Why I'm Nominating Alicia Elliott for the PEN Canada/Ken Filkow Prize

Last year, I nominated Zoe Whittall for the PEN Canada/Ken Filkow Prize. This year, Zoe suggested Alicia Elliott for that same honour, and I am pleased to add my voice to the nomination. We should all pay tribute to this principled, insistent and talented writer who tells difficult and important truths about Canada, Canadians and CanLit. Here’s my letter to the jury.

Dear Members of the Jury for the Ken Filkow Award:

It is my honour to nominate Alicia Elliott for the 2019 Ken Filkow Prize.

I note with interest that past winners (Franke James, Raihan Abir, Desmond Cole, and Justin Brake) have done excellent work spurring Canadians to consider the injustices in the world and in Canadian society as a whole, and I applaud PEN Canada – advocates for justice for writers – in honouring them. I note also that no award winner has been recognized who speaks both to injustices in Canadian society at large, and particularly to injustices within Canada’s writing community. I hope that 2019 will be the year that changes, with the honouring of Alicia Elliott.

Tuscarora writer Alicia Elliott is a relatively new voice in literature and journalism. However, in a few short years her impact has been significant. Elliott’s body of work includes journalism and activism that poses unrelenting questions about the ways in which Canadians consider, dismiss, and affect Indigenous populations; she has raised awareness of the ways in which women are penalized for reporting and discussing abuse and harassment, and advocates for libel and defamation law reform through robust anti-SLAPP legislation; she has addressed inequities in Canada’s writing, teaching and publishing communities, and shown that when we uphold traditions and existing power structures in that system, we are complicit in perpetuating injustices.

A list of samples of Elliott’s writing (with links) and writing about Elliott’s work and advocacy (also linked) can be found at the end of this letter, but it is worth tracing Elliott’s work through one particular instance to show her insight and her tenacity in raising our awareness.

One of Elliott’s themes is the way Canadian cultural institutions and systems co-opt conversations begun by those outside the establishment and alter them to make them palatable to white audiences. In September 2017, Open Book published Elliott’s article called “CanLit is a Raging Dumpster Fire.” The idea struck a nerve and was frequently quoted and debated. But in spring of 2018, Hamilton’s literary festival GritLit used the title (with reference to the piece), altered it slighting to form a question, “Is CanLit a Raging Dumpster Fire?”, and booked two white authors to discuss the topic. When Elliott pointing this out, festival organizers did respond: they adjusted by creating a new panel, to be peopled by Elliott and two other women of colour. But that panel provided a platform for some white members of the audience to vent their anger and display their prejudices – with Elliott and her fellow panelists as convenient targets. Elliott could have walked away from this experience, only writing it off as a reason not to attend literary festivals. Instead, she re-opened the conversation. Her follow-up article “On Literary Festivals and Crossed Boundaries” (Open Book, July 20, 2018), addressed the racism on display that day at GritLit, and the organizers’ inability or unwillingness to step in.

That is what Elliott does. She raises an issue, and refuses a problematic solution, a fix in name only. She just won’t let it lie. Because the lessons don’t stick. Not the first time. Or the tenth.

Elliott’s work is wonderfully written, often beautifully so. Her line of argumentation is finely crafted. But it can be hard to read. At least it is for me. Because it asks me to do work. To position myself in relationship to the problems that Alicia articulates. And, in holding myself accountable, I will often find myself wanting. In each essay and article, she insists that we consider the imbalance of our circumstances: Indigenous populations with settlers, women to men, commentators with platforms vs. emerging voices with so much to lose.

Elliott too, has had much to lose. And yet she has persevered, embodying the principles stated by the PEN Canada/Ken Filkow Prize, which honours those “whose work has advanced freedom of expression in Canada. In the case of individuals, special consideration will be given to those whose actions have demonstrated personal courage that may have involved putting personal interests on the line (career advancement, reputation, ties of family or friendship, etc.).”

In an article for the University of British Columbia’s student newspaper The Ubyssey, Lawrence Hill spoke about his decision to oppose the voices of many established writers and publishing professionals who used an open letter to protest the suspension of UBC professor Steven Galloway. Hill (who said he found the UBC Accountable letter “offensive”) had raised concerns about the silencing effect on women’s and students’ voices -- at UBC and elsewhere. In The Ubyssey, Hill said, “Let’s face it: a person might say, ‘You are courageous to speak out,’ but not really, because I didn’t have that much to lose, whereas a person who is mid-career or early-career could really suffer,” said Hill. “And so the people who’ve been the most courageous are those who have the most to risk and the most to lose by speaking out.”

Alicia Elliott epitomizes that writer, just starting out, and still accepting the risk. Still standing up. Putting herself and her livelihood on the line.

Much to the chagrin of many in the establishment, Elliott just keeps talking. Keeps writing. Keeps insisting that “CanLit needs to take a good hard look at itself.” (Interview: “Whose story is it? In Conversation with Alicia Elliott” ROOM Magazine.)

Such work comes at a cost.

A writer with an insistent social media presence, “feedback” for Elliott can come in the form of misogynistic and racist online attacks. And -- like all writers who insist on directing Canadians’ attentions to allegations of sexual harassment or assault at writing institutions and publishing houses -- Elliott must also be concerned with the possibility of groundless defamation and libel suits designed to silence her.

And then there is the issue of her professional standing, and her ability to make a living in the system that she criticizes. Elliott has acknowledged publicly that among the early responses she received to her advocacy on UBC Accountable was a well-meaning caution from a writer who warned her against speaking out to a professional community that she might hope to join.

“When I started tweeting complaints about the politics of Canadian literature, a woman messaged me to tell me that CanLit was a tight knit community and I should be careful what I say if I want to build a career,” Elliott told Flare Magazine (September 30, 2018).

But Elliott has refused to step back or step down. I believe that Canada – and writing in Canada and beyond – is a better place because she will not. Readers too are the richer for it. And if you don’t believe me, consider that her work has recently been endorsed by two other, insistent truth-tellers: Roxane Gay, who chose one of Elliott’s short stories for the Best American Short Stories 2018 anthology; and Tanya Talaga, who named Elliott the winner of the 2018 RBC Taylor Emerging Writer Award. In explaining why she selected Elliott for the honour, Talaga said that Elliott “tells searing truths of Canada today, truths we all need to listen to.”  

I hope that Canadians are listening. I hope the literary community – I hope PEN Canada – is listening.

In Canada, we are very good at recognizing those injustices that we do not believe ourselves to be complicit in. It is the Canadian way. Reading Elliott’s work informs, but also needles – because it refuses to let us shake our heads and put the blame on other Canadians. It insists that we acknowledge our own part. It refuses to let us pat ourselves on the back. Elliott asks us to do something. She asks us to change.

It is a task that requires patience and strength and an incredible amount of talent. It takes conviction. It takes courage. I urge PEN Canada to recognize both her advocacy and her bravery by awarding Alicia Elliott the 2019 Ken Filkow Prize.

Sincerely,

Miranda Hill

A Sample of Elliott’s Writing:

https://hazlitt.net/feature/year-reconciliation

https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/indigenous-memo-to-canada-were-not-your-incompetent-children/article37511319/

http://open-book.ca/Columnists/CanLit-is-a-Raging-Dumpster-Fire

http://open-book.ca/Columnists/On-Literary-Festivals-and-Crossed-Boundaries

https://magazine-awards.com/en/2017/05/30/alicia-elliotts-speech-at-the-40th-anniversary-national-magazine-awards/

http://open-book.ca/Columnists/Dear-UBC-Accountable 

https://www.cbc.ca/arts/the-cultural-appropriation-debate-isn-t-about-free-speech-it-s-about-context-1.4117142

http://roommagazine.com/writing/seeing-and-being-seen-difference-between-writing-empathy-and-writing-love

http://open-book.ca/Columnists/Sorry-Not-Sorry-On-Writing-a-Good-Apology

https://www.cbc.ca/arts/the-indigenous-renaissance-was-truly-here-in-2018-and-it-s-not-going-anywhere-1.4955973

Some interviews and writing about Elliott: 

https://www.thestar.com/entertainment/books/2018/05/03/tanya-talaga-names-alicia-elliott-as-winner-of-rbc-taylor-emerging-writer-award.html

https://www.flare.com/beauty/serena-williams-makeup-line/

 (don’t believe the title of this url, it takes you to an interview with Elliott)

https://www.ubyssey.ca/culture/we-all-fall-down/

https://www.cbc.ca/news/entertainment/cultural-appropriation-media-1.4114158

http://open-book.ca/Writer-in-Residence/Archives/Canisia-Lubrin/The-Writer-in-the-World-Love-Write-Resist-Heal-Part-One-with-Alicia-Elliot

 

 

Today, I Turn 50

Photo: L Hill

Photo: L Hill

The number is astonishing to me, as it probably is to everyone who reaches it. I have been very lucky to have a healthy life and now a relatively long one. There are things I have accomplished and am very proud of. There are also things that I am dissatisfied with, and projects I wish were on my list of accomplishments that are still on my to-do list.

But I wanted to mark the occasion by acknowledging the number. Fifty. 50!

Because even among many of the strong, feminist women whose company I am very grateful to keep, there remains a stigma about age and aging. It exists within me as well, of course. But I am pushing back against it. Not the age. The stigma.

So many women worry that as we age, we will become invisible. We will become less sought-after for work, for commentary, for leadership and participation.

Now I understand that this situation is not of women’s making. That this idea is the construct of a patriarchal society that considers women useful only for their part in procreation. That once a woman is no longer attractive to men as a potential baby-maker, her mind and her voice are considered stale-dated along with her eggs – whether or not she ever had any interest in men, or in having children (or could do so).

The world we live in has definite biases about women “of a certain age,” and these biases come with consequences. The fear of aging publicly is justified. Women lose influence and earning potential as they age. The system makes sure of it.

What I’m saying is we don’t have to help it.

And every time we dismiss a woman because of her age or equate being older with irrelevance, every time we cringe at an upcoming birthday, or worry about whether we should let someone know our real age, every time we gasp at grey hair (whether it is ours or someone else’s), we are upholding a system that – now or later – will turn against us. It’s misogyny in action.

We are accepting that there is a very narrow platform of years in which a woman has perspective and license to speak, and that we must stake out our little bit of territory and cling to it as long as we might be allowed.

When instead we should be working to build a bigger platform.

Just as it is vital that feminism hold space for women of all races and classes and for trans and gay women, we also need to make more room for older women -- and more room for younger women too. That way we wouldn’t have to dismiss the voices of older women as stale or the ideas of younger women as uninformed and immature, just to try to keep that precious bit of real estate. Instead, we would ensure our own relevance by asking questions and learning from each other. We could better harness our combined power. So that we could change the system as a whole.

Today, I turn 50. I’m damn lucky to do so. But I am not done yet. I have a novel to finish and more books to write, and things to learn and – should I be lucky enough to be given the time -- plans to be one rocking old lady.

If you want to join me, I’ll be right here. I think there’s space for all of us.

Why I'm Nominating Zoe Whittall for the PEN Canada/Ken Filkow Prize

I often watch with awe as people speak up in difficult situations. This year, I have been particularly inspired by some of my female colleagues in Canadian literature. With thanks for her service, I have nominated Zoe Whittall for the PEN Canada/Ken Filkow Prize which "honours an individual or group that has advanced freedom of expression." You can nominate Zoe Whittall, or nominate someone who inspires you to speak up and out, too. Read my nomination for Zoe Whittall here. 

 

The Nomination:

I nominate Zoe Whittall for the 2018 PEN Canada/Ken Filkow Prize because she speaks truth to power and to peers, because she calls out prejudice and injustice in society at large and in her own community and industry, regardless of the consequences. Her actions are exemplary and inspirational and worthy of both recognition and reward.

Zoe Whittall is an author whose body of work (poetry, fiction, non-fiction and screenwriting) has challenged expectations of sexuality and of gender roles. Her awards and accolades include the Lambda Literary Award (which identifies and celebrates the best lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender books of the year) and the Dayne Ogilivie Prize for an emerging LGBTQ writer.

In 2016, Zoe Whittall published her third novel. The Best Kind of People is a story of what happens to a family and a community when a beloved teacher is accused of sexually assaulting students in his school. The novel highlights the insidious nature of rape culture in our society, and the difficulty we have in reconciling the idea that a “good guy” can also be a sexual abuser. The book was extremely well-received: it made best-seller lists; the film rights were optioned by Sarah Polley; it was a finalist for the Giller Prize. 

But talking about sexual harassment and assault, and the possibility that someone could be a “good guy” and an abuser, was particularly charged that year, and Zoe Whittall soon found that speaking about the topic of her book required her to draw parallels between her fiction and the situation at UBC. In 2016, the Creative Writing department at UBC suspended a beloved professor while it investigated allegations against him. In reaction to this suspension, in November 2016 a phalanx of influential Canadian writers, editors, festival directors and a director of a significant writing program that hires Canadian writers as mentors and teachers, signed an open letter calling for “Steven Galloway’s Right to Due Process.”  Numerous other writers -- many less well-known, some as yet unpublished, some still students of writing -- called for the signatories to recognize the silencing effect of their actions on these complainants, and on future complainants in this and other educational programs, and to remove their names from the letter.

Despite the pressure from influential people in CanLit, and at risk to her own career, Zoe Whittall has spent the last 16 months speaking out against the imbalance of power represented by the position of the UBC Accountable signatories. Speaking out against people in the industry in which one makes a living is always dangerous. In this case, the professional stakes are particularly high: not only is Zoe Whittall speaking truth to famous writers with the ear of the industry and readers around the country, but she is also speaking truth to publishers (who could choose not to publish her future work), festival directors (who could choose not to publicize her future work), and administrators in writing programs (who could choose not to hire her for future work). And yet, Zoe Whittall has persisted. She has spoken out in person, on stage, on social media, and in traditional media.

In February 2018, Zoe Whittall wrote an article for The Walrus called “CanLit Has a Sexual Harassment Problem.” 

In it, she addressed the fact that many of the most powerful figures in Canadian literature continue to lend their names to the UBC Accountable letter which “largely focused on the ways in which the university’s actions have affected Steven Galloway’s personal, public, and professional life,” instead of the effects on the complainants, and that in another Canadian creative writing program, at Concordia University, stories of sexual harassment had been ignored for years. Meanwhile, Zoe Whittall noted that in the US, the film industry is rallying behind actresses who have been harassed and assaulted by producers and directors, and that the Canadian theatre community is stepping up to support women revealing harassment at one of its most well-regarded theatre companies. Everywhere, people in the arts seem to be cheering the change brought about by #MeToo and supporting the women who have bravely reported their harassment and abuse. Only in CanLit is there “an endless cry for due process, when the rest of the arts world is finally reckoning seriously with sexual harassment and power.”

Within hours of the article’s publication, The Walrus removed the piece. When the piece was re-published four days later, key anecdotes had been removed. In the social media that accompanied the piece’s reappearance, Zoe Whittall noted that the changes were made necessary because the magazine had received complaints from powerful Canadian writers who had signed the UBC Accountable letter.

The PEN Canada/Ken Filkow Prize is established to honour those “whose work has advanced freedom of expression in Canada. In the case of individuals, special consideration will be given to those whose actions have demonstrated personal courage that may have involved putting personal interests on the line (career advancement, reputation, ties of family or friendship, etc.).” Writer Zoe Whittall exemplifies these attributes and puts them into practice. I nominate Zoe Whittall for the 2018 PEN Canada/Ken Filkow Prize.