Creative Commons

The New Quarterly Pushes CanLit Boundaries

Maybe you have seen The New Quarterly (TNQ) on the shelves at Words Worth Books in uptown, or posters for its annual Wild Writers Literary Festival in the fall. Maybe your neighbour’s sister writes for them, or maybe you’ve never heard of them at all.

“We’re Waterloo’s best kept secret but we’re not supposed to be a secret,” says TNQ’s editor Pamela Mulloy with a laugh.

Housed at St. Jerome’s University and now in its 36th year, TNQ is recognized by readers, writers, publishers and critics alike as a sort of incubator of Canadian Literature (CanLit), publishing award-winning emerging and established Canadian writers and foretelling the trends and voices of CanLit.

“The fact that we’re not in Toronto makes us a different publication,” Mulloy tells me. “I feel like [our] independence is greater because we’re not part of a literary scene there.”

Instead, TNQ benefits from a rich reader- and author-ship in Waterloo Region.

“There’s a solid base of readers and writers here,” Mulloy says. “That has helped us in terms of our own sense of being able to exist here and thrive.”

She attributes TNQ’s wide national recognition to a “nice sort of synergy” with other literary organizations both local and across the country (their summer issue is being guest-edited by a Vancouver-based editor, for example) and a well-supported literary journal and independent publishing community in Canada in general.

I met with Mulloy the week Stuart McLean died, which seemed to have prompted a lot of public discourse about Canada and its voice and its stories. This timing struck me as especially poignant, as we, as Canadians, undertake the critically important work of critically examining how we define our “voice” as a “country”.

I asked Mulloy what she, as the editor of a distinctly Canadian literary journal, thinks our literary voice is saying, the story it is telling.

“It’s hard to capture… because I think it is quite diverse.” Maybe it was too big of a question? “I don’t see it as a voice, and I think that for me that’s the problem. It’s voices.”

Mulloy relays her own experience as a Canadian living in England in the 1990s during the emergence of CanLit, and its perennial tie to Margaret Atwood.

“Margaret Atwood has done a lot for CanLit,” she says, “but [the country’s literature] had become narrowly defined by that one person.”

In an effort to shirk any comparable narrowness, TNQ has recently renewed its commitment to diversifying the voices it publishes, putting out distinct calls to Indigenous writers, the LBGTQ+ community and young writers, amongst others, in an effort to broaden TNQ’s own breadth of voice.

Mulloy acknowledges that increasing the diversity of their contributors is part of a bigger perceived inaccessibility that can come with a prestigious literary magazine.

“People from diverse backgrounds may not submit to us because [they tell themselves] a white person, an intellectual, that’s not me.” She tells me that TNQ has its work cut out to tear down some of the myths surrounding who can contribute to literary magazines, and who they are for.

TNQ’s community book readings and the Wild Writer’s Festival have helped break down some of the perceived risk of the unknown that surrounds the “literature” label of the journal. “But it is tricky,” Mulloy says, “because I understand that people want to be safe in their purchases.”

She reminds me that “literature” doesn’t imply language that is any more difficult than what Chapters, for example, advertises to me, and suggests it is probably a lot more interesting.

“We say that at TNQ we discover writers before they’re famous so it’s really the kind of ground-level, grass-roots of literature… new and fresh and exciting.”

TNQ’s efforts to publish a wider representation of Canadian writers seems partly motivated by the obvious fact that these writers are already out there, waiting to be heard. When I ask Mulloy what direction she sees CanLit moving in, she suggests a new sense of authenticity and ownership of experience.

“You know, [a writer might have been] born and raised in South Asia but up to now they have felt that they needed to write a story about a white girl growing up in Mississauga because they didn’t feel that there was any legitimacy to their own voice… Maybe what is happening is people are more open. This is what I hope. That people are more open to speak honestly about what their voice is.”

I hope, for TNQ and for us all, that we’re willing to listen.