Joyfully: Reading as Generative Resistance

March 8, 2017 by Erin Wunker

I need family.               I want community.
                      I need to read.            I want to be read.
(from Shannon Webb-Campbell “Needs vs Wants” Still No Word)

What do we need to survive? What do we want to aid us in thriving? These are the central questions in Shannon Webb-Campbell’s poem “Needs vs Wants.” The needs outlined in the poem are root needs—water, oxygen, family. The wants require the reader to double-back on the needs and see them again in new light. Salt, air, community—these are desires that aren’t necessary to survival. They are future-oriented desires, those things that make the journey joyful.


Photo by Bart Vautour.

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I’ve read this poem many times, but most often I come back to it for the last line: “I need to read. I want to be read.” This line, for me, is about seeing and being seen. What does it mean to read the words of others, and to want, in turn, to have your own words read.

This repetition of the word “read” is repetition with a difference. Or rather, with differance.


Let me explain.




I have a vivid memory of teaching a literary theory class several years ago. The reading for the day was something from the French philosopher Jacques Derrida. You know the name even if you don’t think you do: Derrida is the philosopher who coined the term differance with an ‘a.’ Differance is frustrating. Its deliberate misspelling will, if you’re not careful, be undermined by autocorrect every time, but that’s sort of the point. Derrida was one of the European philosophers fascinated with questions of how to speak difference without trying to translate it into sameness. Anyway, I was excited about teaching the class, that’s the point. To show the students an example of philosophical logic—a weaving kind of thinking—I started with a short clip from the documentary of Derrida made by Kirby Dick and Amy Zeiring Kofman in which Kofman asks the following question: “Which philosopher would be your mother?” Which philosopher would be your mother? Derrida pauses and then works through an answer: the philosopher who would be his mother cannot yet have been born, for they would have to be born of a moment that is better, less patriarchal, less oppressive, more marked by differance than now. That philosopher, he surmised, must be his granddaughter or his great-granddaughter.

I love this thinking, because it hails for me two things: first, the necessity of loosening the grip of white patriarchal history on our imaginations, and second, the bone-deep knowledge that mothering the mind of another is the work of many-gendered beings. In her oft-cited poem “A Kentucky of Mothers” Dana Ward calls these writers who shape her thinking the many-gendered mothers of her heart.


Where do we begin to mark the moment we realized we needed to resist the oppressions of the world we live in?





I need to read. I want to be read.






Where do we begin to mark the moment we realized we needed to resist the oppressions of the world we live in? This is an almost-impossible question to answer collectively, because we experience the world differently depending on our race, gender, sexuality, ability, class, citizenship… the list goes on. How do we speak collective resistance in the face of differance?





Reading, for me, has been a site from which to learn differance. Reading is both a solitary act and an act of radical kinship. There you are, sitting in silence with the words of another person. There you are, together, reading and writing. Speaking and listening. Teaching and learning.

When I think of the writers who make the “many gendered micro-lineage” of my heart I think of those writers who teach me about attention, about how to look where someone else is pointing. I think of those writers who retrain my eyes to see outside my habitual modes of looking.





But what is there to be joyful about?

I’ve thought that. I have, though I hate to admit it. What’s more, as a teacher and researcher of Canadian literature, I’m having once again to grapple with the fact that there is no shared site from which “we” are speaking resistance. Instead, there is misogyny. There is racism. There is transphobia. There is appropriation. There is abuse of power. There is mistrust. There are broken hearts.


Reading others is going to be one of my radical acts of allyship, of friendship, of witnessing without trying to translate differance.




I need to read. I want to be read.




This year, more than any other year, I am aiming to read. Reading others is going to be one of my radical acts of allyship, of friendship, of witnessing without trying to translate differance. Reading with attention will be one of my durational acts of resistance.

I need to read.

And I want to read the work of those many-gendered future matriarchs of my mind.





How do you make a reading list for joyful resistance?

You begin. You admit it is partial. You shine the light on the work of others and you begin.




Here, then, is a list. It is partial. It is open-ended. And it is a place of beginning. Just one place to begin. I’ve tried to select writers in the early stages of their writing careers—whether that earliness is marked by age (arbitrary), or by first text-based publication, or by the arrival of a collaborative project. This is not an exhaustive or closed list, but it is a list that attempts to celebrate, bow down to, and most of all, listen, through careful attention, to the voices of others.  




~ Injun by Jordan Abel (Talonbooks). Award-winning Nisga’a poet Jordan Abel’s third collection, Injun, is a long poem about racism and the representation of Indigenous peoples. The book is bricolaged together from text found in western novels published between 1840 – 1950. Using the find function Abel locates the word “injun” in the compiled text and then does a scatter-shot examination of how and where the word is deployed. Injun is a refusal of settler-colonial racism that reframes the long history of racism in the present using procedural poetics as generative tools.

~ Passage by Gwen Benaway (Kegedonce Press). A Two-Spirited trans poet of Anishinaabe and Métis descent, Benaway’s poetry is luminescent. Her poetry addresses the burden of carrying violence in one’s body-memory as well as the exquisite beauty of coming into a way of being in the world at once rooted in generations and in one’s own resilience and creativity.

~ Testament Vickie Gendreau, translated by Aimee Wall (BookThug). In which, after being diagnosed with a brain tumor at the age of twenty-three, Gendreau writes her own auto-fictional witnessing of the last year of her life. Funny, rending, and unrepentant, this book undid me and nudged my little heart to be more brave.  

~ GUTS: Canadian Feminist Magazine. GUTS has been doing incredible cultural work and publishing some of the most diverse, politically-engaged, and community-building writing since it launched in 2013. If you’re not reading every issue I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say you’re missing out. Don’t miss out.

~ THOU by Aisha Sasha John (BookThug). THOU is two long and narrative poems that interrogate and explore the social spaces that exist between one’s self and others. John uses poetics to model modes of relating that are porous, open, expansive, and radical.

~ Live from the Afrikan Resistance by El Jones (Roseway Publishing). Spoken word artist Jones translated some of her performance poetry into page poetry and we readers are fortunate for this. As Safa Jinje writes, “Readers who are not familiar with black-activist writing may balk at the spelling of 'Afrikan,' yet the ‘k’ is a deliberate rejection of the colonial ethos and identity imposed on people from the continent and across the diaspora. Jones’s poetry brings this sentiment to life with a chilling rawness.”

~ Anima Canadensis by Sonnet L’Abbé. This is a small, gorgeous chapbook that looks at the soul of Canada and finds it to be both rooted and wanting. It is rooted in earth, yes, but it is also rooted in systemic racism and white supremacy. L’Abbé’s poetic taxonomy grafts hope onto irony and realism.

~ Moontime Warrior by Erica Violet Lee, a self-described Nēhiyaw Philosopher Queen learning how to be a writer in the wastelands. This is a blog, not a book, though I would hope we will see a publication from Erica Violet Lee in the near future. Lee is brilliant and incisive. I have avidly followed her writing, thinking, and teaching since reading “Feeding the Heart of Our City: A Love Letter at the Closing of Our Grocery Store.”

~ Voodoo Hypothesis by Canisia Lubrin (Wolsak & Wynn). I cannot wait for this book to be published. I asked Canisia Lubrin if she could share something of her much-anticipated collection with me. Here is what she so generously offered, which comes from her interview with E. Martin Nolan from the most recent issue of The Puritan: “I submit that poetry can offer a glimpse of history with enough propulsion in the narrative that the reader is not captured by an expectation of historiography. I’m no historian but I think that whatever we think of as the present becomes myopic without acknowledgment of history’s role in our continuing narrative. The hope is for a looking around, a looking inward, and a looking forward to what can be—beyond the largely imperial dominance of singular history. Yes, the barbarism of, say, the Holocaust or The Middle Passage or The Crusades were perpetuated by folks wielding ideological contradictions, supremacists whose narrativizations make them seem all-powerful to us folk who are constantly looking back. Yet, the minute you capture a thing and transform it into art, it is necessarily changed by virtue of whatever representation you give it. If I am arrested by a historical presence, it’s the one that goes after the history that is hidden.”

~ even this page is white by Vivek Shraya (Arsenal Pulp Press). This is Shraya’s first collection of poetry, and oh, is it ever amazing. Uneasy, unrelenting, generous, and generative, Shraya’s critique of white supremacy and the insipidness of systemic racism is woven into the structure of the collection itself. The poems of the first section are gathered in the bottom half of the page leaving an expanse of whiteness hovering above them. As Shani Mootoo writes, “This brave and very contemporary lyrical collection dares to ask the unspoken yet screaming questions, to finish the sentence that hurts, that reveals, that provokes, that celebrates. Like a Durga goddess, Shraya juggles with deft hands the multiple aspects of desire, race, gender, queerness, and contemporary pop culture.”

~ a place called No Homeland by Kai Cheng Thom (Arsenal Pulp Press). This is Kai Cheng Thom’s first collection of poetry and it’s going to shake things up. As her publisher Arsenal Pulp Press writes, “Kai Cheng Thom’s poetry draws equally from memory and mythology to create new maps of gender, race, sexuality and violence. In the world of a place called No Homeland, the bodies of the marginalized―queer and transgender communities, survivors of abuse and assault and children of diaspora ―are celebrated, survival songs are sung and the ancestors offer you forgiveness for not remembering their names. Descended from the traditions of oral storytelling, spoken word and queer punk poetry, Kai Cheng Thom's debut collection is evocative and unforgettable.”

~ Still No Word by Shannon Webb-Campbell (Goose Lane Editions). This collection is a love letter to the ocean, to wayward hearts seeking safe harbor, and to genealogies and family histories that are rooting in heart and bone while being disavowed by the state. These poems sing. They swim. They come up for air, and in the arc of cresting the waves they fill my lungs with salt and oxygen.


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Erin Wunker is Chair of the Board of the national non-profit organization Canadian Women in the Literary Arts and co-founder, writer, and managing editor of the feminist academic blog Hook & Eye: Fast Feminism, Slow Academe. She teaches courses in Canadian literature and cultural production with a special focus on cultural production by women. She lives in Halifax with her partner, their daughter, and Marley the dog. Her first book, Notes from a Feminist Killjoy: Essays on Everyday Life, was published by BookThug in the fall of 2016.


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