Interview with Morgan Parker
It was both the honour and pleasure of A Different Booklist to have had Morgan Parker, author of poetry collections; Magical Negro (2019), There Are More Beautiful Things Beyoncé (2017), and Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up At Night (2015), visit us at the store. Parker is the recipient of a 2017 National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship, winner of a Pushcart Prize, and has been hailed by The New York Times as “a dynamic craftsperson” of “considerable consequence to American poetry.” Now with her new young adult title, Who Put This Song On? (2019), loosely based on her own experiences, where a young, Black, awkward teenage girl navigates her own depression while making sense of the predominantly white world in which she lives, Morgan has stepped into a new genre which she has again excelled at, and we certainly look forward to her future productions. Encouraged by her vibrancy and passion for the niche within which she creates, we sat down for an engaging, impromptu discussion.
Tricia Herman (TH): Hi Morgan, thank you for agreeing to this impromptu interview! We are so grateful that you have visited us at A Different Booklist. Thank you so much for coming in!
Morgan Parker (MP): Thank you!
TH: Tell me, what got you into this field?
MP: I’ve always loved writing since I was about eight years old. So I’ve been writing for a long time, but of course I did not know that it was a job (laughing); I didn’t know anything about that… I was like, “I wanna be a writer!” I put on a blazer and I was like, “This is… Isn’t this all it entails?” But it wasn’t until college that I started really thinking about writing as a career for myself.
TH: It appears that identity politics figure a lot into your work. How important do you think this is and why? Why now?
MP: I mean I… I think it is important always. I think now especially, because more people are listening, but there is no way I could write something, and my own particular perspective be… not part of it. I think, in everything that I am talking about there is a way that it – it is informed by my own identity, my experiences walking through the world, and the differences between my experiences and others. So, it is not so much a conscious choice to include those things; it’s more that, these are the eyes that I am looking at the world though.
TH: Absolutely! So I’m going to divert for a little while, what do you think of art for art’s sake as Black bodies?
MP: I do not know what it would look like… I think….
TH: Do we have that luxury right now?
MP: Well that is the thing, it is like… either we do not… But I do not subscribe to the idea of all Black literature is political. You know, there is always a debate about… is all… political poetry and things like that, if you mention that you are Black, it is suddenly this other thing. So I do not subscribe to that, but I do think that there is way – I mean I went to school in the US and lots of white people in my programmes and what they are writing about it is just kind of… whatever! You know it is like the forest, from time and space and ahm… First of all, I cannot even imagine, sustaining interest in sunflowers… you know? I cannot imagine that.
TH: It is absolutely amazing, the way there is this… I would say, luxury of just writing about whatever, not worrying about the impact, just so excited about… the coloring in film… just because it is fascinating….
MP: Just because it is! And I think we can and should be able to write about everything that we want, and I think about pushing against that constantly. I am not going to give you exactly what you are expecting a Black woman to write. So that in and of itself is a kind of freedom, but it is also a kind of protest, and resistance to being labeled by others.
TH: So, the owner of this store, is very excited about your title, There are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé, tell me about, not only your title, but the content and the concept. What was the thought process behind this?
MP: Well, I had a bunch of poems that were about Beyoncé, well not really, none of them are actually about Beyoncé, they are all about me. That is the other part where I was like, you guys, do not be mad at me! I do not personally know her, you know? (Laughing) I do not know that she goes to a shrink… I do! I actually came up with that title in the bathtub. I do not know why I always mention that every…
I did not think I was saying anything controversial. Because it is just like… a true sentence. There are more beautiful things! It does not mean that she is not beautiful, but there are other things also, that are beautiful! Have you seen the sky? You know, like… come on! I didn’t even think it was something that even Beyoncé would argue with! And also, especially because it is also young people who are upset about that, and it scares me kind of, because I am like, do you really believe – like…let us all just pause for a minute, and just to double check, you are not being cheeky? You know that there are other beautiful things right? You will never see Beyoncé up close in your life, but don’t you want to see a beautiful thing every day? And do you know that you are also beautiful? And if you are only thinking about beauty… the standard of beauty as that, that is really a strict kind of way to think about it, and we need to expand our mind of what is beautiful, and not even necessarily in terms of, “Okay well, we all…” What kind of women do we see as beautiful? You know, straight hair, light skinned, or whatever, but just in general in the world. So there is a lot, and that poem, the one that has the poem title, there is a lot about recognizing the beauty in things like an empty chicken box that has grease on it. You know, the little things like that, where we need to embrace the world wholly. So yeah, I guess that was the idea behind it, and also to be a little tongue in cheek. I did not think it was that controversial, I really did not! I don’t… I am not trying to get murdered! I am not going like, “Beyonce is ugly!” Why would I do that?
TH: Tell me a bit about conceptualizing, Who Put This Song On? How was it transitioning into young adult literature?
MP: It was really hard. It was really hard! I mean, it is also really heavy, so I think I struggled with finding the balance. I mean it is something I really focus on in my poems; it is trying to find the balance between humor and visible trauma and depression. So I was thinking about that in the same way, but what was different is that this book started out as… I guess it started from a couple of essays that I wrote in High School. So, it started from this really personal place of my own story and more of my process of now conceptualizing the book and making the book, was getting it further away from my particular stories. So, building the characters from ideas of real people, but then making them their own characters, and making the world its own world. And I think that that was the hardest part, because you kind of have to let go of a lot of the ego, and just let the story do its thing and let the characters do their thing, and not hang on to the truth of how stuff happens and all of that. Yeah, that was really the hardest part. And also, a lot of words! When I got the book I was like, “There’s so… Look what I did! There are so many words in there! (Laughing).” It is just a little bit of a different thing.
TH: That’s amazing! Congratulations on your first young adult output!
MP: Thank you!
TH: What do you think of the state of current Black literature in North America? It seems that a lot more space is being made for authors. Where do you think it could go from here?
MP: You know – and I was just talking to them about this – I think where it needs to go is more of the gatekeepers, the folks that are in control; the editors, people who run contests, and who judge awards, and all of that needs to be more diverse. We do have so many more diverse authors, and readers, but I think it needs to come a little bit more from the top. I think that is where it can go. The state right now, you are right, it is opening… but it still takes a lot of work and courage to make something that is outside of what is expected, especially for Black writers, because, if the people at the top are picking the books that get in front of readers, they are more often than not picking the thing that is familiar, or more like what they know to be the “African-American experience,” rather than for the idiosyncrasies. Even with my book there was a lot of, “Well, but, do you think people get…” And I a, like, “Maybe five people, but they will, and they need that book!” Rather than kind of flattening everything out…
TH: So I have a follow up question to this: I want your feedback on a comment that was made by a teacher to me. She asked for books, but she said specifically that she does not want specific Black identifiers; she just wants the characters to be Black, because she does not want her Black students to continue to see themselves within those specific categories, which kind of made sense. So she wanted those stories that just were… just Black characters…
MP: But I also think… they are Black, and that does not… there is a way that that always comes up, or shapes their way in the world. For better or worse, that is just how it is, because of white supremacy. So I do… you know, Toni Morrison had this thing where she would never… she always would say white people, but she never said Black people, because she was like, if I am writing about people, they’re Black people. So, she will specify, “white people,” versus, you know, how everyone else does it. So I do think that there is room for that, but I also think there is a way that you kind of cannot take out all the markers, because there are differences in people, and that is wonderful!
TH: And the markers are cultural.
MP: Yup! Well that is the thing, you don’t want to take out… why? Just to whitewash them?
MP: And I think often, that is what publishers kind of want. If it is going to be something that is a little bit… not, struggling Black family in the inner city, they kind of want to flatten it, but there is no way to do that! And especially not if we want to remain true and also speak to a specific cultural space. And I think part if it is the fear that it will not appeal to anyone. Which is like, I have read about every single sub-culture, like white sub-culture. That is everyone else’s problem, and I do not think it should be on the authors to silence out stories.
TH: Absolutely! Thank you so much for doing this; thanks for giving of your precious time, we appreciate it!
MP: Thanks so much! So good to meet y’all!
Interview with Amanda Parris
Amanda Parris, broadcaster and arts reporter, launched her book Other Side of the Game (finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Awards) at “The People’s Residence”: A Different Booklist Cultural Centre, on May 21, 2019. We were, beyond question, impressed by Parris’s ability to tap into a topic that does not often get dealt with openly and with acuity: The struggles faced by Black women who live a ride-or-die philosophy as they support their incarcerated loved ones and battle against oppressive institutions.
In the play, Parris deals with nuances of this topic with fidelity to the everyday, while providing a poignant criticism of the facets and complexities of capitalism/racism/patriarchy. She tracks those enduring traits that help define the lived experiences of Blacks, primarily Black women, in Canada.
Amanda Parris is an accomplished Artist/Journalist, who writes a weekly column for CBC Arts and hosts three CBC television series, CBC Arts: Exhibitionists, The Filmmakers and From the Vaults. She is also the radio host of Marvin’s Room on CBC Music. By night, Parris writes stories for the stage and screen.
Prior to joining the CBC, Parris was an educator who wrote arts-based curricula, attended numerous acting auditions, and dreamed of opening an alternative school that Jay-Z’s daughter, Blue Ivy Carter, would attend. Over the course of her career, Parris has worn a variety of hats, working as an educator, a researcher, an actor and a community organizer. She is the co-founder of the award-winning alternative education organization Lost Lyrics, and worked with The Remix Project and the Manifesto Festival.
Parris completed an Honours Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and Women’s Studies at York University and a Master of Arts in Sociology of Education at the University of Toronto.
Kyrell: Out of the many people whom you have recently interviewed, like Spike Lee, Wesley Morris, Angie Thomas, can you tell us about one of those encounters that made a definitive impact on you?
Amanda: They have all been really amazing. Those interviews are actually a gift: It is very rare that you get a chance to speak with an interviewee for such a long period of time. Most interviews are really fast, but I got to speak to each of those individuals for forty-five minutes to an hour, which was amazing and there were gems that were dropped in every single one of those conversations.
One interview that really stood out for me was the one with Wesley Morris, and I think it is because we were able to get into a really fascinating discussion about the role of the critic in society and what their responsibility is, what purpose they have in this time and place—to be truthful, to be critical, and to be strong in their position. It made me reflect a lot on my current job. I do not see myself as a critic, but I do comment a lot on art and culture, and so it really made me think about what role I play in helping push culture forward when I do that commentary. It made me question what it means to be a part of this movement of art and culture. So, yes, I would go with Wesley Morris on that one.
Kyrell: I had a chance to read your play and it is a) amazing and b) super important, because it focuses on the experiences of Black women. In the introduction to your book, you mentioned that you conducted interviews with women who had the specific experiences talked about in your play, in an effort to bring this book to fruition. How did your extensive experiences as a journalist who has appeared countless times on television and also on-stage help develop the retelling of these stories and the development of the aspects of the play such as staging, lighting, or creating composite characters from all these interviews?
Amanda: Well, actually, it did not at all because I was not in this role in media at the time that I wrote the play. The writing of the play came before I started working at CBC. Writing that play and going through that process was really less of a journalistic process and more of an academic process because I was in school.
I was doing my Master’s. Hence, I was thinking about it from that perspective of researching for theatre. So this was me being a big nerd, and loving research and wanting to gather as much information as possible to help push and figure out this world and those stories. This research comes from, in some cases, literature but in a lot of cases from people—from the people that I interviewed and spoke with who were kind enough and generous enough to share their stories. That has actually informed the way that I approach the media that I do now. So I think doing all of that work on the play helped me to understand how important it was to gather as many voices as possible, and to utilize my platform to share as many perspectives and voices as possible. So it was actually the opposite—the work in theatre has helped to inform my media career.
Kyrell: The play really highlights the many microaggressions that women face within various organizations and workplaces. What do you see as tangible ways in which men can help support women within, not only activist spaces but also within the home and at work?
Amanda: The play was written prior to the #MeToo movement; it was written prior to Black Lives Matter but it was produced for the first time during the rise of Black Lives Matter and so I feel like we have already started to engage in these conversations in really interesting and critical ways. The play became a reflection of the need to have the conversation and what was happening before we started to have them. So, Black Lives Matter, being a movement that spans globally, being a movement that in the case of BLMTO, is primarily led by women and trans people, I think, really pushed the conversation forward and challenged the stereotype of Black activism as always being male led, with women in the background or this idea that women are doing a lot of the hard work but men receive all of the glory and all of the acclaim. I think Black Lives Matter helped to push that conversation in a lot of really interesting ways.
And then of course, #MeToo has exposed so much of the silent pain and traumas and highlighted many ways that men have utilized their power and ambition to prevent women from ascending and from receiving their fair due. I feel like just in our society, these conversations have been happening so much and, through those conversations, really important policy decisions, really important cultural shifts, and really important discussions have been happening. I think, then, that the play is a kind of affirmation of all those things and a reminder of what we don’t want to return to, and what we shouldn’t be returning to.
For me, personally, it was really important to demonstrate. The experience of being burnt out and feeling undervalued was definitely very personal and something that I had gone through in my own work as a community organizer. I think it is something that historically so many women have gone through and have not had the space, the platform, the language, the tools to talk about. Although I don’t think that’s the case right now, I don’t think it is over; I just think that there has now become a growing awareness of it. And so, with that conversation, it is important for men to listen, to be quiet, to check themselves, and do the work necessary to become true partners, true allies, and to recognize the privilege that they have, and not to play “oppression Olympics” with women.
Kyrell: So true. That is definitely something that happens when we have these conversations with men, and they say, “But these things also happen to us.” And we have to say, “That’s not what we’re talking about right now.”
Amanda: Yes. That’s not productive.
Kyrell: In this book you captured opposing dualities of Black activists and everyday Black individuals carving out survival within the current economic system. What was the intention behind fleshing out the nuances of both positions?
Amanda: Well, it initially came about because the play was originally conceived between two people: Myself and another woman named Keisha Monique Simpson, who was having these recurring dreams that the two of us were working on a play that dealt with activist communities of the past. And I was really interested in exploring this contemporary reality of women whose loved ones were incarcerated, so we decided to combine those ideas. I think it was divine intervention that brought us together and allowed this idea to blossom.
She moved on to work on other things and I continued with the play alone but I always have to give credit to her for making this play a little bit bigger than anything I would have originally conceived myself. What we wanted to do was to showcase the fact that although the language may be different, although the way that people articulate their struggles may change, there are so many continuing patterns happening between time periods and within both of these time periods. We see untold stories of women who are working hard for their communities and for their families. We see too that these women are not being recognized for that work or not receiving the support and the infrastructure necessary to not just survive but also to thrive. The way that I tried to write the play was to illustrate it not only through various relationships but also through the institutions that they have to interact with, whether it be police, or schools, or daycare—just all the different ways that these institutions and the everyday realities have helped create a limited space of possibilities for Black women. And still in the midst of that, they continue to find joy and moments of possibility.
Kyrell: You mentioned your own experiences, and your own burnout: I would like to talk about your community activism in the form of the organization Lost Lyrics, an organization that you helped come to be. Why did you feel that an organization of that nature was necessary?
Amanda: Again, it was not just me: I cofounded Lost Lyrics with another woman named Natasha Daniel, and then we together created this family of people, including Sun, Obie, and Rich Kidd. There are a number of people who came together to make Lost Lyrics a reality. And the reason we all worked so hard on it and created it, was because we saw a gap; we saw young people who were brilliant and creative and curious and fascinated and wanted to know and were hungry to learn, but they were being asked to attend, each day, classrooms and school systems that did not always feed them in the ways that they were asking to be fed. They were often limited to a curriculum that was not the most inspiring or interesting or innovative. In trying to create programming that lived outside of the school system, we had a certain freedom and a certain invitation to be as creative and bold as we wanted to be.
It initially started because Natasha and I were hired by another after-school program to teach a group of young people and we fell in love with them. They were so great, so dynamic, so amazing, but the program we were hired to teach was not the most interesting, and so, in phone conversations with each other, we started thinking about things that we were learning in school or things that we were interested in that we would love to share with the kids. We started experimenting with different lesson plans and activities that we could do with them to explore things like colonialism, Black Power activism, hip-hop culture and the origins of hip-hop, and we just started testing and trying things out.
The kids, as kids are, were so honest, and were just like, “That was really boring, don’t ever do that again,” or, “I really liked that, can we do that again next week?” Through that trial and error period we started to realize that we were stumbling on something really brilliant, and it grew and evolved and became a multi-program organization that existed throughout the GTA. In some cases the organization traveled outside of Canada and I’m really proud of it and really thankful for all the ways that it forced me to grow, and all the things that it taught me. I take all of those teachings into the new roles that I am in right now.
Kyrell: Thank you for that. Can you give us your current perspective on Black Art/Theatre Arts in Toronto, and what your hope is for that scene? What it could look like in the future? And what are the stories from Black Canadians that you look forward to seeing represented on stage?
Amanda: I think Black Theatre in Toronto is so exciting. It always has been, which is why I was drawn to it initially. I didn’t see Black stories being told onscreen in Canada. I saw very few Black television shows or Black movies that were based in Canada or were about Canadian folk, but I did see those stories being told on the stage, through the work of artists like d’bi.young and Trey Anthony and the direction of Weyni Mengesha. So many different folks like Djanet Sears, who were creating all this phenomenal work—Philip Akin and Joseph Jomo Pierre. They were inspiring me and helping me to realize that my stories are valid and interesting enough to deserve space on stage, by way of theatre. And I think that tradition has continued in so many of the younger artists that are creating today: There is so much exciting work being developed—really cool festivals as well. There is new blood coming into theatre companies.
It is all very, very exciting, and I am really proud to be a part of the Black Toronto theatre scene because I think it is one of the most innovative movements happening in the city. My hope for it is that it continues to grow, with more institutions. We have Obsidian Theatre which is one of the great theatre companies in our city, but we need more than one theatre company to hold our stories and to have the responsibility of sharing our stories. It is a lot of pressure to put on a single company and so I hope that more Black theatre companies are developed and created.
I hope that we also have a Black theatre company that has its own physical theatre space one day. That would be wonderful, so they don’t have to always rent out or partner with other organizations.
In terms of the stories that I hope are shared, I’m just excited to see more contemporary stories about the Black Canadian experience, particularly, the ways that we move, the rhythms with which we speak—all of those things documented on stage. And I would love to see more Black comedies and period pieces.
And then I’m excited to see what Black creators are imagining for the future. I don’t think it has to be one type of play for each. I love the way that Black Canadians/Black artists, travel in their work, and how time can be so fluid. So I look forward to seeing all of those things in this space, on our stages. And, as I said, I’m really proud of the Toronto theatre scene.
Kyrell: Thank you, Amanda. Thank you so much for sharing your time, and sharing your thoughts, and thank you for the work that you do and for helping to create this play and for challenging the cultural conversations that are happening. Thank you for all of that.
Amanda: Thank you very much.
Dr. Althea Prince Speaks With A Different Booklist
It was the great honour and privilege of A Different Booklist to have had the opportunity to speak with the award winning author, Dr. Althea Prince, on her life work, which is focused on engaging with issues of gender and equity, with her never-ending attempts at opening up and creating space for the marginalized within the Toronto community. Dr. Prince is a Professor in the Department of Sociology at Ryerson University, in the areas of Race, Racism and African-Caribbean culture, with a focus on literature and storytelling. Her published works include the anthologies, The Politics of Black Women’s Hair (2009), Beyond the Journey (2013), and her latest 2018 publishing, The Black Notes, along with her children’s book, How the Starfish Got to the Sea (1992). Dr. Prince has received many awards, not only for her publishing which includes the Antigua and Barbuda International Writers' Festival First Annual Award for Literary Excellence for services in the arts and literature, but also for her efforts within the community. She has also received writing awards from the Ontario Arts Council. Dr. Prince walked us through her journey, as we attempted to adequately grasp within a short amount of time, the entirety of her vast efforts within academia and the community.
Kyrell: I read an article written by you in the anthology, Beyond the Journey, entitled “Believe None of What You Hear, and Half of What You See: Creating, Building, and Maintaining Relevant and Dynamic Learning Environments that Embrace Newcomers,” where you speak on the process of teaching and inclusivity. Can you tell us why this became so important to you as an educator, and what do you hope to achieve from this approach?
Dr. Prince: Because we’re in Canada and we have a very diverse population that is not always recognized in education circles. You see, it is recognized on paper but not in reality. Sometimes the classroom can be a place of stress, conflict, and fear, and therefore not an environment of learning for the student. They may not feel that they are part of the mainstream culture, and content. The mainstream education curriculum does not always include everyone nor is it paying attention to how it is being received by the diverse population that it is created to serve. So it seemed to me that it was a good idea to have those diverse voices brought together in this particular collection, because then it would educate people in general, and educate community development workers in particular. We have to remember that we are a diverse population and must be cognizant of the students’ background.
Kyrell: In The Black Notes, there is a wonderful pairing of mothers and daughters sharing their work. We also noted that in many of your anthologies, you make space for women’s voices. Why do you think that is important?
Dr. Prince: I guess the same reason: being inclusive, being mindful that women’s voices have been largely ignored over time; ignored by the mainstream patriarchy because mainstream culture, mainstream society, does not give priority to women. So women are still, for instance, trying to ensure that there is equal pay for equal work, so it made sense to me to bring voices together that needed to be heard from our community, from our culture in general. We need to hear from women about their experiences, their creative journeys, so The Black Notes brought together older and younger women. The contributors include some young girls who are just reaching the age of maturity. The book seeks to bring together the two generations. We have then the viewpoint - not a complete cross-section of those, but as far as I was able – of those women and girls from the African-Canadian community. So the same objectives: the same business of giving equity, giving voice, allowing space for these voices to express their creativity. Some of it is non-fiction, some of it is fiction and some of it is poetry.
Kyrell: That leads into my third question: Speaking about you giving a platform to young women of African-Canadian descent, I want to touch on the anthology that you put together, The politics of Black Women’s Hair. In the public at large, the conversation about Black women’s hair feels stagnant. Outside of your published, The Politics of Black Women’s Hair and the recent publication by Cheryl Thompson: Beauty In A Box: Detangling the Roots of Canada’s Black Beauty Culture, do you still find the cultural conversation about Black hair in Canada to be in the same place?
Dr. Prince: Well I have not done any research on it lately, but in terms of my general knowledge and anecdotally, yes, I think so. Just from noting what young women are doing with their hair generally. I haven’t revisited the people with whom I spoke, but it looks to me as if we still have the issue of Black people’s hair in mainstream culture, and also therefore, how we deal with it. How do we deal with our hair? When I look around the community, the society, and probably the world, Black women are still seemingly going to the wigs, and weaves and extensions. Everyone is doing wigs, and weaves and extensions, but looking at Black women that is, we have this concern about our hair when we are going out into the public. We still do not think that our natural hair is okay. You see them at red carpet events and so on, everybody has a nice – well I’m saying nice with sarcasm – long weave or wig. Whereas other women – other than Black women – will have extensions added to their natural hair; the hair with which they were born. Black women have these extensions and wigs and so on in the texture of other people’s hair – and their own hair straightened to match it. So it looks to me as if we still have the issue of our hair. Also, how we deal with our children’s hair. I’ve seen little girls with extensions, going to daycare, going to elementary school with their hair in extensions. From where I sit in society and not as a researcher, I would say we probably are still at the same place.
Kyrell: Your community work and activism has been vast and noted within the city, especially with educating youth and working with new immigrants. What drives you to do the work that you do on a community level? What would you consider your greatest accomplishment within that area thus far?
Dr. Prince: I don’t know, because I don’t look at my life that way. I’m just glad when I see young people recognizing things that they need to recognize early in life. I really don’t think of things in those terms, like, “What is my greatest accomplishment?” I really don’t have a clue. I’m happy that I have actually encouraged and enabled many young people to write, and I’ve also encouraged and enabled many young people to go back to school and to stay in school. Those things are important, but I don’t see those as my accomplishments, I see them as the things that are there to be done and I am glad that I was involved in some of that. Teaching is the first love, it’s the thing I’ve done for most of my life, and I think my role as an educator and as a Black woman educator was an important role for young Black people and people of colour in general to see and to relate to because I could have been just in the role of standing there, but I was really determined to be accessible and to enable people’s embrace of the proceeds of knowledge, and I’m glad that that’s happened for some people through my encouragement and support. But I don’t see that as my greatest accomplishment, this sort of grandiose term in which I don’t think of my life or anything, but I’m happy that I reached some people and helped them with their journey.
Kyrell: What advice would you give to young persons intending on walking the path of publishing and academia that you have and continue to walk on?
Dr. Prince: Be true to yourself and to listen to your voice – your own voice. I teach a writing workshop on occasion titled, “Finding Your Voice Within,” and in my view that is the best thing we can do for ourselves, is to find our voice within us, and to use it as our guideline as opposed to accepting any sort of boxes and stereotypes that society may have constructed about us. So as a person, it is very important to construct your own view of yourself, as opposed to listening to and accepting any stereotype that’s been socially constructed about you, because the social construction of who you are is not who you are – you are who you decide you are, and my advice if I were able to give it to anyone would be, just grab on to who you are inside; listen to that, be guided by what you know to be true about you and yourself and what you want to say, what you want to do, how you want to be, no matter what you’re doing.
Kyrell: My next question is about you as a writer. I am very curious about how you go about conducting interviews that are about topics that are; firstly, very sensitive, and secondly, tied to a person’s own memories; how are you able to draw those thoughts out while preserving the voice of the interviewee?
Dr. Prince: That’s sort of normal research behavior, because my discipline is sociology, so I suppose I draw on those skills in interviewing people. In addition, I try to see and hear who someone is and what they need and so on as we talk, and also to listen – listen well, listen carefully as opposed to having my own agenda. Listen, and see where you’re being led through by the person you are talking with. They may not be where your questions are; they may be somewhere else and it is up to you to find where that somewhere else is, and allow that to happen, because your construct of where you want to take them into may not be what is appropriate and it may not be what is beneficial. So you may actually do a disservice to someone by interviewing them badly, and impose some things that you may not have intended. So if my line of questioning is not bringing a productive kind of conversation, then it is up to me to listen to what the interviewee is saying, and to know if a shift is needed. It’s really commonsense you know, but also using the discipline of sociology in terms of examining anything, because that is my training.
Kyrell: So the final question: How does your body of work and your writing figure into your social and academic endeavors?
Dr. Prince: Well they have furthered them, I can say… simple answer, they have furthered them.
Kyrell: Thank you so much for taking time out of your schedule and letting us interview you.
Dr. Prince: Oh, you’re welcome!
A Conversation With Fiona Raye Clarke
Fiona Raye Clarke’s talents, works, and efforts towards Black mobilizing and empowerment spans the breadth of law, politics and art in the Black Diaspora. Fiona is highly accomplished, having attained a Master’s degree in Law, and being called to the Bar in 2017. She has also edited and published three anthologies: "Basodee: An Anthology Dedicated to Black Youth," The “Black Church in Canada” and now, “Black Like We: Troubleshooting the Black Youth Experience,” and is currently working on her own literary text. This young, awe-inspiring woman continues to work with Black youth in and around GTA in efforts to engender change for the better, especially around self-actualization. In light of all these achievements, A Different Booklist found that it would be most fitting to highlight Fiona Raye Clarke, in the wake of her latest anthology.
Tricia: Hi, Fiona Raye Clarke. Thank you so much for making your presence felt at A Different Booklist—not only in the title that you have offered us that has been published, but also, you, here. Thank you so much for being here!
Fiona: Thank you for your invitation.
Tricia: We’re going to start with your writing because you seem to be very involved in writing. How did you first get into writing, authorship, etc.?
Fiona: Well, I started writing when I was a little girl. You know those class assignments that people hated doing? I loved doing them and would get stars for them. Then I guess I started writing novels, tracing out the size of a book and writing to that size, binding it together and calling it a novel. Then I entered contests, and placed really well. I wrote throughout high school, but then I wasn’t able to pursue a BFA or anything like that, so it wasn’t until I had started working that I decided to try to professionalize my interest in writing. I first got a grant from the now defunct, sadly, Office of the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth, and that was for the first iteration of this book which was Basodee: An Anthology Dedicated to Black Youth. So I gathered writers—both emerging Black writers and established—that I knew in my circle, and we put together a book. And I decided to do it again because it was just impossible to ignore the things that are happening in the world. I won a pitch contest to put this together, and I guess between that time I had started blogging around Black life and profiling Black excellence and things like that in Toronto and I eventually started writing my own creative works. Both these books, Basodee and Black Like We feature my short story writing.
Tricia: So what is the blogging experience like? What has been the response to that?
Fiona: I blogged for “Who’s Who in Black Canada,” which is one of the main sites of documenting the achievements in the lives of Black folk in Canada, and so my highlight for that, other than the wide readership (I think they have like 10, 000 people who subscribe), is that I got to do a profile on the origins of Caribana—when it was called Caribana—and I got to interview Charles Roach before he passed away. So there were amazing things within that and just uncovering the history. Yes, that was a huge highlight for me.
Tricia: Awesome. So doing some research on you, I found conversation about you having lived in Nicaragua, Poland, and England—how did your global experiences of living have an effect on your world outlook today?
Fiona: Well, I haven’t lived in Poland; I travelled through Poland, but I think I started seeing common threads around Blackness, and the issues that we are all facing, particularly as a young person at that time, and so I really wanted to investigate that.
Tricia: So even as a child, you had those sensitivities to racial issues?
Fiona: I did because I came from here, and I lived in Texas when I was 10 through 13. And at that time, there was that lynching of James Byrd when he was dragged behind the truck in Texas—that and all the other things that were happening. And I didn’t see these firsthand, but I’d heard about the disparities between the way Black folks lived and how others lived, and you know, you were warned about going to different wards withing the city and all that stuff.
I also had access to this wealth of Black reading that was not available in my day here, so I just consumed everything that was possible about Black culture, about Black literature. And then I came back here, and I didn’t really see that for a really long time. And so these books are a part of that expression and that need, and there has been a proliferation of Black literature and Canadian literature, but I still wanted that representation of youth voices.
Tricia: I read your last story in Black Like We, and you seem to be inspired in a sense by Afrofuturism. Can you tell us what it is about Afrofuturism that you deem suited during this time to tell our stories?
Fiona: I think that a lot of the political climate is telling us constantly that we, a) don’t matter, and b) we don’t deserve to be here; we don’t deserve to be alive. And for me, Afrofuturism is a direct opposition to that in that we have longevity, in that we might even have powers that we don’t know about, especially harkening back to ancestry. My particular ancestry is rooted in the Transatlantic Slave Trade and the legacy of that, and so for me I draw a lot from imagining the strength of my ancestors and the fact that I exist here. To me that’s a part of a constant reality. I would not be alive if it were not for the strength of my ancestors.
Tricia: So how does imagining figure into this? Imagining the future Afro self?
Fiona: I feel like, for me, I like to focus on the Black body, the Black woman, our agency in the future, because I think that, right now, there isn’t that much inspiration for me. I’m currently working on a contemporary novel that flashes back to history and now. I actually struggle with the contemporary perspective because it’s like, what can I grab on to here, in this time, now? I either love looking at the past, or I love looking into the future: You can imagine anything as possible then. But here in our current circumstances—I’m a millennial, for example, and everywhere you go, you are told either that you’re lazy, or you’re burning out. You’re this; you’re that; you’re not achieving enough; or your values are skewed. And so for me, I like to project a future in which I do have agency, my people have agency, we have a voice, we’ve established ourselves. Maybe we’re somewhere else where we don’t have to constantly fight to exist, to matter, to achieve some sort of standard of equity.
Tricia: I’m thinking of your law background. Based on my research—I’m not sure how current it is—but you have a Master’s in Law? Done already or continuing?
Fiona: Yes! So I have a law degree and a Master’s in Law, and I was called to the Bar in 2017.
Tricia: Congratulations! Yayyy! So how does your work in law figure into your activist practice, your writing practice, etc.?
Fiona: Well, I think that right now, for me, I use my experience having been trained in criminal defense—that’s the area that I specialized in—in a project called “Confluence Arts” in which we are an activist/abolitionist/artistic collective and we work with women who are institutionalized currently, or women who have recently been institutionalized by incarceration and the prison industrial complex. And so we make art that speaks to their lived experiences and their future and imaginings.
Tricia: So it all works out!
Fiona: Yes! And it’s geared towards literary and performance arts.
Tricia: Nice! There’s seems to be an intent towards Black social-political engagement with your work and how that figures into the broader aspects of what you are trying to achieve?
Fiona: I am a community-engaged artist first and foremost. Most people don’t even really understand what that is, but, to me, I feel like having an artistic practice necessarily entails community engagement in some form or fashion, and so I center my community engaged practice around Black storytelling and gathering oral histories with a political and artistic purpose. I’ve done so far two projects under the umbrella of INTERGENERACIAL. The first was really just about gathering stories related to the questions, How did you get here, to Canada? What are your experiences with racism? How have your dreams been deferred or affected by your experiences with discrimination? And what have been some of your struggles as a gendered person, or an immigrant or somebody who has constantly been asked, “Where are you from?” And so we created an oral history play verbatim piece from that called From Their Lips, and it was geared towards stories around escape and survival from domestic abuse. We also included some of the Regent Park story of community bonding, and the violence that is experienced in that area, around gun violence, in particular.
The one that I most recently did was “2168: Ancestors Rising,” which was more Afrofuturistic. We asked people what they saw Blackness looking like, feeling like, and their hopes for 150 years from now as we had just had the Canada 150 celebration, which I did not see too much discussion around being Black within that. So I wanted to project Blackness into the future in Canada, and we ended up with a story that actually took us out of Earth, and we imagined going to a Black planet. It was geared towards finding a place that was our own, that wasn’t here, and gathering resources, and gathering the strength and the ability to find another world where we belong. And so for me, having those conversations, and, particularly, focusing on inter-generational discussions is important. This relates at least to my own personal life. With my Caribbean background, my elders are kind of tight-lipped. We don’t always share our experiences, our stories. I got to interview my own mother in this project. I was able to ask her questions about her life in this context that she would probably never answer, and so, to me, bridging the struggles of the young and the elders is important because they kind of seem to repeat. And that’s what I’m seeing a lot in this project: That what we’re facing is what they faced 50 years ago!
Tricia: And you’re wondering, where are the interruptions that were supposed to have happened? So why the orientation around youth, at least with your anthologies?
Fiona: I think in general my work is centered towards youth because I feel like we are one of the most criminalized of our people. There’s all this projection of stigmas around violence and around low achievement. Even in my own culture, being Trinidadian, I feel like you are silenced constantly because you’re supposed to respect your elders which is great, but your voice is never really taken into account until it is an absolutely, dire situation. So I want to give folks that voice and that chance to speak, and that chance to articulate themselves, however that articulation comes out because it’s often not valued. For me, giving a literary or theatrical voice to Black Youth specifically is super-transgressive.
Tricia: It is! One thing I am thinking around with my own research is the ways in which those stigmas that are 500 years old, they’re just so…
Fiona: Present and so still felt!
Tricia: Yes! And hardly any shift! When will my Black body be read outside of pain? When will my Black body be read outside of sadness, outside of violence? And to be able to empower youth—when you think about the strength of those representations that we internalize! So this is the strength of what you are doing, to be able to dismantle those thoughts from very early on to see self differently. And I really look forward to youth engaging with the work and trying to have those conversations and dialogues around everyday experiences.
Fiona: It’s super-true because with our first book it had gotten into the hands of an English teacher at an institution in Gravenhurst, and she was, like, “Oh, I teach this to the male inmates that I work with!” You know, it’s just so incredible. You never really realize—I mean now I do with my legal, abolitionist, artistic engagements—but there are people who have no freedom, who are looking at these representations and seeing themselves. They are appreciative of it and need it, so to me it’s something that we need to keep producing—the myriad of voices and experiences.
Tricia: And I like that you mention the myriad of voices from every corner of life. You have these varied voices speaking out, which is one of the most powerful aspects to this anthology. Can you talk a bit about the anthologies that you have edited—Basodee: An Anthology Dedicated to Black Youth, The Black Church in Canada, and, now, Black Like We: Troubleshooting the Black Youth Experience—in terms of inspiration, the process, the outcome?
Fiona: In terms of the process—I spoke a little bit about Basodee—but I was basically seeing that there was this thing, Black History Month, and there aren’t that many youth expressions within that, at least at the time there wasn’t. Then, The Black Church in Canada came out of a conference that had happened through the Ontario Black History Society, where they had spoken about the history of Blackness and Christianity. They had decided to put together an anthology, a collection around that topic, and I, coming from a background that was Catholic, I wanted to look at Blackness and Catholicism. One of the things I’d discovered is that there was this specifically Black Catholic church in Toronto, which I had never before visited! And it’s literally a Black Priest, Black choir—they have food cook up in the basement at the church. It’s not like the forty-five minutes, and people wear whatever. It’s a Black church, but Catholic.
Tricia: You mean it’s evening wear, and people have to be at church looking a hundred?
Fiona: Yes! Yes! So I went and was like, this is incredible! But then I discovered that it had this long history as well, and people had fought for it. It was just super-incredible. And there were other pieces around Black Catholicism in the east coast, but, apparently, they were too controversial I guess to publish because the publisher was actually afraid of the Catholic Church. That was an interesting piece of that project, but that’s how that anthology came together.
With this one, like I said, I was in law school in England, and I was going to meetings around being Black and was just hearing about Black experience in England—and they were the exact same things! We’re getting pushed out of schools; we’re this; and all of this stuff. I also had this really terrible experience with our law society. Just like here, it is split between barristers and solicitors. So the barrister group which is the Inns of Court Society put on this “Slave for a Day Auction,” but the Inns of Court executives were mainly Black students! And so, they were going to auction themselves off to the highest bidder, to be their slave for a day.
In that moment my disbelief interrupted the entire interview. It took a moment for me to process that an event of that nature would occur in this time.
Fiona: Yes! Yes! And I was, like, “Are you absolutely kidding me?”
Tricia: How do you as an activist sit in a meeting and listen to this?
Fiona: I wasn’t involved in the executive, but this was something that just came down, and oh! People were thinking, “Hahaha, this is so fun! It’s a great fund raiser.” And I put a petition together, I went around to the Black people from the States, Black People from England, and people from Canada. And I got us all together. But the thing was the Black people from England said, “This is how it is. We don’t even say anything anymore.” So with that knowledge, I still wrote to the executive, and I was like, “Actually, this is extremely offensive, given this country’s background of colonialism, transatlantic slavery, that entire legacy.” And some of them were, I guess, either continental African or Black European, and so they said, “Actually, in my boarding school in Uganda, we do this all the time, and nobody is offended!” And I was, like, “Well, I’m offended!”
Tricia: You should be offended!
Fiona: All these people are offended! Let’s take a minute to help you be offended! But they didn’t get it, and I said, “Okay, well, fine, I’m not saying don’t do the fundraiser, but could you at least call it something else, like, ‘A Helper for a Day’. Just do not use the language of enslavement.” And yes, yes, yes, yes, they agree. I go to the event, and I’m there, and I’m watching—I’m certainly not participating—and: “Slave for a Day!” And, “Who wants so and so to be your slave for the day?” They were waving their pounds, and I was just in disbelief. And it was mostly white students bidding on these Black people. They were waving their pounds in the air, and I was, like, “Oh my God!” They were paying cash for them! And, there were shouts of, “You win!” and “Come up on the stage and claim your prize!”
Tricia: Auctions! Oh my God!
Fiona: It was the worst thing that ever happened during my time there. So I was like, “Look at this. I need to talk about this somehow.” So I actually was interrogating the process of post-secondary education, and the impact of being Black in that because, to me, this was part of my post-secondary education—and my peers were auctioning off themselves!
Tricia: It’s not being done to you! You’re doing it to yourself now!
Fiona: And they had no issue with it, no issue with it. They saw nothing wrong with it—where they were, what we were doing. We were to be lawyers! So I interviewed people online, and I put out this poll, and interviewed all these women around their post-secondary experiences, some of whom weren’t able to complete due to financial or emotional or personal struggles. I also interviewed others who did complete “successfully,” but you know, they either went into extreme debt, were extremely alienated, or had suffered hardship. With all of that in mind, I saw an opportunity when I came back and finished law school here with ArtReach. They had a pitch contest for community arts projects, and so I pitched this because so much had changed for me personally in terms of living in the UK, along with what was happening in the States with all of the deaths and the murders and the exonerations. And so that’s how this came about. And there were so many submissions…
Tricia: I read in an interview that you hope to have this anthology span beyond just the collection but to move into workshops and outreach programs. To what extent has this desire been fulfilled, and what else do you hope for?
Fiona: I’m still working on that, but, definitely, I’m looking to gain more experience around working within the institutions, like federal institutions and provincial institutions. Like I said, that was something that had came up with the last book, but due to all of the bureaucracy that are in those institutions, it’s actually either impossible or just something that is too “difficult,” or made to be too difficult to actually pursue. And so I’ve been able to at least get clearance to work within those institutions. Often there’s a skew towards apolitical work. There’s a desire for that within these institutions, and so it’s been my white friends who have gotten us into places!
Tricia: Do you sneak in through the back, and go, “Oh yeah, I’m going to bring my politics now”?
Fiona: Yes! And so that’s definitely somewhere that I want to bring this book and the concepts within it. Also, within the education system because, let’s face it, it is still absolutely, abjectly failing us.
Tricia: Absolutely! In so many ways!
Fiona: I’ve done some speaking engagements and workshops and stuff within schools, and so I’d like to continue that work, which is also difficult because we tend to be marginalized. We tend to be overcommitted, having family and financial obligations, but if there were funding resources, we can start a collective or a movement where we are able to bring the beautiful work that we do among ourselves into these institutions and create interventions within them. That would be my absolute hope.
Tricia: And I must say that I am super-moved by your passion for what you do. All the energy you put into it and all your continued efforts. A lot of times you hear people speak about their interest in marginalized Black lives, but there isn’t the passion to push against all the barriers because there are a million and one barriers. So kudos to you! How does one push, keep pushing, keep working, and also ensure that the politics remain and are not sold off just for the funding?
Fiona: Well, thankfully, I find that actually the arts councils—at least the Ontario and Toronto Arts Councils are receptive to political work, and they interrogate those politics actually, within their discussions.
Tricia: That’s amazing. So, last question: What’s next for Fiona Raye Clarke, so young and so accomplished? What’s next? What haven’t you done? What will you do?
Fiona: I guess the abolitionist/artistic collective project. We’re starting that this week, actually. And I will also be working very hard on revising my short fiction collection that I worked on through Diaspora Dialogues last year and a novel that I’m working on through Humber and U of T. So I’m hoping to publish my own book of work.
Tricia: Nice! We look forward to everything that you have to offer, and, hopefully, you continue the journey you have started. Thank you so much for coming in and sharing with us.
Fiona: Thank you!
Interview With Christene A. Browne
Author, Filmmaker, Entrepreneur...
Christene A. Browne was born in St. Kitts. In 1970, she moved to Regent Park, Canada’s oldest and largest low income community. Her experiences there helped shape the person she has become. Browne attended film school at Ryerson University and started her own production company, Syncopated Productions, in 1990. Her filmography includes: Brothers in Music (1990), No Choice (1993), Another Planet (1999), and the acclaimed Speaking in Tongues: The History of Language (2008) (Winner of the WIFTS Foundation 2011 Best Documentary Award). To date, she has published two novels: Two Women and Philomena (Unloved).
In light of her most recent launch of Philomena (Unloved), at A Different Booklist Cultural Centre, “The People’s Residence”, as part of the Black and Caribbean Book Affair 2018, Christene A. Browne agreed, post-launch, to sit with us, and have a conversation about her activism, her filmmaking, and, most importantly, her new book.
Kyrell: Hello, Christene.
K: Thank you for agreeing to be interviewed by us.
C: No problem.
K: I’m very glad that you had your book launch here and your film screening. Thank you for continuing to support the space.
Christine smiles and nods graciously.
K: So I’ll launch right into it… You’re known to be highly active within both the Black and Regent Park communities. What led you to being so active in terms of community work, and what projects are you most thankful for having been a part of?
C: Many questions in one. To answer the first part, why am I so active? I’m really not that active, but I’m active... In terms of my work, I think that I’m very active. So that activism started out in Regent Park as a part of the Regent Park Video Workshop. That’s actually where I started making films. As a young person growing up in a community like that, when I looked around, I saw so many things that were wrong, and so many things that I didn’t agree with. So we did a series of videos while we were there, and we did one called It Ain’t What You Think, where we’re trying to dispel some of the myths that people had about the community, and we interviewed so many people from the neighborhood. So we’re trying to show that we’re not all drug addicts and that whole stereotype of what people who live there are. And so, I think the activism started there, in that community, in that workshop space. Did I answer that part of the question? And the second part of the question was…?
K: What projects are you most thankful for having been a part of?
C: The projects that I am most thankful for being a part of […] you can’t choose which one you prefer...so your film projects are your babies, right? I am thankful for different projects for different things. Another Planet was my very first feature film. I’ve tried to make more after that, but I haven’t been able to, in terms of putting budgets together and whatnot. I’m thankful for that because every project that I take on is like a test to myself. I say, “You know what? I’m gonna try this,” and I succeed. And then I say, “Yeah, I can do that!” Like, I made a feature film: “Okay, I can do that! I can do that again!”
When I was doing Speaking In Tongues, which is a documentary series—I had never done one before—I didn’t know anything about linguistics, and [I thought], “Let me just try to do this,” and I did it! You know? So, it’s like testing what I can do and also broadening my horizons and just having fun basically, because it is good, just having fun, and not even proving anybody wrong but just proving the fact that I can do these things. Like, for example, I’m going to be doing an animation, probably towards the end of the year, and I’ve never done an animation before…so what?
Novel writing, that’s another thing: I have wanted to write since I was—well, as a filmmaker I was writing all the time, anyway, because I’m writing scripts and whatnot, but I knew that I had novels in me. I still have lots of novels in me, and, uh, that was another test, and you know what? I know I can do this, and I’m going to do it!
So, to answer the question: I’m proud of everything because I’ve grown as an artist, doing all those projects, and I’ve grown as a person as well. I’m particularly proud of Speaking in Tongues because it’s probably the most expansive project that I’ve done. I spent a year doing research; I interviewed all the top linguists in the world, and the project was completed in 2008. And I’m still getting royalties for that, so I’m pretty happy about that.
K: That’s great! And see, you kind of answered my second and third questions. My second question was going to be , “Which project do you hold closest to your heart?” You touched on Speaking in Tongues, and I guess if I could substitute a question, it would be What advice—because you’re talking about your filmmaking, testing your limits, and being from this community where people have a very specific perception of who is coming from the community—would you give to young filmmakers who may be in that same position of wanting to break out of a specific box they have already been put in or of not having a set budget to make a film?
Christene laughs with all the freedom of adventure that she seemingly lives by.
C: I would say just do it! Just do it, you know? I think as artists, as human beings, as marginalized people, I think the limitations are in here [Christene points at her head.] We don’t need to put limitations on ourselves, right? So, just believe that you can do it, and do it. In this day and age, it’s so easy to pick up your smartphone and record something. And then there are apps within the smartphone to edit as well, so, basically, you can make a movie—a little thing on your smartphone. Technology is such—and it would be good quality, too! We didn’t have that back in nineteen-eighty-whatever when I started. I look at this stuff now, and I say, “Oh, my gawd! Ugh! This really looks…really bad!
K: You know, a couple years ago, I went to the Regent Park Film Festival, and there was a filmmaker there. I cannot recall the name, but he screened a movie that he had done as a high school project back in, like, the late ’80s or early ’90s, but it was still powerful!
K: Well, the film was about his dad’s drug addiction, and he kind of followed his dad, and he talked to a guy who lived in the neighborhood who was a drug dealer.
C: This was someone who lived in the community?
K: He lived in the community. He lives in L.A. now, but this was a movie he had made as a high school project.
C: And you don’t remember the guy’s name?
K: I can’t recall, but I just remember watching it, and this is like a film he had made when he was 15 or 16. It was 13 minutes max—
C: And it was powerful?
K: It was obviously low budget, but it was powerful. There is a shot where he was secretly recording his dad, and his dad was talking about his drug addiction…
K: And it was impactful! Even though it was this short movie. It was made with literally zero dollars.
C: Yeah! And that’s where I’m at right now. It’s so empowering! I did a workshop at Ryerson, and it was called “You’re Doing Your Passion Project”! And I’m at a stage now where, you know, I can go and try to get a decent budget together, but you know, I’m just tired of that, and the very last project that I completed in terms of—I got funded for this last one—but the one before that, which I did as part of my Masters project, I did with zero budget… zero dollars, right? And it went! I won an award in Germany for that one, and it screened at the Pan-African Film Festival in Cannes—and from just this small little thing, with no budget.
My son shot it; my mother was in it; my daughter was in it, so it was like this family-made thing with all of this heart. It just went to a far place, and I knew I had it in me to do it because that actually was my second experimental film. That’s something that I wanted to do, experimentation with film, because I had done straight documentaries; I had done straight dramas. But I wanted to do experimentation, and it was just so much fun! And I am at the point now where I’m just having fun! I don’t give a rat’s ass about anything!
Christene laughs off her cheeky comment.
K: Can you talk a bit about the inspiration behind your first novel, which is Two Women? You’re making this transition from filmmaking—you’re still writing scripts, but you are putting those practices into writing a novel?
C: So, Two Women actually started off as a film script, a film script for which I couldn’t get a budget together to make. And I couldn’t get anyone behind me, and it had gotten to the point of a table read with actors. So, it got to that point, and just listening to the actors say the words. There was a lot of description, maybe too much description within the script itself. I think it was that moment, that evening that I said, “This sounds like a novel!” that I started writing it as a novel.
Then as a novel, I was able to go places with it that I couldn’t go with it as a script because I introduced magical realism, and all these things that it would be hard to—well, you could actually show [these elements] on film.
And I also enjoy the solitude of writing because I was getting really tired of working with people . I was getting tired of working with people, and this quote/unquote collaboration, and when you’re dealing with the broadcasters you have to get X, Y—you just have to jump through all these hoops, and I was just tired of doing all that stuff, and dealing with people. I just said, “You know what? I have it in me to write; I want to write,” and I just sat down, and I started writing.
K: You touched on this earlier, but how does writing compare to your filmmaking practice and writing a script?
C: I think when you’re writing a script and work in film, you’re bound by the budget and limitations of resources. When you’re writing a novel, there are no limitations, and I love that! I said to someone before, you’re playing God, basically, right? Because you can decide when these people are living, when they die…whatever! I have a lot more fun writing novels than I do writing scripts, so I want to be doing that. I’m probably going to leave filmmaking—maybe not. Maybe I’ll just continue doing experimental things.
I have a third novel that I started already, and I’m just dying to get into it, but I have to finish this film first, and then I am committed to do the animation as well, which I’m going to have lots of fun doing because I’ve never done it before. So the third novel is there, and I’m writing a little bit every day, and thinking about it every day. It’s about climate change, so every day there’s stuff on the news, and okay, that’s going to go in there…
K: Do you think making animation will be the same as you see writing a novel—very unrestricted?
C: Yes! Exactly! It’s going to be very unrestricted too, because—
K: Because you get to do all this crazy stuff—
C: Yeah! So whatever I can think of, I can tell it. Because I don’t draw myself, I have three animators that I’m going to be working with, and they’ll be drawing whatever I can imagine, or we’ll collaborate with images and transitions and whatnot, so, yeah, it’s going to be fun!
K: Your writing is highly visual. How does your experience as a filmmaker play into your writing practice?
C: When I’m writing, I’m imagining that I’m actually in the space. And I can see everything; I can smell everything; I can taste everything; and everything is 360, so I am putting myself in the space, and I’m also putting myself in the person’s body as well. Like I was saying, my experiences in terms of sexual violence and homelessness—I don’t have those experiences at all, so it’s all a matter of observation and just trying to put myself in that space at the time.
Something that I wanted to investigate was how someone ends up homeless. And so I thought about this for a while, and then I thought, And so I thought about this for a while, and then I thought, you know this thing where she’s just losing it and she starts eating from the can—
K: Yeah! And not leaving home, staying in bed—
C: Yeah, and then all of sudden she’s just on the street! You know, so I’m thinking that…there’s this saying that you’re only one paycheck away from living on welfare, and then maybe two paychecks from homelessness, so the majority of people live like that. I myself don’t live like that because I’ve never had a regular paycheck in my life ever. I learned to live and budget, and, you know, do all that stuff, and make a little go a very long way. I think that’s probably my Caribbean upbringing as well too—stretching your resources, right?
K: And the cause and effect was actually so real because she wasn’t getting that money anymore, and she wasn’t motivated and because of this mental illness that she was already experiencing; to go out there and get something—the transition made sense.
C: Yeah, and it just happened so quickly, right? And that’s how I’m sure it happens, just from listening to testimonies from people about how they ended up in that situation. There’s one man who is in the documentary—I deal with homelessness in my documentary—and he was from a small town. He got sick; he lost his job; he moved from Vancouver to Toronto. He didn’t know anyone in Toronto, couldn’t get work, ended up living on the streets! So he went from living on the streets [to getting] himself a job dealing with homelessness and the issues of income insecurity. And then, you know, he owns a condo now. But he’s a white male, and he actually talks about the fact that, as a white homeless person, he was treated better than Black homeless people. He was able to get out of that because he was white, basically.
K: So there is discrimination even with homelessness?
C: Yeah! Isn’t that something?
K: Can you give the readers of this interview more background information to the story Philomena (Unloved) and maybe talk just about why “unloved” is in parentheses?
C: The original title was “Philomena Loveless” because of this whole thing that I want to investigate: What happens to someone if they’re “unloved,” and they lived without love—just loveless. So they wanted me to change it. The publishers changed “loveless” to “unloved,” and I agreed with them because they were saying that “loveless” sounded like someone in a loveless marriage. “Unloved” I embraced because that’s essentially what it was. She was unloved, you know? Her father’s dead before she arrives; her mother leaves her; her grandmother doesn’t have any sense of feeling anymore. She is just desensitized because she has raised all these kids, and she just wants to be left alone. And then she finds this semblance of what she thinks is love with the pastor, but it’s not love at all; it’s perversion, basically, right?
K: And she just cleaves to that, this tiny slither of what looks like love...
C: Yeah, and I think that happens to so many young girls. And some of the stories in the book are actually real. Like, I personally knew a girl who was a victim of incest, and I don’t even know if I actually touched on it, but […] I don’t say her name or anything like that, but I used her story more than once in the book—just aspects of her story that I used for different [characters]. Her father molested her, but then they came to live almost like husband and wife, if you can believe that. Isn’t that—just the perversion of that whole thing… and I don’t know how many times that type of thing actually happens, but that was happening in the building right next to where I was living. I’m not answering your question, but I just want to give this story: I remember going to her house, like, I didn’t know what horrors were going on in that house. The parents were also drug users. I remember I was maybe 8 or 9 years old [when I was] going to her house and seeing that she had a Barbie dollhouse, and that was the only thing that was in that house. There was no furniture, there was nothing… there was a Barbie dollhouse, and everything was blank. The walls were blank. But I, being the 8-year-old, seeing the Barbie dollhouse, that’s all I saw! This is adult me looking back. It is adult me saying, “Oh, my God, horror of horrors that must have gone on in that house!” But as an 8-year-old, I was saying, “Oh my God! She has a Barbie dollhouse!” And that’s all I focused on. She had a puppy dog and a dollhouse, and I was so jealous of that! I was saying, “Oh, my God, I don’t have a Barbie dollhouse! I don’t have a puppy!”
K: It’s just this crazy juxtaposition: The child who is being wronged, and this is what is in the house, in this blank space, in this empty space.
C: Yeah! Isn’t that scary, and sickening, and hurtful, and…painful and…? So when I was writing that in the book, I just remembered that scene. I just remembered being in that room, and thinking, “My God, I didn’t even know any of that was going on. I wasn’t aware of any of that.” And my heart just bled for her.
K: So were there other experiences in the book that were kind of drawn from these real-life people?
C: All those experiences, everything was drawn from something real. Well, I told you I don’t have experience with mental illness, but the realness comes from, you know, the time she was in the hospital and stuff like that. I actually watched some documentaries on sexual assault, and I took stuff from there, but then there were also YouTube testimonies of people talking about electric shock therapy. [They talked about] going through that, [about] how they felt before, during and after, so I used that, and put it in there too.
As a documentarian, I want—and this is my pet peeve: When I read books, and [they don’t] ring through as true, I say, “This is crap!” There are some books—I’m not even going to name names—but [they are by] some very well-known people who have won awards, and I just take the books, and I just throw them away because I don’t believe anything. There’s nothing.
K: And I don’t want to be robbed because you’re taking me outside of that space that I want to be in. I want to be in the story; I want to experience it.
C: Yeah, and there’s nothing in those stories, and these are highly regarded people. There’s nothing in those stories that ground you in any form of reality, and I feel that’s a problem. I spend a lot of time reading writers who are long dead, and I can’t read what people are writing now because I don’t enjoy it.
K: I think my final question is going be What do you want people reading the novel to take away from it, and to take away from you as an author?
Christene starts to answer the question, but mischievously flips it back on me.
C: You answer that question: What do you take away from reading the book?
K: I think for me, the toughest thing is to face realities of what people can do to other beings, to rob them of their lives. Because it seems so real, like, to the point that you don’t know if she’s going to get better. It just kind of increased my sensitivity to and awareness of the incapability of the systems in place to help do something substantial and of the day-to-day interactions with people who have gone through these experiences—how we seem to be so unaware and callous.
C: Desensitized! Yeah, very callous! I wanted to put an audience in the middle of that, you know, in the middle of what it is like to be a person suffering from mental illness—a marginalized person, someone who’s an immigrant [with] all that weight, on you. What does it feel like to be that? I’m only half of those things, and I don’t understand all of it, but I wanted an audience to feel what that weight could be like.
In all my work, I try to start a dialogue about marginalization; about how we treat poor people, how we treat mentally ill people, how we treat people of colour, you know, all these things, and [about how] to be sensitive to these things.
In the writing of the book and putting the book out, I realize how marginalized I am because the book is not getting reviewed. I haven’t seen any reviews of the book anywhere! So what is that all about? What does that say about our society? You know, when I was sending it out to publishers, I would get these notes back, and about a dozen of them said, “Oh, it’s really well written, but it’s not for us.” And I’m thinking, “What? Aren’t you looking for books that are well written and engaging?” But: “It’s not for us.” So I have so many letters. I call them my “sweet rejection letters” because I have tons of them from agents, from whatever.
One of the things that I wanted to do as a writer, or one of the things that I thought was going to be easier was—because we have a history; there’s a long history of Black women writers […] you know, they’ve done some beautiful work: Toni Morrison, Alice Walker— to get an audience. I would be able to get people to pay attention to what I’m doing, more so than in filmmaking because there’s only a handful of Black female filmmakers in the world and, you know, when we put work out there, people don’t know how to react to it. They really don’t.
I had a screening in Vancouver—this was years ago—[for] my first feature film, and people came up, and they said, “We love the film!” But, it’s funny that they didn’t ask me, “Which filmmakers have influenced you?” They asked me, instead—this was a French journalist—“So who have you been reading?” Maybe she liked the writing in the film, but she didn’t ask me who I was influenced by as a filmmaker, and I felt that was weird. And then she said, “You should be reading Jamaica Kincaid.” I’m glad that we had that conversation because, prior to that, I hadn’t read Jamaica Kincaid, so I started reading her. And I loved it! And it ended up influencing everything that I did.
So I’m reminded every step of the way how marginalized I am, and my subject matters are so marginalized as well, so I’m not going to change that for anybody. I don’t care if they don’t review me.
I had a conversation with Austin Clarke before he died—you know who Austin Clarke is, right? Before he passed away, I was hanging out with him—this is who the animation is on, Austin Clarke—and this was after writing Two Women, and the same thing happened: You know, I don’t think I got any reviews on that one either. It didn’t even get into the bookstores, like Indigo. This one is in there. So I said to him, “What do you do when you write something, and you know it’s good, and they ignore you? They just simply ignore you.” He said, “You know what you do? You just continue writing.” And that’s what I’m going to continue to do: Just going to continue writing. I don’t give a shit.
K: Because you have a voice!
C: Yeah, I have a voice. I’m using it, and I have a publisher who is willing to put it out there. I mean, I was ready to [put my voice out there myself] before I found a publisher that first time—I was like a week or maybe two weeks away from self-publishing—and then I found a publisher.
K: You’re just brave.
C: Yeah, I was about to do that.
K: Thank you, Christene!
C: I just kept talking!
K: No! Thank you! Your responses were great!
"Black and Caribbean Book Affair": A Conversation with Neil Armstrong
When he first walked into the bookstore, on time for his appointment, I was unaware that he was the one with whom my colleague and I would be meeting that day. All I noticed about him, apart from his warm smile and eyes that take in everything around him was how he launched into a story with Itah with much vigour. All eyes were drawn to him as his words and body became part of his storytelling, bursting into easy laughter like it was somebody else telling the story, and he himself was hooked. Later introduced to him, we eased into familiarity as we settled in to discuss his passion as a journalist, community efforts, and his role as co-ordinator of the “A Different Booklist Cultural Centre: Black and Caribbean Book Affair”…
Kyrell: Thank you for agreeing to be Interviewed.
Neil: Thank you , Kyrell.
K: I’m just going to get right into it, let’s go to the first question. When I did my initial research on you, I found a lot on your journalism. Can you tell the audience, including and aside from your journalism career, a little more about yourself?
N: Well, ok, my journalism career has me spiraling off to doing many other things, such as what I do with literature and books, hence the space we’re in, “A Different Booklist Cultural Centre”. I’m very involved in community initiatives, and projects. So, there are things over the years that I have done with the Jamaican Canadian Association, the Jane & Finch Concerned Citizens Organization, various initiatives in Brampton and in Toronto, and I’m always organizing events with friends. A colleague from my university days at UWI in Jamaica, The University of the West Indies, reminded me that I was always organizing something. So, these aren’t necessarily events that will make the headlines, but, I like socializing and organizing social gatherings and stuff like that, and, editing books, and writing forwards for books, and doing various things like that in literature.
K: Ok, so, you’re a very busy person, obviously, so would you have the audience, I guess describe you as a renaissance man? You’re -
Neil busts into laughter, taken off-guard by my assertion…
N: Renaissance man? Wow!
K: You're just talented at many, things… you’re not just a journalist, you’re more than a journalist...
N: That’s right! Yes, Jack of all trades.. master of…
K: Of many! You’re mastering some!...
(Interviewing the late author, Austin Clarke,
at a naming of benches ceremony at the Harbourfront Centre,
initiated by A Different Booklist - November, 2014)
K: So what first attracted you to journalism, and what has kept you in the field as a journalist?
N: Hmmm… I think it was always the urge to tell stories, and usually these stories came in the form of concerns that were within the community in which I lived. I’m from Jamaica, I lived in Spanish Town, in a community called Ensom City, where, on Eider Road, we lived as a family – all the families on that road. We would paint the sidewalks together, we would organize trips to the beach in rural Jamaica, and that sort of thing, and we always did everything collectively. So, when there were potholes on the roads in the community, I would put my pen to paper and write letters to the editor of The Gleaner, the paper that I now work for, and those letters were published. And people would see the letters, and see their concerns there, and call me about various matters as it related to the community. And so, there was always that urge to do that, and, it so happened that I got into radio, at Radio Jamaica. And I think, by happenstance, perhaps, this was a sort of precursor of what would eventually be my career. I was at the National Stadium at an event, and someone from Radio Jamaica approached me to interview me for a vox pop, and I said, you know, my voice, I was hoarse from cheering for whatever, I think it was a track and field meet, and he still wanted to hear from me. And it so happens eventually, he became my colleague at Radio Jamaica.
K: Does writing energize you or does it exhaust you?
He breaks into mischievous laughter, obviously tickled by the question, but then falls deep into thought...
N: Wow! Hmm, does writing energize me or does it exhaust me…?
K: Because obviously, you’re busy. You’re doing a lot…
N: I know, I know… you know what? It…. It energizes me, to the point of exhaustion. I can think of… there are times that I sit to write and I have to be conscious that I need to get up and move around, but then I’m back at it and I’m trying not to spend as much time in front of the computer screen. An example, yesterday I was writing about a group of Trinidadian and Jamaican migrant workers, farm workers, who have filed a $30 million dollar class action law suit against the province of Ontario. And I contacted their lawyer; I had the statement of claim that was filed in the Ontario Superior Court. I wanted to hear from the Ministry of the Attorney General. I wanted to hear from Justicia for Migrant Workers, which is an advocacy group for migrant workers, and then I got an email from the person who coordinates the stories in the Gleaner in the North American Copy. I sent him my stories that I had written, and he said, “I don’t have a front-page story.” And I said, “I’m working on this, but I have all these pieces I need to put together and I won’t have it ready for..” - we always work a week in advance for next week Thursday’s paper – “…I’ll have it ready for the following week”, and he said, “Oh, but if you could only...” and I said, “Well... what’s your deadline?” and he said, today at noon. So I thought to myself, “Well, today at noon, I will be on-route to the Gleaner’s office.” So, I pretty much stayed up for most of last night and wrote the story and sent it to him. So, I was energized to do it, but I was exhausted at the end of doing it. So, yeah, I enjoy writing.
K: Ok, what was the experience seeing your name in a byline for the first time. Can you tell us what that was like?
N: (Mumbling to himself as he sinks into thought) Hmmm, byline for the first time… I’m trying to remember…. I’m trying to remember when was the first time that I had a byline… Hmm…
He takes a moment, sifting through the memories of myriad early bylines…
N: I think my first byline was a story I wrote in a newsletter at Radio Jamaica Ltd. (RJR) when I worked there. There was an earthquake and I wrote about the reactions of my colleagues in the newsroom and what we did afterwards in our coverage of it. In Canada, it would have been when I wrote the piece about the three Black actors -- Conrad Coates, Xuan Fraser and Roy Lewis -- performing at the Stratford Festival in the mid-90s. I think it was for Pride News Magazine as I now recall a photo of all three actors being on the cover of the issue. I went there for the sole purpose of interviewing these Black actors who were on stage, and I met them after their performances and interviewed them. I was pleased with the presentation of the story, and the fact that they were interested enough to actually publish the story. I don’t think I was paid for that story… (he smiles reminiscing on his beginnings) but it was published.
K: And that’s just a stunning thing, to just see your name in print; I feel like a lot of writers nowadays don’t get that experience because so much of journalism is online.
N: That’s true. Yeah.
(Launch of "Welcome To Blackhurst Street" exhibition,
spearheaded by A Different Booklist. From left; Eldon Mascoll,
Itah Sadu, Neil Armstrong. October, 2016)
K: What is your personal mandate with regards to how you see yourself, in terms of direction as a journalist?
N: I think my mandate is to tell stories about my community, and that community is the “ABC” community. I call it the “African, Black, and Caribbean” communities. There are many things that are happening in our communities, and they don’t get the time of day in mainstream media, so I like talking to people, and from that, using their stories to tell other people about what’s happening in the community. I think that’s what drives me and I always try to bring someone in to share in that opportunity to tell stories. So at the Gleaner, when I was full-time editor, I brought people on board as writers and photographers and even in my capacity as a free-lancer, I still bring people on board to do things for the Gleaner.
K: Oh, that’s great! How easy, or how difficult is it to stay neutral as a writer? Do you think you do that in your writing?
In his way that I have now grown accustomed to, he repeats the question to himself.
N: I know in communication classes at CARIMAC (Caribbean School of Media and Communication), at the University of the West Indies, we always talk about, “Can a writer truly be neutral?” Dionne Brand has a book, “No Language is Neutral”… I think it’s good to declare where you’re coming from; to declare your bias and then seek all the sides that you can get in telling the story, and leaving it to the audience to make a judgement – an informed judgement. But it can be a challenge to say you are neutral. I think yes, given the audience you may appear to be neutral, but you have your bias that you might not put out there for the world to see what it is, unless asked explicitly, “What is your bias?”, that kind of thing, but otherwise, in writing, you try to put all the sides out there and then leave it to the reader to make their judgement.
A moment of silence passes as he takes on, for a moment, the role of mentor/advisor, prodding me to continue…
K: As a very experienced writer, can you walk us through that writing process, kinda give some advice to writers, who might be less experienced, or new to the game? What is writing like for you?
N: It’s, well there’s a process… there’s a process. Let me walk you through what I’m thinking of doing right now. So, I usually look, like weeks ahead, to things that are upcoming and what I could write about upcoming things. So, October 17th is the date set for the legalization of recreational marijuana in Canada, and I’ve been thinking. A couple months ago I wrote a piece about what people within the Black communities were saying about this. They were calling for the records that many young Black men have for charges of marijuana to be expunged from their records etc., as the government introduces this. So I thought, ok, I can’t write that story again. What other story can I write? But I want to write something before October 17th, so I jotted down my thoughts and then I thought, well who would I like to hear from? Whose perspective would be good to include in this piece? And so I sent a couple of emails out; one to Afua Cooper who was here the other night, she’s at Dalhousie University, and the other, Grace Edward Galabuzi who is from Ryerson, but for the whole year, for most of the year was on sabbatical in Uganda. And then I thought there are people I have in mind but I have spoken to them before; I want new voices. So even while coming here, I was thinking, who else, who else can I talk to? And so at some point, I will follow up with these people to see what their thoughts are. I will possibly do a Vox Pop with my tape recorder in Little Jamaica, around the Eglinton/Oakwood area or go up to Jane & Finch and just by the mall there and chat with people, and then I’ll try and put something together. And having all that material on a tape recorder, or on my phone, I then go through my research, and go through what was said and write the story. And, after writing it, going back to look at it to edit, and proof read, and after doing that, going back to look at it to edit further, and when I think it is where I want it to be, then it’s ready to be sent. And I will ask or have a photographer with me to take some pictures that will complement the story.
K: What do you struggle with most as a writer?
N: I think the unwillingness of some people to realize that what I do is valuable and worthy of being paid for. There are people who will approach and want you to write something for them, but they want you to volunteer to do it. Or they approach you and you say, this is how much I charge, and they tell you their freelance budget is full, they can’t pay that, they’ll get back to you another time, or whatever… So that becomes the challenge… To what extend do they value what you do?
K: I think that for many writers reading this, that would be a familiar struggle. What drew you to the “Black and Caribbean Book Affair” Project?
N: Wow, let’s see…. My association with “A Different Booklist” has spanned the history of the bookstore. So when it was previously owned by Wesley Crichlow, to being owned by Itah and Miguel... and so I was always in the bookstore, either buying books, or at events there, and through that, developed a relationship with the owners over the years. And, because when I worked in radio, apart from being program director, and news director, and acting station manager and all that stuff, I had a literary programme where I would interview many authors and publishers, so almost every book that was published would be sent to me and I would read them. I don’t interview anyone without reading their book. So I would read their books and then I would arrange interviews with the authors. And out of that came opportunities to do things with “A Different Booklist”, and that’s how my association with the “Black and Caribbean Book Affair” came about. I loved attending, and I was asked to help make it happen, and that’s what I’m doing now… helping to make it happen.
K: The final question I have for you, is in two parts: Firstly, what is your overall vision for the “Black and Caribbean Book Affair”, and with one of the events that’s part of this Book Affair that has passed, which is the Book Launch for Philomena (Unloved), how do you think that went? Did it match up with your vision of what you think this event should be?
N: The overall vision is to celebrate writers from our community, and there are many books being written, and those writers also have support systems. And it’s good when they have their launches here or visit schools to see the support that’s there, and their interaction with students and their audiences. Philomena (Unloved) was launched here by Christene A. Brown, a filmmaker. I’ve always known her to be a filmmaker. I was meeting her for the first time as an author, and this was her second book. And I like the fact that many of her friends as well as family members were here in the space. And that what she shared was a love letter to Regent Park where she grew up. And it’s interesting to see the perspective that that film came from, how she spoke about writing the book that she wrote, Philomena (Unloved), and, just the audience participation. It’s always good to have direct feedback from your audience when you have written a book. So, yeah.
K: Thank you so much, Neil! Thanks for today’s interview, for shedding a spotlight on the community and for continuing to do so throughout your career.
N: Thank you.