing alum Mallory Tater).

“I go back and forth between writing poetry and fiction: right now I’m working on a mix of both,” they note.

And, with the literary bar raised fairly high so early in their writing career, are there any concerns about living up to expectations?

“I still tend to feel like they made a mistake, but any kind of publication or recognition is affirming,” Conradi says. “It gives me a little more energy to keep doing it.”

Practice, praise, publication, prizes, parties and poetry: it seems Conradi made the right decision in applying to the Writing department.

“I do feel quite lucky I ended up here,” they conclude.

New project explores global food sovereignty

How can vulnerable communities build local and regional governance of food systems in the context of the climate crisis? That’s the question behind a new interdisciplinary film project co-directed by Department of Writing chair Maureen Bradley and Department of History professor Elizabeth Vibert.

Four Stories About Food Sovereignty is a research network and documentary-in-the-making. The four-year, SSHRC-funded project launched in 2019 with a workshop at the T’Sou-ke First Nation featuring participants from Jordan, South Africa, Indigenous Colombia and Indigenous Canada. Four Stories About Food Sovereignty.

Elizabeth Vibert (right) welcomes participants to the T’Sou-ke Nation in 2019 (Photo: Chen Wang)

“Our community participants live with food insecurity every day,” says Bradley. “When they came together last year, we all learned that their struggles were similar despite living on four different continents. All are impacted by myriad forces like the climate crisis, loss of native plants and predatory industrial agricultural practices.”

In the next three years, the project will create an enduring community-engaged research network encompassing interdisciplinary researchers, grassroots food producers and local producer organizations from four continents. Together, they will investigate one pressing question: How are communities to feed themselves?

Global participants, common concerns

Despite the geographic distances between participants, shared concerns quickly became evident: water scarcity, climate crisis, extractive industrial development and the challenges facing women.

“Bringing their experiences to a broad audience through film puts these global stories into a local, relatable context,” says Bradley. “Up until the pandemic, the average Victoria resident never thought about food security. When the Canada/US border closed, a lot of people panicked—but now we’ve gone back to our typical consumption patterns.”

When the UN announced in 2019 that climate shocks, conflict and economic crises have reversed the gains of the past decade in reducing global hunger, it underscored the urgency of this work.

For small-scale food producers across the Global South, conventional approaches to “food security” have contributed to a series of livelihood and food crises, as control over food systems has come to be increasingly concentrated in the hands of profit-focused transnational corporations. In response, peasant and farmer groups have allied within and across national borders to form movements that articulate a vision of sustainable, equitable, and culturally appropriate agro-food systems.

A network of support

Four Stories About Food is about creating a research network for small-scale producers to learn from each other, for researchers to learn from small-scale producers, and for the public to access information about food security issues around the world. This network will consist in the short-term of several components: an international food security workshop, a documentary film, ongoing community-engaged scholarly research and public education activities.

As part of their research, Bradley and the team will produce a documentary, filmed by Writing MFA candidate Guochen Wang filming; professors Astrid Perez Pinan (public administration) and Matt Murphy (business) round out the interdisciplinary UVic team.

One of the intital meetings at UVic

The international team include Claudia Puerta Silva, professor of anthropology at the University of Antioquia, and Bikrum Gill, assistant professor in political science at Virginia Tech. The country teams will be led by the likes of Chief Gordon Planes, Christine George, Miguel Iván Ramírez Boscan, Jakeline Romero Epiayu, Esteban Torres Muriel, Aysha Yousif Matar Azzam, Fatima Obeidat, Josephine Mathebula, Mphephu Mtsenga, Basani Ngobeni and Natalia Giraldo Osorio.

Check out @fourstoriesuvic on Instagram and Twitter to follow the development of this project