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As the guest of honor at the world's largest book fair, Canada is showcasing its multicultural literature. What is driving diversity in its book industry?
Shortlisted for the Alternative Nobel Prize in 2018, Kim Thuy's books have been translated in 29 languages
Following last year's cancellation of the physical event, Canada is once again the guest of honor of the Frankfurt book fair (Frankfurter Buchmesse, FBM21) held from October 20-24. "Singular Plurality" is the theme chosen by the country to reflect its "eclectic and multicultural" literature.
Margaret Atwood, renowned internationally through her dystopian novel The Handmaid's Tale, is the guest star at the opening ceremony of the book fair. She will be giving a speech through a video link along with Josephine Bacon, a noted poet and filmmaker who writes in French and Innu-aimun.
While these two established authors embody three of Canada's major cultural traditions — English, French and Indigenous literatures — a new generation of authors are also contributing to expanding the diversity of the country's literary landscape.
Vivek Shraya, an award-winning trans writer who is also a musician, filmmaker and visual artist, is the third guest of the opening ceremony. An advocate for LGBTQ+ rights, she is on the board of the Tegan and Sara Foundation, and has founded the publishing imprint VS. Books, which supports BIPOC writers.
With its delegation of 58 authors who will be participating in events live in Frankfurt or virtually, Canada FBM2021 features a broad spectrum of writers.
French-language authors such as Haiti-born Dany Laferriere and Kim Thuy, who fled Vietnam at the age of 10, have gained renown through their personal stories reflecting the migrant experience.
Innu writer Michel Jean will also be in Frankfurt, promoting Kukum (2019), a tribute to his great-grandmother. A bestseller in French Canada, the novel's German-language translation has been published just ahead of the book fair. Also present at the event is Paul Seesequasis, founder of Aboriginal Voices magazine. He is renowned for his social media project of posting images of Indigenous peoples of Canada.
Another author selected in the official Canadian delegation is Catherine Hernandez, who describes herself on her website as "a proud queer woman of color" of Filipino, Spanish, Chinese and Indian heritage and who has married into the Navajo Nation.
Her latest novel, Crosshairs (2020), is a dystopia set in the near future, where communities of color, the disabled and the LGBTQ+ are forced into concentration camps.
Hernandez points out that even though publishers are more open to including racialized, disabled or queer authors in their roster of books, increasing diversity in CanLit remains an ongoing battle. "It is still mainly performative," she told DW.
She says she is hungry to see stories written by authors from underrepresented groups celebrated for their true value, not just because everyone is "trying to tick all the right boxes, but because those stories are important; they're important for people from the mainstream world, too."
Meanwhile, publishers in Canada are also working to insure that diversity in the book industry is more than a marketing slogan.
"I would say we're nowhere near where we want to be," says David Caron, co-publisher at ECW Press, who was recently invited to discuss the topic at a roundtable on diversity organized by the Association of Canadian Publishers. "And that's a sentiment shared by a vast majority of my colleagues," adds Caron. "So we're all working hard to try to make sure that underrepresented voices are published."
The publishing industry's awareness of systemic injustice has been developing in recent times as "part of a national conversation," Caron told DW.
Beyond the international discussion sparked by the killing of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement, Canada also recently started addressing the impact of European colonial powers on Indigenous communities, among others through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, which was active from 2008 to 2015. The commission came to the conclusion that the mandatory boarding school system for Indigenous children — which removed them from their families, deprived them of their ancestral languages and in many cases exposed them to physical and sexual abuse — amounted to cultural genocide.
"The publishing industry from that moment thought a lot more about what it was doing to support Indigenous voices. Not only in terms of authors being published, but also in terms of people working in publishing," says Caron.
Another aspect that is specific to Canada — as opposed to the United States' concept of the "melting pot," where all cultural differences are expected to gel — is that multiculturalism has been a guiding political concept since the 1960s-70s, as emphasized by Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau (father of the current prime minister, Justin Trudeau).
In one notable speech from 1971, Trudeau stated: "There are few policies potentially more disastrous for Canada than to tell all Canadians that they must be alike. There is no such thing as a model or ideal Canadian," he said. "A society which emphasizes uniformity is one which creates intolerance and hate."
Caron is of the generation who grew up with that Canadian ideal of embracing diversity, "but yet, here I am, still a product of systemic biases that are throughout our country and in our industry, and we're trying to create change within that." The ideas that were already promoted five decades ago can be called "the start of it," he says. "But we're in a place where we've got a long way to go."