Writer in Residence

Down the Hall: Léonicka Valcius and #Diversecanlit, Part 2

By Evan Munday

I met with Léonicka Valcius, organizer of the #diversecanlit, on Tuesday, May 6, to talk about the the issues, challenges, and solutions involved in making CanLit a more diverse enterprise. Part one of the interview appeared yesterday. The continuation follows. If you'd like to participate, you can join in the Twitter chats every Wednesday night at 8 p.m. (EST). Just use the #diversecanlit hashtag. And this Saturday, May 24, Valcius is hosting her second in-person #diversecanlit meet-up.

EVAN: You were talking about readers, and it's weird to always put the onus on readers, but because more people are readers than in a position of power or authority, what can readers do to make more diverse CanLit?

LEONICKA: I've been talking about this a lot, and I really do not like putting the onus on readers. But I do think readers do have to take a look at what they're reading – especially if they're saying they're for more diverse literature. I think you need to take a look! Don't even do anything different. Just keep reading what you're reading, and at the end of the year, say, 'Here's my count.' And if it's embarrassing, don't share. (Laughs.) Or do share it if being embarrassed in public motivates you. And then, set a goal. Like, 'Okay, I read five books by women this year, so I'm going to try to read ten books by women next year.' But I think about the other aspects of books. Let's say you're a parent. Look at the books you're reading to your kids and think about that, too. 'What am I exposing my kids to?' And if your kid is school-aged, get your kid's reading lists. If your kid's reading list is not diverse and you are committed to diversity – and 'diversity' sounds like it's about race, but it's also about class, it's also about gender expression and identification, it's also sexual orientation, disability, it's all those things. So, look at your kid's reading list and if you feel that there' are groups that are underrepresented, bring it to the teacher's attention. Bring it to the school board's attention. Because I do know that parents bring things to the school board's attention all the time! 'I don't like that word they use there!' So, how about you say, 'Here is a book that I think should be on the reading list.' I think that's a really powerful thing that parents can do.

People have a lot more power than they think. We're readers, yes, but people have different roles. Think about the way you're reaching the most people and do that. When you have a blog, you want to blog your favourites. But if you find they all happen to be the same, maybe commit to every month doing one book or one author of such-and-such different background. I really feel people can do quite a bit for there to be more diversity. But I think it mostly has to come from the industry. People don't realize how business-to-business the publishing industry really is, because, yes, the reader buys the book. But publishing houses don't sell directly to the reader often. It's very rare that they're selling directly to a reader. They're selling to the bookseller or the retailer. So, the retailers do have a lot more power. Go tell your bookstore, sure, but the person at the counter maybe can't do something, so please don't berate the poor individual who's working the cash. 'Okay, I'm really sorry that we have a hundred copies of The Fault in Our Stars, and there's no book that …' They can't do anything about it.



EVAN: The only thing they can maybe do is order a copy for you.

LEONICKA: Yeah, they'll order a copy and then maybe they'll mention to their manager that this awful person yelled at them for fifteen minutes about the lack of diversity in their store. It's important to really think about who has the power, and how to reach them. That's an important thing to think about.

EVAN: Speaking of kids' and YA literature, what do you see the importance is of a young reader recognizing him or herself in a book? Or the opposite: going to school and never seeing someone in a book that reminds them of them?

LEONICKA: Kids are kind of sucking things in to learn about the world and to organize their world, and they're not set. They're still all gooey and mushy and ready to be moulded, right? So, kids don't often say, 'Hey, how come there's no people that look like me?' They'll just think this is how it is. Because everything I've seen – I've taken all this information you've presented me – and I have now come to the conclusion that people like me just don't belong in books. Or people like me don't get to be 'X.' Because a kid won't question it. I tell this story – and many people have similar stories – I did not write a story or imagine a story about a woman who was black with curly hair until I was twenty-two years old. It never occurred to me! It was like, this is what's desirable, and you don't question it because that's what you've always seen. There was this one teacher in New York, he had his students do an assignment: 'Draw a picture of yourself.' And they draw a white person. 'Draw a picture of your family.' Or 'play with these dolls.' They choose the white doll, no matter their background. It has been seen over and over again that kids who don't see themselves will just assume they don't belong. They don't say, 'That's not fair. I should be in the book, too.' They just assume that's the way it is. Which is obviously a problem. I think it's even more a problem with certain types of marginalization that aren't as visible. I'm thinking of sexual orientation. That's not a visible minority thing. You can't look around and say, 'Okay, I'm not in books, but my family is also like this, or I did see that one guy on the street.' You can't see that. So then you feel alone. Or people with mental illness or things like autism, where you can't see it readily, and where our society is still problematic in our treatment, so then you feel not only that you're alone, but you also feel wrong. You feel broken in some way. And I think the media and books can be part of that –can be a huge step in normalizing that in people's identities. They can say, 'Hey, this thing that you are, this identity you have? It is not an abnormality. It's not wrong. There are other people like you.'


And self-inserts are a thing. Fan fiction and all that stuff, where you're like, 'I'm going to put myself in this story and I'll be the most glamorous thing ever. And I'm also going to be blond and have boobs and be super-tall and have perfect skin.' Like, when did that become the ideal? It would be great if this person I am is my self-insert. I am glamorous and I will have super powers. Not that I'm going to be perfect by changing who I am. I think that's important. I think that's why parents, especially, who have children from these groups gravitate toward things like Doc McStuffins. A little girl and she wants to be a doctor and she's black. She's adorable! That's normal and she's wonderful. Too often – and I think even in the industry – we publish these books that are diverse and say they're 'specialty books.' They're a 'librarian buy' or 'teachers' pick' or something like that. It's there to teach something.

EVAN: We'll buy this for Asian History Month.

LEONICKA: Yeah. That's exactly it. We're going to teach them something. Okay, kids. It's about tolerance.

EVAN: Like bran. This will be good for you.

LEONICKA: Right. 'And that's why we treat each other nicely. Okay, now back to the fun books!' (Laughs.) And that's our own bias and we have to admit that. If we only open this book at this time of the year, people will think it's not a normal thing. We still don't think that this book could appeal to anybody else.

EVAN: At any time of year.

LEONICKA: Right. I think that's something that we need to admit. Okay, this is a bias I have, this is a bias in the system, and then put in measures to counteract them. That's why I say people are always afraid of the word 'quota,' but when you say, 'I'm going to read five CanLit books a year,' that's a quota! And you're doing that specifically because you're trying to counteract some habit you already have. So, I admit that, for example, I have not read queer books. I haven't read many. I think I started one by Malinda Lo, but then it's a romance and I'm not really a fan of literary books that have a romance thread. But I know that, so I need to set a goal for myself. This is a habit, I don't tend to pick those up, so until I do learn to pick them up naturally –

EVAN: – I'll need to seek them out specifically.

LEONICKA: Right. I need to think about it. Again, it comes back to not being willing to admit there's a problem. Not being willing to admit we're part of the problem.

EVAN: A lot of the Canadian industry is set up in realization that, hey, there's this unfair system. That we can't exactly compete on the same level as the Americans or the U.K. But within the Canadian system, we're not like, oh, that same imbalance or unfairness also exists among a certain population.

LEONICKA: I have a lot of hope because, unlike laws and things like that, – unlike with other types of injustice – the publishing industry is set on a set of best practices and rules that we maintain. It's not like it's set in stone anywhere. It changes quite rapidly when we need it to. Some things are very slow, but when ebooks came in, we quickly found ways to come up with new rules. When we, as an industry, decide this is not fair, that we don't want to work like this anymore, we want to pay our interns, then quickly we will find ways to do so. It is a system, but it's a system that we can change, because it's not a law. It's not like we'll have to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canadian publishing to change things. It's just saying, 'Hey, let's not do that anymore.' Then it's done. So, I think we can come a long way quickly, if we decide to.

EVAN: What's the most common excuse you hear about the lack of diversity in CanLit? And how do you usually debunk or counter that?

LEONICKA: I usually hear that it's not a problem. I mean, not hear, but rather get the sense that people believe it's not a problem. You'll say, 'We have a diversity problem,' and then they'll provide examples, 'Well, here's this book, and this book.' That's great. However, you can't point to, say, twenty books out of a thousand and say it's not a problem. You can't point to five great authors out of a hundred and say it's not a problem. And I think that's where the numbers come in. Last year, I looked at the TD Children's Book Awards, the Scotiabank Giller Prize, and the Rogers Writers' Trust Prize, and just looked at the percentages of who won in the past ten years. And that was eye-opening, because lots of people are nominated, but who wins? And it matters who wins because as an industry, we give quite a bit of money for our Canadian prizes. And they sell a lot of books. And for a writer, that money is something. It means, maybe I don't have to take on a second job. I don't have to teach this year. So, it's important to look at that. And who is nominated more than once. It was important to see, yes, maybe fifteen people of colour were nominated, but only six of those were unique.


EVAN: Like, it was Austin Clarke three times.

LEONICKA: Right. Joseph Boyden for everything. He's fantastic, yes. But if he's the only one, then that's an issue. Really, I think the biggest excuse is, 'We don't have a problem.'

EVAN: But if you point at the numbers, you can say, 'No, we do.'

LEONICKA: And that's why the data's important, which is why I love, love, love what CWILA's doing and I think that more things like that need to be done. Because then the numbers are there. Many publications were like, 'We're not sexist.' And, no, I'm sure you're not sexist, and I'm sure you're not doing it on purpose, buy here are the numbers. So what are you doing to do now?

EVAN: What publishers or organizations do you think are doing a good job in keeping an eye on that? Being aware of that and consciously doing something to encourage more diversity – either publishers or just organizations?

LEONICKA: I don't want to point at specific publishers because then if I don't say someone, it sounds like they're doing a bad job. And I think everyone could be doing better. I don't think there's a single Canadian publisher that has not published a diverse list. If they all did their counts, none of them would be at zero. But there's room for improvement everywhere. I think there's a lot of room for improvement at publishing school levels. I do remember when I walked into a classroom at Centennial. I counted. Like, 'There's seven people who aren't white. Great. Fantastic. Is this indicative of the industry? What am I getting into?' And then, also, our festivals. How are those marketed. If you go to enough events, you start to see the same people. Which is not bad because it tells you they want to be there. But maybe there's a whole group of people that didn't know this event was happening. Maybe there's a whole group you're not reaching out to. If you only put events in Quill & Quire, for example …


EVAN: – or only publicize on the CBC –

LEONICKA: Exactly. I remember Zetta Elliot (The Deep), who is a Canadian writer who now lives in New York, and is really critical of the Canadian industry and her experience trying to get published. She pointed out how the way The Word On The Street is marketed, and the affluence of the attendees was seen as a bonus. It's not bad for people to be affluent, but if you're saying that most of the people coming to your free event are rich, that means you're not reaching out to the people who aren't. Are you not reaching out to schools? It would be great if there were some program that would bus in kids from Toronto District School Board schools. I know the ROM and the Art Gallery of Ontario, if they have a exhibit they're really trying to push, they'll partner with Metrolinx and GO Transit and do some sort of rider discount to bring people in from the outer GTA. So that could be a thing. If we think it's important for people who don't live in the downtown core to get here, then maybe we should make it easier for them. Again, it's realizing it's a problem, when maybe you didn't realize it's a problem. And once you realize it, how do you counteract it?

So, those festivals – Book Summit. It's expensive to go to Book Summit. It's expensive and the panelists are not diverse. And here's the thing: I work in the industry. It would behoove me to go. I think of this as a professional development opportunity. However, to go, I would have to take a day off work unless my company was reimbursing me to let me take the day off work. And then I would have to pay quite a bit. So then it becomes discouraging that it's all the same sort of people.

EVAN: Also, if they had it repeatedly pointed out to them that their lineup of panelists are not diverse – you have five people speaking on ebooks and they're all from the same cultural background or whatever -– and if they continue to do that year after year, it almost is a problem if you keep paying to go. Then they think, 'Well, it's not a problem. People keep showing up!'

LEONICKA: Right. I said it because I'm in the industry and I feel comfortable enough that I don't think they would take offence. I feel like they would take that criticism and say, 'Okay.' And maybe will do something about it, but they won't hate me for saying it. However, there are many people who will probably look at it and say, 'That's not for me.' And just not go. And then you look at your attendance list and you use that to see who are these people who attend? What are they interested in? So it becomes a cyclical thing. Like BookCon in the States. That became a fiasco. So, they since reacted and added more people of colour on the panels, which is great. However, somebody linked to a picture of their subway ad, and it's all the white authors. So, I'm on the subway. I'm interested in books. I see this ad. Oh, I'm not really into those authors. I want to bring my twelve-year-old kid who's a black boy and he's not going to get as much out of that.

EVAN: Yeah. I want to see Colson Whitehead.

LEONICKA: So, they don't go. And then BookCon or BEA, they look at their attendance, they prepare for next year, and say, 'We've got this percentage of this type of person, how are we going to appeal to them?' What about this group? 'Well, those people don't come to our event, so we're not going to cater to them.' I feel like IFOA is diverse with the creative list that IFOA puts on, but some people have no idea just because it's marketed to the same sort of audience. 'Oh, you didn't know that Taiye Selasi (Ghana Must Go) came to Toronto? You missed out!' Because it's an interesting book and everybody loves it. But unless you are part of the club, you don't know.

Follow the #diversecanlit Twitter chats every Wednesday night at 8 p.m. (EST). And join in the in-person #diversecanlit meet-up this Saturday, May 24.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Evan Munday is the author and illustrator of the acclaimed book series for young readers, The Dead Kid Detective Agency. Both The Dead Kid Detective Agencyand its sequel, Dial M for Morna, were nominated for the Silver Birch Fiction Award.

Evan has worked in book marketing and publicity for ten years, eight of which were as publicist at Coach House Books, and he has since worked as a freelance illustrator and ebook designer.

Find out more about Evan on his website, idontlikemundays.com or follow him on Twitter at @idontlikemunday.