In the most diverse city on earth, publishing isn’t the most diverse industry. And I’m a straight, white guy myself, though I’ve had the privilege to collaborate with some strong Indigenous and racialized voices.
So when the International Festival of Authors, Festival of Literary Diversity, and Writer’s Union of Canada called a panel on The Writer’s Voice at Harbourfront last week, I showed up to listen, listen, listen. Creativity is so often most vibrant at the margins, not the mainstream.
I came away with some new authors to read and some fresh perspectives to digest. But also, with a recommitment to my calling as an editor.
Lee Maracle, the celebrated Sto:lo writer, most recently of Celia’s Song, was joined on the panel by three newer Toronto voices: Farzana Doctor, whose All Inclusive is hot off the press; Carrianne Leung, author of The Wondrous Woo; and Vivek Shraya, a multimedia artist and author of She of the Mountains.
All four recounted struggles with the politics of readability. They felt pressured to spoon-feed a mainstream audience, as though readers couldn’t be expected to do a little work for themselves.
Maracle expressed frustration at having to explain perfectly ordinary concepts like the Circle. Look it up on the Internet, she suggested. What’s wrong with reading a passage you don’t understand, wondered Shraya. There’s a richness to that experience, too. Doctor felt ambivalent about the glossary she’d ending up including in her first book. If you don’t know what a pakora is, she said, my question is, why not?
And then there’s positioning the book for the market. It’s not that she minds being referred to as a Chinese Canadian author, reflected Leung, but she does stop and ask when and by whom. These are Canadian stories, too.
This was an unsettling discussion for a sometimes too comfortable Canadian. And my ears really pricked up when the authors turned to their experiences of being edited.
Doctor had had the smoothest go of it. When she passed her manuscript in to the editor, she felt comforted to know it was in good hands.
Maracle, in contrast, usually spends the editing phase with her heart in her throat. But they’re different roles. Let the editor edit, she suggested, just like you’d let a film director direct. When it’s working well, they’re your ally in getting the reader to fall into the story so deep they can’t climb out till it’s over.
Shraya was less deferential. It takes such a team – informal and formal – to shape a book, that it feels a bit strange to have just his own name on the cover. But sometimes, the writer is right and the editor is wrong. An author shouldn’t hesitate to push back.
It was Leung who left me with the most memorable image. Sending your manuscript to an editor is like dropping off your child on the first day of school. Not everyone’s going to respond to my baby the way I do, she said. But I hope you love it, too.
What an awesome responsibility, every time.