“What is the one book to break barriers?”
This was the question posed during this year’s Canada Reads competition, CBC’s annual “literary title fight.” After four days of passionate debate about “books that can change perspectives, challenge stereotypes, and illuminate issues” — including some palpably shocking eliminations — the five celebrity panelists ultimately selected Kim Thúy’s Ru (translated by Sheila Fischman) as this year’s winner.
Like many of my fellow Canadians, I have eagerly followed the debates, tuning in each morning with excitement and anticipation. As an avid reader, the competition hammers home the power of reading not only as a individual activity, but also as a collective one. As a Canadian Literature scholar, the competition reminds me that the field in which I teach and research is an important one — it reminds me that literature still matters.
To be sure, Canada Reads is a unique phenomenon. Since its inception in 2002, and now bolstered by the prominence of social media, Canada Reads has captivated the Canadian imagination. More than a decade ago, Dr. Laura Moss wrote that the contest “has tapped into the increasing recognition of Canadian literature locally and the growing popularity of Canadian literature globally,” adding that “the economic and cultural spin-off is enormous.” In 2015, the contest has achieved an unprecedented popularity and status within Canadian literary culture, trending on social media and driving book sales across the country.
Despite the fact that it is a game show, Canada Reads also has the capacity to foster difficult conversations, ones which go beyond the aesthetic qualities of the competing texts. This year’s theme of “breaking barriers,” in particular, demonstrated that national progress is rarely achieved through the myth of happy multiculturalism or equality, but rather, by unveiling the hidden or untold parts of our ongoing history, so that we might work together towards addressing them. In her defense of Kamal Al-Solaylee’s Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes, Kristin Kreuk lobbied for the book’s relevance to current discussions of anti-Arab and Islamophobic policies and sentiments in Canada; Craig Kielburger championed Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian as a necessary tool to combat ongoing colonialism in Canadian society; Cameron Bailey endorsed Kim Thúy’s Ru as an important source of insight into Canada’s often-fraught relationship to immigration; Martha Wainwright defended Jocelyne Saucier’s And The Birds Rained Down as a necessary contribution to discussions of ageism and Canada’s right-to-die debate; and Lainey Lui fiercely advocated that Raziel Reid’s When Everything Feels Like The Movies is a must-read if we are to address the urgent crisis of bullying and violence against queer and trans youth.
Yet, despite the merits of Canada Reads, and despite my enjoyment of it, I cannot help but feel distressed by many the elephants in the room (and not just the absence of embattled former host Jian Ghomeshi): the numerous barriers within Canadian literary culture that have gone all but unspoken in this national debate.
Literary Histories of Violence
Canadian Literature does not have an uncomplicated history — colonialism and oppression are embedded into our national literary traditions are much as they are into any other part of Canadian society. Works of Canadian literature have, at times, erected just as many barriers as have been broken. For instance, “Confederation Poet” Duncan Campbell Scott’s poems about the “disappearance” of Indigenous communities not only reinforced the erasure of Indigenous identity in the national imagination, but dovetailed with the policies of forced assimilation that he created and reinforced in his time as deputy superintendent of the Department of Indian Affairs. Even the designation of “Canadian literature” as a placeholder for a field of study or canon of literature often elides the literary traditions of immigrant, ethnic, Quebecois, and especially Indigenous writers, particularly in terms of the relationship between literature, cultural identity, nationalism, and sovereignty.
Works of Canadian literature have also not always been celebrated in Canadian culture, even if they have received certain prestigious accolades. The censorship debate over the explicit sexuality in Raziel Reid’s When Everything Feels Like The Movies reminds me of a debate over another Governor General award-winning book: Timothy Findley’s The Wars. Published in 1977, The Wars was the subject of heated public debate about its portrayal of homosexuality as well as the scene of a gang rape perpetrated by male soldiers against one of their comrades. As evidenced by the petition against Reid’s book to have it stripped of its Governor General’s award, and scathing articles written by pundits such as Barbara Kay, not much has changed in nearly 40 years. Dissent over a book’s presentation of content or its literary merits is one thing; outright censorship is quite another.
And then there are the other elephants in the room, ones which feel so loud, so present, and so urgent that I could scarcely enjoy the competition without feeling anger and frustration building in my chest. For all of the discussions of barrier-breaking in the past week, there are yet more walls, stumbling blocks, and wide chasms that Canadian literature is facing today.
Barrier 1: Access to Literature in Classrooms
A frequent theme brought up during this year’s debates was the necessity of introducing barrier-breaking books into classrooms across the country; in particular, Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian and Raziel Reid’s When Everything Feels Like the Movies. I look back on my own experiences of reading in the classroom, of receiving copies of novels and plays that quickly became worse for wear. The abysmal underfunding faced by many school districts in many provinces across the country means that introducing even one new novel into the curriculum may prove to be impossible, if not incredibly difficult. When schools cannot afford to replace tattered textbooks, and when teachers are purchasing their own supplies for their classrooms, how can we possibly afford to introduce new works of Canadian Literature to generations of students?
Barrier 2: Making a Living
In the public imaginary, writers often tend to fall into two categories. On the one hand, there is the small coterie of writers who are able to sustain thriving careers and become household names, like Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Michael Ondaatje, Thomas King, or Douglas Coupland. On the other hand, we the have the (often-romanticized) ranks of starving artists who toil (often below the poverty line), but are often asked to do so happily for the love of literature alone. In reality, most Canadian writers cannot and do not live by writing alone. As the Toronto Star’s Deborah Dundas writes, “the excitement of the literary prize season can make it look as if the writer’s path is paved, if not with gold, at least with the dull lustre of a Canadian loonie,” despite the fact that as Dundas also reports, most writers in Canada make less than $10,000 a year from their work. Supporting the Canadian literary landscape, then, means investing our attention and our money in more than the five books a year that are publicized by Canada Reads, or those which make it to the top of other bestseller lists. It may also mean supporting organizations like the Writers’ Trust of Canada, which offers support to both emerging writers as well as writers in financial need.
As Margaret Atwood, co-founder of the Writers’ Trust, so eloquently states, financial assistance can be “the difference between a finished book and one whose pages stay blank forever.” It also means supporting the independent bookstores who are often such important parts of the burgeoning literary community — these locations often sell materials not carried at large box-stores, and also offer crucial gathering spaces for the public to come and listen to and support local writers.
Barrier 3: Valuing the Humanities
It’s all very well and good for Canada Reads to passionately argue that literature and the arts are driving forces for change in our society, but scholars, public policy-makers, artists, and educators alike are continuing to face what we know to be a crisis in the humanities. In a value-driven model of education, and in a consumer-based model of citizenship, seemingly-frivolous courses in literature or creative writing often fall by the wayside in terms of priorities. In cases where English courses are mandatory — both in the K-12 school system as well as in most post-secondary institutions, where at least a few credits of English are generally required for graduation — teachers are all-too familiar with students who enter their classrooms with preconceived notions about the value (of lack thereof) in the work we do.
When I first came to study Canadian and Indigenous literatures, I was one of these students, but I fell into it as one falls into anything: quickly, and then all at once, my head swimming with history and language. From Fred Wah’s Diamond Grill to Eden Robinson’s Monkey Beach, literature written in Canada opened up new worlds for me. As the biracial daughter of immigrants, it also opened me up to myself, to find spaces to discuss stories that resembled my own life, as well stories that helped me to understand the lives of others. As a teaching assistant at the University of British Columbia, I have taught works of Canadian and Indigenous literatures since 2011, and have had the incredible privilege to bear witness to the transformative capacities of literature. My students and I have done difficult work together. We push up against our own resistances, and the resistances of others. My classrooms have been places where literature has the capacity to teach histories that may seem cold and distant as facts, and where students can often find themselves surprised at what it is they can gain from reading and writing about literature. Yet, despite making such courses mandatory for their students, universities often fail to articulate their specific value beyond reading and writing skills or the vague descriptor of “augmenting critical thinking.”
Barrier 4: Biases in Literary Culture
Literary culture does not function merely by virtue of writers completing their manuscripts. From the types of manuscripts accepted, printed, and publicized by publishing companies, to the types of books which are reviewed (and by whom), to the dynamics in literary communities themselves, a healthy, vibrant literary culture in Canada depends on principles of equity, and striving towards the representation of a multitude of voices. All too-often, as has been demonstrated by the recent work of CWILA (Canadian Women in the Literary Arts), such inequities are often rarely-discussed, and these barriers are only beginning to be illuminated, let alone broken down.
In 2012, CWILA began an annual count of book reviews in Canadian publications, looking to investigate how gender was represented in this facet of Canadian literary culture. Like a similar count by the US organization VIDA, the CWILA count has consistently demonstrated that the gender gap in book reviews is cause for concern. Beyond crunching the numbers, CWILA also hosts a platform for “1) tracking statistics on gender representation in reviewing; 2) bringing relevant issues of gender, race and sexuality into our national literary conversation; 3) and creating a network supportive of the active careers of female writers, critics and their literary communities.”
Following conversations about gender equity and representation, CWILA has also expanded their conversation to talk about other intersections of marginalization in literary culture, including a panel on “The Problem of Counting For Race.” In addition to being on this CWILA panel, author Madeleine Thien has written a powerful piece calling out “the broad community of Canadian book critics for their collective lack of understanding of diverse cultures,” citing in particular the relative lack of Canadian literary awards ever won by writers of colour.
A difficult elephant in the room in literary culture, as it is in culture at large (even at the CBC, and even at Canada Reads, where new host Wab Kinew had to acknowledge much-embattled former host Jian Ghomeshi), is the problem of sexism and harassment within these networks. As the Ghomeshi scandal was breaking across Canada, Canadian writer Emma Healey published a powerful piece entitled “Stories Like Passwords,” in which she spoke about the various types of harassment in writing communities. As Healey writes, abusive people within the literary community are not monsters: “They write and they edit and they teach. They have small magazines and small presses and small reading series. They have publishers and editors, they have podcasts and publicists sending them books to review. The influence they wield may seem insignificant to those in their community who have moved beyond their reach, but for those who haven’t, it is more than enough to frighten or threaten or silence.”
Literary communities, like others, require more than artistic excellence or funding to survive: they require difficult conversations and a collective struggle for equity and justice.
Breaking Barriers Beyond The Books
It is a tough burden to place on individual writers and their works to do the work of breaking barriers in this country, no matter how deftly they command language and captivate audiences. I believe we know and understand that the notion of “one book to break barriers” is a conceit for the purposes of a particular cultural event, not a literary imperative in which an individual book becomes a singular solution. More importantly, works of literature (including the five finalists in this year’s Canada Reads competition), do not exist in a vacuum. They circulate as cultural objects in a fraught system of artistic merit and cultural value; as commodities within capitalism; as the material product of years of intellectual and artistic labour; as part of a conversation with other writers and with readers.
As consumers of literature written in Canada, we are important participants in this conversation, a conversation that extends beyond this week’s vibrant debate. Admittedly, even as a CanLit scholar, it was not until later in my career that I started to understand and listen to the nuances and the struggles faced by the writers that I was teaching, and by the writers I am honoured to call my friends and my colleagues.
In order for literature to achieve its fullest capacity to break barriers, we must work towards removing the obstacles that lie in the way for so many readers and writers. In moving beyond the books and towards a fuller understanding of this country’s literary cultures and histories, public engagement with literatures written in this country has the capacity to enact significant transformations.