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Notes From The Inner Circle
by Brian Fawcett

In the absence of minority writers, the Women's Press reasoned, WASP writers should cease to write about the culturally and racially disadvantaged ? should cease, apparently, even to imagine their condition OVER THE past several years, both members of the Writers' Union of Canada (T.W.U.C.) and outsiders have criticized the union and the Canadian publishing industry for being male?dominated, and well, too WASP. The criticisms are sincere and they're frequently passionate, but as writers are supposed to know better than most people, sincerity and passion are hardly guarantees of either accuracy or relevance.

Last year's T.W.U.C. annual general meeting, for instance, was marred by an enraged writer named Sheelagh Conway, who attempted to feminize the chairperson Pierre, Berton's pronouns every time he used one. If that had been all, no one would have cared much. But Conway took it further, accusing the union of everything from simple genderparity failure to fascist machismo. Her criticism didn't have much impact, because the union simply wasn't guilty. The incoming chairperson was Betty Jane Wylie, and the union's most articulate and influential members are predominantly women ?people like Susan Crean, June Callwood, Merrily Weisbord, Heather Menzies, Libby Scherer, and Myrna Kostash.

Conway's interrogations, however, generated a more accurate criticism of the union, this one concerning the scarcity of visible cultural and racial minorities within its ranks. T.W.U.C.'s membership is overwhelmingly white and middle class. When the issue was raised at one of the plenary sessions, one had only to look around the room to confirm that it was true.

No one quite knew what to do about it. The sensible suggestion was made that a conscious effort to recruit minority writers should be undertaken ? a difficult task given the union's eligibility criteria ? and everyone left feeling vaguely uneasy about it. Notwithstanding the fact that the dominant anglophone culture in Canada produces only about 20 per cent of the books sold in this country (the rest come overwhelmingly from the U.S.), it is true that our minorities ? native Indian, Caribbean, and our growing Asian minority ? have almost no publishing voice whatsoever. Making the problem harder to deal with is the fact that the federal government's multiculturalism programs have, if nothing else, inundated WASPs ? and everyone else ? with a veritable deluge of new sacred cattle. No one knows exactly why the new cows are sacred, or where and when they're permitted to be herded or restrained. We know we're not allowed to touch them. To do so would be racism.

Over the winter, the uneasiness over racism underwent a number of mutations, and it emerged on the 1989 AGM agenda in several different forms. The most potentially lethal one involved a controversy that started in the Women's Press, which defenestrated a couple of writers from an anthology for what swiftly became known as structural racism. In the absence of minority writers, the Women's Press reasoned, WASP writers should cease to write about the culturally and racially ' ally disadvantaged, and, apparently, cease even to imagine their condition.

The issue dominated the confidential "Inner Circle" section of the union's newsletter all winter. One side took the position that writers creating characters from the visible minorities. or from economically disadvantaged classes are guilty of exploiting them, and should forthwith exercise self?censorship. The other side argued that any form of censorship is unacceptable, and that the acceptance of the Women's Press position would result in a situation where writers would be able to write only about themselves ? okay for the League of Canadian Poets, but not for the union, which is made up mostly of fiction and non?fiction writers. For sure, the spectre of still more white, middle?class ? and middleaged ?writers experiencing their inner selves within a sharply restricted reference base is a truly frightening one.

The racism issue landed in everyone's laps on the AGM's first morning with a panel discussion of racism in publishing, with June Callwood presiding over panellists, Lenore Keeshig?Tobias, a native story?teller, Dr. Moiz Vassanji, editor of the Toronto South Asian Review, and McClelland & Stewart's publisher Douglas Gibson. Keeshig?Tobias browbeat the audience admirably, eventually warning us, with a delicious absence of irony, that a Committee to Re?establish the Trickster was in the process of developing the means to replace western middle?class artistic procedures and institutions.

Vassanji, by contrast, was remarkably sensible and modest, pointing out that yes, there is racism in Canadian culture and publishing, and that yes, there is a marketplace, to which almost no one, in any sector of the culture, is really prepared to offer any alternative. When Gibson got up and told us that there was no racism in Canadian publishing, it was clear he was taking for granted a different universe from the one Keeshig?Tobias was taking for granted. The result was a pudding of intellectual. non se quiturs tossed in from all sides, albeit sincerely.

The fog refused to clear as the AGM progressed ? or rather digressed. No one really believes that there is deliberate racism within the union membership, and the conceptual conundrum of "structural racism" was one that no one wanted to debate, not, at least, without a common vocabulary to sort out the different sacred cattle. With the multiplicity. of cattle?calls and prods being brandished, no one wanted to see a stampede, or worse, a polite chorus of disinterested or confused moos. Then, late in the proceedings, a resolution to establish a task force on racism in publishing hit the floor.

This initiative was greeted with an enthusiasm that can only be described as wan. Studying someone else's problem is safe enough but it wasn't clear what the resolution's backers had in mind for the task force, or whether it deserved the extreme measure of a genuine task force. It wasn't until one of the union's few minority writers asked those questions at point?blank range that anyone understood, that those behind the resolution had no idea either. There was an audible sigh of relief when the resolution was defeated ? or, more precisely, sent back to its instigators for more, uh, conceptual development.

IS RACISM a problem in Canadian writing? There are some racist writers, certainly, but they tend to stay in the closet ? and well clear of the Writers' Union, for that matter. Almost as certainly, writers from minorities probably have more difficulty getting books into print than WASP writers do, mostly because market economies of scale make it a financial absurdity to publish books without audiences large enough to buy them. Publishing minority writers' books in a vacuum might turn out to be a demonstration of the coverage of federal multicultural programs, but it isn't likely to be of much use to anyone else.

If, on the other hand, we accept the self?censorship guidelines of the Women's Press, we won't be allowed to imagine anyone's consciousness but our own. This all leaves the Writers' Union, and the cultural minorities, between a rock and a hard place, surrounded by dense fog. Meanwhile, we should probably be thinking about what the marketplace does to cattle, sacred or otherwise. With the advance of the Free Trade Agreement, mainstream Canadians are about to become a voiceless cultural minority like all the others. When that happens, maybe we'll understand the issues better.


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