An Interview with Larissa Lai

By Gillian Jerome and Meredith Quartermain

Read Brecken Hancock’s thoughts on reading the interview here.

GJ: Which literary outlets do you read for critical essays and book reviews?

Well, I try to keep on top of Canadian Literature and Essays in Canadian Writing. I like Sina Queyras’s blog Lemon Hound. I read Joanne Arnott’s blog. I read Jacket 2 sometimes. I do look at the Globe and Mail, Quill and Quire and the National Post sometimes, but sometimes they infuriate me, and so I go for long stretches not reading them. I read BC Bookworld. I have been known to subscribe to The London Review of Books and The New York Review of Books. This too is sporadic. I find them interesting, but they don’t speak to or for the literary communities that I’m most involved in. I also occasionally read Publisher’s Weekly. After that, I read whatever my friends send me via Facebook, email and sometimes Twitter.

GJ: Do you think that book reviews, despite all the economic shifts in publishing, still play an important role in the literary economy and the individual trajectories of authors? Have reviews made a difference in your literary or scholarly career?

Yes, of course I think book reviews are important. The review is usually the first serious public engagement with a book when it first comes out. It is used for publicity and it often becomes the basis for later critical engagement. Reviews, even short ones, affect the fates of books that generally take their authors years to write. I think that, given all the economic shifts in publishing, we need intelligent and compassionate book reviews more than ever. The market can never tell us what really matters in a democracy because the market is not a site where ideas are generated but only one where they are sanctioned or silenced. But books and book reviews can tell us these things, or at least point us in the right direction. And they can tell us lots more besides.

In response to the second part of your question, yes, book reviews have been important to me personally in relation to my literary and my scholarly career. I wrote a lot of reviews when I was starting out, and I really feel that doing so taught me how to read slowly and critically. Later, when I had books of my own, reviews were written about my work. The ones I’ve appreciated the most, both of my own work and that of other writers, have been the ones that engaged with the work on its own terms, and have articulated the relationship of the work to its broader contexts—literary, intellectual, social and political. The reviewer might also point out where the writing was particularly pointed, and perhaps also where it falls down, gets lazy or misses its mark. The ones I’ve appreciated less are the ones that address the work by the reviewer’s own criteria and find the work lacking because it doesn’t do what the reviewer does (or would do) in her or his own work. In my humble opinion, if the reviewer can’t engage the work on its own terms, she or he has no business writing about it. Let me be clear here that I don’t say this to be a snob—there are all kinds of reasons why a person might or might not be able to engage with something, having to do with cultural location, experience, interest, etc. What concerns and frustrates me are the occasions when those with cultural power use that power to denigrate work that does not speak to their own priorities. I think reviewers can still disagree with writers about what writing is for, or ought to do, but disagreement ought still to be engaged and respectful.

GJ: Since CWILA launched last spring, many Canadian writers, editors, publishers and scholars have told me informally that they think that the calibre of Canadian book reviews needs serious improvement. Some writers have argued that literary discourse, in general, is in a rather deplorable state. The fiction writer Madeleine Thien, writing about problems with the Amazon book prize, said that “a big, empty, silent nothing sits at the centre of our literary discourse.” What do you think of Thien’s position?

I roundly applaud Madeleine Thien’s article, both for its bravery and for its pointed intelligence. I really like the paragraph where she says that it is important to make literary work visible. She elaborates: “One way [to make literary work visible] would be to read, talk, consider, reflect, debate, contend. The current Canadian way, unfortunately, is to just give it a prize.” I love this because I don’t think of Madeleine Thien as someone particularly given to sarcasm, and for her to write something like this makes me think she must be very pissed off! And of course she (and many other women writers) recognize the mainstream’s shallowness of engagement, and yet, so far, it has not added up to any real change at the level of national culture. So yes, literary discourse is in a deplorable state, partly because those who control the major venues seldom showcase the full diversity of writing that is done in this country, and partly because literary culture is so massively under-resourced. If you think about the time and labour required to read 130 books of fiction for, say, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fund Prize, as opposed to how easy it is for one person to pick five books without a requirement for transparency, you can see how, under high capitalism with all its needs for efficiency, the situation that Thien describes could come about. (For readers here who do not know Thien’s article, she was named as a juror, and so sanctioner, of five books selected for the First Novel Award shortlist before she had even had a chance to touch the books.) So yes, writers and critics need to read, talk, consider, debate, reflect and contend, not just so that writers can be acknowledged for the actual work they did (as Thien wishes), but so that Canada can be a functioning democracy. For indeed, a functioning democracy requires an engaged, thinking populace. If the people don’t read and don’t think, then any choices they make are just market choices—Coke or Pepsi. In particular, the citizens of a democracy need good critical skills so that they can wisely weigh options when options are offered, and also so that they can think outside the spin that marketers and/or pundits might offer on ideas, issues, and yes, even products. Part of the job of reviewers and critics is to model those skills. I think a big part of the reason Canadian democracy is in such dire straits is that writers and critics do not do these things enough. The reason they don’t is that they are not resourced to. And citizens don’t lobby for critics and reviewers to be properly resourced because they have forgotten the value of critical practices, even though their very freedom is tied to them. Or…to be fair, some citizens remember, but those who do are not valued by hegemonic corporate culture. This is because the labour of reading, talking, considering, debating, reflecting and contending is not only time-consuming, but also disruptive to the economy as it benefits those who currently hold its reins. I think, following the work of my friend Max Haiven, that an area wide open for re-imagination is the economy itself. In the meantime, if I have a central argument here it is that there is a broad structural reason for the deplorable state of literary discourse in Canada—under-resourcing. There are, however, other reasons that have to do, to be frank, with character flaws in individual writers and critics working in a culture that supports narrow-mindedness and willful ignorance. Corporate culture tends to encourage this—one need only to look at the comments section of any national or city-based newspaper to see what passes for civic participation these days. As far as I’m concerned, any reviewer who cannot review a book on its own terms, with respect and compassion, has no business reviewing books. Let me be very clear that this doesn’t mean not being critical. But it does mean being critical in an intelligent way. So, for instance, a review of The Hundred and One Dalmatians that says “This book is a bad book because I don’t like dogs” is a stupid review. Equally moronic: “Wide Sargasso Sea is basically a rip-off of Jane Eyre.” And I have seen reviews in major Canadian publications that really were that idiotic. Not to mention destructively mean. And a review like that can sink one to ten years of an author’s life—however long it took the author to write the book—just like that. And then there are the reviews that assert that novels with unsympathetic protagonists are bad because the hero is insufficiently heroic. And reviewers who don’t like books with ideas in them! I could go on, but my intention here is to be more than just an old crank. (Though I do embrace both my inner and my public crank. I’ve earned them!) On the productive side of things, a review that says, for instance, “It seems like the author was attempting to illustrate the ways in which social mobility can have unexpected consequences for young men from abusive family backgrounds but ends up reiterating the cliché that hard work is always rewarded” is useful at least in its opening gambit. It could become a constructively critical review if it elaborates its initial assertion further. Wouldn’t it be great if CWILA could get funding to run review workshops? But I think we also need to find a way to shift the review from its low status position in both the academic and the journalistic worlds. Reviews are so little rewarded financially, socially or otherwise, unless they are vicious, which would perhaps explain the rise of vicious reviews.

GJ: You said in an interview with Smaro Kamboureli and Kit Dobson, in their incredible book, Producing Canadian Literature: Authors Speak on the Literary Marketplace, “that it would be great if we had even just one, high-quality, widely circulating review publication like The New York Review of Books. The situation is so touch-and-go with the Globe and Mail or Quill and Quire. Reviewing is not a respected or a remunerated practice and so few people do it well. Which means that writers’ real contributions to the society in which we live get undermined, misread or ignored much more often than they get taken up and put into action.” This comment suggests to me 1) that you see literature as fundamentally political and, perhaps, full of potential for social transformation and that 2) the absence of a robust literary culture, and a robust reviewing culture in particular, is not only an enormous cultural loss to a society or nation, but also a political one. Tell me more about that.

Well, I do believe that it is through its literature that a culture knows itself. So yes, literature is fundamentally political because it tells us who we are. Or perhaps more precisely, it is political because we make ourselves through it. I also recognize that literatures are always moving and changing—or rather that as writers write, publish, talk, share and debate, they move and change the literature. For culture to matter, it has to be alive. Writers, publishers, editors, reviewers and journalists have agency in this regard. Changes in practice mean changes to and in literature. This is not a bad thing—in fact it is vitally necessary for literature to remain connected to the culture from which it comes. There is a back and forth movement between reading and writing, not in the sense that readers might somehow blindly copy in life the things they read in text (if such a thing were even possible), but in the sense that there is a complex, unpredictable and ongoing relationship between life and text. So yes, writing is profoundly political, but not in a simple way.

In order to understand what literature can do, we have to understand what it has done. I think it is important to recognize that the modern idea of the nation is tied to the idea of national literature. It is also attached to imperialism, if you think about the way that the British spread ideas about Britain to the world through its literature… under construction in the same period that the British Empire was under construction. There’s a famous critic called Gauri Viswanathan who argues that British civilization, built on British literature, is a “mask of conquest”—a complicated disguise through which the British managed to convince many other peoples of their superiority and so their right to rule. That’s a story in and of itself—a powerful one that held much of the world in its thrall for centuries. Many Indigenous writers and scholars recognize this. Tom King says “stories are all we are.” There’s a witch in Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony who says that once stories are unleashed into the world they become real, and can’t be called back. If literatures have been good for building nations, disciplining citizens, and disappearing those who don’t fit into racist models of the state, then what else can they do? One might argue that literature was important in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries for building nations but that its power transferred to photography, the movies, advertising, software, and digital media through the twentieth and into the twenty-first century. This may be the case to a certain extent, but I think the book as a form still retains its culture-building power. The book is far from dead, and the rise of ebooks should change our reading and writing practices in interesting if sometimes troubling ways. I think there are lots of writers, editors, critics and reviewers who already recognize this. Rethinking my comments to Smaro and Kit, I wonder if in fact what needs to happen is better support for already existing blogs and websites including the CWILA site, Lemon Hound, ditch, and poetactics. Maybe what needs to happen is what is already happening—a turn to the web, and specifically to curated/edited sites. It would be great if these sites could pay writers, editors, organizers and reviewers. As long as we live in the economy we live in, cultural workers need to eat. I think payment for this kind of work is also important because it validates the work. But where could and should this money come from? If the mainstream papers make their advertising dollars through mainstream cruelties, then how can we return review culture to a more serious, honest and interesting footing? Further, how can we reward that serious, honest and interesting work in such a way to make it feasible for those who do it to make a living? Yes, both The London Review of Books and The New York Review of Books do serious, honest and interesting work, but they also rely on an older imagination of a sort of highbrow culture that doesn’t necessarily address the many strengths of contemporary Canadian literature and literary practice. They might be models, in part, but I’m so much more excited by what people like you, Sina Queyras, Claire Lacey, and Frances Kruk are doing. Of course, there’s no reason why a strong literary culture couldn’t support both forms. And yes, the print forms need work for gender balance and for quality of writing in the sense of honest, thoughtful and engaged critique. Funding and its sources remain a serious and difficult question. Perhaps CWILA could do a series of interviews or workshops just on this question. What are the best ways for literary projects to obtain funding? How to get it and how to attend to the various interests attached to it? Or alternately, how to engage directly with the market? Not easy questions but important ones.

GJ: And I also want to follow up on your first statement in that quote, that reviewing is not properly remunerated or respected. If we had a literary outlet that published consistently outstanding critical work (reviews and essays) and its critics were well paid, would you write for it? Do you think such a publication could potentially revolutionize Canada’s critical discourse on books?

I would do so at least from time to time. As you know, I struggle already with being spread too thin. What the world doesn’t need is more exhausted cultural workers trying to cover ever more bases. What it does need is a well-trained and well-remunerated class of professional reviewers who are just that, professional. As for my contribution, what I would do is buy it and read it. I’d help it fundraise and/or donate money to it. Yes, I do think such a publication could potentially revolutionize Canada’s critical discourse on books.

GJ: You have done twenty years of work in the literary and cultural fields in Canada as an activist, writer and scholar. Tell us about that time, especially the 1990s in Vancouver. What kind of work were you doing? What were your literary communities in Vancouver like?

I’m completing a book called Slanting “I”, Imagining “We” on precisely that time and place right now—not so much about what I was doing, but about what a range of communities were doing, together and apart. It’s a long story… But what can I tell you briefly? For me it was a time when questions of race, class, gender and sexuality were open to public debate in a broad and engaged ways. They still held their contentiousness, but productively so. Questions of history, movement, representation and justice were all available for interrogation. The work was not easy. The questions were personal and political and incredibly difficult to answer. The best answers were always contingent ones. People were at their worst when they thought they had absolute answers and also when they shut down debate. People were at their best when they listened. Different people were the best and worst people at different times. Historical trauma erupted to the surface of life on a daily basis. New traumas were enacted on a daily basis. But it was also an exciting time. I have never felt so free or so honest.

What kinds of work was I doing? Lots of different things. The groundbreaking job for me was probably the job I had as Assistant Curator for Yellow Peril: Reconsidered, which was an exhibition of 25 Asian Canadian artists working with contemporary media—in 1990 that meant film, video and photography. Paul Wong was the curator, and meeting him was a real turning point in my life in the sense that it was with him, and two other people he hired through Section 25 UIC top-off grants to work on the project—Anne Jew, who was hired to do publicity, Kevin Louie, who designed the catalogue—that I managed to find both the language and courage to deal with the repressed conditions of racialization that I’d grown up with under Trudeau’s version of multiculturalism. Paul was exactly the right person for me to meet at that time, with his unabashed punk leanings, his rage, his smarts and his ambition. Punk was a deeply romantic form for me (largely because of the age I was at when it was at its height, but perhaps also because it spoke to a sense of alienation I felt but did not have a language for), one that I felt I could never enter for racial reasons—after all, it had its own romance with fascism and fascist racial theories, though I do concede it was more complicated than that. I was a wannabe of the worst kind, lingering in the doorway, not knowing how to enter. Paul taught me how to translate the sense of alienation that punk spoke to in me into an analysis of race and a set of feelings—rage, resonance, self-awareness, joy—that were profoundly liberating.

If the anti-racist possibilities of that time were liberating, they were not entirely livable. Monika Gagnon’s articulation of the problem in her book Other Conundrums is really helpful for understanding why. Through the 1970s, the “progressive,” socially acceptable line was one of colour-blindness—attached to the idea that if people stopped using racial language, racism would go away. But it turns out that it didn’t—it was just relegated to silence and the unspeakable, but remained at work beneath the surface of what it was publicly acceptable to say. Borrowing from Fanon and ultimately Hegel, Gagnon recognizes that to name the forms of one’s racialization under conditions in which racialized terminology has been repressed is freeing because it allows you to talk about the historical conditions you and your family have been subjected to. But by the same token, the names of race—”slave,” “Black,” or, in my case, “Oriental” and “Asian” —can only have their being in relation to the name of the master—”whiteness”—and thus the language of liberation is also, at the same time, language that reproduces the conditions of oppression. So we are always caught in the “other conundrum”—to speak or not to speak, to claim or not to claim. The Asian American critic Rey Chow deals with this by saying that the best one can do is live on the edge of the disappearance of the racist name, always clinging to it (because justice is tied to it), and always longing for it to disappear (because so is racism). Not comfortable, and not nice, but perhaps real? For me, living through the 1990s was about living through this problem. No wonder people were upset all the time. It wasn’t an easy way to live. But at least people were having discussions about things that matter. In terms of community, for me to cobble together a sense of the world, I needed more than just literary community, which was relatively slow to get to the table, and deeply reactionary. I hung out with artists—at Video Inn (now VIVO) in Vancouver and the grunt gallery, where I curated a couple of small exhibitions, one entitled Telling Relations and the other entitled Earthly Pleasures. Later, I had a job at the Western Front, editing FRONT magazine. Jim Wong-Chu and the Asian Canadian Writers’ Workshop were important. I used to like talking to Kuan Foo, Sid Tan and Sean Gunn a lot—still do, though I don’t see them often. Kinesis: the Newspaper of the Vancouver Status of Women was also a hangout. I wrote many reviews for them. I also went to Toronto a lot. There, VTape and Fuse Magazine were the places where the vital discussions were happening. I was involved in a more properly literary community as well, first by attending The Appropriate Voice in 1991, a conference on the issue of appropriation for First Nations writers and writers of colour. I met Rita Wong for the first time on the bus to that conference. I met Hiromi Goto, Roy Miki, Fred Wah, Sadhu Binning, Phinder Dulai, Lenore Keeshig-Tobias, Daniel David Moses and lots of other writers for the first time at that conference. I already knew C. Allyson Lee from the Vancouver lesbian of colour community, having met her perhaps a year earlier. That conference was a real watershed. A couple of years later, I was part of the organizing committee for Writing Thru Race, along with Mark Nakada, Scott McFarlane, Michelle LaFlamme, Charmaine Perkins, Shamina Senaratne, Roy Miki, Susan Crean and others. By then, the Reform Party was rising in Alberta and the backlash against anti-racist activity in the arts was vicious and unrelenting. You may remember both Pierre Berton and Margaret Atwood raging against the conference. Also Michael Valpy and Robert Fulford bemoaning the silencing of white men in the pages of the Globe and Mail and Maclean’s magazine. Those were years of seriously high drama from which I’m still recovering! Literary communities in Vancouver were more divided than they are now. Many First Nations writers and writers of colour would complain that avant-garde writers were too academic. For us, accessibility was important. And many avant-garde writers would complain that racialized writers didn’t query the master’s language deeply enough and that accessibility was a cover for reproducing hegemonic power. I began, after a while, to realize that it was contradiction and paradox that produced discussion, art and new knowledge. So I learned to grow if not comfortable with it, then at least accepting of it. These years were deeply formative for me. I miss them very much, and I’m also so glad they are over. How’s that for a paradox?

GJ: If you consider the political shifts that you have witnessed over the past twenty years for women, and for writers of colour, given the intention of previous decades in opening up the cultural field to a wider diversity of voices and concerns, do you see progress toward more inclusive, socially just literary culture(s) in Canada?

Hm. Well, I’m not sure, first of all, that I believe in a progress model. I don’t believe that things do or should get better through the rigorous application of science, reason or good intentions. In fact, the idea of progress has led to so much destruction, displacement and disappearance, and is ideologically attached to a range of other fraught terms that make it more ambivalent than it might first appear. I’m not against the idea of progress as such, but depending on the form it takes, I’m not sure I’m always for it either. I think we need other models of time. It’s often the case that forms of justice from the past offer us things that we’ve lost in the present. So then, I’d rather go back than forwards! This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work for improvement in hopes of a better future, but it also means we shouldn’t be surprised when the future we anticipated becomes a present that is neither better nor worse than the past, but only different.

Secondly, previous decades were every bit as fraught as this one, only differently so. Some people in past decades wanted rights and voice for women and other marginalized people, some would really rather not see those things come about. So it’s important not to idealize the past. Those of us who want voice and rights for women need still to keep fighting for them. We also need to continue to work on the narrative of what equality, justice, rights or voice might mean and what they might look like.

That said, I understand what you are asking—I suppose I just think it’s really important to query its limits. We seem to be living in a moment that wants to know the numbers—is it more or is it less? Am I ahead or am I behind? I just want us to register that these kinds of measurements are related to the problems of prize culture. And that, in and of itself, paradoxically, is a sign of the great conservatism of the present moment. But yes, I do despair of the many things that women and racialized people of my generation and older despair of, that younger generations of women scorn attachment to feminism, and that neoliberalism has produced a Benetton culture that is actually convinced it has achieved racial equality. In the meantime all the racism, sexism, classism and homophobia that are built into Western culture are alive and well but, at least in Canada, we’ve carefully crafted ways to avoid talking about these things while still enacting their ancient and deeply entrenched structures. This manifests in literary culture as it does in everyday culture and in social life more broadly. So some language and some practices that were acceptable in the 1950s have, perhaps, become unacceptable. But I think there still is, for instance, a glass ceiling for women in the academy, especially Indigenous women and women of colour. Furthermore, as the West ships more and more of its least desirable forms of labour to the so-called Third World, class politics manifest differently. And colonialism is as bad if not worse than it was in the nineteenth century, if you think about the power that big oil has in the Canadian tar sands, the massive and unprecedented destruction of land, people, flora and fauna up north. If you’re asking whether I think that conditions are better in social justice terms than they were twenty or fifty years ago, I would say first of all that they are different, and secondly that those who stand for patriarchy, white supremacy, capitalism and greed have gotten a lot smarter about the spin. The lives of a few women and a few racialized folks (and a few people who occupy both categories) may have improved, but the lives of many others have gotten a whole lot worse. I mean this in terms of the survivability of lives. But yes, in literary culture too, I think that what is happening is that a few women writers, a few First Nations and Indigenous writers, and a few writers of colour are getting hearings, but many more are not. Furthermore, I think that the more overtly democratic the discourse coming from marginalized communities, the less likely it is to get heard. The good news is that this means that ideas are still powerful, and that that is why governments and corporations are so afraid of them, and why they work so hard to control both the ways that ideas are disseminated and the ways that language can work. The recent leak by the former CIA worker Edward Snowden is a testament to this.

GJ: CWILA is trying to address questions about the nature of power in the literary field, who holds it, how it’s distributed among writers and critics, and how that distribution might be influenced by gender, race and sexuality. Do you think that a count of reviews similar to what writer Roxanne Gay published at The Rumpus would be generative? Or, is the very methodology of counting according to a racial category, given the historical implications of such categories, fraught?

Well, I think the methodology of counting is fraught. And then the methodology of racial categorization is fraught. As is the methodology of gender categorization. So you’re already in the swamp! I know you’re aware of this, and that you struggled with it doing the CWILA count, as the folks who did the VIDA count must also have struggled. What’s good about the pie chart as a tool is that it gives an instant visual snapshot of a situation. That is something that, let us be very clear, speaks to a historically specific desire for information at a glance. This is a desire that is connected to a consumption culture on the one hand and a culture of population management on the other. Fast information is like fast food—it’s not really very good for you, though it might be necessary when your hunger is urgent. What fast information does is that it allows for better management of the thing being known by governments and corporations in the first instance, though sometimes also by marginalized communities. So I’m not saying that fast information is bad, but I am saying that it is a contingent historical specificity that thinking people shouldn’t accept without question. In our contemporary moment, sometimes people doing social justice work need to use the tools and cultural modes that the broader culture accepts. This is how I understand the work of CWILA. In CWILA’s case, if it can use pie charts to quickly and succinctly show the extent of the problem, then it can potentially propel a broader community into at least thinking about if not rectifying the problem. But this must be only part of the work because what gets lost along the way is an awful lot of complexity—all the debate, arguing, contention and thought that we say we want in book culture. So I think you are being very wise in making sure that there are lots of interviews and essays on the CWILA site in addition to the count.

The more specific aspect of your question asks about counting for race and whether counting in racial terms might work in the same ways that counting in gendered terms has worked. Neither are ideal. As so many scholars and activists in the world of gender, sex and sexuality have taught us, both sex and gender are continua. The categories “man” and “woman” are both crude and deeply ideological. Racial categories are fraught in both parallel and nonparallel ways. They are parallel in the sense that they are historically contingent and historically sedimentary. So, for instance the idea of “Asianness.” While it may seem to describe a set of biological characteristics, its boundaries are loose. Furthermore, there is as much biological variation within the category as there is between it and other categories. And also, one might argue, the social attachments to certain aspects—eye shape for instance—is disproportionately loaded culturally speaking compared to other aspects—leg length for example. But cultural aspects are constantly in flux. I could go on, but these arguments have been made so frequently over the years that there is no point rehashing them. Though I must comment that these recognitions seem much forgotten in the contemporary moment.

Racial categories are not parallel to gender categories in the sense that different racial categories have their own specific histories that are different from histories of sex and gender. So for instance to be pressured into the norms of femininity is not the same as having to endure racial discrimination. One is not better or worse than the other, they are just different. And, of course, some of us experience both, and experiences of intersection are not necessarily a sum of the experiences of the “single” discriminations that seem to comprise them. Even to talk this way is so horribly positivist, and lacking in any kind of richness. This is one of the great dangers of working in terms of categories.

But the problem is, of course, when discrimination has happened in categorical terms, the only way to achieve justice for it is in those same terms. This is the basic principle of affirmative action, which I think the CWILA project implicitly takes up. So if you are doing it for gender, then why not for race? The same set of problems will hold, along with many that have to do with the problems attached to specifically racialized histories. This is not a reason not to do it, but it must be done thoughtfully. And if there’s an important politic that emerges from the activism of the 1980s and 1990s, it is that bodies and experience are important. As Himani Bannerji has taught us, it matters who speaks. This is not because there is anything essential about race categories, but it is because of who has experienced and continues to experience what histories, and who has been and continues to be subject to what legislation. So it’s great for non-Indigenous people to talk to Indigenous people, and it’s great for white people to talk to people of colour. And more than that, when one inhabits the position of “whiteness” or “settler,” one needs to be careful not to tokenize. So I am happy that you are talking to me, both as a friend and as an ally, but it’s also important to recognize that I am a relatively privileged Asian Canadian woman—in terms of class and in terms of public presence. What about racialized people who do not have access to the publishing and public speaking venues that I have access to? And then, given these concerns, if someone is to do a count for race, who should it be? Should they or could they be part of CWILA, which—no offense intended, but just as an observation—has been mostly white women? Power is a complicated web. Some people will say it is a relation, more so than something some people have and others don’t. But in some pragmatic moments, perhaps the distinction between power as a substance and power as a relation is an unnecessarily fine one, especially as wealth and influence seem to be concentrating into the hands of fewer and fewer people, more and more out of touch with the daily lives of ordinary people, whatever that can mean. If this doesn’t seem to be a simple answer to your question, it’s because there is no simple answer. I think for me, the most important thing is to stand in solidarity with those whose oppressions are deeper than my own, as much as possible and whenever possible, under the leadership of those who suffer these oppressions. I look to the leadership of those from more oppressed locations for the forms and actions necessary. I cannot predict them in advance—they may or may not look like a pie chart. And of course, I’m not perfect—I don’t always do it—sometimes the petty issues of my own life, my own complicated and contradictory modes of survival, get in the way. So please don’t read me as shaking a finger. This kind of work should never be about guilt. For my part, it’s more that I’m trying to be frank because it seems politically important to do so as a way of furthering the work. I also do it because if I have any gift at all, it is as a thinker. And so I hope that my best possible thinking (on this occasion done somewhat quickly, without the benefit of research time) is my contribution.

MQ: How would you define the role of public intellectual? Who are some public intellectuals that you have found inspiring and why?

I think it is important to recognize that the term has meant different things in different societies and at different historical moments. Both Susan Crean and Smaro Kamboureli have written excellent and very different essays about the public intellectual in Canada, in a book called Tracing the Lines: Reflections on Contemporary Poetics and Cultural Politics in Honour of Roy Miki that Maia Joseph, Christine Kim, Chris Lee and I recently edited together for Talonbooks. Kamboureli suggests that the public intellectual must be, to some extent, a stranger to the community she or he writes about, though she or he must also, to some extent, be a part of it in order for her or his words to have any resonance. For her, the term is as often one of insult as one of praise. Susan Crean says that “public intellectual” is not a profession because it isn’t something that you qualify for, or something to which you can be appointed. For her it is born of social relationships. Nelson Wiseman has just published a book called The Public Intellectual in Canada in which he defines the public intellectual as someone who communicates ideas on an array of public issues to a wide audience rather than a fraternity of peers. For him, the public intellectual may be as reticent to embrace the label as she or he likes, but it ought still to stick. Kamboureli queries whether the public intellectual ought to be someone who props up the status quo or someone who holds it to account, or both.

Public intellectuals emerge in a range of ways. They might be academics who find that their work suddenly thrusts them into the public spotlight. They might be academics who are interested in social questions or questions of publicness. They might equally be activists who find the world of ideas necessary in order to do their activist work. They might be practicing writers whose work has social resonance, and are compelled by others into an overtly intellectual public life. They might be scientists who recognize the broad public import of science.

For me as for many, the term is hard to define in any single way because it has meant so many different things depending on historical moment, cultural location and context. But I do have something to say about what I think Canada needs from its public intellectuals, or perhaps more simply, its cultural workers, now. I think we really need people who can think and write intelligently and in an integrated way about the crossroads we find ourselves at, certainly in terms of gender, race and class, but also in terms of the environment, the economy and settler/Indigenous relations. These public intellectuals and/or cultural workers need to be able to do this work in an accessible way, in and for a range of publics. The same person need not speak for all issues on all occasions, but I think more people with intellectual abilities and social commitments need to be having more conversations in public venues about the issues that face us. As citizens of whatever nation, or, better, as citizens of the earth, we need to wrest control of public opinion away from Sun Media and the like, and place it back in public hands, so that ordinary people can also begin to participate in more profound and meaningful ways than in the comments sections of any of the major media outlets. The stigma of intellectualism needs to be broken. This will take work on both the part of those who embrace their intellectualism and those “ordinary people” who, though they have ideas, don’t think of their ideas as connected to the ideas of others or don’t think of their ideas as intellectual. The usefulness of the term “public intellectual” might lie then in the gesture towards intelligent and compassionate thought in public places by people with an awareness of history, a capacity for nuance, and a vested interest in relationship with one another and with the earth we live on. The public intellectuals who inspire me are the ones who are engaged in this manner—Smaro Kamboureli, Susan Crean, Lee Maracle, Roy Miki, Fred Wah, Naomi Klein, Sunera Thobani, Thomas King, James Sakej Henderson, Marie Battiste, Lenore Keeshig-Tobias, Rita Wong, Lillian Allen, Dionne Brand, Wayde Compton, Richard Fung, and Monika Gagnon to name a few.

GJ: Larissa, we’re curious to hear your thoughts on the kind of systemic support Canada offers its public intellectuals. On the one hand, universities are calling for academics to be more collaborative and more publically engaged. On the other hand, my sense is that public intellectual work isn’t really recognized or compensated by the university other than to call it service work. What barriers to increased participation in public literary conversations do scholars face? Asked differently, what systemic incentives are there to encourage scholars to do more public intellectual work outside of the academy? In your view, are academics stigmatized for writing for the literary press? Or giving public talks? Or doing activist work?

I don’t think there has been a lot of support for public intellectuals in Canada, in part because the meaning of the term, especially in a Canadian context, is so unstable. This is both good and bad. On the positive side, it means that it can be inhabited in all the idiosyncratic ways that thinkers with public profile have inhabited it. On the less positive side, it makes systemic support difficult. Canada does have wonderful things like the Massey Lectures, given by the likes of Charles Taylor, Ursula Franklin, or Jane Jacobs. And then there is that program Ideas on CBC, that was started by Phyllis Webb. But there are other public locations where ideas are being shared, but to which the term “public intellectual” fits speakers only awkwardly, and where the systemic support of “Canada,” whether you mean the government or the citizenry, would be strange if not outright undermining.

I think, for instance, of the many extraordinary speakers that emerged through the recent Idle No More movement including Chief Teresa Spence. Some of the wonderful thinkers I’ve heard here in Coast Salish Territory include Larry Grant, Cease Wyss, Glen Coultard, and Dustin Rivers. Their relationship to the state and to the idea of Canada is self-consciously oppositional. And perhaps they’d find the term “public intellectual” pompous or at least uncomfortable. But nonetheless, their sharing of ideas with both Indigenous and non-Indigenous publics has been extraordinarily generous and important for shifting the thinking of many people in a broad range of locations. This has come, in the first instance, from their generosity and initiative rather than state support or Canadian public support. Those forms of support may or may not have been desirable for the individual speakers, because without question these forms of support have their ideological attachments and loaded histories.

So while I applaud your suggestion that the state or the citizenry of the entity we call Canada might support thinkers, thought and ideas that occur within the geopolitical container we call “Canada,” there needs to be a lot more discussion about how that support is conceived and framed.

Since you ask about universities, I think it is important to recognize that universities themselves are limited entities. It would be great if, as you seem to propose in your question, universities supported academics to share their ideas with the public. This is not something that, historically, universities have focused on, but we are also living in a historical moment when such a thing could be very good for both universities and for the public. Some academics have creatively made their own public intellectual projects, with support from SSHRC:

It is equally important to recognize, however, that the university is just one social location from which to draw publicly useful thought. Check out for instance.

Universities’ modes of knowledge production are as culturally specific as any other community’s modes. Indigenous communities, immigrant communities, arts communities and activist communities offer up very different knowledge bases that are as, if not more, important than university-based forms of knowledge.

In fact, it is extremely important that thinking people keep their critical faculties working when using or addressing knowledge that comes from universities. This is especially the case as universities become increasingly entangled with the corporate world. Corporations have been knocking on the doors of universities for quite some time, and this has been very lucrative for the disciplines that are, or can be made, product-oriented. But as universities become increasingly donor dependent, no discipline is immune from influence. Again, this does not mean that they should not take corporate monies, but only that these monies should be declared, and that citizens and noncitizens need to be aware of what interests might be served by the knowledge produced under privately financed circumstances.

All that said, I think there is still much generative and democratic work that comes from within universities, particularly in the humanities, which are themselves under siege both by the university more broadly and by government and corporate interests that would happily control and contain them even more than they already do. The humanities are still dangerous to hegemonic power because they are well-suited to facilitate broader public thinking on the social, political, and economic frameworks by which we live. After all, there would be no such thing as democracy or revolution without the humanities!

Those of us who work inside the university need to be very careful not to perpetuate patronizing, top-down ways of knowing if we really want to participate in the thinking lives of our communities. So the hierarchies that universities inherit from European monastic traditions are a profound cultural barrier. I think there are elements in many universities that do desire to make connections with people outside the institution but really struggle to do this in a productive way. Some lone individuals with a lot of energy, or the willingness to sacrifice their health, or both, break out and do community-building work in addition to the expected university duties. Others try, but have limited success because they are too caught up in economies of prestige. There would have to be will at the highest levels of university administration to rework power relations both inside the institution and between the institution and the so-called public to really make a difference. Or else, we’d need a revolution from below. This is possible—such things have happened historically. I think of Paris ‘68 as the most obvious example. Those of us who are interested in doing this kind of work need to take our leadership from other locations where knowledge pools—in Indigenous, activist and arts communities. I think the Harper Conservatives are very aware that there is powerful knowledge and possibility in these places. That is why his government has been cutting funding like mad from those communities.

GJ: How would you describe the attitudes, values, and terms of recognition for public intellectual work in Canada? Are these different in other countries?

I have had the good fortune of having had the chance to travel quite a bit across the country, partly because of my writing life and partly because I grew up in the far east (Newfoundland), but make my home in the far west (British Columbia). I have of course encountered closed minds in my travels, but I have encountered just as much interest, curiosity and willingness to listen. The more I travel, the more I think that people are for the most part really interested in ideas but that they are constrained by conservative institutions and media outlets. Everyone knows that the world is a mess. Everyone is afraid. And everyone wants viable alternatives. But our thinking capacity and our loyalties are being manufactured for us and then traded like cattle. And of course, the word “intellectual” is a problematic one because it smacks of elitism, and so it is hard for people to get over.

Both Susan Crean and Nelson Wiseman think that Quebec culture is more open to the idea of the public intellectual, in part because they inherit continental European values around the concept. And of course, I think about the ways that, in France, intellectuals have been deeply involved in the life of the people, whether you think about Jean Paul Sartre marching with students and citizens during the ‘68 uprisings, or you think of Michel Foucault and Julia Kristeva regularly giving public lectures, and for that matter, writing books for nonspecialist audiences as part of their academic duties, alongside their more specialist work. In Europe in general it seems to me that intellectuals are more respected than they are here. But the flipside of this is that the societies are more hierarchical. I don’t think it would be an improvement if professors here were to suddenly attain the kinds of privileges (and privileged misbehaviour) I’ve witnessed there, particularly among male professors of a certain age.

GJ: You said in your interview with Dobson and Kamboureli that when you were working down in the States you perceived “a kind of liveliness in book culture that we don’t seem to have in Canada.” Tell me more about that. Do you think that there’s a kind of anti-intellectualism that pervades the various literary and critical cultures in Canada?

I know that the Dobson and Kamboureli book has just come out, but the interview was conducted a while ago. It would seem to me that the two countries, Canada and the US, are in a race to the bottom as far as anti-intellectualism in the public arena goes. The right has done an excellent job of spinning thinking as elitist. Those of us who care about both people and ideas and think that the well-being of people is dependent on the generation and implementation of people- and earth-positive ideas need to say so more loudly. There needs to be more public support for people with ideas. And insofar as there is a grain of truth in accusations of elitism in intellectuals, I think intellectuals and universities have a lot of cultural labour to do. They need to critique their investments in hierarchy. Right now, I’m witnessing the opposite—universities are embracing and deepening hierarchy in the name of professionalization. There’s a contradiction in the system that could use a little sorting out!

We are living at a moment when culture is particularly accelerated and the enactment of hierarchy seems—but only seems—to make things easier. I do wonder though, if things are beginning to turn. I think the acceleration of culture is attached to accelerations in the economy needed for the growth we are told is necessary for the economy to work. But there have been voices coming from many quarters for a long time, voices that are louder since the crash of 2008 that make it clear what a fiction the economy is. And it is more obvious than ever that there are just a very few, very rich people served by that fiction. How to undo that fiction and make a new story will require some thinking. So maybe intellectualism and ideas will make a comeback. I hope those forms of it that are geared towards social justice and the health of the earth will be the ones that are foregrounded. Fingers crossed.

Many thanks to Rita Wong and Hiromi Goto for their feedback and suggestions on this interview.


Larissa LaiLarissa Lai is the author of two novels, When Fox Is a Thousand and Salt Fish Girl; two books of poetry, sybil unrest (with Rita Wong), and  Automaton Biographies (solo); and a chapbook, Eggs in the Basement.  Through the 90s, she was a cultural organizer in feminist, GLBTQ and anti-racist communities in Vancouver. Now she teaches Asian Canadian literature and feminist speculative fiction as an English professor at UBC. Her critical book, Slanting “I”, Imagining “We”: Asian Canadian Literary Production in the 1980s and 1990s is forthcoming from the TransCanada Series at Wilfrid Laurier University Press.

Gillian Jerome‘s first book of non-fiction Hope In Shadows, Stories and Photographs from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (with Brad Cran) won the 2008 City of Vancouver Book Award and was shortlisted for a BC Book Prize. Her first book of poems, Red Nest (Nightwood), won the ReLit Prize for Poetry in 2010 and was shortlisted for the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize in 2010. She teaches literature at UBC, edits poetry at EVENT magazine and is the founder and chair of Canadian Women in the Literary Arts.

Meredith Quartermain is a poet and novelist living in Vancouver, British Columbia. Her first book of poetry, Vancouver Walking, won a BC Book Award for poetry; Recipes from the Red Planet was a finalist for a BC Book Award for fiction; and Nightmarker was a finalist for a Vancouver Book Award. Rupert’s Land: a novel is forthcoming from NeWest Press in fall 2013. She is also cofounder of Nomados Literary Publishers, who have brought out more than 40 chapbooks of innovative Canadian and US writing since 2002.

Published July 4, 2013

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