We all fall down: Creative writing students struggle to move past #UBCAccountable and the crumbling CanLit community

“It was the moment of being in a class with someone who had signed that letter — any illusion of accountability and safety in that department was just kind of ripped out from under my feet.”

“It was really weird trying to get my bearings within the program and then to hear that there was this upheaval going on within it. The thing that really struck me was no one had any idea really what was going on for months, even years.”

“I just thought: how is this in the news and I’m literally sitting in a classroom at the school where this is happening and no one is saying anything?”

On November 18, 2015, former Chair of the creative writing department Steven Galloway was suspended from UBC due to “serious allegations.” A year later, prominent Canadian authors, including Margaret Atwood, published an open letter demanding an external investigation into the university’s handling of Galloway’s case. Now, The Ubyssey looks at how these tumultuous years have impacted the students at the heart of the scandal.

“[The UBC Accountable letter] basically tore open the wound again and made it worse for the UBC students than it was before,” said Alicia Elliott, a Haudenosaunee writer and the recipient of the creative writing department’s 2017-18 Geoffrey and Margaret Andrew fellowship.

“And that’s a thing I don’t think the people who signed that letter are aware of. I don’t think a lot of them have talked to any UBC students.”

The letter

The release of the open letter on November 15, 2016 prompted Galloway to break his year-long silence on the allegations against him. His statement cited “grave concerns” with the investigative process followed by UBC. It also divulged several details of the investigation conducted by former BC Supreme Court Judge Mary Ellen Boyd, which had not been made public by the university. According to The Globe and Mail, Boyd’s 44-page report — of which more than half had been redacted following a freedom of information request by ancillary complainants — included accusations of sexual assault, sexual harassment and other inappropriate behaviour.

Margaret Atwood, Joseph Boyden and Michael Ondaatje were some of the original 88 authors to sign the open letter demanding Galloway be afforded the “right to due process.” The letter drew immediate backlash from people who felt that it prioritized Galloway over the complainants and amplified the existence of Canadian literature’s (CanLit) “old boys’ club.” Since the original letter’s release, many signatories have been both added and removed. As of March 22, 2018, there are 82 signatories. A counter-letter in protest of UBC Accountable was made by Professor Julie Rak of the University of Alberta, and has circulated widely in online communities.

“The actual twists and turns of what happened evolving through the UBC Accountable letter is very complicated,” said Keith Maillard, a professor of fiction and poetry who joined the UBC faculty in 1989. “The early un-signers, I trust. The late un-signers… I don’t.”

Yuko Fedrau

The students

UBC is home to what its website calls “Canada’s most prestigious creative writing program,” which boasts a long list of recognized alumni and writers from all over the world. The Ubyssey sat down with four former and current creative writing students, three of whom requested anonymity out of concern for how speaking publicly might impact their professional and personal lives. Their real names have been substituted with alternative ones.

Hannah’s journey to UBC is a familiar story. She fell in love with writing as a child and has been doing it ever since. When she was admitted to UBC, she moved from Ontario to Vancouver to begin her studies in the fall of 2015. Although students must apply for admission to the creative writing major at the end of their second year, Hannah was pretty confident in her ability to get in.

“I do have to preface this by saying that I’m completely aware that maybe going to school for creative writing just wasn’t right for me,” said Hannah. “But as soon as I got to UBC, I feel like I heard about all of the problems with Steven Galloway and the problems within the department before the program even started.”

She tried to stick it out and continue along a path towards applying for the creative writing major, but couldn’t get past her disappointment in the program. She recalls discussing the issues in the CanLit community in her First Nations and Indigenous studies and gender, race, sexuality and social justice studies classes, but never in creative writing.

“I think there’s two prongs for me. One is definitely a lack of confidence in the program. I feel like the issues in Canadian literature are getting worse, that’s sort of the instigator. The second thing that happened was I found that the creative writing program completely ruined my desire to write.”

Erin entered the creative writing major in the fall of 2015. She had dreams of writing children’s books as well as non-fiction for local magazines. Although Galloway’s dismissal was difficult, it was the UBC Accountable letter that pushed her to distance herself from the literary community.

“It just took up so much emotional energy to deal with that that I took a step back from the creative writing work that I was doing. I just wasn’t interested in interacting in a community of people who weren’t interested in being accountable.”

Erin recalls taking a class with Andreas Schroeder at the time, a long-time professor who had signed the letter and written a statement for UBC Accountable.

“Having to be in that class with [Schroeder] a day or two days after I had found out that he had signed that letter was a tough class. A lot of students in that class, I could see, were having a tough time. People weren’t making eye contact with him, people weren’t answering his questions. It was just this elephant in the room that wasn’t being addressed — like everyone just looked pretty visibly upset. Especially the women and queer students.”

In an emailed response, Schroeder said, “it’s true that it was unfortunate the way the university handled this issue. [It] really had the effect of whipping up student turmoil.” He identified a single student in his response who “seemed determined to make the issue a central topic for my class.” (The protection of Erin’s identity makes this comment unverifiable in relation to her experience.)

He declined to comment further, writing that he did “not really have much to say on that subject.”

Erin’s gut instinct was to go to the administration to seek support. At the advice of a professor, she arranged a meeting with acting co-chairs Annabel Lyon and Linda Svendsen to express concerns regarding her safety in a class with an instructor who signed the letter, among other issues. She told Lyon and Svendsen that students were having a hard time and that she would like to see the chairs reach out to students and offer support.

“Basically, the response to me was, ‘No, we can’t reach out to students because then it will make it seem like we’re showing sides’ and, ‘No we can’t tell you what happened with the Steven Galloway case,’” said Erin. “I was like, ‘I’m not asking for details,’ but they kept responding to me as if I was just there mining for information about the actual details. Really, I was just asking them to assess how this was impacting students, provide students with support and give them options so that they could finish their semesters and feel okay.”

A month after the meeting, at which point the semester had ended, a memo was issued to students offering support, encouraging them to visit the department’s offices and pointing to UBC Counselling as a resource. According to Erin, that’s what she was asking for in the first place, but her requests at the time were viewed as “unreasonable.”

When asked for comment on this occurrence, Leslie Dickson from UBC Public Affairs provided the following written statement on behalf of Lyon and Svendsen:

“We encourage any student who has concerns about their learning environment to notify their professor, department head or dean’s office so their concerns can be addressed. In cases where students have a concern about their learning environment, UBC can provide support in a variety of ways, including academic accommodations.”

Erin is currently finishing up her degree and looking at a “more professional” career path.

“Not to say that I will stop writing or anything or that it’s actually effectively silenced me — it hasn’t. It just showed me who these people are who are holding all the power in CanLit and I don’t want to be sharing tables with those people right now, not for a second.”

The silence

Of the 31 creative writing faculty members that The Ubyssey reached out to for their perspectives as instructors, Keith Maillard — a tenured professor since 1989 — was the only one who agreed to sit down for an interview. The declining parties shared sentiments of discomfort, lack of emotional energy or being generally “unable to discuss this matter.”

“You have to understand how small the Canadian literary scene is, and how interconnected [it is],” said Maillard, who stressed that these are his own personal opinions and do not represent the university.

“You have no idea who’s going to be on the jury-judge of your book … you get a letter back from a publisher saying they don’t want to publish you, they say, ‘Oh, we didn’t fall in love with your manuscript.’ But the real reason might be — and a lot of this is — based on people stepping aside and having a quiet word with each other. And the message coming out after UBC Accountable is if you care about your career, just back off and don’t say anything.”

Lawrence Hill, best-selling author of The Book of Negroes, was one of the first notable names in CanLit to speak out against UBC Accountable. Hill originally was not going to say anything regarding the Galloway case, but when the letter was published he was “so offended” that he felt he “had no choice but to speak up and to oppose the voices that coalesced in the letter.”

“Let’s face it: a person might say, ‘You are courageous to speak out,’ but not really, because I didn’t have that much to lose, whereas a person who is mid-career or early-career could really suffer,” said Hill. “And so the people who’ve been the most courageous are those who have the most to risk and the most to lose by speaking out.

“What I find offensive about UBC Accountable is that its primary purpose was to defend an accused professor, and it expressed little concern for the students at the heart of the matter. It tells students and other developing writers that the Canadian literary establishment cares about protecting its own, first and foremost. As a university professor, and as somebody who’s mentored and taught for many years, we can’t only think about the accused when an issue like this comes forward. We also have to consider the needs and wants and the expressions of those who are at the centre of the complaints.”

Elliott had been worried that speaking out would impact her future career, but decided that she was “never going to be that person who was going to get through based on the ability to schmooze with the right people.”

“I decided instead of having to worry about building a writing career on that, I will never know what that could have looked like because that would never have been me anyways,” explained Elliott. “I might as well speak out about this because I would rather have a career built on integrity than a career built on being silent when speaking out is essential.”

When Elliott began her fellowship at UBC in early 2018, she had students ask her about being outspoken on social media. She began speaking out against UBC Accountable by engaging with Margaret Atwood on Twitter after the letter’s release and hasn’t stopped her online activism since.

“It’s something that I don’t really know how to answer because I have a very strong sense of responsibility,” said Elliott. “We can’t be quiet about these sorts of things because by being quiet we’re making a choice that is allowing more powerful voices to control narratives and to continue keeping systems of oppression and discrimination and all of those things in place.”

The fear

The wake of UBC Accountable has brought with it the new reckoning of the CanLit community. However, according to Laura Moss, a professor of Canadian literature in UBC’s English department, this isn’t the first time that the Canadian literary community has been in turmoil.

“Although there is a lot that has happened in the last two years, this is certainly not the first time that there’s been debate or dissent in Canadian literary history, and that to me is really important,” said Moss. “I think what the difference is at the moment is it’s much more public and it’s much more volatile.”

Moss cites the 1980s and early ’90s as a time when appropriation of voice, race and accountability issues in the Canadian literary community emerged in discussion. She is comforted by history, knowing that marginalized communities have worked together to create spaces for themselves, with examples of Women’s Press, The Toronto South Asian Review and Ricepaper Magazine emerging in this time.

“My fear at this point is that people will stop writing or stop working on their own creative work because they’re afraid it doesn’t fit in some framework and I don’t think that framework is going to keep existing, if it ever did,” said Moss. “So I’m not naively saying there has not been power and abuses of power. I believe that there have been. But I think that there has also always been room for some other voices to come through and I think that those other voices are going to be more powerful — whether they’re the voices of women’s voices, of racialized writers and the voices of younger people.”

Elliott is one of many younger writers who is focusing on moving forward and lifting up the voices of a new generation.

“I think that a lot of the people who are on the UBC Accountable list are part of an old guard that’s getting left behind and that’s their decision,” said Elliott. “We’re moving forward regardless and there’s solidarity that’s being built between communities. Black writers, Indigenous writers, writers of colour, LGBT writers and disabled writers have kind of banded together almost as a response to UBC Accountable, and that’s what’s interesting to me. The stuff that they’re writing is revolutionary, is fresh, is new and I think that readers see that too.”

“I hope that people who have been feeling held in by the events in the last year know there are many people who support them. I hope for them to keep writing because there are going to be readers who want to read their stories and hear what they have to say,” said Moss.

Yuko Fedrau

The future

With a few years’ distance from the release of the UBC Accountable letter, many people are just trying to move on. For the students at the heart of it, the task is more daunting than it seems.

Derrick Gravener is a creative writing major and editorial assistant at PRISM Magazine who is hopeful for the future of the program. Gravener entered the program in the fall of 2016 under the interim chair-ship of Svendson and Lyon.

“I think that there was a shift right away. I had a wonderful experience, I’ve had nothing but a wonderful experience under their chairship,” said Gravener. “And then starting with [new creative writing Chair] Alix Ohlin this January, everything they’ve put forward that I’ve seen is really championing students. They really want students who have those voices to be put forward, which is so encouraging.”

He doesn’t deny the difficulties of the past few years, but believes that the department has been very supportive of the students in this time.

“Yes, it’s shitty circumstances that happened, but it’s how we dealt with them that’s character-defining for the department and character-defining for us as students,” said Gravener. “Our work has still been strong, if not stronger because of something like that. We still want to be writers and I think that that’s never not been a priority for them. They want to produce the future and I very much think that they’re doing that.”

Having only started at UBC a few short months ago, Ohlin is still getting her bearings with the department. She previously worked in the United States, teaching English and writing at various institutions, and is brand-new to UBC. Her goal is to make it a safe and supportive place for writers to grow into the best kinds of artists that they want to be.

“I think the idea in hiring me was to bring in someone from the outside for a fresh start for the program, and that’s what I’m trying to do and to be,” said Ohlin. “I think that this program is more than a sum of these recent turbulent events, and I think I have an incredibly bright future, and the focus of my energy is to work towards that future in any way that I can.”

For others, like Erin and Hannah, it’s been more difficult to move past the turbulence of 2016 in the context of their studies. Hannah, who once dreamed of a creative writing major, is disheartened by the community.

“I don’t know what to say now when people ask me why I changed my major, especially since I was so all about creative writing,” said Hannah. “Right now, I haven’t even submitted a short story or a poem to a literary magazine in over two years because of all these things that have happened.”

“I will probably never go back to university. It’s been super emotionally draining. I won’t stop writing and creating and being creative, but I’m going to be doing that in communities and ways that are distinctly anti-establishment,” said Erin.

“Fuck UBC and fuck institutions and fuck CanLit.”