The Toronto Literary Scene
When I was 17, I landed in Canada on a student visa, and settled into undergraduate life at the University of Toronto. At the time, downtown Toronto for me spanned from Church St. to Bathurst, and I vaguely referred to everything else as uptown. I did not know what “double double” meant, nor could I relate to TV, music, or literary happenings that my classmates casually discussed before class. I was often embarrassed at having conversations that always inevitably slid into statements like, “Oh! Well, where I come from … ”
I now have opinions on Canadaland articles, a regular Hortons order, and will unabashedly blame everything on the TTC as a form of breaking the ice.
I wouldn’t say I’m that new to Canada anymore.
Yet more often than I’d like to admit, throughout the last few months of attending literary events, I am faced with the same problem I did at 17: a subtle ignorance that manifests in discomfort, disconnection, and alienation.
If you ever walk into a Chinese Dim Sum restaurant at peak hour, the overwhelming sensory overload is akin to the first 10 minutes of walking into any literary event for me.
The first tension I deal with is the sudden, hyper consciousness of my skin. Despite the graciousness and casual atmospheres of all the literary events I’ve been to so far, it is still a fact that I find myself an overwhelming minority, or often the only Asian person in the room.
Hyper-aware of my skin, I recognize myself inhabiting an unfamiliar space shaped by social cues and unspoken rules that I have little knowledge of, “where should I sit, what time should I arrive, how should I initiate, and what should I say?” This awareness is accompanied by a ballooning sense of alienation and anxiety.
At these events, my general lazy hybrid of English, Singlish, and Mandarin, punctuated with Cantonese is crippled by my almost perfected Canadian accent: more clipped, more nasally “a” sounds, more deliberate sentences.
I often become frustrated at this tension, and annoyed that I can’t seem to fully acclimatize. It doesn’t take long before I feel the growing trepidation: “This is a mistake. I shouldn’t be here. I don’t belong to these places.”
On rare occasions (and I really mean rare), this frustration is further triggered by the careless use of words like “oriental”, or lazy phrases like “the Chinese people”. In these moments, my isolation is deepened by a sensitivity regarding these words, and the vague feeling that nobody else in the room directly shares my discomfort.
It may be laughable to a degree, but it is burdensome all the same. I have discovered that carrying this emotional mixture while doing my job as a publicity agent leaves me mentally and physically exhausted by the end of every event.
This is not to say that I haven’t enjoyed my adventures in the Toronto literary scene. The Puritan has been incredibly welcoming, supportive, and generous with showing me around. Over the last few months I have been to many amazing readings, launch parties, and events. I am nurturing a growing appreciation of a literary Toronto I never knew existed, and the little poet in me is thirsty for knowledge, inspiration, and good poetry, all of which I am discovering in abundance.
There have been many highlights:
- There were chills in me when I heard “Good Day Villanelle” and “Bad Day Villanelle” at Damian Rogers’ Dear Leader book launch.
- I felt the strength and presence of Aisha Sasha John’s voice as an artist when she spoke at foRUM.
- After hearing the opening chapter of André Alexis’ Fifteen Dogs at the Coach House Spring launch, I purchased it with great excitement (and terror).
- I experienced a rare moment of tears when Adebe DeRango-Adem’s read from Terra Incognita at the Inanna Publications launch event.
- The small but intimate words(on)pages chapbook launch experience was heartwarming and full of fantastic readers, and I acquired four beautifully bound books.
- Most recently, I got to interview Alana Wilcox, and discovered the Coach House Books building for the first time.
Coach House Books
In fact, the sheer number of events I get to attend, and the diversity in subject, genre, and style is testament to a rich writing community, and thriving literary scene in this city. I don’t regret this decision to explore at all.
These highlights and amazing experiences, however, also become moments of isolation I face within my community.
There are very few people in my Chinese-Canadian or International communities who will engage with the literary scene, or local literature willingly, for a multiplicity of reasons too complicated to explain.
When on occasion I do successfully cajole friends to attend with me, they experience more disorientation than I do. They share how bizarre and foreign the experience can be. Like me, they do not have knowledge, but unlike me, they don’t have literary interests to motivate them to push past discomfort.
It is easy to miss these things that become normalized as part of Toronto literary culture, but there are varying degrees of alienation felt by those who have not been immersed in these environments and don’t know what the appropriate thing to do is. The overall experience is difficult—even if the literature is fantastic.
Recently, I watched Gein Wong perform at ArtBar. She began with a performance inspired by Nüshū, a script used exclusively among women in traditional China. Strains of Mandarin, Cantonese, and an unidentified dialect floated in my ears, I wondered how this language was interpreted by listeners, and whether or not comprehension was of any importance.
This question had surfaced before at the Griffin Poetry Prize Shortlist readings, where Wang Xiao Ni read two poems in Mandarin without translation, to a predominantly non-comprehending audience. I also heard the Polish language for the first time when Wioletta Greg read from her beautiful collection, and I felt new life in the translations.
We talk about diversity in Canadian literature, but there is much more to diversity than the skin color and gender of the person writing. The literary community produces and inhabits physical, as well as invisible space that dictates norms. Space is produced by interest, but it also contains and influences the producers. The dimly lit bar, with the makeshift stage, single spotlight, and microphone is an example of a cultural space unfamiliar to me, and many others who might feel discomfort because of cultural and ethnic lines.
Literary Toronto is a whole other Toronto from the city I experience as a South East Asian—I can’t connect the two with each other. Often I feel I have to leave one to choose the other, as is the case for many other writers of colour. I wrestle with this disconnect even as my inner writer is engaged and excited. It makes it difficult for me to identify as a poet who might become a part of the Toronto literary scene, even though poetry is what we have in common.
Despite my discomfort, every time I choose to inhabit space at these events, I feel it is akin to writing poetry. I recognize the difficulty, complexity, and inevitability, but do not compromise or simplify these experiences. Even though each event might offer me literary delight and a sense of growth, I am also forced to deal with constant anxiety, and a conflicting desire for some cultural savvy that might offer me a better sense of autonomy. In trying to work out how I feel, language is where I can come to some peace with my discomfort.
My literary adventures take on different forms every week, from the incredibly humorous to the painful, but I am always engaging and imagining new possibilities for these spaces as they speak powerful new possibilities into me.