Women in CanLit rise to the top and elevate literary arts and discussion on gender equality

| November 13, 2013
photo: wikimedia commons

Last week, writer Lynn Coady received Canada’s most prestigious literary honour, the Giller Prize, for her short story collection Hellgoing, cementing that 2013 is not only the year of the short story, but also the year of the female writer in mainstream literature.

Coady’s win came less than a month after one of her mentors, Alice Munro, became the first Canadian woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, and only the 13th woman since the prize was first awarded in 1901.

"[This award] makes me proud not just to be a Canadian writer, but to be Canadian," said Coady as she tearfully accepted her Giller, adding that she’s especially proud "to live in a country where we treat our writers like movie stars." Coady’s win also marked the first win for Toronto publishers House of Anansi, which is headed by president and publisher Sarah MacLachlan.

Canada has always had its own literary superstars, though many of them have been our own little secrets. In the past month, Canadian authors seem to have been grabbing headlines more than ever, both at home and abroad.

Shortly after Alice Munro’s Nobel Prize win, Canadian-born Eleanor Catton, 28, became the youngest writer ever to win the Man Booker Prize for her 832-page novel The Luminaries.

Alice Munro twice won the Giller Prize (in 1998 and 2004), just two of the many milestones garnered from her remarkable ability to carefully craft sentences that expose the beauty and complexities of everyday life, especially among young women in rural Canada. Similarly, the short stories in Coady’s Giller-winning Hellgoing insightfully capture the ways in which we are all shaped by our relationships to the world and others around us.

There’s no doubt that Munro and Coady’s recent successes would have had CanLit lovers reeling with excitement and pride at any time; however, their wins seem impossibly timed, coming just days and weeks after old, heterosexual, white guy’s guy David Gilmour told Hazlitt magazine (and pretty much everyone else) that only old, heterosexual, white, guy’s guys are worth teaching.

"I’m not interested in teaching books by women," said Gilmour, also adding that he teaches only "serious heterosexual guys," who aren’t Canadian. Or Chinese. After which the Internet exploded, first through passionate reactions on Twitter and other social media, eventually spreading to national and international mainstream news.

Gilmour, who was longlisted for the Giller, but did not make the shortlist, stood by his comments, telling the National Post that Hazlitt reporter Emily M. Keeler "is a young woman who kind of wanted to make a little name for herself, or something."

Gilmour’s remarks garnered headlines, but the news wasn’t all bad. His attitude toward women and literature, and toward Canadian writers in general, sparked a lot of fury, bringing the discussion of women in mainstream literature to the forefront.

The discourse inspired us all to turn toward our own bookshelves to see what we’ve been reading lately. It also gave us all the opportunity to reflect on the endless list of incredible up-and-coming female Canadian writers -- Tamara Faith Berger, Ayelet Tsabari, Mariko Tamaki, Saleema Nawaz, Priscila Uppal -- who are bringing their unique voices and experiences to Canadian literature, forcing us to read outside of our lived experience (something David Gilmour obviously struggles with).

Also proving that Canadians are engaging in the discourse about women in literature, calling equity and diversity into question, are recent results from Canadian Women in the Literary Arts (CWILA), an organization that tracks statistics on gender representation in reviewing, brings issues of gender, race, class and sexuality into the national conversation, and offers women in the literary arts a support network.

rabble.ca reported earlier this year that CWILA’s 2012 numbers, "indicate a real effort [by Canadian literary publications] to take up our call and really change the ways that gender is addressed in terms of equitable representation." The 2012 results showed significant growth in the number of books by female authors reviewed and the number of book reviews written by female reviewers.

The opinions of some old white dudes like David Gilmour aren’t going to disappear over night, and we don’t need national and international awards to prove them wrong. But what is important is the discourse that the past month has inspired.

Right now, people all over the world are talking about the incredibly talented writers that make up Canada’s literary landscape. And here at home, we’re asking ourselves “Why read only the books of old, dead, white guys when we have so many amazing writers using their many unique voices to tell incredible stories here at home?"

Jessica is a graduate from Carleton University's School of Journalism, where she fell in love with feature writing and independent media. She joined rabble as an intern in 2006 and she has also been published in newspapers and magazines in Ottawa and across the GTA. She edits children's books by day and enjoys live music, good books and cozy restaurants by night.




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