Friday, September 17, 2010

Does a writer's DNA matter?

I posted the schedule for the Fall Edition of the Festival on the Festival's Facebook and Twitter feeds last week, and created a Facebook event for the Festival itself.

I'd already done the same for the pre-Festival lineup, and one of the Festival's Facebook friends had responded by asking, "Um... what happened to the womenz?"

I wrote back, explaining that we don't really give much thought to the sex, race, religion or sexual orientation (or physical condition, or age, or hair colour, or number of tattoos) of a writer when considering him, or her, or hir, or whoever, for an invitation to the Festival. If we had a 50/50 policy, wouldn't that be a bit strange? "We must invite precisely 35 men and 35 women writers"? How many of those men, and women, should be, say, black? And of those black men and black women, how many should be Caribbean, how many African-American (and by 'American' I mean 'North American'), how many from Africa, and how do we make sure the correct countries are represented from Africa? Do we then find ourselves desperately trying to find a writer to invite, any writer, who's female and from Namibia?

Well, okay, I didn't say it like that. I said that we consider what's out there, and who is touring, and who has a great new book out, and who we think is likely to grab the interest of our audiences, or who we think is important to introduce our audience to. Sex doesn't enter into the decision making process one way or the other - and it does turn out that, some years, there are more of one demographic group than another. One year, every fiction author was female. It was totally unplanned; it just happened to fall out that way. (And no one complained at the lack of men, incidentally.)

But then, the same Facebook friend responded to the full Festival schedule by announcing that she was going to boycott the Festival, because there weren't enough women in it.

Okay. That's, as far as I can tell, her prerogative. I think she'll be missing out on a pretty sweet lineup, personally, but that's her call to make.

And then one of her friends added that she was going to give us the benefit of the doubt, but "if it doesn't change next year" she would cancel her membership, and I started to feel - defensive? Confused? Indignant? I started counting women. And it felt weird. Last fall, 29 out of 75 writers were women. What does that mean? Does it mean anything? Suddenly I was looking at writers and putting them in boxes. Male. Female. White. Native. Indian. Black. Muslim. Jewish. Christian. Gay. Straight. Sometimes it had a bearing on the book they were here to present. Usually it didn't. But suddenly they all had a tag, or it felt like they needed one. And it felt weird.

We get people every year who call and ask me, "Are there any queer writers in the lineup this year?" or "Are there any Aboriginal writers?" or "Are there any Muslim writers?" To which I usually find myself shrugging and answering, "You probably know better than me: the authors list is up on the website." Sometimes I don't know a writer's sex until I look up their bio - what if they have an indeterminate name, or go by initials only? The same goes for religion, sexual orientation, anything you can't tell from a name.

Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe we should be making an effort to ensure a gender balance in our lineup. But passing up a Michael Cunningham, or a John Lavery, or a Richard B. Wright, because he's white and male seems strange to me. I'm a woman: I don't feel excluded by this lineup of authors. I don't understand canceling a membership or boycotting the Festival in protest against it, as though it was a deliberate, patriarchal decision on the part of the staff to exclude women (for one thing, three-quarters of our full-time staff are female). I'll say it again: we invite authors who are good, who are interesting, who have new books out, who we think will draw an audience, spark an important conversation, or help our community better understand itself.

Sean, the Artistic Director of the Festival, told me that he once had a conversation with Donna Bailey Nurse in which she told him the Festival had a good reputation in the black community. "Why's that?" Sean asked her, and she said it was because they knew there was no tokenism in the Festival: if a writer was invited it wasn't because we 'needed some colour,' it was because we thought she was good, and as a member of a community that gets tapped for the sake of diversity, she valued knowing she was being included on her own merits, not for the colour of her skin. I'd say the same thing about the women in this Fall's lineup - I mean, look at who they are. Two of them are Booker shortlisters this year. Three are members of the Order of Canada. We've also got an IMPAC longlister, and the recipient of the inaugural Human Dignity Award from the European Parliament. I'd say the women in this fall's lineup are pretty impressive people. And none of them were invited because of their sex: they were invited because of their talent.

And I really wish I could stop counting women now, but it's a bit like having the Barney song stuck in your head. Argh.


  1. I'm with you, Kate - Keep bringing wicked writers in like you guys always do, regardless of gender, race or whatever else we like to judge people by, and you'll keep me as a member for sure! I'm coming for the writers, that's it.

  2. exactly. and a woman who feels there aren't enough women at the writers fest is certainly free to start her own festival. my motto is if you don't like something, change it.