The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Being Heard. Art as Activism

by Tricia Dower

Two weeks ago, Colin and I went to a literary reading at UVic. Last Saturday we attended the screening of a documentary at the mental health wing of a hospital. On surface, the two events seemed unrelated but they were both about being heard.

The reading was billed as an authors’ panel “exploring perspectives on race and culture through writing.” Reading from their works were Dr. Larissa Lai, author and postdoctoral fellow at the University of British Columbia, and Dr. Ashok Mathur, novelist, critical theorist and Canada Research Chair at Thomson River University. Larissa is thirty-nine and Ashok, forty-five, making them mere kids to me. And sporting funky hair and an orange shirt, Ashok challenges the academic fashion paradigm. He and Larissa represent today’s intelligentsia of writing. Able to send me to the dictionary with words like transliteration, racialization, decolonisation and appropriation. Anti-racist activists resisting the pressure to sell out their heritage in order to gain acceptance by the mainstream. They want the public to have broader access to diverse viewpoints, concerned that our choice of what to read is limited severely by market forces.

They mentioned a few ways around Big Publishing: producing chapbooks, self-publishing on the Internet, seeking out independent publishers. They spoke of refusing compromises that cut too deeply. Ashok told of an offer by Penguin Books that required him to change the name of the dog in his novel The Happy Life of Harry Kumar. The name is evocative of the Indian monkey god Hanuman and essential, he said, to the story’s meaning. We can’t have a dog named Han, Penguin told him. He walked away.

“Ideas shouldn’t be marketed like macaroni and cheese,” said Larissa, whose most recent book, Salt Fish Girl was published by Thomas Allen. Their mission, according to their website, is “to seek out and publish quality literary fiction and non-fiction…by and for Canadians…original voices, fine writing and uncommon ideas.” The independent Arsenal Pulp Press published Ashok's two novels.

Larissa believes fiction writing can be a form of activism. Her comments made me reflect on the relatively few people I reach through literary magazines. Editors, teachers and other writers. Maybe a few librarians. Privileged people with leisure time and a habit of reading fostered since childhood. Those who can pay for magazines and books or find their way around a library. Folks who are probably already aware of the social issues I tend to write about. If I want to reach a broader public, I need different media. Toronto has poems in subway cars —brief ones that can be read between two stops — but I’m not a poet. My good citizen husband picks up trash as we walk along the street. One night he picked up a narrow piece of paper containing the lyrics of a Bob Marley song. Littering? Probably not the way to go.

The documentary we saw was Iraq for Sale, The War Profiteers, a Robert Greenwald film. The message was powerful and I recommend the film. More relevant to this blog, however, is how the filmmakers are getting their message out. Their web site says their films “are both funded and distributed completely outside corporate America. Over 3,000 people donated to make Iraq for Sale, and it is up to you to distribute it. Give copies to co-workers and organize a screening in your neighbourhood.”

They offer a promotional kit for community screenings and an action guide for individuals and community groups. Their site lists the dates and locations of scheduled screenings. It also lists how each US Representative and Senator voted when anti-profiteering bills were introduced (and defeated) and suggests US citizens cast their votes in November accordingly. It’s clear the filmmakers hope to effect grassroots political change through their art.

A lamentation in closing: there weren’t many people at either the reading or the screening. Getting heard with integrity takes time and patience.

Photos: Canadian activists and writers Larissa Lai and Ashok Mathur, shown at different events. (Unfortunately, I neglected to bring my camera to UVic. These pics were — shamefully but with the noblest of intentions — pinched from Ashok’s blog.)


Blogger TJL said...

Years ago, poet Tom Wayman was heavily into the Work Poetry movement. He wrote some very interesting essays on high/low art and where poetry about work can and should fit. It's worth seeking out, if you can. Should be readily available in Victoria, as that's where I learned about the movement. But grassroots seems primarily internet-based in the western world; I know The Corporation would not have gotten a quarter of the viewship it got without bloggers and a slick site. I went to an indie film producer's marketing panel the year it came out, and it doesn't seem much has changed in the past few years.

Thanks again for another great, informative post!

Tue Oct 24, 02:55:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger Anne C. said...

Tricia, it sounds as though you and Colin are settling in quite nicely. What's next on your social calendar?

Tue Oct 24, 10:43:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger J.A. McDougall said...

Larissa believes fiction writing can be a form of activism.

I couldn't agree more, although I also feel that using mainstream market forces (selectively) to one's advantage will propel the message further, afterall, as you pointed out, the UVic audience was small.

Tue Oct 24, 11:45:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger Steve Gajadhar said...

It's inspiring to know there are people like you out there, functioning in the literary underground. Keep attending, and keep pushing you POV!

Tue Oct 24, 05:13:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Thanks for the info about Tom Wayman, Tamara. I didn't know of him. Checked out his site and will spend some time reading his poems and about his philosophy.

Anne: Colin and I are mostly doing the free or by donation community events. It's good to have luxury of time.

Jen: Mainstream is good, especially, for short stories, if you write what they want. I'd love to get in a few more consumer magazines which have a bigger circulation. (My story on bride kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan will appear in Cicada next month which really excites me because it has a circulation of 18,000 young adults who might become awakened to this human rights abuse.)

Tue Oct 24, 05:19:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Hey, thanks, Steve. Didn't see your comment when I wrote the one above. Larissa and Ashok are the truly inspiring ones. Listening to them, I felt quite priviledged to be a writer with the possibility of contributing something more than entertainment.

Tue Oct 24, 05:23:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Unknown said...

and someone like you to help spread the word. I'm going to get the movie, can I just order it?? I will check out the link, it may have to be screened somewhere bigger, however, our local library, one never knows....great post Tricia, you and Colin have such a great time together. Cheers, you are making a difference.

Fri Oct 27, 02:09:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Thanks, Patricia. Yes, you can order the DVD from the website. It should play on your TV just fine. Thanks!

Fri Oct 27, 02:14:00 pm GMT-4  

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