Amplifying the language of inclusion

Photo courtesy of LiterAsian

A well-known staple of Vancouver’s literary festivals, LiterAsian returns for its eleventh season from May 4–27. This year’s festival examines how literature contributes to the cultural and social understanding of inclusivity.

With the theme, “finding our voices and sharing our stories,” LiterAsian 2023 will take discussions of Asian Canadian representation in literature off the pages and into community dialogues, encouraging festival attendees to recognize how inclusion is tied to representation and rooted in language.

Literature and inclusion

While past iterations of the festival have showcased a similar theme, this year’s line-up of writers with diverse styles and genres hopes to bring fresh perspectives to the connections between literature and inclusion. The 14 featured storytellers’ fields include poetry, fiction, and documentary writing, including memoirs and other narratives of the past.

As with the diverse genres showcased, the writers themselves embody a rich variety of lived experiences that will contribute to discussing how literature can be a tool for countering racism.

One of the featured writers is Hieu Pham-Fraser, author of The Little Girl (Friesen Press, 2022) and a school administrator. She welcomes this gathering of Asian voices, particularly in an industry where such voices still struggle with being heard.

“Traditional publishers tend to favour more ‘palatable works’ that appease and appeal to the mindsets of the dominant culture,” Pham-Fraser says, highlighting the challenges Asian Canadian writers face when trying to get published.

Similarly, David Ly, author of the poetry collections Mythical Man (finalist for the 2021 ReLit Award) and Dream of Me as Water (Palimpsest Press, 2023) points out that even when minority writers are given space to express themselves, they may still be limited in what stories they can share.

“One of the greatest problems that any marginalized writer faces is being pigeonholed into a box where readers only want them to write about their trauma,” Ly says.

These challenges underline the importance of this festival in providing a space for examining and diversifying practices of inclusion.

An education in empathy

Pham-Fraser, along with fellow writers Sharon Lee and Winnie L. Cheung, will be part of the panel “Words and Borders: Common Threads of Migration and Resilience” on May 14 at the Vancouver International Centre for Contemporary Asian Art. By focusing on themes of migration, memory, and home, this panel will investigate how narrating memories, including intergenerational ones, can lead to communal healing of past injustices.

For Pham-Fraser, the language of inclusion begins with protecting some of the most important but overlooked words – names. Inspired by her work as an educator, The Little Girl portrays how being forced to anglicize one’s name contributes to the painful experience of identity loss. To counter such practices, Pham-Fraser’s work highlights the power of literature in developing the core skill involved in empathy: imagination.

“It is through the medium of stories and storytelling that we all can be introduced to another perspective and way of being,” she says. “We need literature to be the springboard for reflective and critical thinking; otherwise, we will only perpetuate the racist structures we are born into.”

While The Little Girl was written as children’s literature with illustrations by Akemi, its use as an anti-racism teaching tool has expanded beyond kindergarten classrooms and into intermediate and post-secondary settings. Pham-Fraser attributes this broad application to the book’s wide-ranging themes, including identity, courage, implicit bias, and microaggressions.

Finding inclusion in the difficult

Discussion on inclusion will also take place in the panel “’How Do You Feel?’ The Aesthetic and Rhythmic Kindness of Poetry” with Vancouver’s Poet Laureate Fiona Tinwei Lam moderating and four other poets, including Ly, participating. The focus of this panel, which takes place on May 6 at the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden, is how poetic forms generate different worldviews, perhaps ones that are kinder and more empathetic.

Not only does Ly’s poetry express kindness as self-care, but he also believes that the slowness of the poetic form generates kindness towards oneself.

“The slow, drawn-out pacing of my poems emanates how being kind to yourself isn’t a process that is to be rushed or achieved quickly; rather, an experience you have to be generous enough to yourself to have,” Ly says.

For Ly, the way in which poetry requires time is also how it can foster an inclusive attitude.

Rather than turning away from the difficulties of understanding poetry, Ly suggests that being accepting of such challenges is itself a practice of inclusion.

“Isn’t one of the bases of being more inclusive taking the time to understand what you think is ‘different’ or ‘too difficult’?” Ly asks. “Poetry has the potential to allow readers to sit with a text and read and work through it at their own pace to see what conclusions they themselves can draw from it.”

In addition to a third panel on craftsmanship in storytelling, LiterAsian also welcomes attendees to book signings, writing workshops, and a fundraiser event, “Wine & Words: Dimsum with the Authors,” that involves indulging in food, readings, and auctions. Celebration is, after all, just as important as earnest discussions when it comes to diversifying the literary world.

“I believe if people can find joy in their time at the event, the possibilities are endless, so let’s start with fun and joy,” Pham-Fraser says.

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