Gwen Benaway

Gwen Benaway is a Two-Spirited trans poet of Anishinaabe and Métis descent. She is the author of two poetry collections—Ceremonies for the Dead (2013) and Passage (2016), both published by Kegedonce Press—and was a 2016 recipient of the Dayne Ogilvie Prize for LGBT Emerging Writers Honour of Distinction from the Writers’ Trust of Canada. As 2017 came to a close, Benaway talked with me about poetry, Passage, and the bodily affects she sees in Indigenous poetics.

Photo by Michael Elliot

Photo by Michael Elliot

Jason Purcell: What calls you to poetry?

Gwen Benaway: For me, poetry is the most immediate and powerful expression of language. It takes everyday language and condenses it into these small acts of beauty and forces you to engage with it instantly. A good poem works very quickly and powerfully and stays with you for a long time, but it’s something that you don’t necessarily spend a lot of time reading. There’s an immediacy and intensity to poetry that I don’t think happens in other types of writing. I’m really drawn to that immediacy and intensity of form I find in poetry.

JP: Do you remember the first encounter with poetry to resonate with you?

GB: I probably started with Shakespeare’s sonnets in school, and, truthfully, probably the Psalms in the Bible, and somehow kept reading it and bridging from that. I think I’m always drawn to queer poets and queer confessional writing, people like Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, Allen Ginsberg and Frank O’Hara, the people writing in that Beat Generation. And obviously Indigenous poetics, people like Katherena Vermette.

But I think poetry really comes from conversation, so I think my first introduction to poetry was just storytelling, just listening to my gookum, listening to my aunts and family members talk and tell stories. I have always come to poetry to try to replicate those conversations, to try to mirror the way that language happens in our everyday lives. I think when we talk to someone, especially when they are important conversations or there is something we are trying to say, we often make little speech poems and use language in a very complicated way. For me, my instinct when looking at poetry is not necessarily to look at individual poets but really look at the way that language flows around me in my life and the conversations that happen with people. It’s been my policy or framework towards coming to poetry. I find it a more sincere form of poetics.

JP: And what about your introduction to writing poetry?

GB: I started writing poetry when I was thirteen or fourteen. I won a Remembrance Day poetry contest in grade 8 and that was through the local Legion. That was how I started, and then I just kept going. I never really stopped. I wasn’t published until I was twenty-three. My first major publication was Prairie Fire, and then from there I kept getting published in small places, and then I had a book, and then I kept going from there. It doesn’t really matter when you start or how you start. It’s your daily practice and that’s what drives your poetics forward. It’s your daily practice that is going to sustain you throughout your poetic career.

JP: What is your writing practice like?

GB: I read poetry every day. I’m addicted to the Poetry Foundation website. I read it all the time. And obviously literary magazines and any poet that I love, I track down their books, so I always read poetry. I write every day. Some days it’s me writing twenty lines in between meetings or emails, sometimes it’s me writing five or six poems. I always write every day in some form or fashion. I also think about how I use language when I’m talking to people or writing text messages or using Messenger. Every time you engage language, you’re using the same skills and functions. All of that informs your poetic practice. Your poetic practice isn’t just confined to you writing. It happens everywhere you use language.

JP: Your work has been edited by some incredible writers, including Daniel Heath Justice and Katherena Vermette. What is the experience of working with an editor like for you? What surprises you? What delights you?

GB: I love collaboration. I think it’s very enriching to have other people look at your work because they see things from their experiences that you aren’t going to see or don’t have access to. Working with Katherna Vermette was probably the most foundational editorial experience I’ve had because she is the first person who I think really sincerely engaged with my work and said to me, “This is what you’re doing, this is what I see in your work.” Just the act of someone looking and seeing your work and identifying it and witnessing it empowers you to create and develop and trust that you’re actually a poet. I’ve also been working with Canisia Lubrin on my third book, Holy Wild, and that’s been wonderful too because she comes from a completely different poetic tradition than I do. It’s been very enriching. She has pushed me out into waters I wouldn’t have gone on my own and often emails me random poems saying, “This is what I think your work is like.” That process of collaboration is always really rich.

JP: Can you tell me about the genesis of Passage?

GB: I broke up with my long-term partner of five years and I hadn’t been writing much when we were together. I’d published my first book while we were together but I kind of stopped writing after that. When we broke up, I started writing again. Out of those initial break-up poems and writing grew Passage, and then as I was writing Passage I started my transition, so the collection is this kind of bridge between two lives, one in one body and one in another. Two different names. Two different people, really. Passage became this actual passage of who I was as a person. You can see this in the book. There’s a shift not only in how the narrator identifies, but also in the form and structure of the language and what’s being talked about. Passage was this work of finding myself, or moving myself from one point to another and pulling all those threads together.

JP: Passage is a collection that is interested in the embodied relationships Indigenous women have with ancestral land. The collection is broken up into sections, each one named after one of the Great Lakes. Can you tell me what it meant to put that unique relationship between place and history into writing?

GB: That’s all there. That’s definitely what the work is about. I think, in a way, I’m making a complicated argument for a kind of body and gender sovereignty that’s rooted in land and ancestry, an inherent sovereignty around gender and body and connecting it to the land in a very real way. That’s what I’m writing about, but it happens because it’s just a part of who I am. Not that there isn’t consciousness around it, not that I don’t think about those things and they aren’t things that I reflect upon and things that I’ve been taught, but for me in the writing process and creating the work, it just extends outward. It just comes from what’s inside. It’s my instinct. One of the things I like about my poetics—and maybe it’s wrong to like things about your poetry—is that it’s always rooted in land, that it’s always rooted in the body, and that my imagery and my language always comes back to the actual land that I come from and reflects that constantly. That’s a distinctive element of Indigenous poetics. People always have this fight about what Indigenous poetics is and what it means, but there is this central relationship of land that comes through Indigenous poetics and that’s present in my work. It isn’t something I think about, it’s just there. I see that in other Indigenous poets as well.

JP: Something I love about Passage is the way in which you stand in a space of vulnerability: you write about being a trans Two-Spirited Anishinaabe and Métis woman in a way that I think attends to the pain and difficulty but also to the beauty and joy of it. I think of your poem “Trans” in the last section of the collection, where you write: “nothing is more beautiful/than a woman who knows/exactly what she wants/and what I want/is myself.” Not only does this collection grapple with the trauma and violence faced by Indigenous women, but there is a celebration of love, desire—particularly trans femme desire—and survival. Though different, I was thinking a lot about Billy-Ray Belcourt’s collection This Wound is a World while re-reading Passage. Can you talk about the importance of writing about your personal experiences of love, sex, desire, and survival?

GB: I’m a confessional poet and I’m a feminist poet, so I’m very much concerned with the intimate and the body and the sexual. I think that comes from queer poetics as well. I think, for me, the importance of writing about those topics is that the violence and oppression of colonization lives in our bodies and lives in our relationships to other people. It’s through our relationships to other people and the land and the world around us that that violence manifests. We can talk about the big overarching reasons why colonization happened and the ways that it destroys people with legislation, etc. But ultimately, the violence is contained and expressed in the intimate, in the relational bond. Same with transphobia. We can talk about how society presents trans women, how it desexualizes us while fetishizing us, all of those pieces, but the violence of that happens at the individual level. It’s between bodies. It’s between two bodies that violence of both transphobia and colonization is expressed and lives. That’s where I experience oppression: in the intimate space. Obviously there’s systemic and institutional oppression, but the thing that hurts the most is the intimate violence. I focus on the intimate violence, and to do that you have to get close to the body and get into sex. The most painful moments in my transition—I guess in my life—happen with my intimate sexual partners because you’re so vulnerable and all of a sudden you have to deal with the weight of 400 years of colonization, 400 years of transphobia, in this intimate space with someone you love who is saying and doing things that hurt you profoundly, and destroy you, deconstruct you as a woman, as an Indigenous woman. The only way, I think, to repair that or to respond to it is through that intimate space as well, and so we have to return to the moment of violence and deconstruct it, animate it, hold it up, question it, and turn it back on itself. That has to come through the body, through an opening up of that space.

I try to use my writing to show that relational complexity, how violence happens on the relational level, and then problematize it. I hope that by holding it up, by showing it, that it is both visible to those who experience it in similar ways as I do and see themselves in that moment so they recognize it’s not just happening to them—that it’s a collective pain—and also that those who are causing it and doing it see themselves in that moment and understand, hopefully, their implication in that. Not that that works, but that’s what I try to do. I think, in his own way, Billy-Ray Belcourt is trying to do the same thing, showing the same kinds of intimate violence and damage and trauma in the moment between bodies. There are a lot of very complicated things going on, I’m not going to simplify his work, but I think it’s part of his poetic instinct. Partly he gets that from me, because he read Passage. It’s a lineage. It’s Katherena Vermette who started with the micro-intimate storytelling in Indigenous poetics and I picked that up from her, then other queer Indigenous poets picked that up from me, which is really from her and the people who taught her. There’s a line that’s happening in creating space for that. Indigenous poetics didn’t really talk about anal sex and hookups and fucking white boys while their girlfriends were in the trailers until it was people like me and Billy-Ray Belcourt and Joshua Whitehead and Lindsay Nixon. That’s new ground for Indigenous poetics. Queer and confessional poetics have been doing that for a long time, but Indigenous poetics haven’t stepped into that space yet, but they’re starting to. You can see that influence of queer poetics moving in to Indigenous poetics. There’s a conversation happening. My place in that is the middle generation, and I see Belcourt and Whitehead as the next generation.

JP: I’d like to shift gears a little. You’ve talked about Canadian Literature and it’s branded moniker CanLit as an ideological project that is invested in, as you’ve said, “creating Canadianness, … multiculturalism, … diversity, … Canadian markers, and nationalism” in the Rusty Toque. I love your take on CanLit that you shared on carte blanche, that diverse writers don’t need to play by CanLit’s rules, and as you say, that diverse writers have already surpassed the limitations of CanLit. What would you say to emerging writers who don’t see themselves represented in this establishment of CanLit?

GB: Indigenous communities—I’ve seen this in my own family and community—have a long tradition of using tools that have been used to oppress us or harm us for our own benefit and good. We take things that have been violent or are not ours and make them work for us in ways that let us find liberation and freedom and that reflect who we are, our culture and ways of doing things, but we’re using their tools to do it. We’re adaptive in times of crisis, trauma and violence. I see that in other marginalized communities as well. I don’t think that’s unique to us.

I think we have to use CanLit in the ways that are good for us, that are meaningful, and in deliberate ways take what CanLit offers and exploit it for the creation and betterment of ourselves and our communities. I think we can do that. But I think what we need to be careful of is that we don’t drink their Kool-Aid, that we don’t get infected by their nationalism and their nation-state and recognize that they are inherently our enemy. If they bless us, if they give us awards, if they celebrate us, it comes at a price that we have to pay. For emerging writers, be mindful of who you serve, who you’re responsible to, your community, who are the people in your life, what in yourself is your value, how does that reflect where you come from? Take that and bring that into your writing, into the worlds you create and the stories you tell. If you have that responsibility, if you see yourself as a responsible witness, as a responsible advocate and link that to where you come from, that will protect you from the worst of CanLit. I think that will enable you to perform that kind of transformation we need to perform in order to have our own survivance and our own communities of writing and creation which are separate from CanLit. This allows us to be inside their spaces but not be consumed by them. I think it’s an internal work, it’s not something you necessary are doing externally. It’s not about who you retweet. It’s about your own internal relationship to your responsibilities and accountabilities and the values you hold as a person and a writer that you bring with you into CanLit.

JP: I see so much of this resistance happening on social media, and I noticed that you participate in so many of the important conversations I see circulating about CanLit and Indigenous writing today. Do you think social media has a role in unsettling the literary establishment of CanLit?

GB: I think it absolutely does. I think it’s powerful. I think it’s very effective. All the hot takes that have been travelling around about CanLit lately are denigrating Twitter and social media as a rabble of insane people, but actually what it is is community-building and community speaking, dialogue and narrative. It’s very powerful. It allows us to question and challenge and hold people accountable in ways that have never happened before. When Jon Kay writes a racist op-ed like he did very recently, there’s a whole bunch of smart people talking about it and deconstructing it. That kind of active intelligence and challenge to CanLit has never been seen before. It’s also enabling us to build a collective community space that has never existed. Through social media, I think what we’re seeing is a live kind of intelligence and strength and a new form of community-building that’s very powerful for marginalized communities, that’s actually transformative for our histories and our ways of being in the world.

JP: What types of communities have you built through social media?

GB: I really love Native Twitter. There’s this inter-nation, interdisciplinary, intercommunity conversation that happens on Native Twitter that’s wonderful. I love jumping into it. It makes me both more aware of things I wouldn’t know otherwise, but it also lets me have this special kind of conversation. There are moments when I can just talk to other Native people online. I can be in a conversation on Twitter that’s just Native voices. That almost never happens in my life. It’s an opportunity to be selective in the kinds of conversations we’re having. Trans girl community is often social media–based because we’re spread out and isolated from each other and also have anxiety and mood disorders, so all of our interactions are digital. I interact with trans women all across the country and in that there is a kind of community-building and narrative.

But most importantly, I think what social media does is it offers a way to have conversations and dialogue that you have more control about than you usually do in everyday life. When you’re at a conference or you’re on a panel or at a writing event, any idiot can stand up and say whatever, or people can keep talking at you, or people can say horrible racist things that you have to sit and listen to. On social media, if you say a horrible racist thing to me, I don’t ever have to talk to you ever again. I can block you. I can make you disappear. There’s a kind of freedom and safety in these social media spaces that doesn’t happen anywhere else. I have a very sexualized Instagram in part because I can block people who are creepy and send me dick pics. I can’t do that in real life.

Daniel Zomparelli

Daniel Zomparelli is a poet, fiction writer, podcaster, and editor whose latest book, Everything is Awful and You’re a Terrible Person, was published earlier this year by Arsenal Pulp Press. I spoke with Daniel to discuss the collection, what he gains from collaborative work, and the lasting influence of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Photo by Luke Fontana

Photo by Luke Fontana

Jason Purcell: Your first short story collection is about young gay men in the digital age seeking various types of connections and often failing. Despite seeming to be in constant connection thanks to our attachment to phones and technology, I also sense that there is a degree to which technology in these stories operates as a way of blocking connection and intimacy. Some of the stories in this collection are arranged as transcripts of online conversations; all dialogue, no narrative context to cushion these direct and sometimes abrasive exchanges. I know you’re coming to these stories as someone who wrote and published poetry first and I’m interested if you could talk about these formal qualities. Is there an interest in what might be lost through these types of connections?

Daniel Zomparelli: In the story, you specifically follow a guy named Ryan and those are all his conversations. You’re seeing those conversations with his dates. I wanted to reveal a character only through dates and reveal that he wasn’t a bad guy but that he wasn’t the best. How he interacts online is important. Everyone thinks they’re in the right on a Grindr chat or wherever. People screengrab them all the time and post them to show how right they are in every situation. I wanted to show that we never know the background of what’s happening and we all bring our own personal baggage to a simple app. This app is very loaded because it’s about sex, dating, or relationships. All you get is a small bio that’s usually a falsified notion of self. It’s impossible to know yourself enough and also explain yourself.

You don’t get to know people very well through these very fast versions of dates. It plays into the story “Tongue-Out Smiley Face” where even an emoji creates an inability to read a person’s feelings or emotions or anything beyond because it’s the most vague. Emojis are supposed to help create an additional way of knowing what a person is feeling when they’re writing something. There’s a character who’s an online troll and I wanted to show that there’s an inability to see what’s happening in a small conversation, but it’s how we all see each other, on Twitter messages and Facebook posts and Instagram posts. We’re all quite judgmental about those things, and I wanted to show the person behind it, and say, yeah, maybe they’re a bit of a fuck-up, but there’s also a reason why they’re a bit of a fuck-up.

JP: I’m thinking of the ways in which some of the characters are identified only by usernames and handles. It’s as though this is another way of making sure one isn’t truly seen by another, a way of warding off identification, intimacy, and vulnerability. Do you think there is a fear of being seen by oneself and by others that’s present within the gay community? And if so, is this collection looking for a way out of this?

DZ: I do believe everyone is engaging in this. Tinder and online dating, Twitter, you’re producing a brand, sometimes inadvertently and sometimes consciously. On Tinder, you’re putting your best foot forward in a way you want to be perceived. Within the gay community, you can see a lot of it is very catfishy. People have talked about being catfished. They say they’re one person and they meet someone else. I’m not saying the gay community is entirely focused on that, but there is a bit of what we give in to with masculinity. That’s why mascmusc exists. A lot of us so desperately are trying to achieve this quality of maleness that we all fail by and I wanted to highlight that.

JP: This collection is cynical with a dark humour, and many of the characters are caught in this place where they might be read as “terrible people,” But I had this sense as a reader that these are people who might be approaching a turning point, a space where whatever situations are bearing down on them might let up and give them space to be another type of person. Some of these stories and these characters felt—or I hoped—to be represented in the moment or moments before change, and that by wondering if they were terrible people, they were giving themselves permission to imagine other ways of being. Is there a thread of hope or optimism running through this collection?

DZ: I think it’s really easy to read this as a cynical book and I was hoping people wouldn’t. I think the point of highlighting cynical characters was for the reader to look at it and say, “Whenever I see an asshole, there’s a reason for it, and there’s hope for change.” I wanted to highlight mental-health issues that were unchecked, unchecked privilege, unchecked oppression, unchecked anxiety. It’s very hard to get through those or to even know they exist, so the characters come across as terrible, but at each point I purposefully end the stories before you see change. I wanted to show everyone at their breaking point. I didn’t want to give everyone a happy ending, because some people don’t change. Some people reach that break and keep going and get worse, and some people reach that break and recover. It seemed more sincere to stop there and let the reader create their own version of the ending. You can create your own happy ending or your own sad ending[...]. It’s up to the reader if it’s hopeful or not.

JP: This collection is populated by ghosts. I can think of a number of metaphors, but I’d be interested to hear from you what it meant to look to ghosts in a collection that is about trying for but missing connections. Ghosts are so interesting because of the lack of boundaries. What’s on the other side, haunting this collection?

DZ: Ghosts are an important thing to me because they represent someone’s psychology. Whether you believe in ghosts or not or the way you imagine ghosts is interesting because you have your own personal ghosts—maybe people have passed in your life—and the way you imagine those ghosts is how you interact with other people. The character in the ghost story has this struggle to let go of a ghost who happens to be an ex. It becomes a really obvious metaphor about baggage from a previous relationship and can you manage it or not. Do you have to let that ghost go and fuck up a bit to move on, or does that ghost follow you wherever you go?

There’s also this way in which ghosts represent otherness. Ghosts, if you take as real, in the history of human existence have never harmed a human, so a fear of ghost is just a fear of otherness. This is how I tried to interlay ghosts and ghosting throughout the book.

JP: While we’re on the top of the supernatural, I’d hate myself if I didn’t ask you about this: your story “Like Buffy.” The line, “Sometimes I feel like maybe I’m Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and I’m like, walking around fighting demons in leather suits, and like, no one gets me.” I can’t overstate this show’s importance to me growing up queer, and I’m just now showing it to my boyfriend who has never seen it before, and I was wondering if you could speak to what you think made that show important, and that identification with someone not quite ordinary going through the world, slaying these demons but not always having someone to share that with, someone who really understood?

DZ: There are two episodes that you might see weave through the book because I’m obsessed with the show. There’s the episode where Buffy is in a psychiatric hospital and she’s actually made up her whole life. I remember seeing that episode and because I have an anxiety disorder being like, “Oh no! Is that what this is?” I’ll have random moments in my life, every two weeks or so, where I think, “What if whenever I’m doing something, I’m actually doing something completely different in another realm?” There is a story where I don’t explicitly say who the character is talking to. They may be in a different realm or don’t exist or ghosted them or are dead. These are the options I give the reader because I’m an asshole. I wanted to show how a character could create an idea of a person and become obsessed with that idea, but then also pull it away and ask, what if none of this is real?

There’s also an episode where a first-year university psychology student who has become a vampire interacts with Buffy and he has this moment where he diagnoses her with a superiority complex but with an inferiority complex about it. I kept imagining this as how we interact on dating sites. We think we’re better than everyone else but we also think we’re shit.

JP: I’d like to move on to talk about a few of your other projects beginning with Poetry Is Dead magazine, of which you’re Editor-in-Chief. Can you tell me how Poetry Is Dead came to be?

DZ: I started it in 2009 in response to not liking some of the poetry events I was seeing. I was very young and it was a different age group at the time. I was a young partier who wanted to have fun boozefest reading events. I wanted to read a lot more of what young people were doing. And young is definitely not about age but stylistically what was new, because the age range in the first Poetry Is Dead went up to 60. I created that to make sure I had fun with poetry. It was sometimes a bit of a boring scene. I was already working in magazines at Adbusters and I was looking at the other literary magazines, which were great, but there was something that I thought was missing for Canadian literary magazines. I took my savings that I was meant to invest in an apartment and started printing the magazine with zero subscriber base and zero guarantee there would be newsstand sales. I printed 1,500 copies. Luckily it all got picked up quickly. It was definitely a gamble.

JP: What has it meant to work in that capacity, to not only be a writer but also someone who contributes to literary production as an editor and, in a sense, a curator?

DZ: If I’m investing in my writing, it feels very selfish. With writing, I try to balance with what I want to create and what will help others create. When I was working in poetry, I wanted to create a space that I thought would be fun and that would help newer writers. Whenever I go on some writing venture, I’m usually trying to also give back. Even with this fiction book, I’ve started offering free mentorships for writers and editing manuscripts for free. Writing feels so selfish, but it probably isn’t. It’s probably my Catholic guilt.

JP: What type of work do you find really exciting right now?

DZ: Beni Xiao, David Ly, and Megan Jones. I’m still waiting for Gillian Christmas to have her book out. She’s already a hyper-successful spoken-word artist but she has a book that I know she’s working on and I just want to see that.

JP: While being a writer and editor-in-chief of an important literary magazine would be more than enough work for many people, you haven’t stopped there; you’re also a podcaster, working with Dina Del Bucchia on Can’t Lit. What has the podcast medium offered you in terms of engaging with Canada’s literary scene?

DZ: Once again, it’s always about fun. I love books and I love reading but I’m not very good with self-seriousness. It’s always a shutdown mechanism for me. I wanted to see a space where we could talk about books but it didn’t have to be so direct and so serious. Authors have such huge personalities that you can figure out how they came to their books if you have a conversation with them about their favourite things or their least favourite things and that, to me, is the most fun way to get at a book. There’s so much space already for seriousness and I wanted to have some outlet where writers can finally just say a bunch of jokes if they want.

JP: There is such a strong sense of celebration around the idea of collaboration and conversation that I feel when I listen to the podcast, and I really see that sense of community among Canada’s young writers. I have seen collaboration dismissed in particular writing communities, particularly academic ones, but you engage in collaborative work often. Can you talk about what collaboration and community has meant to you?

DZ: I love collaboration. I love writing and having my personal control on a project, but my husband’s in TV writing and that’s always collaborative and some of the best writing we have right now is on TV. That’s twelve to fourteen people. I wonder about how much weight we put on books to have one author and whether that’s just ego. Or maybe it’s just easier. Maybe writers get into writing because they don’t want to interact with other people. People ask if I’d start to write for TV because of my husband, and I say that if there was a way for me to do it without having to interact with fourteen people, I would. But I also find writing very lonely. If someone wants to collaborate and I like their idea, I’m always very into it. Everything that I’ve created in collaboration has been so much fun. I love Rom Com. I think it’s such a weirdo book and I don’t think anything is taken away from it because there are two authors.

I did a project with a programmer and a visual artist and we had to find a way to get a program to produce poetry. The results were incredible. They were truly bonkers and wonderful. It’s also so damn fun. Everyone who was there at the show enjoyed the pieces. I’m very pro-collaboration.

JP: I’d be interested to hear about your relationship to writing and to work. You’re someone who wears a number of hats: poet, short story writer, editor, podcaster, etc. How do you work? How do you stay motivated?

DZ: I constantly approach everything as a project. If I have a book idea, I have to think of it as a project. I have to research X, Y, Z, then I have to write it. I do this with every project. I allow myself to be focused on one thing and then I can move on. I’m not very good at doing multiple projects at once. I’m a very slow writer. I have to force myself to write. I can always think of something else to do. It’s always a matter of treating each thing as its own special project that I’m going to work on and giving myself lots of time and also giving myself permission not to start it right away. When I finish a book, I give myself six months to a year off. I’ll keep notes but I won’t write.

JP: How do you care for yourself when you feel burnt out? Is time off the answer?

DZ: My anxiety gets very high after releasing a project. This last project was the worst anxiety because it was doing well. Getting a New York Times review made me frantic and I had a very bad moment like Buffy, where I thought I made it all up. I was getting so many reviews. Goodreads and Amazon were doing well. I can’t help but check constantly, so it throws me off very hard.

JP: What’s next for Daniel Zomparelli?

DZ: My husband is going to help me produce a weirdo radio show podcast on fears. It’s selfishly the research for my next book idea. I’ll be reading and studying a lot about fear and fear anxiety.

Zoe Whittall

Zoe Whittall is a poet and fiction and television writer whose latest novel, The Best Kind of People, published in 2016 by House of Anansi, was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. Bottle Rocket Hearts, her first novel, was published in 2007 by Cormorant Books. Holding Still for as Long as Possible, her 2009 novel published by House of Anansi, went on to win the Lambda Literary Award for Transgender Fiction in 2011, as well as Earla Dunbar Memorial Award in 2010. She is the author of three books of poetry: The Best Ten Minutes of Your Life (McGilligan Books, 2001), The Emily Valentine Poems (Snare Books, 2006; Invisible Publishing, 2016), and Precordial Thump (Exile Editions, 2008); a novella titled The Middle Ground (Orca Books, 2010); and edited a collection of short fiction, Geeks, Misfits & Outlaws (McGilligan Books, 2003). In an email correspondence taking place in February 2017, Whittall answered my questions about rape culture, the role of the writer, and writing for television.

Photo supplied

Photo supplied

Jason Purcell: I’d like to begin by talking about your most recent novel, The Best Kind of People. The novel opens with an epigraph from Kate Harding’s Asking For It, which reads: “[Rape culture’s] most devilish trick is to make the average, non-criminal person identify with the person accused, instead of the person reporting the crime….” Many critics have commented on the timeliness of this novel, especially in the wake of the Ghomeshi trial, the current discussion surrounding the Galloway affair, and the subsequent #UBCaccountable letter. How do you notice the discourse surrounding issues of consent and rape culture changing?

Zoe Whittall: I’ve noticed it isn’t just something that feminists are discussing among ourselves anymore, and I really like seeing that. I’ve noticed that young women are doing incredible work, just not taking any shit anymore, the way my generation did and continues to do. I’ve noticed younger men in the literary world—in their twenties and thirties, I mean—are stepping up in ways that wouldn’t have been imaginable ten or twenty years ago. I’m thinking of Sean Michaels saying “believe women” in his Giller acceptance speech, or writers like Andrew Sullivan, Kevin Hardcastle speaking out against the #UBCaccountable letter on social media. I’m also seeing the ways that women of colour and queer/trans writers of all ages are the ones who haven’t been afraid to rock the boat re: UBC discussions, which isn’t surprising. And in general, I’ve learned a lot reading what younger writers have to say about rape culture these last few years, and it feels awesome to witness.

JP: In the days following the #UBCaccountable letter, we saw some of Canada’s best known writers publicly align themselves with a position that doesn’t attend to victims, and we’ve also seen many prominent writers voicing support for complainants. This conversation is happening largely on social media. Do you think social media is changing the role of the writer and asking them to take on the mantle of the public cultural critic, or do you feel this has always been the writer’s responsibility?

ZW: I think social media is great for writers who like to have conversations online, be it cultural commentary of live-tweeting The Bachelor. I love Twitter because I write alone most days and it functions like a co-worker. Every weird thing I’d normally turn and say to my cubicle mate, I now say to all these little people in my computer. And I’m an introvert, but chit-chat online doesn’t make me feel drained the way it does in real life. I think that it can help poster friendships and provoke interesting debate sometimes.

I think the writer as social critic has always been a role some writers are offered or enjoy taking on, and some writers prefer to just work quietly and then offer their stories and poetry without speaking on any other issues. The question of a writer’s responsibility is a tricky one. I think our first responsibility is to write and that’s always going to be more important than social media or being a public intellectual, but it’s possible to be the kind of novelist or poet who enjoys both roles. I’m never sure how comfortable I am in this capacity. I quit writing book reviews because I know too many people; it’s impossible to be a responsible critic of novels and also be a working novelist in such a small country. I remember touring in France with Neil Bissoondath who invited me on a tour for established and emerging writers. I’d never been anywhere before and had one novel out at the time. I was totally unprepared to meet the expectations of the French audiences who consider all novelists to be public intellectuals. I was far too shy to answer weighty political questions on stage without any preparation. I remember wishing so hard to be asked about where I wrote, how many hours a day, even publishing questions—the ones I hate being asked about here. It felt like a lot of pressure. That said, I’ve always been a feminist and a queer rights activist, since I was seventeen, and that background is partially what drew me to writing fiction.

JP: Something that really interests me about The Best Kind of People is the language of surveillance in the novel. Early in the novel, we are told that “nothing, not even a revolving camera of omniscience, a floating momentary opportunity to narrate, would allow anyone to truly understand the truth about George.” Not only is George placed in prison, itself a site of surveillance, but this quotation highlights a narrative distance; we, as readers, are not given access to George’s thoughts or experience, yet there is some acknowledgement that the reader, as a force positioned on the outside looking in, may be both witness and judge to these events. Can you speak to this at all?

ZW: I wanted George to be unknowable, and I wanted the reader to feel the same frustration that characters were feeling—who is this guy? I didn’t want to go inside his head, I didn’t want to see the world from his perspective, mostly because that story has been told before.

JP: This also has me thinking about the ways that those of us who are spectators talk about cases like this one, and perhaps we can return to the Kate Harding epigraph. These types of events take on a public life of their own, to which many people feel entitled to comment. Is this why this novel also seems interested in the experiences of Joan and Sadie, and also to the different types of reactions the public has to George’s arrest? I’m thinking here of the violence Joan and Sadie are subjected to as well as pockets of support, such as Joan’s support group?

ZW: Yes, the first question or obsession at the heart of the book, that propelled me to keep writing and exploring, was what do you do with the love once you uncover something like this about your loved one? Or even just the possibility of it? And I was very interested in the associated stigma. The entire book was somewhat inspired by the feelings people voiced about Russell Williams’ wife—how could she not have known, etc.? I was interested in the hell she must have gone through, the violence people face when their loved ones are publicly accused, shamed, and shunned.

JP: I noticed a few Gilmore Girls references while reading The Best Kind of People. I know you also write for television, and I’m wondering about the relationship you have to TV. In a conversation I had with Lynn Coady, who is also a prose writer turned television writer, she mentioned that TV has always been incredibly important to her as a storyteller. Is it the same for you?

ZW: Yes, I did that on purpose. I’m a crazy cultish fan of that show. TV was always somewhat magical to me as a kid, mostly because I didn’t have a ton of access to it and that made it amazing, of course. And it’s always been a great way for me to relax, and the past decade or so of television has really been fantastic. It’s a cliché to say that TV has surpassed film for its artistry these days—it’s just an accepted fact at this point. Even when I was an obnoxious activist who didn’t have a TV, I was still secretly really into watching it whenever I could. And though I started trying to write for TV in order to make money—it’s probably one of the only ways to make money as a writer in a city as expensive as Toronto and not be struggling all the time—I’ve ended up really loving the form and the people I’ve met in the industry. It’s a really exciting milieu.

JP: How and when did you enter the world of television writing? What is that process like for you? Was it an adjustment to write so collaboratively?

ZW: I optioned an originally sitcom script to CTV in 2013, and it was in development for a few years. I wrote the pilot in a comedy writing class at the Comedy Bar, on how to turn your stand-up material into a sitcom. It was a terrific class and I ended up loving my series idea. From there I got hired at Degrassi as a story editor, and then Schitt’s Creek, Baroness Von Sketch, and I’ve worked on some CBC shows in development. Writing collaboratively was really hard—I was amazed that a writing room really means a talking room. It’s like a never-ending meeting where all the stories get broken out loud—that was super hard! The other story editors’ brains worked so fast. I ended up loving it, though, even when it was difficult.

JP: Are you watching anything interesting right now?

ZW: I’m obsessed with Atlanta, Insecure, The People v. O.J., the new season of Girls looks like it’s going to be aces, and the only thing getting me through the Trump era is political satire—Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, The Daily Show, even SNL.

JP: I noticed that, in The Best Kind of People, there are these moments of humour among an otherwise dark and intense sequence of events. What does comedy make space for, particularly in the context of difficult and serious subject matter?

ZW: I think it’s a great way to actually get into the dirt and horror of life without falling into a hole and dying.

JP: I’ve read that writing The Best Kind of People was a long process of drafting and redrafting. How did you find your way through that?

ZW: I almost gave it up several times. The second to last draft I gave to my agent, she read and said it wasn’t ready, and we agreed I’d try one more change before I just threw it out. We had a conversation about how some projects just don’t work and there’s nothing we can do to change that. I really thought it would fail. I’m shocked it didn’t.

JP: Who are the writers who you find are doing exciting and important work right now?

ZW: Oh, I love this question! I’ve had the pleasure of blurbing some great writers later: Eva Crocker, Daniel Zomparelli, Zoey Leigh Peterson. I’m obsessed with Sarah Manguso and Maggie Nelson. I’ve been writing a short novella-length essay-poem hybrid in fragments so I basically just buy everything Graywolf Press publishes.

Vivek Shraya

Vivek Shraya: My creative writing teacher told me I was the worst writer in the class. It was my first creative writing class and I was excited about it, but he gave my first assignment a very low grade. We had to do a photo assignment where we had to find a photo and write an analysis about it, just our opinion, and I chose a photo of Madonna because I was very into her. She was in the street and surrounded by people of colour. In fairness I wasn’t very politicized at the time—I didn’t have a rhetoric—and I would probably read that photo very differently now. But he graded me a five out of nine because I didn’t talk about Madonna appropriating brown or Black culture. Appropriation is such a hard conversation because, as a brown kid growing up in Edmonton, seeing Madonna wear a bindi, that was representation back then, you know? Now, looking back, I’m like, “Oh, that’s appropriation,” but where else was I going to see someone in popular culture celebrating Indian culture?

What was frustrating about this conversation was that it was a white guy getting upset with me about not being upset about a white person appropriating my culture. I stopped going to his class because I didn’t like his vibe and his instruction and I thought, “You know what, fuck it, I’m just going to submit these assignments under your door.” One day, he ran into me in HUB Mall and said, “I noticed you’ve stopped coming to my class. Honestly, if there’s one student in my class who needs my help, it’s you.” He then proceeded to lecture me for an hour.

Photo by Alejandro Santiago

Photo by Alejandro Santiago

Vivek Shraya is a Toronto-based multidisciplinary artist whose body of work spans music, film, and literature. Her first book, God Loves Hair, was published by Arsenal Pulp Press in 2014. Her first novel, She of the Mountains, was named one of The Globe and Mail’s best books of 2014, and her recent collection of poetry, even this page is white, has been praised by George Elliot Clarke and Shani Mootoo. Her most recent book, The Boy and the Bindi, will be published in the fall of 2016. Shraya is a three-time Lambda Literary Award finalist and was the recipient of Writers’ Trust of Canada’s Dayne Ogilvie Prize Honour of Distinction. As a musician, Shraya has shared the stage with Tegan & Sara and will join them on their fall 2016 Canadian tour as one half of Too Attached. In early July, just after she was honoured as Grand Marshal of 2016 Pride Toronto, Shraya and I spoke about her music, her writing, and race in Canada.

Jason Purcell: You began your artistic career as a musician. When did your career as a musician transition into a writing career?

VS: I moved to Toronto from Edmonton in 2003. I had just recorded my first album and somehow it had gotten into the hands of John Wozniak of Marcy Playground—they had that huge song “Sex and Candy”—and I got this call saying, “Come to Toronto, we’ll make shit happen for you.” As a brown queer kid in Edmonton, I wanted to leave the city, so I ended up leaving three weeks later, having never been to Toronto in my life.

My music career has consistently felt like it was accelerating and then completely dissipating. I showcased for different record labels and there seemed to be interest and then it kind of fizzled, then I got a backup band and then it fizzled.  In 2007, via Myspace, I was approached by a brand new boutique label in Paris, which sounds fancier than it was. They heard If We’re Not Talking, my first electro-pop album, and they really liked it and they signed me. It was a really exciting moment in my career. I had been chasing the record deal. Back then the record deal was seen as the goal for a musician and I had finally gotten signed.

Then the unfortunate thing that happens to many signed artists started happening to me. They really liked If We’re Not Talking and wanted me to recreate that album. I kept sending them demos that were still electro-pop but had also evolved from that sound, and they said, “No, no, we want you to sound like this. We want you to sound like MGMT.” That was the “it” band at the time. I was getting really frustrated. I had sent them thirty demos and they had made so many contractual obligations to me and hadn’t delivered on any of them. When they signed me, they were like, “We’re going to make you the next Mika.” They had so many ambitions for me and it was hard not to buy into that.

During this period, I started writing again for the first time in years. Not songwriting, because that felt too painful, but these diary entries. I eventually showed them to friends and they were like, “Wow, you should develop these. These could be short stories. These could become something.” What I was writing developed into what would become God Loves Hair, which I self-published in 2010. In a roundabout way, my record company dicking me around was kind of what pushed me in a different artistic direction. I saw myself only as a musician and writing God Loves Hair really opened me up. I realized, “Oh, wow, actually, there’s a lot I want to say and I want to try different mediums. What can I say in the medium of short film? What can I say in the medium of visual art?” This was a pivotal moment for me, but it didn’t happen for me until eight or nine years into my career.

JP: You are now based in Toronto, but you grew up in Edmonton and received your Bachelor of Arts from the University of Alberta. In what ways did growing up in Edmonton shape your artistry?

 VS: Being queer and brown in a smaller city is very hard, and I have a lot of admiration for people who do stay. The landscape of Edmonton has changed so much since I’ve left. It’s a very different city now. For me, I felt like I had to move, but that said, one of the things that Edmonton really did is that it really nurtured me. It gave me a strong sense of artistic community that I often feel like I’m lacking here. People are so excited and supportive in Edmonton. You tell someone you have a CD release and people are like, “Whoa, when is it?” and everyone comes out; you have a book launch and people are very excited and they’re very supportive. In Toronto, it’s so saturated—like, my best friend’s dog has a CD release party tomorrow, you know? Being an artist in Toronto is almost disposable because there’s so many of us and we’re all doing it and a lot of people have their hands in a lot of different pots. That sense of community feels harder to find, and it can feel a lot more competitive, it can feel a lot more insular.

I feel especially grateful to the religious community I grew up in, because that’s where I first started to sing, that’s where I first started to write little speeches. They would have me talk about love and I would get up and I would talk and use these religious principles but I would also include excerpts from TLC or R.E.M.  Someone came up to me after and said, “That song you wrote was beautiful!” and I was like, “That song I wrote? Oh, I can write a song? That’s a thing?” And that’s what prompted me to start writing my own songs.

Edmonton really nurtured me and gave me a sense of artistic community, and when you’re developing and emerging as an artist, and even now, it is so crucial and I always look forward to sharing new work when I come back home.

JP: I see you returning to Edmonton often in your work. God Loves Hair, She of the Mountains, The Magnificent Malls of Edmonton and even this page is white all consider Edmonton in one way or another. Do you still feel a sense of “home” when you think of Edmonton?

VS: Most people are shaped by the city they grew up in. Being a child of immigrants, there is this whole idea of being caught between two cultures that follows first-generation people and artists, and that comes across in my work. But in some ways I feel also between two cities. I have spent more than half of my life in Edmonton. When I’m forty, it’ll be 50/50.

I’m constantly thinking about Edmonton and am inspired by Edmonton, and as I age my relationship to Edmonton changes. I did an interview with someone who said, “You’re really hard on Edmonton sometimes,” and that’s true, but then I think about last year editing The Magnificent Malls of Edmonton, which to me was a really giant step in my relationship with the city. I see that project as a tribute to the city. I said this in the introduction of the zine, but in a lot of ways, I feel like the malls are a metaphor for the way that people feel about Edmonton. It’s very easy to be hard on, it’s very easy to trash—“Deadmonton”—and malls are that way too, but at the end of the day, that’s where we grow up.

I’m really grateful to the city. The more I make art, the older I grow, the more time and space I have from the city, the more I’m able to find the beauty in it in ways that I wasn’t able to while I lived there, in large part because of the homophobia and genderphobia I faced.

JP: You’ve talked about the ways your music career led you to your literary one. Can you comment on the ways that your work in one medium might interact with your other projects? I’m thinking here of “White Dreams,” the single that accompanies even this page is white.

VS: Yesterday I met with a young artist and he had a giant list of ideas but was feeling stuck, and I said to him, “What excites you?” The older I get, that is what is really important. I am very grateful for the interest in my literary work and other art but there are moments that I wish that I could make music happen. Sometimes music feels like “fetch,” and it’s like, “Quit trying to make music happen.” Music is what makes me happiest, so for me, part of what I have tried to do is to find ways to integrate music into whatever project I’m doing so that it feels exciting to me too and that it has that element of my heart. That’s not to say I’m not passionate about the writing or the filmmaking, but I love music so much and I try to find ways to incorporate it. Having “White Dreams” as a bonus single for the book felt like a nice add-on. If the book can introduce people to my music, wonderful. Maybe music won’t happen and that’s fine, but I still want to find ways to incorporate it. So with even this page is white, I’ve been closing the readings with an homage to Black female musicians, or with Your Cloud, an installation in Toronto, I also released a cover of the Tori Amos song “Your Cloud,” which I named the project after.

Part of it is also thinking of the audience. For me, I want to find ways to surprise an audience and engage an audience. I have a short attention span as an artist, so I have always been drawn to artists that are doing a multiplicity of things and have really big visions.

JP: You recently received national and international attention for a photography project called Trisha, in which you recreate photographs of your mother taken when she was a young woman. Elsewhere in your work, your mother is a presence that you orbit around. Can you talk about your relationship with your mother?

VS: I have a complicated relationship with my mom. One of the reasons I return to her as a theme, not unlike Edmonton, is because of that complexity. First and foremost, her gender and her femininity have always been inspiring to me, especially as a kid watching her, and I reference this in God Loves Hair. She was also one of the few people during my formative years to be very supportive of my gender creativity. Again in God Loves Hair, the last story is she and I going to buy my first pair of tweezers, and this being a symbol of acceptance, a quiet symbol of acceptance.

As I’ve gotten older, maybe my obsession with my mom has increased. There’s this line in Trisha: “You worked full-time, went to school part-time, managed a home, raised two children who complained about frozen food and made fun of your accent, and cared for your family in India. Most days in my adult life, I can barely care for myself.” I often think about my mom and how hard she worked to raise a family in a new country and I have so much respect for her, and I’m so in awe of her.

I’m also fascinated by her perspective. Holy Mother My Mother was an opportunity to hear her perspective and have her talk about what motherhood has meant to her. My interest in my mom comes is tied to femininity. As I’ve grown comfortable in my femininity, I return to my mom a prime symbol of femininity.

JP: You self-published your first book, God Loves Hair. What was the experience of self-publishing like for you?

VS: Sometimes I look back and I think, “What the hell was I doing?” I have boxes of CDs that I never sold. The most I’ve ever sold from an album is 100 copies. When I self-published God Loves Hair, I worked with the printer, and as with any printing, the more you print, the cheaper it is. I printed 1,000 books and I had no reason to believe that I was going to sell those because I had no track record of selling that much “product.” But I really believed in the project and I think, in some ways, that things going downhill with the label left me feeling passionately about DIY culture again. After experiencing the ways that the record deal was stalling me and holding me back, I didn’t want someone telling me, “No, you can’t do this. You don’t look masculine enough here. No, we don’t want to do a full-colour book.” I wanted to have the full control that I had as a musician prior to the label, so I self-published this book and it had a life of its own, which is incredible.

JP: And then it was picked up by Arsenal Pulp Press. I think many publishers would be wary of publishing a book that has already been self-published and had press coverage and seen a lot of success. I think God Loves Hair is exceptional for this reason.

VS: Six months before I self-published it, I had asked Brian Francis, the author of Fruit and an amazing, wonderful human, to blurb God Loves Hair and he said to me, “Listen, I know you want to self-publish it, but I think it’s worth sending it to publishers. You never know, you’d be surprised,” which was interesting because everybody else had said to me, “No publisher is going to pick up a full-colour book by a newbie writer.” So my compromise was to submit it to four or five publishers, and if I heard back positively before I went to press, great, and if not I was going to carry on. So I had actually submitted it to Arsenal then and they turned it down.

I had also contacted them when the first edition had sold out. One thousand copies sold in a year and I contacted them and sent a message saying that this book was nominated for a Lambda Award and has been selling as a textbook in institutions and again they turned it down. So I self-published it again.

They ended up reaching out to me around the time when the second edition was almost sold out, saying they’d love to do a new edition of God Loves Hair. I was really anxious that they’d want to rebrand it somehow. I wanted to preserve the feel of the design because I think that’s partly what makes the book so special, and they were like, “Great, yes.” So there are some minor changes: the spine colour is different and the font is a little bit different, but they really honoured the original project, and I feel very lucky. It was wild to see the kinds of reach that having a publisher offered the book. I feel like I was able to do a lot with the book on my own, but once it was with Arsenal, suddenly it was in Publisher’s Weekly and getting featured in Out Magazine.

JP: You seem to have a very close relationship with Arsenal Pulp Press and I wonder what other types of support they have offered you as a writer?

VS: I’ve been very fortunate. I’m putting out my fourth book with them this fall and I started working with them in 2014, so that’s four books in two years, which is pretty ridiculous. If anything, that really speaks to how much they believe in me. And I’m not one of their best-selling authors, either. They have a chart on their website of best-selling titles and I’m not often on that chart. With even this page is white and The Boy & the Bindi, their website is very clear that they aren’t accepting poetry submissions or children’s book submissions and this year they’re doing both with me. Poetry, as you know, is not as lucrative as a novel, so I feel very lucky to have a publisher that’s willing to take those risks with me because they believe in what I want to do.

JP: I am struck by the threads that run between your first publication, God Loves Hair and your other books, notably She of the Mountains and even this page is white. I find there to be an extremely nuanced exploration of the performativity of gender throughout your work. From being mistaken for a baby girl in “God Loves Hair,” experimenting with makeup in “Lipstick,” coaxing relatives to dress you up in saris in “Dress Up,” to your concern with the poetics of queer masculinity in She of the Mountains. Can you talk about your concern with gender and gender performance and how they may have changed and evolved throughout your work? 

VS: What’s really exciting and bizarre is to look at the ways that the art was sometimes ahead of me. I remember one of the first pieces of feedback I got from God Loves Hair is someone said they had read it as a trans narrative. That was a huge compliment, obviously, but I was not identifying as trans at the time, I wasn’t even identifying as genderqueer at the time. I would say I was barely identifying as queer at the time!

What I’m so grateful to art for is that sometimes art has revealed truth to me which has made me seek it further with every project. The continual revelation of truth in art has then revealed those truths in me as a person. It sounds cumbersome because I’m the artist and I’m making it, but I think that art has been a safe space for me to explore gender and think about gender in ways that me as a human might not have been ready to do. I’ve heard similar things about She of the Mountains, that many people have read it as a trans narrative, and that wasn’t my intention with the project but I can see how that’s possible and that’s really exciting.

JP: In “God Loves Hair,” you write about the way your mother prayed for you to look like your father. Then, in Trisha, you write, “You had also prayed for me to look like Dad, but you forgot to pray for the rest of me. It is strange that you would overlook this, as you have always said, ‘Be careful what you pray for.’ When I take off my clothes and look in the mirror, I see Dad’s body, as you wished. But the rest of me has always wished to be you.” Can you talk more about this?

VS: While I’ve been transitioning, even though my mom has been a consistent inspiration to me in regards to my gender, especially while I’ve been transitioning I’ve noted in photographs the way I have started to look like her. That was a large part of the impetus for doing Trisha. It’s interesting talking to you about the project because you’re familiar with God Loves Hair. For me, I see Trisha and God Loves Hair as being a communication, especially that first story. As an artist, I’m always hesitant to repeat myself. I’m always hoping to show new angles. This is one moment for me when I felt like I couldn’t talk about the photo series without going back to that story and that’s why that essay begins with, “My story has always been bound to your prayer.”

JP: And you are addressing Trisha to your mother, speaking directly to her. You’ve joked in other interviews about not necessarily being able to share your books with your parents. What does Trisha mean in terms of communication with your mother?

VS: I would love to share the project with her at some point. I haven’t wanted to weigh down the artistic side of the project with my mother’s response. If she doesn’t like it, if she’s unhappy with it, then it would taint the project for me. I want the project to have a life of its own before I have this conversation.

It is bizarre. I’ve done this homage to my mom, which features a letter to her, and ostensibly hundreds of people have engaged with it in ways my mom hasn’t. But that’s art!

JP: So you’re saying your mom hasn’t seen the photos at all?

VS: My mom doesn’t use the internet a lot and thank goddess! I deliberately didn’t use her name to protect her privacy.

JP: You have been vocal about issues of representation in the publishing industry, particularly in terms of race, gender, and sexuality. You adapted the keynote you presented to the Association of Canadian Publishers in early 2016 into an article on All Lit Up that included thirteen recommendations for presses that need to diversify. Can you share your experience?

VS: The experience was surreal on many levels because even though I see myself as fourteen years into my artistic career, I’m only four years into my literary career. I started out self-publishing and I couldn’t even get some bookstores in Toronto to stock my book. So four years later to be standing in a room with publishers from small presses across the country where I’m giving a keynote was a surreal experience. It was an honour that people would be interested in what I have to say, but what was particularly hard about that talk was here I was doing a talk about diversity in publishing and there were about fifty people in that room and I’m, again, one of the only brown people in the room.

It’s hard to be a brown person—let alone a brown trans person—and stand up and talk about racism. What was really interesting about that talk was I certainly felt a type of defensiveness at times during the Q&A, which is to be expected, but largely I got the sense that people want to do better but they don’t know how. I am sure that this is a genuine feeling, but I also think that it is also tied to complacency. Conversations about diversity in publishing have happened long before I was born. People who I respect and admire who are ten, fifteen years older than me, people like Farzana Doctor, have been doing amazing work and have had these very same conversations. When publishers say they don’t know what to do or how to do it, it’s frustrating because these conversations have been taking place for a really long time. That said, I’m very committed to engaging in these conversations at this point in my career, and that’s why I wrote that article, with the intention that, “Okay, if you’re serious about wanting to make change, here are some ideas.”

What’s been amazing is the way that article has been picked up. I have been contacted by several small presses in Canada who have actually changed their submission mandate based on what was in that article, which is incredible. But I have two major concerns. One of the things I hear a lot is that “diversity is trending right now” and that’s a disturbing concept. Diversity is not trending, diversity is real. Diversity is real life, especially in Canada. When people say it’s a hot topic, it’s disturbing, because what happens next year? Will diversity not be a hot topic anymore? What happens to writers like me next year? Is our writing no longer important or valuable? And this brings me to my second concern, which is that what people don’t realize sometimes is that the work around diversification or inclusion is life-long. It’s not a matter of just changing your mandate, it’s not a matter of just saying you’re committed to this for the next six months, it’s about the long haul. Before I wrote the article, I contacted Brian Lam at Arsenal, and I said, “I think you have one of the most diverse book lists in Canada. How did you establish this?” and Brian talked about taking risks in the 80s by publishing things that other people didn’t feel comfortable publishing. Arsenal, as an example, has been doing this work consistently and that’s what’s key. Let’s change our mandates, let’s change our focus, let’s have these conversations, let’s write articles, let’s read articles, let’s share them, but the work needs to be ongoing. You might not get lots of POC submissions right away or your book lists might not change overnight, but it has to be a life-long commitment.

JP: Are you witnessing any exciting interventions into these discussions? Who do you turn to for their work in these areas? 

VS: Whenever I have these conversations, I look to Farzana. Obviously she’s a friend, but she has really mentored me in a lot of ways. She really believed in my future, being published and being part of CanLit, long before I did, even when I was in the self-publishing days. She’s also someone who is constantly championing the importance of diversity and having more marginalized voices represented in CanLit.

JP: You dedicate even this page is white to “anyone who has lost a friend from saying the word race.” In a 2014 presentation called “CWILA and the Challenge of Counting for Race,” Madeleine Thien talked about the difficulty of talking about race in Canada. What has the experience of talking about race in Canada been like for you? 

VS: It’s an interesting moment. Again, diversity as a “hot topic” is challenging, but I think I am very lucky because between the publication of even this page is white and diversity being a “hot topic,” the things that I’m saying or pushing or reading from my book have been mostly met with interest, curiosity, respect, appreciation, gratitude—so mostly positively. That dedication, though, comes from not always being in this position. I realize that I have a privilege of a platform right now, but in the day-to-day life when I’m having conversations with friends or co-workers or on Facebook, talking about race has often been tied to some kind of loss. Usually that means a loss of friendship or loss of trust or loss of hope.

Having a platform doesn’t always makes it easier. I did a reading here at a poetry event in Toronto and it was sixty people, everyone was white, and I almost left before it started. I was like, “I don’t want to do this.” It’s really hard work but I also feel as a non-Black, non-Indigenous person, who doesn’t face the kind of daily violence and scrutiny they face, I have an emotional energy to engage in these conversations. I feel like a small gesture I can make as an ally is to try to use my privilege to talk about these issues.

JP: In reading your work, as well as following your online activist presence, I am struck by your attention to the ways in which you might be complicit in perpetuating particular forms of violence and oppression—I’m thinking here of  your poems “indian” and “amiskwacîwâskahikan,” in which you address the way our presence on this land perpetuates a colonial violence. Can you talk more about that?

VS: For me, that’s the hard work. I can be mad at white people 24/7 and I would be right to be, but the conversations around racism and white supremacy are much more nuanced. There are lots of places where I have privilege. I work at a post-secondary institution, so even though I’m a brown artist, I do have a certain kind of class privilege. I don’t get carded on the streets of Toronto. I’m never worried about that. So for me, writing a book that delved into racism from a personal lens, it didn’t feel adequate just to be angry at whiteness or white people. For me, it was also unpacking the ways I have upheld white supremacy, whether that’s through things like shadeism, appreciating my light skin as opposed to my brother’s dark skin, and how that actually ties to anti-Blackness.

Nobody wants to own their privilege. Everyone wants to say that they have it hardest. This is my big frustration with gay white men. A lot of gay white men feel that they have had it hard, which is not inaccurate, but they are not willing to think about the ways that they have privilege too, and the ways that their experience as opposed to my experience is very different. For example, in regards to Orlando, the way that moment got completely white-washed was hard to watch. I’m not Latinx, either, so I also had to figure out what my place is in connecting to this terrible tragedy. That’s where the work is, in always situating yourself and reminding yourself of what your privileges are and then doing something about it.

JP: You mention Orlando. I saw a great Facebook post yesterday. It was only two lines, and it said, “Orlando reminded us why we need Pride. Black Lives Matter Toronto reminded us how to do Pride right.” You have just come off heels of Toronto Pride where you were Grand Marshal, where there was the very powerful Black Lives Matter protest.

 VS: One of the most succinct things I’ve seen written is by someone I follow on Twitter named Mike Bickerton, and he said, “If you were #OnePulse a week ago and anti-#BLMTO this morning, you’ve misunderstood one of the above.” One of the things we have to think about is the only reason we get to have a big gay parade in 2016 is because of protests by largely Black and Indigenous trans and queer people of colour at events like Stonewall—which aren’t unlike what happened at Pride—and we can’t forget that.

To me, it was such a strange experience, because I was done the parade when that all happened. I was given the impression that all honoured people or groups would be together, but we were all separated, I was at the front and I couldn’t even see where they were, so I was reading on Twitter about what happening in the same parade I was just in. I was in awe. Someone else in my feed said something like, “We invited an activist group to be an honoured group at Pride, and surprise! They took an activist stance!” Their action was a really important reminder of the history of Pride.

What’s been so disturbing has been the backlash from white gay people especially when juxtaposed with how white gay culture appropriates Black culture. Even the language, like adopting “Yaaaas” or “Fierce.” It definitely speaks to anti-Black racism in LGBTQ communities. I think sometimes to the general public, there’s a sense that if you’re marginalized, you don’t oppress other people. I personally know from my own experience how rampant the LGBTQ community is with racism, with biphobia, with transphobia, and this is a visceral example of anti-Black racism in LGBTQ communities and the work that needs to be done there.

JP: In “how to not disappoint you completely,” you ask, “if I write about you is it appropriation / if I don’t write about you is it erasure / if I include you is it tokenizing / if I don’t include you is it invisibilizing?” Do you consider an ethics of writing, and if so, what does yours look like? 

VS: First, to talk about that poem in particular, writing about racism is hard. Wanting to make sure I’m writing from a personal perspective as opposed to making blanket statements about groups I’m not part of was even more challenging, because that expectation was there. When I got feedback from my first draft of the book, people asked, “Are you going to talk about the niqab ban? Are you going to talk about colonization?” I felt so overwhelmed with feeling I needed to check off a lot of these “topical” boxes—“Are you going to talk about the Syrian refugee crisis?”—I felt a lot of pressure to talk about these events in Canada that are tied to race and racism, but I’m not a Syrian refugee, and I’m not Muslim, so how do I do this? How do I use the medium and platform of the book to talk about these complicated issues but not claim them as my own? That, in a lot of ways, became one of the central obsessions for me and central points of anxiety in writing this book. That poem was really inspired by Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel. So much of her book is about process. It’s kind of a book about making a book. I remember being critical of that, like, why am I reading a book about making a book, I just want to read a book. But as I was writing even this page is white her approach actually felt very useful. Writing “how to not disappoint you completely” felt like an important way to talk about the fact that I am struggling with these things.

When you belong to marginalized communities there is a sense of accountability and so consequently there is a sense of failure. I worried about failing Black and brown people with this book.

So yes, absolutely, my work is tied to ethics. My work is also always tied to wanting to push against dominant narratives. For example, in She of the Mountains or even this page is white or even Trisha, is there a way for me to talk about my body without talking about it as the wrong body? With trans narratives, there’s this idea that transness is feeling like you’re born in the wrong body, but often, it’s more that we live in a world that doesn’t know how to receive us as we are. That’s not to dismiss trans people who do feel they are born in the wrong body, that’s their narrative and that’s important, but for me I’m always grappling with how to push against the most pervasive ideas, how can I always tell a complicated story.

JP: Your most recent book, a children’s picture book called The Boy & the Bindi, is another exploration of a new genre for you. Can you talk to me about this project and how it came to be?

VS: It’s a children’s picture book with an illustrator named Rajni Perera who I have collaborated with a couple of times: the artwork for All of the Lights, the Diwali EP I put out, and the bonus artwork for Holy Mother My Mother. The writing style is a cross between Dr. Seuss meets Robert Munsch, both fantastic children’s book authors who have inspired many, including myself.

Essentially, I was on a jury here in Toronto where I was exposed to children’s books and I was heavily disappointed to see how few children of colour were in these books. I had read this New York Times article in 2013 that talked about how that year they had done research and how something like four or five percent, a really small percentage, of children’s books made that year featured people of colour. Increasingly there are more children’s books about gender creativity, but again, a lot of them are white. I felt frustrated, and from frustration comes art. I had a J.K. Rowling moment and wrote The Boy & the Bindi on a napkin—I wish I had kept that napkin.