My Favourite Reads from 2020

Is it too late to be sharing a list of 2020 favourites? Never! These were not necessarily published in 2020, just books that I read in that (neverending) year. There’s a smattering of all different genres, with an ample number of books of the queer and/or Canadian persuasion, of course.

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The Subtweet by Vivek Shraya

The rest of this list is in no particular order, but it’s not a coincidence The Subtweet landed at the top. It was my favourite book of 2020, hands down. Neela and Rukmini are two South Asian Canadian women musicians (one trans, one unspecified) who form a friendship when Rukmini an emerging artist, covers one of the more established artist Neela’s songs.

The ensuing story investigates brown female friendship, professional jealousy, the pleasures and price of making art, social media and call-out culture, white people performing anti-racism for their own benefit, the way systemic racism and sexism pits women of colour against each other, and more.

It’s also very much a love letter to so many women (mostly of colour) artists and theorists of all stripes. This book was so good and so smart! The characterization of Neela and Rukmini was incredible; they captured my imagnation so fully. I love how Shraya refused to make Neela and Rukmini likable. The concepts were so thoughtfully explored. See my full review here.

Everyone on the Moon is Essential Personnel by Julian K Jarboe

There is an amazing range of narrative voices in this superb science fiction / body horror / fairy tale / cyberpunk collection. Inventive and unique, it tackles subjects like spirituality, (trans) bodies, otherness, climate change, and queer solidarity in the apocalypse. Jarboe’s writing is stunning, full of bold images, mystical undertones, and raw humour. You get excerpts like:

“Give me a sex that has never been seen before and a soft outline exactly the size and shape of my lovers, and when they lay their entire selves within it, that is how we are going to fuck, since you keep asking, and everybody wants to know.”

And then you get distinctly queer dialogue like: “Ask me my sign and I’ll never talk to you again.”
“Oh I would never ask. I know how Scorpios need their privacy.”

HARROW THE NINTH BY TAMSYN MUIR

I’m not sure whether to say this queer SF novel is a work of genius that tortured me or a torture because it is so genius. Muir’s writing is wildly inventive, deadly sharp, boldly unsettling, darkly funny. There is no simple way to describe this world or plot, although it’s correct to say it’s about necromancy, lesbians, space, death, grief, knowledge, trauma, and power.

This book that demands A LOT from the reader. Muir does not make the twists and turns of the plot or the language easy to grasp. I mean, one of the narratives here is about Harrow, but spoken to her in the second person for a reason that remains opaque until quite late. The other main narrative is baffling given what you know from the first book.

But this also means when you finally *get it* there is a huge reward. Plus there’s just the pleasure of her sentences, so weirdly gorgeous and grotesque. And these unexpected bursts of dark humour.

Not a book for everyone. But it is A BOOK. One of the few pieces of fiction I’ve read that truly feels like a masterpiece.

THE LOST FUTURE OF PEPPERHARROW BY NATASHA PULLEY

This book was an unexpectedly delightful queer steampunk / historical fantasy, with some lovely, unique writing and turns of phrase. I loved that it was set mostly in late 1880s Japan and wasn’t willfully ignorant of 19th century British imperialism, unlike a lot of other steampunk.

It follows a fairly large set of characters, Japanese and British (and some who are both) in a multi-layered plot orchestrated by Mori, a man who “remembers the future.” He’s trying to piece together a gazillion moving pieces to a positive future outcome even he doesn’t quite understand anymore.

There are ghosts, electrical storms, mechanical pet octopuses, political scheming, and queer love!

Technically this is a sequel, although I had no trouble following it without having read the first book.

THE HAMMER OF WITCHES BY KELLY ROSE PFLUG-BACK

I love when you start a book with no expectations and it blows you away. This slim collection of poetry by a queer Canadian writer was just the thing. Spooky, mystical, autumnal, feminist, dark. Themes include witches (obviously), loss, longing, necromancy, ancient myth, suicide, nature, death, nightime, horror, ghosts, and the body. The imagery and play with words are incredible:

“It was dark, and the world sang to itself
to keep from being frightened”


“I want the ululations of a thousand throats
to guide me across black waters
whose shores I’ll never reach”

“Listen, I died here a long time ago
and I’ve just been haunting the place
ever since

sitting on the dryer’s
in the basement
staring at my phone.

That light you think you see sometimes
and then it’s gone
when you look again,
that’s all it is;

I felt death’s bony hand
close around my thigh, once

and I just laughed”

TO BE TAUGHT IF FORTUNATE BY BECKY CHAMBERS

Like all of Becky Chambers’ books, this science fiction novella was just delightful. A thoughtful amount of fascinating slscience; endearing, very real characters; heartwarming found family dynamics; and an optimism that is heartening but not naive.

The story follows four astronauts as they embark on a lengthy journey out into another solar system to do scientific research about life on four planets. Halfway through, communications from Earth complicate their mission.

This crew is all queer! One bi+ woman, one unspecified queer woman, one ace guy, and one trans guy. Love to see it, especially as their identities have nothing to do with the story!

WHITE IS FOR WITCHING BY HELEN OYEYEMI

Melancholy and spooky, this book. I had saved this one for October, and was very happy with that decision. I felt like the whole reading experience had me teetering on the edge of discomfort. The house in White is for Witching isn’t so much haunted as it is as alive as the people in the story. It’s a character, but a monstrous one who keeps the women in the family for itself. But it also *is* the women in the family. This only kind of makes sense, which is typical for Oyeyemi. Her writing is the kind of delicious stuff that forces you to let go of the idea that you’ll understand everything.

Floating around there’s also a delightful amount of queerness and interrogation of the UK’s racist and anti-immigrant/refugee ideologies. Plus Oyeyemi’s startlingly beautiful writing.

Content warnings for disordered eating and parental death.

MADAME ZERO BY SARAH HALL

I loved this collection of short stories. It’s my first book by this author but it certainly won’t be my last. I loved her writing. Hall’s prose feels elegant and effortless in a way that belies the talent and skill behind the words.

Reading the stories made me feel contemplative and sophisticated and stylish. It felt like I had to read them with a glass of red wine in front of my fireplace (I obliged). Themes include a woman who turns into a fox, a woman with a terror of heights who crosses a high bridge on a hike, a post-apocalyptic world with constant very high winds, and other diverse topics, some speculative, some not.

But it wasn’t the content of the stories, rather the authenticity of the feeling that captured my attention and imagination. They are almost scary in their perceptiveness and truth. I think I’ll be haunted by them for a long time.

THE GOOD HOUSE BY TANANARIVE DUE

A majestically crafted, terrifying horror novel with incredibly real characters. (I read this one for October too, and it was perfect for that time of year). One summer in Angela’s grandmother’s old house in the Pacific Northwest, she doesn’t realize her son Corey has found her grandmother’s book of vodou spells, and reawakened a horrifying demon.

Two years after, following Corey’s suicide in the very same house, Angela returns and finally starts to unravel what happened and put things right. Chilling reimagined vodou, a narrative that flips back and forth in time, characters deeply flawed but deeply empathetic.

This is a truly incredible, immersive read–with dark themes so tread with caution if needed. The end brought tears to my eyes. Most of the rest left me afraid to keep reading by myself in the dark. Highly recommended. I am mad this book isn’t more well known! It is just begging for a film adaptation.

BEETLE AND THE HOLLOWBONES BY ALIZA LAYNE

This middle grade graphic novel was just the cutest. Beetle is a goblin witch learning to do magic with her gran as a teacher when she find out the mall in her Halloweeen town which her non-binary friend Ghost Blob is doomed to haunt is going to torn down. By who? Power-hungry Marla Hollowbone, whose niece Kat, a cat skeleton sorceress, is back in town.

Can Beetle and Kat save Ghost Blob, defeat Marla, and admit their feelings for each other? Can kindly old healer midwife witch Gran bring back the badass sorcery from her youth?

Gorgeous art, endearing characters, and fun LGBTQ representation for kids! I’m a bit bummed I had an ARC of this book, since it didn’t have colour throughout. But I did love the art and the Halloween aesthetic! A perfect Halloween read.

THE BLACK EMERALD BY JEANNE THORNTON

I finished this book in the bath, with water tinged just the colour purple on the cover from a bath bomb. Very appropriate. Delightfully weird, dark but not cynical (such a hard balance to strike and Thornton does it so well), hilarious (the dedication reads “dedication is overrated”), sexy, and very queer. Thornton’s writing is often strikingly perceptive and beautiful:

“They had a wide Oriental rug, all beige and purple and gold, its fibers an ideal consistency between solid and liquid, and it would ooze up around the bare toes that walked across it like ten tiny, formal hugs.”

Stories include the titular one, about a queer artsy high school girl whose comics become haunted by a cult comics artist her ex-girlfriend loves, a girl who falls in love with a life size anatomical skeleton, a woman who runs a very unique hotel, and more. I loved this! Can’t wait to read her next book, coming out in 2021.

THE WESTERN ALIENATION BADGE

Such an incredible book! A family saga, snapshot of growing up in Calgary in the 70s, coming back home in the 80s & then in the 2010s, and a queer coming of age story. The characters–two sisters Bernadette and Frances, their dad (who lost two wives 😥), and Frankie’s childhood friend–are achingly real, flawed, and sympathetic even when you’d least expect. At once so specific to time and place, yet with such broadly recognizable complicated emotions and family dynamics. So Canadiana, so working class, so prairies. And the novel’s chapters are loosely structured around Girl Guide badges, so clever with with cute illustrations like on the pitch perfect cover.

I loved Cullen’s short story collection, Canary, a few years ago and this novel is just as great. I love her writing. Her characters feel so uncanny to me, so very familiar, but those familiar folks seen with such a sharp, empathetic eye.

MOON OF THE CRUSTED SNOW BY WAUBGESHIG RICE

What a thrilling, fascinating book! A kind of literary thriller / dystopian / horror novel with wonderful writing and authentic, human characters. It follows a Northern Anishinaabe reservation community in the days and months immediately after the apocalypse.

The focus is not what caused the breakdown of white society (you never find out what caused it) but on their journey to survive, leaning back into old ways of living off the land. Part of that journey is dealing with a white guy (what a villain!) who shows up wanting to escape the city and join them.

Parts of the story are quite suspenseful, and a few downright chilling! But it’s also the kind of book with a lot of meaty stuff to dig into and discuss. I’m looking forward to reading more by this author!

Wonderfully performed as an audiobook by Cree actor Billy Merasty.

THE LITTLE KITTEN BY NICOLA KILLEN

Honestly this is the first time in my adulthood that I’ve considered a picture book one of my favourite books of the year.

This is an utterly perfect cat-centric autumn Halloween-ish picture book. I couldn’t have imagined a book more suited to all things I love at thattime of year. The illustrations are gorgeous, black and white with orange, including metallic orange in the fall leaves and pumpkins and clever little cut-outs! So pretty!! Oh yes and the story is cute too.

FAIREST BY MEREDITH TALUSAN

A memoir about the life so far of Meredith Talusan, a writer/artist trans woman with albinism from the Philippines who immigrated to the US as a teenager. This book sails right past the conventions of both the typical trans and immigrant memoir.

It’s not the story of someone who always knew she was a girl. And it’s about someone who fits into American racial categories in a very unique way, as someone perceived as white who is Asian.

Her writing is beautiful, and she boldly looks at herself, sharing complexities, inconsistencies, and flattering and not so flattering moments in her life. I was sad when it ended, as I just wanted the story to keep going!

Wonderfully read by the author as an audiobook.

PARABLE OF THE SOWER & PARABLE OF THE TALENTS BY OCTAVIA BUTLER

I can’t believe I waited until 2020 (during a pandemic no less) to read this dystopian classic series set only 5-7 years in the future. This is a fascinating, page-turning book about a young Black woman surviving in a US descended into chaos and anarchy, with drugs, disease, water shortage, environmental degradation, and severe economic depression making it at once a totally new world and eerily familiar.

I love Butler’s world-building, characters (a future prophet / god as a protagonist!), and intellectual curiosity. She somehow writes a thrilling, gripping, I-can’t-wait-to-find-out-what-happens-next type of book that is so thoughtful and inventive with its themes of community, religion, and more.

The second book is even better than its predecessor. A fascinating and heartbreaking dystopia about the ambitious (Black woman) leader of a new religion and her biological and found family. A terrifying science fiction imagining of what happens when a fundamentalist tyrant comes to take advantage of an apocalypse and his followers indulge in the worst abuses of power imaginable. A tough read (slavery, rape, poverty) but also hopeful.

THE SKIN WE’RE IN BY DESMOND COLE

This collection of essays is a riveting, infuriating, passionate book. It follows the year 2017 in Desmond Cole’s life as a Black activist and journalist in Toronto.

He covers a wide variety of issues, from cops in schools and Pride to police brutality, immigration injustice, and more. I especially liked how he integrated the struggles of Indigenous people with his analysis of anti-Black racism in Canada. His “breather” chapter on taking a break and connecting in nature was also gorgeous. (It made me think about what kind of work we might get more of from Cole if he didn’t have to constantly fight anti-Black racism). He also did a great job connecting current events to historical anti-Blackness in Canada without going into so much depth as to lose the thread of his argument.

A must-read. Excellent as an audiobook read by the author.

THE PULL OF THE STARS BY EMMA DONOGHUE

This audiobook instantly gripped me and did not let go until the end. Set in a Dublin maternity ward amidst the influenza epidemic of 1918, it takes place over only a few short days but packs in a lot of story, character, and historical immediacy.

Julia is a nurse and midwife working with expectant mothers with the flu. Two women come quickly into her life, altering her forever. I felt like I was right there in the hospital the whole book. I loved it!

I wasn’t sure when this book was being publicized if there was queer content, which did make for a fun surprise when it came up, but I wish it would have been advertised! Although I do feel like it’s useful to note that there is NOT a queer happily ever after, if that’s what you’re looking for.

ONCE YOU GOT THIS FAR BY KRISTEN LEPIONKA

The Roxane Weary mysteries are officially my favourite ongoing series! Lepionka delicately balances page-turning pacing, intricate and twisty plot, and complex fascinating characterization. Her current case is a so-called hiking accident that leads Roxane to investigating a culty fundamentalist church, a Canadian casino, a charismatic politician who runs a women’s health organization, and more! Some very interesting developments in Roxane’s family, love life, and friends as well.

I love how we get tiny subplots that chug along the stories of supporting characters from past books who Roxane has folded into her life (Her queer “niece” Shelby and her crush on her BFF, the snarky motel employee studying criminal justice who’s doing her co-op hours with Roxane). Haha and the yoga pants businesswoman shows up again too!

I also love how over the course of the series we get to see the full spectrum of Roxane’s bisexuality. She’s trying to be in a relationship with Tom in this book (emphasis on the trying because she kinda sucks at it). But we also see her ex-girlfriend briefly come back to fuck with her (Catherine you leave my precious Roxane alone!) and see Roxane feel surprised at her sudden attraction to a woman she meets while investigating. It just feels so real to life, you know? I feel seen!

TAKE A HINT, DANI BROWN BY TALIA HIBBERT

This audiobook was excellently read by Ione Butler.

Predictably, I absolutely loved this. Talia Hibbert goes straight for my heart (and sexy parts) every time. A Black bisexual academic heroine? A South Asian ex-rugby player hero who reads romance novels? (Shout-out to the explicit shout-out to Beverly Jenkins!) I adore these two.

I loved the careful representation of Zaf’s anxiety, his trauma from his dad and brother dying in a car crash, Dani’s witchiness, her realization she’s overworking, and her issue with intimacy. I also was thrilled with the bi representation. We get to see a bit of Dani’s ex-sort-of-girlfriend and also her lesbian BFF Sorcha. Great use of the fake dating trope as well as the friends with benefits oops we caught feelings.

I will officially follow Talia Hibbert anywhere! This series is about the Brown sisters, but is it too much to ask for a little spin-off about Sorcha??

A MEMORY CALLED EMPIRE BY ARKADY MARTINE

An absolutely incredible diplomatic space opera! Mahit is an ambassador from a small space station country sent to the heart of the Teixcalaanli Empire. She loves the poetry and Teixcalaan culture, but she also knows they are colonizers intent on annexing her home. When she arrives, she discovers her predecessor has suspiciously died. Here come assassination attempts, illegal neurological surgery, bubbling civil war, and many conversations where everyone is choosing their words oh so carefully to convey at least two things at once.

Intricate world-building with a focus on poetry, language (including body language and facial expressions), conceptions of selfhood, and neurological technology. Plus slow burn lesbian romance! It really got me thinking about how different cultures conceive of an “I” and a “we.” And the complex relationship you can have to a culture you know is oppressive but whose art you love. That feeling Mahit has of desperately wanting to be a fluent Teixcalaanli poet but knowing because she is a “barbarian” she would always be considered other.

LATE TO THE PARTY BY KELLY QUINDLEN

A wonderfully warm and heartfelt YA about growing beyond the person your friends from kindergarten know you to be, first queer kisses, and queer solidarity friendship. Codi and her BFFs JaKory and Maritza (lesbian, gay, and bi respectively) are homebodies who stay at home and watch Netflix. When they force themselves to go to a big party to make something happen in their lives, Codi ends up forming a secret friendship with a closeted popular jock, Ricky, after she accidentally sees him making out with a guy.

Through him she meets a girl who just might like her back. She also breaks out of her shell, trying new things, putting herself out there, and finally having the kind of teenage adventures she thought she might never have. The only problem? She never tells JaKory and Maritza anything, so you are just waiting for that shit to hit the fan as well as to see if the girl and Codi are ever going to kiss.

Late to the Party had a lot of beautifully complex relationships, some bright sparks of poignant writing that really brought to life a teenage mindset, and layered subplots including one for Ricky, JaKory, Maritza, and Grant, Codi’s 14-year-old brother. There were many times when this book made me fondly remember high school and the great, sometimes complicated friendships I had.

One quibble I had was that I had trouble picturing what a lot of the characters looked like since the author didn’t give enough information early enough when they were introduced. Especially since there’s a tendency to assume whiteness in the face of lack of details because of white supremacy!

SOMETHING TO TALK ABOUT BY MERYL WILSNER

Ahhhhhh this book was so good! I’m always a bit nervous to start a book that I have such high expectations for, but this delightful and so real queer romance absolutely exceeded them. This Hollywood set love story between a showrunner and her assistant was done so beautifully and thoughtfully, addressing the power dynamics of a boss/employee relationship.

The slow burn…. I love to see it!!! What I love about that trope is how it lets the couple get to know each other so well and develop a friendship and a respect, which is absolutely what Jo and Emma did. And there were plenty of things going on in their relationship up until they kissed, with tensions and dilemmas at work.

The characters were authentic and flawed, funny and vulnerable. Both their career subplots and one about sexual harassment in Hollywood were excellently done. Representation is a Jewish bisexual woman in her late 20s, a Chinese American lesbian in her early forties. The only rep I can speak to is the bisexuality, which I thought was wonderful in the ways it was addressed and left aside when it wasn’t relevant.

And the side characters! I loved Emma’s snarky fat baker sister Avery as well as Jo’s childhood BFF Evelyn. I can’t wait to read what Meryl Wilsner writes next! I will never see the term “yes, boss” in the same way again.

POLAR VORTEX BY SHANI MOOTOO

A strange, dark, fascinating, and thought provoking novel. Priya is in her 50s and lives with her partner Alex in an Ontario small town. Out of the blue she gets a message from an old university friend Prakash, with whom she had a complicated and fraught relationship.

Her invitation for him to visit brings up longstanding insecurities and issues in Priya and Alex’s relationship. Themes include mainstream (white) discourse about queer sexuality and identity, refugee experiences, difficulties of intimacy and communication in relationships, and the triple effects of sexism, racism, and homophobia on queer women of colour.

The deep dive into longterm queer relationships really reminded me of Jane Eaton Hamilton’s book Weekend. Mootoo adds to that with a somewhat unreliable narrator and multiple points of view.

I really mean it when I say this novel was thought provoking! I have notes written all over the margins of this book and in the notes on my phone. See my full review here.

THE GOSPEL OF BREAKING BY JILLIAN CHRISTMAS

There were many times when I gasped out loud and just sat in awe as I was reading Jillian Christmas’s debut poetry collection. The poems are alternately sad, sexy, funny, and angry; I found myself—very willingly—riding a vicarious emotional roller coaster alongside them. Christmas’s inventive lyricism and images went straight to my heart and gut, sometimes at the same time. Such as lines like: “how will we know it [what is a body] / unless we go searching through the roughness of being alive.”

Many of the poems very much feel like their roots are in slam poetry with a careful attention to sound. They also shine on the page. Themes include depression, suicide, Black joy, spirituality, break ups, home and place, love, ancestry, Blackness, white feminism, writing, Christmas’s mother, Internet and social media culture, and more. Also, there is a killer, hilarious poem addressed to the person who stole Christmas’s bike! One of my other favourites was a gorgeous poetic take on the frequent meme “But have you tried.” Uh, everyone else can stop doing this now, Jillian Christmas has clearly won. Read my full review here.

THE REGRETS BY AMY BONNAFFONS

A delightfully weird, unique, sexy, bittersweet story about a love affair between a woman (in the world of the living, but also somewhat removed from it) and a ghost who has been temporarily stuck on Earth because of the equivalent to a clerical error in the afterlife. The powers that be tell him: you are “insufficiently dead … You lack rupture with your life. You have no exit narrative.”

I LOVED the writing: poetically precise and philosophically true. The tone was thoughtful and candid, details of the characters’ flaws unflinching, but it never moved into cynicism. Also the heroine is a red lipstick wearing librarian. This is one of those books that while featuring queer secondary characters and overall not at all homophobic also felt VERY heterosexual (emphasis on the sexual, there’s a lot of sex in this book), so beware if that’s not something you can stand.

MY ART IS KILLING ME BY AMBER DAWN

An exquisite, hard-hitting collection of poetry not without its moments of humour and an ample amount of free verse experimentation with spacing, repetition, spells, and business letters. Amber Dawn writes about the burden and joys of writing from the perspective of a woman, a queer person, a survivor, and a sex worker. Being an artist in the public realm, performing or having to convince others of your trauma, dealing with abusers in positions of power in the literary community, and more. A book to reread and savour. Full review on my blog here.

Some of my favourite parts:

“I wouldn’t mind if poetry mimicked racing tipsy down the subway stairs / in platform heels to barely catch the last train of the night.”

“A poem is always a mirror / that we must hold up before us”

“Who do I confide to about pain when pain is my praxis / and best performance?”

“But you (literally you) are reading queer and desperate poetry / so may I assume you too have never been afforded / an uncomplicated story?”

“My kink is to loudly love those / who’ve been told to keep quiet.”

“Closure / is like the conspicuous consumption / of real life.”

MRS DALLOWAY BY VIRGINIA WOOLF

Mrs Dalloway is one of those novels that feels so effortless, which shows how much skill and talent Woolf had. I went into it expecting it to be less accessible than it actually is. The stream of consciousness just flowed, taking me along like, well, a stream. I was also surprised at a few passages that were quite explicitly queer for the time and loved the complex look at depression and mental health.

If you’ve been meaning to get around to reading this like I have, I would heartily recommend! God, her writing is so beautiful.

“Yet she could not resist sometimes yielding to the charms of a woman, not a girl, of a woman confessing, as they often did, some scrape, some folly…she did undoubtedly then feel what men felt. Only for a moment; but it was enough. It was a sudden revelation, a tinge like a blush which one tried to check and then, as it spread, one yielded to its expansion, and rushed to the farthest verge and there quivered.”

IN THE DREAM HOUSE BY CARMEN MARIA MACHADO

An INCREDIBLE memoir. The content is a subject that doesn’t get nearly enough attention: domestic abuse in queer relationships. It’s hard to describe, except as horrifying.

On top of the unique content, Machado is playing with form throughout the book, (re)telling the story through the lens of folk tale tropes, genres, and formats (including a harrowing “choose your own adventure” section). She pays particular attention to classic horror tropes

She often talks about her past self as “you” giving the reader an unsettling intimacy. Somehow this is compulsively readable despite the dark content. One of the best books I’ve ever read. This won the Lambda in 2020 for LGBTQ Nonfiction, and it is very deserved.

GET A LIFE, CHLOE BROWN BY TALIA HIBBERT

I LOVED this book!! (And yes, there are two books by Talia Hibbert on this list, for good reason). An emotionally resonant, steamy, diverse, authentic story about two people who at first don’t like each other and then realize their first impressions were wrong. Red is a white working class artist whose previous relationship was abusive. Chloe is a wealthy Black woman with chronic illness including fibromyalgia. She also has a history of being abandoned by partners and friends.

Their falling in love was so cute, and funny, and sexy and just every minute of it was perfect. I laughed out loud at the sarcastic humour. The audiobook narration with different British accents was also perfect. And there’s a cute cat! I had a feeling I was going to love Talia Hibbert and this did not disappoint at all. it’s hard to believe this was the first book of hers that I read. Can’t wait to pick up some of her older stuff.

THE PHILISTINE BY LEILA MARSHY

This book didn’t draw me in right away, but it eventually won me over, hard. It’s an #OwnVoices story about Nadia, a queer Palestinian-Canadian woman who travels to Egypt in the late 1980s to track down her father whom she has not seen in years. She finds and gets to know him anew, but she also meets and falls in love with an Egyptian woman artist, Manal.

There’s a wonderful journey of Nadia reconnecting with her Palestinian heritage, as she meets many other Palestinians (taxi drivers, booksellers, a doctor) who don’t hesitate to accept her as Palestinian and reach out to connect. Nadia is humbled and rejuvenated. There is of course also her father, whom she slowly begins to see as a flawed adult human being, instead of only the father who has disappointed her.

The story is set mostly in Cairo, a complicated, contradictory character unto itself. The city really came alive: the beauty of the art, food, generosity of people, poverty, stink of animals and defecation in the street, chaotic traffic, all the details of everyday life. Manal is Nadia’s guide as well as for the reader, and she is a passionate, opinionated, and lively one. I loved her.

Beautiful writing; thoughtful, nuanced content about art, family, connecting with your heritage, Palestinian and Egyptian cultures and politics, Arabic language, and the generosity of strangers. Full review on my blog!

What were your favourite reads of 2020? Did you read any of the same ones as me? Let me know!

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Art, Lesbian Love, Palestine, Cairo, and Family in the Novel THE PHILISTINE by Leila Marshy

the-philistine-leila-marshyThe Philistine by Leila Marshy was one of those review books that I received with anticipation, but just never got around to reading. Now I have to say, curse you past Casey, because I am sad it sat on my shelf for over a year before I finally read it! I loved The Philistine. I wish I had advocated for how awesome it is when it was first published in 2018. But at least I am reviewing it now!

While The Philistine didn’t draw me in right away, it eventually won me over, hard. It’s an #OwnVoices story about Nadia, a queer Palestinian-Canadian woman who travels to Egypt in the late 1980s to track down her father whom she has not seen in years. She finds and gets to know him anew, but she also meets and falls in love with an Egyptian woman artist, Manal. As the weeks pass, Nadia finds herself staying in Cairo much longer than she had originally planned.

One of the wonderful journeys of the novel is Nadia reconnecting with her Palestinian heritage. She meets many other Palestinians in Cairo, such as taxi drivers, booksellers, and doctors. These people do not hesitate to accept her as Palestinian, even though she feels removed from her Palestinian identity. They reach out to connect. Nadia is humbled and rejuvenated.

There is also her father, whom she slowly begins to see as a flawed adult human being, instead of only the father who has disappointed her. Getting to know your parents again as real people instead of the idealized parental figures from your childhood is something a lot of people do. But Nadia’s journey with her father is mixed up in his legacy of leaving his daughter in Montreal to return closer to home and to fight for the Palestinian cause.

There is also, of course, the love story between Nadia and Manal. When the two women first kiss, and Manal has to leave to go home, Marshy describes Nadia’s experience:

Her [Manal’s] departure left the room chilled and lifeless. Nadia could barely move. She contented herself with the traffic lights streaking along the walls and ceiling. Though it intruded, the city was far away, unreal, unfathomable. Her breath came in tiny bursts. Letters, not words. The phone in her room rang late in the night, jolting her awake.

‘Nadia is it true?’ Manal’s voice was soft, tentative.

‘Is what true?’

‘Did I kidnap you and make you mine?’

I loved Manal. She’s an friendly, extroverted artist who speaks her mind. She laughs openly but not cruelly when Nadia bumps up against the cultural differences in Cairo. She doesn’t hesitate to correct her when Nadia spouts beliefs that stem from her Western, North American way of thinking. At one point, when Nadia questions the increasing fascism of the Egyptian government, Manal tells her: “One day you will see that the most simple things in the world are sometimes the most dangerous. One day.” Like their love, for example. Like regular Egyptians living a life with a roof over their head, food, and a school for their children.

Manal wavers between idealism and following her artistic impulses to cynical pragmatism, knowing deep down that her career options as a queer brown Egyptian woman in 1987 are limited. Manal is Nadia’s guide to the city of Cairo as well as for the reader. She is a passionate, opinionated, and lively one. It’s impossible not to fall in love with her and the city through her eyes, as does Nadia.

The way Manal is treated by her French woman boss Brigitte, who owns the art gallery which Manal basically runs on her own, is maddening. As Manal attempts to apply for scholarships in art schools outside of Egypt, Brigitte refuses to use her privilege and power to help Manal, instead putting her support behind an Egyptian man. It’s a biting critique of white women refusing to align themselves with women of colour.

Daniel, Nadia’s Quebecois Francophone boyfriend, eventually shows up unexpectedly after Nadia has been away in Cairo for months without communicating with him much. I found myself immediately dismissive and annoyed with him, even if intellectually I could sort of sympathize with him. Nadia has just been so swept up in her new life that she’s forgotten him and her Canadian life entirely. Marshy beautifully describes the experience of growing out of a partner:

She wanted someone who could beat a drum even harder than she was able. Someone who would dance with her, embrace the chaos and the anger, heat an entire furnace with it, then help her forge something new and much less brittle. Much, much, much less brittle.

Daniel is, unfortunately for him, a brittle person by nature.

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Leila Marshy; image via cbc.ca

The story is set mostly in Cairo, which is a complicated, contradictory character unto itself. I have never been there, but the city really came alive in my mind as I read The Philistine. The beauty of the art, the rich food, generosity of people, poverty, stink of animals and defecation in the street, chaotic traffic, all the details of everyday life in Cairo bloom. As Nadia walks through Cairo, she absorbs the culture,

a lifting of the burden of individuality and aloneness. In its place was an almost maternal warmth and sharing… Increasingly, as she walked the busy streets she could feel a connectedness, a common humanity, the veins and branches of the tree of life. Everybody was located somewhere on a stretched fabric, inches from the next.

In addition to the wonderful human and non-human characters, I also loved how Marshy inserted French and Arabic into the base of the English text. She often does so without direct translation, sometimes even without indirect help to decipher the meaning. This strategy makes for a delightfully multilingual text, that even those its language of majority is English, doesn’t take for granted that language’s primacy.

All in all, The Philistine is a novel I would highly recommend! It has beautiful writing; thoughtful, nuanced content about art, family, connecting with your heritage, Palestinian and Egyptian cultures and politics, Arabic, and queer love in the 80s. I really loved this book.

Posted in Bisexual, Canadian, Fiction, Montreal, Queer | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Fluid Queer Identities and Food Justice in the Hi-Lo YA YOU’RE YOU by Mette Bach

youre-you-mette-bachA while back Lorimer Children’s and Teens, a Canadian publisher focusing on books for reluctant readers, sent me a few books from their Real Love series. The Real Love series are hi-lo YA novels about LGBTQ+ teens, written by Canadian LGBTQ+ authors. There’s a focus on romance, but also on identity as it relates to gender, sexuality, race, and more. (Hi-lo refers to books that have high level concepts but low reading level. Picture a book with the kind of themes you’d expect to find in an older age range YA book, but with the reading level you’d expect in a book for lower end middle graders).

Hi-lo books aren’t what I’d usually read for myself, but I know how important they are, especially for marginalized kids and teens. There are a wide variety of reasons these readers might need books at a lower reading level than is ordinarily assigned to their age: learning disabilities, having been out of school, learning English as an additional language, and more! So when I picked up You’re You by Vancouver-based author Mette Bach, I was anticipating more as an academic exercise, to assess it as part of a potential library collection or for appropriate teen readers. But to my surprise I actually really enjoyed it!

Freyja, the main character, is a well fleshed out young person. She’s a grade 12 student with a passion for social justice, stubbornness, and black and white thinking about insiders and outsiders. Bach shows that the root to this way of thinking is her history of bullying. I recognize this type of emerging activist who is young enough to think they know everything and just wants to save the world. (Hell, I have been that person, although I was never much of an activist). She wants to be a leader but doesn’t know how to be a humble and open one. She felt like a very real teen to me!

After Freyja’s girlfriend breaks up with her, she decides to try something new and volunteer at the food bank.  There is a lot of cool stuff in the book about food justice that I think teens interested in activism would be really into. At the food bank, in addition to learning about food justice, Freyja meets a guy named Sanjay. Sanjay gets her more than her ex ever did. Freyja and Sanjay get to know each other at the food bank, and then as friends outside of volunteering. Freyja begins to feel confused about what kind of feelings she has for Sanjay.

Not surprisingly, Freyja identifies as a lesbian — an orientation that ties in perfectly with her binarist mindset. Potentially falling for a guy challenges her whole sense of self and her dedication to queer politics. She struggles with internalized biphobia and not feeling queer enough. Once word gets out about even just her friendship with Sanjay, she faces biphobia from her fellow GSA members at school. This comes at the same time as the members are pushing against her forceful leadership. Ouch.

mette-bach

Mette Bach; photo by Mark Mushet via Goodreads.com

I would love to see more queer stories like this that show LGBTQ+ people’s fluidity from one identity to another, especially from gay/lesbian to bisexual/pansexual. In real life I know so many people who have experienced a change in their sexuality or who have realized their initial monosexual queer identification isn’t the best fit. I include myself in that second category! I also know plenty of people who originally identified as bisexual and now identify as gay. It feels very unauthentic to life, especially when we’re talking about young people, to expect them to have their gender and sexual identities all figured out!

But these identity journeys  are hardly ever represented in fiction. When they are, too often they are knee-jerk labelled as harmful without paying attention to the nuances and truth of these stories. I’m thinking particularly here about Ramona is Blue by Julie Murphy. And when I ask for stories about fluid identities I do not mean “gay for you” or “lesbian fixed by the right man” stories, which are both biphobic as they ignore the validity and existence of bisexual identity — the later being lesbophobic as well!

Overall I would highly recommend You’re You! My only criticism is the fact that Freyja, a white character, has dreadlocks and this cultural appropriation isn’t addressed in the book. Honestly it’s fitting for her character to have dreads and not realize there’s a problem at the beginning of the book. But it would have been great if she could have grown to realize this, just as she learns about how to be a compassionate leader, about bisexuality and biphobia, and food justice.

Posted in Bisexual, Canadian, Coming-of-age, Fiction, Queer, Romance, Vancouver, Young Adult | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

A Witty Dissertation on Love, Relationships, and Academia Itself: THEORY by Dionne Brand

Dionne Brand’s most recent book, Theory, is one of those novels that does what it sets out to do absolutely perfectly; but what it sets out to do isn’t going to be for everyone. It’s written in a self-referential discourse that is bitingly authentic to arts and humanities academia, so much so that it’s hard to imagine anyone without that background being interested in the book at all. (As you can see what with my use of the word discourse, I’m slipping back into my academic jargon already). Theory is almost two years old at this point but I can’t imagine it being irrelevant anytime soon. At least in its niche market, I imagine it will become an important text. How meta would it be to study this book in a post-secondary classroom or in a university professor’s research, this book which is about both of those things?

For those readers who are plot-centred, it might feel like a stretch to call Theory a novel at all. The book is all character study. Told in the first person from an unnamed academic narrator (likely a Black woman or afab person—but deliberately ambiguous), Theory chronicle their life’s important love affairs.  Although they certainly have a lot to say about the women themselves, a lot of the focus is on how the lovers interrupt and fuel the narrator’s decade-long dissertation project. You see, “Teoria,” as one lover calls the narrator, is one of those PhD students who finds it hard to do anything but work on their thesis, while at the same time seeming to never make any progress in actually finishing it. At one point they say:

My distractions seem more compelling than the dissertation. Why is it that the mind can be caught up so heavily in feeling? We have been taught that the mind can be marshalled and feeling can be sublimated, but this, I swear, is false. Feeling is more compelling and insistent than what we call ‘ideas’. Understandably, this is my own theory. No citation. Just self-diagnosis

Teoria is an amusing and unreliable narrator. Most of the time, they are hilariously lacking in self-awareness. They grumble about the troubles of their life with no understanding of their own role in creating them. They seem incapable of recognizing that the gigantic scope of their PhD project may have something to do with the reason they are unable to finish. But occasionally, at others times, Teoria shares thoughts such as “The problem with not having a lover is that there is no distraction from the person I am… There’s no one to fix, in other words, except me.”

Dionne Brand ; photo via Room Magazine

There’s a certain cheekiness to the portrayal of Teoria. (Thank god for that nickname so that I have something to call them). It’s like you can feel Brand the author behind the character having a hell of a lot of fun. Brand has held a number of different academic positions; she’s currently Professor of English at the School of English and Theatre Studies at the University of Guelph. She’s obviously intimately familiar with the academic world. It’s not even worth saying that she’s beyond qualified as a teacher, writer, artist, and academic. But she doesn’t actually have a PhD. Because she also never finished her dissertation! (I’m gleaming this from the author bio in one of her older novels). Anyway, this bit of side knowledge just fills me with glee in relation to this novel’s protagonist who is also ABD (all but dissertation).

If the names Althusser and Fanon and the terms like Lacanian feminist aren’t familiar to you, you may won’t get much from Theory. It even has footnotes for goodness’s sake! But for anyone with a background in humanities or arts academia, Theory is fascinating, funny, and thought-provoking. It made me laugh out loud a few times, and certain lines had me stop to think and let my mind ponder a train of thought. Teoria is both very smart and not very smart at the same time. But they may, as the narrator of Theory, have just written a dissertation on love and relationships.

Posted in Black, Canadian, Dionne Brand, Fiction, Lesbian, Queer, Toronto | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

12 (Mostly) Canadian Books about Racism, Anti-Blackness, and Anti-Racism, Plus Places to Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

Happy Pride Month! In honour of the original riot against police brutality that inspired Pride month and in support of #BlackLivesMatter I want to share two lists, one of people and organizations to donate to, and another of books. The intended audience for these lists are fellow white people; when I say “you” that’s who I’m talking to. (If these resources are useful for non-white people, I am glad for that as well!) The book list is of non-fiction books about racism (anti-Blackness in particular) and anti-racism. But first I want to share places where you can materially support anti-racism efforts and human rights in prisons and the justice system. Please give if you can, even if it is a small amount. If you know of an organization or fundraiser that belongs on this list, let me know! I have focused on Canadian-specific resources.

Bail Funds in Different US States  

Black Lives Matter Solidarity Fund in Nova Scotia

Black Lives Matter Toronto

Black Lives Matter Vancouver

Black Youth Helpline

Justice for Regis: Fundraiser for Regis Korchinski-Paquet

Keep6ix (“an organization that aids with the rehabilitation of young men who have been incarcerated”)

Obsidian Theatre in Toronto (“Producing, developing and supporting the Black voice”)

Support Queer Black Refugees in Kenya: Fundraiser for Canadian Refugee Organizer Seagirl Abuson

Various Fundraisers, Mostly for Black Americans

West Coast Prison Justice Society

Now onto the books! Buy these books and support the authors if you can; if not, request them from your library and/or submit a request for purchase for them and other anti-racist books that your library does not already have. Read the books. Process their ideas; maybe read them again. Share what you have learned with other white people. Incorporate what you have learned into what you say and do. You will make mistakes; learn from them and keep going.

I have mostly focused on books by Black Canadian authors and about the Canadian context. I especially want to counteract white Canadians’ self-congratulatory and ignorant tendency to compare Canada favourably to the US and say we don’t have racism here, or we never had slavery here, or police brutality and state-sanctioned violence don’t happen here. None of those things are true and these books will show you!

Bread Out Of Stone: Recollections on Sex, Recognitions, Race, Dreaming and Politics by Dionne Brand (Canadian)

I read this essay collection by Black Canadian lesbian poet legend Dionne Brand many years ago and was very glad I did (full review here). It is a sharp, personal account of, among other things: racism in Canada, education and academia, political activism, memory, capitalism, immigration, Black women’s sexuality, and writing. Most of the essays in Bread Out of Stone are written in what is for Brand a fairly prosaic style—that is, still pretty poetic because Brand is such a natural poet she just can’t help it. Many of the essays are odes to Black Toronto. One such essay is “Bathhurst,” which examines Black activism in the city, both past and present.  “Brownman, Tiger…” is a searing criticism of racism, particularly the treatment of young Black people.  Brand calls Toronto “this city which treats its white rapists and murderers like the boy next door gone unaccountably and sadly wrong.” Other essays are less descriptive and more like political theory.  I was especially interested in her theory about equality versus justice in the context of anti-racist activism:

I realized that at some point the idea of upliftment had replaced the idea of justice and that equality rather than justice had become what we were fighting for.  The distinction may be slippery, but it is a major one.  Did we want only to be equal to white people, or did we want to end exploitation and oppression?  Because to be equal to the white power structure twenty-five years ago and still today is to have the right to impose inequality.

I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You: A Letter to My Daughter by David Chariandy (Canadian)

In the vein of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me (both writers were inspired by the same James Baldwin essay), Chariandy writes a letter about race, identity, and belonging to his 13-year-old daughter. It’s a very sweet, tender book that while reading feels almost like you’ve stumbled upon something too personal for outside eyes, like you’re trespassing. It contains so many beautiful loving words.

Chariandy’s impetus to write this book emerged from a racist encounter that he quietly ignored while out with his then 3-year-old daughter. She asked him “What happened?” Chariandy wondered how to begin discussing race and racism with his children. He shares his own experiences growing up a visible minority (his parents are Black and South Asian immigrants from Trinidad) in the country where he was born. He looks back to his family history of slavery and indenture, tracing the effects up to the present. He tells his daughter:

You did not create the inequalities and injustices of the world, daughter. You are neither solely nor uniquely responsible to fix them. If there is anything to learn about the story of our ancestry, it is that you should respect and protect yourself; that you should demand not only justice but joy; that you should see, truly see, the vulnerability and the creativity and the enduring beauty of others.

The Skin We’re In: A Year of Black Resistance and Power by Desmond Cole (Canadian)

The Skin We’re In focuses on one year—2017—in Toronto journalist and activist Desmond Cole’s life. Cole’s work first became well-known when he did a cover story for Toronto Life in 2015 about his own experiences with the Toronto police force’s racist practice of carding. In 2017, Cole continued his anti-racist work, facing consequences both personal and professional. He writes about attending and disrupting Toronto police board meetings demanding issues of police brutality, cover-ups, and carding be addressed. Cole was later told by his employer, The Toronto Star, that his activism violated their policies. He quit. He was also arrested after refusing to leave a meeting when the Toronto police board refused to address a police cover-up of a brutal assault of Dafonte Miller by an off-duty police officer and his brother.

Cole divides the book into chapters dealing with different issues such as immigration and Toronto Pride, often referring to the links between Black and Indigenous struggles. I can’t describe better than the blurb what this book does: “Punctur[e] the bubble of Canadian smugness and naive assumptions of a post-racial nation.” It’s also a call to action. He writes: “White supremacy keeps stepping on your toes while insisting it was an accident.”

The Hanging of Angelique: The Untold Story of Canadian Slavery and the Burning of Old Montreal by Afua Cooper (Canadian)

Shame on me for never having heard of this book or the woman it is about until now. Marie-Joseph Angélique was a 29-year-old enslaved Black Portugal-born woman. She maintained her innocence but was found guilty of starting a fire that burned down 46 buildings in Montreal in 1734. She was tortured after the trial, as tormentors tried to get her to name accomplices. They suspected she had not acted alone. Under duress, she confessed to the arson, but still named no one else. She was hanged, but not before she was “paraded through the city.”

This book is the culmination of Canadian historian Afua Cooper’s 15 years of research into this forgotten historical figure. Not only does The Hanging of Angelique give a picture of what Marie-Joseph Angélique’s life was like, it is also a detailed account of slavery in Canada at that time. In fact, the trial records actually “[p]redat[e] other first-person accounts by more than forty years, … constitute[ing] what is arguably the oldest slave narrative in the New World.” Cooper places Canada in the larger context of transatlantic slavery and disproves the myth that Canada has no history of slavery. That makes this book essential anti-racist unlearning for Canadians!

Until We Are Free: Reflections on Black Lives Matter in Canada edited by Rodney Diverlus, Sandy Hudson, and Syrus Marcus Ware

This is the book for the latest information and thinking on Black Lives Matter in Canada and Black Canadian anti-racist activism. Published in February of this year, this anthology features work by El Jones, Robin Maynard, Paige Galette, Sarah Jama, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, and many more. The editors are the founders of Black Lives Matter Canada. Activists write from Toronto, Halifax, Whitehorse, Waterloo, Lethbridge, Hamilton, and Los Angeles on topics including Black futures, evolution of Canadian Black activism, use of social media in organizing, intersections of Black and disabled identities, queer and trans Black communities, neglect of Black Canadian history, alliances between Black and Indigenous activists, and more! You can read an excerpt from Galette’s essay about moving to the Yukon as a Black queer person here. You can read a full review of the book on Quill & Quire. Vershawn Young writes about this book:

Until We Are Free busts myths of Canadian politeness and niceness, myths that prevent Canadians from properly fulfilling its dream of multiculturalism and from challenging systemic racism, including the everyday assaults on black and brown bodies. This book needs to be read and put into practice by everyone.

Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge (British)

Given Canada’s close current and historical cultural and political ties to the UK, I think it’s helpful to look at the contemporary context there in terms of racism generally and anti-Blackness specifically. Eddo-Lodge’s book began as a blog post of the same title. She was inspired to write the original post by her frustration that “discussions of race and racism in Britain were being led by those who weren’t affected by it.” Eddo-Lodge tackles topics including eradicated Black British history, white feminism, the links between race and class, and the result of white supremacy in politics. She writes:

If you are disgusted by what you see, and if you feel the fire coursing through your veins, then it’s up to you. You don’t have to be the leader of a global movement or a household name. It can be as small scale as chipping away at the warped power relations in your workplace. It can be passing on knowledge and skills to those who wouldn’t access them otherwise. It can be creative. It can be informal. It can be your job. It doesn’t matter what it is, as long as you’re doing something.

Hood Feminism: Notes from the Women That a Movement Forgot by Mikki Kendall (American)

It feels best to start off with this quotation from Kendall’s book which shows us where she’s starting this incisive book from:

One of the biggest issues with mainstream feminist writing has been the way the idea of what constitutes a feminist issue is framed. We rarely talk about basic needs as a feminist issue. Food insecurity and access to quality education, safe neighborhoods, a living wage, and medical care are all feminist issues. Instead of a framework that focuses on helping women get basic needs met, all too often the focus is not on survival but on increasing privilege. For a movement that is meant to represent all women, it often centers on those who already have most of their needs met.

For white women (like myself) who consider themselves feminist, Hood Feminism is a must-read. Feminism must be actively intersectional and stop centring the needs of white middle class women, and focus on the issues that are disproportionately affecting women of colour and/or poor women.

How to Be an Anti-Racist by Ibram X. Kendi (American)

A lot of people are (rightfully so) talking about How to Be an Anti-Racist right now, so I don’t think it needs a lot of introduction! This book is a guide to anti-racism in the American context. Particularly helpful for its introductory nature is Kendi sharing his journey to becoming an anti-racist, which includes admitting and confronting his own racist ideas and behaviour. He writes:

What’s the problem with being not racist? It is a claim that signifies neutrality. ‘I am not a racist, but neither am I aggressively anti racism.’ But there is no neutrality in the racism struggle… One either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities as an antiracist. There is no in-between safe space of ‘not racist.’ The claim of ‘not racist’ neutrality is a mask for racism.

Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada from Slavery to the Present by Robyn Maynard (Canadian)

Anti-Blackness is alive and well in Canada and has been for a long time, and Maynard’s entire book is here to prove it. It’s a dense book, for good reason as it covers a lot: “nearly four hundred years of state-sanctioned surveillance, criminalization and punishment of Black lives in Canada.” Maynard is also careful to pay attention to intersectional Black communities, including queer, trans, undocumented, disabled, and female Black people.

Some of the topics she addresses include the legacy of slavery in Canadian institutions, historic state-sponsored segregation, Black poverty and unemployment levels today, incarceration and policing, deportation and immigration, exploitation of Black migrant workers, disproportionate removal of Black children by the state, low school graduation rates, and more. Maynard explains why she wrote this book:

In combing through the world of research for something that would describe the realities that I was seeing [‘enormous and disproportionate levels of what can only be called state-sanctioned violence and concerted neglect of Black people’], I realized that there was still far too little literature addressing, in one place, the specificities of how criminal and immigration laws, inequitable access to work and housing and other state policies and institutions interact to shape the conditions of Black life in this country. It has become increasingly clear that none of these incidents are isolated; they are part of a larger pattern of the devaluation of Black life across Canada. I felt compelled to write this book because anti-Blackness, particularly anti-Blackness at the hands of the state, is widely ignored by most Canadians.

Shame on Me: An Anatomy of Race and Belonging by Tessa McWatt (Canadian)

Guyanese Canadian author Tessa McWatt’s memoir is a nuanced look at her own body and heritage as she grapples with the topics of race and racism. She starts with a childhood memory of being asked “What are you?” by her elementary school teacher. As a mixed-race person of Scottish, English, French, Portuguese, Indian, Amerindian, African and Chinese descent, McWatt has never had an easy answer to this harmful question. From her unique position of “having been plagued with confusion about her race all her life,” McWatt investigates the concepts of a so-called “post-racial” world, shadism, anti-Blackness, identity politics, and call-out culture. She also writes about how story–McWatt is an accomplished fiction writer–has brought her kinship and solidarity. She writes about visualizing a part of her ancestry:

I hold on to the image of my Indian ancestor squatting not because I don’t trust the science of DNA, but because it doesn’t account for all the songs or symphonies we are, or for literature, or for out of body experiences, for my father in the birds, my mother’s awe of the trees, for the perfection of being in the right life, the right body.

So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo (American)

I read this book in 2018 and found it an excellent introduction to race and a lot of related concepts. A must-read for all white people, So You Want to Talk about Race is very smart but very accessible. Oluo breaks down complicated issues like police brutality, the model minority myth, micro-aggressions, intersectionality, the “N” word, privilege, and tone policing (among others) masterfully, weaving together personal stories, detailed examples, and statistics (American ones, though, FYI). This is definitely an entry-level book that feels aimed at readers at the beginning of politicized learning. If you read through audiobooks, I would definitely recommend the excellent narration by Bahni Turpin. On privilege:

We don’t want to think that we are harming others, we do not want to believe that we do not deserve everything we have, and we do not want to think of ourselves as ignorant of how our world works. The concept of privilege violates everything we’ve been told about the American Dream of hard work paying off and good things happening to good people. We want to know that if we do “a” we can expect “b”, and that those who never get “b” have never done “a”. The concept of privilege makes the world seem less safe. We want to protect our vision of a world that is fair and kind and predictable. That reaction is natural, but it doesn’t make the harmful effects of unexamined privilege less real.

Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor by Layla F. Saad (British/Middle East)

If you want a practical, step-based workbooks to look critically at how white supremacy (especially unconsciously) affects you, this is it! Saad’s book aims to help you do the work of dismantling your own privilege, with the goal of stopping the damage you do on people of colour, as well as helping other white people do the same. If you’re wondering what the last part of the title refers to, Saad’s concept of being a good ancestor—“to live and work in ways that leave a legacy of healing and liberation, especially for black girls and black women”—is central to all her work. I’ll leave you with this excerpt:

You will be called out/in as you do antiracism work. Making mistakes is how you learn and do better going forward. Being called out/in is not a deterrent to the work. It is part of the work.

Please share any other resources on race, racism, anti-racism, and anti-Blackness in Canada in the comments, as well as any other Canadian organizations or fundraisers fighting racism. Again, Happy Pride Month and Black Lives Matter! None of us are free until all of us are.

Posted in Black, Canadian, Dionne Brand, Non-Canadian, Non-Fiction | Tagged , , , , , , | 11 Comments