Writer in Residence

Uncomfortable Questions

By Waubgeshig Rice

One of the most common questions any writer from a marginalized background gets is “who did you write this for?” A variation of that is “what audience did you have in mind when you wrote this?” More specifically, Indigenous writers will hear “did you write this for Indigenous or for non-Indigenous people?” While audience is a key element to consider while writing, I’ve never been that fond of being asked questions like these. It forces Indigenous or marginalized writers to unfairly segregate their readers, while most white writers have the privilege of an assumed total readership.

I’ve faced this question in some form in almost every interview, panel, or public discussion since I became a published author. It’s almost always made me uncomfortable, and in the early days I always worried that no matter what I answered, I’d be alienating someone. I felt that if I said I wrote a particular book or story for an Anishinaabe audience, I’d be neglecting other Indigenous nations or cultures. If I went broader and said the story is for Indigenous readers, then I believed non-Indigenous readers would then believe it’s too “Indian” for them to understand, and ignore it.

On the other hand, if I said something I wrote was for a non-Indigenous audience in order for them to learn, then I worried I was doing Indigenous readers a disservice by excluding them from the overall conversation a story is supposed to generate. Personally, that would feel like compromising my own integrity and my responsibility to my community and people by explicitly catering to a wider audience and suggesting something that directly relates to them wasn’t in fact for them.

It’s an unfair dilemma for a writer to face, especially a younger one who is still finding their voice. While I don’t believe these questions are always ill-intended, they oblige marginalized writers to make a choice to single out readership, often in a very public way. Mainstream majority writers rarely have to answer to this because the dominant influence in the literary world just assumes everyone should be reading their work. By default, their books are front and centre in the stores and at the top of websites and on the front pages of arts sections.

In a way, this question is like a weeding-out process. Marginalized writers are insidiously asked if their work is worthy of eyes outside of their communities. How they respond can be closely scrutinized by readers and influential people in the publishing industry. People who don’t care to connect with those communities or only look at numbers and sales won’t bother to buy a writer’s book. It’s like backing marginalized writers into a corner and then putting them on the spot. Meanwhile, the majority of others don’t have to justify their work in this way.

But at the same time, it is an opportunity to empower readers who are in the margins. And many authors will proudly proclaim they’ve written something specifically for their communities. How my work is received by my community is of the utmost importance to me. And I think that should be a given - if we come from a specific and unique place, we uphold the virtues and values of those places by the act of writing and sharing our truths to begin with. In that sense, there’s no need to ask.

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.

Waubgeshig Rice is an author and journalist from Wasauksing First Nation on Georgian Bay. He has written three fiction titles, and his short stories and essays have been published in numerous anthologies. His most recent novel, Moon of the Crusted Snow, was published in 2018 and became a national bestseller. He graduated from Ryerson University’s journalism program in 2002, and spent the bulk of his journalism career at CBC, most recently as host of Up North, the afternoon radio program for northern Ontario. He lives in Sudbury, Ontario with his wife and two sons.