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In the early 1970s Vici Johnstone was a young woman with questions about her identity. "I'd go into the libraries and what you'd find in the libraries way back then was mostly medical," she recalls. "Medical descriptions of this condition called homosexuality."
There were no answers in the library so Johnstone turned to bookstores. "I really valued the fact that there were places I could find and there were publishers and writers who were boldly writing about being queer. This played a big part in my life."
Years later Johnstone became a publisher herself. In 2008 she bought Caitlin Press, a B.C. literary press that focussed on regional content. While Caitlin Press already had feminist roots, Johnstone had a more specific idea in mind: an imprint of Caitlin Press which would publish stories specifically by and about queer women.
It's more than an idea now -- Dagger Editions launched its first books, Oscar of Between: A Memoir of Identity and Ideas by Betsy Warland and Flight Instructions for the Commitment Impaired by Nicola Harwood in early April.
The name Dagger Editions was decided upon after a naming contest -- Johnstone says it was important for the name to be a community effort.
"...It comes from 'bulldagger' or 'diesel dyke' ... it's an old term that was a derogatory term and was intended to hurt and categorize queer women. The publisher at Pressgang put it well by saying you know, we're taking back the words that hurt us."
Johnstone's goal is to create a space specifically for queer women and to bring their stories to a wider audience. "We're still trying to help booksellers understand that there is a market for these books," she says.
Johnstone talked with rabble about the importance of queer women's voices and her plans for the new imprint.
How long did you have this idea of a queer women's press in mind and why?
I was having a hard time finding literature, and, with Little Sister's Bookstore [a LGBTQ+ focussed Vancouver bookstore] sort of closing or reducing their book section, I was finding it really difficult to find books compared to when I was younger.
I think the publishers in Canada have done a really good job of publishing queer women. There are presses all across the country that have a very diverse mandate. In fact, I think that diversity is something that Canadian publishers do very successfully, but there was nobody specifically focussing on queer women. Even Arsenal [Pulp Press, an independent Vancouver Publisher] has a queer mandate and they do queer women and queer men, but at least been historically more of a focus on men -- so it came about a long time ago for me.
What does the identifier "queer women" mean for you as a publisher?
We publish stories so for me that definition is as broad as our writers want to make it and as broad as our readers want to make it. We're living in an interesting time where those boundaries are moving all over the place and they're being redefined almost daily.
As a publisher, we're not going to define that.
If somebody has a story to tell and it's well written and it's a powerful story and their perspective is about being a queer woman in whatever manner, then we're going to consider it because it adds to the conversation.
As publishers and artists and authors that's what we do is we add to the conversation and we get the conversation going. If there's a trans man who wants to publish a story about what it was like being a lesbian and making a decision to transition, but that their experiences as a lesbian brought them to that place then that's a story that we're interested in.
We're going to try to keep it as broad as possible and let our authors and our audience define it so that we continue to be relevant and add to the conversation.
What works will Dagger Editions be publishing in the future?
We do have one book confirmed for the fall, it's by a poet and her name is Jane Byers. This is her second book of poetry the first book Steeling Effects we published two-three years ago -- she told me then that she was working on a manuscript that was to be queer women's history or queer history.
This manuscript is really compelling. There's a long poem in there that she's writing, it's a conversation between Michael Lynch the AIDS activist and this queer student and he's dead and he's talking to them from heaven and they're talking about the impact of AIDS on the queer community. It's really powerful. I resonated with me in a huge way because I was in Calgary when the AIDS epidemic hit and our community was devastated -- many of our male friends died so it impacted the entire queer community -- it's a really powerful poem. That's coming in the fall.
Why did you decide that Betsy Warland and Nicola Harwood's books would be the ones you'd go with to launch this imprint?
Betsy is so well known. She had already created quite a large audience and following and again as publishers we want to make sure on the one hand we're trying to find the new voices and give them exposure so they can develop their audience and career on the other hand we want to sell books and we want to get those stories into as many hands as possible so it made sense to start with somebody who's so well established and so well respected
[Oscar is] very compelling. It's very experimental. She writes through prose, poetry, memoir it's kind of a blend, very creative nonfiction. From the literary perspective it's extremely tight.
On the other end of it Nicola Harwood -- she's a well-known playwright and she's carved out a market for herself there but this is her book first publication of any kind. And yet she's really good at addressing important social issues like queer parenting, race dynamics, the wide spectrum of lesbian identity, but all through humour and personal experiences. Nicola speaks very accessibly about common happenings for queer women.
They're both memoir, but that's about as close as they get.
Flight Instructions is extremely dynamic, very much a traditional memoir in that it's a story about a person's life whereas Betsy Warland's is also a memoir about a person's life but she kind of moves in and out of social political commentary whereas Nicola's book is just this sort of exciting crazy life that this person had lived and it's very engaging for a more mainstream audience.
How did the launch of both books in April go?
The launch was unbelievable. It was so exciting. We had a full house, more than 130 people which is really good for a launch in Vancouver. We had all kinds of people come out in support. People were excited about this brand new imprint. We had five readers that were reading -- we had Betsey Warland and Nicola Harwood as Dagger Editions but we also invited three other authors -- the idea being that we wanted to launch Dagger Editions but what we're interested in is promoting queer women's literature.
The long term idea is that we would really like to see a queer women's literary event be an annual thing that would be hosted by Dagger Editions.
What other plans do you see on the horizon for Dagger Editions?
I see Dagger Editions growing on its own and having its own mini publishing list. But my big goal now for the next months to year is I want it to be as big a deal in Ontario and Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, Saskatchewan as it is in Vancouver. This is not intended to be a regional press even in some ways it's not intended to be a national press. I really want our books to be getting attention in the United States as well.
The short and long term goals for Dagger right now are branding and getting the word out there.
I don't intend to take anything away from my colleagues who are publishing queer women and they will continue to do that, but I want queer women in Canada to know that there's an imprint that they can write for.
I've been interviewed a number of times and the question -- I think you've got it here on your list, why focus on queer women? When I bought Caitlin Press and I decided to revive the feminist part of the press I got asked the same question by a number of media people, why women's imprint, why a press focussed just on women, aren't there enough publishers out there doing that haven't we reached the level of equality is basically what they were insinuating and my answer to them is the same as I've been giving for Dagger Editions is yes there are a lot of publishers out there doing this but being included -- or invited to the party is not like having your own party.
It's great to be included it's great to be remembered that we're out there but it's a different thing for us to be setting our own path and setting our own goals and having our own imprint that we as a community can define. It goes back to your question, what does it mean, what does publishing queer women mean and that's what I meant when I said the community will define that.
You said as a teenager you were looking around for books like this and now you're the one creating them -- what is it like to see what you've achieved?
I feel committed to it, I feel proud of it, I feel a little, bit disappointed in that it's still such a struggle for queer women or queer people coming out to find literature. I really really remember around 14 or 15 going to the Vancouver public library and looking it up because I knew that I was feeling something different ... I found a couple of books hidden away that made me feel ashamed and dirty.
I think there's a lot of resources for queer youth now which makes it a lot easier for queer youth to find their community but not everybody gonna be able to go to the community centres or feel confident enough so to have books on the shelf that queer youth and queer people can identify themselves, it makes me feel really proud of what we're doing and like I'm giving back. We publish 20 books a year and even for me it's really fun to read these books and to recognize my story.
Clarissa Fortin is rabble's books intern.