On Refuse: CanLit in Ruins

This piece originally appeared in Issue 3.38 (Spring 2019)

On November 15, 2018, Refuse: CanLit in Ruins launched to standing-room-only attendance at SF U’s Harbour Centre. Overflowing attendees perched along the conference room windowsill and bottlenecked around the catering tables. There was donation jar for the Galloway Suit Defense Fund (a crowdfund to raise legal fees for some of the twenty people author Steven Galloway has led defamation lawsuits against) and an ornately iced cake that read “More cake, fewer dumpster fires.” While the room was exceptionally full and the cake delicious, this launch was not billed as a game-changer; more so it was a gathering of writers, scholars, publishing and art professionals (many of whom are featured in Refuse) who have been critically discussing and creating notable changes within the state of Canadian literature for some time.

The Vancouver launch echoed a central tenet that editors Hanna McGregor, Julie Rak, and Erin Wunker make clear in their introduction: the recent rupture events that have garnered media attention are not new, but an extension of “long standing problems in CanLit related to racism, colonialism, sexism, the literary star system, and economic privilege.” The widely-discussed ring of Galloway from his position as chair of the Creative Writing Program at UBC over allegation of misconduct, and other events that also occurred between 2015 to 2017 over Joseph Boyden’s ancestry and Hal Niedzvieki’s “appropriation prize,” are raised several times throughout this collection of essays, poems, and conversations. And each contributor reiterates that recent abuses of institutional power, appropriation of voice, etc., are not a break from the so-called progressive and even placid history of CanLit—rather, they are indicative of a consistently problematic structure with our literary industry. To quote the editors, “Something’s rotten in the (nation-)state of CanLit.”

“Refuse” is a homograph, and aptly the collection is divided into three sections that re ect di erent meanings of the word. “Part One: Refusal” creates context: how is CanLit being defined and discussed; what do the recent rupture events mean; and how might these events be viewed from multiple angles? “Part Two: Refuse” considers refuse as junk or garbage, and broadly interacts with the image of CanLit as a raging dumpster fire — a popular metaphor coined by authors Alicia Elliott and Jen Sookfong Lee. “Part Three: Re/Fuse” turns decidedly towards generative possibilities, and how intersectional writers and allied literary arts professionals might re-fuse or re-make space — safer, more inclusive, and more equitable spaces in the academy and the writing and publishing sector.

Looking at Refuse as a whole, readers can expect not only critical responses to CanLit, but also evocative and varied expressions of response. Keith Maillard’s lyrical essay “Burn,” Sonnet l’Abbé’s erasure poems “Sonnet’s Shakespeare,” and Kai Cheng Thom’s narrative free verse “refuse: a trans girl writer’s story” are only a few stand-out contributions, in which dynamic written forms invite us to more closely consider the contents. Refuse speaks up against long-standing problems in CanLit, and just as keenly, it speaks to the vastness of our cultural, intersectional, and aesthetic literary communities. This anthology is fundamental reading for anyone interested in past, present, and future change-makers in CanLit.

Amber Dawn

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