If you haven’t been following the shitstorm that blew through the Can Lit community a few days ago, here’s a quick breakdown: Joseph Boyden, with the support of many, many other Canadian literary superstars, penned an “open letter” (even created a website specifically to share it on the internet) addressed to UBC about “Steven Galloway’s right to due process.” Steven Galloway was a creative writing professor who was fired for sexually and physically assaulting and harassing students. UBC has a far from comprehensive and satisfactory policy about sexual assault on campus (one is in the process of being made right now) but they did decide to fire Steven Galloway after a year-long investigation.
Despite this, a ton of influential figures in Canadian literature, including Margaret Atwood, Yann Martel, Madeleine Thien (who just won the Giller Prize), Raziel Reid, Michael Ondaatje, , Jane Urquhart, Lorna Crozier, and many others whose names may be familiar [note: Miriam Toews and Sheila Heti have now removed their names from the list, yay!] , have signed their names to this letter which assumes survivors are lying and sides with the abuser. Yes, some of those writers explicitly identify themselves as feminists. The letter does not condemn sexual assault and harassment, it does not acknowledge the (gender and age) power dynamics in a classroom, and there is no real discussion of the concerns of survivors and witnesses (their need for privacy only is briefly mentioned).
The effect of this letter is to silence survivors, not only from this context, but all survivors. As one of the complainants (not the main one) put it in the Globe and Mail: “The letter reads like a high-minded manifesto calling for due process … To the complainants, however, who have been going through the investigation for a year, it reads like Canada’s most powerful authors saying ‘Be quiet, we don’t believe you. And we don’t care.”
In light of this nightmare, I’d like to focus on some Canadian writers who write about survivorship and sexual, physical, and emotional trauma. Obviously given my lesbrarian knowledge base, most of these writers are also queer. These are only some of the talented writers I know working on this topic. Please add more suggestions in the comments!
Amber Dawn is one of those writers whose talents can’t be contained in one form or genre: she has published poetry, memoir, fantasy, erotica, horror, and essays. She is also fantastic to see to stage. Whatever the medium, she writes about queer identity, being a survivor, and sex work in one way or another. Her latest book is a collection of glosa poems–odes to her feminist and queer poet mentors and foremothers– is Where the Words End and My Body Begins. Her memoir How Poetry Saved My Life is part memoir, poetry, and even a bit of erotica; it chronicles her experiences hustling Vancouver’s streets and how poetry acted as a lifeline during those years. Sub Rosa, in contrast, is a dark urban fantasy novel set in the downtown east side. She has also edited some superb anthologies, including With a Rough Tongue: Femmes Write Porn and Fist of the Spider Woman: Tales of Fear and Queer Desire. Among Amber Dawn’s many awards are the City of Vancouver Book Award and a Lambda.
Jane Eaton Hamilton is another queer writer living in Coast Salish territories who has a survivorship thread throughout her work, as well as ubiquitous feminist, disability, and queer themes. She’s a prolific writer on her ninth book, and her short stories in particular have won a ton of awards, some from the CBC. Her memoir No More Hurt in particular centres on childhood sexual abuse from a mother’s perspective. Unrestrained by genre or form like Amber Dawn, Hamilton also has a novel, Weekend, which came out earlier this year and a recent, sexy collection of poetry Love Will Burst Into a Thousand Shapes. Set in Ontario cottage country, the much-praised Weekend is about queer intimacy, love, and relationships for characters at the cusp of middle age.
Katherena Vermette, a Métis writer from Winnipeg, is new on my radar. Her brand-new, second book (for adults) is set in Winnipeg’s North End and explores the ripples after a sexual assault in that community. Shifting perspectives from family, friends, and police, The Break is an intergenerational family saga exploring a group of Indigenous women’s relationships with each other as it interrogates the aftermath of sexual violence. The Break was nominated for this year’s Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. Vermette also has a book of poetry, North End Love Songs, an homage to the name Winnipeg neighbourhood featured in her novel. North End Love Songs won the Governor General’s Award for English-language poetry in 2013. Also check out Vermette’s series of children’s picture books teaching The Seven Teachings of the Anishinaabe.
Eden Robinson is a Haisla and Heiltsuk writer perhaps best known for her novel Monkey Beach, one of my favourite novels of all time and an Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize winner. Monkey Beach is a kind of coming of age story about Lisa, a young Haisla woman dealing with her brother’s disappearance on a fishing boat. It’s real and gritty as it brings Haisla mythology to life. Robinson’s writing is darkly funny, poignant, brutally honest, and versatile. It’s also fiercely decolonizing, interrogating the cycles of sexual abuse and trauma in too many Indigenous communities as a result of abuse in the residential school systems. Robinson also has a short story collection, Traplines, another novel, Blood Sports, and a memoirish book called Sasquatch at Home: Traditional Protocols and Modern Storytelling.
Cheryl Rainfield is a queer YA writer who often tackles trauma and survivorship in her books, providing a lifeline for teens who have dealt with and are dealing with trauma. LGBTQ+ teens are also often front and centre in her work as well, which doesn’t shy away from tough stuff like suicide, intimate partner violence, and sexual assault. In novels like Scars, Stained, Hunted, Parallel Visions, and others, teens are dealing with all of those things, but they are also resilient survivors. In Parallel Visions, for example, the main character Kate is a severe asthmatic whose attacks bring on intense psychic visions; her ‘weakness’ becomes a strength. Above all, Rainfield’s books remind us that being different is a site of power rather than limitation. Rainfield says that she writes the books she needed as a teen but couldn’t find.
Leah Horlick, a poet living in Coast Salish territories, wrote a stunning, flawless book of poetry called For Your Own Good which came out last year. To me, it is a perfect, and perfectly devastating, poetry collection. The poems are about an abusive lesbian relationship, violence in a supposedly safe queer space. There is plenty of triggering material: racism, colonialism, physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. But there’s a lot more than that, too. The poems follow a kind of trajectory, moving from misunderstanding to healing, sometimes back and forth. I loved how Horlick sometimes speaks from a calm, present moment to her past self. She is gentle, kind, while possessed by a quiet strength and honesty. As if she’s tenderly whispering, it’s okay. I’ve also reviewed her other excellent, beautiful poetry collection Riot Lung.
Shani Mootoo is a long-standing favourite author of mine who writes fiction and poetry; she’s also a filmmaker and visual artist. Her first novel, Cereus Blooms at Night, is one of my all-time favourite novels, follows different generations of queer and trans characters of colour in Lantanacamara (a kind of stand-in for Trinidad). The multiple queer romances emerge all the more powerfully in juxtaposition with some of the truly horrific violence—sexual, physical, and emotional—that the novel depicts. Mootoo insists on the lesson of intersectionality and interrelatedness of oppressions and shows that the violence enacted by some is the result of having been violated and exploited themselves.
Tomson Highway is another star of Canadian literature who work crosses many generic boundaries: he is both a musician and a writer who has worked on operas, plays, and novels. Kiss of the Fur Queen, his novel set in Cree territory in Manitoba, follows the lives of two Cree brothers as they are born in the snowy wilderness, taken to residential school, and deal with the aftermath of sexual, physical, and emotional abuse for the rest of their lives. Although there is much sadness in that novel, there is also joy as the Fur Queen trickster watches over the brothers. Highway’s plays also interrogate colonization and the intersections of homophobia and sexism: The Rez Sisters and Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapusaking are just two of his most famous ones.