November 27, 2013

Madeleine Thien at literASIAN - The work that remains invisible

Madeleine Thien delivered the following speech at the closing banquet of the inaugural literASIAN festival organized by the Asian Canadian Writers' Workshop, part of the closing dinner gala held on November 24, 2013.

 In 1999, I was editor of Ricepaper. I didn’t last long, only about three issues, but helping to create those three issues was an extraordinary learning experience.

 At the time, I thought they were very unwise to put the magazine in my hands. What did I know? I hadn’t read what I should have read, I was full of aspirations but had little experience (I’d worked in tuxedo shop, at McDonald’s, and in a Chinese restaurant in North Vancouver) but I truly embraced the idea of making space for other artists. The question was, how to support them without limiting them? How to engage their identity without defining that identity? How to speak on behalf of a group, or to a group, or as a group?

 The questions that I had when I edited Ricepaper 14 years ago haven’t really left me.

But there is one thing that I feel I can say more confidently now, and that is: the need for something like Ricepaper is real. Perhaps the necessity for it is even more acute now than 14 years ago. If you’ll allow me, I might say something slightly controversial now.

In the literary world, writers read one another, review, assess, critique, and award one another. Together they decide the work that will be visible and the work that will remain invisible.

In reviewing and critiquing the work of Asian, South Asian, African and Arab-Canadian writers, our critics simply do not have a great depth of knowledge — whether that be historical context or literary precedents. I’ve seen this on prize juries and on grant juries on which I have served. And each time I’ve seen it, I’ve told myself that it is just an anomaly. At what point does an anomaly become a structure? It’s only now, after more than 10 years of seeing these patterns, that I feel confident in saying it is not an anomaly but a fixed pattern that is difficult to shift.

As some of you may have noticed, aside from Joseph Boyden, this year’s Giller long list was composed entirely of white writers. It is worth nothing that in the last 10 years of the Writer’s Trust fiction prize, only eight non-white writers been shortlisted (this number includes Rawi Hage three times). In fact, until Esi Edugyan was shortlisted in 2011, no woman of colour had ever even been nominated in the 14-year history of the prize. In 10 years of the Giller Prize, a total of 12 non-white writers have been shortlisted. Before you celebrate, this number includes Rawi Hage, M.G. Vassanji and Michael Ondaatje each twice.

I know that the reasons for this are complex. But I truly believe that for a strong literature to emerge, writers need opportunities, they need doors to open, support in the from grants and nominations, all of which translates into visibility. If not, some writers will lose the opportunity, at crucial stages of their career, to perfect their craft. Literature is a craft that requires time, commitment, a paycheque at the right moment, publisher support, and intelligent critical response. Certainly, the astonishing works created by women writers in the 20th-century are a testament to this fact.

I do think we in the writing community need to read better. I think we need to call out narrow-mindedness, parochialism, and ignorance when we see it. I would love to see the wider Asian-Canadian community really engage with its artists.

 The question I still don’t know how to answer is how. But I want to propose a toast to Ricepaper, and to the young editors working there now, and thank them for being part of the conversation, for wrestling with these questions, for acting rather than simply wishing.

 To Anna and her staff and contributors, and to Ricepaper.

 Madeleine Thien is the author of Simple Recipes, Certainty and, most recently, Dogs at the Perimeter.