I watched the recent conversation unfolding in CanLit with horror. Absolute shock. First off, I have to admit I’m not that familiar with CanLit. I read Canadian books that show up on my radar, of course, but the broader conversations of the literatti have not penetrated my consciousness until very recently.
Not that literature isn’t important to me, but what I write is crime fiction. It’s considered genre and the Canadian literary establishment would never give me the time of day. When recent implosions spoke of ‘gatekeepers’ in CanLit and the media, however, I sat up. It reminded me of the ten years of my life I wasted trying to get a foot in the door in the Canadian film industry. When you say ‘gatekeeper,’ a gate is implied. At the gate is a lineup of people asking to come inside and it’s up to the powers that be to decide who is worthy of entry.
I once stood at the gate for quite some time.
When I was in it, the film industry in Canada seemed, instead of supporting artists, to cultivate them through specific programs and stepping-stones that they deemed appropriate. I did not take the traditional route of going to film school/drama school or the like. I came from a political science background and write broadly representative stories that always focus on women, especially women of colour, because we are one of the most underrepresented demographics out there. It means something to me to include them in my work. Every story I have ever written has had one.
I applied for programs, for grants, for contests… for years. Nobody took a chance on me. The last straw came when I applied to a prestigious program—perhaps the most prestigious in the country— and was rejected. It did not make any sense. The idea I submitted was one of my best. It was a coming of age story about a young black woman who deals with race and gender norms in an elite Canadian sport. It was an inspirational piece that was also very topical because it looked at how society views black female bodies in athletics from the point of view of a young woman coming into her own sexuality. I cannot explain the frustration I felt when I didn’t get in. I thought the problem was me. I picked apart the script until I no longer recognised it in efforts to make it into what I thought they wanted, because I just couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t accept this project. To be perfectly honest, I also couldn’t deal with what it implied about me as a writer.
What happens when your best idea just isn’t good enough? You are simply never going to get through the gate.
Not long after, I met a couple recent grads from that same program and asked them how they succeeded. They said, oh, of course you get rejected the first few times you apply. Everyone does. Which was news to me! The application fee was quite steep and I had been between jobs at the time. So I was expected to keep applying and paying them for nothing until one day they decide to let me in? What kind of fresh hell was this?
From that point on, I was done with Canadian arts establishments.
When I moved to Vancouver to write my book, it never occurred to me that they would ever support me, intellectually or financially. Even when the high cost of living in Vancouver took every cent I had. While writing the book, I worked as an extra on film/tv sets to earn a living. One time, I took three days of continuity work so far away from home that I had to stay overnight in order to take the job. I felt so unsafe at the budget accommodations I was staying at that I chose to sleep in my car instead. Not once did I say: hmm, I wonder if a grant could help me out so that I don’t have to make dangerous employment choices to give myself the freedom to write my book? Is there some funding out there for me?
Those thoughts didn’t cross my mind. I assumed I would have to write without outside support, and I did.
The Lost Ones is a thriller that looks at gender violence, the reverberations of systemic colonial oppression and immigration in Canada. I wrote it with the utmost care, sensitivity and consultation that I could manage with regard to all of the different identities I include in the book, and respectfully stayed away from specific topics when it was asked of me. I was also mindful of keeping firmly within the crime fiction genre. I made certain that when addiction was discussed, I show addicts of multiple races. There was also a delicate balancing act of presenting a character with mixed-heritage who culturally dissociated so that I would not colonise the space, a term I have recently become familiar with. There were decisions that I made out of respect so that I would leave room for others to be seen and heard. These were not tough choices because I know what it’s like to be invisible. I’d spent years trying to bring stories about invisible women to the screen. I would not want my story to somehow negate others.
These ‘gatekeepers’ who were now advocating for cultural appropriation seemed to have no idea what it is like to be a writer of colour wanting to be seen and heard in the Canadian arts. They appeared to be so out of touch with what a word like appropriation means to marginalised voices, to people whose entire identities were torn apart by the good old colonial effort. It was like a slap to the face to those of us who are from underrepresented backgrounds who try our hardest to tell stories that feature both white and non-white characters, and are consistently turned down for our efforts.
They forgot about respect.
When the book was done, I went to New York to get an agent, bypassing Canada entirely because I’d been so used to my writing being ignored in the country I live in. I got someone to take me on quite quickly, but when the book went on submission, every Canadian publisher my agent approached rejected it.
I had a project that featured a mixed-race protagonist, in a story that is widely representative of race, class, gender and sexual orientation —written by a woman of colour— and, surprise, surprise, no Canadian publisher was interested.
But an American one was.
In that way, I am lucky, so bloody fortunate, that my editor took a chance on me. After years of trying and failing, I finally had someone that believed in my writing. Which means the world, because none of the Canadian gatekeepers I approached ever did.