halli villegas

The Hair Wreath and Other Stories by Halli Villegas

In part two of her interviews with Canadian writers of colour on their struggles with CanLit, Jacqueline Valencia talks to Halli Villegas and Sheniz Janmohamed. Part one can be found here.

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Halli Villegas

The biggest problem I had with CanLit going in was my own naivety. I thought that artists, poets, and those dedicated to making beautiful books would be open and accepting in a way that the people I grew up with were not. I was wrong. I didn’t know that there were some misogynist racists you didn’t call out because they were “cultural icons.” I didn’t know that other women would be some of the most vicious supporters of these men because they were afraid they would be next and wanted to protect their “place” in the CanLit hierarchy. I didn’t understand how little anyone really cared about supporting under-represented minority voices, and that events and projects to promote them would be ignored by the status quo ranging from other writers to the granting agencies. Perhaps it was because I didn’t look like a minority that the changes I tried to initiate failed. My father is Chicano and grew up in the fifth ward of Houston, Texas. My mother is a polyglot including some Jewish and Asian ancestry who was raised by her grandmother while her mother struggled to go to teacher’s college so she could support her daughter. I was emancipated at the age of 18 and lived in Detroit where I made 200 dollars a week cash and used a faked card to get health care. I never dreamed that I would have to endure people more racist or intolerant than those I had encountered as a child: the ones who sent the social workers to our house, called the police on us constantly, left nasty notes in our mailbox, and referred to my father as a greasy wet-back.

But even in CanLit they judge a book by the cover. I have pale skin and thanks to the miracle of hair dye have been various shades of red, brown, and blond since I got my first grey hair. A woman writer I thought was a friend, who knew my background, told me she was looking for mixed race writers for an anthology she was doing. I said I was mixed race and could do a piece for her; I had just done one for a textbook. She looked me up and down and laughed and said, “you don’t look ethnic enough.” I thought when I went into publishing, and started my own press, and dedicated myself to making some waves so that things would change for the better, that I had finally found a place that I belonged. I was wrong. It has broken my heart that nothing ever changes in CanLit. The same people have the power, the same conspiracy of silence squashes any attempt to change things for the better, and there really is no place for a strong, outspoken, mixed race woman that can’t be comfortably slotted into a diversity hole.

I would like to see someone besides a white man be in a position of some sort of power, in charge of literature grants, the book review editor for at least one of the major magazines or papers, heading up one of the publishing houses, starting publishing houses, running the WUC or other professional groups, fiction editors on our literary magazines, fiction/poetry editors at our Canadian presses, or heading up our creative writing programs. There should be specific grants to help people of colour who want to start presses and magazines and other arts programs even if they will not be immediately “profitable” or have “measurable” results.

I thought that artists and poets, and those dedicated to making beautiful books would be open and accepting in a way that the people I grew up with were not. I was wrong.

Reaching out to underserved communities requires more than lip service. The government should fund sending writers and publishers north, into the depressed areas of our cities, into immigration centres, into schools with minority populations. There are so many ways to reach out to other communities and yet the same useless band-aid initiatives go around and around, spearheaded by the same group of bureaucrat lifers who think the way to solve these issues is to have “a diversity panel” at a conference, or put an Indigenous person on the board of directors.

I’d love to see some solidarity, so that women would feel comfortable supporting one another, instead of feeling that their own positions will be threatened if they stand up. It’s not the ’60s anymore. Canada is no longer white and uptight with no voices that count except a group of middle class writers and publishers out of Toronto. But this rarefied, small world is still the model for success and approval among the community. It’s time for CanLit to let that idealized, outdated, and arrogant version of itself go and realize it is not only not inclusive, but exclusive, and that has nothing to do with real art.

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Sheniz Janmohamed

What has been your struggle in navigating the CanLit world?

There have been many, but perhaps the most challenging aspect of navigating the CanLit world is that writers of colour and publishers who focus on writing from QBIPOC are constantly facing the uphill battle of competing to be seen, which includes having one’s work available for purchase in bookstores.

I’ve looked for shortlisted books by writers of colour in major bookstores, and rarely found them. What does it say that even shortlisted or award-winning books by writers of colour are not available in bookstores? If they are found, it’s often only one copy. Our readership is changing, but are we?

The hustle to have our work seen, available, and reviewed is exceptionally challenging.

The notion that writers of colour operate in cultural niches, not the mainstream CanLit world, is another hurdle.

There is a dominant CanLit aesthetic that is more literary or acceptable than what many writers of colour write, which is tied to concepts of worth, class, and what acceptable literature is. Some writers of colour write from a tradition that is not seen as innovative by mainstream white reviewers or publishers. We are constantly walking the line between being “too ethnic” and “not ethnic enough.”  We need more reviewers of colour, and not simply to review books from their own culture.

If we are never going to be a part of the canon, if we are always going to be placed in niches, then how much longer can we fight to be a part of a system that is failing us?

Often being the only writer of colour in a room or at a reading, and having to navigate the challenge of simultaneously rejecting the expectation of speaking for the whole while speaking up about what needs to change.

Intersectionality.

What would you like to see change in CanLit?

A concerted effort to move from representation to true diversification in terms of the kinds of literature POC are expected to write in, the positions they occupy, the opportunities they have, and the money they get, etc.

People in power giving up space for new writers, for writers of colour. Instead of tasking writers of colour with the emotional, unpaid labour of sourcing other writers of colour, do something about it that is less exploitive (see next point).

Develop leadership roles for writers of colour, not just expecting us to do the emotional labour for you, or the research about other writers of colour, but actually giving us space to be in a position to publish, curate, program, and make decisions.

Publishers/curators/grant officers cannot continue to offload their duties to research or diversify by simply getting a writer of colour to do it for them.

One writer of colour is not enough. One Indigenous writer isn’t enough. We have to move beyond representation and filling a quota. If you actually want to talk about intersectionality, see what happens when you have three South Asian writers talking about the same topic, and how different their views and experiences are. Having one South Asian writer fill a quota is easier to curate, but it is an erasure.

CanLit requires systemic change, not project-by-project change.

That said, if this doesn’t change, I don’t think people will care enough to operate within the CanLit system and will find their own ways to publish, create, and work.

If we are never going to be a part of the canon, if we are always going to be placed in niches, then how much longer can we fight to be a part of a system that is failing us?

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I hope that somehow I’ve been able to bring to some readers, writers, and publishers an awareness that there is something that we must do to be more accountable to Canadians as a whole. It’s been a pleasure to do this (and kind of scary, to tell you the truth), and I thank The Town Crier for making this space open and welcome.

If you can, speak up, take up space, and check in with radical empathy as you read and write. If all of this unpaid emotional labour is keeping you from writing in the country you call home, try to reach out and let a person you trust know. We can’t be heard if we’re all screaming into the void (which I often do). As Canadians we’re all in this together, right?

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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). This is the final column in her month-long residency.

One Comment

Sharon Goodier

I recognize the difficulties you face. There are multi-layered problems in Can Lit. The biggest one is this: the U.S. has 10 times our population and 20 times the print journals, 30 times the online journals. And except for those funded by universities which only account for one third, they have to sell books and magazines. No government grants like in Canada. I’ve been told by the editor of a press that if you don’t get published in a Canadian journal that gets gov’t grants it doesn’t “count” on your resume so don’t put it on or editors will laugh at you. I guess that goes for American credits, too, of which I have a lot.
Clearly, we need more Canadian journals. Why aren’t they appearing? The journals we have are getting over 1000 submissions per issue. If you’re on a reading team with 250 or 350 submissions each, who has time to wonder who’s what colour or ethnicity. Many American journals read “blind” but I don’t know any Canadian ones that do. I suspect they fill half the spaces with people they already know and the rest of us compete for the remaining spaces — over two hundred competing for 20 spaces in a mag with 40 slots.
Some magazines have an explicit commitment to publishing diverse writers but with 1000 people competing for 20 slots (if my assumption is correct and it may not be) then you’re looking at maybe two spots for writers who don’t represent the founding non-indigenous nationalities (and then we can talk about the tragic divide between French and English Can Lit).
I recently started collecting socially engaged poetry from the U.S. (there is next to none on Google in Canada). This is a passionate interest of mine and I am very impressed with the quality of poetry being written about social, racial, gender, etc. issues. And many are written by poets who are also social activists in their communities. It is almost impossible to find socially engaged poetry in Can Lit journals. When I read socially engaged poetry at open mics I hear groans — and that’s not because the poetry is bad. All the socially engaged poetry I’ve had published has been published in U.S. journals (about 5 poems).
The American political establishment is much more interested in poetry than the Canadian establishment. Several presidents have been avid poetry readers. Since Pierre Trudeau, what Canadian PM has expressed a love of poetry — or ideas of any kind, for that matter.
I want to see poetry dance off the printed page onto USB’s and CD’s that people can listen too in traffic jams. I want to see poetry promoted as something of the people and not an elite art for a select few. When that happens, there will be lots of spaces for multi-racial, multi-ethnic writers. So let’s get on with the task of producing more magazines in print and online and encouraging people to listen to poetry as well as to read it.
Thank you for your very probing article. I won’t say “Good Luck” because it has nothing to do with luck. Sounds like the title of a book, doesn’t it? Sharon Goodier,

Sharon Goodier is a poet from Toronto, Canada. She has been published in U.S. in Adana Women’s Spirituality Anthology, Tin Lunchbox, Terrene, Persimmon Tree, Lost Sparrow Porcupine Anthology, Poets Reading the News and in Canada in Carte Blanche and Quilliad. She self-published a chapbook of social justice poetry in 2015, A Stone in My Shoe. She is a co-founder of the renewed Art Bar Reading Series and the instigator of the Engaged Poetry Meet Up in Toronto. She reads widely in Toronto

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