Cautious Optimism and CanLit

by Fazeela Jiwa

In mid-November 2017, a room full of word-nerds crammed into the Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre to hold handmade, beautifully crafted chapbooks in our hands, among the other wares of the small presses that were invited to table at the event. Toronto was celebrating the tenth annual Indie Literary Market, curated by the Meet the Presses collective, and I was so relieved to be there after the big ol’ mess that has been Canada’s literary scene recently.

After the “dumpster fire” that CanLit experienced this year, exposing its sexist, racist roots in colonial nationalism for all to see, I think it’s time to celebrate the efforts of those who force change. I’ve spent this year angry but also — crucially — in awe of folks working hard to respond to ignorance and oppression, to write outside of it and in spite of it, and to promote inclusivity and accountability in publishing.

It’s award season now and we’ve seen feminist, Indigenous, or PoC writers like Cherie Dimaline, Eden Robinson, Ivan Coyote, Tanya Talaga, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, David Chariandy, Katherina Vermette, and CWILA’s very own Erin Wunker being sought out for some big ones; their work is being recognized on a large, very public scale. Just in the past few months we’ve also seen small presses bring out some challenging books like Lee Maracle’s My Conversations With Canadians or M. NourbeSe Philips’ Bla_k from BookThug’s justice-focused Essais series, Canisia Lubrin’s “poetic takedown of contemporary racism” in Voodoo Hypothesis from Wolsak & Wynn, or Robyn Maynard’s meticulously researched and urgently needed Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada from Slavery to the Present from Fernwood Publishing. It’s been especially exciting to see the emergence of new small presses like Metatron and imprints like VS. Books. And this is also the year we’ve celebrated the auspicious beginnings of Gap Riot Press, the only explicitly feminist publisher in Canada right now.

I appreciate this cynicism, especially in light of events this past year, especially because I know that most publishing is profit seeking, not equity seeking. These folks have warily observed to me that the publishing grants this year seem to privilege literary work that supports “diversity and inclusion,” those words that seem to be everywhere these days.

Co-optation of struggles for justice, as soon as they begin to be successful, is too common. Arguably, we’re seeing it right now in the institutional uptake of some of the issues that recent grassroots movements like Idle No More and Black Lives Matter have brought to the fore.

Even in this context — and at the risk of sounding naïve — I’m venturing some cautious optimism right now when it comes to conscious publishing and the public conversations that radical literature can provoke. I mean, just look at that list up there, and surely it’s still missing much more that deserves mention.

Small, independent presses have always been an important part of amplifying what needs to be heard. They’re the ones who have first published the writing that larger presses might not gamble on, in the genres and forms that are more amenable to experimentation, collaboration, and ideas that push the limits.

Specifically, many small independent presses publish chapbooks. This is a form that was first meant to democratize writing by publishing “cheap books” to put into the hands of the poor underclass, that later hosted revolutionary pamphlets, and that now is most often full of poetry — the genre best suited to breaking down what’s wrong and imagining what right might look like.

Each year at the Indie Literary Market, the bpNichol chapbook award is given to an author and their publisher for a compelling chapbook. This event and this award have had a long history, which I learned about from talking to one of the folks who has been involved in the annual book fair forever, Nicholas Power. “In the 80s, a lot of really exciting things were going on in sound poetry, concrete poetry, and small press publishing — which would be a home for a lot of experimental writing, the stuff that we couldn’t get into bookstores and wasn’t being published by the mainstream,” he said. The question for him and Stuart Ross, both of whom started Meet the Presses and are now part of the collective that administers the bpNichol chapbook award, was how to distribute all of this writing that pushed the limits?

They began a monthly event for small presses and their authors in 1984 and eventually, with the support of poet bpNichol, organized the federally funded Toronto Small Press Book Fair (part of National Book Week). In 2008, they branched out into organizing their own annual event, which is still going strong. This event celebrated independent publishing experiments; for example, Power described how they created an “instant anthology” where people contributed material throughout the event, and with the on-site photocopier they printed and bound a chapbook that same day for distribution. “It was that kind of thing,” Power said; the event spoke to the aesthetic, political capabilities of the Canadian small press, “because why should publishing be in the hands of a few?”

The bpNichol chapbook award has been given out, for over thirty years, to the author and the publisher of the chapbook that captures the hearts of the renowned poets that are tasked with the selection. According to the press release announcing this year’s finalists, “the prize aims to highlight the hard work of small press publishers and to bring to prominence exceptional new voices in writing, which of course change over the years as the social fabric of Canada changes.”

This year’s shortlist for the award is entirely comprised of women. There is not one white man among the finalists, and that’s kind of a coup when the prize is neither explicitly practising affirmative action, nor set aside for writers from non-dominant groups. Those kinds of affirmative actions are undoubtedly necessary and worthwhile, to be clear, but because we have seen how structurally biased the institutions of CanLit are, it’s important to take note when the shortlist for a regular ol’ Canadian award for excellent poetry has these demographics.

If the intent of the prize is to highlight the voices that best represent a changing Canada, then it’s so significant that this year’s shortlist featured six women poets, many of whom are women of colour or Indigenous, and all of whom write poetry that struggles with and celebrates the complexities of identity. They are as follows, (as excerpted from their bios, chapbook blurbs, and/or conversations I’ve had with them, with their permission):

Dana Claxton, a critically acclaimed Lakota First Nations exhibiting artist and film/videomaker whose “practice investigates beauty, the body, the socio-political and the spiritual.” Her chapbook The Patient Storm was published by above/ground press.

Doris Fiszer, an Ottawa writer who writes intimate poems about family history and identity. Her chapbook, The Binders, discusses major transitions in life, specifically her parents’ experience of surviving a Nazi camp, leaving a war-torn country, and living in a new country. It was published by Tree Press.

Stevie Howell, an Irish-Canadian writer and editor who wrote the chapbook Summer, published by Desert Pets Press. In Summer, Stevie explores, with hilarity, the often-dark teenage years in which we “try on, and perhaps reject, new identities.”

Sonnet L’Abbé, a poet, professor, editor, and critic. In a chapbook called Anima Canadensis, published by Junction Books, she “struggles with the possibility of articulating, in English, the relationship of a settler/racialized body, uneasy with the identities of nation and race available to them, to the tree and plant consciousness of the lands they live on.”

Nanci Lee, a Chinese-Syrian poet, adult educator, and analyst in whose work and facilitation “gendered structural analysis, self-awareness, dialogue and critical reflection are key in building local and solidarity economies.” Her chapbook Preparation, published by the FreeFall Literary Society of Calgary, explores “how we prepare for death in its many forms” and asks the questions “Who are you? What do you obey? How will you prepare for your death?”

Renee Sarojini Saklikar, teacher, lawyer, and Poet Laureate for the City of Surrey. Renee wrote the chapbook After the Battle of Kingsway, the bees (part of a longer epic poem THOT-J-BAP), in which features characters living on the West Coast after “a terrible eco-catastrophe” wrought through the themes of dystopian survival, loss, and longing. This chapbook was published by above/ground press.

This year’s winner is Sonnet L’Abbé. I think it’s no coincidence that her chapbook speaks to the critical themes, so fresh in our minds, related to this year’s celebration of 150 years since Confederation — a.k.a #Colonialism150. In this book, her writing addresses the palimpsest identity of Canada, with its colonial present overtop the much older Indigenous ways of being of and with the land. In fact, the judges noted this clearly in their description of the collection: “L’Abbé approaches with curiosity, tenderness, and contemporary imagination the question of what it means for us all — people, animals, plants, rocks, chemicals, technology, even bacteria — to be here together on this land at this moment in history. The result is a vision for accountability that nourishes and sustains, a transformation of relations that enriches.”

It seems absolutely necessary to struggle with that question right now, on the heels of the TRC, in the midst of the MMIW inquiry, and in light of over five hundred years of resistance to colonization before it was acknowledged in these most initial of ways. Accountability, I feel, is what folks are reaching for, demanding, and committing to in many communities on this land, including within our favourite dumpster fire <3CanLit<3.

When I asked L’Abbé about her thoughts on the Canadian publishing industry, she said,

There are smaller circles and scenes, but ultimately writers on the part of Turtle Island some call Canada are a still pretty small community. I think a lot about how what happens in the writing community reflects and advances what happens culturally outside of writing circles. Indigenous writers and writers of colour are leading conversations in really exciting ways right now, and I’m heartened by the listening I’m seeing. When we treat each other well and support each other in our efforts, writers continue to be the imaginers of better (or at least sustainable) collective futures for our communities.

That sense of listening to imagine otherwise is what I find different about this moment. The stories that have previously been told from the margins are not simply being consumed — they might be being heard.

It feels like ears are open in an entirely new way, and I wonder if this is due to our moment’s global high stakes combined with an access to different information and perspectives that has not been previously experienced. It’s not just in the small CanLit community that attention to ongoing struggles has been demanded; we’ve seen recent actions and campaigns like #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter infiltrate even the tightest echo chambers. Despite the danger of co-optation, as both of these movements started by black women have already been experiencing, it feels like right now is a good time to be organizing for meaningful change.

The bpNichol award is administered by the Meet the Presses Collective, who are themselves grappling with this change. “We’ve struggled as an organization to be more inclusive,” Power says, “you know, not just a bunch of old white guys getting together … who are friends from university and just keep doing the same thing but are constantly wanting it to be as diverse and as expansive as possible. But you just kind of keep replicating yourself over time.”

That acknowledgement means a lot, because it necessitates action and accountability. Power knows this, as does the small press collective: “I think it takes energy to reach out. We can’t just hope someone shows up. That has been part of our mandate the last couple of years … you have to actively create the environment for new people, you can’t just hope it happens. We have to be disrupted or affected with new energies coming in — change.”

Change! But how, exactly? How do the power structures we live within, so blatantly visible in CanLit this year, change?

For Meet the Presses, thinking critically about who gets to judge the award has been one small way to begin changing some of these long-standing structures. This year’s judges of the bpNichol chapbook award were the inimitable poets Hoa Nguyen and Helen Guri, both critical, self-reflexive, feminist poets. When I asked her what she thought about awards, Guri said,

There are lots of good reasons to not love awards, and I think most of these reasons are pretty obvious. I am not personally thrilled about awards, The System, but whenever I hear a fellow white person, usually a guy, calling for the end of ‘award culture’ I wonder if they are upset for good reasons or if it’s just racism and sexism in disguise. Awards have become an avenue (not a reliable or easy or fair avenue, mind) by which a percentage of marginalized writers — who aren’t buddy-buddy with book reviewers, who experience too much discrimination to enjoy schmoozing with publishers at parties, who can’t ask their profs for a residency reference letter because those profs sexually harassed them — can occasionally get money and attention.

And in response to the same vague question I asked L’Abbé — what do you think of the publishing industry in Canada — Guri said,

On the one hand, compared to many other countries, and for the size of our population, we have an enormous number of presses and literary magazines. It could feel like wealth — it ought to feel like wealth — except for the fact that the crowd of people running these operations — especially the ones in charge of the money and the decision of who to publish — is so homogenous. People of colour, Indigenous folks, as well as white women and queers and genderqueers of all racial identities — the list goes on — are all still sorely underrepresented and underfunded as publishers.

This underrepresentation at the top creates a powerful and distorting chain reaction, so that when we walk into those book launch parties and readings that are an inevitable part of literary life, we get the Mostly White Room (which a number of people have written about), the room where women are mostly in supporting and listening roles (read: publicists and potential affair-partners for famous, I mean Canada-famous men!), where queers are mostly invisible, where there is no wheelchair access, and where celebrated writers of colour are literally asked to leave on the assumption that they are party crashers. I’m not making this stuff up. It’s in no way a true reflection of our collective potential as an artistic, human public or of the powerful voices that exist here.

It’s that underrepresentation in positions of power that must change — that is changing. It’s not enough to publish a few authors of colour who can tell immigration tales, or a few Indigenous authors who then bear the burden of educating an ignorant public. Structural change requires the hard work of unlearning privilege, being reflective about unearned power, and giving it up to others.

The shortlisted authors that I was able to speak to about this award, chapbooks, and their ideas about the Canadian publishing industry all felt similarly — cautiously — optimistic about a seeming shift, in different ways:

Saklikar: “I love how this genre [chapbooks], historically, seems to be about the periphery … Chapbook making, because it’s labour intensive and for a small/ish market, seems somehow vaguely subversive, and like a kind of resistance, or outside of, the ‘mainstream,’ where margins flourish, and in each region I visit, there always seems to be dozens, if not hundreds of chapbooks, popping up like mushrooms.”

Fiszer: “Just having a female judge read my book who totally got what I was trying to do, it was extremely meaningful … I think that, historically, men have made women small. But women have always made tremendous contributions in society. We need to take up more space so we’re not so small. And I think we’re doing it.”

Howell: “In my editorial work (as poetry editor at This Magazine), what matters first and foremost to me is voice. I want as many original voices happening as is humanly possible. I don’t believe in the gatekeeper. Gatekeepers have disrupted the ecosystem. I believe in the ecosystem.”

Lee: “I think, like any industry or set of institutions, it [Canadian publishing] mirrors power and privilege in what and who gets reinforced, but you can also feel spaces opening. It’s always been a bit more inclusive at the edges but even some of the mainstream presses and contests seem to be picking up on the discourse about historically marginalized voices, systemic exclusion. Not hopefully out of some misguided notion of charity but because we need a wider humanity of voices and bodies to feed our imagination.”

My cautious optimism is bound up in these and so many other expressions of listening to imagine otherwise.

Action must follow listening, though, and while there’s much evidence for the growing support of ongoing struggles against myriad kinds of oppression on these stolen lands, I can’t always see the relationship between the listening and the ensuing action. Times like these are rough, and transformative change in power structures is never forthcoming.

Times like these, however, have always been, depending on who and where you are. When I see the cumulative results of long and everyday struggles, I remember that it’s not been only this year that the dumpster fire that is Canada has raged; no, it’s had a long history and there have been many who have stomped on it and, clearly, continue to do so. Like Alicia Elliot says, “We don’t need to wait for stubborn, lagging institutions to change. We never have. We can make change ourselves, now. In fact, we are.”

Here’s to 2018 not making a mockery of my optimism, so that maybe I can afford to be a little less cautious.


I’d like to acknowledge the time and effort of all the people who were kind enough to speak with me: Doris Fiszer, Helen Guri, Stevie Howell, Sonnet L’Abbé, Nanci Lee, Nicholas Power, Zarmina Rafi, Renee Sarojini Saklikar. Thanks so very much, also, to the editorial prowess of Krissy Darch, Helen Guri, and Erin Wunker.

Fazeela Jiwa is a writer and an editor who is committed to meaningful and just social change. Reach her at or @fazeelajiwa.



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