On Selling Books

I am a bookseller who loves words but hates writing. But for Souvankham, I will write. Because of my love for her grace, for her deftness, for her vision.

I met Souvankham many years ago when I was co-managing the Toronto Women’s Bookstore (TWB). First it was her zine big boots. I wasn’t the “zine coordinator,” but I was excited to sell it at TWB. Selling big boots exemplified what TWB was about: giving a home to writers who couldn’t find one elsewhere.

Then, Beth Follett, publisher of Pedlar Press, came by with a beautiful (all of Beth’s books are beautiful) book of poetry, Small Arguments. Now, this was my life before children, when I had the calm and space at home to read poetry. And Small Arguments captivated me. At the time, when there were very few books of poetry by Asian women in Canada, I adored the book. Not just because of who Souvankham is but also because of where she took me—a place inside myself, with my own family’s history of migration to Canada and struggles to fit in. Her words around language, community, and family resonated deeply.

“Here is a delicate and graceful hand naming the fragile materials of poetry” said Dionne Brand on the back cover.

And so, as any good bookseller does, I started to hand-sell Souvankham’s book. Looking for poetry? I would ask. Here, try this. I loved it and so did readers. This was the age before the Internet was ubiquitous, before social media. Our customers relied on us to show them books they would have had no idea existed, unless they read a review. I wanted to share Souvankham’s voice with our world—a voice I knew would likely get ignored and under-looked elsewhere. This was a time when “diversity in publishing” was not a buzzword. When our customers could not Google a list and find her writing. When very few big presses were publishing BIPOC writers.

People would come to us, as Canada’s largest feminist bookstore, and ask us, “Show me the books by Black women, Indigenous women, Women of Colour,” especially from Canada. Souvankham’s books were a gift I could put in their hands and it did not disappoint. Being able to sell Souvankham’s books in some ways exemplifies my raison d’être for being a bookseller: it is the labour of love, the connection, that one makes between writer and reader that can’t be done in any other way.

Over the years Souvankham kept writing, and I kept selling books. Both of us with pauses. For family, for life, for work, for time.

And then word came out that Souvankham was branching into prose. Short fiction and a forthcoming novel in the works! Some of my favourite novels have been written by poets. Anil’s Ghost. Fugitive Pieces. What We All Long For. I was eager to add her new one to my list.

Ah, and then winter came and Souvankham’s book was finally on the list and I could not wait to launch it. Where to launch one of my favourite writers? Who to pair her with? Serendipitously, Dionne Brand agreed to host a conversation at the Gladstone Hotel, located on Queen Street West in Toronto. Full circle with Souvankham’s first book of poetry. This would have been the highlight of my Spring 2020 launches.

Then COVID hit, and all was cancelled. But there with the grace of the publishing gods came How to Pronounce Knife. And in this new pandemic age I shouted it far and wide on Facebook, on Twitter, and masked at the door of the bookstore. And not only did I shout it, but reviewers across North America listed it on every single must-read book of Spring 2020. Every time I opened Facebook there it was: Chatelaine, Globe and Mail, New York Times, Quill and Quire, and the list goes on and on. It became Another Story Bookshop’s best-selling book of fiction in April 2020.

I loved Souvankham’s writing back when no one could pronounce her name. I continue to love and sell her writing with How to Pronounce Knife. I can’t wait to read and sell the next book and many more to come.

Please note that works on the Canadian Literature website may not be the final versions as they appear in the journal, as additional editing may take place between the web and print versions. If you are quoting reviews, articles, and/or poems from the Canadian Literature website, please indicate the date of access.