Picturing Canadian Literature in Forty Years

TIFA’s Delegate Programme is an opportunity for local authors and journalists to enrich the level of discussion throughout the Festival. Delegate Téa Mutonji shares her experience attending and speaking with guests of #FestofAuthors19, below.


By Téa Mutonji 

1.

I approach the lineup at the poetry slam. It’s the first night of the Festival. About twenty or so people, most of whom are students, most of whom are coloured folks stand waiting. I go from one end of the line to the other, asking people if I could take their photograph if I could ask them about the future of publishing. 

The first couple I speak with is a man and a woman. They look young and I mistake them for OCAD students. They tell me that they’re lawyers and that they go to poetry slams because the language is accessible.  

When talking about Canadian literature, the man tells me “Just because something is Canadian literature doesn’t mean it needs to be set to old stock Canadian characters or taken place even within Canada. There’s a whole lot of authors in this country with a host of diverse experiences that aren’t restricted to the physical boundaries of Canada. More of that.”

They ask me how old I am, and I tell them twenty-five. The young woman tells me, “I’d like to see twenty-five-year-olds get published, people who might be writing directly what I’m experiencing.” The man tells me, “In forty years, I’d like for “diversity” to not still be what we’re trying to look like.” I asked them if they’ve heard of Zalika Reid-Benta. They haven’t. I search her book on my phone and tell them that it might be what they’re looking for.

2.

I approach two young women. One of them has a sharp lip colour that catches my attention. I usually try to get individual shots, but their movement mimics each other so perfectly; I decide to photograph them together. They’re excited to get their picture taken so I take a few. They fix each other’s crown, making sure that their hijabs are well fitted, and they giggle. One of them tells me, “There’s a lot of diasporas, first-generation and second-generation, [Canadian literature needs] more diversity in the stories, and hearing more voices.” The other adds, “Literature needs to be more vulnerable and personal, and more people taking more chances with the stories they tell.” They tell me they’re students at OCAD and they have to go home to find work that resonates with them. They tell me the stories from home are some of the best stories they’ve ever heard, and that Canada is home now too. They ask where the photographs will be posted and I tell them on the festival’s website, which, excites them even more. Something about being included makes people feel good.

3.

I asked one of the volunteers at Miss Lou’s lounge. She asked me if I’m a writer. I point at my name behind us and I tell her that my book came out in the spring. She asks me if I plan on another book. I tell her yes and she says good. 

4.

At the Governor General’s Literary night, I’m especially excited that Gwen Benaway and Amanda Parris have been nominated in their respectful categories. I picture this exact event, several years to come, with young women of marginalized and diverse identities on stage, cool light landing on their foreheads. 

Stuart Ross wins the Harbourfront Festival Prize and delivers a powerful (funny) speech. I think of all the people, poets especially, who get their start with chapbooks. I think of my mentor, Vivek Shraya, who began by self-publishing. I imagine a world where a chapbook might get considered for a fancy lit award, based on merit, based on lyricism. I picture Stuart Ross on Toronto street intersection selling his chapbooks and wonder if he ever imagined himself here. 

Marianne Micros, Joan Thomas, K.D Miller, and Cary Fagan are on stage. This nomination category is dominated by women, a fact that seduced me in attending the night. Marianne, Joan, and K.D have this in common about their books: works about women, for women and by women. 

Later, I run into a fellow delegate. There must have been something in the air because she tells me “Works from women especially. More women writers.” 

5.

After the theatrical premiere of Miriam Toews' Women Talking, I see some actor friends. They hadn’t heard of Women Talking before the production, before their friends being cast for the showcase. We talk about other books that need to be adapted. I mention reproduction by Ian Williams. I say, “It’s a love story, it’s a book about characters, people.” They tell me it would be cool for more books to be made into films, and television series, and plays. I ask them where they see Canadian literature in forty years. One of them tells me “On the big screen. Like, Little Women.” They admit that they don’t read much work from Canadian authors. They tell me it’s because it doesn’t feel like it’s about anything. It doesn’t seem to represent Canada. “Highbrow and boring,” someone says. We conclude: can Canadian fiction aim to resemble Canadian people? A girl whom I took a screenwriting course with this summer tells me: “My Canada is an artist trying to make art, not fisherman trying to catch fish. My Canada is me and my husband each working two jobs to pay rent. Are people writing about that?” 

6.

I’m with my friend Terese and we connect with a speculative author. They go back and forth talking about speculative fiction. How it’s slowly merging in conversation with literary fiction, and YA. I noticed this too. He comments on the difference between American publishing and Canadian publishing. He tells me when it comes to the future of Canadian literature, “we [need to be] more daring. We don’t have to be as commercial. We should aim to be brave in a way that doesn’t have to bend in creative interest.” I comment that there seems to be less fear of publishing in American than there is here. We all agree.

7.

This mother and son duo weren’t Festival-goers. I knew it immediately but still, approached them by the water and asked if I could take a photograph. They posed, asked me what this was for, and I explained to them I was curious about readership. The woman tells me she’s never read a Canadian book in her life. She says maybe her son has, in school. She mentions Holes (1998). I tell her that’s not a Canadian book and she remarks: “That’s what they’re teaching in school.” I asked her where she sees Canadian literature in forty years, and she tells me this can be a start: teaching kids Canadian authors.