A few weeks ago I had one of those rare experiences: I went to a conference in my area of study where I knew loads of people and each time there was a concurrent panel scheduled I was torn between the two panels. The conference was Avant Canada: Artists, Prophets, Revolutionaries, and it was part of Brock University’s annual Two Days of Canada conference series now run by the inimitable Gregory Betts. There were panels reigmaining the avant-garde in Canada, reframing what and how we might envision the work of the avant-garde, and the ways in which the often-narrow category of the avant-garde can be productively re-read through history. There were creative performances, invigorating roundtables—the most epic of which boasted six speakers on the topics of dub poetry and Indigenous avant-gardes and lasted nearly three hours—and Lee Maracle (Lee Maracle!!) gave a stunning hour-long plenary talk entitled “Two Days of Canada, 53, 785 days of colonialism” using no speaking notes. The conference was followed by a day-long symposium on the generous and innovative writer bpNichol (you know, concrete poet, sound poet, and a key person behind the childhood-shaping show Fraggle Rock). The atmosphere was warm, the presentations were thoughtful and thought-provoking, and there was dancing. Readers, even the food was good.
My experience of this conference was really positive. I had excellent conversations and learned much. My thinking was challenged. So the title of this post, and indeed the thinking that follows, is an attempt to provoke generative discussion that honours the work that was possible because of this conference. My intent—indeed, my aim—is not to nag, but to think through what is and is not possible in the current conference model, no matter how innovative and generative it may be.
I gave two presentations at this conference, and the second was on a roundtable entitled “The Feminist Future Garde of Canada.” This panel, organized by my friend and colleague Tanis MacDonald, came about last year in the midst of the David Gilmour debacle. Remember him? And then, though we couldn’t necessarily have predicted it, our panel presented in the weeks following the public revelation of Jian Ghomeshi’s long history of abusive behavior and the less publicized but equally important revelation of abuses of mentorship relationships in CanLit circles. As my friend and CWILA critic-in-residence Shannon Webb-Campbell kept saying, everywhere a trigger.
Five women spoke—Tanis, a.rawlings, Carmen Derkesn, Shannon Maguire, and myself. The room was full of people, and the room was also full of what Sara Ahmed might call sweaty concepts. For Ahmed, a “sweaty concept” implies that “conceptual work is understood as different from describing a situation.” She explains:
I am thinking here of a situation as a situation that comes to demand a response, a situation is often announced as what we have (“we have a situation here”) as well as what we are in. Concepts in my view tend to be reified as what scholars somehow come up with (the concept as rather like an apple that hits you on the head, sparking revelation from a position of exteriority) as something we use to explain by bringing it in. For me, concepts are ways of understanding worlds that are in the worlds we are in. (Feminist Killjoy)
In other words, sweaty concepts make us physically feel the thinking we are doing, and the colliding experiences that people are living.
On this panel there were frank first-person narratives of experiences of violence, of gender-based harassment and abuse, and of the quotidian aggressions that happen in a colonial, patriarchal, and yes, capitalist society that are easily dismissible by some as non-sense, and lived by others—those outside the circle of the same—as constant abrasion. I couldn’t look away as my co-panelists spoke. I had goose bumps. I started to sweat. My heart raced. I blushed. And during the discussion it was clear that to one degree or another most people in the room were also having visceral listening experiences.
So what, then, is my problem? It is this: outside of that room of sweaty thinking there was no collective sustained discussion of gender-based violence. Certainly, some of it happened in the breaks, in the hallways, and over meals, and certainly that matters. Certainly, this lack of sustained discussion is in part due to the nature of all conferences—even the very good ones, as this one most definitely was. There is a schedule, people have prepared. The panel ends and things move forward. That is how it is, and I understand. But the lack of sustained discussion—especially amongst a group of people who, to one degree or another—are in the same small circles of people working, caring, and thinking about the past, present, and future of Canadian literary culture worries me. What will it take to keep these discussions in the foreground?
Social media is exhausting, and I will admit I am relieved for a reprieve from the constant flood of Ghomeshi-news the various platforms I use. And yet.
And yet, there is constant evidence of gender-based violence. And there is constant evidence of the ways in which it is ignored, erased, or swept under the rug. Take for example, Rehtaeh Parsons, whose name I can say because I am not a journalist. Take, for example, her father’s redacted victim statement. Or, for another example (which Lee Maracle dealt with in a holistic manner in her talk on the legacies of colonial violence) take the fact that while Tanya Tagaq performed alongside a scroll of names of more than 1,200 missing and murdered Aboriginal women she was taken to task for wearing seal fur.
Rape culture, gender-based violence, racially-based violence, and discrimination happen. Constantly. Are the events I flag here “equal”? No. They are events on a spectrum. My question is this: what is it going to take to talk about these issues in a sustained way, long after the two-week shelf life of being viral on the Internet? What?
If you’re in the Halifax area on November 25th please consider joining us at Safe Harbour which is a community gathering to talk about these issues. It is free and open to the public.