Unreserved

Indigenous writer calls out CanLit for lack of diversity

CanLit's lack of diversity isn't news to Alicia Elliott, a Tuscarora writer from Six Nations of the Grand River Territory. Elliott wrote a column titled, "CanLit is a Raging Dumpster Fire." Months later, she saw a listing for a literary panel at gritLIT, a literary festival in Hamilton, Ontario, that referenced her and her piece, but said she was not invited to appear as a panelist.
Alicia Elliott's first book of essays is forthcoming from Doubleday Canada in Spring 2019. (Submitted by Alicia Elliott)

CanLit's lack of diversity isn't news to Alicia Elliott, a Tuscarora writer from Six Nations of the Grand River Territory.

Elliott, who lives and works in Brantford, Ont., wrote a column for open-book.ca in September 2017 titled, "CanLit is a Raging Dumpster Fire."

Months later, she saw a listing for a literary panel at gritLIT, a literary festival in Hamilton, Ont., that referenced her and her piece, but said she was not invited to appear as a panelist — instead, two white authors were included.

The panel organizers cancelled the event and apologized to Elliott. She said the author Jael Richardson, who was not involved in the first panel, later pitched the festival a new event featuring Elliott along with author Carrianne Leung, titled "CanLit REALLY Is a Raging Dumpster Fire." That panel is scheduled to take place on April 14.

Elliott said she can see people trying to make improvements, but CanLit is still falling short when it comes to diversity.

"I feel like there are people who are trying to do better, but the problem is that things have been done the same way for so long," said Elliott.  "People don't see … the ways that colonialism, and the way that racism and … sexism and homophobia … all inform the ways that they do everything."

Elliott said inviting diverse writers onto literary panels is one thing, but it doesn't end there. She said the name of a panel and questions panelists are asked are also important.

"I have friends who are Indigenous writers who've been to panels, who've been part of panels that they didn't know were named kind of ridiculous and very othering kind of things until they got there. And at that point what are you going to do?" said Elliott.

For her, CanLit's relationship with Indigenous writers echoes Canada's relationship with Indigenous communities.

"I feel like the problem is they keep trying to make small little steps and keep things the same," she explained.

While CanLit has opened up to more diversity, for Elliott, her focus lies in Indigenous literature as its own canon.

"Just accepting everything as it is and trying to make small changes to an already flawed system that has been designed from inception to keep us out is not going to necessarily lead to the kind of … change or… artistic revolution that maybe everybody … should kind of want," said Elliott.

"We pass things through orally and even the idea that … oral literature doesn't count as literature" puts limits on what the art form is, she said.

For Elliott, if artistic standards in Indigenous literature aren't considered literary or art, writers are at a distinct disadvantage.  "Then… to succeed in CanLit, 'You have to get rid of that and you have to play by our rules,' which is exactly the way that ... Canada works with its assimilation policies," she said.

Opening up literary events to other events and forms, including spoken word writers carrying on oral traditions in a modern way, or inviting elders to share their stories and knowledge may be a better way of including a more diverse group of writers, said Elliott.

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