An ever shrinking margin

Brian Lam (Arsenal Pulp), Rolf Maurer (New Star Books) and Allan Cho (Rice Paper magazine) are three of the Lower Mainland’s leading publishers in Asian Canadian, POC and LGBTQ literature and arts. All three have seen the changes in both the market and challenges of previously marginalized artists, and have shared their insight into the past and near future of these works and the people who create them.

All three publishers have seen an internal evolution within the publishing and arts world where artists have begun to boldly step forward and consumers have welcomed them with
open arms.

An advancing era

What we have seen in recent years is a new generation of previously marginalized communities feeling in a way that they now have permission to tell their stories. That has been very positive for the movement,” says Lam. “Historically, there have been communities such as the Indigenous community and also trans writers [who felt ostracized], but I think both of those communities have found their voice over the years and writers from those communities have found a place on our platform in particular, so I think things are looking up.”

As these communities continue to push forward with their stories, the wider consumer public has made it clear that they wish to experience more diversity in the literary world.

“I know that different people’s stories have been garnering a lot of interest, and there is no question in my mind that it’s been going on for quite a while now,” says Maurer, who also volunteers in a bookstore. “Especially when writers get out of their own little neighbourhood, within the arts, writing and publishing community there is a lot of receptivity towards differences”.

The path is not easy and success is never guaranteed especially when up and coming artists clash against the big names of the genre.

“Kazuo Ishiguro and Haruki Murakami are now well-known Asian writers in the English-speaking world, but it’s an uphill climb for Asian-Canadian writers despite being constantly told that they live in a land of opportunities and pluralistic values,” Cho says. “The Canadian literary and publishing industry still has a long way to go, and this is indicative in the deflated hopes of many marginalized writers in the mainstream and lost in the wilderness of the Canadian literary world. There is a collective lack of understanding of diverse cultures by literary critics. The power of these few critics can arbitrarily decide which works will remain invisible.”

New homes and new roles

According to Lam, many smaller publishing houses have made themselves the best routes for local artists and storytellers.

“As far as we [at Arsenal Pulp] are concerned, I think there is ample room for Asian and other voices to be heard, especially with indie presses, though I can’t speak for large multinational companies. [As far as] our indie publishing world is concerned those voices are more than welcome,” he says

Cho also points to the history of various independent organizations furthering the cause of writers.

“I see concerted efforts such as the Asian-American Writers Workshop, Asian-Canadian Writers Workshop and the Vancouver Asian Film Festival as attempts to give journalists/writers/cultural producers of Asian ancestry a spotlight to experiment and hone their crafts through a supportive network. They are still relatively recent organizations and are a temporary solution to a much larger issue at stake.”

Still, he continues, new challenges emerge when these artists enter the wider industry.

“The success of Asian-Canadian writers has also produced a strange and unintended consequence of identity crisis among Asian-Canadian writers,” he says. “Once an Asian-Canadian author has achieved status, they need to carefully choose the path that they take on the course of being a ‘serious’ writer in the Canadian literary mainstream without being held back by specific labels.”

Cho believes some writers carefully shed their ‘Asian-tag’ in order to suit the marketability of their brand. In a way, it reflects what some have called the ‘Bamboo-ceiling’ (term first coined by Jane Hyun). He also sees a troubling trend that Asian journalists in Canada are limited in their roles and are often reporting or writing about ‘ethnic issues.’

“This is a complex issue, of course, and part of that could simply be the reason that Asian-Canadian writers are sometimes interested in narrowly writing and telling their stories about issues that deal with diversity within the mainstream,” says Cho.

Shared experience and a well-lit path

When posed with the question of how an evolving industry will shape and groom new artists, Maurer looks to the past.

“I think that is part of the ongoing built-in tension that the arts have to resolve, that writers have to resolve,” he says. “I think it’s just a case of looking at someone with an experience parallel to yours and you learn from those people. Writers like James Baldwin and Franz Fanon have a lot to say to people of all backgrounds and descriptions but particularly to people whose lived experiences reflect the impact of colonialism.”