Reader Profile: Jenna Butler

For every day of our Indiegogo campaign, we’ll be sharing profiles from readers and supporters of Glass Bookshop both local to the city and from across Canada. Visit our campaign page now to claim cool perks and support us in building a beautiful brick-and-mortar space in downtown Edmonton. And read on to discover why today’s featured reader is excited to one day visit Glass Bookshop!

Jenna Butler is the author of three critically acclaimed books of poetry, Seldom Seen Road, Wells, and Aphelion; 
an award-winning collection of ecological essays, A Profession of Hope: Farming on the Edge the of Grizzly Trail; and a new travelogue, Magnetic North: Sea Voyage to Svalbard. She is a professor of creative writing and eco-criticism at Red Deer College, and lives with three resident moose and a den of coyotes on an off-grid organic farm in Alberta’s North Country. With Glass Bookshop, she shared her deep relationship with reading and the women of colour whose writing she values.

How did books and the act of reading come to be meaningful to you?
I will always be grateful to my parents for teaching me to read and love books at a very young age. My dad has been a huge reader all my life, disappearing into a book or more a week in the evenings after work, and my parents encouraged me while I was just a toddler to start taking books out of the library and participating in the process of storytelling. Years later, when I met my husband, he shared the world of books on tape and reading in translation with me. We speak several languages between us, and I am grateful to have the chance to share those texts and the process of translating books with him. Today, one of our greatest joys is reading to each other in the evenings or during long car journeys. Sharing a book and the discussion around it, as well as just hearing one another’s voices in a way outside of the normal day-to-day communication, is a gift.

Reading has always been a process of discovery, relationship, and bridge-building for me. As a mixed-race child, books offered me more broad-spectrum (though often stereotyped) worlds than the ones I could find in the classrooms around me, and they taught me the value and importance of everyone’s stories. They also showed me clearly the gaps left where certain people’s stories weren’t permitted to be.

As an adult, a writer, and a teacher, books and reading provide ways of dialoguing with colleagues, readers, and my students about their identities, histories, experiences, and places in the world. I’m constantly grateful when I read or hear of a new book that might connect with one of my students, that might give them the same shiver of understanding I had at that age when I discovered a book that resonated through lived experience: this writer gets me.

What is your relationship now to books and reading?
I read a lot more “subversively” now. I’m using the quotation marks because these are the books I really want to read, the ones I want to be mainstream and sometimes are, but are still more often sidestepped for being too difficult, too uncomfortable, too confrontational to those historically in power. Too human. What I’m really interested in are books by women of colour from all different backgrounds, and in particular, about our relationship to land. I’m hungry to hear more about how we root, how we connect, how we form home and community and thrive – because so often throughout history, women of colour have been made as voiceless, as owned, as the land has been. I’m reading for my life – to make sense of how to be in the world at a far more empowered but equally fraught time, and to engage meaningfully with the words and stories of other women of colour who are navigating similar paths.

Is there a book that has had significant impact on you?
The answer is yes; the answer is also that these books are constantly changing as I read new ones and they strike at my heart. After having spent a large part of my adolescence searching for these stories before they were recognized as having value by the powers that be in publishing, I can’t choose just one. Not now. These voices haven’t had enough airtime in the history of publishing to just choose one. Currently, the books that I’m walking with are Tanya Talaga’s Seven Fallen Feathers. Toni Morrison’s The Origin of Others. Joy Harjo’s Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings. Roxane Gay’s Hunger. Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass. Every day, there are more. Every day, I am grateful for this.

How does literature influence your sense of community?
Literature can be such a bridge-builder when all voices are welcome at the table. We still have a long way to go in this regard, but every further opening of the door is encouraging. At its best, I think literature is like the most nourishing sort of conversation: empathetic, challenging, and fiercely open to others’ narratives. Good, inclusive literature builds community; it says, Hey, everyone is welcome here. It also says, We’re all committed to doing the work of relationship, along with the listening that that entails.

Literature can be the voice of closed doors, too, and through much of publishing’s history, it has been exactly that. But the thing with marginalized voices shut away behind dividing doors is that they start to have their own conversations, their own dialogues. And pretty soon, those conversations come bubbling around the edges of doors and start to float them open. Those voices become their own deep currents, equally powerful.

How do you find new books or writers?
My favourite way is by going to readings and meeting writers in person. I like to hear their work in their own voices and to support them by buying their books. But I also learn so much about writers I haven’t encountered yet by talking with others. I love meeting people while travelling and hearing about who they’re reading; I’m fascinated, too, by the writers my students are encountering.

Can you share a memorable experience you’ve had in a bookstore? What makes it stand out for you?
Two are tangled together in my head. The first was going into a local chain bookstore and meeting one of my students who worked there part-time. I mentioned that I was looking for poetry published in Canada, and she showed me to the poetry section. We stood there side by side as I perused the shelf (it was a pretty small shelf), and it only took us a couple of minutes to realize that there wasn’t a single poet from this country on that shelf. “You’d think we didn’t actually have any poets of our own,” she said to me. Of course that stood out, because what are shelves like that teaching up-and-coming writers and readers? What are they teaching our students about the value we place on literature from this place, from our diverse voices?

The second was going into a secondhand bookstore in London, England. I love second-hand bookstores; I love the old-book smell, the strangely filtered light, the hieroglyphic marginalia left across slightly smudged pages by other readers. Those stores feel peopled. But as I browsed, I noticed a real paucity of books by marginalized voices. I did a secret experiment in the memoir section that I was in: I turned around every book except those by marginalized writers. At the end of ten minutes, I’d turned around all but two books so that a sea of white pages faced out into the store and the spines were hidden from view. The store owner probably hated me after discovering my little project (I left the books like that), but maybe – maybe? – the owner checked out the names of the two writers whose books had been left visible on the shelves, Roxane Gay and Maya Angelou, and figured out what I was up to.

What do you think Glass Bookshop could offer Edmonton’s community of readers and writers?
I think it could offer a really rich selection of texts from multiple genres and writers of diverse backgrounds and identities. Perhaps it could also offer a dialogue-place; somewhere readings could be held, or book talks or workshops. A place where readers and writers could get together to talk about texts, but also about the ideas behind the texts: stories, histories, lived experiences.

Want to help make this reader’s dream for Glass Bookshop a reality? Support Glass Bookshop’s Indiegogo campaign by buying some cool perks today here:

Jenna Butler Photo.jpg
Matthew Stepanic