Author Madeleine Thien reveals Canadian literary establishment's bias against female writers of colour

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      Canadian novelist and SFU writer in residence Madeleine Thien has publicly questioned why relatively few writers of colour are nominated for major awards in Canada.

      "I've seen this on the prize juries and on the grant juries on which I've served," Thien said last night (November 24) at the literASIAN writers festival celebratory banquet in Vancouver. "And each time I've seen it, I've told myself that it was just an anomaly. It is only now, after more than 10 years of seeing this pattern, that I feel confident in saying that it is not an anomaly, but a fixed pattern that is very difficult to shift."

      Thien opened her short speech by also taking aim at the broad community of Canadian book critics for their collective lack of understanding of diverse cultures.

      "Together, they decide the work that will be visible and the work that will remain invisible," Thien said. "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."

      Thien, a Vancouver-born author of four books, later pointed out that apart from Joseph Boyden—a novelist of aboriginal descent—the long list of finalists for this year's Scotiabank Giller Prize was entirely comprised of white writers.

      "It's worth noting that in 10 years of the Writers' Trust [of Canada] Fiction Prize, only eight nonwhite writers have ever been nominated," she added. "And this number includes Rawi Hage three times. In fact, until Esi Edugyen [was nominated] in 2011, no women of colour had ever been nominated in the history of the prize."

      (Thien later pointed out to the Straight that in 2008, Jewish-Canadian-American writer Rivka Galchen was nominated for the Writers' Trust award.)

      In 2011 Edugyen won the Scotiabank Giller Prize for Half-Blood Blues. Thien acknowledged in her speech that 12 nonwhite writers were short-listed for the Giller over a 10-year period.

      However, this comment came the following caveat: "But before you get too excited, this number includes twice each for Rawi Hage, M.G. Vassanji, and Michael Ondaatje. I know that the reasons for this are very complex, but I truly believe that for a strong literature to emerge, writers need opportunities. They need doors to open, support in the form of grants and nominations, which translate into visibility. And if not, writers will lose the opportunity to perfect their craft, because literature is a craft. And it requires time, commitment, a paycheque, publishers' support, and intelligent critical response."

      Thien has won plenty of prizes herself, including the City of Vancouver Book Award, the VanCity Book Prize, the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, the Ovid Festival Prize, and the Amazon.ca First Novel Award, previously known as the Books in Canada First Novel Award.

      Her last novel, Dogs at the Perimeter, has been translated into several languages and was a finalist for the Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction.

      In his review of Dogs at the Perimeter, Straight critic David Chau wrote: "She writes with artful nuance about men and women suspended in emotional limbo, sheared of innocence, families, lovers, and friends, exploring their circumstances in books like her award-winning collection of short fiction, Simple Recipes."

      The literASIAN closing banquet was held at the Pink Pearl Chinese Restaurant and benefited the Asian Canadian Writers' Workshop, which publishes Ricepaper magazine.

      Thien edited three issues of Ricepaper 14 years ago.

      "I want raise a toast to Ricepaper—to thank them for engaging with this question, for being part of the struggle to find an answer, and for acting rather than simply wishing," Thien concluded.

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      23 Comments

      Kristin Cheung

      Nov 25, 2013 at 12:55pm

      This is a topic that we have all been talking about around around the 'kitchen table', specifically the Ricepaper office for a while now. We just didn't know others were as well.

      Thanks so much to Madeleine Thien for having the courage to bring this discussion forward. And of course, to Charlie Smith and The Georgia Straight for making her speech widely available for those who could not attend the dinner last night.

      Hopefully this will be the beginning of a larger conversation, inclusive of not just Asian Canadian, women writers, but the larger community of readers, writers, and everyone in between.

      Alan Layton

      Nov 25, 2013 at 1:36pm

      And the solution is?

      Jacqueline Valencia

      Nov 25, 2013 at 3:26pm

      People need to start reading beyond their own experience. Those of us, women of colour, need to write more, submit more, and believe in each other more.

      It's not up to us to school the world on how to solve their diversity problem.

      Same Reason

      Nov 25, 2013 at 3:35pm

      Same reason local universities have women only or Asian only scholarships. Bias.

      Rick in Richmond

      Nov 25, 2013 at 7:52pm

      I have noticed a distinct lack of Nobel Prizes in Physics awarded to Muslims.

      Something must be done!

      look at the juries

      Nov 26, 2013 at 10:43am

      They are 3-person, massively subjective little tribunals. They have tended to include a writer who has won something in the past (likely t/b white), a bookseller (white), a media type (likely t/b white), and, more recently with the giller, a non-Cdn (they've been white). These things are glorified exercises in back scratching and logrolling. It'll take some time for changes to seep in. Hope it happens sooner than expected!

      Jeremy

      Nov 26, 2013 at 11:02am

      She hasn't "revealed" anything, only offered up a few anecdotes (while apparently being the exception to the rule). Real comprehensive stats of the relations between eligible writers, shortlisted works, and so on, across a wide range of prizes, would mean something, but that would require a bit of journalistic work. It would be interesting, too, to see stats on the biases of the literary establishment that are based on genre, or style.

      Jerry Bear

      Nov 26, 2013 at 11:27am

      Canada has a number of well-regarded non-white writers whose English-language works have received multiple award nominations and/or prizes. Besides the authors listed above, one could include Austin Clarke, Eden Robinson, Suzette Mayr, Dionne Brand, Wayson Choy, Farzana Doctor, Rabindranath Maharaj, Ruth Ozeki, & Andre Alexis (this is only a partial list). On the non-fiction side, multiple prize winners/nominees include bestselling authors like Thomas King, Malcolm Gladwell, David Suzuki, Adrienne Clarkson, & J.J. Lee (some of the authors I mentioned in the fiction list have also written works of non-fiction).

      It's great to see the recognition that these and other visible minority writers have received for their work.

      One could also note that a number of these writers (Edugyan, Ondaatje, Alexis, etc.) have also served on prize juries and/or regularly review books for publications.

      Alan Layton

      Nov 26, 2013 at 11:49am

      Jeremy gave the correct answer IMO. You can't 'fix' a problem unless you know that there really is a problem, how large it may be and the source of it. Things that would be helpful to know is the proportion of 'women of colour' in Canada and the proportion of each 'colour' group that are female writers. It could just be a problem of numbers rather than the implied misogyny and racism.

      Jacqueline Valencia

      Nov 26, 2013 at 12:53pm

      Jerry Bear and Jeremy have not revealed anything either. A partial list? How does that compare to stats. Both parties on this argument need specific stats then to give a non-biased account here.

      Um, and more women of colour commenters please.