Review of Refuse: CanLit in Ruins

Refuse: CanLit in Ruins is edited by Hannah McGregor, Julie Rak, and Erin Wunker, and features writing by Joshua Whitehead, Alicia Elliott, Kai Cheng Thom, Dorothy Ellen Palmer, and many more.

I’m not sure how it happened, but at a young age I internalised the belief that Canadian culture needed particular support in order to hold its own on the international stage. Canadian music, sport, film, and technology were all to be loudly praised, lest Canadian kids think that we never contributed anything to world – or worse, that Canadian culture doesn’t exist. As a literature and creative writing student I made a point of taking classes which examined Canadian novels, poems, and drama for evidence that CanLit is indeed alive. Fortunately, this evidence exists in abundance: every generation since at least the early nineteenth century has written material to support the existence of a national identity.

And this brings me to another internalised belief: that value is measured by what you can produce for posterity. At present I consider myself a very low-value writer. Yes, I have a novel nearing completion and yes, university helped improve my skills and portfolio, but the career I dreamed of has yet to begin. This website is the sum of my published work so far.

So far, I remind myself.

Last year I picked up a book called Refuse: CanLit in Ruins and discovered that my tangling together of value, production, identity, and respect paralleled a similar phenomenon in Canadian literature as a whole. In retrospect, I’ve been circling this problem for years on both a personal and professional level, but Refuse has shown me what lurks behind the façade of my dream job.

In our striving for a unified literary identity we’ve excluded stories which don’t support the three Canadian P’s: polite, productive, and progressive. A.H. Reaume sums this up nicely:

“How have marginalised writers been silenced in CanLit? To start with, marginalised people have often been told explicitly or in so many words by publishers and lit magazines that their stories aren’t “universal” enough. If the magazine or publisher was trying to publish more “diverse” stories, they might instead have been told that their story wasn’t “diverse” in the right way.”

– From “In the New CanLit, We Must All Be Antigones” by A.H. Reaume

Refuse combines poetry, anecdote, and criticism; its writers speak from within and without the institutions of academia and publishing. The book is divided into three sections, each taking a different meaning of the word ‘refuse’ as its theme: as a synonym for garbage; as a synonym for rejection; and finally in discussion on how to repair (re-fuse) the injustices in CanLit.

While I appreciate the rhetoric behind this structure, I found reading the pieces in order a bit repetitive. Selecting essays at random instead kept my interest sharp. The dialogue between Kristen Darch and Fazeela Jiwa offered great background information on the central conversations in Refuse – but unfortunately it’s situated near the end of the book, not in an earlier section where it would have been helpful.

I also question why there are so many pieces centred around the controversies concerning three specific authors (one very famous, two relatively so) in a book which frequently states its desire to decentralise power in CanLit. Halfway through the book, I began to worry that the focus on these scandals would outweigh other stories of resilience and endurance.

But Refuse: CanLit in Ruins pulls itself out of the never-ending cycle of criticism by also sharing the remedies and alternative literary spaces created and supported by its contributors. Phoebe Wang, for instance, stresses how “even emerging writers, with little reputation or sway, could have power through our refusal to engage” with exclusionist literary culture. This book is part of that refusal, and part of the movement towards inclusivity in CanLit.

Published by Emma Lammers

Writer with a novel in progress. Book reviewer. Occasionally crafty.

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