Depending on which study you look at, Canada’s population is about 37 million, of which between 70% and 80% are of mainly European descent, i.e., white. However, the publishing industry is heavily concentrated in the major urban areas of Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver. This isn’t meant to dismiss the amazing output of Canadian publishers outside of these cities, but the vast majority of the country’s literary output comes from these three major population centers. All things being equal, and even considering potential language barriers, nobody would claim that the makeup of the industry’s ownership, senior executives, staff, and authors come close to reflecting the country’s diversity.
Zooming in on Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver exposes even deeper disparities. In 2020, the population of Toronto, where Dundurn Press is located, is majority nonwhite and 9% Black. The metropolitan Vancouver area is also majority nonwhite. Montreal’s population is about one-third nonwhite.
As one of the few people of color serving as the head of a Canadian publishing firm, I know that my community is looking to me to be a change leader on this front. I’m also keenly aware that my efforts to diversify Dundurn’s staff and literary output have not been as smooth or as rapid as I had hoped when I took over as publisher in January 2019.
In fact, I have been challenged by a prominent Black author and book reviewer for not doing enough to support Black writers, which is fair enough. We could have tweeted out a general statement of support for Black writers, but frankly, looking at our list, I initially felt I didn’t want to call attention to a troubling reality. However, challenge accepted.
Dundurn has been around since 1972 and has more than 2,500 titles in print. About 1% of those titles are by or about Black people, and, of that 1%, about half are authored by white people. Moreover, a number of the Black-authored books, including the one written by my critic, were originally acquired by publishing houses that Dundurn bought. In other words, virtually none of the Black-authored books on our backlist originated with Dundurn. So, it’s entirely fair to say that Dundurn has more or less ignored Black people for over 40 years. The author who criticized my silence was right to point it out. There’s nothing to be gained from papering over or ignoring the history of Dundurn’s list.
Still, it takes a long time to change the direction of a publishing house. It’s like turning an aircraft carrier, as opposed to a speedboat. A publishing house becomes known for a certain kind of output and internal culture. Reputation and track record play a huge part in who submits proposals to a press. Putting a relatively unknown Black guy like me in charge doesn’t immediately make a press desirable to potential authors, agents, or employees.
The truth is that I’ve yet to make an impact on Black literature through my role at Dundurn. Looking at our winter list, it’s impossible for me to ignore the fact that all of the authors are white. Those authors should all be proud of their work, and I’m proud to publish them. It is not their fault or responsibility that the effort to diversify our list is taking longer than I had hoped. It is entirely my responsibility to use my position to walk the walk.
I briefly considered compressing the schedules of three upcoming Black-authored books that I’m extremely excited about, but knew before I went too far down that line of thinking that cutting the lead time on those books would probably hurt their success and only serve to make me feel marginally better about my efforts in this moment, when the struggle for Black freedom and equality is at the top of many people’s minds.
So we’re going to continue to slowly turn the good ship Dundurn, day by day, book by book. I can say to everybody reading this: watch what Dundurn is doing, because, in the second half of 2021, you’ll be treated to three wonderful books by Black authors. The first is The Son of the House by Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia. It’s a powerful debut novel about the lives of two women from very different class backgrounds thrown together by fate in contemporary Nigeria. We acquired North American rights to this incredible book from Penguin Random House South Africa, and it received the Sharjah Award for Best International Fiction at the 2019 Sharjah International Book Fair. I can’t wait to share this book with a North American audience.
In addition, I want folks to keep an eye out for Rowan McCandless’s genre-exploding essay collection, Persephone’s Children. The collection explores Rowan’s escape and recovery from domestic abuse. Rowan’s creative and playful use of form is a tribute to the indefatigable spirit of Black women, who have been the backbones of our families, community, and culture for generations.
And last but not least, in one of the most singular debuts I’ve ever encountered, we’ll have Sifton Anipare’s Yume: a fantastical literary adventure featuring a Black English teacher in Japan who gets caught up in the mystical world of the Yoˉkai, a class of mythological spirits from Japanese folklore. You’ll be hooked after the first scene and won’t be able to stop reading.
I want to thank these three incredibly talented Black women for taking a chance on me and on Dundurn. I also want to thank the people who are out there in the streets, doing the groundwork to force the issue of Black liberation onto the front pages. Black lives matter.
Scott Fraser is the president and publisher of Dundurn Press in Toronto.