When asked what Canadian literature means to her, Shazia Hafiz Ramji, an emerging writer and University of British Columbia (UBC) Creative Writing Masters student, ponders for a moment.
“It means so many different things,” she says.
This is a main topic Ramji is interested in exploring further as a panelist at a discussion panel entitled Refuse: CanLit in Ruins later this month at the Vancouver Public Library (VPL) Central Branch.
Ramji has been published in several magazines and recently published her first book of poetry titled Port of Being. She is completing her MFA in Creative Writing at UBC, where she has also written essays, criticism and is currently working on a novel.
While publishing her own works, Ramji has also spent a large amount of her career working as an editor and creative writing instructor. She says all of this experience has given her an insight into the world of Canadian literature and the problems it currently faces.
“I think a lot of people don’t know what’s happening in Canadian literature and it worries me.”
CanLit – stuck in the past
In the late 1950s, the Royal commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and Sciences – often referred to as the Massey Commission – was created to help develop a Canadian identity, distinct from American and British culture. This ultimately led to the formation of the Canada Council for the Arts that aimed to support young authors and arts professionals, Ramji explains.
“Writing in Canada – the kinds we might consider literary[…] – has always been tied to a colonial project of nationhood. And so, when we talk about writing in Canada, and CanLit especially, we are also always talking about the legacy of colonialism here on these lands,” reads the introduction of Refuse: CanLit in Ruins, the book in discussion.
Fast forward to the 21st century and although books and authors have changed, the contributors of this book feel that many of the foundational ideas that define Canadian literature as an industry appear frozen in time, says Ramji. She also feels that this is contrary to Canada’s multicultural principles in the face of increasing globalization. While Canada continues to pride itself as being a country of diversity and inclusivity, in Canadian literature, recent scandals regarding appropriation have raised controversy about the state of its literature as we know it, says Ramji.
“The way these controversies relate to the 1950s nation-building project of Canadian literature and Canadian identity, is that they still emphasize the dominant narratives of white male writers and established writers, who hold positions of power and privilege, and that’s what Canadian literature has come to be defined by, and that’s what many of us are still up against,” says Ramji.
Paving a way to a new future
Ramji’s thoughts appear to be shared among many others in the CanLit community. Many of Canada’s writers and creative thinkers are calling for discussions such as this one that focus on exposing the injustices within the CanLit industry in hopes of creating a brighter, more diverse space for future writers.
“Speaking with younger writers, I want them to be able to feel like there is space for them, and that we are able to make new literature despite all things crumbling right now. I want it to be a hopeful place,” Ramji says.
The anthology Refuse: CanLit in Ruins, edited by three women, explores these thoughts and is the inspiration for the discussion panel later this month. The book is a collaborative work featuring many different authors to provide a context in which to discuss the history, controversies and future of CanLit. Ramji is acknowledged in the book for her own work and activism that expands upon what she deems the important and relevant concepts.
“Is there a sense of duty that writers feel towards Canada in the sense of a nation? How do Indigenous writers conceive of ‘Canadian’ in terms of Canadian literature? How do immigrant and diaspora writers such as myself perceive Canadian identity and Canadian literature?” asks Ramji.
These are just a few of the many questions that Ramji is interested in discussing at the panel.
Refuse: CanLit in Ruins lecture and panel discussion will be held on Feb. 27 at VPL’s Central branch. More information can be found here: www.vpl.bibliocommons.com/events/5c41174d06c1d23500c96fc6