During my 10-year career in Canadian publishing I’ve had a front-row seat to the ascendancy of diversity as the cause célèbre of mainstream book publishers. It wasn’t always this way. When I was a sales representative at a large multinational publishing house, I was likely the only Black employee, and I was certainly the only one on the sales, marketing, and publicity side of the company. At the time, my comments about the business case for a more diverse list were either ignored or outright ridiculed. After that company was merged with another, things still seemed to take a long time to improve. The multinational has finally taken tentative steps toward a more representative working environment and has diversified some of its title output—even they can’t ignore the business case to do so. But are they actually serving the diverse community of authors they claim to?
Today, publishing companies in Canada are still firmly under the ownership and executive control of overwhelmingly white, upper-middle-class publishing professionals. Even as these sometimes well-meaning people make moves towards diversification, their output still forces subaltern voices into certain diversity pigeonholes. I’ve observed, for example, that when publishing Black Canadian authors, my colleagues in the industry still overwhelmingly seek out Black trauma narratives. Novels about racism, police state violence, and slavery still dominate what I’ve jokingly dubbed AfroCanLit.
Enter Dundurn and our new imprint, Rare Machines. We are not only actively seeking and publishing diverse authors, but we’re giving them the space to create and to innovate.
For example, Yume, by Ghanaian Canadian author Sifton Tracey Anipare, takes place in Japan and involves an English teacher’s encounter with Japanese folkloric demon-type creatures known as yokai. We do not require our Black authors to focus on the horrors that Black people experience in North America as a result of white supremacy. To paraphrase bestselling Trinidadian Canadian author André Alexis, I am encouraging Black writers and other writers labeled “diverse” to explore works of pure creativity, whether that includes their trauma or not, and whether that exploration includes comfortable and familiar narratives or not. Upcoming Rare Machines titles Persephone’s Children and The Shaytan Bride by Rowan McCandless and Sumaiya Matin. respectively, are good examples.
In Persephone’s Children, McCandless explores trauma and recovery, but it’s her extreme experimentation with form which makes this book so special. A traditional narrative memoir about a racialized woman surviving domestic violence simply isn’t as compelling. It’s too close to the quick. Domestic violence and abuse are already deeply ingrained in my own family tree, and there are psychic scabs there that I don’t want to pick at. Rowan’s unparalleled mastery of diverse forms of storytelling makes the pain of her experience bearable for me to read.
Sumaiya Matin’s memoir of domestic violence and forced marriage, The Shaytan Bride, also flips the script. Whereas a lot of publishers seem to focus on stories of Muslim women being abused and leaving their faith, here we have a memoir from an author whose experience has led her to renewed expressions of her Muslim faith, even as she must reconcile what happened to her with the life she has in front of her.
This is what Dundurn Press and our new imprint Rare Machines are here to do. While the rest of the industry is scrambling to diversify their stable of writers, we’re ready to go to the next level and encourage subaltern voices to follow their muses wherever they may lead. I know that will result in many more stories worth reading—and sharing.
Scott Fraser is the president and publisher of Dundurn Press in Toronto.