The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon
This series has been an interesting journey. The essays I’ve written stem from afterthoughts and conversations I’ve had with people within the Canadian literary community, most of them people of colour. We do often look for each other at events and literary gatherings, congregate in the bathroom to talk safely, and the bar. Even if we don’t know each other, we have to acknowledge that we aren’t alone. We have to be there for each other and let our frustrations out somehow. It makes us feel secure to converse this way about a space that wasn’t built for us, but rather one made to navigate as one of the Other.
I’ve read up on some interesting discussions on the topic of problems within CanLit and its canon, including this incredible piece at The Walrus titled “The Unbearable Whiteness of CanLit.” Also, this well-thought-out piece up at Bella’s Bookshelves on “The Stigma of CanLit and How We Can Change Our Outlook.” And this great piece up at The Globe And Mail by Dakshana Bascaramurty on how the publishing industry is trying to navigate its need for diversity.
I think what’s great about being a writer and reader in Canada is that we have the freedom to express when we are feeling oppressed. It informs our readings, our work, and how we interact with our literary communities. It takes nothing to listen and really empathize with your readership and authors. It takes a lot of worth, courage, and yes, emotional labour for people to speak up when they see there is something wrong with the community they work within. It says more when that community changes to move our artistic community forward.
For my last instalment as writer in residence, I have offered up the platform to my fellow writers of colour. I asked them what has been their struggle in navigating the CanLit world, and what they would like to see changed in CanLit. For the most part their words have been unedited.
I have absolutely no clue what CanLit is today, but I do remember what it was yesterday: a canonical, dull affair. I don’t read anyone associated with CanLit canons with the exception of Michael Ondaatje and Leonard Cohen, and the women poets—Dorothy Livesay, Phyllis Webb, Miriam Waddington, P.K. Page, Atwood’s political poems. Yes. All of it, fine. Some of it, remarkable, Gwen Brooks being the greatest of them all. The rest of what I read in terms of white writing in Canada is usually marginal, from the types of white authors that regularly leave their whiteness behind or are interested in chucking form even when it involves the “cow dung” poetics Austin Clarke once famously ridiculed in a letter to Sam Selvon.
Let me rest here on Selvon. Few Canadians know who Sam Selvon is nor that this legend lived in Canada. There is no post-WWII novel without Sam Selvon’s Lonely Londoners, and here is where CanLit acquires its nefarious nature, as its very idea awakens white nationalism born of white pillage and genocide. It sees itself as a big man but really it’s tiny, closed, and unaware of how literature can actually save lives. I remember when Don McKay rejected my first book for Brick Books. He had no idea that book would save actual lives. It provides paradigms through which LGB readers with Caribbean background or of colour could negotiate racial, sexual, and linguistic marginalization in this zone of the Holocaust of European Imperialism (a 500-year-old genocide that has moved from the plantation to the prison). Thank heavens Wolsak & Wynn brought that book into being, because it continues to be taught. But, much of what is in contest in that book is this business of being shut out, even out of the English language.
To create a national literature out of the bush is to assume that it is your right to impose the aesthetics of whiteness willy-nilly onto occupied landscapes, and to participate in the 500 years of erasure that marks the invention and presence of the New World. So, I am not a POC writer who wishes for inclusion in a nationalist fold built from violence. I reject CanLit outright, but mostly because it’s bad art. Poets of the Confederation are terrible poets, awful in every critical estimation. The Modernists are mediocre at best. I mean, it’s all really dreadful, what gets taught.
CanLit is so flaccid that it breeds waste of its own gems.
My CanLit experience at Queen’s in the early ’90s and with the legendary late professor Tom Marshall, who was my teacher, was pleasant enough. But there was not a single writer of colour on his syllabus, not even Ondaatje’s ’70s poetry, which, even when it involves Ontario landscapes, announces itself through lyric fragments almost always preoccupied with alterity. This is a poet who understands that Canada is a free play of signification for immigrants who light on it, who darken it up. In my classes at Queen’s, at that time so conservative that Ernest Jones’s psychoanalytic reading of Hamlet was still presented as controversial, the best we could do was Rudy Wiebe’s ponderous The Temptations of Big Bear.
This was at a time when Thomas King, Lee Maracle, and Tomson Highway were tearing up the scene with bold, amazing work. What was underlined in that class was “the farm” and the “cow dung” of Canada. Who Has Seen the Wind x 1000. At that time, George Elliott Clarke was a doctoral candidate at Queen’s and had already published Whylah Falls, but no one really gave a heck. Missed opportunities. Had Clarke been white, he would’ve been celebrated as a prodigy, a force of nature. He is, without a doubt, the country’s greatest living poet and Canticles is the kind of experience we only get from the World Literary Treasures department. Does it get any award recognition? Nothing. No mention.
In my experience, there is never much attention paid to the memory of cow dung in Guyana or India or Eritrea recalled in Canada in a Let Us Compare Cow Dung kind of gesture, where Canadian literature and the way it’s taught, systemized, embraces Canada as a zone of deep historical enjambment inseparable from hemispheric themes. The very nature of Canada provides for an actual “third space” poetics as witnessed in the political plaintive power of, let’s say, George Bowering’s Fulgencio (Nomados).
CanLit as an instruction needs to be dismantled ASAP and reassembled as a pedagogical thing. It needs to be wide enough to hold even its most renegade white writers, but as for how it is personally felt in my artistic practice, I don’t care. I don’t write poems thinking about that, that kind of abstraction. I think about my neighbourhood or city or community when I choose to write a landscape, a Northern reflection on the movement of my brownness.
It’s not going to get any better. This is a very parochial place, Canada, where any cultural ripple is more or less imported or abbreviated from the audacious activism of (US) Americans and POC communities there. CanLit is so flaccid that it breeds waste of its own gems. This is a country where “Hallellujah!” is flogged to death into stomach churning cliché, embraced as a feel-good song without any awareness of the dark, sexual, and brutal emotive and spiritual territory of the lyric. In death, Cohen is murdered yet again by the vulgar crassness of nationalism and its populist shit. It’s all very sad. Hallelujah!
On a final note, think of Zong! Are Canadians aware that a Tobagonian Canadian has written the definitive poem of the Black Atlantic? CanLit also needs decolonized critics. White folks can consult Sartre or Sontag on how to do that.
CanLit has always felt like it’s beyond my reach, like I can only ever aspire to being a sub-genre. As a second-generation immigrant with more connection to Canada than to my parent’s country, I have tried to educate myself by reading the “canon” of CanLit, and paying attention to its themes and habits. In my early reading and writing in a CanLit context, I never felt even remotely represented—not by the characters Canlit enshrined, nor in the sea of predominantly white, and usually male writers.
Living in small towns for most of my life has only replicated this—though I have found supportive pockets in the writing communities that exist outside of Toronto/Montreal/Vancouver, I can count the number of writers of colour I have ever met and worked with on one hand. Being in predominantly white writing spaces means that I stand out for my colour, not for my writing. In poetry workshops, I too often find myself having to explain my cultural standpoint and identity to my peers, instead of receiving feedback on the writing itself.
I have experienced enough tokenism, both unwitting and intentional, to doubt every publishing opportunity I have. I was once offered publication with the joking remark that I could save a particular publisher from criticism for publishing almost exclusively white men. I declined, but sometimes still wonder if I’d have a book out already had I accepted. Even in the absence of backhanded comments such as this, I always doubt why my writing is being accepted. Is it just to boost a flagging CWILA count? Is it just to break up the preponderance of Anglo-Saxon names on a table-of-contents with something spicier, more exotic-sounding?
In my publishing work, I am sometimes the only person on an editorial board who is not a straight, middle-aged, white man—which I do not say to disparage the work of my colleagues, but to highlight how many perspectives are missing. Where are the Black and Indigenous editors? Where are the trans and non-binary editors? Publishing needs to do better. One young brown queer woman is not enough to cover every other perspective.
I have experienced enough tokenism, both unwitting and intentional, to doubt every publishing opportunity I have.
I would like to feel like my identity is not excessive, not “too much” for CanLit. Because I am visibly a woman, and also a person of colour, my writing gets pigeonholed as not being “universal,” because surely, multiple identities other than “white” and “male” and “straight” are too many for a reader to comprehend, let alone engage with. I feel torn, like I am being asked to write just as a woman, or just as an immigrant, or just as a racialized person—only one kind of otherness at a time seems acceptable. Because my race and (cis)gender are so visible, I feel pressured to remain closeted as a queer person. If I am already dismissed or tokenized for being “too much,” I hesitate to be even more visibly excessive.
Full representation should not feel like too much to ask. I still find myself latching on to the remotest common ground between myself and an author, or a character. It feels greedy to expect examples of other people of colour—let alone women of colour, let alone queer women of colour—in the literature I live in. And yet, that is exactly what is overdue.
When I meet others we often find ourselves discussing our hesitation to submit or perform our work anywhere, because it feels like it will be too easily rejected. The reality is that people of colour get used to rejection and silencing. Racism and isolation make us doubt ourselves. I want to see CanLit do the work of making room for writers of colour, and for all the intersectional identities we carry. Encourage us to submit. Invite us to submit. Hire us, so we can foster the next generation of writers with mentors who share and understand their experiences first-hand. I want to see us come to power as mentors, editors, and publishers, to build each other up.
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. Part two will appear on Thursday.