What to do

Fellow Canadians, what are we to do? We haven't got congresspeople to pester or votes to cast south of the border. But we have votes and representatives here. And we have a battle to fight: the Safe Third Country agreement. "Under the Safe Third Country Agreement... Canada and the US each declare the other country safe for refugees and close the door on most refugee claimants at the US-Canada border." (source)  Those children you've been seeing on the news? Because of this agreement they are not allowed refuge in Canada.

 This two-year-old could be your child.  Photo by John Moore

This two-year-old could be your child. Photo by John Moore

Write to your Member of Parliament and copy the Prime Minister's office. Demand that the Safe Third Country Agreement be scrapped. Be brief. Be polite. Be firm. Dear MP and Prime Minister Trudeau: We have to scrap the Safe Third Country Agreement. America has proven itself an unsafe place for people in need and this agreement we have with them is no longer in the best interests of us or asylum-seekers. Yours in sunny ways, A voter.

America is kidnapping children. Not just any children. Refugee children. The world's most vulnerable children. It is a human rights violation. It is unspeakably cruel. It is a sin in the eyes of any God worth worshipping.

These are not the actions of a safe country. And if we were serious about those apologies we made for the atrocities of our past (the MS St. Louis, the Komagata Maru, residential schools), if they weren't just empty words, then we have to stop pretending otherwise and we must, absolutely must, let refugees who come through the US in.

In grade school we studied WWII. Learning about the genocide and the concentration camps and the way a whole group of people were dehumanized and carted off like cattle, many of us said, very earnestly: "I'd never let that happen." Well now we are adults and guess what? It is happening. We are watching it happen.

You don't need a crystal ball to predict what comes next. Once the borders are well and truly closed and no one new is trying to get into the US, they will turn their attention inward. A Muslim-American internment is on the horizon. America is not a safe country. It is Germany circa 1938. And if you can't see that link then you are being willfully blind and have lost your moral compass (don't @ me. I don't care).

The Canadian Council for Refugees has more information and resources about the Safe Third Country Agreement. Amnesty International Canada has a petition against the agreement that you can sign here. Alex Neve, the Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada has written a heartfelt and cogent argument against the Safe Third Country Agreement and you can read his comments here.

We can't control what happens in another country. But we can make change here. We can keep Canada a safe country. I am not a parent. But I am heartbroken for all these parents and children. These are people in desperate need. These are people just like us.

 

 

The 99 per cent

Or: why talent is overrated. 

Sometimes we talk about stories like this: the story is an entity with its own consciousness. The story arrives, via a muse. The story reveals itself as it is being written. Writers are mere scribes.

This airy-fairy, woo-woo, magical thinking is a whole lot of nonsense. Writing isn't magic. It's good old-fashioned hard work. It is sitting your butt in the chair every single day and forcing yourself to do the work. Because trust me about this, if you don’t keep the pump primed, it will not yield a drop.

Sure, there are moments that feel sublime but the movie montage of how a book is made would look really mundane. Writing is a nose stuck in a refugee law text book. It is hours trawling the internet for photos of jail cells and then more hours trying to find the correct combination of words to evoke said jail cells. It is reading over something you thought was insightful and poetic the day before only to discover it has morphed into toxic waste. It is revising a chapter for the tenth time. It is writing the same sentence five different ways and then reading each option out loud. It is chucking months of work and going back to square one. It is persistence and effort with a healthy dose of self-hatred. And most of the time it is also working despite deep uncertainty. Not knowing if the story is any good. Or else, knowing it is not good but hoping it might eventually get better.

Where the work  happens

Sometimes, because we are often asked and it is difficult to properly describe how stories are invented, we writers revert to supernatural explanations. Harry Potter famously appeared to JK Rowling in a train car. I believe this anecdote because that is how many of my characters have rocked up too. I’ll be tossing and turning with insomnia when a little girl appears out of thin air.

This is called inspiration (1%). Then comes the perspiration (99%). Now I have to make decisions. What’s this little girl’s name, age, and future vocation? Is she introverted or extroverted, a pessimist or optimist? Decisions mean constraints and constraints are important because good writing is precise. You can’t be specific when you are writing about a character if you haven’t nailed down the details. But then the real questions are: What does this character want more than anything? Who far will she go to get it? And for that, I free write pages and pages and pages, most of which will never leave my notebook. From all this random riffing emerges a picture of who the character is and from there the plot evolves.

It does everyone a disservice to suggest there’s a fairy who selectively whispers sweet nothings into the ears of a chosen few. Talent is real and it sure is helpful but it’s highly overrated and not the key ingredient. If you want to be a writer, write. Do the work. I repeat: talent is not necessary. Work is necessary. That’s the 99%.

Riddle Fence 29

Riddle Fence 29

The newest issue of Riddle Fence is out and I've got a story inside. It's called When the end came and it's probably the most Townie piece I've ever written. I took as many quirky things as I could find in St. John's and shoved them into a story that is ostensibly about quantum computers but is really about anxiety. (Or is about cheeseburgers? YOU BE THE JUDGE)

Are all writers like this? I get preoccupied for short, intense bursts on very specific things and then I work my obsessions out by grappling with them in short stories. When I first started writing, it was around the time that everyone I knew was either pregnant or had very new babies. The anecdotes my friends told me about pregnancy, infertility, and new motherhood were absolutely riveting and of course I shamelessly took a lot of what they shared and funnelled it straight into my work. Butter Tea at Starbucks, Miloslav, Quickening, and Gliding, Weightless (along with a couple more that will never see the light of day) were drafted in these years.

And then I got obsessed with long dead artsy bohemians (the pre-Raphaelites and the Bloomsbury Group). A Drawer Full of Guggums was written during this period along with two other stories that I am personally really proud of but no one wants to publish. (Hello! Will someone please say yes to these stories?)

Riddle Fence is where art and literature meet

Right after that, I went through a crucial rite of passage and became obsessed with theoretical physics and wouldn't shut up about black holes and string theory and wave-particle duality. I harangued all Tom's colleagues at dinner parties and forced them to tell me about their research. And then I wrote a bunch of linked stories until I got the physics bug out of my system. When the End Came is the first of the set to make it to print. Hooray! Hopefully this means I can get the other three out there too.

Riddle Fence 29 is beautiful as always. Stand outs for me in this issue are the cover art, Karen Stentaford's three prints, and David Ferry's short story April's Fool. If you're not in St. John's, don't have a subscription, and can't find a copy at your local indie book shop, you can buy a back issues online. Issue 29 should be available to purchase there soon.

Tamil Culture

One of the great unexpected joys of publishing The Boat People is feeling the love from the Sri Lankan community. There are kind posts on Instagram and I hear from readers directly. But I also get hints from time to time that the wonderful support the book's been receiving (particularly in the Toronto media) is a result of Tamil-Canadians giving it a boost behind the scenes. I'm talking about you, Tamil producers. I see you and I thank you.

And of course there are Sri Lankan and Tamil specific outlets too, because the diaspora is at its largest right here in Canada. A couple of months ago, Ara, one of the co-founders of Tamil Culture reached out to me. I'd never heard of Tamil Culture before but here is how I attempt to describe it: it's an online platform, The Huffington Post meets Shaadi meets LinkedIn meets Facebook, a one-stop shop for the younger generation of Tamils all around the world. I'm probably not doing it justice. Go check it out for yourself. And while you're there, here's a fun interview I did with writer Shanelle Kandiah. We talked about how I became a novelist, the inspiration and research behind The Boat People, and of course... what my parents make of all this!

Can't Lit

Back in February, during my trip to Vancouver, I had a chance to finally meet two of my heroes: Jen Sookfong Lee and Dina Del Bucchia. Among other professional duties (writing fiction and poetry, teaching, penning think pieces for Open Book and the Globe and Mail, shouting down ignoramuses on Twitter), Dina and Jen also co-host the Can't Lit podcast.

 With my Can't Lit heroes Dina (L) and Jen (R) (via @ jenleefur )

With my Can't Lit heroes Dina (L) and Jen (R) (via @jenleefur)

Can't Lit, the self-described podcast about "books and stuff," features guest authors and wide-ranging conversations about pop culture, literature, lipstick, and current events. Also, there's time set aside for griping which I, as a person with MANY gripes, appreciate. I don't know this for sure, because I haven't got access to their audience numbers, but I have a suspicion that Can't Lit is the podcast equivalent of the indie band that only a select (very discerning) group listens to. Soon they will blow up and then I'll be one of those smug a-holes who says things like "I listened to them before they got big."

The three of us had a short but sweet chat in February about The Boat People, personal brands, and the perils of the Adults Only Pool. Also, this was the day I decided to call other writers dorks, not just once but multiple times. Sorry Other Writers. Please don't sue me.

Amazon!

Today I fly to Toronto for the the Amazon First Novel Award ceremony. The other night Tom (Dr. Math) said: "I think you have a good shot at winning." To which I relied: "Not really. There are five other books." And he said: "Yes, 1 in 6. Those aren't bad odds." WHAT?

The award is given out tomorrow, Tuesday, May 22 at the Toronto Reference Library (6:30pm). All six of us finalists will do short readings on stage and have a small Q&A session with host Shelagh Rogers. I really hope they allow us to go off stage when they announce the winner. Because it's agonizing enough waiting for that envelope get opened, I can't imagine having to go through that while facing an audience!

Win or lose, the best part of these award ceremonies is always getting to know the other finalists.  Becky Toyne wrote a piece about us in the Globe and Mail and I was really interested to see that we are all 35+. People! It is never, ever too late to write your first novel. Last week I went to the launch of a beautiful debut called Catching the Light. The author, Susan Sinnott, is in her 70s. We're in a writing group together so I've been reading Susan's work and watching her at it for the past few years. Her commitment to doing the work, to undoing and re-doing and writing and re-writing, it is truly inspiring. That perseverance is, as I've said before, the fundamental non-negotiable of being a writer. You can have it in your 20s. You can have it in your 70s.

 

Audience matters

The M&S family at The FOLD! 

A couple of weeks ago I had the absolute pleasure of taking part in the Festival of Literary Diversity (The FOLD). It's difficult to believe The FOLD is only in its third year. It is hands down the very best literary festival I have ever attended. I am talking NEXT LEVEL FAN-FUCKING-TASTIC. The authors were top shelf. The moderators were incredible. The conversations were smart and hilarious and memorable. The programming was creative and playful. One panel was focused on dystopian stories. Another on anthologies. The show stopper for me was the non-fiction panel featuring Tanya Talaga and Robyn Maynard. When Tanya Talaga said "Rights before reconciliation. Basic rights. Then we can talk about hugs" the packed house was ready to yell AMEN.

I was in awe of the whole festival but it was the audiences that really caught my attention. Because here's the thing: at readings and festivals I consistently see the same faces in the crowd. They are...well, homogenous. Upper middle class, older, white. I appreciate those audiences and those book lovers. They are engaged and careful readers who ask thoughtful questions. But I suspect they represent only a fraction of our readers. Because I see lots of other faces at book shops, reading in airports, on bookstagram. I have banned myself from GoodReads but I suspect the median age over there is quite a bit younger than 60. So as a writer at the start of my career, I look at audiences and I can't help but wonder: is this model sustainable?

The FOLD has cracked the code. The place was on wheels! Standing room only for a couple of events and full of lots of different faces. Older folks. Younger people. Transpeople. Black people. White people. Brown people. Guess what? This is who loves books. All. Of. The. People. High five to The Fold for attracting new audiences, for building something that is new and fresh, and accessible in every possible way. This festival is only in its third year and it has a bright future ahead.

Photo of the After Canada Reads panel from The Fold's Instagram (@the_fold)

Along with Cherie and Omar and moderator Ali, I was part of the After Canada Reads panel that closed out the festival. (You can listen to it here) After two days of being in the audience at other events, I have to admit that I was feeling a little intimidated. The conversations on stage at The Fold set the bar sky high and I've always been pants at the high jump. Fortunately, Cherie and Omar are pros and I let them do all the heavy lifting. The hour went by in a flash and I remember none of it.

CanLit folks: if you are in the GTA you must get yourself to Brampton next year for The FOLD. Authors: speak to your publicists, send flowers to the festival organizers, light candles at mass, sacrifice some doves, do what you need to do to finagle an invite. You won't be sorry.

Quickening

The only thing better than short stories are linked short stories. I love to read them. And I love to write them. Back in 2012 I wrote a story about a character called Hen who goes on holiday to France with her sister Daphne. The story is called "Gliding, Weightless"  and was published in Riddle Fence, issue 21. And then I wrote another story set a couple of years earlier and told from the point of view of Hen's husband Neil. It's called "Quickening" and today it was published by Understorey Magazine's latest issue. You can read the story here.

Big weekend

Good news! The Boat People is on the shortlist for the Amazon First Novel Award along with American War, The Bone Mother, The Water Beetles,  The Black Peacock, and Dazzle Patterns. I was at the Ottawa Writer's Festival all weekend and woke up on Saturday morning to an email about the short list. So I was floating on air all day.

In the evening I took part on a panel called Borders and Belonging at the Ottawa Writers Festival with Djamila Ibrahim and Arif Anwar. Their books are both beautiful, by the way, and they are genuinely warm and wonderful people and great fun as fellow panelists. I was having such a good time on stage and then afterward, meeting readers and signing books, that I totally forgot that over in Labrador AtsNL was hosting an award ceremony where I was up for the CBC Emerging Artist Award.

For the past few months, I've been going here and there, promoting the book, talking about how I became a writer, and in most interviews I end up saying some version of: "I would never have become a writer if I hadn't moved to St. John's." And it's 100% true. There are so many supports and grants and awards and opportunities for writers in my city. The Writers' Alliance of NL in particular has been really instrumental to my career. And a couple of months ago they got in touch to let me know they were nominating me for the CBC Emerging Artist Award. A few weeks ago, I was thrilled to learn I was on the short list (along with artist April White and the dynamic new PerSIStence Theatre Company) and only sorry that I was already scheduled to be in Ottawa and would miss the award ceremony in Labrador. On Saturday night, I returned quite late to my hotel room to find a message that I had won!

See? BIG WEEKEND.

I'm still in Ontario. I have a few work-related things to do in Toronto and then on Sunday I'm taking part in The Festival of Literary Diversity in Brampton, on a panel with Omar El Akkad and Cherie Dimaline, moderated by Ali Hassan, to talk about life after Canada Reads (and hopefully also our books!).

Fainting Couch Feminists

Screen Shot 2018-04-17 at 12.33.41 PM.png

In case you missed it, Mozhdah was on episode 8 of Fainting Couch Feminists, a podcast hosted by Mica Lemiski and the wonderful Room Magazine. Mozhdah talked about her career, trolls, being thick skinned, the Mozhdah Show, and the death threats and rumours of her murder that forced her to give it up. It was so lovely to hear her voice again and the story of why she ended her TV show is absolutely chilling.

PEN World Voices Festival

This weekend I'll be taking part in two events at the PEN World Voices Festival in New York. I'm very, very excited. First, because I haven't been to New York in exactly 10 years and I love it there. Second, it's still winter in St. John's and I'm ready for spring and sundresses in New York (fingers crossed for magnolias). Second, this is a big deal festival, founded by a group including Salman Rushdie and featuring a whole cast of super stars. Oh look, here's my name on a list with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Roxanne Gay, and Hilary Clinton...no big deal!

I'm taking part in two super events. The first is this Friday night at Westbeth Centre for the Arts, an artists' coop and studio space. Artists open up their homes/ studios to the public. I'll be in one of the spaces doing two rounds of readings for a rotating group of audience members. And then there are drinks afterward. Can you think of anything more New York City than that?

The second event is on Saturday night and I'll be reading and answering questions as part of a panel called Still, They Persisted.

A couple of good pals from Toronto are joining me for the weekend so along with business there will be pleasure. (And quite possibly some shopping) But it's also a whirlwind. I'm back home late on Sunday and then off to Ontario for a week next Thursday morning! Book promotion is, as everyone promised, turning out to be a full time job.

 

Imaginary friends

While signing books in Halifax last week, a reader asked me if I was still in touch with any of the people from the boat. I think she must have assumed I'd interviewed real people from the MV Sun Sea, which of course I hadn't. I have no idea who any of the real refugees were and Mahindan et. al are totally imaginary. But I also thought a lot about her question afterward because it's true that for years I was in communion with all of my characters. They were continually changing and growing and forming and re-forming in my mind as I researched and drafted and revised the novel. But then last April, when I submitted the final manuscript, I drew a line in the sand and put an end to the creation. And now, while I do talk about those characters a lot, I no longer engage with them. They are out in the world being re-imagined anew by every reader. They are no longer my characters to create. They feel like old friends, people I reminisce about but never hear from.

A few weeks ago, I had the chance to chat with Anna Bowen at the Eden Mills podcast (30 mins). We talked a lot about characters, as well as the research that went into the novel, and the scenes that wouldn't have existed if not for my editors. We also talked about a bit of bonus content that you can find here.

I'll be taking part in the Eden Mills Writers' Festival in September and I'm really, really looking forward to it.

In praise of editors, again!

It never ceases to amaze me how little credit is given to book editors. I've already sung their praises on this blog but really and truly, they are the secret heroes of literature. Whenever I finish a book, I flip to the back to check out who the editor is. In fact, the other day, I was at the shop, considering whether or not to buy a new novel. Then I peaked at the acknowledgements, saw the editor was Iris Tulpholme, and went straight to the check out. The book, by the way, is The Storm by Arif Anwar. I read it and loved it. Iris did not let me down.

The Storm skillfully weaves various narratives together all the while keeping a firm grip on a true protagonist. There is a mystery at the centre that is solved at the end, but the threads of the story remained untied. It is not an anodyne happily ever after. It is a "they lived ever after" and what happens next is up to the reader to decide. I've been thinking a lot about plot lately (with regards to my new novel) and this book has given me something to chew on.

A couple of weekends ago I also read (gobbled up, more like) Zoey Leigh Peterson's Next Year For Sure. Billed as a story of polyamory, it's really so much more. It's the vivisection of a relationship and an exploration into loneliness, early adulthood ennui, friendship, and the fuzzy line of betrayal. Although it is a very, very different book, it reminded me of Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff. I couldn't look away even as the novel made me deeply uncomfortable. That's the hallmark of a great book. Plus, the dialogue was wondrous. More and more I find myself appreciating exceptional dialogue (Elisabeth de Mariaffi's Hysteria, edited by Iris Tulpholme, is another example of a book with sublime dialogue) Zoey eschews quotation marks and the result is that the line between interior thought and exterior speech is open to interpretation. If you are an intelligent reader who doesn't want to be spoon-fed, but who wants to be surprised and delighted by beautiful prose and new insights, this is a book for you. The Canadian editor, by the way, is Kiara Kent.

Jen Knoch, senior editor at ECW wrote two illuminating columns over at Open Book on the editorial process and what to expect when you're expecting to work with an editor on a new book.

En français

Last week, The Boat People hit international shelves as part of Penguin Random House's One World, One Book campaign! So international readers, you can now buy the novel on line at your local book shop or maybe even at the airport.

In other deal news, French language rights have been SOLD to Quebec publisher Mémoire d’encrier. Through them, the French version of the book will be available around the world. As always, the credit goes entirely to Stephanie, agent extraordinaire.

 

 

Math and hockey

My blog post about the Canada Reads gender gap went a little bit viral, this week. (Hello, new readers!) And on Tuesday, I spoke with Matt Galloway on Metro Morning. It was a quick six minute interview but we got into both the math and the larger issue of voice. One thing Matt asked: couldn't something else be driving the results, like the quality of the book or debating style? This is a question that's been asked quite a bit all week so I'm glad he raised it.

Now, I have binged several seasons of Canada Reads. Remember, all this began with me dissecting old episodes looking for winning and losing patterns. And yes, there are alliances and horse trading, and people vote off books that are perceived as strong. Books are voted off because their defenders are disliked. Graphic and YA novels can't get a break. Ditto books by Indigenous authors. All of these dynamics are in play. BUT every panel is different. Different players around the table every year. They vary in age, ethnicity, region, vocation, debate style, and literary taste. Some vote strategically. Others vote with their hearts. And the books change too, varying widely in content and style. The only constant is that there are always men and women.

Imagine two hockey teams facing off in 16 consecutive games. Red Team wins 13. Blue Team wins 3. You'd conclude that Red Team has better players right? But what if I told you the players on both teams were always changing, different skaters and goalies lacing up for every game? According to the math, this is very unlikely to be a fluke.

Tom gave an in-depth answer to this question in the comments of the original post. You should read his reply, if only because he uses the bad-ass expression "null-hypothesis." But in short, the evidence does not support the theory that gender is irrelevant in predicting success.

Some people (cough, cough...men) have argued we can't use the past to predict the future. To which my friend Nadra scoffed: "said every person ever...as history repeats itself over and over." (Ironically, this is exactly what The Boat People is about - how the sins of the past, when forgotten, repeat themselves in the future).

In fact, we use statistics about the past to predict the future all the time. It's called actuarial science and the insurance industry has been making hay with it for decades.

You’ve gotta be that girl in the horror movie with the knife in her teeth who’s climbing back into danger.
— Emily McKibbon, The New Quarterly

Enough about math! Monday ended up being a big day for rejection. In addition to getting voted off Canada Reads (to the Isle of Misfit Books where Craig, Cherie, and I are currently sipping pina coladas under a palm tree), I got a grant rejection and also had a form letter "no thanks" to a short story. Ah, the glamorous writing life. So I really appreciated this piece in The New Quarterly about rejection and the importance of grit. My favourite line was from the writer Emily McKibbon: "You’ve gotta be that girl in the horror movie with the knife in her teeth who’s climbing back into danger because she’s burnt out on running away from her troubles."

But this week was not a total bust. I had an acceptance too! Riddle Fence will publish my story "When the end came" in their spring issue. It's a comedy about quantum computers. I had so much fun writing it (that's not something I can say about every story) and it's part of a series of four linked stories, three of which deal with theoretical physics. This is the first of the four that I've managed to place.

Back to Canada Reads. I've been avidly watching all week, scrutinizing all the plays, and I've been so impressed by how Mozhdah has handled herself. Being under those lights, made to speak off the cuff, with a live studio audience and everyone watching at home, knowing what you say will live on the internet for posterity, that is no easy feat. I would probably crumble. But Mozhdah has been cool and collected. She's never lost her temper or yelled over anyone else. She's taken care with her words and her critique. I'm proud and frankly, relieved. Part of the stress for all of us writers is wondering how our defenders will represent us and our books. Right after I lost on Monday, my friend Nadika - who is a Canada Reads junkie - messaged me to say: Having a defender who isn't going to embarrass you is worth more than winning.

The really nice thing about this whole experience (apart from the book sales and publicity) has been getting to know the other writers and I'm really, really excited for our future appearances together. Omar and Cherie are sharing the stage at the Ottawa Writers Festival, which I'm also reading at late next month. And then the three of us will reunite with Canada Reads host Ali Hassan at The FOLD in Brampton in early May. In August, Omar and I are on stage at Winterset and I'm excited about that because our novels have so much in common. Reading American War, and in particular the scenes at Camp Patience, I had a feeling of real familiarity. I knew the scenes he was painting because I'd sketched them out myself. Go check out my events page for more details about tickets and times.

 

 

 

Happy to be here

Today my book was voted off Canada Reads. Which means The Boat People now joins the ranks of novels like The Break which also got booted off the island first. And you know what? That's mighty fine company so I'll take it! Also, as per yesterday's blog post, I was braced for this very likely outcome. (Good luck to you, Marrow Thieves)

For a while, a few years ago, my friend Erin had a pet phrase she was repeating: "I'm just happy to be here." Readers of The Boat People might recognize the line from the book. And that's how I've been feeling since around last November. I'm just happy to be here. At the start of this new career, with my book on the shelves and best-seller lists, getting buzz and selling copies, receiving lovely notes from readers. And yes that includes bad reviews and grumbles about my politics or whatever people choose to take issue with in the book. That's all a part of it - the rejections and lost opportunities and losses and bad reviews, just as much as the shortlists and festival invites and happy readers. This is what it means to be HERE. The good and the bad. As another friend Melisa likes to remind me: You take them both and there you have, the facts of life.

And now that I haven't got a horse in the race, here's a prediction: the odds on favourites were always Precious Cargo and American War. After watching today's debate, my money's on  Precious Cargo.

 

Canada Reads and the gender gap

For reasons that are about to become clear, I enlisted the help of my husband Tom for this blog post. To reiterate: much of what you are about to read came from a man.

The Canada Reads debates begin next week and to prepare I've been watching old debates, searching for patterns and tactics that mark out winners. But then I looked at the list of previous winners and all my strategic points flew out the window. I asked Tom, who is a mathematician and data nerd, to tell me if he noticed the same trends I saw and if they could possibly be a fluke.

Says Tom (note the deliberate use of quotation marks): "In the history of Canada Reads (2002-2017) there have been 80 competitors. Among these, there have been:

  • 24 men defending men
  • 22 women defending men
  • 21 women defending women, but only
  • 13 men defending women"

Book preferences of MALE defenders

Book preferences of FEMALE defenders

Tom says this trend has been rectifying itself. "In the first 9 years of the competition (between 2002 and 2010), men chose books written by men 79% of the time (15 to 4). Since then (2011-2017) it has been fifty-fifty (9 vs. 9). In recent years, about half the books in the competition have been written by women, as have half the winners. So on that front things have improved."

"More striking has been the success rates of the defenders," says Tom. In all of Canada Reads history there have been 37 male defenders and 43 female defenders. And yet, out of the 16 debates, men have won 13 competitions and women have won 3. Male defenders have won 81% of the time. Let that sink in. EIGHTY ONE PER CENT. Tom: "This despite the majority ( 54%) of defenders having been women."

Canada Reads Defenders

Who Wins Canada Reads

This is a glaring gender disparity. But what are the chances it's a result of debating skills or literary merit or bad luck or anything other than bias? Tom got out his calculator and did a bit of fancy algebra. "In an unbiased contest the chances of women winning 3 or fewer competitions is 1 in 272.  It's as unlikely as flipping a coin 8 times and only getting heads."*

But wait! There's more. What happens when we compare the genders of author/defender pairings?

A woman defending a woman has never won. In an unbiased competition, the likelihood of this happening is 1 in 180. It is less likely than flipping a coin seven times and only getting heads.
— Tom Baird, PhD

"Since every competition has 5 panelists and one winner, in an unbiased competition you'd expect each category of competitor to have around a 20% success rate. But of the 24 men who defended men, 8 won, which is a success rate of 33%. Of the 13 men who defended books by women, 5 won, a success rate of 38%. Women who defended men were successful 14% of the time. And women who defend women have had a success rate of 0%."

Canada Reads Defender Success Rates

Zero per cent. Again, I wondered: what are the odds this is a weird fluke?

Tom: "A woman defending a woman has never won. In an unbiased competition, the likelihood of this happening is 1 in 180. It is less likely than flipping a coin seven times and only getting heads."**

Women have always known that no one listens to us. (#AndThenAManSaidIt) At home, at work, at the podium, at the doctor's office, selective deafness is epidemic. This is why in the Obama White House, women staffers used a strategy of amplification to ensure their voices were heard and their ideas weren't appropriated by male colleagues. No surprise then if the tendency to dismiss women's opinions/ favour men's perspectives also happens around the Canada Reads table.

No one is consciously trying to sideline the ladies. The CBC, for their part, casts the panel with a view to gender parity. The problem is we have all been conditioned to pay attention to men and believe what they say. No one is immune; not even us women. This is what happens when one gender has had unfettered access to pulpits, soap boxes, stages, and microphones for centuries and the other has been told to shut up. Just this week a prominent music festival in my city announced a line-up that included only ONE female-fronted act. Only one woman will be allowed to open her mouth. So yes, I was not at all surprised by the BIG FAT ZERO or the dismal 14% success rate of female defenders.

Strategic advice to this year’s competitors: Vote against the male defenders. They are the threat.
— Tom Baird, PhD and bonafide genius

Canada Reads is a public debate. There are many other, more important, discussions that happen behind closed doors every day. Debates about who gets a grant; which book or story or poem wins an award; which author gets a festival invite or an interview; which books get promoted and reviewed; which manuscripts are purchased and the size of the advance. In these discussions, whose voices are heard and whose are ignored?

And what can we, as thoughtful citizens of this planet, do to overcome our own unconscious leanings? First, we acknowledge our biases. And then we fight against them. We listen to women. Really listen. We amplify their voices and give them credit to ensure they are heard. We don't just allow them the floor, we thoughtfully consider what they are saying. I'm not trying to silence the guys here. As this blog post has shown, men often have valuable insights to offer. But we are really good at listening to the gents. So let's give the ladies the same courtesy.

Last word goes to Tom: "Strategic advice to this year's competitors: Vote against the male defenders. They are the threat."


TOM'S FANCY ALGEBRA

*A simple approximate formula (which pretends 54% of defenders are women each year) is: 0.46^16+16*(0.46)^(15)*(0.54)^(1)+(16*15/2)*(0.46)^(14)*(0.54)^(2)+(16*15*14/6)*(0.46)^(13)*(0.54)^(3) = 0.0044 or 0.44%.

The exact formula which takes into account how many women defenders actually competed each year (2, 3, or 4) is:
(0.4)^(9)*(0.6)^(6)*(0.2)+
9*(0.4)^(8)*(0.6)^(7)*(0.2)+
6*(0.4)^(10)*(0.6)^(5)*(0.2)+
(0.4)^(9)*(0.6)^(6)*(0.8)+
(9*8/2)*(0.4)^(7)*(0.6)^(8)*(0.2)+
(6*5/2)*(0.4)^(11)*(0.6)^(4)*(0.2)+
9*6*(0.4)^(9)*(0.6)^(6)*(0.2)+
9*(0.4)^(8)*(0.6)^(7)*(0.8)+
6*(0.4)^(10)*(0.6)^(5)*(0.8)+
(9*8*7/6)*(0.4)^(6)*(0.6)^(9)*(0.2)+
(6*5*4/6)*(0.4)^(12)*(0.6)^(3)*(0.2)+
(9*8/2)*6*(0.4)^(8)*(0.6)^(7)*(0.2)+
9*(6*5/2)*(0.4)^(10)*(0.6)^(5)*(0.2)+
(9*8/2)*(0.4)^(7)*(0.6)^(8)*(0.8)+
9*6*(0.4)^(9)*(0.6)^(6)*(0.8)+
(6*5/2)*(0.4)^(11)*(0.6)^(4)*(0.8) = 0.0037 or 0.37%

** The chance that no woman defending a woman would win is (0.8)^(10)x(0.6)^(4)x(0.4)= 0.0056  or 0.56%.

 

 

 

 

 

 

1843 and other nice reviews

The Economist's 1843 (their culture magazine) has spotlighted The Boat People in their "What the world is reading" section this month. You can read the entire piece in print or online. Here's the bit I like best: “Already on several bestseller lists in Canada, Bala’s fiction has been praised for its timely appeal and its ability to capture this journey through the perspective of refugees.”

As I've said before, it's been an unexpected gift to hear from readers about the different ways they engaged with the book and in particular how their own life experiences shaped the way they interacted with the characters and storylines. I've been feeling pretty smug about the diversity of feedback. This is exactly what I hoped: that the novel would be a different book for every reader.

So I was thrilled to hear a couple of reviews on the radio this week. Bahareh Shigematsu talked about how the book brought back memories of her family's experiences as refugees from Iran as well as how it made her think about current events. "A lot more people should read this and find out about the history of our country. And it's not just history. It's current events. It's happening now." I had a little chuckle hearing how much Grace infuriated her! I was frustrated with Grace too. Just as I am frustrated with people like her who are so keen on building walls and closing doors to people in need. And I was so touched by this piece by Daniel Tseghay and in particular his thoughts on a scene that struck a particular chord with him. You can hear his radio review here (skip forward to 58:39).

Elsewhere online, the CBC asked the five Canada Reads finalists to write a little about their writing spaces. You can read my essay here.

The book once again made the CBC and Globe & Mail best-seller lists this week. The Canada Reads debates start on Monday. I'm a little sad, to be honest. I've read all the books and just love them. Each is important and riveting and necessary. Craig Davidson - who is just as genuine and funny in person as he is on the page - said something insightful in January when we were all together for the launch. This isn't about us or our books now, he said. It's about the champions and what happens around the table. I'm paraphrasing and probably badly but the sentiment is sound. Nothing that's said next week will change my opinion or the experience I had reading The Marrow Thieves or American War or Precious Cargo or Forgiveness. Still, I'm going to be cringing and queasy for all of us as I tune in.

At the same time, it really doesn't matter. I mean, yes, of course it matters. Winning authors and books get more publicity and opportunities and royalties, definitely more top-of-mind reader awareness. But landing on the short list has been an incredible boost for the book. And it's a thrill to have my book championed by someone whose ambition, activism, music, and work ethic I really respect. I have every confidence that Mozhdah is going to speak with passion and eloquence and be a credit to my novel.

So it's difficult to imagine feeling disappointed if we lose. Especially because of something I discovered earlier this week. But THAT is a subject for tomorrow's post.

 

THE NEW YORKER!

The Boat People got a nice little review in the March 19th issue of THE NEW YORKER. The mention is in the briefly noted books section alongside new releases by Peter Carey and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. THE NEW YORKER. I mean...what else is there to say?

Also this week: the novel is back on the best-seller lists (#2 on the CBC and #7 on the Globe & Mail). And I'm still loving the messages and cards and texts and emails from friends (and strangers). My favourite at the moment is a note from my pal Jess in PEI who, among other things, wrote: "I am endlessly impressed. I literally turn every page and think to myself: holy fuck." I love and appreciate all the blurbs on my book but there's something hilarious and arresting about the reviews from non-writers.

If you are in Quebec City this Thursday, March 15, there is a Canada Reads event taking place at The Morrin Centre at 7pm. I won't be there but author Neil Bissoondath will be talking about my book. You can hear a little teaser and his thoughts during an interview with CBC Radio's Breakaway host Saroja Coelho here. And if you can't make the event, parts of it will be aired on Breakaway next week. I'll post a link when it's online. (I feel like I say this often about links and then never get around to posting them. I'm working on it. A link round up of some sort is coming. Promise!)

And finally, recommended reads! Here is a short story that I loved and listened to three times last week. It's Antonya Nelson's "Naked Ladies" read by Lorrie Moore. I also just devoured Elisabeth de Mariaffi's latest novel HysteriaIt's a thriller set in the 50s. That's really all you need to know. And I'm nearing the end of Madeleine Thien's Do Not Say We Have Nothing, which of course I'm the last person in this country to read. It's beautiful and I'm totally stuck in, wanting to know what happens next.

Hey, Ladies!

DEAL NEWS first: We've sold Arabaic language rights for The Boat People to Fawasel Publishing! It's ironic that one of my first foreign language deals is for Arabic rights. When I was a kid in Dubai, Arabic was hands down my worst class. My parents even hired a tutor and one of my earliest memories was kicking up a massive tantrum when it was time to go for those lessons (I was a brat). In school, the language teacher was a terrifying woman who used to march up and down the aisles checking our progress. She had a ruler that she held with one hand and smacked against the palm of the other. And that ruler, more often than not, ended up across my knuckles because I wrote too slowly. I hated Arabic with a passion but now, as an adult, I think it's actually quite a beautiful language. I love that it's written right to left. I love the way it looks on the page, flowing like a river. But I digress...

This book deal, like all the others, would not have happened without my hard-working, whip-smart agent, Stephanie Sinclair. She is just one in an army of women who made my career possible and The Boat People a success. Other notables include my three editors: Anita, Melissa, and Margo, and my marketing/ publicity team: Erin, Charlotte, and Sarah. And then there were all the early readers and the other writers who gave me advice, a leg up, loaned their time and talents: Lisa (x2), Carrie, Susan, Melissa, Kristen, Elisabeth, Megan....there are too many to name.

In honour of International Women's Day the CBC complied a list of 18 women authors to read in 2018. The list includes my pal Eva Crocker, whose debut collection made a big splash last year. For those of us in St. John's, Eva's work has been our little secret for a few years and I'm always happy to see her get the wider praise she deserves. Also on the list: the wonderful Djamila Ibrahim, Canisia Lubrin, and S.K. Ali. Every time my name or my book makes one of these lists, I always feel so honoured by the company. 

For IWD2018, I also did an interview with Kobo about the importance of questioning authority, speaking up, and getting your elbows out. Other interviewees include literary heavyweights Eden Robinson, Zoey Lee Peterson, and Gurjinder Basran. (Parenthetically I just read Basran's Someone You Love Is Gone on the flight to Vancouver and was blown away. It's an arresting, gorgeous novel).

It's March 8th but when your social and family and work circles are filled with loud, brash, opinionated, clever, creative, hard-working ladies, every day is defined by women. I’m so fortunate in this regard, to have been raised by a mother who worked in finance and brought home the proverbial and literal bacon (although there was an unfortunate stretch where said bacon was of the turkey variety), who taught me how to expect good things and showed me by example how to make them happen. And I am surrounded by aunts and cousins who refuse to shut up. (Try. And. Make. Us.)

In the interview with Kobo I said that there's no substitute for sensible real life women. Surrounding yourself with the right people will undo and mitigate so much of the damage that is heaped on us by social media and advertising and sexual predators. I'm grateful for my girl friends who are rock stars who inspire me daily with their marathons and child-rearing and kick ass careers. They are teachers and doctors and mothers and executives and artists making this world a better place with their compassion, their humour, and most of all their persistence.

March 8th is just one day on the calendar. What is important, as women, is how we live our lives every day of the year. In closing, I'm going to quote Gurjinder Basran whose advice can be applied to writing as well: "I would tell them that confidence isn’t inate. It is something that builds with experience. So, to have confidence to speak up, they simply must start. Nothing magical ever happens in our comfort zones!"