Léonicka Valcius on #DiverseCanLit

Interview by 
Rachel Thompson

Léonicka Valcius is a self-described writers' champion and readers' advocate who literally wrote the hashtag on diverse Canadian literature. She works inside the publishing industry, as a book buyer for Scholastic Canada. And she'll be hosting a roundtable called “Publishing (More) Diverse Canadian Stories” at the inaugural Festival of Literary Diversity in May. (Room will be represented on this panel by the interviewer, Rachel Thompson.)

You started the #DiverseCanLit Twitter chats in 2014. Why did you choose this forum and this way to frame the conversation on diversity in Canadian literature?

I had actually been talking about diversity for a while before that. What I found was that every time the conversation would have to start with the basics: like, What is diversity? What do we mean by that word? What does it mean in the Canadian context? Why is it important? After doing that a few times, I got tired. I thought there needs to be a way to move beyond that basic conversation, because after an hour, after you go through all those definitions and those basics, then your hour is up, questions need to be answered, and everyone was left with just the tip of the iceberg.

So, I was, like, how can we continue this so that we can really dig deeper and talk about the many, many layers that are included in this? Publishing is vast and complex, society is vast and complex, inequality, injustice, patriarchy, and racism, they are all vast and complex. The ways these things intersect are not really going to be addressed in a one-hour panel. This needs to be several conversations. This needs to be several conversations over a period of time. Ideally, I would love to have a coffee club where people come together and have weekly meetings and chat about this all the time, but that’s not possible because of the way the world works. I thought about [internet] forums, where you have your screen name and you would kind of live with this group of people and you develop relationships and talk about these obscure things or things that are deeply personal and deeply complicated and you would tease out the issue over several days. Then I thought, what about Twitter? That’s a way that people can jump in. That’s a way that people can continue a conversation. We’re going to have this weekly conversation about diversity, each time it’s going to be “diversity in Canadian literature” but focusing on a specific aspect. So, one day we would talk about book editing, another day we would talk about book covers, another day we would talk about publishing and marketing, another day we would discuss acquisitions, agents because there is so much.

I felt Twitter would be a good place to do that. I found, unfortunately, Twitter is very ephemeral. It’s very hard to keep a record on Twitter. I tried Storify, which worked really well at the beginning, but as the chats started to grow it became very difficult to “Storify” and time-consuming afterward. [Other solutions were] difficult to manage on my own. Because it was just me. I love that it started the conversation, but I think I need to find another platform to make it more effective. 

Right now, the hashtag still exists. I also created a handle to go with it. How it’s evolved is now people are using the hashtag to signal-boost things that are related to diversity in Canadian literature, which I think is great, because I’m very solution-oriented. It’s important to say, Here are the problems, but if you’re not providing a solution to go along with it, you’re just whining. I love that it has become a place that people can share tools they found and writing opportunities … to share advice, agency resources.

That's great. It’s true, Room uses the hashtag to signal boost diverse writers we publish. What other good things have come out of #DiverseCanLit?

It’s important to frame the diversity discussion in Canada as Canadian-specific. #DiverseCanLit actually predates #WeNeedDiverseBooks. But, because We Need Diverse Books is based in the U.S., it has gotten more visibility, which is fine. However, I’m always wary of using U.S. data and U.S. methods then trying to extrapolate them for the Canadian context—because it is different. There are specific things in our history, there are specific things in our demographics, in the way our population is spread over this territory, the way our immigration patterns have shifted and evolved over time, the way we conceive ourselves as a people—like, the stories we tell ourselves about what it means to be Canadian. These are very specific. And I think because of that, we either use U.S. data to either say, “Hey, look how terrible it is in the U.S., we don’t have that issue here,” or we try to fit ourselves into a U.S. mold that won’t work for us. I think what’s useful is #DiverseCanLit kinda gives people permission to think about it specifically in the Canadian context, which I think is important.

You’ve said "it’s not enough to simply rehash a 'Why is diversity important?' panel every year,” and now you’re hosting a panel called “Publishing (More) Diverse Canadian Stories at the Festival of Literary Diversity” this year. What are your hopes to move the dialogue further along at this festival and at this panel?

Publishing (More) Diverse Stories

I’m going to treat this as a workshop. Here we are as people working within the industry, all understanding that this is important. Here we are as professionals. We all agree that this is important. We want to make this work. What are the successes that we have had so far, where we have done something great that we can use as a model for others? And what are the true challenges we have had? If we go on the assumption that we all know this is important and we have all tried to do it, so what is stopping us? What have been the roadblocks? And then putting all our minds together—if these are the roadblocks, then what can we do to overcome that? This is why I’m so excited about the panel. I’m excited to see who is in the audience. People in the audience will be invited to share an experience or ask questions.

I don’t think the Canadian publishing landscape is very competitive—it isn’t cutthroat or proprietary, simply because we’re very small. We are all trying to make the industry better. We are all trying to make more money. We are clearly not reaching a huge swath of the audience. How are we missing such a huge section of our population? We cannot as an industry decide that they are not worth reaching. How can we put our heads together and make it work?

You work as a book buyer for Scholastic. What opportunities for change have you found from your work inside "the industry”?

It has taught me a lot and given me insider information. I know what the conversations are. It makes me less quick to assume that people are being malicious. There are so many people that have to sign off on a “yes.” There are so many factors that have gone into that “yes” or “no”. It has made me aware that it’s not personal—it’s just business. However, it’s also made me aware that the business is run by people. People make their decisions based on their knowledge, but also on their biases—things that have been passed on as “business sense” for ages, and ages, and ages. Something that you were taught, and I was taught, and the people before us were taught, and the people who taught them were also taught that this is the way things were done for a business reason. When, actually, if they examine it a bit, it’s not necessarily a business reason, but something that was assumed to be the best way to do things.

I love my work here. I love the conversations that we have. I love the honesty behind it. There was one book, where I said, “I cannot purchase this book; it is offensive to me. We cannot carry it.” And the answer was, “Okay. That’s fine. But you need to replace that revenue.”

That’s a real conversation. It makes sense. If we cannot carry this thing, because we have a moral objection to it. That is perfectly fine. However, the business needs to continue. Therefore, you need to find a substitute that will bring in at least as much as that thing that you were objecting to. That has taught me quite a bit. It has also taught me that if there’s a book I love, I have to sell it to everyone. Not just people within the company but people say we need diverse books and this is what we want, but at the end of the day, the sales have to show it. So, you need to sell it to the customer.

Selling to the customer is easy, but also difficult. You have to anticipate the customer’s objections and biases. There is a lot of reticence within our industry. We have become really risk averse. We say, “You want another celebrity cookbook?”—which are great, I’m not saying that they’re not—rather than saying, “Here’s a thing, you’ll actually love it, and let me tell you why you’ll love it.” I understand. It takes more work to do that. But it’s important. If you believe in your list [of books] then you’ll do it. You’ll see which books the company as a whole are going to push because we believe in it. They will put everything into it and all of a sudden it will come out like a dark horse and people will say, “What’s that book about?” “I dunno, but the buzz has been amazing!” So, it’s possible when there is company buy-in. It’s just done. How are we going to invest in doing this for books that are under-represented?

Isn't some of this related to the whole mythology around a “relatable” story, which really means relatable to a narrow segment of society?

That’s where assumptions come in. The idea that readers are generally middle-aged, white, suburban, middle-class, educated women. That this is our general reader. You have that in mind and you’re marketing to that person and you’re ignoring everybody else. I’m not saying don’t do target marketing. I’m saying, acknowledge that you’re going to market to that white woman one way and that you’re also going to market to that black woman in one way, and you’re also going to target that middle-eastern man in another way. To pretend that those people do not exist is leaving money on the table. It’s as simple as that. It’s mind-boggling to me that there isn’t more investment. Even if they assumed that those people can’t read. Why wouldn’t you try to make them readers? It’s not like books are a premium product that only certain people can access. Even from a business perspective, diversity is a good idea.

What’s next for you?

I’m working on speaking more about this elsewhere, and maybe working more with companies on this. If companies are really struggling, maybe it’s worthwhile to create custom solutions. Maybe there are specific issues in your company. Maybe there are policies that need to change. Maybe there are structures that need to shift. I’m also interested in learning more about the industry. I’m going to Book Expo America this year. I know I said previously that Canada has a very specific context, and I stand by that. However, the Canadian and U.S. industries are very tied together. It’s important for me for my own career growth the understand the U.S. market. To understand what makes it tick and understand how different from the Canadian market it is.

What are you reading right now?

I’m reading through the latest Room and I’m loving it. I’m reading a book to review—that’s work. And I’m also reading more comics. This is the first year I’ve started reading comics, because I’ve always loved comic book characters as a kid, but never really went to the movies. Now that I live closer to downtown and have a comic bookshop fairly close to me, and graphic novels have seen a huge boom in the market, I thought that it would be beneficial for me to read more of that. They’re a really difficult form to get into, but I’m enjoying it.

Any comics, in particular, that stand out for you right now?

Five minutes ago, I bought five different ones: Monstress, Bitch Planet, Sex Criminals, Rat Queens, and RunLoveKill. I’m looking forward to those. I read this really cute one called Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur. I read the first three, but I’m going to wait for the compiled version because I find the single issues are way too small and I read them in five minutes, so I’m left feeling very teased. I would prefer to get the compiled version. Give me at least 150 pages to read!<

Author, editor, and member of the Room collective, Rachel Thompson, sends out free weekly letters to writers to help illuminate their writing lives. Sign up on Lit Writers.

 

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