Writer in Residence

Writer at Work: Criticism is Care

By Shazia Hafiz Ramji

When I began the “Writer at Work” series for Open Book, I wanted to explore what it means for me, a poet and a writer, to be at “work.” As a woman of colour and an emerging writer, I have many roles, even though I'm primarily a “poet” and a “writer.” I'm also an editor, a teacher, a designer, a mentor, a publishing consultant, a critic, a sensitivity reader, a community-maker, a student, a host, a deejay, a musician, a dancer, etc. My work as a poet and writer is never just about the “work.” This is true for women and people of colour in particular. We wear so many "hats." We're often doing the harrowing work of asking difficult questions that bring nuance and deepen conversation, that break down agendas, bros, and mean girls to understand situations critically. We ask questions because we care about each other and want to hold each other accountable. To be critical is to ask questions and to ask questions is to care. Criticism is care.

For the “Writer at Work” series, I began with a post on using Tarot for story development. Later, I also wrote a piece called “Where I’m Writing From,” which was about writing the “other.” In trying to summarize a response to this difficult question of inhabiting the other and the limits of empathy, I had to ask where exactly I was writing from.

We’re all writing from a place where words are elusive because nuance and complexity is abundant. It’s the body. It’s silent and deep and awash in emotion. It asks questions because it is how we move into the world. A question is a gesture outward. It begins with the other in mind. A question brings us closer to ourselves by bringing us closer to others. A question is a gift.

This is my last post for Open Book as the Writer in Residence for March 2019. I want to close with a few questions to help us think through the time we live in, so that we can help each other and do the “work” we need to do to write together — not despite our differences, but because of our differences, which are our strengths.

These questions come from the texture of my life as a "writer at work." They go beyond the surface of discussions about writing, craft, representation, tokenism, diversity, inclusion, and identity politics. They are difficult questions for community. By asking them, I hope they will only incite more questions and I hope they will honour our differences and bring us together.

Questions for all of us

1) Who are you serving when you separate “craft” and “politics”? “Craft and politics” is a false binary for writers of colour in particular. Every visibly racialized writer has to navigate markers of “identity” in their work, because they are visibly racialized in life. (This doesn’t necessarily mean representations of identity in the work itself. It simply means that this is a question visibly racialized writers consider.) What are you choosing to overlook when you read a piece of writing as the nothing but the “work”?

2) If you’re in a position of power, what have you asked of marginalized writers? Often, marginalized writers are called on to discuss “identity politics” (and discussions of “craft” and expertise are lost) because the writing and publishing industry is founded on the false binary between craft and politics.  

3) Are you aware of the ways you hold privilege, despite your intersections? One form of privilege is money. Another is stability at work. Beyond the obvious, privilege could also mean having enough power to be able to be “loud” and vocal. Whose voices are you speaking over? Whose voices are you choosing not to hear? Who is too afraid to speak and why? What are you going to do about it? Do you consider who you leave out within your own intersections when you discuss identity? What is lost when you generalize?

4) How are you using your whisper networks and conversations to strengthen others? Do you include those who don't use social media? Do you withhold your knowledge from others to have power? If you do, where do you draw the line when it comes to trust? What are you working towards that's bigger than you and your immediate community? How are you going to give back? 

5) What do paths for accountability look like? Are they transparent? If the path is public, have both parties agreed to discuss it publicly? What is the difference between a threat and a discussion? How are you thinking of the outcome (in terms of reputation? Community? New bonds? Allyship)? Can your allies hold difference or do they have to hold the same views to be your ally?

That's all from me. If you'd like to think through these together, I'm here: shaziahafizramji[at]gmail[dot]com

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.

Shazia Hafiz Ramji’s fiction was shortlisted for the Malahat Review’s 2022 Open Season Awards. Her poetry was shortlisted for the 2021 National Magazine Awards and the 2021 Mitchell Prize for Faith and Poetry. Shazia’s award-winning first book is Port of Being. She lives in Vancouver and Calgary, where she is at work on a novel.