A feminist success story continues: Making Room

I went to a panel on Tuesday at the Vancouver Public Library on the 40th year anniversary of the literary magazine, Room, or Room of One’s Own as it was called in the past. What stood out for me is how challenging it is to capture and retain the many authentic voices that make up the oral history of an organization. I know that’s true whether that organization has been a feminist collective run by volunteers such as Room or a large private corporation. Anyone who has ever tried to write a history of an organization will know this to be agonizingly true.

You may not know, as I didn’t, that the VPL has in their catalogue, bound copies of every decade of the four decades that Room has now been published. A physical presence on shelves that leaves the complexity of what has actually taken place to sustain it to one’s imagination.

It was fantastic that there were a few women on the panel who had been participants from years gone by.  I wanted to hear a lot more of those types of personal experiences because they really highlight the struggles and the conversations in the inevitable tug o’ war dynamics of a democratic process that goes on in every organization that is concerned not just about producing something of creative value but of ensuring that the way in which those volumes come into being is also something to be proud of.

One of the women spoke about how she came to Room at a time when they were really challenged by funders who were questioning whether the journal was unique enough. There are only so many stories about motherhood and breast cancer, not that those aren’t important, that any of us can take.  They went so far as to hire a Branding specialist who began to ask them annoying but typical Branding type questions like “If Room was a woman what kind of woman would she be…?” And then at some point in Room’s history there was even a question about whether feminism needed to be central. Blasphemy!

Cynthia Flood’s response to why Room still matters, mimicked, dare I say, the response Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gave when he was asked about why he felt a gender balanced cabinet was important and he replied, “Because it’s 2015.” Flood’s response was: “Because sexism still exists.” My apologies for the comparison, Cynthia, but the succinctness and the truth were comparable.

Chelene Knight as managing editor for the past year said that they want to be constantly questioning the type of work they are publishing, and questioning perhaps even what they aren’t publishing, and recognizing that it’s not just about the content but about the process and being open to involving women who may not have considered Room as a place for themselves or their creativity.

They spoke of how recognizing the evolution of Room is to recognize the entire evolution of print and how technology has impacted the way the magazine comes together. It’s been possible in the past few years to expand the editorial team to include Toronto and Montreal. They spoke to the way in which they now receive manuscripts through Submittable which has significantly reduced the amount of on-the-ground labour. At the most basic level, nobody has to trudge down to the post office and pull reams of envelopes out of the post office box and transport those back to the office. Formerly, the process involved paper being passed from one editorial reader to the next. Meetings no longer have to take place face-to-face, at least not as much.

Chelene acknowledged former editor Rachel Thompson as the catalyst behind her own participation for taking on the responsibility of managing editor, urging her to do it, assuring support, and pushing her to greater empowerment given that Chelene came from a background where envisioning herself in that role would not have been a part of the personal stories she told herself about herself.  Those are some of the women writers, artists, and editors the magazine hopes to embrace.

Forty years! It’s a quietly impressive legacy and if you’ve been paying attention in the past two years to what’s inside Room, it’s clear that an evolution is happening that has indeed led to an interesting diversity in the contributors and the issues overall. Chelene said that constantly questioning that, not getting complacent…making room…is the way forward.

For the first time ever, there will be Growing Room: A feminist literary festival in March. Tickets are selling fast.

Writers Seek Observational Delicacies

Sometimes all it takes is experiencing a physical space to get the creative juices flowing. The Vancouver Public Library was today’s unintentional catalyst and may I say that there is no finer space for creative imaginings.  The library, or at least the entrance, is right up there with an airport or the Hastings Street bus route when it comes to providing observational delicacies.

The drama began upstairs on the third floor. I was looking up Female + Mid Life Crisis. I know. And, I’m not even joking. I’ve become a life-sized cliche.  Borrow me.  I’m a human book. What would you like to know?

The librarian didn’t even crack a smile when I asked her to remind me how to get to the academic sources that would let me explore if anyone had done research on  female mid life crisis and what they’d discovered.  There is no way, if I was a librarian, I would not have had a wise crack in response to such a question.  Can you imagine how crazy some of the requests they get must be? They should make a list.  It could be very funny. They could then Tweet them. And, as I was twirling that little gem around my brain, wondering about all the combinations that would lead me to whatever nuggets of insight others had already gleaned on mid life transformations,  a loud man, slightly manic, was doing running commentary on his own catalogue searches.

I deemed him, all by himself, to be a half-time position. Unpaid of course.

“Excuse me. Excuse me. I’ve run out of minutes. I don’t want just anybody looking at my personal e-mail.”

“No sir. Of course not,” said the librarian/saint who, whether she liked it or not, was now at his beck and call. When she was a student, I wondered, working towards her MLIS degree, did they warn her that the most challenging part of the job would be dealing with the mentally less than healthy who spend their days in the library? Did they tell her that the skills of a social worker were as important, maybe moreso, than  information technology or literary history?

In due time, I moved outside, across from the main entrance, to eat a piece of tasteless pizza. It was almost better than a front row seat at a local amateur theatre, up close and impersonal, as a cast of hundreds, a perfect flash mob of silent zombies criss-crossed towards the entrance. Young and old. Moms with babies. Toddlers in hand. Black hoodies. Black eyes. Long stringy, gray hair. Jean jackets. Tattoos. Shiny black patent shoes. Suits and ties. ESL students. Food hanging in beards. Every gait imaginable, and the most memorable, arthritis-ridden stiff legged peg legs dragging book bags like anchors behind them, as if they were in curiosity’s desert hopeful that this mirage would finally contain the knowledge they are thirsting for.

Find a place where humanity is teeming and observe, then write about it. It’s a good exercise. Not one that I’ve completed here. Here is more about the concept.

If you could find a place to observe in preparation to write about  that space, where would you go and why?

I’m just curious. Share it with us.