||A Pall Of Silence
by Susan Crean
To MY SURPRISE, Carole Corbeil's article on the Toronto portion of the PEN Congress follows the feckless lead of the newspaper reporters who stopped looking for stories once June Callwood uttered the "f-word" outside Roy Thomson Hall the night of the gala. There is not a little irony in this.
In a recent issue of This Magazine, Marlene Nourbese Philip, a spokesperson for the group that organized the demonstration to protest the make-up of the contingent of Canadian writers invited to attend the congress, wrote about the response of the writing community to the charges of racial discrimination in writing and publishing. The piece, called "Censoring Racism," makes the point that when the issue was raised in the Writers' Union and elsewhere, the overwhelming response was a counter-charge of censorship. Many writers took the challenge of
Philip and others as an attack on their freedom of imagination, and even before the debate could begin it was shut off. (Brian Fawcett articulated that response in these pages, making it clear that he took it personally; his main reaction, too, was to talk about himself)
Oddly enough, I think Philip and her group may have done the same disservice to the 10 women artists who participated in the exhibition of Native art that the Writers in Prison Committee arranged to have on view at the York Quay Gallery at Harbourfront during the congress. just as the gala was a political statement -- this was the first PEN Congress to open with a fundraising event in support of the writers-in-prison work -- so the exhibition, Changers: A Spiritual Renaissance, had an important and timely message about cultural integrity. Moreover, there was a reason why the Writers in Prison Committee wanted to promote the work of Native Canadians, and it had to do with the prevalence of prison in their lives and the degree to which this is an expression of racism in Canada.
The committee raised the money to bring the artists to Toronto for an opening event early in September. We went to some lengths to attract the attention of the "art crowd" in the hopes of getting some critical coverage. Unfortunately, while CBC radio and television recognized it for the groundbreaking and special occasion that it was, the art critics turned up their noses at it. Even though some art writers did attend, none have yet bothered to write about the exhibition. Carole Corbeil is a superb writer, and as deft an art critic as the Globe and Mail has ever seen. So it is very disappointing that she was not moved to write about the exhibition, or even to mention it. But then, the demonstrators protesting the congress were equally uninterested. When I asked Michele Paulse of the Women's Press (who came to Union Station to picket the delegates as they departed for Montreal) if she had seen the show, she said she hadn't and didn't think it was relevant to the issue.
It seems rather tragic to me that one casualty of Vision 21's tactics was the diversion of attention away from this show and these women's work. In effect throwing a pall of silence over it.