Open Letters and Closed Doors:
How the Steven Galloway open letter dumpster fire forced me to acknowledge the racism and entitlement at the heart of CanLit
by Jen Sookfong Lee // web exclusive
Stress rashes. Insomnia. Blind rage. This is how I spent a good portion of 2016.
It’s a funny thing: last year, in most ways that were personal and intimate, was a good one for me. My latest novel, The Conjoined, was published by the wonderful ECW Press and reviewed well. I finished writing two non-fiction books. I started writing a poetry collection. I became the Fiction Mentor at The Writers’ Studio Online. My son and I marked our first full year in a new home.
But when the UBC Accountable open letter was published, my entire professional world disintegrated.
In brief, 91 Canadian authors have signed an open letter, published on a website called “Open Letter to UBC: Fairness for Writer Steven Galloway.” The letter, which was organized by some of Galloway’s famous friends, called for an independent investigation into the process through which UBC fired Galloway from his position as Chair of the Creative Writing program. The letter was criticized by many, including other authors who felt the letter ignored the women who initially made allegations against Galloway and pitted the powerful (prize-winning, established authors) against the less-powerful (students, emerging authors).
In the interests of disclosure (and, dare I say, accountability), my connections to the Steven Galloway case are the following:
- I did my undergraduate degree with Steven at UBC. He and I, along with other now-published authors, were in the same 200-level introduction workshop in Creative Writing from 1994 to 1995. (We were never friends, although modestly friendly over the years as our paths crossed professionally many times.)
- I have never taught in the Creative Writing program at UBC, only through the Continuing Studies department.
- One of the complainants is a friend of mine.
That open letter, which many have already written about, put me in a very strange position. It was signed by many of my literary heroes, writers I have loved since I was 14 years old. It was also signed by writers I would call my peers—mid-career authors who are working very hard to build on their successes. And yet, it ignored the voices of my friends and students, people I care about in my real life. I knew where my sympathies and politics and ethics lay, but why did I feel so shitty?
This represents a very serious and public fracture in CanLit’s persona. For a long time, we laboured under the assumption that most Canadian authors are left-leaning and progressive, or whatever you want to call people who typically advocate for social change and inclusion. The Galloway open letter, which used fame to recruit signatories and then used that same fame to call for a skewed version of justice (or due process) at the expense of the women who made complaints, finally revealed that this really isn’t the case, that CanLit has never been about the diversity of voices or even fairness. Which is something that I’ve known for over a decade, but had denied to other people and, mostly, to myself.
My first taste of this was when my agent was showing the manuscript of my first novel to publishers. One of the most prominent editors in Canada, one who is continually and publicly lauded for her career, told us that she just couldn’t justify taking on “one more Asian woman writing about her dead grandfather.” This was 2004, when the number of Asian women publishing fiction in Canada could be counted on one hand.
As the years went on, I was constantly placed in white-dominated literary spaces (readings, writers festivals, etc.), which made me feel both visible and invisible, as well as profoundly uncomfortable. For a long time, I thought this was my failure, that I should just believe that I belonged and not be so neurotic. But in these spaces, I was often mistaken for Madeleine Thien or Evelyn Lau, or asked questions like, “Why can’t we get the Chinese Canadian community to engage more in culture?” Once, I was scheduled for an event and, upon opening a local newspaper, found that it had advertised door prizes for anyone who attended wearing an “Oriental costume.” And, of course, there was that time a very famous male author touched me without consent at an industry party and paraphrased a well-known line from Full Metal Jacket, often used by men with Asian fetishes.
The blow that hurt the most? When I was told by one of my former editors that the novel I was writing didn’t “build on my existing audience”, I asked if it was because that particular novel wasn’t centered on the Chinese Canadian experience. She paused and had to admit that was what she meant. I abandoned that novel, too demoralized to look at it again. I still haven’t reread it, 10 years later.
So, when the privilege that some authors enjoy became so nakedly obvious during the open letter chaos, I felt like the world was finally seeing what I already knew, which is that CanLit has always been heavily weighted to a certain kind of author writing a certain kind of narrative. That I, as a woman of colour who writes novels that often explore the backyard oppressions in our Canadian cities (not always a popular topic with those who would rather blindly believe there are no such oppressions), had never felt belonging. However, this disclosure made me feel not at all better, as you might expect, but worse. I couldn’t deny it to myself anymore. I had to finally admit that I had been working in an industry that had never held a space open for me. I had to bash that space open for myself, until my fists were bloody and raw. I did it, because I truly believed this was just the way it was and I’m a scrappy East Van girl. It wasn’t fun. This is not the CanLit experience I want for new writers.
Now, months later, Men’s Rights Activists, who often post cruel and threatening messages on social media, have come for the complainants and, once in a while, for me. I’ve tweeted some things in anger, but I stand by them. I understand that people will take sides with any controversial issue, especially one as intimate and painful as the Steven Galloway case. That’s just human. What’s not acceptable is the wielding of power—conferred upon these authors at least partially by a publishing industry that has never been woke to much of anything—in a way that silences women who make allegations of abuse and assault and leaves them open to harassment. While I didn’t expect this from CanLit, perhaps I should have, given my experiences. That is the most upsetting thing of all.
UBC Accountable has shown me and everyone else that we have a lot of work to do still. Which is most certainly not a gift, but is, at the very least, honest, and maybe all the accountability we’re going to get. My new publisher, ECW Press, has been so great in all ways and my relationship with everyone there has been overwhelmingly positive. My goal, as a teacher and as an author, is to channel that positivity and make sure no other new writer feels unwelcome or undervalued or unheard. Which is as it should be.
Jen Sookfong Lee was born and raised in Vancouver’s East Side, and she now lives with her son in North Burnaby. Her books include The Conjoined, The Better Mother, a finalist for the City of Vancouver Book Award, The End of East, and Shelter, a novel for young adults. She appears regularly on CBC Radio One as a contributor for The Next Chapter. Jen teaches writing at The Writers’ Studio Online with Simon Fraser University. You can follow her on Twitter @JenSookfongLee.