Around the end of August, I went to BookCampTO, my first time at the annual unconference. They were celebrating their 5th year with a theme of “Alive! Surviving & Thriving.” I was nervous about attending: Am I a real writer (more on that at a later date)? Will I feel welcome? Do I need an MFA for my voice to be valid? Will I be the only genderqueerdo present? How many times am I gonna get misgendered? Am I gonna get triggered? Is it gonna be a bunch of boring white cis dudes? The same feelz I have before just about every social event… Basically: Do I belong here?
It was a day of workshops, discussions, and free coffee (despite high levels of anxiety & rage, these are among my favourite kinds of days). I spent a lot of time thinking about the value of awkward conversations. The first workshop I attended, and the one I’ve heard discussed the most since, was Diversity in Publishing. Facilitated by Léonicka and Natalie Zed, we discussed things like whose stories are being prioritized in Canadian publishing (able-bodied white cis people, mostly dudes, obviously), and what a truly diverse spectrum of writers & stories might look like. We attempted to find concrete solutions to the lack of visibility and credit given to POC writers, trans* and non-binary writers, disabled writers, etc., on the shelves of bookstores and in our literary communities. My solution, as you know, is to keep on writing. And, of course, to be aware of certain privileges of mine, like white privilege and cis-passing privilege. We talked about how to become active and engaged writers and readers, and how to challenge ourselves – again, the most obvious being: Read Books By People Who Don’t Look Like You (on the flipside, if you’re part of a marginalized group and can’t find books by/about people you can relate to, the challenge now becomes, for me, at least, how to create that book). You know how books by white cis dudes are supposedly “universal” stories while books by people of colour, books by trans people, books by queer folks, or books by women, are considered too specific and niche? Fuck that.
There are lots of us doing the hard work of making Canadian self-publishing, literary, and art scenes more representative of marginalized folks, but it never feels like enough. How can we hold ourselves and our communities accountable? How can we challenge ourselves and encourage one another? How do we confront our privileges and express our oppressions? This is all complicated stuff that needs to go beyond our 45-minute workshop space, and become embedded in our daily lives.
Next up, I went to a workshop on Alternative Publishing. I didn’t expect to hear any new-to-me ideas, but was hoping to meet good people and have good conversations. Because the workshop was discussion-based, the conversation went down an unintended path, and ended up being more about money and sustainability than the creation of art, DIY practice, and self-expression. It’s worth noting that, to my knowledge, there were no white cis men in the Diversity in Publishing workshop (because they have the privilege of no personal investment in it?), but they sure as hell took up space in the Alternative Publishing workshop. The conversation wavered between dudes asking how to make money in self-publishing and small press stuff, and dudes whining that it’s not okay to make money in self-publishing because that totally wouldn’t be punk rock or whatever. This became my second (or third or fourth…) chance to be a Buzzkill. When I finally got the chance to speak, I was like, “Um, have y’all stopped to consider the fact that many, many artists, especially, say, disabled people, people of colour, and trans* & queer people are not always able to hold down a regular 9-5 job to pay the rent and fund their art on the side? The only people I ever hear giving me the ‘Art Should Be Free’ speech are able-bodied white cis people who either don’t know what it’s like to try to live off a disability cheque, to not be able to afford their art supplies (or their food), to have a life-altering mental illness, to not be welcome in spaces such as the one we are having this discussion in, or those living a punk rock lifestyle that values and romanticizes poverty above all, blah blah blah.”
I could only say this out loud because I’d taken anxiety meds upon arrival, and because I’d spent a week mentally preparing myself for exactly this kind of conversation. Also, I’ve more or less accepted the fact that, in the attempt to build my own community, I’m gonna burn a lot of bridges.
I was more interested in questions like, Why do I write? What/who am I looking for when I write? Why choose DIY instead of pandering to the gatekeepers of the literary world? One idea that came up that I really loved was accepting that you may have a small readership your entire career, and that you do not necessarily need to find more readers, or change your art to make it more palatable to the general public. It’s okay to start small and stay small.
I definitely felt like a total killjoy, crashing the party, feeling ill from all the 101 conversations and boring cis dudes, as always, but I’m glad I tried to talk about it instead of keeping it in and getting angry and walking away, as I so often do.
In Part Two, I’ll be writing about my experience with workshops on Young Adult Publishing and Critical Culture. In the meantime, here are a few other stories from folks who attended BookCampTO: Pushing Boundaries at BookCampTO, BookCampTO 2013 and the Extending Hallway, BookCamp, #DiverseCanLit, and the 25 Book Pledge, & All I Have is A Voice.