Friday, September 6, 2013

Guest Writer Em Kwissa

Em Kwissa is a young writer who has already achieved so much:  she is a founding member of Canada’s first rural spoken word collective, who, at the age of fifteen, was the first minor to compete nationally at the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word, as well as competing in two other festivals; she runs popular writing workshops for youth in their schools, and has been involved in the Champions for Kids Foundation; she was a Poet of Honour at Canada’s first national youth poetry slam; and lastly, she is a passionate advocate against domestic and dating violence, attending youth events, protests and meetings with legislative assemblies as an advocate for abuse survivors.  This last focus of hers is what caught my attention, when I read about her activism in the feminist blog Jezebel.  I asked her to write about the experience of having her memoir, Am I Not, made unavailable by ebook publishers, in an act of censorship I find astounding and senseless.  Check out her website:


My mom used to be the kind of person who kept everything. She had a big filing box full of paintings, participation certificates, and handwriting samples from my grade school years. One of the things in this big filing box was a book that kept track of who I was. Every year, my school picture was glued onto a page and beside it I would fill out information like my favourite colour and my best class and what I wanted to be when I grew up. This is how I know that I always wanted to be an author. I was writing before I knew how to write. I was making up stories in my head and acting them out, or living in them as I fell asleep at night.

When people ask me why I write, I don’t know what to tell them. My mother wrote in her adolescence, but she never wrote in front of me and I was never told that it was something that I ought to do. All the same, it’s always been something that I’ve done – on napkins and paper towels when I can’t find paper, on my phone in the middle of the night, in my head at bus stops, in waiting rooms, during boring lectures. Why do I write? Because I am a writer. I do, therefore I am. I am, therefore I do.

The better question, or at least, the question with the better answer, is why I wrote a memoir, and why of all the books I’ve written it was the first I tried to publish. The answer is that it has always been my instinct to write myself out of corners. For most of my childhood and adolescence, I tore voraciously through entire sections of the library looking for a book that would speak to my experience. I never found one. All through my first year of university, I felt my creativity growing stagnant as I tried to figure out what my next writing project would be. I wrote a memoir because it was the book I wanted to read that hadn’t been written, and because it was the story I needed to tell that I wasn’t telling. I published it because I’m not alone. There are other people who need to read this story so that they can tell stories of their own.

My first forays into the publishing world were traditional. I sent query letters to literary agents seeking representation. I was met with silence, form letter rejections, and the occasional personal response. Finally, one agent was kind enough to tell me that I probably wasn’t going to find someone who would be willing to get on board with my project, just because of the subject matter. I decided to publish it myself. I chose because it was recommended to me by a friend. In the first few weeks of its availability, the book sold twenty-six copies. This was more than I expected. I didn’t anticipate that the number would ever go above fifty, and even that would be a dream come true.

At no point was this process about the man who abused me. If you have read the book, you already know that  he was at the center of my life for a lot of it, and he was not a good thing to revolve around. When I finally came to a point in my healing at which I could forget about him for whole days at a time, I decided not to put him at the center of my life ever again. I released my anger, I let go of my hatred, I forgave all and I moved on. The book was not a letter of hate and its publication was not an attempt to stick a thorn in anyone’s paw. That man is not at the center of all of this. I am. The book is about me. The publication is about me. If it weren’t, his name would be in the book.

So when he complained about the book’s publication, and when his complaint led to my book being removed from availability on, it was a black comedy of sorts. The man who abused meis very skilled at hanging around in my life and the lives of my family, especially in the instances when he’s wanted least. I published a book for myself, and here was the once-sun of my life, barging in and demanding to be recognized as the book’s main villain, demanding that it all be verified as a giant lie with him in the very center. The comedy of it is that one would think he would be relieved for me to say, “I didn’t write these things about you. You are not the center of my life anymore.” But instead of being glad that my words were not an attempt to defame him, he is angry that he is no longer the center of my life. After the care I took to make my book about me, he still wants it to be about him.

The book is the same. I haven’t edited it or added his name to it. But the backlash that has come from’s censorship of my book, and the part he played in having the book removed, though in support of me, has been about him. All of that anger, all of that retribution, all of the poison that naturally comes with anything that requires this much fire in the belly, belongs to him. I have claimed the support for myself – I have spoken to the survivors who have read my book and have been hugged by friends and family who are there to make sure my story is heard. But the bile that must be spewed at those who have done wrong... it belongs to them. That part is about him, and he can be right in the middle of it. He has earned that for himself. 

Since it was taken down from Lulu and I started offering digital copies free, my memoir Am I Not has been downloaded hundreds of times by people all over the world. I have received messages of support from people in the United States and the UK, from people in China and people in Poland who share my last name. I have spoken to supporters through different experiences and through language barriers. We don’t talk about him. We talk about us. There is so much good out there, and all his anger and cruelty has done is given me a direct line to it. I am grateful to him in the same way one is grateful to the volcanic ash that enriches the soil. I am grateful that he underestimated my strength and made me even stronger.

In time, the world will forget about my book. People will stop talking about it. It will probably never be an international news sensation or even a trending topic on Twitter, but it doesn’t have to be. It has already done what I needed it to do. I needed it to say the words that have been living in my heart since before I knew what words were, and I needed it to say them to the people who have seen what I’ve seen. We were only thirty-some before, altogether. Now we are hundreds. With the force of his selfishness, that man pushed me into the center of all these people. After all that has happened in my short life, I feel that I have been brought to exactly where I was supposed to be.

1 comment:

  1. When I read the first draft of this book, before it was published anywhere, it burned my mind and soul. I couldn't do what Em had asked of me. I couldn't edit it - her truth - and repackage it into a mere product. It was too real, to painful, too shocking. The idea of offering editorial suggestions about which parts of the story (aka her life) to cut and which to keep was unthinkable. The book is not an "angry feminist" rant. It's a touching story of a young woman coming to terms with her troubled childhood, and learning that she need not remain a broken victim. Em's straightforward writing style and the brutal honesty with which she describes her reality - at turns happy, bittersweet, and heartbreaking - are compelling. It's truly an honour to know her. And I'm so glad the book did what she needed it to.