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Changing the Face of Canadian Literature: A Diverse Canadian Anthology

by Dane Swan (ed.)

Editor Dane Swan concludes the introduction to this new anthology of poetry and essays by saying, “Congratulations Canada, you finally have a literature that looks like the people who inhabit you. Do not take this moment for granted.” The collection features work by a range of writers – including Adam Pottle, Sheena Kamal, Doretta Lau, and Danila Botha – across the field of what has colloquially become known as CanLit.

One of the aspects that makes Changing the Face of Canadian Literature stand out is the prominent space devoted to spoken-word artists like Jamaal Jackson Rogers, Ian Keteku, and Tanya Evanson. Spoken word and page poetry seem like vastly different worlds, but Swan’s selection dissolves that separation. In “Medicine,” Rogers writes, “In these decades of days past I would meet faces attached to stories that / carried history from all across earth’s marvelous landscapes.” The poem dramatizes a personal encounter in Ottawa that coincides with an unpacking of immigrant identity. The concluding lines – “That if we ever want to know how deep our beauty and empathy resides, / we shall see it in the hope, the healing, the stories, the joy, / that lies in a newcomers eyes” – speak to sharing and celebrating diversity. “Medicine” captures an intent of the anthology: within differences can lie space for solidarity.

The anthology acknowledges that CanLit is not a singular space, but is divided, often on exclusionary lines. While “Medicine” highlights a benefit of the diversity in Canadian literature, Ashley Hynd’s poem “On being published for the 1st, 2nd, 3rd time” points out the dominance of whiteness as a standard by which poetry is measured. If she can manage to get published in this sphere, the poet suggests, “then maybe // I can finally feel / like I belong / in my own skin.” Hynd asks what it means to enter a literary scene, and whether a sense of belonging will always be rejuvenating and healing.

In his essay “No Camp for the Soul,” Italian-Canadian writer Daniele D’Onorio breaks down the Canadian citizenship oath: “Queen of Canada is a chalice filled with the blood of wandering heartless soldiers and polished with the sour wine of the drama.” Resistant to genre, D’Onorio inserts into his narrative a commentary on the absurdities of what immigrants must swear to in order to become “Canadian.”

Edmonton poet NASRA brings an unapologetic spark of joy to “woman,” in which they say they write “to honour the title of fire keeper / to flick at the embers with audacious tongues / and stoke our own flame.” The poem’s hope arises out of the strength to fight back collectively.

Changing the Face of Canadian Literature comes close to accomplishing what the title proclaims. Swan acknowledges the extensive library of anthologies that have sought – more or less effectively – to bring equity to the publishing scene. This one authentically captures a literary moment that is alive and exciting, a moment that will, with ongoing vigilance, continue evolving in ever more inclusive directions.