It is barely five in the morning, and I am at the Fredericton airport. For those who have never been through the departures lounge of the Fredericton airport, imagine a single gate in any major airport, add two usually half-empty vending machines, and a runway the size of a grocery-store parking lot. Much about New Brunswick fits the same description: small, lacking in resources, sometimes still functional. Since I first moved here for graduate school, I have been surprised by the resilience of the small, often isolated, and sometimes insular literary community that exists in New Brunswick. The province’s writers tend to punch far above their collective weight.
I hesitate to stereotype these writers, many of them friends, with ye olde Maritime stoicism. There is more to it than that. But I can’t ignore the difference between literary gatherings in Atlantic Canada and those in the CanLit metropolis of Toronto, where I am flying shortly—let alone a major national awards gala. The difference between how writers and readers perform their literariness in different spaces is hard to articulate, but it exists in the tone of every greeting, in the formality, in the competitive feel—and in the dress code. But maybe, as a Northern-Ontario-born interloper, I should hesitate to stereotype Toronto writers.
I am Toronto-bound this morning to cover the Scotiabank Giller Prize Gala because I want to discover just how these differences operate on a larger scale. In preparation, I have made pages of notes about prize culture and representation issues in CanLit, but I keep coming back to this nebulous difference between small and large literary communities. How will that difference play out when a literary community is thrust into a nationally televised, corporately funded awards show? How will that difference manifest when the writers are clad in black-tie and presented as celebrities?
November 7th, 5pm
Twelve hours later, I emerge from St. Andrews subway station in downtown Toronto and, with many others in the bustling crowd, am sucked into a Starbucks to buy coffee. The paper cup proceeds to dribble coffee down my wrist as I walk toward Wellington street, but I ignore it and walk on. I am cutting it close to the five o’clock media registration. I pass two more Starbucks locations before I arrive.
From outside, the Ritz-Carlton Hotel looks like almost any other building in Toronto’s downtown business sector: geometric, glassy, imposing—let’s call this the “Carlton” element. Stepping through the imperially self-rotating glass doors, however, I am slapped firmly but daintily in the face by the “Ritz” aspect. A crystal chandelier shaped like a monstrous amoeba hangs down from the high ceiling. The floral arrangements look like they cost more than my rent. Sheets of twinkle lights veil the walls. Everything appears to be coated in gold, including the elevators. I am reminded of a family trip to Manhattan, when I was a child: my parents and sibling and me, travelling on a dime in our cheap tourist garb, walking wide-eyed into five-star hotels in Times Square in search of a bathroom. For a moment, I worry I can’t afford to walk any farther than the lobby.
A woman wearing a headset peers at me over a clipboard, and I ask her where the media registration is taking place. She takes me upstairs in one of the golden elevators. I sip gingerly at my coffee, trying not to spill any more on the carpet. The media room is a designated boardroom on the fourth floor, two floors above the ballroom where the gala itself will unfold. The first thing I notice is a row of carafes along the back wall: free coffee, with a small dish of coffee beans set out in front of each carafe and a neat stack of white cups and saucers. I wonder about the beans: are they for smelling? for tasting? for ritual offerings? I try to make my splotchy paper cup less conspicuous, and rub at the stain forming on my sleeve.
With its primly clothed round tables and red-and-gold upholstered chairs, the media room looks like the setting for a swanky business conference brunch. I imagine the room full of people in 6am power suits, casually munching granola over last quarter’s earnings reports. Now, however, the room is mostly empty—I am early. In one corner, fenced in by two rectangular tables, Vicki Ziegler holds court over the Giller foundation’s official social media accounts. I ask her how things will be proceeding, and realize I have missed an email including the evening’s programme and photo-ops. I prepare to improvise, and pray to the CanLit gods not to forget any names. Vicki kindly provides me with the wifi password and nods at the screens at the front of the room, which are testing a live feed to the ballroom below.
“I would like to thank my cat for seeing me through this,” says a woman who is not Catherine Leroux, though the name on the screen suggests otherwise. As the woman steps down from the podium, the camera flicks to a crowd shot without the crowd: an empty table in an almost empty ballroom. In the chairs around this particular table are white cardboard rectangles, bearing headshots of the chair’s future occupants. One of the cardboard heads is drooping, and a man with a headset steps into the frame to adjust, speaking to an invisible someone about focus and framing. Another off-screen voice asks “have we checked the pronunciation of Leatherhendle? Lederhendler?”
Sound- and video- checks continue to play on the screens as the media room slowly fills up, mostly with reporters and bloggers from the CBC. Jully Black performs a full song for her sound-check on the screens, and moments later, she and her band walk past the media room, interrupting with their easy laughter the buzzing back-and-forth of several headset-wearing event staff. Jack Rabinovitch, the founder of the Giller Prize, rehearses a speech about the prize’s partnership with Scotiabank. He is followed by John Doig, executive vice president and chief marketing officer of said bank, who praises the shortlisted and longlisted authors for their cultural contributions, in exchange for which “they ask for and generally get very little in return.” I perversely try to imagine Doig writing an arts council grant application, maybe for a poetry manuscript. Halfway through describing the Giller-nominated books as “genuine, deep, and most importantly, accessible,” he hesitates.
“You know what, this is actually the wrong script,” says Doig. Another man in a headset appears, replying that this was the only script received. Affable negotiation ensues.
Writing and banking seem like different universes when I think about the amount my own writing earns. Calling it the Scotiabank Giller Prize out loud makes it sound like a prestigious award for keeping your chequing account in the black, which does not seem like a prize likely to be bestowed upon many writers. I wonder how many of the nominees bank with Scotia. I wonder how many bank executives read the shortlisted books, or whether they have any say in how they are chosen. I wonder what similarities might exist between a bank marketing campaign and the book marketing campaign that is integral to the Giller Prize.
On the screen, John Doig appears to have found the correct script.
“Words,” he begins again. “They’re powerful things. We are surrounded by some of the best word-people in this country …”
Later tonight, during the live broadcast of the ceremony itself, the account for the Polaris Music Prize tweets about the resemblance between this speech and the refrain of “words, the best words” that has characterized much of Donald Trump’s electoral campaign.
Long before either goes live, the Giller gala is rife with jokes and wry comments about the American election. It is the night before the voting begins across the border, after all. Gala host Steve Patterson’s sound check includes a joke that lands successfully when he tells it later in front of the audience; I am finishing my splattered coffee as an on-screen Patterson implores the empty ballroom to enjoy the evening like it’s everyone’s last chance to party, because, he winks, “the world could end tomorrow.”
The night of November 8th, I exit the Free Times Café on College Street after a friend’s poetry reading and make my way back to where I am staying through an eerie, deserted Toronto. It feels appropriately surreal. The TV at the bar was broadcasting election results as they came in; when the reading let out, Hillary Clinton was already losing her early lead. Something about the name of the café felt ironic. The table of young men sitting nearest to the bar TV were raucous with disbelief—as I left, I overheard one of them exclaiming that the apocalypse was nigh.
He might not have said “nigh,” in retrospect. My memory might have edited the phrasing for dramatic effect. What I do remember clearly was the newsreel below the incoming vote tallies: “two dead in shooting at California poll station.” There were no other details.
There are maybe a dozen people, total, in the usually bustling Spadina subway station. While waiting for the train, I read more newsreel headlines on the TV screens above the track: “Trump leads polls.” “Muslim woman harassed at polls.” No detail, no context, just headlines. Nothing more about the shooting in California.
I feel a knot of worry about my family members who live in America. We’re Colombian, which means we are often mistaken for Mexicans; one of my cousins, though, is married to a Mexican woman. I am uncertain if my aunts and uncles have voted, and for whom. I make a note to ask my mother if she hears from them.
The streets are quiet all the way to my friends’ apartment. When I arrive, I spend two hours refreshing election news results on my phone, just to be sure what I’m reading is real.
November 7th, 6pm
The hallway outside the Giller ballroom is lined with windows, and the windows are lined with more twinkle lights. Seeing through the windows is nearly impossible, due to the clarity of the reflections from inside. A media wall has been set up along the windows, and I am led to it with the others from the media room to prepare for photo-ops as the jury and finalists begin to arrive. The wall itself is an aggressively lit white backdrop bedazzled with Scotiabank and Giller Prize logos.
“We’re not doing a red carpet this year,” more than one reporter and event staffer tell me, with audible disappointment. Could red plush underfoot actually increase the glitz factor any further? Does it get ritzier than a golden elevator? Slowly, the hall begins to fill with sequined gala-goers. While we wait for the celebrities to arrive—add that to my list of sentences I never thought I would utter—two servers carrying trays laden with wine glasses cross through the area in front of the media wall. Shyly, both women duck before the cameras and excuse themselves as they pass; some of the photographers point their cameras and mime taking photos, which makes them giggle. I station myself at an angle to the wall in a cluster of media types, a group conspicuous for their lack of gowns and suits.
The presenters—actors, writers, and musicians who are introducing each of the shortlisted authors—arrive first, and begin posing one by one against the wall. Actress Catherine Reitman, who is presenting Mona Awad, jokes that her long, tulle gown needs reassembly every time she moves; photographers and event staff sporadically assist her in rearranging the layers of her skirt as she moves between poses. There is more direction coming from the professional photographers than I expected. Beyond a perfunctory “turn this way” or two, there are many exclamations: “beautiful!” “gorgeous!” “ooh, let me see those pretty ones!” I choose to assume the latter references teeth and smiling.
Next comes the jury: Canadian writers Lawrence Hill, Kathleen Winter, and Jeet Heer, along with Scottish novelist Alan Warner, and British novelist Samantha Harvey. There is much shuffling of the jury, with many a “squeeze closer” and “step that way” from the photographers. “Like herding cats,” someone says. A few photographers half-jokingly shout for the jury to give us a hint about the prize winner—unsurprisingly, this yields no results beyond a devious look or two between jurors.
There appears to be a technical term for this posing and pacing, one recognized and used by several of the reporters, but as soon as someone says it, I forget. It’s something catchy and monosyllabic: up & down? point & turn? back & forth? strut & smile? walk & stalk?
Singer Tanya Tagaq, who is presenting Madeleine Thien’s novel, arrives at the media wall for her turn, and after some initial uncertainty, does a silly dance. “This is literally the worst thing in the world!” she laughs. “At least tell me a story or something?” The fourth wall breaks, and the laughter is contagious. One of the photographers obliges, improvising a fairy tale about a man with three wives. Suddenly, Tagaq runs off the frame of the media wall to greet Madeleine Thien. The two women embrace, and seem to forget the rest of the room as they whisper in conversation—another fourth wall, or maybe a fifth breaks, as the media become intruders on this greeting. Before long, though, someone pulls both women back towards the well-lit, Giller-emblazoned backdrop, and the camera flashes resume.
The rest of the shortlisted authors arrive: Mona Awad, Gary Barwin, Emma Donoghue, Catherine Leroux, and Zoe Whittall. In their banter, I attempt to hear the written voices I was reading earlier this morning. More cat-herding ensues to align their group photo.
I lose track of how much time goes by, and when I turn to look at the crowd beyond the bright white lighting of the media wall, the entire hall is buzzing with begowned and tuxedoed gala-goers. I check my coffee-stained sleeve, and surreptitiously try to clean my phone on the hem of my shirt, hoping this does not end up in the background of someone else’s photo on Twitter (it does).
Wandering through the crowd, I recognize only a few faces immediately. Others give me the impression that I should remember their corresponding names. Recognizing people I might only have seen in thumb-sized author photos is not a skill I possess. I wonder if the email I missed contained some kind of guide or list of attendees; weeks later, when I look for this, I am unable to find any such thing.
The glitter is overwhelming, as is the pace of conversation. While the media have permission to speak freely with and interview any attendees and authors, I am unsure how to do so. Impostor syndrome sets in, which is an easier way of saying I chicken out: what right does an under-dressed, coffee-stained grad student with no professional press affiliation or experience have to strike up a conversation with Eleanor Wachtel? I realize I have written academic papers—some of them embarrassingly juvenile efforts—about the works of many of the writers in the room. It takes more effort than anticipated to not visibly fangirl every time I see Tanya Tagaq. Mostly, I follow the professional photographers around the hall, leeching photo-ops and camera flashes for better lighting.
Most of the gala-goers appear to be aggressively enjoying themselves, especially when a phone or an SLR camera is raised. Pre-ceremony, the gala is not about literature; it is about producing images of the gala that will convince viewers—and maybe the attendees themselves—that the gala is an event worth aspiring to. Wandering through the hall feels increasingly like an immersive theatre performance in which almost everyone is playing a caricature of the well-to-do creative class, or a caricature of the Canadian public intellectual. There are no books in sight, but there are blown-up posters of each of the shortlisted books’ covers, which turn out to provide a popular backdrop for many a group selfie.
Would I be so critical of the gala’s superficiality if I was in the ballroom, dressed up and being photographed with other writers, instead of ducking among the glitterati like the impostor I feel I am? Maybe not. I admit to being star-struck, seduced by it all. At one point, I look up from taking notes on my phone and notice I am standing between Bob Rae and Margaret Atwood; both have their backs to me, but I still feel in a jolt that this means something. Do I imagine some kind of kinship, some kind of equality between us? Someone else notices their proximity to one another, and asks them to pose for photos; I snap a few shots of my own, again borrowing light from another person’s camera flash. The next day, I feel the same jolt when I find Bob Rae has retweeted my photo.
— Rebecca Salazar Leon (@leonrxs) November 7, 2016
The next week, I feel differently about Margaret Atwood. While most of North America witnessed the USA tearing into itself, some of us also watched the Canadian literary scene follow suit. A group known collectively as UBC Accountable issued an open letter in defense of Stephen Galloway, who was dismissed from his position as director of UBC’s creative writing program after complaints were lodged by several his students. The details of this conflict have been hashed out and hashtagged in many more appropriate articles than this, but Atwood’s stance in particular felt too close for comfort.
A week after she posed for photos alongside liberal politicians and young, emerging writers, Atwood chose to defend her signature of the UBCA letter, accusing critics of the letter—including the women who charged Steven Galloway with sexual assault—of perpetrating a “witch hunt” against him, and against men in general. Her response was published in The Walrus a day before her seventy-seventh birthday.
I mention her birthday because I want this response to feel personal—the same way her words have felt to me, since I first read her fiction in my teens. For several years, Margaret Atwood celebrated her birthdays in my hometown. What began as a small fundraiser by English professors at Laurentian University, in honour of their CanLit hero’s birthday, became an annual series of readings and book launches by Atwood that funded charities and a university scholarship. The year that Atwood was touring her non-fiction book In Other Worlds, I worked as an assistant to the professors running the event, and was briefly introduced to her after the reading.
Tiny as it was, it meant something to exchange names and shake hands with a writer who was at least partially responsible for my feminist awakening, for my ecocritical awakening, and often for my desire to continue writing—a person whose work initiated some of the ideas upon which I am building my career. Seeing Atwood at the Giller gala, I had no presumption that she would recognize or remember one of several gangly kids shoved into her path years ago in Sudbury, but there it was again: that jolt of meaning. The thrill of being around someone you aspire to emulate.
But the feeling has soured. Seeing Atwood’s name on the UBC Accountable letter—along with the names of Madeleine Thien and those of several other writers whose work I have read, studied, admired—hurts and confuses. Reading Atwood’s response in The Walrus, unpacking the way she discredits victims of sexual assault, and watching her take a scathingly defensive tone against young women interrogating her language on Twitter—it hurts.
Some writers on social media have declared boycotts of Atwood’s work, and of the work of the letter’s signatories generally. Other writers shout back that this consists of censorship (which, unless individual readers have suddenly acquired the power to universally ban books simply by not reading them, seems absurd). Still, I pause over the principle: if I choose not to read books by Galloway, does this ethically compel me to also not read books by Atwood, by Thien, by his other supporters? If I choose to keep reading books by Atwood, must I also keep reading Galloway? Should I vet my reading list against writers’ political affiliations and criminal records, or should I convince myself that art is separate from the artist? I am not sure how to justify my desire to find a place between these competing imperatives.
I am not sure how to square my image of Atwood as a magnanimous, eccentric force of feminist nature with her current behaviour. I want to keep the words in Atwood’s books away from some of these new words she is writing, but her tweets are becoming just as much a part of her oeuvre as her essays, her non-fiction, or The Handmaid’s Tale. There is a dissonance I cannot resolve between the teachings of her writing across these different genres—between the literary persona she performs, and the way she is exercising the power she has acquired with it.
I am not sure it is fair for me to only mention Margaret Atwood by name. Why only call out a woman? Why not name the men who do this, too, or why not name the perpetrators I know? The truth is, as much as I may fear a negative response from Atwood, I fear the retaliation of men more. Atwood has repeated and repeated the adage: “men are afraid women will laugh at them; women are afraid men will kill them.” Or rape them. Or discredit them. Or all of the above.
November 7th, 7pm
I have retreated to the media room. Dinner dishes have appeared on a side table, and the few reporters that have already filtered back from the crowd downstairs are calmly eating, writing, and tweeting about the evening so far. I find myself seated at a table of CBC staff, and mostly listen as they discuss their predictions about which novel will win. Madeleine Thien is a fast favourite.
“She has spoken out about the Steven Galloway thing at UBC, though,” someone counters, referring to Thien’s own open letter, in which she requests that the UBC administration remove her name from their promotional materials. I am surprised by this comment, and ask whether an author’s political choices would directly affect the jury’s judgement process, but nobody pursues the question, beyond briefly speculating that it must depend upon the particular members of a given year’s jury.
This year’s lack of a red carpet comes up again, and the conversation turns somewhat wistfully to the glamour of previous years. Several of the people at the table once worked as publicists for literary presses, and wax lyrical about having attended galas such as this. I learn that working for a large press does not necessarily mean being paid more for your work than at a small press. I learn that while publicist positions are usually salaried (as opposed to many editorial positions), even publicists are often unable to make a living wage from full-time work. Hence the collective number of career-track changes at the table. I worry that this conversation may forecast my own career prospects, should I ever leave the safe bubble of grad school and research funding.
As dessert dissolves the conversation, I scroll through Twitter. Writer J.J. Lee has posted, “literary black tie is my favourite kind of black tie.” As someone who fails to understand the difference between semi-casual and business casual, this sticks with me. Literary black tie sounds like a murder mystery subgenre, an elegant blend of intrigue, books, and pretty clothing. Does making a formal fashion genre of literary gala attire gloss over the economic precarity of most writing careers? I wonder if the shortlisted authors pay out of pocket for their gala attire. Have they received their $10,000 finalists’ prizes by this point in order to do so? Am I just nitpicking the fun out of everything?
Two of the CBC staffers leave for their headquarters, which is just down the street. They explain that they need to be ready to monitor and moderate the comments sections of Giller-related CBC content as it is posted. Others at the table tease them about the difficulty of the job. I listen with morbid curiosity to the gossip about the infamous CBC comments section—the place where Canadian Internet trolls go to rot loudly. When I ask what sort of comments they are expecting on Giller-related material, they casually answer, “racism, mostly.” The table is unanimous in wishing them luck.
On the media room screens, the countdown to the live broadcast has begun as the crowd in the ballroom finishes their dinner. I relax into a cup of coffee from the carafes at the back of the room, after hesitating for a moment over the small dishes of untouched coffee beans below them—I have begun to suspect these are purely ornamental. A burst of laughter from the table of men near the coffee station draws my attention as I return to my seat.
“But seriously, what would you do if your wife found out about your girlfriend? Or if your girlfriend found out about your wife?”
Loud guffaws follow, and the conversation turns to evaluating the lingerie choices of a “a high-end prostitute” some of the men appear to follow on Instagram. Phones are passed around the table. I glance around the room. With the exception of this group, most of the rest of the people in the room are women. I glance at the woman seated next to me, who may also be hearing this exchange, but who is very intent on her tea.
Who was it that said women should be seen and not heard? Or, rather, how many have enforced this notion? What is most frustrating about the UBC Accountable fallout is the danger of saying anything at all. Its timing in such proximity to the American election only makes the conversation more fraught.
In order to maintain the reputations, careers, and entitlement of problematic men, it is imperative that those who have experienced assault and harassment remain silent. Those who refuse to be silent are met with voices louder than their own accusing them of lies or silliness, attacking them with the threat of more violence, and blaming them for any harm that they supposedly incur simply by speaking.
Talking about problematic men in literary communities has become a coded dialect. Names are rarely named for fear of reprisal. Details are held back for fear of being recognized as an informant or a victim. It is an art of communicating through restraint, through strategically deployed silence. The language that women, trans, and non-binary people use to warn one another about potential or previous abusers is a literary art in itself.
In my own experience, Canadian literary communities have refused to let me forget that I am young, brown, queer, and femme-presenting. These things have at times made me vulnerable. These things have at times made me a marketable commodity among men who know exactly how to use me.
On November 20th, after discussing it with another writer who did something similar, I make several public posts on social media inviting questions and conversation from any writer, professor, mentor, or educator seeking to learn about a young writers’ experience of rape culture in literary communities. The idea is that, if we aren’t being believed in public, maybe private conversations will change this. One of my friends comments on Facebook, in support: “Take that Trump, can’t be grabbing young ladies by the poetry.”
A day later, I delete these posts and re-adjust my privacy settings, after my fellow writer receives threats in response to their posts. I receive suspiciously vague messages from two or three acquaintances, but nothing of the same magnitude. Writers who have been through worse for speaking out warn us not to make ourselves targets—presumably, bigger and flashier targets than we always-already are. I feel defeated, but still burn with the desire to keep talking, to keep writing.
I am surprised to be reminded of John Doig’s Giller speech. “Words: they’re powerful things.” It is problematic when those who already hold power are the only ones permitted or able to speak. Whose words have power over what and whom? And who decides which words are allowed to be spoken, heard, and read—straight, male, university-tenured writers? established writers, generally? the Giller jury?
November 7th, 8pm
The Giller Prize gala is live. Barely five minutes into the broadcast, Steve Patterson chooses to introduce himself with a joke about hoping not to fill the shoes of his predecessor as gala host. “Too soon?” he asks, when the crowd realizes with a groan that he is referring to Jian Ghomeshi.
It’s funny how a literary gala featuring five out of six women finalists must include a rape joke. It’s funny how a rape joke on national broadcast must speak without speaking, by deliberately withholding actions and names. But this slight is smoothed over soon after. Tonight, after all, is about words, the best words.
Each shortlisted book is introduced by a presenter; an animated book trailer is shown; and each finalist takes the podium for a few words of thanks. Mona Awad’s and Gary Barwin’s speeches both express wonder at their nominations. Perhaps coincidentally, most of the speeches share a theme: the importance of relationships and community. Awad feels honoured that her first book has brought her into the company of the other finalists; Barwin, who has published over a dozen books, still reminisces about imagining, as a child, where his future books might fit on a shelf between his favourite writers. Catherine Leroux—the real one, and not the stand-in who thanked her cat—thanks her family for “helping to kill the myth of the sad and lonely writer.” Fraught though writing communities may be, their importance is palpable.
In the media room, reporters hold microphones up to the TV speakers to record speeches for sound bites. Which parts of the evening will I hear again and again on the radio? How many will I recognize? Certain phrases and sentiments are already being quoted and repeated over Twitter as I watch. Refreshing my feed, I read three almost identical tweets in a row, written by three different people—searching the keywords yields more. The gist: everyone is grateful that we, in Canada, are collectively watching a black-tie gala celebrating books, instead of, say, worrying about a contentious election.
I am skeptical of these sentiments the same way I am skeptical of Canada Day: I am no longer convinced by the flag-waving depiction of Canada as a tolerant, blemish-free paradise for polite, progressive book lovers. I can no longer choose to see CanLit this way, either. And yet, I keep having to pretend I’m not raising my hands to clap when the broadcast audience is cued. Why should I suppress anyone’s enjoyment, even mine? It would be easy to deride people who drink the book party Kool-Aid as simple, uncritical, or naïve, but I cannot ultimately know that they are these things, nor can I deny how much fun it is to be one of them.
There is value in our problematic favoritism. Whatever critique I or others may level at the Giller Prize, or at the gala, or at book culture generally, it is difficult to deny the profound impact of their superficial allure. Yes, Canadian book culture has problems of representation when it comes to race, gender, class, ability, sexuality, etcetera. And yes, there are also years like this, when the Giller shortlist is refreshingly comprised of six very different voices, most of them women. Yes, the culture of literary celebrity and hashtag virality casts a sheen of frivolity over events such as this. And yes, that sheen also seduces people to continue reading new books, encountering new ideas.
Whether they intend to or not, consumers of Giller glitz will grapple with some of the questions at issue in CanLit. The Giller name will bring thousands more readers to Zoe Whittall’s shortlisted novel, The Best Kind of People, in which a much-beloved educator is accused of sexual assault and his community reels from the political and personal crises this generates. Indirectly or not, these thousands of readers will grapple with the same questions at issue in the UBC Accountable debate. Beneath the red-and-gold Scotiabank Giller Prize stickers on their covers, these books carry important critiques of the communities in which they are written. Engaging the power of these words does not stop at buying the books, at Instagramming their covers, or at reading them. It must lead to more conversation, more action.
On the screens in the media room and across the country, Steve Patterson’s joke about enjoying the Giller gala before the coming American apocalypse elicits a round of dry, honest laughter. The joke proclaims this night a swan song, an end-time rager. The Giller gala as last hurrah.
A video clip plays, in which Patterson asks each of the finalists in turn, “Trump or Clinton?” Most of the writers laugh, and answer “Clinton,” decisively. Gary Barwin replies, “For what?” but when pressed, settles on “Hillary Clinton for anything.” Jack Rabinovitch, the founder of the prize, takes the podium just before the winner is to be announced. “Contrary to what will happen tomorrow south of the border,” he gibes, “there will be no challenging the judges’ final decision.”
How many Trump supporters must there be, squirming in the ballroom? In the media room? Shortly after the Clinton-endorsing video is shown, jury panelist Jeet Heer tweets from the ballroom that “Conrad Black doesn’t seem too happy to be in a room full of Trump opponents.” I realize that I may have crossed paths with Conrad Black and failed to recognize him entirely.
It is meaningful that someone like Black has been chosen to fill a seat in a ballroom filled with the supposed Canadian literati. If the Giller gala attempts to unite Canadians in a celebration of reading as a sort of grand equalizer, a marker of our Canadianness, his presence only seems to throw into sharper relief the differences in financial and political power that exist between the people in this room: so many kinds of creators and readers. I write this, of course, assuming — perhaps erroneously — that a majority of the political and business attendees in the ballroom have read or intend to read at least some of the celebrated books.
A few days later, a friend who knows I am still in Toronto sends me a series of tweets warning that a group of young men was spotted in and around the TTC Bloor line, wearing swastika armbands and harassing people of colour. According to some of these reports, the men are alleged to have mentioned their support of Donald Trump while harassing people. My friend tells me to be careful.
I am unable to find official news reports about any such incidents in Toronto, but I do find more tweets. I also find several reports of hate crimes across the United States against Muslims, against women, against LGBTQ+ people, against Black and brown people—many of these acts also supposedly performed in the name of the new president-elect. I find reports of anti-Semitic graffiti defacing a woman’s home in Ottawa, and of posters found in Toronto’s East York neighbourhood urging white people to unite against multiculturalism.
This is when it feels most tawdry to have feted books and goggled, star-struck, one night: when the next nights are spent in fear. I eventually find reports about the shooting near a polling station in Azusa, California: two women were injured, and two men killed, including the gunman. No direct link between the shooting and the election was reported, but it is difficult not to connect it at least to campaign rhetoric about or against gun control.
It feels worse over the next few months: after the inauguration, after the executive orders begin, after the ban and detainment of Muslim travellers, immigrants, and green-card holders, after the mosque shooting that kills six Canadian Muslim men in Quebec City. The world doesn’t end in a single day, the way lives do.
November 7th, 9pm
The gala is nearing its end, and the anticipation for the final announcement hangs in the air. An event staffer signals for silence before opening the ballroom door to a small group I have followed down from the media room. We follow her in and spread out along the back wall, cameras ready. The ballroom glows, surreal with pink and blue light. Servers are clearing the last few dessert plates from the tables, and a low hum of conversation is punctuated by the periodic countdown until the last commercial break is over.
The moment Jack Rabinovitch reads Madeleine Thien’s name from the envelope handed to him by the jury, a man at the table three feet away from me shouts “yeah!” and pumps both fists into the air. His gesture is immediately absorbed in the standing ovation and cheers that follow. Thien gives a final speech, ending with a quote from a short story by her partner, Rawi Hage. The broadcast finishes, and the evening begins to end.
It is at this point that I completely lose track of the other Giller finalists as the entire ballroom begins milling about: people headed to the bar, to the door, to the stage to congratulate Thien. I am unable to locate Awad, Barwin, Donoghue, or Whittall for the rest of the night. The impostor syndrome resurfaces as I navigate the crowd on my way to the media wall.
Scanning faces and figures, I note that the demographics of the gala-goers seem to skew middle-aged and older, well-dressed and comfortable-looking, with a large number of what appear to be married couples. I try to guess occupations, and remember a comment Steve Patterson made earlier in the evening: “it’s a room full of financial types and authors!” Hairstyles, more than any other visible trait, appear to suggest one association or the other. Though I try to investigate in the following weeks, I am unable to find out the cost of attending the Giller Prize gala, who issues the invitations, or on what basis. Is there a required ratio of financial types to authors? I imagine a group of faceless event planners debating over how to fill the last few tables: would Doris the junior vice-CFO make the guest list before Doris the emerging novelist, or vice versa?
The crowd seems racially diverse, but I am unsure if I am estimating this by Toronto standards or by Fredericton standards. In Fredericton, my relatively light skin still regularly occasions leery questions from strangers about where I am from, and for some reason, Service New Brunswick clerks are particularly willing to comment on the quality of my English. Do big-city writers consider the racial diversity they live in a privilege? I find myself feeling jealous of it. When I travel to Toronto, I am never the only brown person in the room, or on the bus, or at a poetry reading. I am certainly not the only brown person at the Giller gala, but my metrics for the normality of this are skewed. I stop scanning faces and try to find my bearings in the hubbub. I am annoyed to discover that “Ballroom Blitz” has earwormed its way into my head.
Madeleine Thien becomes the centre of the crowd’s orbit wherever she moves, with well-wishers and would-be interviewers queuing around her in every direction. I try to record or take note of what she is saying through the crowd, but give up when I catch more background noise than language. Two weeks later, I am able to get in touch with Thien by email (with thanks to The Puritan’s essays editors). I send her an email with ten questions, and she politely responds to ask if I can reduce this to two or three. Thinking back to her myriad satellites post-gala, I can hardly blame her.
Asked how the atmosphere at Giller events compares to that of her own intimate writing community, Thien writes that she and the other nominees were able to find a sense of intimacy through the intensity of the Giller: “we’re together in the unreality and reality of all that happens. We become close, we laugh together. And I think each person has to decide how much or how little to be caught up in the emotions and the spectacle and the anxiety of these events.”
Thien compares the scale of Giller events to smaller readings she has done for her previous novel, Dogs at the Perimeter, when she travelled across Canada for five years, discussing the novel’s treatment of the Cambodian genocide as inherently tangled with Canadian heritage. “I know how every event, small or large, is important to a number of people,” she writes, including in this “the organizers, the readers, the writers, me.” Having done between thirty and forty events for her Giller- and Governor General Award-winning, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, Thien hopes that readers and viewers feel engaged in the love and commitment she devotes to her work.
Toward the gala’s end, I manage to speak to Catherine Leroux when I find the courage to butt in on a group of friends, maybe family, who have ordered a round of celebratory drinks. She is gracious about the interruption, and we talk for a few minutes about the evening. “It’s kind of neat for writers to get the occasion to be treated like rock stars,” she tells me. “It’s not something I would do every day, but the Giller wants to take literature and show that it’s up there with our music stars, movie stars.” She admits to being somewhat out of her element, and finds the rush and hype surreal in comparison to her usual conversations about writing: “the life of a writer is mostly writing in your pyjamas. It feels very out of character for me not to be in that situation, but I have no complaints.” When I let her return to the group toasting her accomplishments, she is laughing again. She hasn’t stopped smiling.
I wonder how critical anyone would dare to be in this situation, but again, it seems absurd to call out well-deserved joy. To be nominated for a literary award like the Giller Prize can mean hundreds of thousands of new readers—the prize is quantifiable in dollars and books sold, but unquantifiable in the recognition of the work that goes into writing, and in how the ideas and conversations in each book will pollinate on a wide scale.
Lost in the crowd again and buzzing with notes to transcribe, I retreat for the last time to the media room, spend a few minutes writing, and leave for the night.
It is the end of November, and I am behind schedule writing this article. I have been wearing pyjamas for most of the week, dragging a blanket and an unknown viral infection back and forth between my bed and desk. There is snow outside my window. I am behind on my PhD work. Leonard Cohen has died. I read op-ed after commentary after op-ed after screed about the UBC case. I read as much about the American election, and am relieved to find out that my American family are safe; they say they will try to call more often, just in case. I wonder whether to add my falling ill to the long list of faux-apocalypses this month has brought, or to attribute the illness to stress caused by them. After losing count of how many hours, how many articles I’ve read, I return to my notes from interviewing Leroux and Thien.
Somehow, the interviews I am transcribing feel flat. It may be that I’m distracted while reading through them. It may be that my questions were poorly formulated, or just formulaic. Both Leroux’s and Thien’s answers, despite being eloquent and genuine and everything they should be, leave me wanting more. I still feel a desire to sit one-on-one with each writer, and with the other Giller finalists, and with Atwood, and with everyone, to talk—to let the conversation tense and relax in ways that do not fit into a hurried interview in the middle of a loud, sequined crowd, or into an email, or into an all-caps Twitter tirade. I want to ask about their books, about their philosophies and politics, and to bond over agreements, to aggravate each other with disagreements, to respect and learn from one another. To talk about our fears and our safeties. To talk about writing, and the pleasure it gives and gives and gives.
It gives me pleasure—and more than that, hope—to see Madeleine Thien awarded the Giller Prize, but seeing a woman of colour awarded this recognition is only a partial victory. Like any such accomplishment, it may unfairly be made to stand for all the works of all Canadian women writers of colour. Yes, her win will widen the scope of what literatures are represented in Canada, and will also foster the continuing work of women and writers of colour, so I am happy for Thien and for those she will inspire.
There will be those, however, who hold up this victory to erase the context in which it was achieved, and will flaunt it as proof that women in Canadian literature are doing just fine. There will be those who see Thien’s success as proof that Canada is unfailingly diverse and accepting. There will continue to be those who idealize the Canadian literary scene as a legion of friendly, well-dressed intellectuals who can regularly afford to attend black-tie galas while simultaneously wrestling the financial precarity of arts funding and unpaid artistic labour. There will be those who tell rape jokes on national broadcast without wondering how many members of their audience are fighting the normalization of sexual violence in their communities, or how many are survivors, or how many are perpetrators whose actions may be further validated by that laughter.
The shiny, literary liberalism we perform in and around cultural institutions like the Scotiabank Giller Prize cannot erase our real, political lives. Celebrating what is good cannot require the denial and erasure of what is not—the unacknowledged foil that in reality, sets off the shimmer. The people and issues that are not invited to our celebrations should speak just as loudly as those that are. With or without a red carpet, sometimes, we are glamorous problems.
The world hurts even as it glitters into flame. But it has not ended if we are still sparked to read, to write. The Scotiabank Giller Foundation has announced its 2017 jury. I have written this much, for now, and you yourself have read this far.
Rebecca Salazar is the author of Guzzle (Anstruther), and an editor for The Fiddlehead, and icehouse poetry. Her writing has lately appeared in Prism, Minola Review, Cosmonauts Avenue, and The Partisan. Originally from Sudbury, Ontario, she is currently a PhD candidate and Vanier scholar at University of New Brunswick.