“CWILA and the Challenge of Counting for Race.” Panel Discussion at the Institute for Gender, Race, Sexuality, and Social Justice (GRSJ) , University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC, March 19, 2014. With Laura Moss, Mary Chapman, and Madeleine Thien.

“CWILA and the Challenge of Counting for Race.”  Panel Discussion at the Institute for Gender, Race, Sexuality, and Social Justice (GRSJ), University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC, March 19, 2014. With Laura Moss, Mary Chapman, and Madeleine Thien.


Mary Chapman (UBC English, Associate Professor of American Literature)

Laura Moss (UBC English, Associate Professor of Canadian Literature, Acting Editor of Canadian Literature: A Quarterly of Criticism and Review, CWILA board member)

Madeleine Thien (Writer, Simon Fraser University Writer-in-Residence, 2013-2014).


Since 2012, annual counts conducted by Canadian Women in the Literary Arts (CWILA) of book reviews published in Canada have revealed extreme gender inequities in Canada’s literary culture. The CWILA-GRSJ Network was formed in 2013 to measure and analyze other forms of inequities in Canada’s literary culture. One important statistic that CWILA has not yet gathered, but which might be important to consider, is the distribution of reviews based on the racial or ethnic backgrounds of authors. At the “CWILA and the Challenge of Counting for Race” panel discussion, author Madeleine Thien, along with English Department members Laura Moss and Mary Chapman, discuss the benefits and risks of some methods of calculating such a statistic.

We welcome your feedback and responses to this panel discussion. Feel free to comment in the feedback form below or send your responses to info@cwila.com

Note: Due to technical difficulties, this video recording cuts off 10 minutes before the end of the event.

Opening remarks:

Sheila Giffen:

Before I begin, I want to acknowledge that we are on the unceded territory of the Musqueum people. We want to thank members of the CWILA-network for their thoughts on today’s subject matter and especially to thank the GRSJ research assistants Magnolia Pauker and Guldana Salimjan for their excellent research that went into the background for this discussion.

Canadian Women in the Literary Arts is a non-profit organization that was created as a “discursive space to address gender disparities in Canadian literary culture, as well as the wider politics of representation, the critical reception of women’s writing in the literary press, and the ways in which we can foster stronger critical communities.”

Since its creation in Spring of 2012, CWILA has become incorporated as a non-profit organization; grown to 400 members; supported two critic-in-residence positions; and created a vibrant website with dozens of substantial interviews of writers, editors, critics, and other members of Canadian literary culture.  It has also tracked statistics on gender representation in reviews for 2 years by completing two counts of book reviews published in newspapers, magazines, and journals across the country.

The initial CWILA Count, found that although women published approximately half the books in the country, they only received an average of 38% of the book review space. The initial count also found that men write more reviews than women, men tend to review books by men, and books by male writers receive more serious critical attention than books written by women authors.

In 2013, we added the category of “genderqueer,” as an imperfect way to acknowledge people who do not identify as either male or female.

In 2013, we also tracked whether the authors and publishers of the books reviewed were Canadian. The idea was to measure the degree to which the review sections of Canadian newspapers, journals, and magazines support the network of writers and publishers in Canada.

In 2014, we are adding a count of French language reviews to expand our analysis of Canadian literary culture.

An important statistic that we’ve not been able to gather is the distribution of reviews based on the racial or ethnic backgrounds of authors.

Laura Moss:

The driving aim of such a count would be to try to measure the extent to which writers from racial or ethnic minorities are at a disadvantage in the Canadian literary culture.

But how/ do we count for race? How do we measure intersectional considerations: race, class, gender… ?

In her interview with writer and UBC professor Larissa Lai last year, CWILA founder Gillian Jerome said this: “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 Roxane Gay published in 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?”

Larissa Lai responded: “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!”

We know about the swamp. We are here today to get muddy, to talk, and to ask a lot of questions.

What does equity look like? Sound like? What are we aiming for? What would we do with such information? Why do it?

Well, it would give us a better snapshot of literary culture in Canada. It could potentially create awareness of discrepancies.  And it could address what writer Dionne Brand calls “the myth of racelessness” in Canada (qtd in Backhouse).  Or the notion of happy multiculturalism. Or celebrated diversity.  It might help us gauge the impact of public policy.

It would be useful to know how much space goes to a diversity of voices and to consider what kind of Canada and Canadian literature is being supported.

We need to think about issues of race, racial discrimination, barriers to publication (what good is there in counting reviews if people’s books aren’t being published in the first place), inaccessibility of institutional support,  and the extent of critical engagement with a multiplicity of voices.

We need to go beyond lip-service or a nod to diversity issues or the easy intersectional list (gender, race, class) I began with.

Is there racial discrimination in Canadian literary culture?  From personal accounts, the answer seems abundantly clear. But how do we quantify this? How do we count responsibly? (problems of identification are huge). I worry that categorizing/ counting people according to race would negate multiple identities and complex histories.

What does equitable review space look like?

According to the 2011 National Household Survey  (that replaced the long form census), 4% of Canadians are Aboriginal peoples and 19% are “visible minorities” (NHS definition—“persons other than Aboriginal peoples, who are non-Caucasian in race or non-white in colour”). Would equity in literary culture mean that roughly 4.5 % of review space should go to Canadians of Chinese origin? 4 % for writing by those with South Asian heritage?   3% for writing by “Blacks” (to use the fraught survey category) etc?

Is proportional representation really the goal? 19% or 23% space for work by visible minority writers? No. That seems far too programmatic for me. So what is the goal?

For the purposes of today’s talk, I examined the list of the 75 most reviewed books in the 2012 CWILA count (books reviewed 5 or more times in the 25 publications we counted).  I estimate that 9 of the books were written by visible minority writers or Aboriginal writers.

This is both a disturbingly low number and a very problematic number for me to have arrived at.  My methodology in getting to this number is deeply flawed. I am guessing based on the writers’ bios whether they could be counted in those terms.  This is hugely dangerous and not a precedent I want to set.  My extreme discomfort at doing this comes from knowing some of the history of external classification of racial or ethnic identity in Canada and the real damage such knowledge has done.

In her book on the legal history of racism in Canada, Colour-Coded, Constance Backhouse writes that the “recognition that racism is perpetuated through institutionalized and systemic practices, rather than through idiosyncratic behaviours of isolated individuals, is fundamental to the accurate assessment of Canadian racial history.”  I think this also holds true in cultural terms.

Backhouse begins her book with an anecdote about the instructions on the 1901 Canadian census when the census-takers who canvassed door to door were charged with classifying the residents by racial status using the initials w for white, r for red, b for black, and y for yellow. Backhouse concludes that “In 1901, official records portray Canada’s racial composition as a brightly painted, if uneven graph of colour.” I look at our own uneven graphs and worry.

This is an early example of the problem of counting for race. People were charged with categorizing based on narrow definitions of “colour.”  The complexity of race and ethnicity is entirely lost in this 1901 census. Problems of categorization abound in this example.

We need to be completely aware of the multiplicity of identity and not shut doors by collecting data. But how? This is the question we keep coming back to.

I worry that counting for race will reinforce what many writers of colour have already highlighted (most recently, as in this week, in essays by Aimee Phan and Fazeela Jiwa). That is, the desire to read minority writers as representatives of their racial or ethnic communities.  Authors already report the sense that they have experienced an unwritten mandate about what topics they can write about and whose books they can review.

We/ CWILA have found that women are asked to review books by women the majority of the time. I suspect that this might also be the case with writers from racial and ethnic minority groups.

In an article published in 2007, I wrote about the long history in Canadian criticism of “expectations based on presumptions about characteristics of authorial identity” and my concern about the critical desire for writers to reflect their communities (and be judged as authentic voices or not). Authenticity is an issue that often comes up. In the article, I quote the writer Matt Cohen who said this in 1988: “one of the problems of literature in Canada is that writers are known for their roles rather than their books.”

In that article I asked “what about writers who do not want to engage in authorial expectation based on ethnicity?” and looked at Rohinton Mistry who has been vocal about not wanting to be an “experts in race relations,” as Mistry put it.

My argument there is that critics sometimes interpret stories as fractals of whole communities within a nation replicating each other (with self-similarity).  This leads to reading works of fiction or poetry as documentary or sociological case studies, a loss of the art and individuality of each writer, and a kind of mandated positioning as a communal voice.

This is all to say that I think we have to be very careful here in compiling data. I come back to the question, what might it be used for and how might it be misused?

Over the course of this year we have been collecting articles and reading of ways of counting for race. Thanks again to Magnolia and Guldana for their hard work in creating annotated bibliographies of precedents.  Analyzing this research is still very much a work in progress.

I want to conclude by talking about methodology.

To measure gender CWILA instructed volunteers to look for pronouns in publisher’s material or self-identifying material. He/ she/ they…

To measure Canadian and non-Canadian, we looked at mentions of somewhere in Canada   as a place of birth, residence, or work. Canadian by birth or by choice.

To measure race and ethnicity there are no indicators like pronoun or markers of residency that will indicate race or heritage.

We think that the self-identification survey is probably the best way to get this information, based on the best practices we have read. Also, it is manageable through UBC’s survey tool (Verint).  There are two ways of doing this:  send it to publishers and ask them to distribute to writers published that year or send to writers directly.  We are working on the logistics of how to do that.  We could either use the categories such as the ones on the census or the NHS or ones like the UBC equity categories. We would make sure that Canadian was a category in and of itself so there would not be an inevitable hyphenation. We would also have a write in section and offer the ability to check all that apply. 

We will talk about the details in the question period.

Madeleine Thien:

Seventeen thoughts on the question of numbers

1. Numbers are interesting because they give us another perspective and another way of observing.

2. Counting is one way of comparing one set of incidents against another. Counting can be seen as another way of telling a story.

3. In 2012, the Canadian writer Pasha Malla noticed that he had read 6 books by men for every 1 book by a woman. In 2013, seeking to change his reading patterns, he read 52 books by men and 51 books by women. However he bravely noticed something else: 96% of the books he read were by white writers.

4. I think Pasha’s numbers are very similar to most Canadian writers I know. That is, I believe that the 96% is not an outlier.

5. In 2011 and 2012, 90% of books, that is, 655 of 742 books, reviewed in the New York Times were books written by white writers.

6. To break this down a bit: Latinos comprise 53 million, or 17% of the US population. In 2011, the New York Times reviewed 9 books by Latino or Hispanic authors: that is, 1.2% of the entire New York Times book coverage. Of those 9 lucky books, only 1 book was written by a woman. In other words, 1 Hispanic- or Latino-American woman novelist was reviewed in the New York Times in the entirety of 2011. The female Hispanic population is 13% of the entire US population, and comprises 20.5 million people.

7. Of 3,200 children’s books surveyed in the United States in 2013, just 2.9% of books featured black characters. African Americans comprise 12.6% of the American population. Latinos comprise 17% of the American population; however they are represented in just 1.7% of children’s books. Of note, 40% of public school students in America are black and Latino.

8. Until Esi Edugyan was shortlisted for the Writers’ Trust fiction prize in 2011, no woman of colour had ever even been nominated in the 14-year history of the prize. In the last 10 years of the Giller Prize, a total of 12 non-white writers have been shortlisted. Before you celebrate, this number includes Rawi Hage, M.G. Vassanji and Michael Ondaatje each twice.

9. We are not numbers. But we are using numbers to understand a system that we have created. The numbers help us see the ways in which our system is a meritocracy, a celebration of great literature, and the ways in which it is not.

10. In case you’re wondering about the career trajectory of an author: writers published by large publishers must achieve significant commercial success in order to continue publishing with those presses. The books have to sell at some point. However, it is very difficult to sell books if they are not reviewed, promoted, discussed, or disseminated. We are not talking about good reviews, let alone prize nominations. We are simply talking about existing. Publishers look at previous sales numbers, and they also look at the sales numbers for works they consider similar: in other words, any Hispanic- or Latino-American woman author is up against an entire system in which their work has been erased from the literary conversation. But if their books fail to sell, they will be made to feel as if they have only themselves — and the quality of the work — to blame.

11. On one level, we’re talking about the literary ecosystem. On another we’re talking about our communities and the ways in which we see one another, or fail to see one another. We are also talking about a system of privilege, one that makes space, accommodation and resources available to a group of people based only on the colour of their skin.

12. For the last ten to fifteen years, prize administrators and the Canada Council have made conscious and concerted efforts to ensure that juries are balanced in terms of region, gender and ethnicity. The importance of this consciousness cannot be overstated: it is essential. However, what we have not asked is for prize juries and grant juries to read better as a whole. It’s not up to the Asian, black, First Nations, Middle Eastern writer to keep reminding people to read deeper, or to remind someone that the quality of a work, or our shared humanity, is not dependent on recognizing the colour of one’s skin in the text.

13. I’m grateful the men and women who do these counts, particularly Roxane Gay, whose count of the New York Times was the first use numbers to back up perception. When her findings were published, a reader named Susan asked: “Where are the aboriginal writers?” Roxane Gay answered, “That’s a good question. We did not find any in the titles we looked at.”

14. If I’m right, and Pasha Malla’s numbers are reflective of the literary community as a whole, then think about this absurdity: 96% of the books we read are by white writers. 4/5ths of the world is not white.

15. It is very difficult to speak about race. It has taken me twenty years of being a writer in this country to say “race” and “white” aloud. In 20 years, I have made exactly one public comment on race in the literary world and I was immediately accused of reverse racism. At what point is it permissible for a writer of colour to make an observation?

16. Why are people so afraid of numbers? Why are people so threatened by another way of looking?

17. For me, the joy and freedom of writing is the joy and freedom of being other to oneself: of recognizing the multiple selves we all inhabit, our own contradictory natures, preconceptions, desires, mutability. These same descriptions can be applied to our communities, our society and our country, and it is my hope that this fullness can be reflected in the literature we read and consider, and in the lives with which we choose to engage.



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