A Web Portal For Lesbians Of Color

Makeda Silvera

Author photo by Scream In High Park 1997 

"I don't think at this point I can write a fairy tale or write from the point of view of the majority. I still must write from the point of view of the outsider." -- Makeda Silvera

Makeda co-founded (with Stephanie Martin) Sister Vision: Black Women and Women of Colour Press in 1985, the first press for women of colour in Canada, where she works as managing editor. Silvera is a writer, scholar, editor, community activist, and mother. She was born in Kingston, Jamaica, and immigrated to Toronto, Canada in 1967. Silvera has been at the forefront of developing and publishing writing by women of color for over 12 years. She is the editor of Piece of My Heart, an anthology of writings by lesbians of colour. Her own books include Silenced, a collection of oral histories of Caribbean domestic workers in Canada; Growing Up Black, a resource guide for youth; Remembering G and Other Stories; and Her Head: a Village (1994, Press Gang). Her writing, often written in dialect, speaks powerfully of what it means to be Black, working class, lesbian, immigrant -- "other."

Writing has always been a major interest for Silvera. She began in journalism, working with Toronto's Contrast and Share community newspapers, and was an editorial collective member of Fireweed, a feminist quarterly. Her stories, articles and essays have appeared in numerous journals. Since the 1970s she has worked with and followed closely the situation of Caribbean domestic workers in Canada.  Silvera identifies herself clearly as a Black lesbian feminist from a working class immigrant background. This experience, she said, combined with her love of words, led her to activism through writing.

As a child growing up in Jamaica in the 1960s, Silvera "didn't know anything about racism." Coming to Canada at the age of 12 was, for her, a "rude awakening." Facing "coldness" and racism in the classroom, she coped by burying herself in books. However, she found no reflection of herself or her experience in the books, television programmes or classes available to her. Silvera stated that she became involved with writing as activism when, while working as a journalist for a Black community newspaper in the early 1980s, she was assigned to cover controversy over the move to deport large numbers of Caribbean domestic workers from Canada. She investigated the agreements between the Canadian and various Caribbean governments, covered the protests and listened to the stories of some of the workers. However, she was soon taken off the story because the editors felt that her reporting showed too much of a bias.

Her interest piqued, Silvera did not abandon the story. She continued to interview domestic workers and worked with them to edit their oral histories. From there came her first book, Silenced: Talks with Working Class Caribbean Women about their Lives and Struggles as Domestic Workers in Canada. Until that point, books on domestic workers were written by academics, said Silvera, and did not include the voices of the women themselves. The difficulties she encountered trying to get the book published led Silvera and her partner, Stephanie Martin, to start a press on their own, despite their lack of experience with the publishing business. This was the beginning of Sister Vision: Black Women and Women of Colour Press. At the time, there were virtually no books published by people of colour in Canada.

Sister Vision sought to create a place for writers such as Silvera's friend Dionne Brand, who recently won a Governor General's award for her writing. Despite its groundbreaking work, the press is currently facing financial difficulties due to cuts in funding from Canada Council and the Ontario Arts Council, and only five books a year are currently being published. "People don't like artists," said Silvera. The government definitely has an agenda to silence oppositional voices, she continued. "It's going to be harder and harder to get funding."

Toronto's Sister Vision: Black Women and Women of Colour Press was co-founded in 1985 by Makeda Silvera and Stephanie Martin. The press was born of the faith and enthusiasm these two woman from Jamaica ("sistahs") had for their "vision" of publishing innovative, challenging and provocative works by Canadian women of colour.

Having been a writer herself in the 70s and 80s, Silvera had experienced first-hand a resistance by both mainstream and alternative publishers to take the risk of publishing her book entitled Silenced, stating that the language was not easily understood. Determined to facilitate putting into print the words of women like themselves, Silvera and Martin set about founding their own press.

Despite tremendous obstacles including limited funds (Sister Vision started out of a cardboard filing box), lack of awareness in society about the place for publishers of books by women of colour, and reluctance and fear among the black literary community in supporting a press run by a lesbian couple, Silvera and Martin managed to sustain the energy, commitment and fervour required to keep their vision alive. To date, Sister Vision's more than 50 publications have given a voice to Caribbean, Asian, First Nations, African and mixed-race women on many themes and issues including those which have traditionally been silenced such as lesbianism, bisexualism and oppression.

Martin and Silvera list as some of their successes the many anthologies they have published which have provided space to a large cross-section of women who might otherwise never have been in print. Their book Piece of my heart : a lesbian of colour anthology was a finalist in the American Library Association [Gay and Lesbian Book Award], the gay category. Also, The very inside : an anthology of writings by Asian and Pacific Island lesbians and bisexual women was nominated for a prestigious American book award.

As their press has matured, their vision has been given renewed energy through collaborative work with feminist women's organizations in the Caribbean, Britain, Southern Africa, India and other countries as well as in North America. One such collaborative effort with CAFRA (Caribbean Association for Feminist Research and Action) of Trinidad and Tobago resulted in the publishing of Creation fire : a CAFRA anthology of Caribbean women poets (1990). This book brought the poetry of Caribbean women in the Caribbean and the Diaspora together and included all the languages of the Caribbean English, French, Creole, Papiemento, Dutch, Spanish and others.

In 13 years, Makeda Silvera and Stephanie Martin have built a strong and vibrant community of women of colour writers, and Sister Vision Press represents a new and forceful voice in publishing which will ensure that their words are sustained.

Selected Publications of Sister Vision Press

Source:  National Library of Canada:  http://www.nlc-bnc.ca/2/12/h12-291-e.html
En Francais:  http://www.nlc-bnc.ca/2/12/h12-291-f.html