REFUSE: CanLit in Ruins

I have honestly taken a month to write this review because I have been nervous to make this public. Part of it is because I’ve never been in the position of being friends with an author/editor of a whole book that I’ve read. And part of it is that this might as well bring me back to my undergrad, writing something that will be read by a teacher whom I admire and want to impress.

Here goes nothin’ y’all.

img_8456Title: REFUSE: CanLit in Ruins, edited by Erin Wunker, Julie Rak and Hannah McGregor

Genre: Non-fiction essays, anthology

Bought or borrowed? Bought from my pals at Glass Bookshop (psst– they are still fundraising for their more permanent home in Edmonton! Check out the indiegogo on their website!)

Why did you pick this up? 

Not gonna lie, Julie Rak is my favourite teacher from my undergrad degree. Hannah is one of my favourite podcast hosts and feminist icons. (I have not had the pleasure of meeting Erin Wunker.) More importantly, a lot of garbage has been happening in Canadian Literature in the last few years, and having been on the periphery I was interested in learning more about it from the perspectives of non-journalists and the writers within the great “dumpster fire” that is CanLit, currently. And what better way than from scholars whom I already know and trust?


This anthology is broken into three parts, examining CanLit from three different meanings of the word “refuse”; first, “refusal” as in saying “no”; second “refuse” as in trash or garbage; and the last as “re-fusing” or putting the pieces of something back together. Pieces included in the anthology have titles that leave the reader with no sense of safety or comfort, like “Rape Culture, CanLit and You,” “Check Your Privilege!”, and simply, “BURN”. If the title “CanLit in Ruins” isn’t enough of a sign that this will be a discomforting tome, these pieces’ headers certainly signal it.

Each section has an introduction which provides some context to each of its composite submissions. The introductions are a good appetizer for the the enormous meal that is the selection of pieces for each segment. The editors did not conclude the work with a conclusion of their own writing, which demonstrates the commitment to raising the voices of those less privileged than them in this important ongoing conversation about CanLit and Canada.

Hannah made a point of ensuring she signed everyone’s copy in the same place when we requested autographs. 

Also included are brief biographies of each of the contributors (who also all sound like people you would want to be friends with if you’re into decolonizing, trans-inclusive, intersectional feminism, which frankly everyone should be).

Thoughts, Feelings:

Part of the reason I started writing this blog in the first place is that I miss thinking critically and writing about the things I read, and this book is full of essays and poetry that made me feel the satisfaction of reading (somewhat) academically again. (Without all the pressure of being an actual student… I’m just trying to be a student of life, you know?) It also enlightened me to a lot of things I didn’t already know about. For example, I had heard about the #UBCAccountable controversy, but I didn’t know quite the extent of who had signed it, or why. I hadn’t really heard of the Joseph Boyden nonsense of claiming Indigeneity. Reading this book was interrupted many a time with some furious Googling to find out more, to know more, to make myself more aware of just how much I, and so many Canadians outside of the “community” of CanLit, have been missing.

Not gonna lie, I went home and fangirled about the fact that Prof. Rak remembered me from when I was her student. Excitable texts to my close friends can confirm. 

A pervasive thought that I had throughout my reading was the slogan that Chapters Indigo, the famous big-box bookstore(/lifestyle brand/knickknack) chain has employed in recent summers, leading up to July 1: “The world needs more Canada.” Reading this book, my mind immediately follows up with an extremely skeptical, Mm… does it? Considering the fact that Canada has a history of denial when it comes to our violent and deeply racist roots which are still alive and unfortunately healthy today, I really can’t say that it does. As Lucia Lorenzi says in her piece, “#CanLit at the Crossroads: Violence is Nothing New; How We Deal with It Might Be”: “the idea of Canada[ ]has been to promote a narrative that runs counter to the… violent histories within itself” (77). The fact that, in casual conversations with my age peers to this day, the names of famous authors sympathizing with Stephen Galloway and not his victims/survivors are still associated only with their works and not their more recent and harmful impacts on the world says a lot to me. So many Canadians are constantly in denial about the real, living effects of the country’s violent past and present, that it also makes it hard to be hopeful about a different future.

With this in mind, the final section of the book, “Re-Fuse”, does provide a small glimmer of that hope. Or not. As the editors explain in the section’s introduction, “Instead, we might characterize these possibilities as emergent… Emergence is about newness… that is pushing back against the limitations, assumptions and orthodoxies of the established culture” (141). The idea is not to be hopeful for the sake of being hopeful, but rather to establish an understanding that empowers us to redraw the boundaries, if not remove them entirely, which determine what “is” or “isn’t” CanLit. In particular, the final piece by Joshua Whitehead, “Writing as a Rupture: A Breakup Note with CanLit” I think expresses it best, when he says that the nation and its literatures are accountable to him, rather than authors — and specifically Indigenous authors — being accountable to the idea of CanLit, or what it wishes it could be.

The morning that I am finishing this post, I listened to a live episode of Hannah’s podcast, Secret Feminist Agenda in which Hannah and one of the contributing authors, Chelsea Vowel, discuss Indigeneity, and resistance to colonialism and the settler state in Canadian Literature. (It is a very good episode, and listening to Vowel read aloud the poem she contributed to the book made so many other meanings come out of it for me.) The conversation that unfolds over the course of the episode was a great compliment to the conversation started in Refuse, and I highly recommend it, as well as the rest of the SFA podcast. (Also listen to Vowel’s podcast, Métis in Space, which is referenced in the episode.)

Sparklets/Key quotes:

“at least part of the public project of Canadian Literature, much like the idea of Canada itself, has been to promote a narrative that runs counter to the existing rifts and violent histories within itself.” – Lucia Lorenzi, page 77, ‘#CanLit at the Crossroads’

“…in the Trumpian era, [Chelsea Vowel] noted that apocalytic fears are a marker of white privilege. Whereas Indigenous people in North America have ‘been post-apocalyptic since contact.'” – Nikki Reimer, page 129, ‘CanLit Hierarchy vs The Rhizome’

Reread-ability: Definitely worth a revisit, and definitely a source for future reads, based on the authors who contributed to the collection.

Recommended to: your favourite anti-colonial feminists.


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