The first thing that writer Amber Dawn sent to Room magazine, Canada’s longest-running feminist literary publication, was a memoir about sex work. A few months later, the journal decided to print the piece—a choice that changed the course of her life.
“I consider my writing pretty far from mainstream,” the Dayne Ogilvie Prize winner and long-time contributor to the publication tells the Straight on the line from her Vancouver home. “Room was the first magazine to accept any of my content, even though I’d sent things to many literary reviews. The magazine literally took a chance on me. I think that’s part of what makes Room, Room—they’re very bold in terms of voice and identity, and also in creative genre. That boldness started my career.”
Created in 1975 by five Canadian women, the Vancouver-based journal has a long and storied history. Founded to showcase the best writing from cis-gender, gender-queer, and LGBT women, and women of colour, the magazine has a broad scope. Publishing fiction, poetry, reviews, artwork, interviews, and profiles about the female experience, Room provides an inclusivity missing from much of the industry.
“The Canadian Women in the Literary Arts counts up who is printing and reviewing books, in terms of gender, race, and sexuality,” says Arielle Spence, a member of the magazine’s editorial board, over a coffee on Granville Island. “They’ve shown that although we like to think of the arts as being quite equal and fair, patriarchy, sexism, racism, and homophobia continue to exist. That’s why, although Room has changed so much over four decades, it’s still so important.
“Submissions to the magazine are free, and 90 percent of our writing is uncommissioned.” Spence continues. “We’re focused on finding excellent new voices who might not have been printed before or have a long writing CV, but are more than worthy of publication. We’ve given a lot of major Canadian authors their first credit, and continue to choose quality over cherry-picking big names.”
Having showcased the early work of writers like Pulitzer Prize– and Governor General’s Award–winning novelist Carol Shields, Writers’ Trust Engel/Findley Award recipient Eden Robinson, and CBC Canada Reads finalist Nalo Hopkinson, Room has a knack for spotting wordsmiths on their way up.
“I think there’s always a freshness to Room—fresh voices, fresh readers, and fresh editorials,” says Amber Dawn, whose work for the magazine involves sifting through hundreds of submissions. “For us, it’s all about finding the most engaging pieces.”
The journal’s connection with first-class contributors has come in handy over the last 12 months. Announcing that Room will celebrate its 40th anniversary by launching a comprehensive festival featuring workshops, readings, and panels, Spence—the event’s chief organizer—has gathered together a stellar lineup of speakers and moderators to connect Vancouverites with Canada’s larger literary community. Featuring topics such as trauma, feminist humour, and pregnancy, the five-day writing event will be attended by more than 500 literature lovers.
“Naming the festival Growing Room has become way more apt than we could imagine,” Spence says with a laugh. “When you work for a literary magazine called Room, there are a lot of room-themed puns. The festival ended up expanding and expanding and expanding, and we realized that we were riding a huge wave of enthusiasm. We never expected that so many writers would be onboard so quickly, that we’d collaborate with so many partners and community organizers, and that the media would be like, ‘Yes, this is what we’ve been looking for.’ I don’t want to say that we’ve got carried away—but maybe we have a little bit.”
Coinciding with the launch of the festival will be the release of the journal’s anthology, Making Room: Forty Years of Room Magazine, a 400-plus-page book archiving the best of the magazine’s output. Split into chronological sections introduced by an interview with an editor or prominent writer from the period, the anthology pieces together writing from different eras of feminism, touching on topics like the morning-after pill, the “mind fuck” of being raped by a romantic partner, and the difficulty of negotiating trans-womanhood.
“The anthology does a few things,” says Amber Dawn, whose writing will be featured in the book. “It allows us to see a continuum between works, and it allows us to remember and treasure literature that is absolutely vital. I think there is often something very temporary about literary magazines, and people will recycle them or donate them, but this anthology is something that will be on our shelves forever. It’s a living record that we can keep easily close at hand. I hope it inspires other women to write about whatever it is they want to say.”
“Especially now,” Spence agrees, “we need writers and artists more than ever to speak back to what’s happening in the world. The festival and anthology aim to help disseminate those ideas to new audiences, and to encourage others to tell the truth through art.”
Growing Room: A Feminist Literary Festival takes place at various venues from Wednesday (March 8) until March 12. See the Room website for details.