By: Tazeen Inam in Toronto, ON
Canadian literature continues to diversify as more stories look to include a wider range of content set locally and abroad. Language barriers, migration trauma, cultural discrepancies and family responsibilities; women authors of diaspora are defying the odds, breaking through different obstacles to have their voices heard.
Ayelet Tsabari and Fartumo Kusow are two examples of determined women whose journeys outline what so many must overcome to become Canadian authors.
Breaking through Language Barriers
Ayelet Tsabari, who is from Israel, worked as a Hebrew journalist until she came to Canada at the age of 25. Writing, she believes, completes her. But in what was once a strong suit, language now became a challenge, pushing Tsabari to stop writing altogether. She could speak and read English, however it took her about eight years to gain the confidence to start writing.
Tsabari’s development started with her enrollment in a writing program, which she coupled with Canadian content she would read. As time passed, English began to flow into her work more naturally.
Tapping into her long lost passion, she began to create original pieces in the hopes of being published. But, to no avail as her lack of success prompted one of her teachers to suggest she read books other than Canadian literature.
“I realized that it’s not just language but it’s your heritage and even your mother tongue are still in you when you are writing in a new language. So certain things didn’t work for the publishers,” Tsabari explains.
Tsabari broadened her scope and soon she was reading literature from an array of multicultural writers. This broke the prison that had withheld her imagination, allowing her to finally express her voice.
“I just thought that if I started writing with that in my mind, just be you and do what you are and that’s what ended up getting me published,” she says.
Her dream came to fruition when her first book, "The Best Place on Earth", was published in 2013. The collection of short stories challenges the connection of spiritual heritage with modern life. Met with good reviews, it went on to win several distinctions, including the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature and the New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice. Feeding off her first book’s momentum, she is now working on her second. In addition, she is also currently working with immigrant writers at the Toronto Public Library to improve their writing skills.
Fartumo Kusow was born to a farmer’s family in Somalia, as the seventh child. From a young age, she had difficulties establishing social connections with her peers and preferred to write instead.
“Instead of socializing with them I always had a notebook in my hand, that my father gave me and I would write in the notebook,” Kusow recalls.
As per Somali tradition, she married young, becoming a wife at the age of 16. Subsequently, this was also the same year her first fictional story was published in the national newspaper, where she worked.
Her husband had a job in the Middle East, which kept them financially stable. But when the civil war started in 1990, she was forced to leave. Already pregnant with her third child, she immigrated to Canada with her then-husband and two children.
Holding onto her dreams, Kusow knew that she wanted to become an author.
Unfortunately, Somali is her first language, Arabic her second. And due to war, she had little to no transcripts that could prove her credentials. However, she didn’t give up, completing her Bachelor’s in English before going on to a teaching program in Windsor. She has now been teaching since 2000.
Despite her successes, war trauma combined with move factors led to a failed marriage. She was left with no choice but to put her dream on hold as she filled the role of breadwinner for herself and her five children.
As she supported the household, her inner writer continued to itch at her until she resumed writing in 2011.
“When the kids are bit older and my career and my profession is [a] little more stable, I decided to spend an hour a day just to write something,” states Kusow.
Perseverance trumps Rejection
Nothing could stop her, not even the 104 rejections could dare be a hurdle to her dream. Though she finished her fictional piece in about three years, it did not garner much publisher interest. Sleepless nights turned into frustration as she pondered the reasoning behind her struggles. Until she came to the realization that the rejections were not personal but rather that publishing was simply a business.
With this in mind, she persevered, eventually getting published in 2017, when she produced "Tale of a Boon’s Wife".
Reviews speak to Kusow’s ability to clearly depict the issues stemming from the traditional Somali caste system, while simultaneously detailing the sufferings of the country’s civil war.
Kusow’s children are very proud of her and look up to her as a stronghold of leadership.
Though it has not been long since Canadian literature has started promoting more diverse content, its clear the industry is moving in the right direction. Several initiatives such as the Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD) constantly take steps to ensure progress continues.
While both Tsabari and Fartamo are giving back to the community in the form of teaching, it is important to provide aspiring writers with the opportunities to develop their skills. Through mentorships and training the next generation of writers will make an even bigger impact on Canada’s literary landscape.
This piece is part of the "Ethnic Women as Active Participants in Ontario" series.
by Tazeen Inam in Brampton
Canadian woman authors believe that our society tends to equate femininity with a sense of flawlessness. Women have to be impossibly perfect in so many different ways that it’s just another way of imposing oppression on them.
“I really want to show about my characters that it’s not a bad thing to fail, it’s not a bad thing to make mistakes,” says Sarah Raughley, author of the "Fate of Flames".
Raughley longed to work with characters who have the courage to pick themselves up when they fall, in contrast with setting up ideals for women that are very difficult to live up to.
Striking a balance between strength and frailty
Her characters are not everyday superheroes. Four teenage girls are the only people who can save the world from the massive beasts who are terrorizing the world. One girl stands for each element: fire, wind, air, and water.
“But they don’t have those masks on their faces, everyone knows who they are," Raughley explains.
Her characters are criticized for being too whiny and annoying because they make mistakes, they fight too much, they are weak and make many mistakes.
“So I was thinking that what are the expectations for women? Especially since these are teen girls, they haven’t figure out themselves, let alone having to carry this huge destiny to fight giant monsters,” she added.
At the Festival of Literary Diversity, in Brampton, ON, the panel of “Wonder Women” featured authors of young adult literature. They spoke about the protagonists from their stories, stressing that strength is not the same as perfection. But rather that it is in the courage to rise up from devastation and defy all odds by reaching your destination.
Shoilee Khan, the panel moderator, opened the discussion introducing the protagonists of the selected books as women of the present, who everyone aspires to be or would like to befriend.
“They are fierce, they are stoic, but they are tender and they have this enigmatic aura of cool about them,” she says.
She said that there is a dichotomy of softness and strength exhibited by the characters, that can be translated into real life situations women face everyday.
“They rise up against obstacles not with complete fearlessness but with a magnetic combination of illation and frailty, first for themselves and then through that self-respect, serve their communities in profound and integral ways,” Khan added.
Seeking protection with intimacy
The panel then discussed a character with an arsenal of dangerous and desirable skills: Kai Cheng Thom’s Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liar: A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir.
Thom is a writer, performer and psychotherapist.
Thom’s unnamed protagonist is a martial arts expert who runs away from her abusive parents’ house. Raised in a city called "Gloom", she escapes to the glamorous and dangerous "City of Smoke and Lights" where she is forced into oppressive factory work governed by a racist system of castes. However she is able to find herself as a trans-Asian femme and finds a community with other trans-femmes.
Thom suggested that for transgenders there is something about femininity that’s degrading all the time, that they are weak and hyper-sensitive. But her book starts with this really intense physical strength as opposed to a trans-woman that is helpless and constantly subjected to violence.
The protagonist loves using her strength, power and speed, until she encounters Kimaya. A mother figure whose nurturing personality is unable to mask her fierce power, Kimaya serves as a mentor figure that helps her realize that there are different kinds of strength.
She discovers a desire for safety and a longing for closeness but struggles to have intimacy that is also safe.
“That’s the journey that my character takes and I found out in my life too,” says Thom.
Another panelist, M-E Girard in her debut novel, sought a balance in her character when she puts them together with a combination of femininity and masculinity.
M-E Girard is a YA fiction writer and a proud feminist, her debut novel is "GIRL MANS UP". Her lesbian character, Pen, wrestles with the external pressures societal norms bestow upon her when she exhibits both masculine and feminine qualities.
Although she is a strong protagonist and her choice of clothing and friends makes her imperfect and independent, all Pen wants is to be the kind of girl she’s always been. Pen realizes that respect and loyalty are hollow words, and in order to be who she truly wants to be, she’ll have to "man up".
“My character is tender in some ways and she is also fierce and strong in her own way. Some of it [is] modeled after her masculine ideal and some of it is modeled [after] her feminine ideal. So it’s kind of a big mess,” says Girard.
Celebrating Canada's 150th anniversary this year, founder and creative director of FOLD, Jael Richardson, says that she was inspired by the famous indigenous writer, Lee Maracle’s quote “if you want to understand the heart of the culture, read the women”. Richardson observed that at every session or panel, the audience was touched by something they weren’t expecting to hear.
“They are always surprised by the wealth of stories, writers and ideas they encounter, and it’s really powerful because that’s when real change happens,” she added.
The second annual FOLD festival was held from May 4 - 7 and hopes to bring change by highlighting the voices of women authors who offer a different perspective.
by Tazeen Inam in Mississauga
Many leaders of the East who fought to decolonize their countries from Western authoritarian rule were also educated in the West. Upon returning home, they became trapped in a mental rift – they owed their education to the Western system, which also worked to colonize and ruin their countries and people.
It was usually lawyers or social scientists who became leaders and policy-makers to fight rigid authoritarian powers. However, in Thanh’s story, a group of Vietnamese nationalists enlist their friend – the refined, educated Vietnamese physician Dr. Georges-Minh Nguyen – to poison the French general and his garrison.
Dr. Nguyen has a medical degree from Lycée Condorcet in Paris. What he owes to the French and how they’ve taken over Vietnam clash to carve rifts in his psyche and cause him to slowly go insane.
The close-knit group of friends makes up a revolutionary cell called the Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountains. They plot revenge on the French for the oppression they forced upon the Vietnamese – an act they hope will send a message to the colonizers that revolution has begun in Vietnam.
The book is based on the true story of the Hanoi Poison Plot of 1908, which took place in Saigon.
Dr. Nguyen is overcome by the guilt of the prospect of killing someone, until his pregnant wife escapes a rape attempt by a French soldier.
“Though he hadn’t told [his friend] Khieu about the rape his anger about it had made him steely. Most of the doubt was gone from his mind now. He was quite certain he could kill a man. Part of him was looking forward to trying.”
Khieu, a determined member of the revolutionary group, has his mind set on plotting revenge. His commitment is what allows the plan to continue.
However, the plot is foiled when cooks at the garrison confess to it, providing the names, places and dates of the plan to a priest. This forces the Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountains members to flee to other provinces.
Dr. Nguyen avoids capture, but must leave his wife and his newborn son behind after they are caught by French soldiers.
“He’d never imagined kissing her for the last time. Not once. He’d never imagined last times for anything. He simply ran.”
The book depicts the era of the French colonial period in Indochina, during which people were suffering from social deprivation and using drugs to quell their anguish. It sheds light on how discrimination by French imperials aimed to make the Vietnamese feel shame and responsibility for their plight.
Dr. Nguyen encounters a French doctor at the Centre for Infectious Disease Control to discuss the “Paddy Fever,” or yellow fever. He is taken aback when Dr. Michaut calls the Vietnamese “teachers of moral vice” because he believes they have “corrupted” the French soldiers.
“What was this man on about?” thinks Dr. Nguyen. “If only he didn’t need his help, his lab, his equipment, he’d pop him in the jaw.”
Instead, Dr. Nguyen suggests Vietnamese boys engage in prostitution in opium dens to pay for their own opium habits, or to acquire goods they can’t afford.
From the French doctor Michaut’s perspective, the offence is less evident: “I don’t include you in these comparisons. You studied in Paris, like me,” he says to Dr. Nguyen.
Suffering under colonialism
Thanh tells us stories of capricious characters that go to great lengths to overthrow their colonial oppressors. Her characters survive living amongst imaginary, yet dangerous, ghosts.
She takes us to a savaged, but vivid, colonial Vietnam, where streets are filled with fierce threats in the form of killing, rape and rebels’ chopped heads mounted on bamboo poles as warnings.
After his marriage with Dong, Dr. Nguyen lacked solace and drifted away from his wife. Once, in conversation with her, he justifies his absence by explaining the historical colonization of Vietnam by one power or another, resulting in turmoil and agony for the country’s women.
“Our country is in crisis," he said. "Men abandon their families and leave their wives in charge of feeding the children. The women have no money and they do what they must to survive. This country was the possession of the Chinese, and now is the mistress of the French. For a thousand years we’ve lived under the dominion of others. It’s why everyone’s going mad.”
Vietnam’s colonial history reflects some of today’s challenges of occupation and abuse of people’s land. In war zones like Syria, Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, and many others, colonialism results in the total disarray of a country’s inhabitants, and leaves their attempts at survival and revolution against past oppressors unfulfilled as they are quickly taken over by new ones.
Thanh’s novel shows that the lust for power results in horror and misfortune for the colonized and is ultimately reflected in the truest form of human tragedy – the loss of innocence.
Tazeen Inam is passionate about both print and electronic media. She has a master's degree in mass communications, has worked as a senior producer and editorial head at Pakistani news channels and has contributed to BBC Radio Urdu in London, England. Inam is presently pursuing a course in digital media studies at Sheridan College.
This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to email@example.com
This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to firstname.lastname@example.org
by Shan Qiao in Toronto
Without saying anything, Farrah Khan hands out a clipboard with a piece of paper on it to each person in the room.
“Now, I want each of you start to draw what was in your head at 9 a.m. this morning,” she says. “When time is due, you’ll hand the clipboard to the person next to you and continue on another person’s drawing.” Khan then plays a song by Beyoncé on her iPhone.
Several participants, including Khan, finish drawing different parts of each other’s pictures before they are returned to the original artist. The result is a joint effort made by each member of the group to explore their fellow participants’ mindsets.
Politics in comics
It is the starting point for The Panel Is Political, a discussion on how to use comic books for social change, at Another Story Bookshop in Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood.
The discussion is also led by Seemi Jamil, a youth group coordinator at the Afghan Women’s Organization in Mississauga, and Nicole Marie Burton, a comic book illustrator and founder and co-owner of Ad Astra Comix – North America’s first publisher dedicated to comics about social justice themes.
Jamil and Burton worked together early this year to develop a youth program that teaches immigrant and activist youth to draw and express their feelings. The program involved one-and-a-half hour sessions, held once a week for eight weeks.
“Nicole [Burton] comes by and does workshops with the youth groups and teaches them how to do graphic-novel style storytelling,” Jamil explains.
“We wrote a paragraph about a challenge we had to deal with in anonymity,” begins Burton, describing one of the group’s activities. She says the written paragraphs were ripped into pieces, folded, and mixed in a hat.
“Everybody drew out a story and had to tell it in a comic form,” she adds. “It was incredible to me how much could have been done with that,” says Burton about the activity.
Other activities focused on character design, practising different dimensions and shapes, and drawing about current events. She adds that there never seemed to be enough time in each session to meet the youth’s high level of interest in each activity.
“I was trying to get low-income youth groups to have some art form where they can talk about their own stories,” Jamil says. “They are interested in talking about what it is like to be low-income in Canada but also assimilated within society.”
An example of a political comic book that helps youth understand global events, says Jamil, is Persepolis – a graphic novel about the revolution in Iran.
“We’ve seen a large trend in youth groups trying to express themselves through different art forms as opposed to just writing,” she continues.
She says the program’s young female participants are of Afghani and Pakistani descent, and that the workshops focus on minority voices, people of colour, women of colour, and political situations all over the world.
Graphic novels, Jamil says, not only help immigrant and refugee youth to understand, but also to be able to learn how to tell, their own story. She stresses that for marginalized groups who do not have the same vocabulary or English proficiency as other Canadians, art can help them understand and share ideas.
Political comics gaining momentum
Burton started Ad Astra Comix in 2013 in Toronto. She says she is passionate about social justice and wants to see more political comics that touch on topics such as sexism, racism, colonialism, homophobia and transphobia.
Ad Astra Comix not only publishes, but also creates its own graphic novels, including its first full-length graphic novel Drawing the Line: Indian Women Fight Back, a collection of stories by Indian women about topics including harassment, race, class and political struggle.
Khan, the inaugural Sexual Violence Support and Education Coordinator at Ryerson University, has more than a decade of experience speaking about violence against women.
As a trauma counsellor, she has led several educational programs, including comic book projects, to help women express their feelings and fears through drawing.
In 2012, Khan put together a program to run a comic book workshop specifically for South Asian women. She says white comic book artists often portray South Asian women stereotypically.
The project resulted in a comic book called Heartbeats: The IZZAT Project, featuring stories and illustrations by South Asian women about violence and resilience in their lives.
The book was chosen by the Tahirih Justice Centre to be part of a tour to raise awareness about forced marriage in the United States.
One of the stories the book features, titled “Cage,” resulted in the escape of one of the program’s participants from her abusive family. Khan says the young woman was able to find help at a women’s shelter two cities away from her home during the project.
This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to email@example.com
by Lucy L. Oneka in Toronto
Writers of Japanese descent say their work is helping to fill gaps in Canada’s literary landscape.
“When I was at university, the only way I could study a writer of colour was to take the Commonwealth Literature course, and that was a white professor pontificating about South Africa or other places around the world,” says author Terry Watada.
“There was no such thing as Japanese-Canadian or Asian-Canadian/American writing.”
Watada spoke as part of a panel on the Japanese Canadian Experience in Literature with fellow Japanese-Canadian writers Kerri Sakamoto, Leslie Shimotakahara and Lynne Kutsukake in Toronto during Asian Heritage Month.
Evolution of Japanese-Canadian literature
Watada recalls how the Japanese community first reacted to the absence of their litrature in Canada by taking a stand and boldly declaring who they are.
“When I started in 1970, I was with a group of people who decided that it is a political act to call yourself a Japanese-Canadian writer, an Asian-Canadian writer, and I think it was modelled on the Asian Americans who also did the same thing,” he says.
Watada is a playwright, poet and novelist who has written about Japanese history – including experiences with immigration, internment, and Japanese and Buddhist traditions.
“I am from the same generation as Terry [Watada],” says Sakamoto. “The way that people think about race is completely different now, but yes, I think it was a real act of reclamation to call yourself a Japanese-Canadian writer because you were mistaken for being a foreigner at that time. There were not as many Asians in Canada, so it was a real declaration of self.”
“But that has changed over the years and I don’t believe anyone starts out by saying, ‘I am a Japanese-Canadian writer,’” Watada adds.
Reclaiming their history
The panellists say the absence of Japanese voices in literature created a vacuum in the Japanese-Canadian narrative.
“I felt there was so much to write about that had not been written on the history of internment, and the experience of growing up with racism,” Sakamoto explains, referring to the period during the Second World War when Japanese Canadians were removed from their homes and held in camps in British Columbia’s interior and Alberta. The Canadian government ordered their internment following Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.
Sakamoto’s first novel, The Electrical Field, tells the story of her own family members’ experiences with internment and the loss of their homes and businesses at the end of their detainment.
“I felt like I wanted to express that more than just to be a writer,” she says. “I really wrote personally out of a sense of being able to express what I wasn’t seeing in literature or culture at all, at that time.”
Shimotakahara, a fourth-generation Japanese Canadian, was also inspired to begin writing because of the lack of Japanese narrative and literature about the period of Japanese internment in Canada.
“I think it comes from more of a personal struggle to understand that whole period of internment history that seemed to me, growing up, people in the family had very contradictory approaches towards,” Shimotakahara says.
She won the 2012 Canada-Japan Literary Award for The Reading List: Literature, Love and Back Again, a memoir about how she used literature to gain a sense of direction in her life, and at the same time developed a bond with her father and deeper understanding of his past.
Inspiring each other
Reading was also a gateway to the past for author Lynne Kutsukake, who says she was impacted by the few Asian authors she found in North American literature.
“Long before I dared to start writing, I was a reader,” she says. “I remember in the 1970s [and] 1980s, how startling it was when I read for the first time Asian-American, Japanese-American, or Asian-Canadian writing.”
She says that before then, the only way to study literature in Canada was to read mostly white Canadian authors.
“I remember that the first Asian-American novel I ever read was by Maxine Hong Kingston,” she says, referring to the Chinese-American author and activist. “I was just blown away.”
Both Sakamoto and Kutsukake say they were influenced by the writing of Japanese-Canadian author Joy Kogawa, whose novel Obasan tells the story of a Japanese-Canadian family who was persecuted during internment, from the perspective of a young child.
“Most readers read looking for something they can identify with,” says Kutsukake. “So many things are universal, but some things are very unique to your own personal identity, and reading Japanese-Canadian literature allowed me to find a voice.”
Like Sakamoto and Kogawa, Kutsukake also writes about Japanese Canadian internment in her novel The Translation of Love. It tells the story of a family living in post-WWII Japan, after being exiled from Canada during the internment period.
by Shan Qiao in Toronto
New writers are using mentorship opportunities to create and share more diverse and inclusive stories about Toronto’s history and culture.
“What we want to do is to create a living history of Toronto through literature [and] make it as diverse as the city itself,” says Helen Walsh, the president of Diaspora Dialogues – a charitable society made up of writers, artists and performers.
“I’m not surprised that there are at least 50 to 60 countries represented through Diaspora Dialogues – lots of voices from Asia, Africa and Northern Europe,” Walsh adds. “Often, people write about their own cultural background and we want to bring Toronto to life through literature.”
Mentoring new writers
Toronto’s iconic Old City Hall, a national historic site, was the stage for Diaspora Dialogues during Doors Open Toronto, an event that offers access to buildings with historical significance across the city.
Jamaican-born and Ottawa-raised emerging writer Dianah Smith is one of 12 writers who presented their work at Old City Hall. As a teacher and arts educator, Smith joined Diaspora Dialogues in 2014 for its mentoring program, in which she paired-up with Jamaican-Canadian writer and media professional Martin Mordecai.
“For about six months, he helped me to get into [a] schedule of my draft and first novel, finalizing some of the scenes of my manuscript to get it ready for publication,” Smith says about her experience as a mentee.
“It’s a story about a seven-year-old girl, Jemela Campbell, and her experience in immigrating from Jamaica to Canada and her first year in Canada,” Smith explains.
The excerpt she reads is from the novel, with a working title The Promise of Foreign, which explores some of the challenges newcomer parents face in Canada such as finding work and keeping jobs.
Seeking recognition as writers
“As a racialized person of colour, as an immigrant, you don’t really feel represented in the publishing world,” Smith explains. “You have names like Margaret Atwood, mainly white and middle-class people.”
She says that while Diaspora Dialogues does not restrict white writers from participating, it also tries "to have alternative voices to give immigrants and indigenous people the opportunity to share their stories.”
Author Mia Herrera adds that working in the Canadian publishing and writing industry is precarious.
“A writer who publishes regularly makes a salary of about $12,000 a year. You can’t make a living on that,” she says.
Born to Filipino parents, Herrera now lives in Bradford, Ont. She works in communications and marketing and says she continues to write because it is her passion.
Smith says she is still in the process of finding an interested publisher for her novel. While her mentorship program ended last fall, she continues to participate in other programs led by Diaspora Dialogues such as Lunch and Learn events, workshops about pitching to agents, as well as mentee book readings such as the one at Old City Hall.
Placing immigrants in Toronto’s history
Shade tells the story of a Filipino-Canadian woman named Benni from the small town of Georgina, Ont., and her trip to the Philippines to visit her father.
“Georgina is a town in York region about an hour-and-a-half north of here that is somewhat notorious for racist acts – disputes about flying the Confederate flag in schools and repeated incidents of racially-driven assaults,” Herrera tells the audience at Old City Hall.
Georgina was the site of attacks against Asian Canadian fishermen in 2007, which involved car chases, damaged fishing gear, and anglers of Asian descent being pushed into the water.
The scene Herrera reads is from the beginning of the novel about a breakup between Benni and her long-time Chinese-Canadian boyfriend, Tom. Instead of hearing a proposal, Benni is shocked to learn that Tom has hesitations about their future together because he is concerned about how Benni’s race will affect him and his family’s business.
“As you will find in this scene and throughout my novel, Benni deals with questions of race and what it means to be a visible minority and second-generation immigrant in Canada,” Herrera says. “These questions arise regularly for her, particularly as she lives in such a racially-charged town as Georgina.”
“Her experiences in the Philippines allow her to take the long view of not just her life in Georgina, but of her life in Canada, and what it means to be Canadian,” she adds.
Etisalat has announced its call for entries to the 2016 edition of the Pan-African Prize, Etisalat Prize for Literature (Prize.Etisalat.com.ng). This is coming just a few months after the Democratic Republic of Congo's Fiston Mwanza Mujila won the 2015 edition of the Prize with his first novel, Tram 83.
Chief Executive Officer, Etisalat Nigeria, Matthew Willsher, who made this disclosure on Wednesday at a press briefing in Lagos, also announced the Judging Panel for the 2016 Etisalat (...)
The Patriotic Vangaurd
by Tazeen Inam in Mississauga
Canadian book publishers and literature supporters say diverse stories written by emerging writers can increase readership and are vital for enhancing Canada’s publishing industry.
Five industry experts led a panel discussion during a session titled “Publishing (More) Diverse Stories,” held at Peel Art Gallery Museum and Archives as part of the Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD).
The discussion focused on ways to improve access to diverse Canadian stories both here and abroad.
Barbara Howson, Vice President of Sales and Licensing at House of Anansi Press and Groundwood Books, says diversity in the industry means getting young people interested in publishing and widening readership by publishing books with different voices.
“To do that, we need to reach communities and have editorial staff that does that,” she says.
Support emerging publishers
Howson says that expensive college and university publishing programs and editing courses can make it difficult for people from low socio-economic backgrounds to get into the publishing industry.
“I do think you have to have a certain amount of money or your parents’ support to help you get into the industry,” she says. “People can’t afford to be lowly paid interns for three or four internships in order to get a job.”
She says the high cost of education and training needs to change if the industry aims to be more inclusive.
Bianca Spence from the Ontario Media Development Corporation agrees that the cost of going through very low-paid internships bars access to the industry for people of different socio-economic and cultural backgrounds.
She says she would like to see a publishing degree considered as a pre-requisite, rather than unpaid internships. That way, she says, “we can get some interesting thinkers into the industry.”
Léonicka Valcius, the panel moderator and chair of The FOLD Foundation, applauds the idea of hiring more people of colour in the publishing industry, as well as people of different sexual orientations, abilities, and other backgrounds.
Diversify the eco-system
Panellist Anita Chong, a senior editor at McClelland & Stewart, described publishing as an “eco-system” made up of writers, people involved in the publishing process, and ultimately readers.
She says that the system needs a greater push for change from within publishing itself.
She referred to a 2015 BookNet Canada survey that outlines what constitutes a typical Canadian book buyer. The buyer is a female between 40 and 60 years of age, with a college or university education.
“I think it’s important to recognize that we need a wider pool of readers,” Chong says. “We need diversity in this massive eco-system we are in.”
Publishing a wider variety of literature that reflects Canadian diversity can help attract more readers.
Susan Travis, a sales representative for children’s book publisher Scholastic Canada in British Columbia, Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Alberta, says that the variety of books offered to children looks “narrow right now.”
“You cannot colour a child’s face tan on a book and call that a diverse book.” She says books should better identify children of all backgrounds.
She adds that as a salesperson, she notices that customers are more willing to buy literature from a store or publisher that has diverse images and stories in its books.
Economic pressures for publishers
“It’s one of the things we struggle with, to highlight these books,” says Howson about diverse literature.
She explains that marketing can go a long way in giving readers access to different stories, and that the media plays a role in showcasing diversity.
"It's really important to develop that whole eco-system of getting those books out to libraries, buying those books from stores, and duly making sure that your voice is heard, because you want diverse books, and the only way is to take them out to the library,” she tells fellow publishers. “You tell your schools that they have got to have them in their library.”
Howson says she is concerned that public libraries are given money by municipal governments to buy only those books that are considered profitable.
Spence adds that diversifying the eco-system could help emerging publishers.
“If more people buy books and publishers make more money, they could pay entry-level employees a bit more.” She says this would incentivize more diverse populations to stay in publishing and establish an inclusive industry.
“They have to be welcomed and they have to stay to bring rise to that change,” she adds.
by Shan Qiao in Toronto
Canadian writers and educators are expressing a need for more children’s books about refugee and diaspora stories that reflect Canada’s diversity.
“It was very difficult several years ago when we tried to promote diverse kids’ books,” says Sheila Koffman, who hosted the workshop “Diverse Kid Lit” at the first-ever Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD) in Brampton, ON. Koffman has owned and managed Another Story Bookshop, an independent bookstore in Toronto, for nearly 30 years.
“We started in a basement of a house,” she shares. “We went around [to] schools, doing presentations and selling books.”
When she first began as a bookseller, Koffman was the only one showcasing diverse books – an experience that she says was “very devastating” because of the criticism she faced and the challenge of low book sales.
Since then, things have improved. Her bookstore has received many invitations to do presentations at different school boards, who are now very welcoming of Koffman’s diverse children's literature.
Stories of Canada’s kids
“There weren’t nearly enough diverse kids books in Canada,” Koffman says, adding she still relies on diverse children’s literature from England and the United States to stock her shelves.
“We have a lot diverse children books in Canada, but we need more,” says author and educator Nadia Hohn.
At the workshop, Hohn presented her children’s picture book Malaika’s Costume, a story loosely based on her childhood. The story starts with the first Caribbean Carnival that Malaika attends as a child after she moved to Canada with her mother. Hohn explains that many children, like Malaika, have come to Canada with their parents who must find work abroad to provide for their family.
“This is a fact for so many kids, not only Caribbean kids, but kids from so many ethnicities . . .” explains Hohn. “Growing up in Canada, a lot of children don’t know about how some of their classmates live. That’s their reality.”
From Joseph’s Big Ride, about a child refugee’s bicycle dream, to Sex Is a Funny Word, which is about gender identity, human bodies and sexuality, Koffman introduced a few examples of diverse children’s literature authored or published by Canadians.
She says there are not enough books for youth that discuss mental health – particularly mental health issues affecting immigrants and refugees.
Jael Richardson, Artistic Director of FOLD, introduced her new children’s book The Stone Thrower along with illustrator Matt James.
Based on a true story, The Stone Thrower tells of how Richardson’s father, Chuck Ealey, grew up in a poor and racially segregated community in Ohio and found refuge in Canada. The book’s cover features a photo of a young, Black man throwing a football. Ealey eventually became a professional player in the Canadian Football League.
Supporting independent authors
Hohn attended Koffman’s presentation as the founder of Sankofa, a collective of authors of African and Caribbean descent.
“I try to learn as much as I can to help me as an author and a writer,” explains Hohn.
She says authors from diverse backgrounds need support to write books that fit the needs of children.
“Most authors have full-time jobs and are doing this on the side,” Hohn explains. “Especially if you are self-published, you are paying for everything out-of-pocket.”
She adds that self-published writers face the additional challenge of not having their books showcased in certain bookstores and catalogues.
“Some libraries just started to accept some independently published books, so if most of the books published by Black authors are self-published and so many doors are closed, that means those books are not getting into where they need to,” she says.
Diverse literature gaining momentum
Hohn says she teaches in a school that has a mandate to reflect Black or Caribbean history, and believes all schools should reflect the diversity of Canada in their books.
“I don't think we should wait for the books to reflect the kids. Those books are windows to other worlds for our kids to learn about lives of kids from other ethnicities or even in their own country,” she explains.
FOLD, which Richardson says started two years ago in a coffee shop in downtown Brampton, is working toward this.
“Over the past year, provincial and municipal organizations, Canadian publishers, industry professionals, local companies, and community partners have stepped up to bring nearly 40 authors and performers to Brampton, delivering more than 30 sessions and events that showcase diverse Canadian literary talent and provide training for emerging writers,” Richardson says.
FOLD’s inauguration took place from May 6 to 8.
by Beatrice Paez in Toronto
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Diaz owes his early literary education to the two local librarians who nurtured his love for reading.
The all-too-familiar story of unsupportive Dominican immigrant parents equating success with being a doctor applied to him, too, he said.
Diaz attended public school in a poor community in New Jersey, staffed by overworked teachers with little guidance to spare. He struck an unlikely friendship with two local librarians, though, who handpicked books that they thought he would enjoy.
“I didn’t receive the traditional mentorship,” Diaz said, addressing a diverse crowd at Mind the Gap: Crossing Imaginary Lines at the Toronto Reference Library.
Paying it forward
As part of Poets, Essayists and Novelists (PEN) Canada’s Ideas in Dialogue 2016 series, Diaz engaged in a lively discussion with Sri Lankan-American novelist and fiction writer Sunil Yapa about a writer’s relationship with readers and family, the notion of privilege, and their own upbringing.
“I did have very close relationships with my librarians, who introduced me to the things that mattered most,” he said. “They meant the world to me.”
Indebted to the librarians who broadened his outlook, Diaz said he decided years ago to pay-it-forward by helping to create space for other writers of colour in his work as a writing professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and through activism.
“There were folks who had even less than I did. I found myself wanting to be helpful because part of me was dreaming of that for myself,” he said. “You still feel the debt you owe the world is enormous – even coming from an immigrant family.”
Resolving conflict in writing
Family was a natural point of conversation between Yapa and Diaz, who each had their own anxieties about being seen as different.
For Yapa, it was his dad’s inability to accurately pronounce the expression, “Hunky dory,” which describes something that is satisfactory. Diaz said he grew up “hating all that is Black,” even though he was well aware of his origins.
That much of his work revolves around family, as Yapa notes, is not lost on Diaz.
“Families are an evergreen subject,” he said. “We are attracted to the machinations of family because this is the vernacular we speak best.”
In The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, about an overweight, nerdy boy obsessed with science fiction, Diaz mined the familial conflict in his own family by exploring the fraught relationship between mother and daughter in his characters.
“I had to first imagine not only my sister’s deep problematic relationship with my mother, but I actually had to figure out how they might figure out a way to gain compassion for each other,” he said.
He added that it was largely a way for him to reconcile his own relationship with his sisters, who had borne the brunt of their mother’s excessive discipline, which he escaped because he was a boy.
His sisters were punished for coming home at ungodly hours, while he wasn’t. Even as he witnessed this, he said he didn't grasp how it had affected their relationships until he realized he had failed to sympathize with them.
“It was important to me to maintain the innocence of my privilege,” he said. “People always insist on their innocence when they’re guilty.”
A family of readers
Still broaching the concept of family, Yapa asked whether Diaz was forced to create his own literary family in the absence of one that supported his pursuit of writing. Diaz said unlike most writers, his “natural community” is other readers.
This is partly because he considers himself a reader before a writer, and partly because he said an author’s most important audience is readers, not other writers.
“If I have any secret to my artistry, it’s that when I close my eyes, all I see is readers,” he said.
As a writer, he writes with readers in mind – people who he said are an author’s fiercest defenders and who embrace a book despite its flaws.
Diaz later fielded questions from the audience – fans and writers alike – wrestling with issues of identity and writing from the margins.
One woman asked how he contends with the “pressure to get it right” on behalf of his community and other minorities, to which he bluntly responded: “Why torment yourself with this idea that there’s this enormous group of people who need you to get it right? . . . Our work is not going to sing less, it’s not going to right injustice.”
For writers hoping to use their work to gain their parents’ acceptance, he had this to say: “Know that perhaps it can’t do anything there, but that there may be another young person wrestling with the same question who awaits you. That’s perhaps the family you may save . . . Because I was saved by artists who had never imagined themselves saving me.”
-- Canada's economic development minister Navdeep Bains at a Public Policy Forum economic summit