A month ago, my poem “Regional Transit,” won Prism Magazine’s poetry contest, judged by Ken Babstock. Another poem I’d entered, “The Hydro Men” had been shortlisted. I felt all the things I should feel: wonder, disbelief, pride, shock. I felt something else, as well– a feeling of having beaten the odds.
This spring, Canadian poet Colin Fulton posted his research regarding the ethnic identity of poetry prize judges and winners in Canada for major contests such as the Griffin Poetry Prize, Governor General’s Awards, CBC Poetry Prize, Bronwen Wallace Awards, Malahat Review Prizes and Trillium Awards. His findings confirmed what I had already known since I began writing poetry as a teenager– that the odds of winning a contest as a person of colour are very limited. Fulton’s research cascaded across social media, and I could’ve chimed in, but I’m always curious to see, whenever diversity and ethnicity are being discussed in Canada, whether writers of colour will be asked for our thoughts and experiences. Too often we are not.
It’s true that many of these prizes are judged blindly. It’s true that literary judges have implicit cultural and aesthetic biases. It’s true that the category of “white” is inadequate– that someone’s mixed, hybrid or racial background isn’t always visible, or visible in the same way. However, the issue is more serious than why writers of colour aren’t judging and winning contests, it’s why so few of us are writing at all.
When Evelyn Lau was nominated for the 1992 Governor General’s Award, at the age of 19, for her poetry, my parents pointed her out to me as someone to aspire to, an unusual role model as Lau battled drug addiction and ran away from home. To my parents, she was an example of what could be achieved by a Chinese-Canadian woman with talent and hard work. Unlike most immigrant parents, they put no pressure on my sister and I to enter professions that would guarantee us an income. They wanted us to be creatively satisfied in the way they’d never been satisfied. They encouraged our painting, drawing, music and writing; we attended an arts high school and took arts degrees. But their support and encouragement wasn’t enough, though I couldn’t say then what it was I lacked.
Thanks to my parents, I have more ambition and self-esteem than they ever had, as well as the will to network and self-promote, and to find supporters and a community of peers. I have already received more recognition for my creative work than they ever did. I take none of this for granted. I cannot afford to. Unlike many of my peers, I didn’t see reflections of myself in Canadian writing, I didn’t read books written by Asian-Canadian writers until I was in university, nor did I have writing teachers or mentors who were of colour.
I have often wondered about the importance of visibility; after all, my ethnic identity is a category that has been arbitrarily created. What is “Asian”? “Of colour”? “Minority?” These terms fail to capture the often contradictory positions of both shame and privilege, doubt and power. Therefore, what I share with other writers of colour is the experience of having our identity determined by reductionist terms, by an empty signifier of stereotyped traits and characteristics. I cannot address my racial category, because it is addressing me.
I closely track the work of other writers of colour in my peer group for reasons I also cannot clearly articulate. There was one other Chinese-Canadian student in my high school creative writing class, who went onto a Ph.D in Latin poetry at Iowa; in English Honours at UBC I was one of four Asian-Canadian students (I know exactly where each one is now working) and hungrily read the work of Larissa Lai, Madeleine Thien, Rita Wong, and followed the music columns and blogs of Doretta Lau, who later graduated from the MFA program at Columbia and published a short story collection. In Toronto, I confessed to another poet that it felt isolating to be one of the few people of colour in the room at events.
This sense of isolation may seem misplaced. I count among my friends some of the most talented poets of my generation, many of whom have won or been nominated for prizes such as Bronwen Wallace, Matrix Lit Pop, Malahat Review poetry prize, and Trillium. For me to claim that their prizes resulted because of racial and cultural biases would negate their hard work and rare gifts. Nor can I blame the judges for following their personal tastes and preferences, or for looking for writing that reflects their own cultural touchstones and experiences. When I’m present at festivals, events, awards ceremonies, I feel I’m there in the double, both to cheer on my friends, and also to be a presence, to be visible. It’s an eerie feeling.
Another reason why it’s so uncommon to see people of colour at certain types of literary events is because literary success is like the success of a barnacle clinging to the good graces of society’s shucked shells. It’s not the kind of success that most immigrant or Asian parents want for their children, who instead excel in the more lucrative fields of business and medicine. But who is writing the stories and depict the images of that success and struggle? What is most worrisome to me about the lack of diversity in literary publications, prizes and grants is that those images are hardly being depicted and read.
Publications and prizes create what Sarah Kendzior has called a “prestige economy“, in which recipients of book contracts and prize money may not benefit in a significant way financially, but often receive other benefits, such as speaking and teaching positions, requests to serve on prize and grant juries, and so on. I myself have served on a grant jury, when the organization had a mandate to promote cultural diversity. As long as a tolerant society can point out instances of where writers of colour are also benefiting from the prestige economy, it can claim to be diverse and open-minded. As a result, I can never be quite sure whether or not I’m being included or excluded because of my ethnicity, which drains away at that sense of assurance and self-esteem that writers of colour already lack. That state of nauseous uncertainty is perhaps the most toxic element of categorizing writers on the basis of their ethnic backgrounds.
The situation won’t remain as dire. I’m seeing signs of change in classrooms, conferences and at events. The generations of immigrants that worked so hard to secure financial stability for their kids can now afford for them to pursue the nebulous rewards of a prestige economy. I have also discovered that my muddled thoughts about moving through the half-tone landscapes of Canadian culture and giving flawed examples to the next generation of immigrant students makes for good poetry. Even the prize-winning kind.
really good read! ‘nauseous uncertainty’ sums it up perfectly! but, like you said, there are so few of us writing at all that giving in to the ‘why bother’ is harder than facing the page. congratulations on the award!
Phoebe, Congratulations on your prize! Well-deserved! I’ve seen your poems in literary magazines off and on over the years and found them beautifully crafted. Thanks for your commentary! Madeleine Thien recently made a speech (quoted in the Georgia Straight) about this issue. Warm wishes,Fiona
p.s. On a positive note, the Bronwen Wallace finalists were recently announced–a very diverse group. I think that the Canada Council tries to ensure its juries are diverse. The BC Book prize juries have also tried to keep diversity in mind.
pps FYI Here is that article quoting Madeleine Thien about prizes and women of colour from the November 2013 Georgia Straight: http://www.straight.com/life/536236/author-madeleine-thien-reveals-canadian-literary-establishments-bias-against-female-writers-colour
(I don’t do any social networking, but if you need to contact me, Larissa/Rita/Ricepaper/Evelyn all have my email address.)
Thank you so much Fiona. Your comments mean a great deal to me, as Intimate Distances was definitely one of those books that gave me a sense of permission, as was Thien’s Georgia Strait article. I remember reading it and feeling almost fearful for her. I was sure there would be an undercurrent of passive-aggressive pushback for calling out the opacity of literary merit. Such as, “we’ve already given you so much, do you dare complain?” Thanks for posting it. I will be in touch! It would be great to possibly interview you or talk to you about your work one day.