The High School Canon of Canadian Writing
As writers of colour develop, one of the first things they learn is how to navigate the world they practice in. This can be very personal and individual. Some might approach the network of open mics and book launches to get a feel for the environment and network to prepare them when they are ready to submit. For those that are introverted, that approach can be a challenge, but social media helps make those connections. These networks are often populated by a white majority. I have started many readings saying, “Here I am, another writer of colour, speaking to a markedly white room.” Go to a big publishing event and just look around. Writers of colour quickly learn to acknowledge each other in these spaces. We might not know or speak to each other, but we look for others like us as kindred to make it a safe space for ourselves. Imagine having to navigate that world as both a person of colour and an immigrant or the child of an immigrant. It’s an interesting and rich experience, but one full of barriers.
Around the time that I was first submitting work, I went to a creative fair where local writers were selling their books. I met a few writers and one them had written poetry based on the suburbs of Toronto and within her immigrant household. I asked her so many questions and we touched upon a variety of topics. We talked about Canadian literary culture and how it was hard to pinpoint stories we loved reading in school that we related to. These could be stories about being invited to a party as a teen, but not being allowed to go because our old country parents didn’t let us visit other people’s homes. We socialized with our cousins and at school, but never outside of school. Or they could be stories about walking along Canadian streets and having an inaccurate racial slur yelled at you because the racist guessed your race wrong. These are all local Canadian stories, but we don’t hear of them often enough.
In an effort to enrich my reading world with stories I could connect to, I Googled “popular Canadian literature.” I also did catalogue, library, and Goodreads searches. I encourage you to do the same. I’ll tell you what I found. I found the same writers I’ve always known as Canadian: Margaret Atwood, Robertson Davies, and Farley Mowat, just to name a few. I also found a spattering of writers of colour: Michael Ondaatje, Joy Kogawa, and André Alexis, also the usual suspects, but these are the writers of stories I found more accessible to my background. The white writer to person of colour/immigrant writer ratio there was very despairing.
Writers of colour quickly learn to acknowledge each other in these spaces. We might not know or speak to each other, but we look for others like us as kindred to make it a safe space for ourselves.
I found more of what I was looking for by doing a search of “immigrant literature in Canada.” There’s Rawi Hage’s Cockroach (Middle-Eastern protagonist and set in Montreal), Gurjinder Basran’s Everything Was Goodbye (first generation Punjabi-Canadian protagonist and set in North Delta, Vancouver), and Rabindranath Maharaj’s The Amazing Absorbing Boy (Trinidadian protagonist and set in Toronto). I also searched for “Latino Canadian authors” and found an interesting anthology called Cloudburst: An Anthology of Hispanic Canadian Short Stories. These are only a few of the ones I put on my to-read list for now.
The point isn’t that the literature I’m looking for, the stories I can see myself in, aren’t out there. They are and there are so many of them, too. But I have to search them out as a category all on their own, even though they are Canadian stories. There are very few like Joy Kogawa and Dionne Brand, who are listed in the same high regard as Timothy Findley, Margaret Atwood, and Farley Mowat, who are taught in schools. I think it’s time that Canada change that.
I find writing this particular article to be problematic for me in so many ways. First, it’s one thing to posit questions to CanLit about its lack of diverse stories, but it is also quite another to give out the unpaid labour that goes into curating a diverse list for academia to fix itself with. As activists we are often asked to bring solutions to the table, but while many of us have ideas, not all of us are in privileged positions of power to give out free “diversity” consultations. Honestly, I get asked to do that kind of work for free too many times. For example, just because I am a person of colour who writes conceptual poetry, it doesn’t mean I am well versed in conceptual poets of colour. We are writers, who write, but many of us have paying jobs that are not linked in any way to our writing.
Secondly, I’m no expert in “immigrant literature in Canada.” I don’t want to be. I just want to write and read stories I can relate to. I bring this subject to the table because I have no idea why publishing worlds see this topic and these stories as a separate genre from Canadian literature. All I know is what I’ve learned to read as Canadian in school and what the media, in book reviews and annual booklists, have showcased as typically Canadian fare. We need to start celebrating more varied facets of Canadian identities.
Am I missing something from my enquiries? Should I be asking different questions? Are the elementary and high school education systems in our country giving reading assignments reflective of their student’s multicultural (yet Canadian) backgrounds? I am probably very flawed in my approach to this subject, but the questions I ask are valid.
The point isn’t that the literature I’m looking for, the stories I can see myself in, aren’t out there. … But I have to search them out as a category all on their own, even though they are Canadian stories
As for writers of colour looking for one another at events and readings: the makeup of the inhabitants of those spaces hardly represents the population of writers and readers of Canadian literature. It takes a lot of emotional labour for a person of colour or an immigrant to take up space in colonized rooms. There’s a congruency between those rooms and the annual book lists when it comes to definitions of Canadian writing. Canadian publishing houses, literary curators, and academia have created problematic spaces where “diverse” writers and readers have become the minority.
There are works by people of colour/immigrant backgrounds that are important now, to be catalogued and listed in the canon. Works like Scaachi Koul’s One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter, Vivek Shraya’s Even This Page Is White, Jen Sookfong Lee’s The End Of The East, and Chelene Knight’s Braided Skin (I am biased, for I identify with some of her writings on being mixed-race), are just the beginning of all the books and stories that I believe that should be in the classroom and hailed as truly Canadian writing.
In my next articles I hope to lay out a few suggestions that can be made to handle a tiny bit of the CanLit problem, or at least something to mull over. I also look forward to talking to a few writers in the community to showcase their ideas and experiences in navigating the CanLit world as people of colour or those with immigrant backgrounds.
Jacqueline Valencia is a writer and critic. She is the author of There Is No Escape Out Of Time (Insomniac Press, 2016) and is the founding editor of These Girls On Film, a literary editor at The Rusty Toque, and staff film critic at Next Projection. Jacqueline is a board member of CWILA (Canadian Women In Literary Arts). Her column will appear every Monday for the month of July.