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.
A Sample of Elliott’s Writing:
Some interviews and writing about Elliott:
(don’t believe the title of this url, it takes you to an interview with Elliott)