The Writers Leading the Nonfiction Revolution

A new wave of experimental writing sees racialized authors forging their own literary tradition

Five arms held up with their hands in the form of a fist, as to stand for solidarity. An orange circle sits in the middle of the photo with a blue background

There’s a little thrill of recognition you get when a foreign language puts words to something you’ve felt intuitively. Dutch provides many such opportunities. English’s cousin (on the German side) is stacked with big words for simple things and simple words for complex feelings. On a night when you’re feeling unsocial, you can afbellen (cancel plans by phone) in order to indulge your leeshonger (hunger to read) in your gezellig (cozy) apartment; conversely, you can go to the party and end up feeling ongezellig (uneasy in a social environment).

Sadiqa de Meijer introduces us to these concepts and others in Alfabet/Alphabet, a new book that explores her relationship to the language she traded for English when she emigrated from the Netherlands at twelve. Born to parents of Dutch and Kenyan, Pakistani, and Afghan origins, de Meijer identifies as mixed race, and through twenty-six sections (one for each letter of the alphabet), she considers how this inheritance shapes her approach to language, writing, and identity. Though labelled a memoir, Alfabet/Alphabet pushes this label to its limit: braiding lyric retrospection and linguistic play, it is both totally original and exemplary of a new trend in Canadian literature that is multilingual, experimental, and spearheaded by women of colour.

Based in Kingston, Ontario, de Meijer is having a banner year. Along with Alfabet/Alphabet, she released her sophomore poetry collection, The Outer Wards. De Meijer first surfaced on the popular radar in 2012, when her long poem “Great Aunt Unmarried” beat out more than 2,300 competitors for the CBC poetry prize. The following year, the poem was included in her first collection, Leaving Howe Island, which was nominated for the Governor General’s Award and the Pat Lowther Memorial Award. Leaving Howe Island established de Meijer as a poet with an eye for detail and a calm, observational voice, reminiscent of Mary Oliver or Elizabeth Bishop. Her poems are earnest but often quite witty: “Every airplane is a suspension / of disbelief,” she writes, with characteristically deft enjambment, “a merger of physics and faith.”

Her latest collection, The Outer Wards, shares many themes with her earlier work, including motherhood, the environment, and the experiences of cultural displacement and racism. The new poems, however, are looser and more conversational, giving the impression of an increasingly confident writer. The voice is also more confessional. The book focuses on mothering through illness: de Meijer sustained an injury that incapacitated her for several months, and her depiction of this experience is gutting. In one poem, the speaker lies helpless in a dark room as a caregiver shushes her daughter, “Quiet for mama, quiet for mama!” In another, the speaker practises telling her daughter she can’t attend her birthday party on the stuffed monkey her daughter has entrusted her to babysit. But underlying the speaker’s suffering is another, equally pernicious illness: the casual racism she regularly encounters in the predominantly white city of Kingston. De Meijer captures this experience in the collection’s longest and most accomplished poem, “It’s the Inner Harbour Neighbourhood, but Everyone Calls It Skeleton Park”:

         Lord, there’s so much whiteness, hard
         as the stratified walls of old quarries that edge the backyards.
         I’m Guatemalan, Native, Arabic, whatever, they insist they’ve met
         my sister, but I have no sister. And the ones who say,
         that’s so interesting, I’m just boring old nothing, are the most
         dangerous people, who think they have no history.

Questions of racism and cultural erasure are even more overt in Alfabet/Alphabet, which comprises prose reminiscences intercut by original translations of Dutch poems and conceptual set pieces. The book marks a radical shift for de Meijer, a writer who values the beauty of the well-turned phrase. But beautiful language is not always the most useful tool when one is trying to dismantle the master’s house. As de Meijer and other racialized writers have realized, sometimes new ideas require new forms. This explains why the most formally exciting literature in Canada is also the most political.

Experimental memoirs have proliferated in recent years under many guises: sometimes called lyric essays or autotheory, these works often hybridize different forms, including poetry, essay, and memoir. Truman Capote’s true crime blockbuster In Cold Blood, one of the first books to apply fiction techniques to hard reporting, is often cited as the grandfather of creative nonfiction. But, while the genre’s most exciting contemporary practitioners share Capote’s innovative spirit, the demographics and politics have shifted. Today, autotheory’s most acclaimed voices are nonmale, nonwhite, or queer. (Capote was himself gay.) Their experimental forms are often driven by the need to write themselves back into cultural scripts from which they have been shut out, such as the privileged status given to heterosexuality and whiteness. High-profile examples include Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, which fuses theory and autobiography to reimagine queer relationships, and Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, which repurposes the lyric form to confront American racism.

In Canada, the most trail-blazing contemporary nonfiction is being produced by writers of colour and Indigenous writers, many of whom are women or nonbinary. A quick look through The Vintage Book of Canadian Memoirs, compiled by George Fetherling in 2001, will give you a sense of the sea change that has taken place. In his introduction, Fetherling attempts to convince us that his selections are “part of a more global phenomenon” of life writing insofar as their gentle forays into self-fictionalization give them cosmopolitan cred. His corpus of twenty-four memoirs includes institutional stalwarts like Margaret Atwood, Al Purdy, and Michael Ignatieff. In centring these establishment voices, Fetherling reifies a version of CanLit that, in 2017, encountered opposition so fierce—for being, among other things, too old, too white, and too closely monitored by powerful gatekeepers—it was dubbed a “dumpster fire.”

To find the works that are really doing something exciting, you have to cast your net a little wider. Lesbian feminist poet Nicole Brossard once wrote that the goal of feminist experimentation is “not to make trouble for the sake of it, but to change the law and the authority to which it refers.” This maxim is relevant to contemporary writers who use genre-blurring to encode their dissident politics: experimental memoirs by Dionne Brand and Durga Chew-Bose come to mind, as do Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s hybrid-genre Islands of Decolonial Love and This Accident of Being Lost (both billed as “stories and songs”) and Canisia Lubrin’s book-length poem The Dyzgraphxst.

Formal experimentation allows Black and Indigenous writers to “imagine otherwise.” This phrase is the motto of scholar and writer Daniel Heath Justice, a Canadian citizen of the Cherokee Nation. In 2017, Justice coined the term wonderworks to describe books that, like Tanya Tagaq’s novel Split Tooth, use fantastical elements to chart “a different way of engaging our histories and . . . possibilities for the future.” Wonderworks often blend realist and nonrealist modes to reject colonial worldviews and recover “other ways of knowing, being, and abiding.” Speculative fiction has long taken advantage of this subversive potential, which has now migrated to nonfiction. In this context, writers sometimes use code-switching—punctuating the English text with other languages—to resist colonialism and assert Indigenous sovereignty. Simpson’s Islands of Decolonial Love, for example, intersperses Nishnaabemowin terms and phrases throughout the collection.

Black diasporic writers like Brand and Lubrin similarly use formal experimentation and code-switching to challenge the racism embedded in Canadian history and society. Saint Lucia–born Lubrin’s second collection, The Dyzgraphxst, is one long poem comprising seven studies of fragmented selfhood undertaken by a figure named Jejune. The poem is hard to classify under any existing rubric: it has a dramatis personae and is divided into dramatic acts, but it isn’t a play. Its first-person speaker is fragmented to the point of unrecognizability, estranging it from the lyric tradition. Broken bits of English, French, and Caribbean Creole are scattered over the pages, leaving swaths of blank space in their wake and more questions than answers.

What to make of this uncategorizable work with a purposefully unpronounceable title? The Dyzgraphxst is named after a concept in an academic monograph by Black-studies scholar Christina Sharpe, In the Wake, which discusses dysgraphia, or the negative representation of Blackness in history and culture. Against this backdrop—the legacy of the transatlantic slave trade—Sharpe looks at diasporic writers who “imagine new ways to live in the wake of slavery.” Mining the metaphorical richness of the “wake” (a slave ship’s wake, a vigil, an awakening), she calls these texts “wake work.” Among Sharpe’s examples are Brand and M. NourbeSe Philip, both known for daring experiments in literary form. In adopting Sharpe’s language, Lubrin inscribes herself in this lineage.

Wonderwork, wake work. Unlike the predominantly white concrete poets of yesteryear (bpNichol) or today (Christian Bök), who busy themselves playing language games, today’s BIPOC writers don’t have that luxury: they’ve got work to do.

Part of de Meijer’s work involved explaining to interviewers how the Dutch language inflected her poetry. Alfabet/Alphabet was written in response. What eventually emerged is not just an aesthetic treatise but a profound reflection on her identity and her experiences of marginalization: first as a person of colour in Dutch society, then as an immigrant to Canada. While she bears a deep love for the Dutch language—“My pulse music, my bone resonator, my umbilical ligature”—her relationship to her culture of origin is complicated. Take apartheid, which De Meijer calls “perhaps the most internationally recognized Dutch word.” Its origins in Afrikaans, she notes, encapsulate the disastrous effects of the colonization of South Africa. Her relationship to English is equally fraught: she imagines English paving over Indigenous place names “like a kind of linguistic asphalt.”

It’s this conflict that makes Alfabet/Alphabet so compelling because the book is simultaneously pulling us in two directions: it’s both cultural celebration and critique. On the one hand, de Meijer wants desperately for us to understand how her first language has shaped her life and writing, to hear its music as she does: not “Dutch, that crushed stone, that steaming pressure cooker valve, there is no resonance in that disintegrating syllable, Dutch, Dutch, Dutch. . . . The language I speak is Nederlands, NAY-der-lahnts, in three descending pitches.” De Meijer tries out various techniques to capture its cadences: she translates poems and discusses her approach to translation; she transcribes her anglophone friends’ reactions to a recording of spoken Dutch (“Throaty, phlehgmy, a little bit spitty”; “A clawed creature scrambling on a smooth steep slope”); she annotates the Dutch alphabet with a pronunciation guide; she even gives us some Bible verses, rewritten to capture Dutch syntax: “And God saw all what He made was, and sees, it was very good. Then was it evening been, and it was morning been, the sixth day.”

These linguistic experiments are whimsical and fun. Her attention to the materiality of words shares an unlikely kinship with conceptual poetics and how its adherents try to unlock secret meanings by paying attention to language’s shapes and sounds. De Meijer has a similarly metaphysical conviction in the power of language to transform the world. In The Outer Wards, we find her speaker “skulking for the possibility / that words / could suddenly align the elements,” and in Alfabet/Alphabet, she tries her hand at this linguistic alchemy.

But de Meijer’s formal experiments depart from the avant-garde in their ethical investment. The writers most closely associated with the avant-garde are often faulted for being, at best, apolitical and, at worst, oppressive. Kenneth Goldsmith and Vanessa Place (both white) received significant criticism for supposedly well-intentioned projects that were condemned as racist. Goldsmith—famous for promoting “uncreative” writing—performed an almost verbatim recitation of the autopsy report of Michael Brown, a Black eighteen-year-old killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Place, over the course of several years, tweeted the full text of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, a classic novel accused of sentimentalizing the treatment of Black people in the antebellum South. Place augmented the performance with images of mammy characters—caricatures of the benevolent maternal helper or “happy slave,” of which Aunt Jemima is the most recognizable emblem.

Like Simpson, Lubrin, and other racialized writers, de Meijer doesn’t have the luxury of pure play. The stakes are simply too high for a writer who—as she recently told the audience at a literary event I attended—had a difficult time getting published because her work was seen as too “intersectional.” When I followed up, de Meijer added that she sees Alfabet/Alphabet as her response to this erasure. Racism, she told me, is constantly having to check your life against dominant narratives and constantly having your experiences called into question. By writing Alfabet/Alphabet, de Meijer could finally control the narrative.

Much more than a romp through a language with strange phlegmy sounds and new words to describe asocial feelings, Alfabet/Alphabet must be read as a manifesto for the cultural pluralism that is sorely lacking in both de Meijer’s native Netherlands and her adoptive Kingston. It is what Rebecca Walkowitz, an English professor at Rutgers University, would call a “born-translated” book. By foregrounding acts of translation, born-translated books destabilize the anglophone reader’s feelings of linguistic—and, therefore, existential—security, unseating them from their position of cultural dominance. This technique has been used to great effect by Lubrin and Simpson, who use Creole and Nishnaabemowin, respectively, to centre Black and Indigenous voices. In the process, they demote the white reader to the status of guest within the world of the text.

While de Meijer’s ostensible subject is the linguistic tension between her Dutch and English identities, her deeper target is colonialism itself. While many Canadians are reckoning with their status as settlers on Indigenous territory, de Meijer has a particularly hard-won knowledge of the pain of losing one’s land. Alfabet/Alphabet’s last section is titled zwijg, a term with no English equivalent that denotes a strategic decision not to speak at a moment when one might be expected to do so. “I would rather deepen my listening where there is zwijgen,” she writes. “Below its frozen surface, there is always the water that speaks.” Though couched in metaphor, the message is clear: beneath the colonial asphalt are the older languages, the older teachings, that we can hear only if we create space for them to emerge.

“The Canadian Authors Meet,” which appeared in F. R. Scott’s 1945 debut Overture, is a poem that famously satirized Canadian cultural parochialism by describing a boring writers’ convention attended by bloodless Victorian ladies (“Virgins of sixty who still write of passion”). Although the word sheeple hadn’t yet entered the lexicon, this was in effect Scott’s assessment: sheeplike Canadian writers who were so busy huddling to protect their hard-won respectability that they had failed to notice the experiments taking place in the rest of the world. Scott’s poem ends with the lament, “O Canada, O Canada, O can / A day go by without new authors springing / To paint the native maple . . .”

Works by de Meijer and other racialized women show how drastically Canadian literature has changed in the intervening seventy-five years. Far from “painting the native maple,” these writers are expanding our view beyond the local geography. And they are doing it with an alphabet that is innovative, multilingual, and utterly fierce.

Myra Bloom
Myra Bloom teaches Canadian literature at Glendon College, York University.