A New Portland Project Blows Up the Bookshelves

De-Canon puts the spotlight on writers of color.

By Rebecca Jacobson May 15, 2017 Published in the June 2017 issue of Portland Monthly

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A sampling of Neil Aitken's and Dao Strom's personal "de-canons"

Image: Michael Novak

Imagine a library where Octavia Butler’s science fiction rubs covers with Sherman Alexie’s short stories. Where Maxine Hong Kingston and Juan Felipe Herrera lean against one another, and Pablo Neruda curls up with Roxane Gay. Imagine the books aren’t organized alphabetically, or maybe not in any way at all. Imagine the shelves move in an ever-shifting free-for-all, like a post-Big One Powell’s where the walls have crumbled and the Orange Room tangles with the Blue Room and the Pearl Room has hopped in bed with the Purple Room.

This—in a sense—is what Dao Strom and Neil Aitken want to create. Earlier this year, the two local writers launched De-Canon, a project that aims to showcase writers of color. How? Part one: bust apart the Western literary canon. Part two: replace it with ... well, not with any one thing. Which is kind of the point.

“We’re not trying to replace the canon,” Strom says. “We want to avoid it becoming another establishment. We’re trying to have multiple voices and no center.”

The two call De-Canon a “visibility project,” and its approach is two-pronged. Online, anyone can recommend books by writers of color, which Strom and Aitken add to a growing list. Offline, they’re programming a series of events in Portland. In March, Aitken joined fellow poet Samiya Bashir for a conversation about breaking out of pigeonholes and language as resistance. Another reading is scheduled for June 1.

The project isn’t just about drawing attention to marginalized voices. It’s also about unshackling work from narrow categories. Think of it as a counterpoint to social media clickbait: “8 Works to Read by Black Authors Right Now” (Elle). “11 Essential Asian-Pacific American Authors You Should Read” (Huffington Post). “17 Books That Perfectly Capture the Immigrant Experience” (Buzzfeed). Strom and Aitken imagine something different for their site. 

“I envision columns of names, and you could just click on any name and follow a random thread,” Strom says. “It doesn’t give you those guidelines or an easy list. Maybe you have to find your own way.”

And the pièce de résistance? August’s pop-up library. For the full month, De-Canon will fill Old Town’s Una Gallery with books by writers of color, with a slant toward work from the Pacific Northwest and smaller presses. Know some contenders? Strom and Aitken encourage readers to make suggestions through the website. They envision about 150 books—novels to poetry to nonfiction to hybrid texts—on modular shelving, as well as readings, discussion groups, and live performances.

“This is an opportunity to encounter books and voices that people aren’t aware are speaking about their own community,” Aitken says. “It’s an opportunity to offer a much bigger vision of what the Portland literary scene might be.”

Neil Aitken's Personal De-Canon

  • Li-Young Lee, The City in Which I Love You
  • Andre Aciman, False Papers: Essays on Exile and Memory
  • Carlos Bulosan, America Is in the Heart
  • Ching-In Chen, The Heart's Traffic
  • Natasha Trethewey, Bellocq's Ophelia

Dao Strom's Personal De-Canon

  • Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Dictee
  • Junichiro Tanizaki, In Praise of Shadows
  • Matsuo Basho, Narrow Road to the Interior
  • Bao Ninh, The Sorrow of War
  • Paisley Rekdal, Intimate: An American Family Photo Album
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