Writing Thru Race

20 Years of Writing Thru Race

It was with some trepidation that, just over a week ago, I wandered into the AGO’s Jackman Theatre to attend 20 Years of Writing Thru Race: Then and Now. This trepidation was caused by several factors: not only am I a white, straight, middle-class man whose ancestors were quite busily involved in the colonization of this country and several others, but I was attending in my capacity as editor of a magazine almost laughably monochromatic in terms of its editorial board and published writers. Moreover, the colloquium itself had been organized to mark the 20th anniversary of the famous Writing Thru Race conference of 1994, which, being open only to self-identified writers of colour, inspired a vicious backlash from mainstream media outlets and in the House of Commons. While the 20th anniversary event was open to anyone interested, I felt a lingering sense of unease. What was my motivation for wanting to attend? Was I secretly trying to establish good-white-person bona fides? Was I trying to find new literary talent to hire and exploit? Was this really just a kind of voyeurism?

The colloquium was set up as both a reflection on the 1994 conference itself and as an interrogation of what has (or has not) changed since. The panellists quickly affirmed that racism and white supremacy are as much a problem now as they ever have been in Canada’s history, and that despite the official apologies offered to Japanese-Canadians for the World War II-era internments and to the people of the First Nations for residential schools, power in everything from publishing to government to finance remains firmly in white hands. As Lee Maracle put it in the first panel, despite a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, there has been “no reconciliation” between indigenous and settler Canadians.

Rinaldo Walcott, associate professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, was likewise blistering in his account of things as they stand, pointing out that if anything, the situation is even more grave for young black people today. As a very visual example, he cited the relative dearth of black people in the audience. For Walcott, attempts at coalition-building between racialized Canadians has only served to obscure the special virulence of racism toward black people in Canada and to further silence their voices.

It is no secret that when it comes to race, Canada remains a site of struggle, a place where competing narratives about what multiculturalism means have very real and often violent impacts on the bodies of the nation’s citizens. One of the points the conference drove home most forcefully was that even posing these questions in the framework of a nation-state is a problem. Walcott, for example, noted that, because the very roots of the nation-state lie in genocide, we should not be surprised that nation-states continue to be genocidal; the goal is to move past the nation, to imagine other ways of belonging that are not predicated on a Eurocentric and white supremacist system. While George Elliot Clarke was equally critical of the capitalist nation-state as a construct, he used the example of Saskatchewan’s rapidly growing First Nations population to suggest that instead of getting rid of the state, democratic participation could transform it.

But some of the indigenous speakers—notably Lee Maracle and Lenore Keeshig-Tobias—spoke of how they already have a national belonging outside of the kind dictated by the Canadian state. For them, the struggle is sustaining the power of these nations in the face of a hostile and often ignorant dominant culture too myopic to acknowledge their existence as legitimate and too disingenuous to admit that their legitimacy is enshrined in legally-binding treaties.

And so it seemed as though one of the most important questions at play, albeit one that often remained in the background, was how identity relates to place, and how both relate to politics. A nation is rooted in a specific geography without being bound to it: the Mohawk nation occupies certain territories (Wahta, Kahnawake, Tyendinaga, for example), but it is not coterminous with them; elements of the Mohawk nation are present wherever Mohawk people gather together. A nation can be a state (in the case of, say, Finland), but it can also exist in several states (in the case of Kurdistan), or a diasporic people (in the case of Jewish communities outside of Israel). The Mohawk nation, like these other nations, is created not only by a certain ethnic group occupying a territory, but also by the language, literature, religious practices, and collective imagination, all of which can survive generations of diasporic living or military occupation and still remain relatively intact. Likewise, a nation is often ethnic, but not necessarily strictly so—it is possible to gain membership in many nations through marriage, for example.

Writing Thru Race

Roy Miki at 20 Years of Writing Thru Race

Walcott’s call to move beyond the nation, then, is a call to reimagine how the geographical space that Canada occupies is to be shared, and by whom, and to interrogate the power imbalances that were involved in previous and current ways of (not) sharing it. If the failed dream of the progressive left coming out of the 1960s was to create a “multicultural nation,” in which everyone inhabited Canada on equal footing through the institutions of liberal society—an elected government, constitutionally-bound courts, public education and healthcare, a community-based police service subject to strong oversight—then the new dream has to acknowledge that creating a new identity by erasing substantive difference is neither possible nor desirable.

In last Monday’s post, I suggested that the people doing new and interesting things to and in Canadian literature are often those who have arrived from elsewhere. Having digested more fully the thoughts and arguments presented in the conference, I realize that this suggestion was woefully incomplete. It isn’t just those who have come from elsewhere who have a better insight into what Canada is and is not, but those who have always been here, and whose voices have been ignored or silenced. What would it mean to acknowledge and teach the long history of oral literature that existed for centuries before European arrival as a corrective for Northrop Frye’s “garrison mentality” in Canadian literature courses? What would it mean to look at Canada’s place in the world through the lens of diasporic writing coming out of South Asian, Caribbean, African, Middle Eastern, and Indian experiences, rather than the established Eurocentric ones? What would it mean, indeed, to push our national literature past the concept of nation?

Keeshig-Tobias, in a moment at 20 Years of Writing Thru Race that I found to be particularly powerful, spoke of how she gives tours to visitors who come to the Nawash Unceded First Nation, where she lives. She said that she tries to get visitors to see the territory the way she sees it, as an ancestral home, as a place with a long and unique history. What struck me most forcefully about this is that it seems to be essentially akin to the work of all writers, everywhere: taking something that is seen naively and to give it depth and meaning. Remarkable progress has been made on this front in the last forty years, but surely the way forward involves not only an attention to the wider world, but also the willingness to look at the same old places through new and different eyes.

For us white people involved in the literary arts, this means opening space, shutting up, and paying attention to writers from other backgrounds. It means buying their books, taking their narratives seriously, and not constantly trying to appropriate them. As Maracle and Lillian Allen both argued in the first panel of the day, it means not asking writers of colour to explain themselves, but being willing to do the research on our own time into the things we don’t understand. And, crucially, it means remembering that a monochromatic, white perspective is all-too-often blind to important truths; if literature is always in some way about telling the truth, we’ll never be able to do our job until we do.

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