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.