Spark is a monthly literary prize intended to amplify QT2S/BIPOC writers in Canada. Echo is a literary award celebrating “the voices of disabled writers in Canada (including but not limited those who are physically/invisibly disabled, d/Deaf, blind, neurodivergent, chronically ill or suffering from mental health issues.” Jenny Ferguson speaks to the awards’ founder, Rahim Ladha.
Last summer, here on the blog, we ran a series called #whoneedsCanLit where we asked three writers and critics to speak. Poet and essayist and all-round supernova, Gwen Benaway—who I admire the absolute stars out of, can’t you tell—says we writers and creators of colour, we Indigenous writers, we trans writers, we disabled and neurodiverse writers, all the writers #CanLit refuses to include in any real or meaningful way need to institute a “no contact rule.”
That is, Gwen says, “Let’s not wait for them to get their business together, because we know they won’t. They don’t want to change. Diverse writers in Canada, love yourself now. Love each other. Don’t be the token or the fallback for CanLit. Move forward, move on, and hey, maybe they’ll grow up. Either way, we’ll be better off and finally have a shot at the happiness we deserve.”
Where do you come in to this debate on #CanLit? Where do these new prizes you’re funding—Spark for Queer, Trans, Two-Spirit and BIPOC writers, and Echo for disabled writers (including visible and invisible disabilities) in Canada—enter this conversation?
Well, if someone doesn’t open the door for you, you either kick it down, or build a new house & leave a key under the mat, or in the potted plant, right?
This wasn’t just born out of the #racismincanlit conversation or the incredible work that individuals like Gwen Benaway or Yilin Wang have been doing. It was born right from that feeling Gwen expressed—‘They don’t want to change.’ In my time working on behalf of non-profits and in the arts, I’ve come to fully understand that people in institutions of power are far too comfortable with their privilege to move toward progress.
But it also comes from a history of being disappointed in supposed ‘allies,’ who will not use their privilege, wealth, or access to amplify others. As a man, I have privilege. Yes, as a person of colour from a Muslim background I face discrimination and hate, but I still have privilege. So I’m not going to live as a hypocrite and not do something with that privilege. The ideas for these prizes literally came to me in a moment, and it just felt like the right thing to do (and the right thing to do is in opposition to a lot of what we see in CanLit currently).
JF: Yes! Thank you for saying what you just did about privilege. I’m Métis, but white-coded. I read as white if I don’t disclose my Indigeneity. And that’s privilege. I’m trying to use it like you, to amplify, to change things.
One very clear thing I see from your SoundCloud introduction to these new awards, is that this community, the one we have right now, isn’t a healthy one. You talk about “building a liveable city.” And while I know this is something we talk about in real terms when we talk about cities, I’m reading this as a metaphor for the work you’re asking us to do. Am I right? Is our goal for #CanLit to build a liveable city? Is your goal for the Spark and Echo prizes to contribute to the building of that liveable city? And is liveable far enough, does that metaphor transport us far enough?
Sometimes I worry if we stop at liveable, we won’t get to a place where we can all thrive. Sometimes I worry if we focus too much on liveable—as say, financial support only to make art within the capitalist framework—we’re never going to get somewhere that doesn’t replicate all the inherent inequalities that capitalism creates.
RL: For me, compassion has to be a core principle in ‘building a liveable city.’ I’m one individual. I’m like a mechanism or that proverbial tiny cog in a machine. At my lowest points with anxiety or depression, I would encounter others who needed compassion, generosity—individuals who were homeless or people who were having a bad day. And I was fortunate enough to be in a position where I could show a bit of compassion, and for a moment, it made all of our days better.
If I extend my hand with these awards to help someone (to show a tiny bit of compassion) who knows what they can do with it to amplify the voices of others—to help others with the words they write, the actions they take.
Compassion itself is as anti-capitalist as it gets
Writers—art itself—gets us into trouble. It inspires, it moves us to change the world we see and know around us. If everyone with the capability/means did something small for one another (& I consider these prizes a small gesture in comparison to what others do) I think not only does a city—a community—thrive, but it inspires further change to make all things better.
That’s probably far too idealistic, but fuck it, I believe it!
JF: You know what? I’m a bit of a pessimist, but I can only hold my position so long as others have their idealism and speak it aloud. Your idealism, it holds me up, even if I can’t quite believe it myself that #CanLit can change.
It broke my heart to hear you describe yourself as an artist who gave up. Maybe that’s because I’m so close to that place myself? Maybe that’s because you’re right, and you’ve hit a nerve, and that nerve is screaming, and I know how many voices, and wonderful storytellers we’ve lost because of this inhospitable environment, because so few people in positions of power as you’ve mentioned (literary journal editors, publishers, and other people with privilege) are unwilling to take what they see as risks, but what I see as opportunities to tell the stories we haven’t let be told, to strengthen our community, to become a better community, and to, therefore, become better as humans.
That’s not a question. Sorry, for failing at my interviewer role here. But I’d like to hear more from you. Get personal if you want. Theorize or do cultural criticism, if you want. Wherever you’re comfortable stepping in, please do.
RL: I’ve had plenty of reasons lately to go through my archives and clean out my home, to dig into closets and pull out boxes I’ve left closed for years. In two, I found a massive amount of print press clippings from the theatre and dance world in Toronto & Canada, and I saw all this incredible talent from 15+ years ago and just about all of them have gone silent with their work—individuals who were far stronger in their expression than I.
It was staggering to see how many festivals had closed, how many people had stopped performing—who in my archives were at an extraordinary level of creativity and generosity—and just like that, they were gone. A few have become administrators or teachers, but when I did a little more research, the path went dark). People had shifted into other careers, some had run into unfortunate circumstances, and some people you simply couldn’t find anymore. People who I had wanted to get in touch with who created worked I believed in, simply were not creating anymore, and that felt profoundly sad to me.
It’s not just in writing with the literary journals, editors, publishers & others with privilege—it’s everywhere in the arts. Maybe I have an offering or two left in me in terms of a work of art—a piece of writing or choreography—something—but I have too much experience in fundraising and advocacy not to use that experience to benefit others. Fundraising takes a lot of time and energy, and maybe I can be better for others in focusing on that instead of my own work.
Maybe I have given up on my own work, but I definitely haven’t given up on others. If anything, I have so much more faith/belief in the power others have to effect positive change with their words, their art.
Perhaps it’s okay not to be at the level I wished in my own artistic expression, but in strength help others hit their level instead? In the end, it’s not such a bad fate. (But between you and me, it would be some kind of cool to know what it feels like to offer something and have it be received with the kind of emotion so many others with their art have evoked in me).
JF: Yes. Totally.
One of the things I’m admiring majorly about Spark and Echo is how open you are to form and genre and the possibilities of someone engaging in perhaps unimagined written forms. Most literary journals and presses just aren’t doing this yet. You’re opening up boundaries, some that have been put in place by tradition (yes, whose tradition?) for really racist, sexist, ablest, or other limiting reasons.
I’m thinking of Kai Minosh Pyle who on twitter posted: “What magazine or journal will be committed enough to publish prose in Ojibwe? So far I have not found one but I continue to dream of the day I can see Ojibwe Language writing (mine or others’) in a popular venue.
What complications do you see, if any? What opportunities? How will opening up submission guidelines—decolonizing them perhaps?—make our communities stronger?
RL: To make a conscious decision to be more helpful in terms of submission guidelines and processes is so easy, and it can lead to such beauty, and we make it so hard to publish, to make art available and accessible, and it’s frustrating.
I won’t put fixed parameters on what form a submission to the awards takes because people will have different requirements, and I believe that in taking extra steps to honour creators, you create some kind of positive energy that reverberates. Suddenly that person knows that their voice is not silenced because of some archaic structures or laziness due to racism or sexism or any other form of oppression.
I’m staying humble and learning how to not assume what someone needs or wants from the submission process. That means recognizing that we can—I can—always be better when it comes to how I amplify work. I want this to be a process where people are unafraid to offer their input. I can always do better—if I go into the submission process with that in mind, we’ll be fine. So when Kai and Andrew posted those tweets, my first reaction was ‘We can do that! let’s do that!’ And then, I’ll find a way to make it happen. That’s how you build community, right? You find out what someone needs to thrive, and you build that structure. You choose to be better.
JF: One of the things you talk about is the behind the scenes—no names named—current fundraising climate. You bring up what it means to feel like part of the problem and have the means to do something about it, and you present this ethos, one that I very much agree with: “Community demands that you do something of your own volition, that you step up of your own volition.”
That’s exactly what you’re talking when you say it’s about choosing to do better, right?
But yeah, the old #CanLit guard aren’t here for this, don’t want to be here for this, because they seem to believe doing so hurts them—and maybe it does, maybe we’re done with the Boydens and the Galloways and the Atwoods and all the other names you could name? Maybe I’m grappling at an unfounded optimism—out of character for me? I don’t know?
You also say, there’s something about giving from a position of strength, and growing, and becoming stronger—and this too, I agree with in my heart. I don’t believe in competition even though I live in a world that asks me to compete for everything, in the arts and outside of the arts. I believe in community and communities rise when we all lift each other up.
But, how do we get there if we don’t name names, if we don’t start holding the people who aren’t giving to the community, but who claim accolades as if they are, accountable? Am I stuck in my viewpoint, just as mired, too? Am I not seeing the other ways to look at this?
RL: Ha, if I started naming names, goodness. Let’s just say that a lot of my action here is born from disappointment—but part of poetry is about turning something of pain into something beautiful, right?
I try not to put that business, the naming of names, out in the streets unless someone is doing damage to others. And it’s not just the old guard, but people who claim to be progressive in the here and now. I’ve run enough fundraising campaigns to know who is generous in word only (and not in action).
I have a list of cultural profiteers, those who are doing it to amplify their own positions rather than others. If I spend my energy on them, I’m doing a disservice to the community we’re trying to create. So even though I am obviously frustrated with a lot of individuals when it comes to their ‘charity,’ rather than name names, I’m going to put that drive and determination directly into others through these prizes, and trust in the inevitability of individuals who are only out to benefit for themselves to reveal their true nature on their own.
Seriously, if you have the means, and you’ve got a friend running a fundraising campaign there’s no damn way they should even have to ask—you should step up before they breathe a word and do something. How do you not, and then even dare utter the word ‘community?’
And yet time and time again, I see people speak of community and not do a damn thing with their spare dollars. (And again, I know their pockets are not empty). Fundraising, if anything, has made me realize there are just some things you have to do your damn self, and not wait for others to step up. I have had people in tears tell me about how disappointed they are that their friends—their FRIENDS—couldn’t even give a dime to the work they were creating.
Can you tell I’m sensitive about this?
I’ve raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for non-profits/arts organizations through person-to-person contact, so I don’t doubt that if you put me in a position to raise money, I’ll find a way to compel people to give. I’m good at that. But I’m tired of waiting, tired of asking.
We can achieve so many positive & progressive actions, if the people who have the means to do something were at the very least, sympathetic to some of the things we’re discussing here. I don’t want to be one of those people who talks a lot about change but it’s never reflected in their actions. That’s one of the reasons these awards exist—it’s a conscious decision to try and set some kind of example. And I don’t think it is ego to say that in this context.
JF: Yes, I’m thinking of the campaign that funded the Indigenous Voices Award in 2017. Robin Parker took action, and along with Silvia Moreno-Garcia, other donors and the Indigenous Literary Studies Association (ILSA), they created something powerful.
I’d like to end our conversation by asking you to tell us about some writers and exciting projects you’ve come across since you announced the Spark and Echo prizes? Please take this space to promote voices. I want to know who to read, where to find them, and I want to know how readers here at carte blanche can help either with the prizes, or with uplifting marginalized voices here in the Canada arts-scape?
What’s now? What’s next?
RL: First, we have to talk about Yilin Wang & her #racismincanlit hashtag. Without her showing the courage she displayed, I don’t know if I would have been compelled to actions like this. People should be thanking her for these prizes, not me. I’d feel uncomfortable speaking about anyone else at the moment because I’m still going through submissions and there are so many individuals who have sent incredible work; it would be unfair to single any one out just yet.
But, I hope people understand that if you take the time to send in your work, one way or another, with your permission and guidance, you’re voice is going to be amplified. I’m not tipping my hand just yet as to what’s coming, but I can’t simply say to someone who has sent me quality work that it’s not ‘enough’ for an award. That seems cruel to me. The awards are the small part, really, of what’s being done here. You take the time to send me something, I’ll help you one way or another, if it is your will. After the awards are handed out for Spark on July 15th, if someone who has submitted work gives me the permission to do so, they’ll receive a lovely consolation prize which I think they will find agreeable.
So start with Yilin, and individuals like Isabella Wang who showed courage in defending her, and work your way out from there, and trust that a big beautiful spotlight is coming to so many others.
Readers of carte blanche? It’s quite simple: Don’t wait for someone to ask you to help when you see a fundraiser. Step in before the ask if you have the means. Inquire about how you can help someone before they even ask. That’s a general rule for me. When you help others, you’re helping with Spark & Echo. And if you’re in a position of privilege and are not doing something with that privilege to amplify others or you’re using others for your own benefit, then I don’t know what I can say to you other than to ask you politely to move out of the way, and make room for the new.
JF: Thank you Rahim. Thank you to people like Gwen Benaway. To people like Kai Minosh Pyle and Andrew Parsons, to Isabella Wang, to Yilin Wang, to countless others I don’t have the space to name here, thank you for making me better, for making me use my privilege to do better, to contribute in a small way to building our beyond-liveable community.
Oh and P.S. readers this just happened: go check out the newly launched Nova award too, for Queer Women, Femmes, Trans & Non Binary writers/illustrators in the Sci-Fi/Fantasy genres, across North America!
Rahim Ladha is a bad dancer, an average writer, but not so bad of a fundraiser. He’s raised over a million dollars in person-to-person interaction for various non-profits, arts organizations & independent artists over several years (but that still hasn’t helped him be a better dancer) Currently, he’s working as a fundraising consultant, a life-drawing model (everyone needs a place to practice their stand-up comedy routine) & enjoys riding a gigantic ten-speed tricycle through the streets of Toronto (& he doesn’t take himself too seriously in bios as you can tell, even though every word of this is true).
Jenny Ferguson is Métis, an activist, a feminist, an auntie, and an accomplice with a PhD. She believes writing and teaching are political acts. BORDER MARKERS, her collection of linked flash fiction narratives, is available from NeWest Press. She is the CNF and à la carte blog editor here at carte blanche. If you want to continue the conversation, you can find her on twitter @jennyleeSD