“It’s definitely a time in this country when it’s important to give visibility to marginalized voices. And then for us, as artists of color, to come together and form a community,” says Portland writer Dao Strom.
De-Canon, a visibility project, aims to do just that—build community online and off—while showcasing literary work by writers of color that, according to the project’s website, is “inclusive, diverse, and multi-storied in their approach to representation.”
Strom, the musician behind the Sea and the Mother and programmer for Literary Arts’ DELVE Readers series, partnered with writer Neil Aitken on the Portland-based project. “We’re the facilitators, but I think of it as a pretty inclusive project that involves a community of voices.”
The project combines an online resource with offline literary events intended to unravel the notion of established literary excellence. Online, writers of color are encouraged to submit their personal reading lists, favorite books, and inspirational authors. Strom emphasizes that the idea isn’t so much to present an “alternative” to the western canon of literature, but “to destabilize the whole notion of canon” in the first place.
“We’re trying to avoid reassuming that position of authority—as in, 'These are the writers of color you should be reading,’ and instead letting it be like, 'Here’s this document of the moment, here’s this list of the moment,’” she says.
Strom affirms the organic community aspect of list-building, pushing against static notions of what constitutes institutional knowledge. “De-Canon connects to the frustrations we’ve seen people express about MFA programs,” says Strom. “People of color will come into those programs and feel alienated, like their context isn’t really addressed. If you go into a writing class and Raymond Carver and Don DeLillo are touted as the standard of what’s excellent, it overlooks a lot of other content.”
Offline, there will be readings and events in Portland throughout the year, including monthly “Living Canon” talks intended to highlight living, breathing local writers of color. The first, on March 11 at High Low Gallery, will be a conversation between Aitken and Samiya Bashir, whose latest book Field Theories comes out that month from Nightboat Books.
A pop-up library event planned for August perhaps best encapsulates the project. The creators picture a modular library, one that can be built, rearranged, and then pulled apart. “Our concept at the end was to dismantle it—to have some sort of community interaction where we give away pieces of the library,” says Strom. “In that way it gets spread out and other people can grow their own libraries around it.”
Until then, people can participate in the De-Canon project by visiting the website and submitting their own “canons” of writers of color, and by attending the events. “We’re welcoming any suggestions of books,” says Strom. “If small presses have books by writers of color that they want to donate the books to the library, we welcome that. Or just let us know about the books so that we can add them to the list.” As an ever changing, “of the moment” dialogue, there’s no wrong time to jump in.