An Interview with Rita Wong

1. Do you write reviews? If yes, where? And why?

I used to write them for the feminist newspaper Kinesis years ago when it was still publishing (and reviewed books like SKY Lee’s Bellydancer, as well as books like Imprints and Casualties—selections from the League of Canadian Poets’ Feminist Caucus—and Sweatshop Warriors for the magazine, Herizons). I have occasionally reviewed books such as the Native Poetry in Canada anthology for the Journal of Commonwealth and Postcolonial Studies, a few in Ricepaper, and last year a couple of Asian Studies books for Topia, etc., but rarely do so these days. If I had more time, I would. Why did I review books? When people ask me to do interesting things, I try to say yes when I can but need to say no more often for the sake of my health.

2. Have you seen the American VIDA count? If not, it’s here: http://www.vidaweb.org/the-2011-count. What do you think of the count? I’m searching for comprehensive numbers for major Canadian publications, by the way. Natalie Zed wrote a blog on numbers at the National Post (http://www.nataliezed.ca/2012/closing-the-gap-reviewing-canadian-books-of-poetry-written-by-women/).

Sonnet L’abbé’s response [about the importance of an analysis that includes systemic inequities such as race] to this question resonated with me. I do care about the gender inequity, obviously, but at the same time, I see so many simultaneous inequities that I know I have to pick my battles carefully. Burn out is a constant danger.  And I’m glad that others can address other parts of the battle; allies—of whatever gender or race or class—who get it are a wonderful thing.

3. Do you think that our national critical discussions about literature, and poetry in particular, show a gender bias? What’s your experience of this?

To be honest, I tend to focus more of my attention on alternative media than self-identified national or “mainstream” ones, not because I embrace marginalization but because I’m more likely to encounter discussions that interest me there. Haven’t been looking for gender bias lately, but why I turned off a lot of that so-called mainstream media historically had to do with both its gender and racial biases. Why keep watching yourself being erased, over and over? I had to turn off in self-preservation. While I go through waves, sometimes paying careful attention, often I pay the minimum necessary attention to those spaces. If someone like Sonnet L’abbé reviews a book that interests me, I’ll read that (and I want to thank Sonnet for pulling me into spaces where I would not otherwise go!). That said, I do read or browse Canadian Literature with interest (especially when it’s a theme that interests me), and I guess that would count as “national,” hey.

Ah ha: now I am thinking of something Lee Maracle wrote in her story, “Good-bye Snauq”: “I am not through with Canada. I am not a partner in its construction, but neither am I its enemy. Canada has opened the door. Indigenous people are no longer ‘immigrants’ to be disenfranchised, forbidden, prohibited, outlawed or precluded from the protective laws of this country. But we are a long way from being participants. I am not anxious to be part of an environmentally offensive society that can preach ‘thou shalt not kill’ and then make war on people, plants, and animals to to protect and advance financial gain. The hypocrisy marring Canada’s behaviour toward us is still evident, but she struggles for maturity and while she struggles I accord myself a place.”

The question of how the national is imagined is a bigger problematic than I can address here, but briefly, I would say it needs to be reconfigured around relationship to land (rather than, for instance, imagined whiteness as its centre). Looking for literature that grapples with this question is what has led me to get more involved with ALECC (Association for Literature, Environment and Culture in Canada). As Lee Maracle put it at a recent gathering whose purpose was to develop an Indigenous Women’s Declaration: from a Coast Salish perspective, our responsibility is to the land, the water, and future generations. This makes a lot of sense for people who live on Coast Salish lands—whether they identify as Indigenous or not—to integrate into the values that guide their lives.  I would like to see more critical discussions of and engagement with these priorities, which are being taken up by all genders—to what degree, I haven’t counted. What would a feminist literary equivalent to the Save the Fraser declaration (http://savethefraser.ca/) look like? Perhaps this would be Christine Leclerc’s Enpipeline project: http://enpipeline.org/.

4. What are your thoughts on the problem of imbalanced numbers, and formulating critical communities among women that support women’s books, careers, etc.?

I still mourn the loss of Press Gang, and Sister Vision Press, and think it continues to be very important and urgent to support women’s work, especially Indigenous women writers, given where we are living.

If those presses still existed, they are where I would choose to publish because the publishers worked with a vision that I also held. Even if they weren’t able to survive financially, and were arguably casualties of a competitive economic model, they provided a strong sense of women’s community and reached readers who cared about the values and principles I care about. In 2003, a group of Press Gang authors, mourning the loss of the publisher (which resulted in authors like Ivan Coyote, Lee Maracle, and many others not receiving the royalties they were due), gathered and held a benefit (http://faculty.washington.edu/kendo/pressgang.html).  That night crystallized for me why it’s important to work with women at the centre of what you do; I felt a sense of inspiration and connection that still fuels me today. I’m not idealizing that history, because there were many difficult things about it as well, and a huge learning curve involved, but I also appreciate how much a committed group of women were able to accomplish within and/or despite the limits of their resources and abilities. When those presses closed, they left a tangible absence, a big gap that has not been filled by other publishers, notwithstanding efforts by Leaf Press, milieu, McGilligan Books, Inanna, etc.

Imbalanced numbers are more of a symptom than a cause (though one could get into a chicken-and-egg discussion) of the problems and inequities that continue to exist because of sexism, racism, colonization, classism, and so forth.  What I really appreciated about the two presses I mentioned (Press Gang and Sister Vision) is that they worked with a lived understanding and a systemic analysis of those causes; one felt that they weren’t just putting on band-aids to keep the body alive, but actually committed to nurturing a vision of a world that was substantively just and respectful of women, not just white women, but an attempt to address all women. They didn’t wait for others to build what they want; they took matters into their own hands, which involves huge amounts of risk, sweat, and love. While there are many wonderful small presses that continue to exist today, I miss that very specifically gendered sense of political commitment to social justice so clearly and directly integrated throughout a publisher’s mission.  For women of colour, it is not always possible to separate out gender from race, class, and other issues. That’s why it’s important to situate a gender analysis within a context that acknowledges intersectionality, and how oppression on one level (such as gender) cannot be separated from other forms of oppression (that play out in terms of race, class, ability, sexual orientation, and so forth). If you focus only on gender without an explicit acknowledgement of this larger context, it will likely default into a concept of women that gets read as “white” women, even if the modifier remains unsaid, because that continues to be the normative frame for many, but definitely not all, powerful people. If we learned anything from the nineties, perhaps it is that systems of privilege and oppression need to be directly named and addressed together; it’s not just about individual good intentions within those systems but the need to reimagine and reorganize those systems, as well as finding ways to materialize social justice principles in daily practices.

Recently, I read Cynthia Oka’s first manuscript of poetry; it would have been perfect for Press Gang or Sister Vision, if they still existed. She’s going to go with a new, small indy press  (http://dinahpress.nfshost.com/), and it’s heartening to see this and other projects happening. It feels more diffused and spread out today—that could be both good and bad, depending on what the goals are.

Important activity continues, whether or not it gets widely distributed. For instance, the chapbooks that the Press Release collective (mostly women, but not all) put out, and an upcoming launch on June 30 at Rhizome Café of Margins, which describes itself as “the unapologetic Vancouver-based print and electronic zine produced by self-identified Indigenous women, women of color and queer women” are encouraging signs of life.

 

Rita Wong is the author of three books of poetry: sybil unrest (co-written with Larissa Lai, Line Books, 2008), forage (Nightwood 2007), and monkeypuzzle (Press Gang 1998). Her book, forage, won Canada Reads Poetry in 2011, and she received the Asian Canadian Writers Workshop Emerging Writer Award in 1997, and the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize in 2008. Her work investigates the relationships between contemporary poetics, social justice, ecology, and decolonization.

Published on June 10, 2012

 

 

 

 

 

 

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