Righting from Where We Are: A Non-Traditional Situated Perspective on CanLit-IndigiLit Relationality
by waaseyaa'sin christine sy
“Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.” ~Arundhati Roy
Like many of us, for the past several days, I’ve been engaged in reading, discussing, and thinking about the unfolding dynamics and relationalities between Canadian and Indigenous cultural production in literature and media. Some of the issues are old, yet freshly painful (e.g. cultural appropriation); and, some of these dynamics are emergent and, depending where you sit, hopeful or discomfiting (e.g. shifting of structural power). I’m grateful for the solid, sustained, and dynamic push-back against the paradigm within Canadian literature and media that seeks to legitimate and reproduce on-going relations of domination with Indigenous peoples. And, I’m grateful for the critical tousling about from within some of relationships that comprise these circles. People have resigned, or been reassigned from, their positions as matter of these shifting dynamics. Many have apologized.
And many have not.
A new world has burst open and from it a watershed of perspectives, dialogue, analyses, and recommendations. It has been brutal. It has been life-giving. From the pain, frustration, and wisdom I’ve noticed important advocacy for continued efforts to create and advance our own literary and media spaces.
On continuing to create and advance our own spaces, I say yes! We need it. We need it so much. We need it so that we aren’t dependent on Canadians. We need it so we can be who we are and get back to generating who we are anew without unwanted mediation or interference. Importantly, Canada also needs us to have our own literary and media spaces so that it can learn how to be without windigo-ing off of us; and, so it can learn how to stop thinking and acting like it owns us, has a right to control us, or can appropriate from us to enhance it’s own culture.
Amidst the needed push-back and evident failure of so many Canadians in power to get what is really at play here, I can’t help but sense if a relationality of “us and them” is emerging. “Us and them” makes sense if those with institutional power as well as racist and ignorant ideas about Indigenous peoples are going to persist in that vein. When I think about an “us and them” relationality I get it — been there, done that, adopt it when needed– however I worry how this kind of relationality, as a way of being engaged with CanLit, could put an additional strain on emerging, un-established, un-connected, or not-famous Indigenous writers who have limited pathways and opportunities to publish or work collaboratively with others.
My own experience in writing and publishing is filled with varied experiences with white folks and people of colour in CanLit, and in IndigiLit with Indigenous writers, editors, scholars. I have been generously supported in all three contexts. I think it is important to nurture diverse relationalities amd relationships across literary circles as we work hard to stymy the ones that perpetuate colonial or power-over relationships. In that spirit then, in this essay, I want to highlight particular relationalities; ponder paradigms and query if gender is operating in particular ways in white CanLit; and, advance ideas about restructuring power in CanLit and media while supporting individuals to nurture their relationships from wherever they write/right. The best way for me to do this is through my own dibaadjimowin–my own story of relationalities with CanLit.
Having not yet published a book, I write from a place that in many ways is traditional and untraditional. For now, I will just say that as an Anishinaabe woman whose trails have been here and there, Indigenous literature has given me life time and time again and it has saved me time and time again. Indigenous literatures are a fire who I continue to feed and be fed by.
This fire was lit in the late 1990s by Lee Maracle’s Ravensong—a book gifted to me by my friend Anna’s daughter, Jessica, Ravensong didn’t save me, so to speak, but Maracle-as-writer, Maracle’s raven, and the way raven moved throughout the story was new life. I had never read spirit in a book before and this was spirit. For me, spirit was a new way to read, experience reading, and know the world. It made my world bigger. More than a decade later, witnessing the poetic performances of Louise Bernice Halfe, Janet Rogers, Rosanna Deerchild, Duncan Mercredi, and Gregory Scofield compelled me to be and do better in terms of letting the spirit of my poetry be its own life.
The ones whose writing continually save me are Maracle’s I Am Woman and Maria Campbell’s Halfbreed. When I despair, I just have to think of the trajectories these women have navigated and I am motivated to step up. But, I came to them later. The writing that first gave me new life after a very difficult time were Kateri Akiweni-Damn and Richard Van Camp—and Rolland Nadjiwon’s introduction of their writing to me.
I won’t delve into the details of how their writing landed in my life as I’ve written about that elsewhere. It’s just important to know that for many of us, we have those writers whose writing saves us; those publishers who create space which are for us (e.g. Kegedonce Press, Theytus); and, those teachers who lead the way to our being saved. Literally. That was in the early 2000s and around that time, I was struggling with a toxic workplace where white dominance, anti-Indigenous racism + sexism, homophobia, and religious intolerance were occurring. I was surrounded by highly educated professionals, colleagues who I thought were my friends, who either refused to support me in calling these problems out, denied it was happening, or constructed me as the problem. The betrayal of those who witness is in many ways worse than the actual perpetration. I struggle with understanding those with privilege who don’t step up in the face of injustice or at least try to; who use their privilege to avoid discomfort; or, who twist circumstances to create an alibi for their own unwillingness/failures to challenge power-over dynamics. My work culture, like many of the work cultures many Indigenous peoples navigate, was oppressively white, middle class, and toxic. It was structurally oppressive and highly (un)aware of its colonial presence. This culture launched me into situational depression. And, Indigenous literatures saved me and gave me new life. I share this personal information because these relational dynamics cannot be emphasized enough: as we have witnessed, white Canadian domination exists and it harms Indigenous lives. In such a context, Indigenous literature can save lives. What is happening now in the CanLit-IndigLit scene with those who have been, and continue to be, stepping forth and putting themselves out there against the dominant colonial Canadian paradigm saves all of us.
On the other side of depression, I returned to work and also to school. As a part of my Anishinaabemowin degree, I started taking creative writing courses which were offered specifically in “minority writing”. And, where Anishinaabe language and thought and Indigenous literature was good medicine to make me strong again, creative writing courses saw the beginning of my move to writing, editing, publishing, and performing. My journalling days about men and love (lost) had long been over and I was so ready to start doing something with the writing space that opened up. That readiness took place in 2005 or so and it began with Alanna Bondar-baa. After publishing in the university journal, Algoma Ink for a few years and performing in the Shingwauk Auditorium with my peers and others, she encouraged my first publication in a CanLit journal which was Rampike Magazine, where she was a guest editor.
That was in 2009. And, I was proud of “Haibun #11”: it was in baby Anishinaabemowin; it was published; and, it was the last poem in the collection. (Alanna had told me that having a piece published first or last in a collection was kind of a thing … so, yea, boom-chicka.)
The same year, I took a risk and submitted three entries to a special edition of Matrix Magazine called, “New Feminisms” which was co-edited by Melissa Bell and Karis Shearer. I say I took a “risk” because it was “feminism”, Canadian, and my truths as Anishinaabe woman were and continue to be unapologetic. Back then, I had promised myself that if I was going to start publishing I would be open to editing that helped me develop my craft but I was not going to compromise or concede my truth to make it comfortable for others. The pieces I submitted included a creative critical prose about be(com)ing Anishinaabe; a historical poem about land-based gender complementarity; and, a righteously raging poem called “wonderbread whiteboy”. Melissa and Karis accepted all three pieces—two went into the digital publication and the third creative critical piece was published in-text.
The launch of the magazine was in Montreal in spring/summer 2010. I attended and was a brown-ish fish in a sea of white fish and I was out of water. Though I was nervous, and it was nerve-wracking, I had a friend with me and people were kind, friendly, and engaging. Relationships and connections were made through that project and, I have on-going friendships with some of the women I met at that time.
Women whose awareness of power and relationality was evident to me. As I got to know some of them, I came to witness an actual decolonizing practice/politics. These women, like other people before, compelled me to complicate the binary lenses that I easily adorn. Women who were, and are, invested in making Canadian literature (and I suspect Canada, per se) better through their own writing, scholarship, pedagogy, and thinking. Who do make it better.
Some of those women include those mentioned but also include Melissa Bull and Angela Hibbs.
When I reflect on my own experience with white CanLit in the last decade, I want to say there is a pattern that I cannot overlook; and, I think it is worthy of being illuminated:
My writing and thinking has been supported by Canadian white women time and time again in journals, magazines, zines, and anthologies across Canada consistently over the past decade. I have never veered from writing my truth or in developing my aesthetic in any of those publications and I have not, in my memory, been asked to edit anything in any substantial way. Some of these other women include Gillian Jerome, Vici Johnstone, and Clarise Foster. One time, Zoe Whittall read my work blind and deemed it worthy an award. These exchanges were prompted in the typical ways: submissions, invitations, or anonymous contests. I have not experienced disappointment, hurt, or anger by working with any of these people in sharing my writing with them or in having my writing published in their projects. I don’t feel that power was misused. I don’t feel tokenized or that my work was appropriated. I have always been made better somehow by my professional exchanges with them.
It’s also important to note that I have had my work rejected by some white women in Canadian literature. This is also important; it establishes some kind of legitimacy, in my opinion, to the field. And, to me, writing. It keeps me humble. It keeps me working at craft. It also suggests that my writing, which is evidently Indigenous, is not being tokenized. It kind of makes me go, Hmmmm – is this an invitation to be like them or be better at me and if so, do I want to rise to it? And that, for me, has many possibilities of being invigorating.
When I think about a time I was disappointed and frustrated with my experience with CanLit, I want to be generous. I also want to be honest. I want to be generous because one, the editor was generous, in a way, to invite me because I am not famous, established, or well-known (although I am fabulously Anishinaabe and maybe in some circles that can make a person any or all of these things). Also, I came to learn that the situation was mediated in part by inadequate funding and lack of human resources. It was also an opportunity for me and a co-editor of my choosing to work on a first collection of Indigenous writing for this particular venue. And, this was my first experience on this particular kind of project.
I want to be honest as well because the editor—and my experience working with them—was very different from the other experiences in CanLit. It prompted much reflection. The reason the project was implemented was because the editor “had never done it before” (yes, I asked why they were doing it). The powerful visual content that I had solicited for the front and back cover was not accepted because it was too political (that being Indigenous political). And, other things (which don’t need to be noted because I’m sure they fall under annoying conditions that can be common on projects when dealing with minimal resources.) The editor was a white man and he was largely unavailable.
The motive of publishing Indigenous literature in a Canadian literary site because “we’ve never done it before” is the worst motive. It’s akin to, “We’re going to sail westward because we’ve never done it before and we can.” That said, he was honest with me when I asked and while I doubt he understood the colonial undercurrent of his motivation, I take full responsibility for entering the situation knowingly because I did know the colonial undercurrent of his motive. To be sure though, I entered this situation because in a world of trying to make change and establish yourself somehow, being Anishinaabe woman, you need to do all the things. Turning away opportunities is not really an option if you are trying to survive or make a way for yourself and your kid. This was also an exciting opportunity I wanted to try on for my own professional development. It was also a chance for me to contribute to opening up more space for Indigenous writers, It was one small chance to get more Indigenous literature out there and impact Canadian readers who were the primary audience, despite the humbleness of the project. I had also been recently informed by something I read by Lee Maracle and I thought you know, I’m pretty sure neither she nor any other women like Jeanette Armstrong, Maria Campbell or Akiwenzie-Damm have had smooth sailing in the literary world so why should I expect things to be easy-peasy. Space needs to be made so make it when you get the chance.
The experience, in tandem with other reflections, gave me so much; it all resulted in an essay called, The Politics of the Invitation. This was supported by Geneviève Robichaud of Sina Queyras’ Lemonhound. Introduced to me by Melissa Bull, Geneviève was my contact in publishing a number of conversations I had with Indigenous poets like Gwen Benaway, Vera Wabegijig, Janet Rogers, and Marilyn Dumont. When I asked Geneviève about publishing this essay, she agreed. Muskrat Magazine did as well, because yay, Indigenous media. I bring this up here because I keep thinking about these invitations Indigenous peoples get from CanLit. I keep thinking about—imagining—the exchange between Hal Niedzvecki and the Indigenous writers in the latest publication of Write: Joshua Whitehead, Richard Van Camp, Tanya Roach, Louise Bernice Halfe, Elaine Wanger, Gord Grisentwaithe, Alica Elliot, Shannon Webb-Campbell. Helen Knott, and Gloria Mehlman. And, I keep thinking about Gregory Scofield’s poignant words about being invited by Jon Kay to submit his beautiful poem, “She is Spitting a Mouthful of Stars” to The Walrus (Facebook May 14, 2017) and then having to ask for them to be retracted as a result of Kay’s participation in Ken Whyte’s revitalization of an appropriation prize. In thinking about my experience with being invited to participate in that editing project several years ago, I can’t help but wonder what any of these white men were thinking when they invited Indigenous peoples into their worlds (which are presumably supposed to be for all of us). What do they think? And, what will they think the next time they extend an invitation to any Indigenous writer?
When I look at these invitations and exchanges and think of my own experience with CanLit women, I can’t help but wonder if there are gendered differences in relationalities between white CanLit and Indigenous peoples. And, I wonder how it is for the many, many Indigenous writers who have not been a part of the dominant discourse unfolding in the past few days.
I keep thinking about so many things and here’s what I think:
Inviting Indigenous writers to CanLit spaces is never benign.
Neither is being Indigenous and negotiating these invitations.
Neither is accepting or rejecting them.
None of this unfolds on the part of Indigenous peoples without some kind of intellectual, social or emotional labour. I know that I personally spend time and labour in assessing the matter when I am invited to submit to anything. I know some of my friends and peers do as well. Prepared with the information I require to make a decision, I make a decision and get ready for any unfolding dynamics.
Even when Indigenous writers cross the “t’s” and dot the “i’s” and weigh all the pros and cons, we can never know what will unfold from these relationships. Relationality is very much about continually navigating and negotiating; keeping at it or knowing when to walk away. And, in thinking about this hard space that has opened between IndigiLit and CanLit, until Canada is done colonizing us and our lands (and others, globally) and has made some major headway into restoring balance with Indigenous Nations and peoples in our lands, maybe Canadians in positions of power—the ones who are doing the inviting—can ensure they get right in what they are doing when they do extend invitations to us. And, as many navigate this new opening that has been created and unpacked by so many vibrant voices, lets consider how we want us and them to operate and if there any nuances in our own experiences that can provides insights on what to do with the new space.
As my own experiences testify, there are many white Canadian women in CanLit who are working from a different paradigm than the men and women we’ve seen in the spotlight over the past few days. There are people and relationships operating in healthful, conscientious ways regarding Indigenous literature. This is not to say that CanLit spaces that include Indigenous peoples’ truths and present them the way we see fit get a pass on being scrutinized regarding structural power. These spaces must also be structurally empowered with Indigenous presence–presence that is operating critically towards decolonial realities and relationalities. This is to say, in the pain, anger and frustration of futile exchanges with some of Canada’s cultural elite, let’s not fail to consider what is working well in IndigiLit and CanLit relationalities. And, consider what is working well in consideration of individual Indigenous writers who are out there on their own, so to speak; and, in consideration of how what is working well may somehow contribute to the broader goals of decolonization, regeneration of Indigeneity, and creation of new relationalities.
Maybe people who are operating from a similar paradigm—ideally Indigenous—will be hired to the positions vacated by Hal Niedzvecki, Jon Kay, and Steve Ladurantaye. While Kay is advocating a ‘he’ who deeply understands “Canada’s status as a land of immigrants” (suggesting that he has learned nothing in any of this), I blatantly advocate Indigenous people who are engaged in a paradigm of critical relationalities replace those who have resigned or have been reassigned. I advocate this because one, this is how structural power changes and becomes renegotiated and two, the pain, sustained critique, and generative insights bore out from the cultural appropriation debate has been delivered from the backs, minds, hearts and spirits of Indigenous peoples. It is Indigenous peoples who should benefit from any steps forward made here. When invitations go out to potential candidates, hopefully they are issued from a paradigm that is committed to (learning about) decoloniality and affirms relations of creative power grounded in appreciation as opposed to appropriation.
 Job loss is significant for so many reasons and warrants a fuller discussion. For now, I will say this: in a capitalist world, there is being fired, forced to resign, or being shut out of economic opportunities for good reason. These processes are typically tied to a human resource process. There is also being fired, forced to resign, or being shut out of economic opportunity which are not tied to a human resources process; these processes are forms of structural economic violence. From Anishinaabe axiology, things are a bit different than any of this: everybody eats; infractions occur but are taken up in ways that have nothing to do with one’s ability to provide for oneself.
 I don’t want to romanticize or simplify mental health issues or minimize the power that hostile work conditions have in creating them. Effective medical support, therapy, and a damn strong spirit line (in my case, my baby girl who needed me) got me through, in conjunction with Indigenous literature.
 In Ending Domination, bell hooks argues against the binary of “us and them”. Personally, I have ideas about the (dys)functions of “us and them” and discussing them is beyond the scope of this essay. I will say this though: the binary has saved my life operating as it did in my early 20s as a tool to disrupt the hegemonic ideas of Canadian equality and the naturalization/normalization of relational domination that I was suffocating in. The binary is also a tool of self-preservation. I’ve needed it to theorize my relationships, to protect myself from them, get out of them, or navigate them more effectively. The colonizer and the colonized and the oppressor and the oppressed are real. In the worlds I live in and the relationships I live in, with, and through, I’ve come to learn that I need to see through both the binary and the nuance in order to live more fully and close to the home fires I (want to) tend to. And, I need to talk about my relationships in this way if I am to honestly make my way out of sick worlds and towards new ones. In fact, talking about my relationships in such ways I think is one method of getting out of sick worlds and towards making new ones. There are many reasons to carve out our own spaces however I don’t see how we can or do live discretely separate from each other. I think where such social realities were the norm, for many Indigenous peoples today these relationalities are either unwanted, impractical, or highly unachievable for those without the privilege to construct their worlds as such.
 This blog post does not delve into cross-cultural/racial collaborations, projects edited by women of colour/people of colour, or Indigenous specific projects. Each warrant their own discussion. In this post, I wish to keep the light focused on white CanLit and IndigiLit relationalities, power, and shifting dynamics.
Addendum (May 19, 2017): This is a companion piece to a post published on May 12, 2017. “My #Canada150 Response: #AppropriationPrize140” is created from the fire of anger, pain, and “Ok, if you want to play this game, let’s play.” It was viewed over 1000 times on FB and Twitter which shows the power of social media vs. established.