by Amneet Mann, Peak Associate
After five years of being a student on Burnaby campus, I stepped into the SFU Gallery for the first time to attend SFU’s Indigenous Literature Reading Circle.
Walking into the SFU Gallery from the Academic Quadrangle (AQ)’s busy halls, you feel as if you’ve entered another world. The gleaming hardwood floor, track lights, white walls, and display shelves make the room look unlike what I’ve grown to expect from the university. For the spring term, the Gallery is featuring Lyse Lemieux’s exhibition No Fixed Abode, and the large black and white drawings on the wall make the room feel even larger than it is.
The location has a quieting and centring effect, removing you from the between-class madness of the AQ just outside. This makes it the perfect space to hold the weekly Reading Circle hosted by SFU’s current Writer-in-Residence Carleigh Baker.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from a reading circle, but when I walked in and saw six straight-backed, dark wooden chairs arranged in a circle, it occured to me that the name was more literal than I had assumed. I took a seat and joined the conversation that was going on as we waited for more participants to join us.
While not officially part of the main event, I found that sitting in a circle with Baker, Gallery staff, and other participants and talking about our opinions of CliFi (fiction that deals with climate change, often in a dystopia) and the different punk genres to be a highlight of the experience. Baker was engaging and inviting, sharing anecdotes from her creative writing class, and responding to jokes with a clear laughter that echoed off the Gallery walls.
After about 10 minutes of chatting, we decided to leave the door open for participants to trickle in and began by reading Moon of the Crusted Snow by Waubgeshig Rice, a novel that follows an Anishinaabe family in a post-apocalyptic timeline. The book was passed around the circle and read aloud, with each participant reading one page at a time. We read two chapters of the book and ended at 2:20 p.m., leaving time for participants to grab some coffee on their way out. The session reminded me of English class in high school, and asked for the kind of attention that makes you forget about the exams and assignments that you were worrying about.
When I talked to Baker on the phone after, she echoed my thoughts about the effect of the Reading Circle. She recalled that, after the first Reading Circle she did as a master’s student at UBC with her classmates, “it was like just going to an exercise class [ . . . ] where we finished and thought, ‘oh, this feels great. I feel kind of relaxed and focused.’ And we decided we would keep doing it.”
Baker continued the practice weekly at UBC, and then included it as part of her pitch when she applied for the Jack and Doris Shadbolt Fellowship to come to SFU.
“I really like the role I play in academic institutions to be sort of a community-builder, someone who can make space for people to just be together and sort of relax, and the Reading Circle just proved itself to be that in spades,” said Baker.
Baker noted that the atmosphere of the circle tends to depend on the type of work that is being read, with poetry leaving participants feeling invigorated, and non-fiction work always spurring conversation post-read. When choosing non-fiction, Baker tries to find work that is relevant to current cultural concerns, such as cultural appropriation.
According to Baker, the response from the SFU community towards the Reading Circle has been steadily growing since its start in January. She recalled being concerned that she didn’t have enough of a reputation at SFU to begin a community program where individuals would feel comfortable attending, and that they might ask themselves “Why should I feel safe coming and sharing this space with her?”
But her concerns have proven to be unfounded as the program grows steadily each week. “Folks have come from all different departments,” she said, noting that the biggest attendance so far had been eight or nine people.
Baker emphasized that participants of the Reading Circle are not obligated to read.
“I’m never going to push people into something they’re uncomfortable with. It’s the comfort level that I want most of all,” she explained. “So I’m really thrilled that people are just coming and hanging out, and feel like they can take part.”
The Reading Circle is slated to run every Thursday in the SFU Gallery from 1:30 p.m.–2:30 p.m. until April 9, which marks the end of Baker’s fellowship at SFU.