Whose Story is it? In Conversation with Alicia Elliott

Interview by 
Chelene Knight

Our managing editor Chelene Knight spoke with Alicia Elliott about what it’s like being an Indigenous writer in the CanLit world, and her thoughts on authenticity when telling an experience that isn’t your own.

ROOM: Your essay “On Seeing and Being Seen: The Difference Between Writing With Empathy and Writing With Love” [originally published as "On Seeing and Being Seen: Writing With Empathy" in Write] was eye-opening for me on so many levels. When you said “I’d never seen a girl like myself in the books I loved so much,” I was immediately connected. Why do you think it’s important for young girls to see characters that mirror themselves?

AE: I think that it’s a bit of a problem that we have media with which to measure ourselves against. It can be good when we see ourselves reflected back. But when we don’t see ourselves reflected back, it fosters this idea that we are not normal, that we are somehow wrong, that our experiences are not valid and we should be keeping them a secret. I think that when you see yourself reflected back in literature and art there’s recognition that you matter, that your experiences are valid and that you exist. Without that, we have all of these mediated images that essentially erase our existence from the spaces we occupy, the countries we live in and the lives that we lead.

ROOM: I agree. I find that if we are not seeing ourselves, in a way, it’s silencing.

In thinking about the way in which our work is read and judged (in terms of being women of colour) I sometimes feel like I am judged based on “what I am” before my work is judged on its quality or lack thereof. I know from reading your essay that you feel this way as well. Should we have to “hide who we are” just to get an honest opinion of our writing? Can you talk a bit about your experience with this?

AE: I think that all of it is connected in terms of representation because the way that POC, Indigenous people, trans people, or any marginalized people have been kept out of dominant representations in media, literature, art, and all of these things, make it so that people don’t know who we are. They have very narrow ideas of who we are, what we can achieve, of the kinds of things we are interested in, the kind of people that we are, and because of that they carry these opinions when they approach our art. So if someone says to me "why did you make this character Indigenous"—when that isn’t a central part of the story—it says to me they see Indigeneity as a very specific thing. They see it in a very limited way. They question my use of it because it doesn’t adhere to their image which they have crafted and constructed from stereotypes that have been given to them by mainstream media and by Canada. In a sense it’s all kind of connected. It makes you question yourself.

We have to figure out how to navigate our truths around what they want from us. It puts us in an awful situation. I met Leanne Simpson in an emerging Indigenous writers program run through the Banff Centre and she said she writes for Indigenous readers. It was only when she said that that I understood why I was having problems when I was writing. I wasn’t writing for Indigenous readers because the gatekeepers who are publishing are not Indigenous and I had to make sure this was appealing to them. I had to make sure my version of Indigeneity was palatable to these non-Indigenous editors so I could get my foot in the door. And when you think about it that way it’s incredibly alienating. And that’s what we have to contend with from any marginalized community.

ROOM: Yeah! It’s almost like . . . whose hands do I want my work in? You know those moments where you can change someone’s life with your story? I live for those moments.

You referenced Tania Canas’s article where she says “Diversity is a white word” and you describe diversity as the literary equivalent of “ethnic” restaurants. I find this spot on. I strongly dislike the idea of checking diversity criteria off a list versus giving people space and making sure this space is sustainable and equitable, but it seems to me the “check-boxing” is what happens in the CanLit world. How can we do better?

AE: CanLit needs to take a good hard look at itself. Who are in the positions [to make] decisions on what gets published and what doesn’t get published? What is the criteria? Is it based on the artistic merit of the work itself, or is it based on preconceived notions they have on what particular people from marginalized communities should be saying? This bothers me, especially in regards to what makes CanLit so boring. What makes CanLit so white and middle class? When you are talking about encouraging writers who are white and middle class to make their work more interesting by using other cultures as window dressing to make their stories more spicy—that’s fetishism. That’s not approaching a culture in a way that shows that you respect it and that you are doing this from a good place. I honestly believe you should be asking yourself “why am I doing this?” And if the answer is “I want to” and you don’t have anything more . . . I don’t think that’s good enough.

To truly change this you need to look at systemic stuff.  You need to look at how many POC, Indigenous people, people with different abilities, and LGBT people are in publishing houses. How many are editors? How many are agents? How many can actually take their own lived experiences and treat writers who are from other marginalized communities with the respect and dignity they deserve? Sometimes the best help is to get out of the way and make space.

ROOM: Just getting out of the way. That’s very powerful. And that ties into the whole sustainable and equitable portion of that question. How do we make space and keep space? Such an important thing to think about.

Whose story is it? What should writers be asking themselves before putting pen to paper when writing about someone else’s experience to make sure it’s written in an authentic way?

AE: Before they even think about other cultures, they need to think about themselves. If you are from a marginalized community, you can see the way that systemic oppression works in a way you cannot see when you are directly benefiting from that oppression. Whiteness makes itself invisible. So many feminist intersectional scholars have done important work on that. You need to situate yourself in terms of what privileges you have and where you are coming from. You need to do that before you start thinking about whose story you are going to write. You need to think about your position in relationship to that community. Once you do that, you can meaningfully start that process of building a relationship with that community.

If you are writing from a cultural experience that is not your own, you need to do your due diligence. In today’s age, it is so easy to talk to people over social media. All you have to do is start talking to people, and not just one person. There’s no excuse to not build relationships with communities if you are interested in telling those stories.

All of us writers should be trying to tell good stories well. You aren’t going to tell good stories well if it’s inauthentic. And it’s going to be inauthentic if you aren’t doing your research and building those relationships. These are important things that you need to do so that someone from that community can come to you and say “thank you.” That should be your end goal. Someone saying “oh my god, I know that you aren’t writing my experience, but I could recognize myself”—that is the measure of success when you are writing from another perspective. That’s what you should be aiming for.

ROOM: That is huge! You should always have a fear of getting it wrong. If you don’t initially have that fear, something isn’t right!

AE: Oh, yeah!

ROOM: The majority of the big Canadian Literary Prize winners are white. Sorry to be so blunt, but it’s true. Have you seen the article on Literistic? What are your thoughts on this?

AE: [laughs] So much of that . . . you can almost draw lines from one thing to another, essentially.

White people have been published at much higher rates, so statistically speaking they are going to have a higher chance of being published. Why? Because their opinions and views are seen as universal because they are white and whiteness is seen as universal and everyone should be trying to achieve this universality, which is whiteness. To me, all of these people being published and winning awards—also by juries who are often white—is just part of the racism of the literary industry. It’s a little bit absurd when you think about it: that these places and the people don’t have the capacity to see how this is systemic and aren’t able to trace it.

It so obvious to people who aren’t members of the Canadian elite—who aren’t benefiting from this—and it’s a mystery to them, I guess. But it’s obvious they think that writing about race is niche, not understanding that because they aren’t writing about race they are writing about race. It isn’t a concern to them. They don’t have to write about race because it’s not something in their everyday lives. It’s not something that’s bearing down on them. That’s a privilege. If you can’t see universalities across experiences regardless of where someone is situated in terms of their intersectionality, then I don’t know how to help you!

We’ve had to read white writers for centuries and we’ve still been able to connect to their work, so to assume you are emotionally unable to connect with people because you do not share their experiences is absolutely ridiculous. It boggles my mind.

ROOM: It will take a while. These conversations are so important.

When thinking about “the claustrophobic world of CanLit,” what can we do as writers to provide each other the space to breathe?

AE: We are doing that. One of the things that was most apparent to me after the fallout with UBC Accountable, and in the Indigenous community after the Boyden controversies—there is a community of women, of queer writers, of Indigenous writers who are supporting and upholding each other regardless of what the people at the top are saying. Regardless of the publishing houses, regardless of different literary magazines.

We are supporting one another emotionally, which is a big thing that often gets overlooked in terms of the emotional labour of trying to constantly explain our work, explain ourselves, and try and teach people how to appreciate us for who we are as opposed to what they want us to be. This is incredibly difficult, and just being there for one another and upholding one another’s work is so valuable. And it’s reaffirming. Magazines like Room—which give us space and encourage us to be ourselves and speak as we are—are vital. Regardless of whether the industry is willing to change, it’s going to, and we are going to change it.

ROOM: That’s really what it is. Us supporting each other. There’s this emotional weight we are carrying around all the time and knowing that we have someone who is going to listen and share our voices the way we want them shared . . . super important The CanLit world is going to have to change.

Things that shouldn’t get published sometimes get published, opinion or not. What is the ultimate responsibility of the editor?

AE: You need to think about the message you are sending with your publication. If every article is written by a white writer, you need to think about what perspective that brings to your publication. These are the voices that you are giving the opportunities to. These are the versions of stories you are putting out there as “worth publishing.” It is a very heavy burden that editors have on their shoulders in terms of choosing who to publish, choosing what stories to run, and it’s not something that should be taken lightly. It’s a responsibility, and to [handle] that responsibility well you need to be aware of the biases you may hold. You need to be aware of the bias that your writers may hold. [I'm] not necessarily saying that people aren’t allowed to say whatever they want—that’s fine, they can say whatever they want. But when you decide to publish them you are choosing that position over other potential positions on an issue. Are you okay with that?

Stories that are published have a ripple effect and really shape the way that people view the world around them. Not to scare everyone away from being an editor, but this is something you have to contend with at the end of the day. And if you are comfortable with what you have done, then there is no issue. But if you end up not being comfortable because you were too quick to publish something without checking, or you gave voice to people who essentially are hate-mongering, and then people don’t have the time or access to doublecheck those people’s claims, what’s going to happen? What are they going to do? These are the things you need to contend with.

It comes down to examining your values, because your values are going to be reflected in the pages.

ROOM: Exactly.

Chelene Knight is the managing editor of Room magazine. Her second book of poetry, Dear Current Occupant, will be published by BookThug in Spring 2018.

Alicia Elliott is a Tuscarora writer living in Brantford, Ontario. Her writing has been published in The Malahat Review, The New Quarterly, and Grain. Her essay, "A Mind Spread Out on the Ground," is currently nominated for a National Magazine Award. 

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