writing

Mother Tongues

[TW: This piece contains graphic mentions of violence and blood.]

"Cassandra" by Max Klinger (1857-1920)

“Cassandra” by Max Klinger (1857-1920)

We have inherited the mouths of our foremothers.

Sweet cupid’s bow; pursed lips.

Inside, our cheeks ragged from biting down on them

every time we are too afraid to speak.

Philomela, raped by Tereus.

Brave princess threatened to tell,

so he cut out her tongue.

It’s a good thing she knew how to weave

to thread her story somehow

and pass it along to her sister.

In the end they both nearly died,

preserved only as songbirds.

O, Philomela, you sing so sweetly now

but at the cost of your very humanity.

Cassandra, raped by Zeus.

It was he who bestowed upon her

the gift of prophecy in the first place.

But we women know too all well that little

comes for free in this business.

After brutalizing her body,

he added insult to injury:

speak your prophecies but be cursed never to be believed.

O, Cassandra, so many of your daughters

raise their voices aloud

but are driven to madness by knowing full well

they only ever echo back.

Lavinia, raped by Demetrius and Chiron.

They must have known she knew how to write

for after they forced themselves into her

they tore both her tongue from her mouth

and her hands from her arms.

“Let’s leave her to her silent walks,” they said.

O, Lavinia, blessed wretch

be their mutilation of flesh or of metaphor

how many of your sisters walk silently?

For if a rape occurs in the forest

—a bedroom, a house, a car, a classroom—

does anybody hear it?

Does it happen at all?

Our tongues are bloodied now;

we taste iron.

Tears fall, the salt-water mixes with our blood,

and we swallow.

We swallow it down,

great gulps of this silence.

Bitter as it is, many of us would prefer to drink it

knowing the poison others await to eagerly drop into our mouths

if we should ever dare

to speak.

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Open Carry

a weak smile

deflection against a cat-call from across the street

an armour of polished teeth

and that lipstick we had chosen to feel pretty

just for ourselves

so we smile for them, baby

capitulate a grin

rather than wonder if they might have wiped our frowns off our faces

with their fists

upon returning home

we find our tongues bloody, cheeks bitten from clenching them so tightly

——

headphones, earbuds

smooth plastic tucked into our ears

music

but sometimes no music at all

feigning distraction, ignorance to an insistent advance

——

gold rings, pretty things

soft plastic simulacra of cut stones

shimmer from our fingers

insurance policies

the pretense of belonging to another

faking property-claims to prevent trespassing

were these the dreams that De Beers imagined us having?

——

fake numbers

imagined partners

digits and names drawn from thin air

conjured quickly, rapid-fire

——

arsenals of phrases

some of which it has taken years to say without trembling

muttered softly to ourselves, practice makes perfect

——

i’m not interested

i would like to be friends

please leave me alone

no, thank you

no

no stop

please

stop

                      < counter-attack >

you bitch

you cunt

of course you call yourself a feminist

you friend-zoned me

misogyny isn’t systemic

the acts of individual men

just a lone shooter

not my problem

but i’m a nice guy

 there is no war on women

——

if there is no war on women

tell me

why are so many of us forced

to carry openly

——

and why are our troops falling so often

in direct mass attacks10290701_10152027538556829_7141210446534251931_n

Skewing the Data: Mixed-Race Identity & The Problem of Counting for Race

CWILAA few weeks ago, I attended a panel hosted by the Institute for Gender, Race, and Sexuality at the University of British Columbia, entitled “CWILA and the Problem of Counting for Race.” CWILA (Canadian Women in the Literary Arts) is a non-profit organization, founded in 2012, as a “discursive space to address gender disparities in Canadian literary culture, as well as the wider politics of representation, the critical reception of women’s writing in the literary press, and the ways in which we can foster stronger critical communities.” Through their first two annual counts, CWILA demonstrated that there is a significant imbalance when it comes to gender representation in Canadian literary culture. Considering the myriad ways in which these imbalances continue to circulate, (as evidenced by statements from the likes of David Gilmour, whom I have written about here) the collection of data seems to serve a useful purpose in providing some numerical and concrete grounding to what often feels like an abstract and unquantifiable problem. Data can help to back an argument, to lend “credibility,” when people would otherwise dismiss lived experiences or personal narratives as “mere anecdotes.” 

Of course, a lack of equitable gender representation in literary culture is but one facet of the problem of visibility, of the need for a dynamic articulation of the whole spectrum of lived experiences, especially by those who have histories of being silenced by systemic oppression. As CWILA continues its work, the various identity formations that intersect with gender—the intersectionality that occurs when we think through gender in relation to sexuality, race, class, and disability, among others—emerge as new spaces for discussions around how to collect data in order to demonstrate inequality in cultural production. 

Data is important. As panelist and author Madeleine Thien noted in her eloquent list of thoughts on the question of numbers, “numbers are interesting because they give us another perspective and another way of observing.” Of course, while Thien is clear that “we are not numbers,” she elaborates that “we are using numbers to understand a system that we have created. The numbers help us see the ways in which our system is a meritocracy, a celebration of great literature, and the ways in which it is not.” This could be said, too, of any way of counting for inequality and problems of representation, whether it be in the field of cultural production, political life, or the spheres of violence which often disproportionately affect marginalized populations.

Of course, the methodology of counting is not entirely un-problematic, for race as it is for any of these categories. As UBC English professor Dr. Laura Moss mentions, “To measure gender, CWILA instructed volunteers to look for pronouns in publishers’ material or self-identifying material: he/she/they, etc. To measure Canadian and non-Canadian, we looked at mentions of somewhere in Canada as a place of birth, residence, or work: Canadian by birth or by choice. To measure race and ethnicity there are no indicators like pronoun or markers of residency that will indicate race or heritage.” So, too, it must be acknowledged that counting on the basis of categories rarely, if ever, allows for fluidity of identity, for shifts, for identification somewhere on a spectrum. It’s hard to get a handle on your data-sets if they’re constantly shifting beneath you. Sometimes, in order to collect a snapshot of a given situation, we must invoke parameters of rigidity, even if they are not perfect. As writer and UBC English professor Dr. Larissa Lai stated in an interview with CWILA founder Gillian Jerome, “Well, I think the methodology of counting is fraught. And then the methodology of racial categorization is fraught. As is the methodology of gender categorization. So you’re already in the swamp!”

And so, as I reflect on this panel, I think about my own swampy self.

I am aware that when I write and speak (as a scholar, as a teacher, as an activist, and as a creative writer and blogger) that my racial identification is always lurking in the background, even when I do not directly address it. And so I wonder: simply based on my name, and on my appearance, how might I be counted in a study of literary or scholarly representation? How might I be filed away and categorized? How might I count or categorize myself?

I am deeply aware that I am, in so many ways, a question mark. A fully Italian name, with seemingly-matching olive skin. My mother tongue is German. My mother is white and my father is black. When my parents separated, my sister and I were raised by our mother in a primarily-white suburb of Vancouver. And, in many moments in my life, I have had the privilege of passing. While my sister and I share the same parentage, the rolling of the genetic dice meant that while I was born with lighter skin and straight hair, my sister was born with darker skin and curly hair. Even now, when my sister and I are out together, it is she who is more readily-racialized than I am. It is because of this complexity that the question of race, and accounting for my own racialization, has always been fraught. I am genetically, biologically, half-Black, and yet I have had virtually no connection to “Black” culture for most of my life. What is “Black” culture, anyway? I did not inherit the stories of my father’s family, the stories of growing up in Barbados, growing up Black on an island with a history of British colonization and the Atlantic slave trade. And yet, that history is still mine, somehow. It’s in my skin. Do I count in percentages? Half-half? 70%-30%? 

Sometimes, I wonder if this is how people see me. Half and half.

My attempts to reconcile my complex racial and cultural identity, however, are always affected by the ways in which others choose to define me, and by the ways in which they choose to interpret the data that I offer them. The forms of data-collection about my racial identity have all been different. The ways in which they breach the boundaries of my skin, interrogating my blood, all have different nuances and different textures.

Some are curious: “Where are you from?”

Some are probing: “Where are you really from?”

Some are presumptuous: “But aren’t you actually Italian/Spanish/Middle Eastern/Greek/Portuguese/something else?”

Some are institutional: “Please identify your racial background.”

Some are cold, callous: “What are you?”

The issue, of course, is not only the questions themselves, which can range from innocuous attempts at mutual racial or ethnic identification, to genuine curiosity, to the fetishizing eye of the guy on the street who tells me that I can’t possibly be half-white “with that ass.” The problem, all too often, is that the data which I offer is scrutinized, questioned, discounted, or trivialized. I am counted, only to be discounted.

Example One:

2003. I am sixteen years old, sitting at the year-end highschool awards ceremony, when an acquaintance casually asks me if my parents are in attendance. I glance up at the bleachers, quickly identifying my mother and proudly pointing her out.

“The woman in the red sweater?” My mother, in a blue cardigan, is seated beside a work-colleague, a black woman wearing a bright poppy sweater.

“No,” I say, with annoyance in my voice, “the woman in the blue cardigan.”

My schoolmate looks puzzled. She looks at my white mother, then back at not-white me. She frowns slightly.

“Ohhhhhhh! So are you adopted?” she exclaims.

Before I have a chance to respond, the school band chimes in with their hearty rendition of “O Canada,” and I shrink back into my seat for the rest of the night. As I cross the stage to receive my award for Student of the Year, I think: “Why can’t white mothers have brown daughters?”

I’m aware, of course, that everyone has a different relationship to these questions. Even I have different relationships to them, depending on which mood I’m in. It’s not that I don’t embrace my mixed identity, or that I am attempting to conceal it from others. In fact, sometimes I am quite happy to talk about it. What I wish to convey, however, is that self-identification is still always partially dependent on how others see my self, not merely that identity or lineage which I claim as my own. 

Quite coincidentally, as I was writing this article, I had another opportunity to see this problem of counting for race, and the politics of self-representation in action, when I filled out a survey organized by my university’s student society. The survey was broad, typical, a sort of attempt to grasp a sense of students’ experiences on campus, in terms of academics, resources, funding, discrimination, and so on.

Gender:Sexuality QsWhen it came to the identificatory questions of gender, sexuality, and disability, there were options to identify as “unsure,” to “prefer not to disclose” (re: disability), or to “prefer not to answer” (re: sexuality/gender). [Of course, the parameters of the survey require that these options be actively chosen, that one must choose non-choice or non-disclosure, rather than simply being able to leave all options blank.]

Yet, when it came to the question of race, there was no such option available. While I could choose more than one category, for instance, both “White” and “Black,” there was no way for me to express that my biology is never read as such, and thus has little impact on how I actually experience race as an embodied being. And heaven forbid I should choose the category of “Other – Please Specify” a category that I have stared down far too many times on census forms and applications, a category that reminds me that I am a question mark, I am neither/nor, I am both/and, I am in-between, I am invisibly-visible, I am different things to whoever is reading me, I am exotic cheekbones and a year-round tan and I must-be-adopted and I am only ever-always-Other. Please specify.

Not answering is almost never a choice, neither in the survey nor in my day-to-day experience.

noanswer

I don’t have a choice.

I do deflect answering for a while, sometimes, if I’m feeling unduly pressured or uncomfortable. I try to ask why they’re interested. I do try. But I am so often worn down, tired of prying eyes and mouths, and so I give them what they want, I give them their data. 

Example Two:

2013. I post a link to an article about mixed-race identity on Facebook, with a preamble of sorts about how it much it resonates with me.

An acquaintance, who clearly hasn’t read the article (which is funny, because it is exactly all the issues involved in questioning someone about race), comments, publicly: “what r u mixed with hun?”

I don’t bother to dignify that with a public answer. 

Later that day, I get a private message. No offense meant by the question, it’s just a QUESTION, you see, it’s just because she thinks I look exotic and beautiful and she’s just so CURIOUS. But, so, what am I actually, though.

It’s late, and I’m tired of this. I reluctantly type: “My mother is white, and my father is black.”

A bubbly response, emoticons galore: “Oh! I totally knew it! I’m like a pro at guessing race, LOL!”

I close the conversation on Facebook. I walk away. I feel defeated. I feel as though my data, my cells, my blood, my skin have been stolen, perverted, manipulated, sold for exchange on the market of exotic Otherness that is traded like trinkets. I am merely a token, a prize in a game of “What Kind of Not-White Are You?” and I have participated, albeit under coercion, in my own objectification.

But I am a human being, not a game.

It is perhaps, no surprise, then, that when I am asked to identify myself, even for the purposes of having my voice heard, or my lived experienced counted, for recognition that yes, I am a writer and scholar and thinker of colour, I sometimes cringe. This is it, this is the swamp of racial identification, the part of the double-edged sword that turns against so many of us. Yes, I am no longer a question mark when I offer up data, but I am still always Othered. I don’t know quite how to reconcile that. I have far more questions than answers, more lingering doubts and uncertainties than feelings of security.

Laura Moss mentions, that as data-collectors, non-profit organizations such as CWILA “need to be completely aware of the multiplicity of identity and not shut doors by collecting data.” In a strange, way, too, I am aware that I, as a mixed-race person who lives in a space of ambiguity, I often shut these data-doors myself. Sometimes, because I have no choice, sometimes, because I am not sure on which side of the door I stand, and at times, because I cannot bear to leave that door open, because I am uncertain as to what or whom I will find at the threshold. 

I have no idea of knowing just how many data-sets I have skewed in my moments of uncertainty, of shame, of confusion, or of sheer exhaustion with the question of race. Some days, especially when I am hiding behind a computer screen, or it seems irrelevant to the questions being posed, it’s easier to pass, to click “Caucasian/White.” It’s not entirely untrue, anyway. When I am presented with “African-American” as the only near-option for racialization, I cannot in good faith select a very specific history of Blackness that is not, in fact, my own. Some days, I’m not at all sure how to answer, given the blurry boundaries of race and culture in my life. Some days, when I am given the choice, I select both “Black” and “White.” Some days, I’d really like to write “biracial but still-ambiguously-racialized sparkle pony” or put “who the heck is asking, anyway, and why?” in the blank space of “Other.” Many days, I would simply rather not answer the question at all.

In Diamond Grill, a beautiful and often-murky biotext about mixed-race identity in Canada, Fred Wah writes: “I’ve assumed a dull and ambiguous edge of difference in myself; the hyphen always seems to demand negotiation” (171). Despite my own often-ambiguous and troubled relationship to these questions, or to the process of collecting data, I cannot ignore the necessities of counting for race, not when the stakes are so high, not when the representations of people of colour—especially representations which do not rest on racial stereotypes, or representations which does not require them to speak only about racialized experiences (or for other similarly-racialized people)—are so sorely lacking. I cannot ignore the necessities of counting for race when, as Roxane Gay revealed in her count of book reviews in the New York Times in 2011, “nearly 90% of the books reviewed are written by white writers.” And, moving beyond the literary and scholarly worlds, I cannot ignore the necessities of counting for race when incarceration rates for African-American men are six times the rates for whites (NAACP), and when, according to Canadian government statistics, Indigenous women are “five to seven times more likely to die from violence than other women.” (Amnesty). Counting is not the end-point, of course. It is only the beginning. 

Data is imperfect.

Questions are messy.

Identity is complex.

But it’s only by thinking through these issues, and asking questions (even if they have no answers, or many answers, or contradictory answers) that we negotiate the process not only of counting for race, but being accountable to ourselves and each other as we relate through and across the various identities, histories, and bodies we inhabit.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

*Thank you to CWILA and the GRSJ for hosting the panel which inspired this essay, and, in particular to Laura Moss, Madeleine Thien, and Mary Chapman for their thoughts, queries, questions, and observations on this “swampy” subject.

**A profound thank you is extended to my sister, Maria Lorenzi, for her thoughts and our conversations as I wrote this article. As a statistician who works with data on a daily basis, her perspectives have been invaluable to my own understanding of the possibilities and limits of data collection. Beyond that, she is the person with whom I have shared the most in this experience of mixed-race identity, and I am grateful for her love, her support, and the ways in which we guide each other through these murky, joyful, confusing spaces of the self.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

References and Resources

Canadian Women in the Literary Arts

Thien, Madeleine. “The Work That Remains Invisible.” The National Post26 November 2013.

Wah, Fred. Diamond Grill. Edmonton: NeWest, 1996.

“An Insistent Optimism”: Dealing with Depression and Anxiety in Springtime

N.B: This post was written as I noticed that spring seemed to be hard for so many people that I love. Grief, trauma, depression. I’ve been there myself, even though it has been many years since my struggle with depression. I still struggle with heightened anxiety of this time of year, and it’s important for me not to forget, even though I am content, and even though spring and summer now give me more joy than sorrow, that this time of year is still difficult for so many.

As winter starts to fade away, as the daylight hours increase, as everything seems to start blooming and thriving, depression and anxiety are suddenly thrown into much starker relief than during the cold, dark, wintry, stormy days and nights of late autumn and winter.

At first, I couldn’t quite place why spring always felt so very awful. It was absolutely incongruent: wasn’t I supposed to be as cheery as a floral-print dress, as refreshed as a cool pint of lemonade? The seasons, indeed, seem to have odd emotional mandates: the thoughtfulness and reflection of autumn; the melancholy and mutedness of winter, the serenity and sensuality of summer, and, yes, the insistent optimism of spring.

It was this optimism that made spring so terribly painful: it was the feeling of the world coming suddenly alive again, everything thawing much too quickly, and all I desperately wanted to do to stay under the covers. Winter had been slow, you see, there was time to be quiet, reserved; the pathetic fallacy of melancholy weather. Huddling and waiting for the bus on a rainy winter morning inspired a grumpy sort of solidarity. Nobody begrudged us our groans or our grim, sleepy stares. A tear or two would go unnoticed as the rain or snow besieged our faces. Snow was a blanket, a hush.

Spring sunlight, in contrast, is glaring, insistent, demanding – do now, grow now, be now, happiness now, futurity now! Vibrant greens, out with the dank, damp, grey! Sunshine and smiles – aren’t you happy that it’s so gorgeous out? Have you started in on your garden yet? Are you just about finished school? Are you working out? Have you got summer plans yet? Isn’t it wonderful to be alive? Aren’t you simply grateful for this gorgeous, divine season that is upon us?

“It’s time to turn a new leaf,” they say, as if somehow, springtime ought to cut short the allotted seasons for grief, for sorrow, for exhaustion, for longing.

After so many months of darkness, this gnawing, insistent, intolerable inertia can compel one to slam the blinds closed, shutting out the sunshine streaming through the window.

And so, for those for whom the spring thaw is painful, know this: you are not alone.

Missing Is A Place: A Poem of Absence

303140466_51432a2263_p1668373I recently read Emma Donoghue’s novel Room, and, as such I’ve been thinking a lot about absence, abduction. What does it mean to live with both the fear of going missing, and the uncertainty and lack of resolution when a loved one does go missing? In particular, given that the novel is written from the perspective of a 5 year-old boy, I’ve also been thinking about how children might understand this issue. This poem is a reflection on my own childhood experiences/understandings of disappearance and violence. Michael Dunahee and I were born only a half-year apart, and his abduction in 1991 had a significant impact on my young psyche, as I know it likely did for many others.

This poem discusses themes of abduction and violence. May trigger. 

Missing Is A Place

I am four years old in 1991, when Michael Wayne Dunahee goes missing. He’s four years old, too.

Tousled blond hair, bright blue eyes, a wry smile: that’s the photograph in the poster.

I see that photograph for years, in the hallway to the bathroom of the fruit stand that my family and I visit every summer, when we’re driving through Keremeos. I don’t pay attention to it, I guess, because I’m always excited about summer holidays, and besides, I’m usually a little car-sick, three hours’ drive away from home.

The poster’s already a little faded after that first year.

They added an extra thumbtack to keep it in place.

I think I’m probably five when I overhear some little kid ask: “Where is Missing?”

I sneer, because I’m old enough to know that missing isn’t a place, stupid kid. If Michael Dunahee is somewhere, it’s probably a city like Winnipeg or Calgary. Maybe whoever took him dyed his hair or changed his name. This is what they say on the news, anyway.

At school, when I’m six, they teach us about good touch, bad touch, and that you’re not supposed to take candy from strangers. I find the candy-taking exception of Hallowe’en to be very confusing, but there are exceptions to lots of things, like i before e except after c and I guess I’m not supposed to question adults too much.

I’m seven when I call my mom from the school office. They keep giving us posters to take home to warn our parents whenever there’s some creep who might attack kids. I already know about no candy and no talking to strangers but they say you always have to be aware and stay safe. I’m crying on the phone and I wail, “Mom, what is a Caucasian?!” because I don’t know what that is and I want to make sure that I know exactly what to look out for. Eagle-eyes.

My mom gives me a key to my house when I’m eight, and it’s my job to walk down the street from my elementary school to my sister’s junior high school so we can go home together. By then, I am twice as old as Michael Dunahee was when he was missing, so I figure I’m strong enough to fight back or to be able to yell loud enough if some bearded guy in a white panel van starts following me. But I know never to walk on the side of the street with the bushes, just in case, because that year I also learned what rape is.

We still go to the fruit stand in Keremeos every year.

The poster’s taken down by the time I realize that I’ve grown up, and the boy in the photograph maybe hasn’t.

“Go Down the Hall”: A Response to David Gilmour

The internet has been abuzz today, following the publication of author and teacher David Gilmour’s provocative and contentious interview with Hazlitt Magazine’s Emily Keeler. In the interview, which has since gone viral, Gilmour states that he is “not interested in teaching books by women,” and that, by teaching only novels that he “truly, truly loves,” by “serious heterosexual guys” like Tolstoy and Chekhov, he is teaching “only the best.” If students want to read works by female (or, presumably, queer, or racialized writers), they can, as Gilmour says himself, “go down the hall” to his other colleagues at the University of Toronto.

Understandably, literary and academic communities (especially in Canada, since Gilmour claims that he hasn’t encountered any Canadian writers that he loves enough to teach) have responded with sharp criticisms of Gilmour’s seemingly-exclusionary attitudes towards what constitutes literary “greatness” and what is deserving of time and attention in his classroom. Over at The Globe and Mail, Jared Bland writes that only teaching white, male, heterosexual authors does a disservice to students. Feminist writer and blogger Anne Thériault, in an open letter to Gilmour, calls for him to critically examine why he upholds these texts as the pinnacle of literary greatness, and challenges him to spend six months reading anything that isn’t a text by a straight white male.

In response to this backlash, Gilmour did an interview with Mark Medley of The National Post, in which he attempts to both explain and apologize for his words.  Claiming that there isn’t “a racist or sexist bone in his body,” and that he is sorry that “people are offended by it.” Furthermore, he claims that the interviewer, Emily Keeler, is a “young woman who wanted to make a name for herself,” assigns his carelessness in his words to being more concerned with another conversation he was having in French at the time of the interview, and points out that his apology is largely motivated by the fact that he doesn’t want his teaching reputation to be besmirched, nor to lose female readers. Gilmour’s latest novel, “Extraordinary” recently made the longlist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, Canada’s most prestigious literary award.

I could go into my own lengthy analysis of Gilmour’s words. I find his attitude towards Emily Keeler to have been dismissive at best, his “surprise” at how people “take offense” to be narrow-minded and representative of his privilege, and his attempt at an apology to be wholly insincere. I could talk about how people with Gilmour’s attitude are not an anomaly in academic worlds, but part of a deeply embedded structure that still privileges the voices, stories, and histories of certain individuals over others. I could talk about the ongoing sexism and racism in university settings, and how they manifest themselves not just in chants at undergraduate frosh events, but in the boardroom and in the classroom. I could talk about how Gilmour’s views of the critical thinking skills of undergraduate students is not rare, and that many professors still believe that age and experience are the necessary gatekeepers to knowledge. I could talk about how Gilmour seems to privilege one type of literature, and seemingly condemns all other “2nd and 3rd-rate literature” (and the colleagues who study them) to occupy space “down the hall,” far away from the intellectual enclave in which he works and thinks. I could talk about how Gilmour’s ability to “teach what he loves” and his need to “only teach books he emotionally connects with or represent his interests” demonstrates a particular kind of privilege in teaching and a curious lack of empathy or interests in others, as if we should (or can) only ever teach the texts with whom we personally identify.

While I don’t believe that equity in academia means that we can no longer specialize in a field, or that we all need to become generalists, I still find myself troubled by Gilmour’s assertion that the literature he reads and teaches is “the best,” and his inability to recognize that these longstanding works of well-regarded literature are framed by a long literary history that has often not consistently encouraged, published, or privileged other works, especially those by women, queer writers, and writers of colour. 

What I want to do is to take an active, optimistic, and collective approach.

This is what I propose: let’s take David Gilmour’s suggestion that students merely “go down the hall” to find those who can teach things he’s not personally passionate about or don’t speak to his own lived experience and turn it into a way of strengthening our own academic communities.

  • Go down the hall to take a course in a different department, especially if you’re an undergraduate student. If  you have to take courses in different areas as part of a requirement, see it as an opportunity to look at something new. See how you can bring your skills to a completely different discipline or set of texts.
  • Go down the hall to the library, and read a book by someone who doesn’t represent your own lived experience.
  • Go down the hall to speak to your fellow graduate students. Form reading groups, writing circles. Don’t let the competitiveness of academic life and funding opportunities shut those conversations down and keep you isolated, thinking only about your own work and interests.
  • Go down the hall to see what your colleagues are researching, writing about, thinking about. Ask them if they have any new recommendations for texts. Have a coffee, talk about what you’re teaching next term. Swap out a text or two. Change it up. Include a text that you don’t necessarily love, but one that challenges you, frustrates you, or provokes discussion.
  • Go down the hall and take a pedagogy workshop. Remember that teaching is a process, and that speaking to students is not the same as speaking to a television camera or even a group of your peers. Ask for feedback. Ask your students what they want to learn.
  • Go down the hall to a classroom and listen in to what students, especially undergraduates, are talking about. Realize that they’re having brilliant, intellectual conversations. Don’t underestimate their abilities to read complex literary or theoretical texts.
  • Go down the hall at a conference to attend a panel that doesn’t necessarily have something to do with your field or your favourite author. See what you learn there. Meet new people.
  • Go down the hall and see which projects are engaging the issue of literary representation and politics. See how you can contribute to creating an equitable field in the teaching of literature, the writing of literature, and the reviewing of literature.

And finally, perhaps most importantly: go down the hall, open the door, and walk out of the ivory tower, at least once in a while. Look around. Attend community events, speak to people who aren’t “scholars,” people whose life experiences are their body of scholarship, people whose literatures are the stories of their lives, their families, and their cultures. See what kids are reading these days. Open a different chapter, listen to a different or a new story, and you might find that you learn more about yourself and the world than you ever thought possible.

A VERY BRIEF AND INCOMPLETE LIST OF RESOURCES

Interested in Canadian Women’s Literature?

Canadian Women in the Literary Arts

Canada’s Early Women Writers Database

Interested in Asian Canadian Literature?

Ricepaper Magazine

Interest in Queer Canadian Literature?

Casey The Canadian Lesbrarian

Interested in Indigenous Literatures in Canada?

CBC’s 8th Fire: Suggested Reading

Interested in Black Canadian Literature?

African Canadian Literature Database @ York U

Caribbean Tales

Interested in Québecois Literature?

Government of Quebec – Literature

PLEASE ADD MORE LINKS IN THE COMMENTS SECTION FOR OTHER GREAT RESOURCES ON A VARIETY OF LITERATURES (NOT JUST CANADIAN!)

“Are You Fucking Kidding Me?”; Or, Teachable Moments in Blog Comments

I’m up very late, thanks in part to an ill-timed cup of coffee, which means that I had my email inbox open this evening when I received notification of a concise but nevertheless incredibly shame-inflected comment on my one of my blog pages, which, in its attempt to assert itself within a particular hierarchy of knowledge acquisition, grated on my nerves. I would be lying if I said that I didn’t experience a momentary reaction of an embarrassed cheek-flush, a symptom of my recognition that indeed, I had completely misused a theoretical concept without intending to. Mistakes happen, you see: even though I’ve been a graduate student for many years, I sometimes forget the very basics of my theoretical arsenal in my moments of haste, just as I can often forget rationales for grammatical logic, or the rules of verb conjugation. Shit happens, folks.

The joy of sitting with the discomfort of a mistake, and accepting its inherent humanity is what allows for that comment to be completely discharged of its intended affective power: shaming language, indeed, as all incidents of linguistic exchange, is as dependent of reception as it is on delivery. So, that being said, to my commenter: I’m sorry if you thought your signifiers had more affective power than they actually do.

While, as an adult, I may be able to understand such comments and language (i.e. “are you fucking kidding me?”) as particularly negatively inflected, it dawned on me that in my experience as a student, and in my current role as a teacher, that there are many individuals who do not know how to interpret these comments as anything but the  infliction of embarrassment, guilt, and shame.

As a student, I feel grateful that I have rarely been on the receiving end of these types of comments about my lack of knowledge: this may, in part, have something to do with my relative luck in being able to retain information well, but it also has a great deal to do with having had a majority of teachers who offered kind direction and re-orienting when I found myself adrift in a sea of misinterpretation or misunderstanding.

I have, however, witnessed and experienced first-hand, and have all-too-often heard second-hand through the tear-sniffled or enraged voices of my peers, some really horrendous tales of knowledge-related shame and abuse from teachers. It’s sad to say that this kind of behaviour hasn’t been limited to the grade school years, but seems to have intensified in the post-secondary sphere.

There’s a culture of intellectual elitism that is, I think, often mocked by those who are not in academia. It is almost laughably predictable how it operates: we do argue about theory, we do turn our noses up at those who misquote whichever theory or great critical oeuvre, and many of us do, if you’ll forgive my bluntness, talk shit about those who we claim are our respected peers or our treasured students. We do not often gently re-direct, offer helpful guidance or encourage careful re-reading. We (and I include myself in this we because I, too, am not impervious to this culture of intellectual shaming) give looks of disgust. We call undergraduate students out in the middle of large lectures or discussion groups for “clearly not having read the text” when they have already braved their own fear of failure to venture an answer. We tell graduate students that they obviously haven’t read Marx or Hegel or Spivak or Kant, as we rudely shove their papers back across our desks.

Many of these students leave, and sometimes, they never come back. They become an abrupt end to an otherwise-stellar attendance record, or, if they decide to stay, are transformed into a blank and mute face in the back of a room. They learn not to ask any more questions. They may drop a subject whose challenge they once loved, in favour of a field that offers less passion, but also reduces the possibility of having one’s self-esteem ripped to shreds. Most tragically, many of them learn to hate the process of learning.

Rather than condemn teachers outright, and paint them all with the same brush of “the heartless, dismissive, intellectual abuser,” what I want to suggest is that perhaps the impetus towards frustrated, angry, and shaming comments to students (whether deliberate or not), is simply because we ourselves have forgotten what it felt like to learn. We have forgotten what it was like to feel uneasy in our grasp of a text.

After you have read Marx or Chaucer or Faulkner for 20 or 30 years, or, unless you are unlike me and have an amazing grasp of everything, immediately and forever, you will have achieved a level of mastery that offers you the gift of relative amnesia about your own learning process. This isn’t a bad thing: it’s usually what inspires the confidence to really own the classroom, to be assertive, to let your students know that you are a trustworthy source of information. And yet, if you are not careful, if you do not harness that gift, it may explode in utterances such as “are you fucking kidding me?” and “you’re a stupid idiot,” or in the presence of a derisive tone, a sneering glance, a cold shoulder.

This doesn’t mean that we ought to sacrifice correcting our students for fear of treading on their tender little hearts. In a discipline such as English, which is often widely regarded by some as being “too open-ended,” it is important to acknowledge that while there may be room for interpretation in a poem, you can’t change the meaning of “post-structuralism” to really mean “structuralism.” Students absolutely do have a responsibility in their own learning process, and due effort is required and expected. It should also be noted that students will often react personally and quite emotionally to most criticism or correction: after all, most of us have a hard time disengaging our work from ourselves. If we didn’t, we’d never bother to spend time studying anything at all. My point, however, is that teachers, in their discipline and their criticism, have a choice whether or not to be firm, clear, and assertive, or total fucking assholes.

As I begin my new term of teaching a group of students who have probably not read or studied anything related to multicultural and Indigenous Canadian literature, this is a particularly valuable reminder to have had, a seemingly well-timed pedagogical refresher from the blogosphere (if not the universe).

While it is a fine balance to strike, I constantly strive to create a environment in which errors (my own and those of others) are not sites for the assertion of our own egos at the expense of others’, but in which teaching is truly both a practice that values its form, tone, and intent as much as it does its content.

And I’m not fucking kidding about that.