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.