Arts·Point of View

Black queer voices matter — and these authors are writing a more inclusive future for CanLit

A roundtable with five Black queer authors on how the literary world needs to change.

A roundtable with five Black queer authors on how the literary world needs to change

Crop of the cover art for Francesca Ekwuyasi's Butter Honey Pig Bread. (Arsenal Pulp Press/Artwork by Brianna McCarthy)

Seeing yourself reflected in literature can be incredibly powerful, particularly when you live on what mainstream media has defined as the margins. Reading narratives that parallel the love stories you dream about or language that mimics your own gives readers what QTBIPOC are deeply in need of right now: a chance to be seen and heard.

Unfortunately, despite the abundance of Black queer authors creating works across genres, styles, and provinces, the road to publishing their specific stories and work is potholed with trauma, gaslighting, tokenization, and questioning of our abilities. Though the world is currently screaming that our lives matter, for a very long time we've been told that our voices absolutely do not.

"There's so much room for improvement at the executive level of the publishing industry. We desperately need more BIPOC publishers and editors," says Brian Lam, publisher at Arsenal Pulp Press. "Queer Black writers have been largely absent in CanLit history. One could say it's because of the relatively small Black population in Canada, but I think it's because in the past Black queer writers never felt empowered to tell their stories or believe that their work would be accepted by the publishing industry. And largely they were right — mainstream publishers, agents and media would have considered them too marginal."

I spoke with a number of Black queer authors from across North America to frame a call to action for a better world of publishing. "It's important to have Black and queer voices participating in the work of making real and remembering because, to be frank, the era of having stories told to, about, and for us must end," says Francesca Ekwuyasi, author of Butter Honey Pig Bread (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2020).

In this new era, Black queer authors yearn for an industry that learns about, respects, uplifts, and cares for Black queer writers — one that goes beyond fetishization of Black pain in a White-centred narrative, and one that seeks to spotlight more than tribulations in the queer experience.

It's okay if only 10 people read my book as long as one Black queer person reads it and feels seen by it, represented, and empowered.- Cicely Belle Blain, author

"I am so tired of reading stories about Black pain and trauma. I can't bear it, and I can't read those kinds of texts anymore as I get older," says Suzette Mayr, author of Dr. Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hall (Coach House Books, 2017). "There's so much more than Black pain when telling stories about Black experience. It feels as though books aren't rewarded or given airtime if there's a female, minoritized main character or a queer main character who isn't suffering from racist and/or homophobic trauma."

Below, we're privileged to be invited into the journeys, worlds, and minds of five Black queer authors who speak candidly about their experience in the literary landscape. You'll find reflections on harm done, as well as offerings to build a better world of publishing. We discuss the opportunities to both change the literary scene as well as continue to build our own communities within it. And each of the writers speak to why creating a truly inclusive literary world is long overdue and key not only in this moment of unrest and discomfort but for years to come.

Francesca Ekwuyasi. (Monica Phung)

On the importance of inclusion and safety

What is important about having the voices of Black queer people in the literary scene? What do you hope our voices will change for future generations of Black queer writers?

Francesca Ekwuyasi: Without our voices, those stories are incomplete and dangerous. Discourse shapes reality, and exoticizing, racist, or otherwise lazy stories tell lies and have shaped a world in which Black and queer — particularly trans femme folks — have been historically written as monstrosities, thus attempting to justify a lot of the inhumane prejudices and violence we witness today. Stories matter; it matters who tells them and how they do it. So if we're going to have stories about Black and queer people — which we must — then it is important that they are written by as many diverse and perhaps even contradicting voices of Black and queer people as possible.

Suzette Mayr: I guess my question is why not include Black queer voices on the Canadian scene? As writers, we're all part of one big constellation made up of different experiences and perspectives. Why not have as many voices as you can? It's only a half-story if we're not included.

I hope our voices do for future generations what queer and straight Black voices of older writers did for me as a young writer and human. Writers like Alice Walker, James Baldwin, Dionne Brand, Essex Hemphill, Audre Lorde, Anne Petry, and Zora Neale Hurston showed me there are varied and infinitely richer ways of being in the world. They showed me the joy, celebration, and complexity of being a person of Black heritage. They showed me there's a reason to keep going on, that there's story everywhere, and that those stories can be complicated, funny, wise, weird, and unique.

Dennis Norris II: When I think about my ideal reader, I think about me when I was 14. Getting to see stories about Black queer people — stories where it was okay to be a gay boy and be effeminate, and to do the things that I wanted to do, and to know that I could get a life that wasn't just being the funny sidekick to a straight White girl...I needed those stories.

Dennis Norris II. (Melissa Czarnik)

What are the challenges that you've faced while navigating the publishing industry as a Black queer human?

Francesca Ekwuyasi: A challenge I've faced is doing the tricky work of not playing into being tokenized or exoticized. The idea of scarcity is pervasive and can breed a false sense of competition or fear that there is, for example, already a queer narrative or a Black perspective, so my voice is irrelevant. Therefore part of the challenge has been unlearning that lie and doing some internal work to reject any ideas that my work, voice, and stories are irrelevant because of my intersecting identities. I aim to focus, instead, on developing my craft and seek out publications and publishers who are doing their own work of unlearning oppression and divesting from abusive systems.

Suzette Mayr: The one that I'll never forget is the horrible experience I had with an agent who tried to discourage me from writing queer content, and essentially let me go as their client because of it. It was really devastating. The message was coded, but it was unmistakable, and I couldn't believe what I was hearing. I currently have a publisher who respects my work and my perspective, and has got my back in every way: as a queer person, a Black biracial person, a woman, and as a writer from Western Canada. Having a publisher who doesn't police me and who supports and respects my vision is way more important to me than anything else.

Dennis Norris II: People of colour, and Black people in particular, are so incredibly inventive and creative that there should be no boundaries on us — but there already are. Because the way that the traditional publishing machine thinks about our work and thinks about the numbers that we can sell dictate whether or not they choose to buy our books, it dictates how much money they'll put into our books and how much effort they'll put into promoting our books. But those things are not the only measures of success. Also, how can you really trust that those systems are accurate if the system is racist from top to bottom? How can you say that our books aren't selling if you're not promoting them to begin with?

Jillian Christmas is an educator, activist, community organizer and spoken word poet. (K. Ho)

What are the ways you've stayed safe while navigating the world of publishing?

Francesca Ekwuyasi: I've been lucky to have worked primarily with publications and now a publisher with whom I can create honestly. I have had to learn to advocate for myself, but working with people and publications who are on similar pages about fundamental anti-oppression values has made navigating publishing feel that much safer. One way I've tried to stay safe is by taking control wherever I can; one of those places is in my craft, so I stay in my lane, focus on growing and improving my writing and storytelling. Another way is by seeking out publications and publishers who are invested in the safety and success of their Black and queer authors.

Jillian Christmas: My greatest piece of advice about navigating the publishing world in Canada is to lean toward those places that have an understanding of and honour the process and work that's being created. I think that there are a lot of people who at least want their hands on the product. They're like, "Black people are popular right now because people are talking about them in the news!" Queerness, sex work, any of these things can be buzzwords and have cultural cache, and so the product is attractive to folks. But I'm really interested in people who are interested in the process before, during, and after — for the writer, their community — and who want to nurture that entire trajectory and just not hold space for the shining pieces of it.

Reinforce the pieces that you know to be of deep value in your work so that you can hold them in esteem when people come to try to take those pieces from you. Reminding myself of how deserving I am has been fundamental — not just in the process of creating the book, but in healing myself after it felt like I was harmed after interacting with the world of academia and publishing.

Suzette Mayr: I have my own personal Star Chamber where, in times of writerly self-doubt and grief, I go for advice and solace. My Star Chamber is made up of artists, thinkers, and quirky types — some living, some dead, some fictional. When I write, I also keep at the forefront of my mind all those Black queer people who fought so that I could have the space and freedom to do my thing: Marsha P. Johnson, Stormé DeLarverie, Essex Hemphill, Alice Walker, Audre Lorde.

Cicely Belle Blain: Growing up, being an avid reader, I always envisioned myself having books out and always assumed the highest achievement was to be published by Harper-Collins, Penguin Random House, whatever. But now I've come to really not care anymore. I feel really grateful to be published by a local, Vancouver-based publishing house that intentionally publishes many queer writers, writers of colour, etc. To me, that feels much more safe and exciting and rewarding. I think that as a small publishing house they have more capacity to care for marginalized writers. I think my message is — and I feel this in a lot of parts of my life as an activist — I realize that yes, eventually bigger systemic change is essential, but we actually gain a lot more from working within our local communities, and transformative change is possible from one person lifting up another. I now understand that it's okay if only 10 people read my book as long as one Black queer person reads it and feels seen by it, represented, and empowered.

Cicely Belle Blain. (K. Ho)

On gatekeeping and turning to our own community

In what ways does gatekeeping impact our ability to break into the industry? And where can we turn when we don't desire to break through?

Suzette Mayr: I try not to let the gatekeepers keep me away from what's mine. Sadly, there are gatekeepers both within and outside the Black community who will try to limit what a writer should write about in terms of Black queer sexuality and history. I'm currently trying to write a historical fiction about a Black queer sleeping car porter, and I'm finding resistance; there seems to be a lock on how Black male sexuality is supposed to be represented. But I resolve to bulldoze over and past them anyway, no matter how painful and wrenching that process might be. I've had to learn through trial and error to use these moments as motivation rather than discouragement. My advice to newer writers is to keep the faith, stay true to your reality, and you will succeed in storming and tearing down those gates.

Dennis Norris II: Community of like-minded and like-lived people is of utmost importance. The reason I want to emphasize that is because when I was a younger writer, I thought that anything that was "for Black writers" or "for queer writers" — I felt very much like that accomplishment was less than, compared to if I had been picked out the general population of everyone where most of them were White writers.

I had to work through that feeling...because the reality is that writers who are writing from marginalized communities — their excellence is exponential. It's important for us to have pride in our work and pride in the work of those in our communities. It's important for us to do what we've always done, which is elevating the bar, raising the bar. And it's actually the greatest honour to be distinguished in our own communities. Our communities are going to hold us to the highest standard possible, then put us forward.

Jillian Christmas: I've learned that there's no institution that can tell me about my own words. There's no institution that can better corral or police my lines into the proper space that they need to be in. So the process of finding my space on the page in a way that wields so true, and having support around that, has definitely reinforced for me that the answers to my own writing, my own style, and what I need to put into the world are only found inside of me and inside of my community.

Cicely Belle Blain: There are so many intricate pieces to publishing that I had no clue about, and especially for marginalized writers, nobody's ever going to tell you that stuff. Like every industry, there's an element of an old boys club, but I remember going to a launch party...it was all these White folks name-dropping, and this was another world that I just felt like would never include me. So to have somebody who had "broken in" and was already paving the way for other queer and trans writers of colour was so crucial. It's really helpful to have someone show you the ropes and how to play the system, in a way. That is just not information that anyone is going to tell you...because they don't want to let you in!

Suzette Mayr. (Tonya Callaghan)

On what the future could look like

What would you like to see the publishing world and literary scene do better?

Francesca Ekwuyasi: I would like to see honest effort poured into the work of representation. Blackness is not a monolith, and neither is queerness, so the more voices/perspectives/stories for and by historically marginalized or silenced folk, the better. There can be more work put into not only publishing more diverse literature, but also encouraging young Indigenous, Black, people of colour, disabled people, and queer people to hone their crafts and share their stories.

Jillian Christmas: One example: you're asked for interviews or appearances, and I think a lot of authors, speakers, performers can understand being tokenized in those spaces. And certain interviewers don't understand or value the work in the way that it needs to be held. Or they might still be looking at it with a lens that is seeded in colonial values, rather than understanding different ways of learning, different lived experience, and ways that can inform what comes to the page. So I think having an awareness of those pieces — both the publisher and the editor — and knowing the harm that could come to me in space like that has been really intentional in terms of selecting spaces that I might go to share the work.

Suzette Mayr: I've had odd experiences at some writers' festivals in the past where I've gotten pigeonholed into strange panels that show the organizers clearly don't know what to do with me. Often it's a thinly disguised "people of colour panel" where different writers of colour are all thrown together even though their books might have nothing else in common. I think there's a fear that our books won't appeal to the general audience, so we're tucked away.

Dennis Norris II: I think the big issue is that at the end of the day, especially in an industry where it's so hard to "make it" and where making it is so nebulous, self-preservation is the name of the game. People will push you forward to a point, but only to a point. But writers who have "made it" who are from marginalized communities understand that opening the door for more of us is the key to ensuring more of us are elevated.

These interviews have been edited and condensed.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alica Forneret is a writer and facilitator creating spaces for people to explore grief. Alica is a member of the BC Women's Health Foundation's Young Women's Council and an associate board member of Our House Grief Center, and her work has been featured in CTV News, Modern Loss, Psychology Today, and more. She is currently working on her first book about the intersections of grief and identity. Find her on Instagram at @alica.forneret or on her website at alicaforneret.com.

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