Publishers vs. People of Colour Who Write

Publishers vs. People of Colour Who Write

Posted on February 18 by Pamela Mordecai
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The burning issue of the moment is access for black artists and writers, from Oscar nominations to their presence on stage and between the pages of books. So who am I to ignore it?

I’ll speak from my own experience, which I hope is instructive. I don’t go to the theatre much – mostly because it’s expensive – and when I do go these days, it’s to Stratford or else to Young People’s Theatre in Toronto, with whom I have history. I have to big them both up. Over the years Stratford players have become increasingly diverse, and a black Portia is now as likely as a Korean Julius Caesar.

Young People’s Theatre has been diverse since I first encountered it in the late 1990s, and has remained so. Certainly the actors reading parts during the development of my play, El Numero Uno (which premiered in YPT’s 2009–10 season) represented all manner of Canadians. Also, in the wake of Vera Cudjoe’s Black Theatre Canada have come initiatives like Obsidian Theatre, b current, Theatre Archipelago, and the Watah Theatre Institute, all of them offering spaces to black actors, playwrights, directors, and others involved in stage craft.

Theatre is otherwise welcoming: George Elliott Clarke’s verse play Beatrice Chancy became the libretto for an opera of the same name; Dionne Brand adapted her book-length poem, thirsty, for stage performance. Djanet Sears and Trey Anthony are famous names. The stage isn’t perfect, but it’s increasingly multicultural.

Somewhere between stage and page is dub poetry/slam/spoken word. One advantage of dub and spoken word is that they include a range of styles, traditions, modes of writing, and performance.

George Elliott Clarke performs in poetry slams. I myself have performed with Dub Poets Collective and with Klyde Broox in his Hamilton-based PoeMagic series. Dub and spoken word may be a good place to begin the real talk about access.

Poets grow in two places in the north. One is via spoken word, developed in open slams and slam competitions. Because spoken word is a worldwide phenomenon, dub and slam poets may achieve international recognition, but even when they do, they carry the delimiting label of “spoken word poet.”

The other path perhaps begins in Writers Craft in twelfth grade, or with scribbles in a notebook. It graduates to courses in creative writing, and then a BFA or MFA at a university. The two traditions rarely meet, the lack of encounter between the underground and the academy analogous to the publishing industry’s whiting out of POC. (I won’t argue this point; it’s widely documented.)

I’m not suggesting all slam poets are POC, but the prejudice that insists on dividing the poetic traditions is like the publishing industry determinedly ignoring writers of colour, their worlds and concerns. In all this, indie publishers are heroes, often the ones that give breaks to writers who are POC.

Interestingly enough, there has recently been a vigorous debate in the U.S. about the value of MFAs. Junot Díaz wrote in a now-famous 2014 essay in The New Yorker, “MFA VS POC,” that his MFA workshop at Cornell “reproduced … the dominant culture’s blind spots and assumptions around race and racism ...” POC writers, save a lucky few, go the way of small presses and obscurity.

As Anis Shivani, author of Against the Workshop: Provocations, Polemics, Controversies, notes, poets and other writers who go the MFA route have opportunities open up for them, meet agents and editors, get introduced around. I’d say, as Junot Díaz did, that they also run the risk of whitening (if they are POC).

It’s hard to resist conforming with “mainstream” values, aesthetic and otherwise, when that conformity opens doors. It’s all a great pity. In ignoring POC, publishing misses the stories of more than half the world.

Pamela Mordecai

Posted by Kendra on October 30, 2014
Pamela Mordecai photo

Pamela Mordecai

Pamela Mordecai was born in Jamaica. She has published five collections of poetry and an anthology of short fiction. She has also written many textbooks and edited or co-edited groundbreaking anthologies of Caribbean writing. Her poetry for children is widely anthologized. Her poems have been shortlisted for the Canada Writes CBC Poetry Prize and the Bridport Prize (U.K.).