Author Megan Kinch is a settler Canadian who grew up in Scarborough, Ont.
It’s time we were honest about the sub-par, elitist, racist, garbage that passes for literature in this country.
Not only does Canadian literature (Canlit) have an unhealthy obsession with small, white towns, but it is also simply not good. The establishment is publishing boring stories, badly told, that have an implicit racism and settler-colonial bias.
Like most settler Canadians, I don’t live in a small town — I live in a city. I grew up in a shitty apartment in Scarborough, where my best friends were natives passing as white so they could rent from our racist supers, mestizo refugees from Central America as well as Irish/Martimer catholic kids like me. In Oshawa, which was pretty white in the 1990s, there was a significant but mostly unspoken indigenous presence — these all-white towns of Canadian literature in reality often have a lot of indigenous people in them. Today I’m raising my kid in another rundown apartment building in west-end Toronto, where’s she’s going to grow up with a mix of Brazilian immigrants, hipsters and upper middle class homeowners. I see none of this kind of complexity reflected in the small town protestant focused world of Canlit.
In the working-class places I’ve lived, there’s domestic violence and alcoholism and unemployment, and there’s also resilient neighbourhoods with dance classes and music, cooking amazing food, raising their kids. At McDonalds in Jane in Finch at midnight, a middle-aged black dude borrows my pen to write some poetry on a napkin. I want to read some of that poetry.
But instead Canlit wants me to read Plum Johnson’s They Left Us Everything, about a white woman spending an entire year packing up her rich parent’s house after they died. Or The Shipping News a novel about a town so boring the local newspaper carries reports of what ships are in port. Or Margaret Lawrence’s short stories about boring unhappy women in small towns. There’s clearly market for something for culturally complex, but Canlit solves this problem by getting a white guy to write a book about an Indian kid and a tiger.
The editor of a Canlit magazine argued there should be a prize for cultural appropriation, other authors and editors started a twitter campaign to fund one. This prize would only be for someone writing about other people: it specifically excludes anyone representing themselves: and usually writers of colour, indigenous writers and black writers are told to write their own stories by the industry. So a cultural appropriation prize is a kind of reverse affirmative action: which is racism. But the controversy about the appropriation prize only illustrates the business-as-usual appropriation and tokenism that runs Canlit, when they even bother to tell stories that aren’t about rich white people.
This is basically still all about Joseph Boyden. Nobody is saying his name this time, but Canlit and the CBC loved Boyden as their token Indian, and they love his liberal politics of “reconciliation” without accountability. Though APTN investigated his family tree, which has no documented indigenous ancestors, the establishment still loves him. There are of course, Canlit establishment people who don’t like Boyden — because he’s too interested in indigenous stories and they want only the whitest stories told, and won’t even admit a dubiously Metis author like Boyden.
Jesse Wente appeared on CBC radio talking about the appropriation prize controversy, with tears in his eyes, about how cultural institutions like the CBC are failing at changing to be more inclusive: “It means we will have to build it ourselves, and we will. If anything this proves our strength as a community and our endurance. Don’t mistake my emotion here, or my civility anywhere, as weakness. This is our strength, this is me being in touch with my ancestors and feeling them sitting beside me.”
But Canlit doesn’t want tears, Canlit wants un-emotional English literature about suppressing your feelings.
Canlit loves Margaret Atwood, whose Handmaids tale is about a white woman who hides all her emotions to try and live in a fundamentalist society. It includes an underground railroad for white women but only has one line that sort of almost mentions black people, who are not present in a book where white women are smuggled north on an underground female road.
Margaret Atwood, as well as a bunch of other Canlit bigwigs, signed on to an open letter started by Joseph Boyden, supporting a Canlit writer and university professor accused of multiple incidents of sexual harassment. Canlit threw Boyden under the bus, but Atwood remains the darling of the establishment. The same cultural elites allowed CBC radio personality Jian Ghomeshi get away with years of harassing and sexually assaulting women.
The Canlit system is not only against indigenous people, but against black people. Writers and editors like Leonicka (@leonicka) demonstrate on social media day after day how #canlit doesn’t include black voices. It is a system that pretends that black Canadian communities don’t exist, and that erases the contributes of Caribbean and African immigrants. Its the same system that has Desmond Cole win writing awards for his first-person work on police carding of Black people, and then pushes him out of the Toronto Star for being an activist, even though they never offered him a full-time job.
Canlit has a pretend diversity by including person of colour voice, but it prefers the lightest-skinned, most upper-class and politically unchallenging writers. But even these token voices from other backgrounds, like Michael Oondanje, have to be way better and more engaging writers than the drivel that WASP (white anglo-saxon protestants) are allowed to get away with publishing.
So why do boring Canlit books get so much traction? Because the powers that be want us to think Canada is boring, that nothing ever happens here. They want us to forget about exciting events like Louis Riels’ uprising, the horror of residential schools, children facing the messed-up realties of the foster care system, water being poisoned by mining and pipelines.
They want to erase non-indigenous struggles as well: miners killed for fighting for safety, a black neighbourhood in Halifax neglected and then torn down, generations trapped in poverty. If we pretend nothing ever happens here, then no one will do anything about it.
Canlit doesn’t have to suck so much. Lets think about Canadian music: native artists like Tanya Tagaq and Buffy St. Marie are some of the most well respected in the country. Black artists like Drake, The Weeknd and K’nnan are competitive internationally, with even white artists like Italian-Canadian Alessia Cara representing multicultural complexities of Brampton in dress and musical style.
So why does Canadian literature get away with being so crappy?
The only thing worse than Canadian Literature is Canadian Wine. Just like its alcoholic counterpart, Canlit it best consumed by blind nationalists with uneducated palates who are willing to pretend that everything is great rather than accepting that our current products are sub-par at best.