Literature Matters with Karen Connelly and Tanya Tagaq

The Avie Bennett Chair in Canadian Literature in the Department of English at University of Toronto, presents the annual Literature Matters lecture on Wednesday, October 16 at the Isabel Bader Theatre.

Poet, novelist and creative non-fiction writer Karen Connelly and singer, avant-garde composer and author Tanya Tagaq discuss the value of literature and share their views about their creative process. Challenging stereotypes of culture and genre, Connelly’s and Tagaq’s work offers inspiring, provocative and timely ways of thinking about human rights, the environment and the legacy of colonialism.

Admission is free though registration is required. For full details and to register, visit

While Notre Dame burned

A reflection on internalized colonialism

While Notre Dame burned

Lately, I have been on a quest to consume more art by people of colour. I have also been listening to a lot of French music and fangirling over Shawn Mendes. Am I a hypocrite? But I feel guilty about it. Is that worse?

On April 15, the Notre Dame Cathedral burned and I was moved to guilty tears. For the sake of arts and literature, and not religion — or so I told myself — I welled up. For the sake of Quasimodo’s haven and the beautiful architecture. At least, that was my justification. I actively pursued the news minutes after the story first broke. I began to read hourly updates. “Notre Dame may not be saved.” People sung hymns on their knees. Then I turned to Twitter. After my tears had subsided, they were replaced by a wandering thought: what kind of tragedy is this? Some people on Twitter said that this was a religious tragedy, but I’m not so sure.

I read a tweet that said, “A 23-year-old white man destroyed three Black churches in Louisiana last week. The 800-year-old Keriya Aitika mosque in China’s Xinjiang province was also razed to the ground by the Chinese [government], the latest in a string of historic mosques destroyed. Pray for these histories, too.” I liked the tweet, but with a shadow of guilt. I do not follow the news of mosque razings, because they are not actively present in the media. I have always been wary of the Eurocentrism of the media, and I have felt uncomfortable when terror attacks in France made Muslims around the world akin to folk devils. I have chastised the way that the mainstream media covers issues in Palestine or Pakistan with very little nuance and inspection. And still, the destruction of multiple important Black churches has barely been discussed in the way that the burning of this French Catholic institution has.

I’ve been moved to shakes and tears over Black and Brown and European deaths. The difference might be anger. I am angry when Black and Brown people are killed. When Muslims are killed, I feel fiercely protective of my Muslim family. I do not need to make classifications, but I make them because even death has become a politicized deed. I must critique and analyze death in the same way that I would with news or literature.

To explain my sadness about Notre Dame, I start by thinking that Paris has always been among my dream vacation destinations. I have never travelled outside of my home country, Canada, except for a few days in New York, but I used to Google the street views of Rome and Paris during the summer and lust over the visual spaces of Call Me By Your Name. Notre Dame has become another place that I will never get to go. Everyday things are changing, and Paris itself is not the same city that I once dreamed about. But it is there, in the songs, in the literature, in the art, new and old. Images of Paris permeate culture and media institutions across the globe. The idea that there was something out there that was always waiting for me was a comfort, but it is one I now have to release. I always assumed the stagnancy of things, places, and people. This time it burnt down. For me, this was an awakening.

It’s somehow poetic to say that “Notre Dame is burning.” It has a magic poignancy that the Christchurch headlines did not have. On a macro-level, everything about Christchurch on the news was ugly. But then there was the vigil held in our city of Toronto, in our Nathan Phillips Square. As soon as the presider started reading the introductory du’a, I cried. That is another place I will never get to go. I don’t think I have ever been a good Muslim. I do not pray five times a day and I do not feel legitimized by other members of the Muslim community. But I still feel the effects of Islamophobia. I still feel angry when it touches my life.

In different ways, Islam and Christianity have wounded me. Christianity underwrites most public television, either explicitly or implicitly, which frustrates me. The frequent villainization of Islam injures me, but somehow I feel conflicted. I wonder if it’s not my right to grieve, not my right to share this pain. But I am mourning today for that feeling of being left behind. This, I think, is not a political issue. But that irks me still, that I would brush away politics in favour of emotions. Was my crying at the vigil for Christchurch political? It has to be.

White Parisians did not drop to their knees and pray whenever Muslims were attacked in their country. France has a terrible track record when it comes to its treatment of Islam and forced religious assimilation; we all know this. We have given them more empathy than they have given us. The Catholic struggle has been privileged over any other religion’s and the white struggle over any other race’s or people’s; we all know this. We have given them more attention than they have given us. This empathy and attention needs to redirected. That does not mean that marginalized communities shouldn’t attend to the feelings of Parisians and empathize with their situation. It just means that we need to acknowledge that our communities have suffered deeper losses, both historically and contemporarily. People may equate marginalized communities’ reactions to Notre Dame as inhumane or unfeeling, but it is simply a reaction to a system of oppression that has left people of colour in the dark. These are valid emotions.

The main structure of Notre Dame has been saved while most of the tangible history and beautiful architecture has been burned to ashes. The collective pain surrounding this event serves mainly as an expression of the loss of European history and a symbol of Catholicism. Of course I feel for the pain of the French people and Catholics all over the world. But my eyes remain dry because European history is an erasure of Indigenous and non-European cultures as well as the birth of colonial and neocolonial forces that impact our lives everyday. That can never be burned away. How do I reconcile this with my almost-tears? Do I choose not to feel anything? Or maybe the indicator is my lack of actual crying. My sobbing for the attacks on Muslims and people of colour is another indicator. The difference between these is mourning a story and mourning a flesh wound.

And so what if I am always checking myself? Checking myself is a small way of decolonizing my consumption. My tears are political, even if I don’t think they are, and even if they are in private. My emotions are an expression of my social learning. The magic of Paris is a construct perpetuated by the media, but it manifested itself in my soul, so it has splintered my heart slightly. But my heart is not broken.

To be on the brink of tears for a social emblem that I do not actually relate to is a strange sensation. I have started to embrace the guilt, to take care of it, and to understand why my sadness feels so unnatural. That pang of guilt is a way of moving toward deconstructing the deification of white colonial structures, both physical and cultural.

Debating dignity

Confronting colonialism and what it means to be silenced in light of recent campus events

Debating dignity

The white Western man lives in a schizophrenic moment. Global migrant trends and demographic shifts disturb his sense of the world, although transatlantic, far-right, xenophobic movements, like those of Donald Trump, Brexit, and Marine Le Pen, give him solace. To him, the influx of coloured peoples are symptoms of the destruction of Western ‘civilization.’ He deeply wishes to make this chaotic world “great again;” to revert to a time in which he could fix demographics through the control of speech, expression, and definitions.

Indeed, he longs for a return to the era of colonization, centuries ago, when he first made contact with these foreign peoples of colour. Then, he was able to impose ‘civilization’ upon their ‘backwards’ ways, one of which was the prevalence of sexual and gender nuances within indigenous communities: for example, the hijra of South Asia and the Two Spirit peoples of North America.

The white Western man’s colonialism effectively criminalized and erased these peoples and cultures, and forcefully normalized hetero-patriarchal binaries of sexuality and gender within these societies. Perhaps that is why even women and people of colour supported today’s white Western man Professor Jordan Peterson at the recent ‘free speech’ rally. Colonialism lives on in the norms we internalize, defend, and perpetuate as collaborators.

Professor Jordan Peterson’s criticism of the defence of gender identity and expression through Bill C-16 and the Ontario Human Rights Commission, as well as the University of Toronto Human Resources Department’s mandate for anti-racism training, speaks to a deep sense of insecurity of those holding onto a centuries-old power.

When minorities of colour, gender, and sexuality demand that their speech, expression, and very existence be protected through bills like C-16, they are delegitimized as threats to ‘free expression.’ Ironically, the dominant culture, which already defines civilization, argues that they deserve even more freedom. Those who were always denied self-determination of body and spirit, are given no freedom at all. In doing so, these marginalized groups have been written out of law and culture at the paternalistic behest of those with power.

[pullquote-features]Perhaps that is why even women and people of colour supported today’s white Western man Professor Jordan Peterson at the recent ‘free speech’ rally. Colonialism lives on in the norms we internalize, defend, and perpetuate as collaborators.[/pullquote-features]

In the recent past, we have seen a pattern of ‘free expression’ favouring those in power. When Muslims demand dignity and autonomy in Western spaces, they are met with hostility: Islamophobic cartoons in defence of ‘humour’ and ‘free speech,’ and with the demonization of the burka to ‘free’ their women. Likewise, transgender individuals demand that their identities be recognized through pronouns and gender-neutral bathroom admissions. However, they are misgendered and met with anti-transgender laws to ‘protect’ women from ‘pedophile men dressed as women’ in bathrooms.

In other words, the audacity of the oppressed to challenge historical oppression is itself interpreted as oppression of those in power. Ultimately, Peterson and his ilk of ‘free speech’ supporters work to uphold asymmetrical enjoyment of speech; in turn the very identities, speeches, and expressions of transgender and racialized peoples are disrespected and erased.

Thus, these laws, sit-in rallies, and professors in solidarity with transgender and racialized folks apparently “scare” Peterson and his free-speech supporters. To him, culpable is a “Marxist” conspiracy by “politically correct social justice warriors.” He reduces the complex and cross-cultural existence of sexual and gender nuances to “ill-informed opinions” without “scientific standing,” and polices the grammar of their self-definitions. This parallels the cultural imperialism of the colonial past in which the oppressor demonized, excluded, and erased the oppressed.

Most importantly, Peterson ignores the crucial fact that the systematic denial of such groups in terms of speech, in this case correct pronouns, inevitably leads them to be dehumanized and “othered.” Once they are stripped of their humanity, they become legitimate targets of violence. This is exemplified in the victimization of many groups, including attacks on Muslim women on the streets of Canada and massacres against queer Puerto Ricans in Orlando nightclubs.

When these groups refuse to accept the violence inflicted upon them, those with power only react with further violence. This often reveals that the dehumanization of one identity is linked to that of another. For example, the presence of the Black Liberation Collective, in solidarity against the transphobic undertones of the free speech rally, was met with calls for “more Michael Browns.” Peterson’s own video, in a pseudo-multicultural gesture, used the “conservative culture” and “discomfort” of Muslim women to justify transphobia — an example that further essentialized Islam. Finally, online threats were made against the transgender community following these recent tensions at the university.

The intersectionality of violence deserves expansion, especially regarding the Black connection to queer issues. Earlier this year, Black Lives Matter protested the Pride Parade with a sit-in in to demand the removal of police floats, given the violent history of police against marginalized groups. This form of protest, however, was itself ‘speech’ that was widely criticized for being divisive and disruptive.

[pullquote-default]When these groups refuse to accept the violence inflicted upon them, those with power only react with further violence.[/pullquote-default]

Yet, those with power seem to refuse to understand that, through centuries of determining the terms of discussion — in the form of ‘respectable’ speech and civil obedience — they have failed to protect marginalized groups. If the latter are excluded from using speech for their own grievances, in the manner they see most effective, how free is speech at all?

Evidently, free speech only respects the freedom of those in power. Peterson proposes discussion between groups for “consensus” to be reached. But human dignity, existence, and freedom from violence are not matters of policy that can be debated. Such dialogue inherently legitimizes violence against oppressed groups. Indeed, human dignity should not be contested, but guaranteed in speech.

[pullquote-features]Such dialogue inherently legitimizes violence against oppressed groups. Indeed, human dignity should not be contested, but guaranteed in speech.[/pullquote-features]

In ceding power — the monopoly on speech and expression, in this case — the white Western man and his collaborators are now somehow the victims. They erase their own colonial accumulation of power, and with this amnesic sense of history, see demands for change as a totalitarian conspiracy against them.

To turn the tides of colonial oppression, we must go beyond free speech to equitable speech. We must wake up, acknowledge our privileges, and in some cases cede speech for ears towards the unprivileged. We must practice justice and democracy by enabling marginalized people to speak on their own terms, to assert their nuanced existences, and to self-determine their place in a postcolonial world.

Ibnul Chowdhury is a second-year student at Trinity College studying Economics, International Relations, and Peace, Conflict and Justice Studies.

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to clarify the author’s biographical information.