How can one advocate for more diverse representation in Canadian literature? For a group of young Ontario poets, it’s as simple as getting together twice a month and sharing their writing. “I find the group restorative,” says Tina Chu, a member of Brampton-based youth poetry collective Pages on Fire. “Racism now is much more subtle. Hearing about similar experiences validates my own.”
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Pages on Fire began as a creative writing workshop project funded by research project Voices Against Violence in September 2013. Workshops were held in two locations: the East Mississauga Community Health Centre (Mississauga, Ontario) and Bramalea Community Health Centre (Brampton, Ontario). Workshop facilitator and group founder Leonarda Carranza says her decision to hold a creative writing workshop with an anti-racism and anti-oppression framework was inspired by her doctoral research on the effect of racism on learning. On the last day of the original workshop run, participants approached Carranza to tell her how much they valued the experience the workshop provided. “We started talking right there and then,” Carranza recalls. “We decided to meet again the week after, and then, week after week, people kept coming. Every week that the room filled up, I felt so proud. Here were all these youths taking time out of their busy lives to show up each week to write and to work on their writing with each other.”
Pages on Fire is more than a creative writing group. Its mandate is “to create a literary movement in Peel that changes the landscape for writers of colour.” The conversation around diverse representation in literature is a timely one. A recent New York Times article by Walter Dean Myers reveals the rather dismal statistic that out of the 3,200 children’s books published in 2013, only 93 were about black people. The same study shows even more appalling statistics for Asians (90 books by Asian Pacifics and 69 about), Latinos (48 by, 57 about) and American Indians (18 by, 34 about). VIDA statistics in 2013 show more equitable gender representation in book review giants the New York Times and the Paris Review, but the overall breakdown across publications still slants predominantly male and white.
Within that context, however, more people are now talking about this disparity. In January 2014, book blogger Léonicka Valcius began hosting weekly #DiverseCanLit Tweetchats. This year’s Canada Reads theme was on the potential for literature to change a nation. Pages on Fire is making its own stand within our literary landscape by providing a safe space for individuals to discuss and write about their experiences of oppression, and by providing opportunities for its members to develop their writing.
“I have never experienced such a supportive group of people writing together,” Pages on Fire member Catia Aguiar says. “It was, and still is, very powerful. This has allowed my writing to take me places I’ve never allowed my mind to venture before.” During group meetings, members are provided writing prompts and invited to free-write. “In terms of writing prompts, there are no limits,” Carranza says. “We use poetry, video, quotations, personal narratives, and lyrical essays, and each member is encouraged to bring in material based on his or her interests.” Members then discuss the theme of the day and provide constructive criticism of each other’s work.
Chu remembers a meeting where the writing prompt was a video from the fashion industry. The models represented a variety of backgrounds, yet participants noticed how similar they all still looked. “They were racialized, but still chosen for ‘white’ features, and they still fit a certain body type,” Chu says. She comments that it is important to discuss issues of race and racism, but it’s a difficult subject for people to talk about. Poetry offers a way.
Race is a core theme in “bit by bit,” a poem Carranza read at the group’s poetry reading at the Art Gallery of Mississauga in January. The poem talks about Carranza’s relationship with her grandmother, which she remembers as being characterized by distance and disdain. “It’s painful for me,” Carranza admits. “I used to joke about it with friends, saying ‘My grandmother doesn’t really like me.’ The humour was a way of hiding the hurt.” While their relationship has improved ever since they started speaking more openly about the strain between them, “bit by bit” focuses on Carranza’s childhood, which, she admits, still sometimes makes her cry. She says that it’s about “the ways we learn about race and racism before language, the subtle ways that the body can reject or express disdain without having to say a word. Nothing needs to be spoken to feel loved or (on the flip side) unwanted.”
Poetry is an outlet for her to explore the hurt she felt as a child. Despite the strength of her feelings toward the topic (Carranza was moved to tears at the reading), the tone of the poem is deceptively subdued. The beginning seems innocuous: “bit by bit and step by step/ Grandma teaches me about colours.” However, the poem takes a melancholy turn a few lines down, as the persona learns “the texture of indifference// What it feels like not to be wanted.” The final lines hold a tone of resignation that packs a stronger emotional punch than any expression of fury could: “And bit by bit/ And step by step// I learn about colour.”
Chu remembers “bit by bit” as a writing prompt at a Pages on Fire meeting. “It was only later we learned it was actually one of Leonarda’s own poems,” she says. Chu’s own poetry explores language, both the power it holds and the barriers it forms. She remembers reading an interview with writer David Mura. A third generation Japanese man in America, Mura discusses being praised for his English, and how it seems he is not expected to speak the language well. “It’s this idea that you have no right to the language,” Chu says.
Chu’s family immigrated to Canada from Taiwan when she was a child, and she is fascinated by the role that language plays in her family’s life in Canada and in her own relationship with her parents. “Language is both an indicator of belonging and a tool for oppression,” she says. This becomes particularly evident for her when translating for her parents as they prepare for a job interview. She is aware of how frustrating it must be for her parents, having to ask their children for help and being reminded of their own perceived inadequacies with language. Despite her good intentions, Chu views her parents’ reliance on her to interpret as sometimes a way for her to exert power. “I get frustrated at times,” she admits, and views her frustration as unintentionally reinforcing the idea of their ‘ignorance.’ She adds, “Without knowledge of the language of the dominant group, no matter how smart you are, you are at a disadvantage. As a society, we have a tendency to associate language proficiency with intelligence.”
Chu’s poem “Memories of a fourth grade immigrant” is a powerful confession about how language circumscribes her relationship with her parents:
I don’t remember
the exact moment
my language surpassed my father’s
when I began to grow still
at the sound of his voice in public,
when, that feeling started to overtake me every
time he spoke in English of wanting him to
The anger in the lines echoes a much more significant source of frustration—that of distancing oneself from one’s parents, of wanting to fit in but always being somewhat ‘other,’ of the shame at feeling ashamed of one’s own family. Adjusting to life in a new country and a new culture has its own challenges; Chu’s poetry encapsulates this within a child’s experience of hearing her father’s broken English.
Language goes beyond the meaning of words, and spreads into cultural nuance that people less proficient in the language may miss. Her parents, for example, take English idioms at face value. To a casual “How’s it going?” they would respond, “I’m going to the kitchen.” In contrast, Chu recalls visiting Taiwan as an adult and feeling aware of her own inadequacies with Mandarin. “There was so much proper social behaviour I didn’t understand,” Chu says.
Poetry also helps her explore the sensation of being a part of Canada, and yet apart from it. In her poem “Real talk,” Chu writes about the significance of names, and how, with her Taiwanese background, she is expected to have a Chinese name apart from her English one. The poem begins with a teacher asking her if her name was in the right order “because/ sometimes, you know.” Chu writes:
as much as I want my name to start with an “f” and
end in a “u,”
today, it’s still,
Tina Yu Ping Chu
朱昱屏 from birth,
Tina, not long after.
In the poem, Chu asks why there is a perceived need to have both an English and a Chinese name. She writes about someone asking a Chinese person what his or her real name was:
How foolish are we, us,
to bother with fake names, people see through
With this verse, the poem asks the reader which of the names is “fake”. How do names convey authenticity, and how can the insistence on ‘real’ names be as much of a tool of oppression as fluency in a language? For Chu, being a member of Pages on Fire allows her to voice these ideas, and discuss them with other individuals who may have similar experiences.
Pages on Fire meetings go beyond writing; members are invited to discuss issues that are important to them. In line with this form of participatory empowerment, group members take turns facilitating the meetings so that each member gets an equal opportunity to raise an issue that resonates with him or her on a personal level.
Pages on Fire founding member Leonarda Carranza
“There is a lack of diverse faces in the Canadian literary industry,” Catia Aguiar says. “Despite growing up in a land promoting multiculturalism, the literary industry seems to be full of only white faces.” While she believes writers of colour face high barriers to entry in the industry, she points out that it’s even more difficult for queer writers. “There is also the fear of homophobia and transphobia, which is already an every day struggle for most LGBTQ people,” she says. Her writing explores multiple themes from her own experiences, including “being queer, a survivor, growing up biracial, and [her] experiences with mental illness and suicide attempts.” For her, the collective provides “a space to share openly without judgment,” which then helps her gain confidence in her writing and regain an emotional connection to it. Aguiar describes this sense of freedom in her poem “Why I Write”: “Moments of fear disappear,/ As each letter is painted on this canvas.”
“I want to see real people in Canadian literature,” Aguiar says. “I want to see characters in books that reflect trans and queer people of colour, people with mental illnesses, and people facing challenges that are real today.” She believes that literature has the power “to impact Canada’s future through stories that need to be told.”
Pages on Fire is certainly set to tell just these sorts of stories. “Part of our mandate is to create a literary movement in Peel that changes the landscape for writers of colour,” Carranza says. “Can this happen in five years? I’m not sure, but we will definitely be close to reaching that goal and also reaching new heights that we’ve yet to think of.” She describes her experience with the collective as “exhilarating,” particularly from “being around other writers and getting the opportunity to hear fresh new voices and perspectives.” She says that the commitment and support she feels when working with the other members “makes me feel like I’m part of something bigger than the work that I individually produce.”
The group currently has fifteen members from Brampton and Mississauga. According to Carranza, the next step for their group is looking into new and creative ways of bringing their work to the public. “We are exploring poetry mobs,” she says, “where we pick public places like bus terminals and share our work.” Anyone can become a member—interested poets should contact Leonarda Carranza at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also connect to the group on Facebook at Pages on Fire or Twitter at @PagesonFire.
On the group’s Facebook wall is a rousing call to action: “Write about oppression with us until your page catches fire.” As the conversation around welcoming more voices into the Canadian literary canon continues, it is perhaps groups like Pages on Fire that will spark a wider, much needed, public discussion.