The New Quarterly is embarking on a two-year project to identify new, diverse literary voices we can support, and to build genuine and lasting diversity into the structure of the arts organization as a whole.
Beginning in February, 2016, Pamela Mulloy and Susan Scott began meeting once a month with three emerging non-fiction writers, all former students of Ayelet Tsabari. You could call the five of us a focus group, although in fact we have become conversation partners and guides, helping one another find our footing in a rapidly changing literary landscape.
Information circulates at these gatherings. But mostly there are stories and ideas, doubts and fears. There is food and drink and laughter. There’s some push-and-pull. Hard questions surface. Sometimes there are answers to these questions. Often there are not.
Our role, as editors, has been to listen, and to open up a place for reflection.
Each writer has agreed to step into that space by blogging about her experience, trying to break into the literary world. Here is Leonarda Carranza’s story.
I spend a weekend with TNQ, the summer 2014 issue which I recently received as a gift. I gravitate towards the only author I know. It’s a hot spring day and I spend the morning sitting in my backyard hearing Ayelet Tsabari’s voice as she tells me of her journey towards writing in English. The next day I venture further inwards. Spend the morning withTwo Poems, Kristine Tortora, and feel I found something about the familiar and the faraway, something I still can’t language.
In my day job and work with the Pages on Fire Collective, I facilitate writing workshops for newcomers and youth. These terms are not mutually exclusive—some youth are also newcomers. The people that participate in my workshops are predominantly people of colour, mostly women and young girls. They arrive at community centres, elementary public schools and libraries, reluctantly. Some come with an interest in writing, but most come out of loneliness, in an attempt to meet others facing the same isolation and disorientation that comes with leaving cultures, communities, parents and grandparents behind. Together we move through parts of the city people outside of these neighbourhoods rarely see. These are not the spaces imagined as the future of Canada’s literary scene but these are spaces filled with writers. They are spaces in Mississauga and Brampton, deep inside low income neighbourhoods, surrounded by low-rise buildings, and suburban homes.
At first, room after room of participants will introduce themselves as non-writers. As people who do not like to write, who do not enjoy writing, who can’t write, and sometimes, who fear writing. What brings them to these spaces is sometimes a hidden love of writing, a love of storytelling, and sometimes a curiosity about the possibility of writing in English.
In my workshops I tell participants to suspend their knowledge of grammar, spelling and punctuation and their valorization of these rules. If they don’t know the rules, I say, even better. I tell them we are going to write and share our stories. They do not have to write in English, but they can if they want to, and most of them do.
I have grown used to the hesitation to write, the fear of putting parts of ourselves on paper, and the fear of opening up and sharing our work with others. I understand it more as a fear of being shamed and mostly of being humiliated. Often I’ve heard from my writing instructors that fear is part of the DNA of writing, and while I agree, I know there is something different, sometimes more menacing about learning to write in English as a person of colour. Writing is especially terrifying when you have felt rejected or humiliated because of your race, accent or skin colour. The experience of racism and white supremacy has a way of impacting the body and often there is a deep feeling of fear associated with writing.
I know this from my own experience as a writer, as someone who came to Canada as a refugee, as someone who didn’t speak a word of English. Some of my first experiences of learning to speak in English are experiences of ridicule. The way I communicate in English is affected by the communities of colour that surrounded me throughout my childhood. My language practices, the way I stitch words together also reflects the variety of ways of communicating across languages.
Often co-workers, colleagues, brilliant women of colour will approach me and tell me they are also afraid of writing. Often, they speak of painful experiences of feeling shamed and silenced in classrooms. Often, they say they feel like they will never know enough or feel safe enough to write in English. Sometimes, these are people of colour who learned English as a second language. They are often people who speak with accents of lesser value, accents connected to Third World spaces and brown and black bodies. In workshops, the writers are the most surprised to find electrifying pieces of writing hidden deep inside of them, pieces that cut through the space, into our bodies, pieces that often leave us breathless.
A few weeks ago my co-worker produces one of the most beautiful pieces of poetry that I have ever read. The piece is so evocative that when we read it to people in our department, one woman nodded and held the emotion tightly in her jaw. Later, she tells me she had to force herself not to cry. The piece surprises my co-worker who has been writing for years and working on a memoire but who hesitates to see herself as a writer.
The ability to produce work with meaning that moves through and between bodies is powerful. It is a gift some of these women hold but have felt silenced from. And we are all poorer as a result of this silencing.
In a recent meeting with Pamela Mulloy editor of TNQ, I am not surprised to find she describes the writing published by TNQ as elevated and polished. I write these two words down in my notebook and spend the next two weeks thinking about them and how they produce and exclude the boundaries that determine what writing goes into TNQ and what is left out. I find the definition of polished particularly significant: naturally smooth and glossy as well as flawless; skillful; excellent.
I know it would be almost impossible for the participants in my workshops to describe their work as either polished or elevated. Most times, the work is peppered with creative spelling and missing prepositions, but it is in this work and with these stories of migration and loss that I feel most at home. The work is flawed in the same way that language is flawed, and always almost out of reach.
I tell participants, there is no one that can write like you. No one has your particular voice and experience, and this matters. The immediacy of their experiences with migration, loss and displacement comes alive in their pieces, and I know I am the one that is most indebted for having the opportunity to hear these stories. These pieces would not exist had we not arrived in these places and met week after week to write our stories.
That these stories are not being represented in our national literature is not surprising. How they come to be excluded is much more nuanced and confusing. Don’t we wake up every morning and consciously or unconsciously construct and maintain white heteronormative spaces? Granted some of us have more power in these decisions than others. And yet does the realization that stories from newcomers are out there, that Other stories are being written, does it lead publishers and editors to question and think about the multitude of ways that these stories come to be left out of their literary spaces?
That part of the ways we participate in constructing exclusionary white literary spaces is through self-censorship is surprising. Some of us are assuming that there is no place for us in TNQ and Canadian literature. Literature is elevated and the writing we produce is not above us but flows within us. We fear our syntax and writing practices will reveal our outsiderness and will exclude us from these spaces.
A Canadian literary magazine should be representative of Canada’s diversity yet, through often subtle practices, we not only learn to keep our stories out of these spaces, but also to identify as non-writers, to associate writing with elevation and privilege and power and to feel ourselves as not belonging to these spaces.
Recently, I trained participants to facilitate their own writing workshops. As we gathered to prepare for eight sessions of writing this piece emerged. It is now hanging on our writing board.
We are the most confused generation
And we are always wondering
why did we come here
We came for him and he doesn’t care about us
Respect is different here
Bond between parents and grandparent is loose here
And old stories have lost their meaning
Collectively written piece, produced in collaboration with Jyotichhanda Dey, Moona Khan and Leonarda Carranza