Katherine Govier

We invited The Shoe Project mentors and coaches to respond to the following question: Why have you taken on this work?  This is Katherine Govier’s answer. 


People ask me why I have taken on this work—why when I’m busy, when I could be doing my own writing, when I could be holidaying in Mexico, when adult immigrants to Canada whose first language is, say, Tamil, are so difficult to coach as writers in English. 

Here is the reason: I love it. Meeting women aged 18, 30 or 65 from China and Croatia and Syria and Afghanistan and South Sudan and Brazil and Russia is huge fun. It’s travel without the security lineups. Instead of at Pearson Airport, I’m lining up for the butcher at 5 a.m. in Poland in the 1980s in minus twenty degrees Fahrenheit weather—and I’ve got Relaks boots on my feet. (Look it up.*)

I sometimes sit there around the table where we drink our tea and laugh and cry, and imagine large cartoonish bubbles over the heads of the 12 of us. Ancient alphabets—Persian, Russian, Chinese, Hindi—float around in these bubbles like arithmetic equations, as the women work to put their ideas into English. Except that it isn’t like arithmetic at all because there are no true equivalents between thoughts and feelings in one language and those in another. Little is exact. Everything is shaded, interpreted. 

Maybe that’s why shoes work so well. They alone seem solid. They look, sound, feel, operate, represent, decorate, and define us—all over the world.

I’ve met so many great women. And I’ve seen the Japanese and the Turkish members strike up friendships, the Syrian mother take the Afghan girl under her wing. 

Do you, as a writer, ever think that writing your own stuff is not enough? Even when you’ve got a new novel in the stores?

I do. By the way, please read it.

People think it is literacy, not literary.  

Can we consider a new thought: this distinction is a form of discrimination. It is like racism. The writing of a person who does not use the correct adverb or misses the past tense of a verb or chooses a generality because she doesn’t have the broad vocabulary of a native English speaker is deemed not publishable, not artistic, not worthy of the support of the literary establishment, the granting agencies, not worthy of the time spent to fix it by newspapers or radio. It is pushed downwind into “literacy”— which means “there are ESL issues”; it doesn’t count, and can’t be published. But with advice from peers around a workshop table, coaching, editing, and copyediting—which, frankly, native English speakers need too—that same story becomes vital, informative and urgently to the point. Great stories are lost between languages.

But not in The Shoe Project. 


* Please follow the link to our interactive map. Select the country Poland in the dropdown menu. Click on a pin to read the story.

Learn more about Katherine Govier