I sat through and wandered by a lot of literary industry panels at a recent event where the large majority of the industry panelists were white. And while it’s not an unusual experience in the CanLit community, somehow it bothered me too much to “#GetOverIt” as some social media trolls like to say. Somehow I have not been able to move on – which usually means I have to write about it. But because these feelings are new and old and certainly muddy, because they’re disordered and emotionally disorganized, I’ve made them into a list – a list of things I’m tired of when it comes to the literary community in Canada.
1. I’m tired of being one of a handful of people of colour at Canadian literary events.
2. I’m tired of looking at the handful of people of colour in the room wondering if they feel outside too or if they’re blending in just fine and realizing that either way, it’s still a lonely cause.
3. I’m tired of letting that loneliness get to me – I’m tired of letting it steal my focus and reinforce my sense of being an outsider who has somehow snuck my way in.
4. I’m tired of panels full of white people where they talk about literary things that are “interesting” instead of talking about things that are important, awkward and hard.
5. I’m tired of panels full of white people where they apologize for being all white but still take all the payment and the promo because they weren’t sorry enough to say something when there was enough time for things to change.
6. I’m tired of writing about poor representation of marginalized authors on surveys and then worrying that the organizers are absolutely going to know that it’s me because no one else noticed or no one else cared or because I’m seen as some kind of diversity police officer who enjoys calling people out and laying down charges.
7. I’m tired of thinking about diversity and how to carefully represent voices and then going to events where other programmers seem perfectly fine with the same old thing.
8. I’m tired of asking publishers for their diverse writers and being given a list of ten authors who are writing “interesting books” that are “kind of diverse”.
9. I’m tired of hearing people say – whether out loud or in dismissively coded language – that talking about the overrepresentation of white voices in CanLit is not, in fact, a reflection of the effects of colonialism but rather some kind of reverse racism. It’s not reverse racism, and here’s why.
10. I’m tired of feeling guilty about talking about this and writing about this and I’m tired of worrying about what people say about me when I do.
11. I’m tired of feeling like a contradiction because I’ve lived a pretty privileged life and I have access to a whole lot, which means sometimes I’m part of the problem too.
12. Mostly, I’m tired because when people of colour are underrepresented, it almost always means that other marginalized writers are also overlooked – particularly when those marginalized writers ALSO happen to be people of colour as well. And realizing how far we still have to go to create change almost always makes me feel a kind of exhaustion that requires a strong, supportive community to renew that missing strength – which leads me back to point number one...
The views expressed by Open Book columnists are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Jael Richardson is the author of The Stone Thrower: A Daughter's Lessons, a Father's Life, a memoir based on her relationship with her father, CFL quarterback Chuck Ealey. The book received a CBC Bookie Award and earned Richardson an Acclaim Award and a My People Award as an Emerging Artist. A children's book called The Stone Thrower came out with Groundwood Books in 2016. Her essay "Conception" is part of Room's first Women of Colour edition, and excerpts from her first play, my upside down black face, are published in the anthology T-Dot Griots: An Anthology of Toronto's Black Storytellers. Richardson has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Guelph, and she lives in Brampton, Ontario where she serves as the Artistic Director for the Festival of Literary Diversity (The FOLD).