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Szto with her book
Early in the process of working on her PhD, Courtney Szto got some encouraging advice. One of the members of the supervising committee thought that she had the makings of a book, and to write it accordingly.
The result is Changing on the Fly: Hockey through the Voices of South Asian Canadians, published by Rutgers University Press, as a part of its Critical Issues in Sport and Society series.
“I did my PhD at Simon Fraser University from 2013 to 2018, and that was the topic that I was working on,” Szto said over the phone from Kingston, Ontario, where she is an assistant professor in the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies at at Queen’s University.
“My supervisor, Richard Gruneau, who has written numerous books, including Hockey Night in Canada, he advised me early on that if I thought that I wanted to publish it, to write it as a book, so that was really good advice. I didn’t have to change much of it, from my thesis to the publication process. I rearranged it little bit of it, and I added another chapter, which is what the editors wanted, but aside from that, it is essentially my PhD thesis.”
The 1995 book, Hockey Night in Canada: Sport, Identities and Cultural Politics, by Gruneau and David Whitson, is an interesting case study in and of itself. As Szto really dug into the research, she realized that there wasn’t as much academic work from Canadians studying the game as one might think.
“There’s a small pool of literature that exists that’s critical of hockey in Canada,” said Szto. “Honestly, a lot of the research is pulled from American and British research that has been done because Canada hasn’t really asked these questions about race and in particular South Asian experiences. So I was drawing a lot on American and British scholars and trying to extrapolate and contextualize it for the Canadian context.”
As well, there are a select few hockey academics (many of whom SIHR members will know).
“It’s a small community, so we all know each other, we all go to the same conferences, and we lean on each other for resources,” she said. “The hockey community is already small, and when you get into the academic hockey community, it gets even smaller and I think we’re pretty fun bunch.”
Changing on the Fly is not “fun” in the sense of, say, Don Cherry spinning stories. But it is important and insightful, challenging the reader to think differently about how hockey runs (or doesn’t) through the veins of Canadians.
Szto tried to walk a tricky line, pleasing her PhD supervising committee, and making it readable. “I tried to write it as kind of a bridge between your typical academic book and a more popular one, but yes, definitely more on the academic side,” she said. “It’s definitely tough for many of academia who have been taught that writing, writing in particular way, is supposed to be inaccessible—like it’s not supposed to be read by the masses. I have long challenged that, because I think what’s the point of doing research if people don’t understand what you’re doing, and it doesn’t have some practical implications' I think it’s definitely a skill that’s becoming more necessary for professors.”
It is Szto’s first book, and with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and teaching remotely, it is a different experience than most first-time authors. She does not know what is to come.
“I don’t necessarily have plans, I just kind of go with the flow at this point and see where life takes you. I mean, there’s definitely people who have been throwing out that phrase of a second book, and I was like, 'I don’t know.' This one I put quite a bit of work in. I don’t know that I have a second book in me,” Szto admitted. “I think I’m one of the outliers in academia in that I would consider myself a writer first, and a researcher second. I do the research because it gives me something to write about. And I get that outlet through Hockey and Society as a blog, and getting that opportunity to write quite consistently for a public audience.”
At the Hockey in Society blog (www.hockeyinsociety.com) Szto is the Senior Editor, as the team examines hockey critically. Szto and the site’s founder, Dr. Mark Norman, are long-time friends. “That tends to be most of the outlet for any writing that doesn’t go into a journal article these days,” said Szto.
The people who visit the blog will like her book. A couple of the blurbs from the publisher helps contextualize Changing on the Fly:
Stanley Thangaraj, author of Desi Hoop Dreams: “Changing on the Fly will force a rethinking of race, hockey, and the politics of citizenship in the social margins. In this pioneering text, Szto’s rich intertextuality highlights the competing and contradictory nature of race and representation in sport. There is nothing else like it.”
David Leonard, author of Playing While White: Privilege and Power on and off the Field: “Changing on the Fly offers an original, powerful analysis of the hockey rink and the racial, national, gendered, and political landscape. Szto’s ability to build on existing scholarship all while carving out new areas of analysis and her centering of South Asian Canadians’ voices will change the ways we talk about sport, about hockey and about the (South) Asian Diaspora. Stzo is a force who will shape discussions in sports studies for decades to come. The future of sports studies is in good hands with Stzo leading the way.”
But back to an earlier point, why hasn’t Canadian hockey academia turned its lens on itself?
Szto has no issue answering.
“Our interpretation, for those of us doing critical research in Canada, is largely because we operate under this myth that Canada is a multicultural nation, that we don’t have to talk about race in the same way that America has to grapple with race on a daily basis. So we’ve used that as our shield to not actually do the work and not ask people about their experiences and not share their experiences,” she said. “Because negative experiences in Canada as a racialized person challenges this idea that we love diversity and that we’re different from the United States. So I think that that has a lot to do with it, and we’re doing a lot of that reckoning, as of the last year. We’re seeing a lot more work being published in the area. But yeah, when I pulled up to the computer the first time to sit down and write, and I was like, there was nothing really for me to draw from. There were books like Herb Carnegie’s book and things like that, more popular biographies, but from the research perspective, there just really was very little to be found.”
One autobiography that Szto got to read ahead of publication is Harnarayan Singh’s book, One Game at a Time: My Journey from Small-Town Alberta to Hockey’s Biggest Stage, as the Punjabi version of Hockey Night in Canada is a big part of Changing on the Fly.
The two books complement each other, in her eye.
“They actually do really go well together, I would definitely suggest that people read Harnarayan Singh first, as it’s kind of a more gentle entry into the subject. But they definitely fit together as kind of pieces of a bigger puzzle.”
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