In the title story of Souvankham Thammavongsa’s collection How to Pronounce Knife, a young girl confidently reads, in front of her class and teacher, the word “knife” as a two-syllable construct, with a loud, not silent, “k.” “Kahneyffe” – just like her father had told her. Thammavongsa drew from her own life for the story: In Grade 1 at Charles E. Webster Public School in Toronto, she too mispronounced the word that way after consulting her father at home.
When I read that story, I thought of all the other readers who saw themselves in that girl, who have grown up mispronouncing words because their parents were not native English speakers. Kids like me, who as a child mispronounced the word “oven” – with a long “o” – because that’s how my immigrant parents said it at home.
Thammavongsa, who has also published four poetry collections, was born stateless in a refugee camp in Thailand; her parents had escaped the war in Laos. They immigrated to Canada when she was two, sponsored by a family in Mississauga. After spending two years in that family’s basement, they moved to Toronto, where she still lives.
Thammavongsa’s debut work of fiction is being recognized for its tremendous literary merit – it is shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize – but its achievements extend beyond the page.
“I do savour the acknowledgment, and the fact that the writing that I do is seen,” Thammavongsa says. “But also that the people I write about are seen and heard. Their experiences, our experiences, are at the centre of a story. But in a way that anybody could relate to.”
We can learn so much about a country’s history and character through its literature. Books can help shape a sort of cultural memory and fiction can help form a country’s cultural spine. When that looks and sounds nothing like you or the people you know, is completely foreign to your own experience, it can feel like you have been written out of your own story.
Because to see yourself in a book is a very powerful thing.
“It makes [you] feel seen and believed in this world,” says Anjula Gogia, events co-ordinator with Another Story Bookshop in Toronto.
For me, a white Canadian, it was easier to find myself in our literature. I related to Margaret Atwood’s troubled market research professional Marian in The Edible Woman and her bullied Elaine in Cat’s Eye. As a Jewish child of immigrants I also felt somewhat seen in Mordecai Richler’s work, although it skewed heavily male. But for readers who were Black, Indigenous or people of colour, it was a different story.
But Gogia, who is South Asian, says in her 25 years in bookselling, she has seen a great evolution in books and representation.
“For many of us who grew up in this country not white, we never saw ourselves reflected out there in books. And to see yourself reflected makes yourself feel whole and real and seen and believed and loved,” she says. “Especially when you have to face racism every single day. ... It makes you just feel like you can survive this world and everything that’s there.”
There is a diverse crop of Canadian books taking centre stage at online literary festivals this fall that speak to this evolution, that are part of the revolution. As the Black Lives Matter movement has sparked a cultural reckoning, it is a good time to consider what has comprised the canon and what is missing – who is missing. If the canon doesn’t look like the country, there is a problem. We don’t get the full picture.
If the canon has not kept pace with the country, things are changing, with books by BIPOC writers that speak to an experience of Canada that many of us did not grow up reading prominent on prize lists and at book festivals. Indigenous authors Michelle Good and Thomas King have books on the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize shortlist – Five Little Indians and Indians on Vacation, respectively.
Thammavongsa’s collection and Shani Mootoo’s Polar Vortex are on the Giller shortlist. Four of the past five Giller winners are BIPOC authors, including André Alexis, Madeleine Thien, Esi Edugyan and Ian Williams, who won last year for Reproduction. The novel is set in part in the suburb of Brampton, just outside Toronto, where Williams moved from Trinidad when he was about nine.
I asked Williams about his early experiences with Canlit - whether he saw anything in what he read in his early education that reflected his own experience of Canada.
“Hard no on that one; not at all, not at all. It really did feel like a separate world,” said Williams, who has just published a new poetry collection, Word Problems.
“Canlit is taught in terms of snow and prairie sky and survival, but it’s snow and sky and survival for white folks. And yet in Brampton there were tons of immigrants also dealing with this idea of snow and survival. But for an immigrant, survival is not about surviving in the woods; it’s a very different kind of survival. And I didn’t see that, no.”
Atwood literally wrote the book on this with Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature. The often-cited book was published in 1972 - and a lot has changed since then.
The other book that comes immediately to mind on this front is Roughing it in the Bush. Susanna Moodie’s 1852 account of her early days in Upper Canada is a Canlit 101 staple – in spite of its troubling portrayals of Black and Indigenous people.
Leanne Betasamosake Simpson offers a corrective in her new novel Noopiming: The Cure for White Ladies, which has drawn rave reviews and made the Giller longlist. “Noopiming” means “in the bush” in Anishinaabemowin. Simpson, who is Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg (Mississauga Anishnaabeg), notes that Moodie is celebrated in the canon of Canadian literature as a white feminist icon, but the book, with its “really racist and colonial and anti-Black structures” is a very difficult read for her and her people.
“So I wanted to write something ... that her kind of white supremacy prevented her from seeing when she got to my territory and built this white colonial world. She missed the brilliance of Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg people; she missed our ethics and political structure; she missed the love that we have for our each other and our language,” says Simpson, who lives in Peterborough, Ont. “There’s a parallel to what’s happening today, because many Canadians don’t see those other worlds that Indigenous peoples create and live in, that Black peoples create and live in. So I didn’t want to directly critique her; I wanted to create this place that I think already exists, that I already live in to some degree.”
Simpson’s characters are rich with love, humour, wisdom and life. As I read the book, considering this question of how our literature has helped shape our understanding of Canada, I couldn’t help but think of how other writers, historically, might have written about these characters: the Indigenous person who sleeps in a provincial park, or who pushes their belongings in a shopping cart when they travel.
“What I adored most about this book is that it has so little to do with the white gaze,” writes Cree poet and author Billy-Ray Belcourt in his blurb for the book. “Simpson writes for us, for NDNs, those made to make other kinds of beauty, to build other kinds of beautiful lives, where no one is looking.” Simpson says that observation makes everything worthwhile for her.
Noopiming is the kind of book that Simpson needed as a child, that the librarians couldn’t find for her, try though they did.
“I was a disappointed reader because I was constantly reading, but never finding my life, my people, my culture reflected and if I did it certainly wasn’t reflected back in a positive way,” she says. That glaring absence has helped motivate her as a writer.
When Jack Wang started writing short stories while doing his undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto, his protagonists did not look like him. Wang – who was born in Taiwan to parents who were from Nanjing, China – immigrated to Canada with his family before he was two. His early stories generally featured non-race-specific or white characters. Because that’s what he was encountering in his university courses.
“I don’t remember the reading list being very diverse and I remember also thinking: All of these stories are about the Bible and about Christianity and these aspects of Canadian life; I’m not intimately familiar with these things – can I be a writer?” says Wang, who received his MFA and PhD in the U.S. and now teaches in the Department of Writing at Ithaca College in New York.
“For a long time when I started out I didn’t write about characters who were like myself, because I didn’t think that was the purview of literature,” he continues. “It took a long time, actually, to decolonize my own mind of that notion and say, you know what? Somebody with a last name like mine or who looks like me can actually be the subject of Canadian literature.”
Wang’s debut short story collection, We Two Alone, offers a global portrait of the Chinese diaspora – from Vancouver to Vienna to South Africa and beyond. But this subject matter was not at all intuitive to him when he was starting out, he says, in part because he was not seeing himself reflected in his Canadian literature courses. So he figured, “Oh, well, this is what Canlit is really about, or these are the proper subjects of a national literature – not my life.”
That is the consequence, Wang explains, of what Vietnamese-U.S. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen calls narrative scarcity.
Books like these are changing things for young readers, but that alone is not sufficient, Wang points out.
“Diverse literature in and of itself isn’t enough if readers read these books as sort of exotic detours from what they consider a more universal humanity. I think it’s important for readers of all backgrounds, when they’re reading these books, to see these characters as stand-ins for universal human beings,” he says. “We all have to be able to see other kinds of characters as us. If we’re not doing that, if we’re seeing these characters somehow as ‘them,’ then that diverse literature is not doing everything it could be doing in the culture.”
Williams also talks about the importance of this experience being normalized. Reading a story with a Black or Indigenous protagonist or writer should in no way be exceptional.
“I would love it if people didn’t congratulate themselves for reading a diverse author,” says Williams from Vancouver, where he teaches at UBC. “Also it shouldn’t require excessive empathy to connect with a Black protagonist or a protagonist of colour. It should really be a pretty simple move to be in the head of someone who is not white, you know? So that’s what I hope for. The normalizing and a kind of fluency of empathy.”
Williams says it would have been “electric” for him as a student to see books like these on the curriculum, to be able to see himself in the stories he was assigned. It would have helped him as a reader and an aspirational writer. It would have helped him understand: “There’s a place for you here, there’s a path and there’s a possibility for you,” he says. “I think a lot of that had to be created or had to be excavated for me.”
Further, these characters need to be complicated and real, not one-dimensional, virtuous cut-outs.
“Whenever we write about characters who are people of colour, they’re often very noble and good and we’re not allowed to feel different about that. But the thing about my stories is I allow you to not like them or to question their motives,” Thammavongsa says.
“Your characters don’t always have to be a hero.”
In April, The New York Times called Thammavongsa’s collection “impressive” and lauded her “gift for the gently absurd.” The rave review was published with a photo of the author. At the factory where Thammavongsa’s mother works putting vegetables such as onions into netted bags, the front office staff saw the review, recognized the name, and sought the woman out back, in the factory area. Her mother was worried: Was she in trouble? Was she getting fired? Then they showed her the photo of her daughter on their cell phones and stood there, applauding. “That’s when she knew that I had done something special.”
What a great story that would make.
Billy-Ray Belcourt, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, Jack Wang and Ian Williams are all appearing at the Toronto International Festival of Authors, which runs Oct. 22 to Nov. 1 and the Vancouver Writers Fest, which runs Oct 19-25; Souvankham Thammavongsa will be at TIFA on Oct. 29.
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