Jael Richardson, author and artistic director of The Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD), wrote a valuable list a few days ago for Open Book:Toronto on the difference between tokenism and inclusion. I urge everyone who is a part of a literary community in Canada to read and to absorb it. It’s an extremely meaningful resource for me, because now I can pass it along to well-meaning editors, publishers, hosts, festival organizers, etc. and say, “this is why your request for my participation is tokenism, and not inclusion. This is why I’m saying ‘no’, even though it means more exposure and greater opportunities for me.”
I would like to add to this discussion with a few additional strategies on how to improve diversity in literary organizations and publications from the bottom up. I’m often asked by organizers, editors and writers about how they can become more diverse. Their tone is generally abashed, worried and attentive. As a result, I usually praise them for their ability to recognize that there’s a problem. However, they don’t seem to realize that essentially asking me to do a part of their job. If they have failed to grow their audience, or they are coming under attack for their cultural and racial homogeneity, then their original vision wasn’t well-thought out or reflective of their communities’ needs in the first place.
Very carefully, I ask these worried people to look closely at their social circles. At their staff, their peers, the writers they met in university, etc. How many women, queer or trans writers or writers of colour are in their immediate networks? It’s important to phrase these questions with caution because once I told a friend and fellow writer that he didn’t, as far as I could tell, have any friends who were people of colour and perhaps that was the reason why he was having trouble coming up with non-white writers for his event. He was horrified, and asked if I was accusing him of being racist. Defensiveness ensued. Again and again, writers I know of Egyptian, Indian, Japanese, Singaporean and First Nations descent are reporting the same thing–there is so much fear and defensiveness around discussions of race and diversity that it’s undermining real change. Everyone is so afraid of accusations of racism and of saying the wrong thing that the lessons we can learn from acknowledging systemic power imbalances aren’t being learnt. Like all learning processes, there is some discomfort and misery before their can be renewal and fulfillment.
What to do if you see that the writing program, chapbook press or conference you have worked so hard to build and promote has an absolutely dismal ratio of gender balance or diverse writers? As you work to overcome feelings of discouragement and to look for solutions, you may see there are larger forces at work operating in an extremely effective way to maintain the status quo. In my experience, minorities are both visible and invisible, that is, when we’re in the room and our names are on a masthead, we are very noticeable but when those faces and names are absent, it’s difficult to see we’re not there. The presence of women and minorities confirm the dominant culture’s self-image as inclusive and diverse; however, if they’re missing from the conversation, the discourse switches channels and becomes about ‘artistry/maintaining artistic integrity’ (implying that the lack of minority writers is due to the fact that they failed to meet arbitrarily-set standards), being ‘thought-provoking’, ‘international’ (!) or ‘stylish’. I find it fascinating to watch these convenient cover-ups, these maneuvers of rhetoric that separate writers into different categories but that still ensure the organization and institution is viewed in the least critical light. Do founders and publishers not realize that publically admitting one’s shortcomings (i.e. Tin House, Taddle Creek, and Invisible Press) is both refreshing and instructive?
I know I will never stop wondering about whether I am being included or tokenized. I wonder this even when I get a Facebook invite to a launch or reading, which brings me both joy and anxiety. I look through the guest list, wondering if I’ll be the one of the few visible minorities in the room. I weigh the variables– I’ll be troubled if the room is entirely ‘white’ even if it contains friends and fellow writers, but if I don’t attend, the event will have one less Asian-Canadian woman in the room, and it’s always important we’re in the room because no one will notice if we’re not. I look at the track record of previous events. Have the organizers been inclusive before? Are they active in diverse communities? Have I seen them at events outside their own demographic and cultural background? Have I seen them at events like Writing Thru Race or The Fold or Toronto Poetry Talks or on the #diversecanlit Tweetchats? Have I seen them speak up on behalf of diverse writers? These relentless questions are a tad unforgiving, but I’m aware that other writers of colour also keep very close tabs on the public statements, personas and activities of organizers, editors, publishers and other ‘gatekeepers’. It’s how we determine who is benefiting whom. Whereas tokenism benefits those who are maintaining or reifying their position of privilege, inclusiveness benefits everyone.
Thanks to the pervasive individualism of North American culture, the trope of the ‘personal journey’ often pervades conversations I have with editors and organisors about diversity. Of course, it’s vital to grow and learn, but editing the work of a female, queer or trans or minority writer shouldn’t turn into a story of that editor’s personal development. Similarly, organizations and festivals that point to their inclusive practices in a self-congratulatory and shallow way are mainly interested in their image, satisfying granting requirements, or appeasing public opinion. This can happen when the writer in question is approached for the first time only when their work or their body is viewed as a benefit to the organization or publication, nor have they been included in a wider conversation. There’s been little to no effort to see if the writer’s pursuits or projects align with the person who is making the request. This way of approaching writers is antithetical to collaboration and productive networks.
It disturbs me to see younger writers and peers my own age fail to build these kinds of long-term relationships and to get writers from less privileged backgrounds involved in higher levels of planning and decision-making. Politeness and my own passivity keeps me from saying, you have barely spoken to this queer/trans/female/minority/first nations writer before now. You haven’t attended any of their readings and you are barely familiar with their work. You heard about them because they won a prize. You’re only inviting this person because you’re concerned that you only have ‘white’ male writers putting themselves forward, mainly because you didn’t have a clear mission or vision to begin with. You’re also concerned about the quality of the work you present, though you would never call yourself canonical or a formalist. When the writer in question says no, you tell everyone you ‘tried.’ You still don’t attend this writer’s readings or read their work because you feel you have already done your job. You’re barely being paid to do this job anyway. How much can people expect you to do? You don’t ask again. You don’t think that maybe it’s how you’re asking that has something to do with their inexplicable refusal.
I don’t want to be asked for my work only because someone feels guilty and wants to pass another signpost on their road to enlightenment. I want to be the greater part of a seismic change. This changes comes from the shift in thinking about how we can benefit writers who have been underrepresented. Many writers don’t believe that they have anything material to offer. Yes, writers in Canada are struggling financially, emotionally and mentally just to write everyday, sometimes just to get dressed. But writers benefit from knowledge, support and dialogue. Writers whose parents didn’t speak English at home and whose parents opposed or weren’t able to support their children’s hunger to write often don’t even know how to go about writing or starting to write. They don’t know the resources available to them or how to apply, the steps in preparing a submission, the mindset necessary for seeing themselves as professional, or know-how and networking skills on how to approach an editor in a bar, because they or their families don’t drink and don’t belong to social circles where cocktails were served.
The longer I spend in Toronto, the more I realize that everyone is an outsider in some way- an outsider to the city, to middle-class stability, to the coteries that spring up around MFAs and writing programs. But if no one feels admits to their insider-ness, then what we will end up with is a disconnected and discrete assemblage of writers, each of them scrambling for fingerholds in an unsustainable industry that might support everyone if we actively think about how we’re benefiting others. When I think of all that my friends do— designing and editing chapbooks, organizing reading series, writing reviews, making podcasts, hand-stitching books, showing up night and night at events, shouting-out writers online at all hours like sleepless owls, I’m speechless with astonishment. To say they aren’t doing enough feels like I’m slowly pushing a penknife through their never-still hands.
I have already benefited in enormous ways from the writing industry’s shift towards inclusivity. In some cases I have been afforded opportunities that male writers and Caucasian writers have not, and I’ve felt very self-conscious about being given these chances. While my parents adopted to Canadian culture more easily than the Chinese parents of my friends, they imparted the values of modesty and lack of vanity by example and without conscious effort. While they believed that both my sister and I would storm the world, they were painfully humble about their own talents. I balk at submitting my work to programs and prizes, but I remind myself that my parents didn’t come to Canada for me to squirm with misplaced modesty. If anything, they wanted their children to have the sense of entitlement that they never did. The small boosts that my racialized body has given me doesn’t change the fact that my parents own no property, that they couldn’t afford my university tuition, that I didn’t believe for an inordinate amount of time that I could ever presume to teach English, or that I feel the constant fear that my Asian features and olive skin are off-putting, disruptive, unwanted. To work towards inclusion, then, means also overcoming the prevailing suspicion that many underrepresented and minority writers have that we should be grateful and keep to our place. But what place is that? It’s the greater part.