Usually I like to take a lot of time to process my thoughts after panels and workshops. However, with all these thoughts running around my head, I wanted to at least record some of the initial discussion that took place at the panel-cum-discussion on gatekeepers and accountability in the literary arts. This is by no means comprehensive—I’m sure I’m forgetting something and there are some things I didn’t include—as I didn’t take notes during the event.
The discussion of Literary Gatekeepers and Accountability has a lot of relevance currently in the CanLit community, and as the panel description states, “The concept of ‘accountability’ in the literary arts has become a hot-button topic, inspiring thousands of tweets, articles, and conversations.” The panelists were Carleigh Baker, Meghan Bell, Karla Comanda, Kyla Jamieson, Vici Johnstone, with Dina Del Bucchia as moderator.
If you’re not in the Canadian literary arts community, or interested in the literary arts, you may not have heard about the current debate(s). The huge one is about the firing of Steven Galloway, former head of the UBC Creative Writing program, over allegations of sexual misconduct. The initial uproar was about the lack of due process and transparency from UBC. In short, many prominent and established authors signed an open letter calling out UBC to be accountable and transparent and putting their support behind Galloway. However, the backlash from this statement was fierce, with many people expressing concern with the wording of the letter (not necessarily the message of calling UBC to task for transparency) but that it seemed to delegitimize the victims who had filed complaints, and further vilify them. TL;DR? This article in the Globe & Mail and this one in the Toronto Star sum up the controversy.
A couple audience members spoke up for the survivors, and wanted to make sure their presence was acknowledged in the room.
Another, less divisive and more recent accessibility issue related to the Growing Room festival itself. Meghan Bell was one of the panelists and spoke to the issue of accessibility, how they at Room had initially approached the topic, what they were called out on, and how they tried to rectify their mistake. When I saw the announcement about Growing Room, I noticed and was very impressed by all the ways in which Room sought to make it accessible: they were offering childcare services, American Sign Language interpreters, Active Listeners, requesting a scent-reduced perfume-free environment, explicitly noting where there were gender-neutral bathrooms, and documenting accessibility down to the width of doorways and number of steps to a building. I was astounded, and definitely inspired. This was a fantastic example to point other event organizers to.
As Meghan explained, the magazine Collective and festival organizers all discussed how they could improve accessibility, and reasoned that although not all venues would be accessible by everyone, by using donated space they would be able to have more events and pay more speakers to appear. Meghan stated she was sharing this not to justify their actions, but she wanted to put the decision into context. I really appreciated her transparency. Working with a shoestring budget is hard, and producing events is time-consuming and can be very difficult to please everyone. So when Room found out that people were expressing that this level/form of accessibility was Not Okay, they offered a livestream option, however the feedback received was that this was an unacceptable alternative. So they found a new venue and relocate all the inaccessible events. The openness, humility, transparency, and honesty that Room demonstrated was beautiful to me. The humility that Meghan expressed, and the desire not to be congratulated for “just luck” that they found a new donated venue, was staggering to me. I understand what she is saying, but I think we also need to celebrate people and groups who are doing good work, who are setting a good example of how to handle errors. If we don’t share these positive stories and examples, how will others see what can be achieved? As one audience member mentioned, by their response, Room has raised the bar for others.
One of my biggest takeaways was when Meghan said that yes, she felt defensive, but she had to acknowledge that and put it aside, and fix what was wrong. By digging in her heels and defending their wrong decisions (however well-intentioned) would further alienate those community members they sought to engage. Moving forward, she stated that next time they would reach out and ask question and preferences and help from those in that community earlier, as Vici had explained in her experience.
Vici Johnstone is the publisher of Caitlin Press, which just celebrated it’s 40th anniversary and the 1st birthday of the new imprint, Dagger Editions, for queer female writers. Vici purchased Caitlin Press 9 years ago and spoke about her responsibility as a publisher and editor to the authors and voices. She shared an anecdote of a recent manuscript where there were a number of interviews where the speaker’s first language was not English, and in their native tongue, it was common to mix pronouns. Thus, the manuscript looked like these interviewees spoke broken English. There was a clash between staying ‘true to the voice’ of the speakers or ‘cleaning up’ the text. The editor of the manuscript felt that by not cleaning up the text, they would perpetuate the stereotype of this community of peoples to be uneducated. In the end, Vici and the author went back to the interviewees and asked them what they would prefer, and the majority wanted a cleaned up version. How these interviewees wish to be presented is just as important as maintaining the voice, and ultimately it was ethical to consult the speakers in question.
Carleigh Baker, a writer and the editor of Joyland Vancouver, brought up a similar point: it used to be common that when writing an editorial piece or journalism, that you never let the subject vet the piece before the editor saw it. But it is becoming more and more common to share it with the interviewee—especially within marginalized communities—as how people are represented in print is important. Not only should everyone have the choice of how they present themselves to the world, but also, the interviewees are the experts and it’s like a form of fact-checking. It made me also think about how often history is ‘written by the victors’, or those in a position of power, and as writers and journalists, we have an ethical responsibility to those whose story we are telling. In a way, even though we writers are beholden to a gatekeeper publisher, we are also a gatekeeper and need to be accountable to those people who have entrusted us with their stories, words, and ideas.
Vici told us a story of another way that Caitlin Press has sought to stay true to people’s story, regarding a collection of stories from immigrant women. One of the contributors asked that the non-English words not be set in italics, as is common practice and recommended by the Chicago Manual of Style. In their view, this unnecessarily called attention to the words and was a form of ‘othering’. Vici consulted with all the contributors and they unanimously agreed that foreign (non-English) words should not be italicized. One audience member noted that it was actually harder to read things set in italics as she was dyslexic. Boom! More accessible already.
The concept of who is a Gatekeeper seemed divisive, but not in a negative way. Some people saw themselves as something of a gatekeeper, but not in the stereotypical Established Norm, but recognizing that they were in a position of power. However, they felt that they were more beholden to a mandate and goals of their organization as opposed to a role of keeping people out. They do as much as they can within the constraints of their business model, and make a conscious effort to include marginalized voices and ethical decisions. Others didn’t see themselves as gatekeepers at all—I’m not sure if this was because they were uncomfortable with the connotations of the idea of Gatekeeper (to keep others out) or if they were having trouble recognizing their own privilege and position of power. The discussion of the Gatekeeper was more of an underlying factor and didn’t take priority once we started talking about accountability as people in positions of power.
A number of people—both on the panel and in the audience—brought up the topic of owning up to your mistakes, accepting responsibility for your actions, apologizing, and moving forward in a positive way. This was incredibly important for me to hear (as there are many mistakes I’ve made that I still dwell on) and definitely something that I will be returning to think about and (hopefully) practice. Many people spoke about the need to not alienate people who make mistakes, not to push them out for an error.
Carleigh mentioned how in her work in the university, she doesn’t find it productive to go in “guns blazing” because it initially bristles and people get defensive. I identified with this statement, thinking about forms of gentle activism (like craftivism) that approach change with positivity. However, another audience member brought up the point that catering to people’s fragile egos or need to be coddled is also part of the problem. This audience member believed that by approaching the problem or people in a gentle way further substantiated ingrained societal norms.
This also brought up the topic of how to address issues, bring about accountability, and make sure people are heard. I spoke up and stated that it seemed to me that all the people in the room were in similar agreement, and open to the need for accountability and mutual respect, but how do we reach the people outside this space, who may or may not be receptive to being called out. Vici said that the act of writing—telling these stories, speaking up, telling our truths (however marginalized currently)—is one of the most important things we as writers can continue to do.
If I have forgotten anything vital, or misattributed a comment (or someone would like to be attributed for their particular idea) please leave a comment on this post or email me. Or, add to the discussion—tell me your thoughts, respond to my observations—by posting below. You can also tweet me @monnibo.