After CanLit

TOK Symposium helps writers navigate the changing landscape of Canadian literature

Zalika Reid-Benta is organizing the TOK Symposium as part of Diaspora Dialogues.

Supplied Photo

Diaspora Dialogues is a Toronto-based organization that runs professional development events for emerging writers and publishes TOK Magazine, a platform for new Canadian writing.

They believe it’s time for a conversation about what counts as literature in Canada, and they are hoping that the TOK symposium, a two-day event for emerging writers they are hosting in Winnipeg on Nov. 9 and 10, is a place that conversation can happen.

Zalika Reid-Benta is the program manager of Diaspora Dialogues and is organizing the symposium.

“We are dedicated to facilitating the creation and presentation of new fiction, poetry and drama that reflect the complexity of Canada through the eyes and voices of its richly diverse communities,” she says.

The TOK Symposium is a free event. The first day is professional development workshops focused on publishing and self-promotion, and the second day features a panel discussion called Blowing Up CanLit. Along the way, participants will have the opportunity to network with publishing professionals and authors.

Reid-Benta says what Canadian audiences and writers want to be reading and writing is shifting.

“In the past year, Diaspora Dialogues has seen an increase in speculative fiction and young adult fiction submissions to our mentorship programs,” she says.

“Applicants stated the desire to explore issues, such as anti-Blackness, intergenerational trauma, anxiety and mental health through the lens of fantasy and sci-fi or from the perspective of teens representative of their cultural and/or racial background.

“The desire to write and the desire to read a diversity of genres is very present in Canada. Yet we have also found that a stigma surrounding writing and genres that don’t conform to ‘literary fiction’ still exists.”

These are the sorts of conversations that students like Megan Linton, who studies at the University of Winnipeg, want to have. She grew up as an enthusiastic reader of CanLit, but the spate of CanLit controversies over the last couple years – the UBC Steven Galloway harassment case, the list of literary luminaries, including Margaret Atwood, who signed a letter in his defence, and the Joseph Boyden cultural appropriation scandal – have complicated her feelings for the authors she once loved.

Linton says that Canadian literature has become trapped in an academic discourse that doesn’t want to acknowledge the ways that privilege and power influence who and what gets published. She wishes CanLit would embrace a more diverse group of
readers and writers.

“What actually is CanLit, and who makes up the bodies of it? ... Where can we find our voices within there? It’s so
limited and narrow.”

She says she wants “a different form of CanLit, more grassroots, celebrating those authors in our community.”

Reid-Benta says the TOK Symposium is a place where this can start to happen, an attempt to “facilitate conversations about the state of CanLit, what CanLit actually means, what the writers encounter and what the agents, publishers and booksellers experience ... Our goal is to challenge archaic characterizations of CanLit and foster a diversity of thought and expression.”

The TOK Symposium is free to attend, but advance registration is required. For further information, contact [email protected].

Published in Volume 73, Number 8 of The Uniter (November 1, 2018)

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