Visibility and Representation

Perspectives of Those Systemically “Othered” in Canadian Publishing

Misrepresentative and often dehumanizing single narratives are often seen in literature, film, art, and media.  These stories are frequently one-dimensional and often-inaccurate portrayals of communities, often resulting in mistreatment and violence from society and internalized oppression and diminished self-worth for those affected.  In her immensely popular 2009 TED talk, The Danger of a Single Story, Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie states, “I realized that girls like me … could also exist in literature,” as she breaks down the issues that arise from reducing complex stories to single narratives.

Although the publishing industry still features homogenous voices, gradual change has begun.  In recent years, various Canadian publishing houses have begun to feature an increasing variety of works from the often-overlapping identities and perspectives of BIPOC, immigrant, disabled,      neurodiverse, and queer voices.

Traditionally, these voices have been omitted from mainstream publishing and academia.  And despite recent attempts at inclusivity and representation, academia remains predominantly focused on Eurocentric Western thought, with the works of William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, and Ernest Hemingway continuing to dominate literature departments.

Reading literature and listening to the stories of those whose perspectives may differ from our own experiences is widely thought to be crucial for developing awareness and, hopefully, empathy and understanding, which will, in turn lead, to positive change.

Representation and inclusion are especially important, now more than ever, with continued and increasing marginalization and oppression against those who traditionally hold the least power in our society.  In particular, the power of language has been highlighted during this current pandemic, with comments by world leaders often leading to violence and aggression against communities.

The power of language is also seen in storytelling.  In addition to oral folklore, the written word—in literature, in memoir, in essay—gives voice to our stories, helping countless individuals see themselves represented, and.  perhaps, feel less alone.  This increasing visibility empowers a new generation to experience accurate representations of themselves, as individuals and communities create their own narratives, released from narrow perspectives and stigma.  Instead of portrayal as the “Other,” instead of inclusion simply as secondary and supporting characters, as villains, as monsters, as comic relief, as a foils for the protagonist—this new type of text slowly frees itself from colonial mindsets, exoticism, racism, prejudice, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, ridicule, and inaccuracies.  In the words of comic Hannah Gadsby from her Netflix special, Nanette, “My story has value.” All of our stories have value, even those traditionally deemed worthless.

The following is a list of recent books (and my personal favourites) from a variety of voices that have been gaining increased recognition.

Scarborough by Catherine Hernandez – Scarborough features various stories and perspectives from the inhabitants of Scarborough, in Toronto’s east-end, by queer author, performer, and playwright, Catherine Hernandez.

Frying Plantain by Zalika Reid-Benta – Frying Plantain focuses on the life of Kara, a young second-generation Jamaican girl in Toronto’s “Little Jamaica” neighbourhood by Toronto-based writer, Reid-Benta.

Jonny Appleseed by Joshua Whitehead – The debut novel by Oji-Cree/nehiyaw, Two-Spirit Indigiqueer author from Peguis First Nation (Treaty 1), Manitoba, follows the life of Jonny, a Two-Spirit teen from his early years on a reserve to love and survival in Winnipeg.

From the Ashes by Jesse Thistle – From the Ashes is the debut memoir from York University’s assistant professor in Métis Studies.  Thistle, a Métis-Cree author from Prince Albert, Saskatchewan deals with themes of guilt, shame, and resilience as he recounts his years of homelessness, addiction, and incarceration, along with stories of family ties and overcoming intergenerational trauma.

In My Own Moccasins by Helen Knott – The debut memoir from Knott, a Dane Zaa/Nehiyaw/mixed-Euro descent author and social worker from Fort St.  John, British Columbia, recounts living with and overcoming addiction and trauma, along with memories of family, activism, poetry, and social work experience.

Heatberries by Terese Marie Mailhot – From Seabird Island, British Columbia, Mailhot’s memoir spans her life in both Canada and the United States, with events ranging from motherhood and writing to time spent in a psychiatric facility, before healing, and finally finding peace.

We Have Always Been Here: A Queer Muslim Memoir by Samra Habib – A memoir by Toronto-based artist and photographer Samra Habib, We Have Always Been Here recounts early years in Pakistan, with explorations of Islam and queer identity.  Habib is also known for photography, including Just Me and Allah: A Queer Muslim Photo Project.

Falling for Myself: A Memoir by Dorothy Ellen Palmer – Ontario-born and raised Palmer explores the intersecting systems of ableism, ageism, and class, as she recounts her life, including adoption, improv comedy, disability justice work, union work, and teaching under the Mike Harris government.

The Clothesline Swing by Ahmad Danny Ramadan – The debut novel from Syrian-Canadian author and queer activist Ramadan, recounts tale of Hakawati, a storyteller who recounts stories and memories of life in Syria and Egypt to his dying partner.

Many of these authors recently spoke at the annual Brampton Festival of Literary Diversity, which highlights underrepresented voices and features reading challenges for book lovers to expand their reading lists.  The May challenge urged readers to choose a book from an author from a prairie province, while June challenges readers to find a beach read by an author from an underserved      community.

For AU students who wish to go beyond these reading lists and reading challenges, consider ENGL 314 World Literature, with topics ranging from early Chinese literature to traditional Maya books to North African Islamic thought, ENGL 308 Indigenous Literature in Canada,  ENGL 344 Post-Colonial Literatures, with literature from India, Nigeria, Kenya, and the Caribbean, ENGL 361, Literature of the Harlem Renaissance, and ENGL 458 The Latin American Novel.

Benta-Reid, Z.  (2019).  Frying Plantain.  Toronto: House of Anansi Press.
Habib, S.  (2019).  We Have Always Been Here: A Queer Muslim Memoir.  New York: Viking.
Hernandez, C.  (2018).  Scarborough.  Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press.
Knott, H.  (2019).  In My Own Moccasins.  Saskatchewan: University of Regina Press.
Mailhot, T.  M.  (2018).  Heartberries.  London: Bloomsbury Publishing.
Palmer, D.  E.  (2019).  Falling for Myself: A Memoir.  Hamilton: Wolsak and Wynn Publishers Inc.
Ramadan, A.  D.  (2017).  The Clothesline Swing.  Gibsons: Nightwood Editions.
Thistle, J.  (2019).  From the Ashes.  Toronto: Simon and Shuster Canada.
Whitehead, J.  (2018).  Jonny Appleseed.  Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press.

[The third of Natalia’s articles that was nominated.  I usually avoid publishing lists of people’s favourite books, but Natalia managed to explain each book, and wrapped the entire thing in a compelling narrative exploring discrimination in publishing and our society back in our June 26th issue, so it felt worth publishing, and, seeing as how it’s now being included as part of the Best of 2020, it seems I was right.]