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A Queer Evangelist Who Preaches Hope, Risk and Doing the Impossible

A photo of Reverend Dr, Cheri DiNovo.
Toronto Reverend Dr. Cheri DiNovo. Photo from Facebook.

The Joy of Sin

Reverend Dr. Cheri DiNovo C.M. was the guest on  the November episode of The Fine Print  an online conversation series with contemporary feminist authors. Hearing DiNovo speak truth to power ended the 2021 season on a note of hope, joy and resilience.

“We’re all joyously fallible, traumatized, wanting humans,” writes DiNovo in the epilogue of her compelling memoir, The Queer Evangelist. “If we are loved by anyone and love anyone, our lives include holiness,” said the former politician turned radical reverend. ‘The joy of sin’ is how she prefers to reference the mantra ‘progress not perfection’.

DiNovo understands progress. During her tenure representing Parkdale-High Park in the Legislative Assembly on Ontario she passed into law more pro-LGBTQ2+ legislation than anyone in Canadian history, including Toby’s Act which added trans rights to the Ontario Human Rights Code in 2012, the Affirming Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Act which banned conversion therapy for LGBTQ2+ youth in 2015, Cy and Ruby’s Act which established parent equality for LGBTQ2+ parents in 2015, and the Trans Day of Remembrance Act in 2017.

“I hope this book can be seen as something of a manual for how, in spite of our ‘messiness’, we can be change agents.”

The memoir is a brutally honest tale of how a queer teen who was addicted to meth and left home at the age of fifteen went on to get elected to provincial office, change laws and save lives.

From her lived experiences activism and politics, DiNovo learned that reform and revolution aren’t contradictory. We’re living in a time when reforms are happening all around us. Anti-Black racism, reaction to the climate crisis, Indigenous rail blockades, to name only a few. Revolution, on the other hand, is a loftier goal. And it’s unlikely the reforms we’re seeing today—critical as they are—will upend capitalism and displace a system that is designed for people, not profit. But DiNovo will take what she can get. “Like the tale on one woman’s life, reforms are not nothing. Reforms are crucial. Reforms change lives as they are lived now, not in some utopian future,” she writes.

Working with the Enemy

The Queer Evangelist includes the full text of a sermon DiNovo gave when she first started at Trinity St-Paul’s. The text is based on the Beatitudes and aims to shed light on the ‘hate your enemies’ mindset. She also used the sermon to help explain her move out of politics and to help those who find church as a whole, incomprehensible.

“But I say to you that listen, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you. Pray for those who abuse you,” DiNovo preached.  

Impossible, right?

“If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.” (Luke 6: 27-31)

Who does this?

Those with nothing left to lose.

“If we’re going to have differences of opinion and ideological debate in our governments, then we better learn to work with somebody who doesn’t always agree with us,” said DiNovo. “And so I did. And that’s how I got a lot done.”

She learned to respect people who had integrity and principles, no matter their political persuasion. She sought out people she could work with from the other parties and got most of the bills passed as tri-party bills. Eventually she became known as the tri-party bill queen. Further testament to befriending the enemy is the fact that Kathleen Wynne wrote the foreward to the book. After one of the worst smear campaigns that was hurtful and attacked her past and her family, the former Liberal Premier wrote: “Cheri’s telling of the story of that campaign is chilling for me to read as it lays bare the worst of the political process—a personal smear campaign. It was my party that would have supported, if not initiated, the campaign. But more than that, as an openly lesbian candidate, I have lived through my own personal smear campaigns. They are exhausting. They damage families ad they damage democracy.”

Just Do the Impossible

In our time of ongoing uncertainty about our environmental future and political divide, DiNovo uses the phrase ‘Do the impossible’ as a guiding principle in her life and work. She was inspired by this piece: graffiti is from Paris, France in the late 1960s when students protested the closure of the Sorbonne.

May 3rd 1968: French students protest the closure of the Sorbonne, setting off the May ’68 wave of demonstrations and strikes by millions of students and workers. “Be realistic, demand the impossible.” —PARIS GRAFFITI. Image by Verso Books

The idea resonated strongly enough that she used it as the title of the book’s epilogue: Just Do the Impossible. 

Because if you’ve got nothing to lose, why wouldn’t you do the impossible? Or at least give it a try.

The Queer Evangelist is DiNovo’s second book. It was shortlisted for the Speaker’s Book Award, Legislative Assembly of Ontario 2021.

She was the featured guest in November 2021, on The Fine Print, a conversation series with contemporary feminist authors hosted and produced by Lana Pesch in the Feminist Enterprise Commons (FEC). Watch the video highlights of the conversation here on YouTube. 

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How To Navigate a World Designed To Fail You

Screenshot via The FOLD’s Instagram.

Imagine being saddled at birth with a debt you must repay to gain your freedom? That question fired up the imagination of author and activist Jael Richardson as she created the dystopian world in the novel, Gutter Child, where a nation is divided into communities of the privileged Mainland and the policed Gutter. Is it a metaphor for racism?

As a recent guest on The Fine Print, a conversation series with contemporary feminist authors, Richardson teased out this interpretation with attendees, reminding them that while she mentions the skin colour of her characters, no one is labelled Black or white. There are Olo people and Sossi people in this world, and readers project the systemic oppression on her disadvantaged young protagonist, Elimina Dubois, and other students who attend an Academy where they train and learn how to work off their debts to society. Elimina was taken from the Gutter at birth and raised in the Mainland as part of a social experiment initiated by the Mainland government. But when her mother dies (on page five) she ends up at the Academy, alone and afraid.

“I started thinking about laws and constitutions and how they’re designed,” Richardson told the attentive audience when asked about the catalyst for the book. “How systems are built, and who builds them and who they’re built for.”

Richardson admits she had endless discussions with her editor as she worked out the logistics of her imagined have- and have-not world. What did the geographical landscape look like? How many socio-economic classes were there? What resources did they have? What opportunities or employment options were available to some and not others? Why?

Though fictional, the world is remarkably recognizable as any society where race and class determine who is privileged and who is disadvantaged. The book adds gender to that mix — women struggle against harsh and unjust situations and are forced to make hard choices. “What happens to women and their children in any world says a lot about the conditions of that world,” Richardson said in the interview. The difficult circumstances in which she placed her characters compelled her to add a disclaimer at the beginning of the book:

“This book is a work of fiction that explores a perilous world rooted in injustice. As in life, the effects of injustice impact many of the characters. Take care with your heart and your mind as you read. Pause and rest as required. These are difficult times.”

As in the real world, Gutter Child offers no quick fix to systemic racism. Systems protect the people who created them. And Richardson isn’t optimistic of that changing anytime soon. “People at the top would have to be willing to acknowledge that they [systems] are built on lies and falsehoods, and be willing humbly to take it all apart and give it to all of us to help build them.”

To avoid being overwhelmed by what isn’t changing, Richardson focussed on how people create bonds and community, even when forced into disadvantaged spaces. “Why do people make choices? And why do other people make different choices? And what makes each of those things different or important to pay attention to?”

Ultimately, Richardson hopes to get people reading and that Gutter Child can start conversations about oppression and how to break down unjust systems. The book certainly got the conversation flowing after the formal interview on The Fine Print as guests lingered to chat to the author about how the book jolted them into seeing and thinking in new ways about systemic oppression. One person said she was reading it with her twelve-year old son; another planned to do so with their young niece.

Richardson is considering a sequel to Gutter Child, which has become a national best seller since its publication in January 2021 and is a finalist for the Amazon Canada First Novel Award that will be announced May 27, 2021. The follow up book promises to be another dystopian tale – set in a nowhere land that could be anywhere. “As a Black woman who has sort of only lived in one place, but also felt like I belong to no place…dystopia is my favourite place to play.”

You can “play” more with Jael Richardson, who founded and serves as the Artistic Director, at the Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD), which runs until May 15, 2021. If you’re late to sign up, recordings of author interviews, workshops and readings are available to watch and re-watch until May 31, 2021.

The Fine Print is hosted and produced by Liisbeth Media and Lana Pesch in the Feminist Enterprise Commons (FEC).

Watch the video highlights of the conversation here on YouTube.

Read an excerpt from Gutter Child (Harper Collins, 2020) © Jael Richardson 2021.

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A Cure for White Ladies

Leanna Betasamosake Simpson, author of Noopiming: A Cure for White Ladies (Photo provided).
Leanna Betasamosake Simpson, author of Noopiming: A Cure for White Ladies (Photo provided).

Is it a novel? Long poem? A collection of vignettes? Leanne Betasamosake Simpson isn’t concerned with what you call the book. She did not set out to write a commercial novel with Noopiming: A Cure for White Ladies.

The Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg author, scholar, musician, and storyteller draws on Anishinaabe storytelling traditions, which don’t follow the construct of the Western narrative — protagonist, antagonist, conflict, climax, resolution. “I still wanted to tell a story in longer form with the characters that had come up with in (her earlier works) Islands of Decolonial Love and This Accident of Being Lost,” says Simpson. “I fell in love with these characters and carried them with me in my life.”

The result is a radically different kind of novel and unique reading experience. As Alexis Pauline Gumbs blurb: “The book is poem, novel, prophecy, handbook, and a side-eyed critique all at once.” Some pages have just one sentence or paragraph, which Simpson describes as, “very much a reflection of a contemporary Indigenous experience under colonialism where you have these pieces of yourself, pieces of culture, pieces of language and your sort of always trying to put them together.” The white space also allows the reader to take a moment to pause, reflect, think. Let the language and the story to sink in.  

Relationality plays a large role in Anishinaabe storytelling and this book: everything that is alive has a spirit. The seven main characters in Noopiming appear and reappear as humans and non-human forms, such as geese, caribou and maple trees. They exist in a collective time and space in a constructed urban-settler world and natural spaces such as parks, the lake, the sky.

Says Simpson: “The book is very much about the present and building Anishinaabe worlds with whatever we have. I see that practice as being something that has been a beautiful form of resistance that so many Anishinaabe families have engaged in and so many women in my family have engaged in.”

A circular idea of time and space — versus a linear past, present, future timeline — is also something Simpson incorporated into the work. Circles and cycles are important in Anishinaabe thought and Noopiming is structured so that a reader can open it and start reading at any page, with any character.

Simpson produced several multimedia assets to help bring the book to life while launching it during a pandemic, when everything has gone virtual. She recorded a short, four track EP called the Noopiming Sessions over original music composed with her singer songwriter sister, Ansley Simpson. And Solidification is a video collaboration blending an immersive reading (by Simpson) over a wintery soundscape of drone and vocal composed by Ansley Simpson, along with visuals from Sammy Chien of Chimerik 似不像.

Noopiming: The Cure For White Ladies is Simpson’s sixth book. She was the featured guest in January 2021, on The Fine Print, a conversation series with contemporary feminist authors hosted by Lana Pesch in the Feminist Enterprise Commons (FEC).

Read an excerpt from Noopiming: The Cure For White Ladies (House of Anansi, 2020) © Leanne Betasamosake Simpson 2020.

The Fine Print is hosted and produced by Lana Pesch in the Feminist Enterprise Commons.

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