Reading Practice: Emily Dundas Oke & Massy Books

Interview by 
Hope Lauterbach
Emily posed next to a painting on the ground

We need books now, more than ever. Reading, by nature, is a solitary activity, but sharing stories is a shared tradition. Since book delivery was declared an essential service, local bookstores have continued to make sure that the public has access to books. I got a chance to speak with Emily Dundas Oke, the media manager and curator at Massy Books, about the store, community and favourite reads. Massy Books has been offering free local book delivery for orders placed on their online store since mid-March when their storefront closed. 

[This interview was conducted via email and has been lightly edited for clarity.] 


ROOM: How did you get involved with Massy Books? 


EMILY DUNDAS OKE: I first “met” Massy Books by visiting the storefront on weekends and continually falling in love over and over again with the selection, particularly the Indigenous literature section, and the calmness of the store. In 2019, I was invited to join the Indigenous Brilliance reading series collective as I had previously organized arts & literary events with Indigenous Brilliance co-curator jaye simpson, and I’ve had the pleasure of organizing with Massy Books owner Patricia Massy through the collective for over a year. Together with Room Magazine, Massy Books organizes a reading series that raises the voices of Indigenous women, Two Spirit, trans and queer writers, and that quickly expanded into a performance series as well. Through our organizing relationship, I have grown to admire Patricia’s community commitments and vision, and was so glad when she invited me into a staff position with Massy. 


ROOM: How has your background as an artist and curator influenced your roIe?


EDO: As Massy Books continues to be a cultural hub for many authors, artists, and not-for-profits, the Gallery and artistic side of things was ready to expand. I am a curator who so happened to be welcomed into literary communities through Indigenous Brilliance and my own love of reading. Working between those two forms at a place like Massy serves emerging and experimental practices well. I believe the skills developed as an arts and cultural worker or freelance practitioner, the really fun (read: broad) skills you develop on the go such as event management, design, managing budgets and grants, are applicable across fields. Curation came naturally from my tendency to want to uphold the artists I was learning from as I was developing my own artistic practice. It also seemed like a very critical and necessary bridge between visual arts and writing, and a place for disciplinary expectations to both melt and emerge anew. As Patricia’s vision for Massy Books is really about upholding each other beyond disciplinary boundaries, I’m thrilled to be able to work with artists and creative practitioners through a variety of platforms. 


ROOM: What insights on community have you gained through your experiences working with Massy Books?


EDO: Be responsive. My first week working with Massy Books was the first week in British Columbia where storefronts were closing due to social distancing measures. As such, our world rapidly changed and Patricia was immediately considering other businesses, community members, and not-for-profits that we could uphold, collaborate with, and be in contact with. Being in community means being both highly inventive as new challenges arise, and ensuring that our memory serves to carry forward lessons learnt and our original visions. 

Stepping away from the recent Covid circumstances and thinking beyond that, I am continually blown away by Patricia’s thoughtfulness, care, and sense of responsibility. Massy Books sells incredible books and offers perfect recommendations, yet it continually extends thinking holistically. I’ve learnt that thinking about “types” of communities (artistic vs. literary vs. social justice) often turns out to be a reductive ghost. There are different voices and people with distinct power, skills, and capacity for upholding those voices. I’m learning how to maintain long term visioning while responding to daily flux. 


ROOM: In light of the current social isolation, how do you stay grounded?


EDO: I spend time every morning in silence reading Indigenous literature. I know this in itself is a privilege: to have time, space, silence, and access to reading materials. I often wake up with anxiety about the number of things that demand attention and care. Throughout the day, as the need for grounding continues to be present, stories that I’ve read way long ago reemerge. I try to quell the anxiety of acting or not being able to act by reading stories, knowing that they will be called forth in my memory at another time they are needed. Beyond that, I try to have a semblance of a schedule that includes food, being outside and moving, and laughter. In an odd sense, I am grateful for my responsibilities to others during this time, such as my dog, feeding my sourdough starter, and people I am organizing with, as otherwise, I am not sure I would be responsible towards myself. 


ROOM: What are some of your go-to books for a comfort read?


EDO: Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony crosses my mind almost daily. She reminds us of the necessity of continual inventiveness in regards to ceremony and the healing nature of stories. 

Leanne Simpson’s As We Have Always Done has guided the way for so many of us. Firmly rooted in her own nation’s cosmology and land-based practices, she speaks of daily embodied resurgent practices. 

I love a good zine, and am excited about the release of “Together Apart: Queer Indigeneities” Issue 4: Bodies, edited by Brandi Bird. It’s nice to feel surrounded by a cacophony of voices, and this zine, which first came into the world last year after a symposium curated by Whess Harman and Kali Spitzer, is doing vital work for our communities and includes brilliant work. 


ROOM: What advice would you give someone wanting to get more connected in their community?


EDO: The communities I have been a part of have been extremely generous with me towards welcoming me in, sharing knowledge and building platforms. I started working and volunteering in communities (artistic & literary) early on almost out of necessity, and am very thankful I did. Having mentors has been the biggest gift, so having a sense of how mentorship is structured into publications, events, organizations or otherwise that you are interested in could be a good telltale sign of how it can support you in building connections. Growing into a world where work/life are not easily distinguished can come with some uncomfortableness, but also means your professional community can be whoever you invite in. Collaborate! I wouldn’t say “say yes” to every opportunity, as capacity is very real and important, but certainly take the strange and wild opportunities that you don’t think you are the best fit for. Those places that spur a lovely amount of hesitation and inconsistency can introduce you to new thinking and brilliant people. 


ROOM: And lastly, a question for all of you readers.  How do you consume stories as a practice and form of connection? 


Share your answers on social media with the hashtag #roomreadingpractice!

Hope Lauterbach is a Zambian-born Canadian poet and writer. She is passionate about the diversification of speculative fiction and is currently writing her first novel.

“It's Canadian, feminist, and one of my favourite things ever.”

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