iâ€™m telling you
stories elizabeth polanco
for my parents!!! “no matter how tough times are, we’ll never say no to books.”
Manuela wears a top by EloĂŻse Ptito-Echeverria. (www.eloiseptito.com)
“I’m telling you stories. Trust me.” - Jeanette Winterson
This book is an exploration of how women, particularly women of colour, can use writing for self definition, to assert, reinterpret or challenge notions of identity. From surrealist fiction to screenplays, each of the seven writers profiled here explore, dissect, and play with intersections of identity and self through their work. Like the stories and truths we choose to tell, our identities are sites of multiplicity that can be crafted, molded and shifted as desired.
contributors jaycee tu Jaycee Tu is a multidisciplinary cultural worker who explores ideas of belonging and visibility through storytelling practices and historical/ archival research. Jaycee’s practice is strongly rooted in conceptualizing ideas around positionality; doing this helps her to explore who she is as an individual, and as one that is a part of a multitude of communities. Jaycee is most interested in accessible and democratic mediums, most recently working within curation, documentary, photography, zine-making, and wheatpaste. She is currently completing her BA in Fine Arts in Criticism and Curatorial Practices with a minor in Art and Social Change. She is Chinese-Filipina, born and based in Toronto, Canada. Her work can be found at www.jayceetu.com and on Instagram @jayceetu_.
tania peralta Tania Peralta is a Toronto-based multi-creative who covers womanhood, mental health, parenting, hip-hop culture, and the Canadian-Latina experience. She aspires to teach others about accessible healing through telling their own stories in various formats.
kai cheng thom
Kai Cheng Thom is a writer, performer, spoken word artist and drag-dance sensation. Her first novel, Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir was recently published by Metonymy Press, and her first full-length poetry collection is due in April 2017.
Her writing uniquely reflects her poly-consciousness as a mother, young woman, girlfriend, and immigrant and how these roles intersect in her daily living, but also in today’s societies. Her work can be found at www.taniaperalta.com.
She has been widely published as an essayist and poet. Her work also appears in xoJane, Arc Poetry Magazine, and Youngist. Her work can be found at www.ladysintrayda.wordpress.com.
heyishi zhang Heyishi Zhang is a Chinese Canadian filmmaker whose areas of interest include writing, directing, and production design. She studied film at Ryerson University in which she was the co-founder and president of the Ryerson Alliance of Women Filmmakers. Her first short, Gay Mean Girls (2014) has reached over 3 million views online and is currently being expanded into a webseries. Her thesis project, Joy (2015), has been screened internationally and received numerous awards. Heyishi’s work often examines the politics of identity and its influence on beauty. Her work can be found at www.cargocollective. com/heyishizhang.
Yemisi is someone who believes in the power of words; she chooses to exercise said power in her poetry. Yemisi writes about emotions, blackness and her life experiences. Her short poems can be found on her Instagram, @yemi.sees.
nourhan hesham Nourhan Hesham is a writer and student at the University of Toronto. She works at Sophomore Magazine as an editorial assistant, writing articles about everything from politics to pop culture. Being an Egyptian immigrant, her work focuses mostly on Arab, Muslim, and North African diasporas. When she’s not writing for Sophomore, you can find her sipping Americanos and making nerdy but affectionate bibliographies for friends. Her goal is to ultimately dedicate her every waking hour to pumping out academic work on Egyptian feminism and its history. Find her on Twitter and Instagram @notnourhan.
sharine taylor Sharine Taylor is an Afro-Jamaican Toronto-based creative, writer, editor and academic. With a body of academic and freelance work centred around intersectional analyses of Jamaica’s cultural production, Black identity, Black womanhood and media (mis)representations of Black and Afro-Caribbean bodies, she ensures her work is analyzed through an anti-colonial and anti-racist framework. Her work can be found at www. shharine.contently.com.
Makeup by Olivia Taylor. (www.oliviataylormua.com)
kai cheng thom
rewriting stories 10
“Make up a story… tell us what the world has been to you in the dark places and in the light.” - Toni Morrison
here’s often an assumption of admission of truth in the stories we tell. With the weighty responsibility of truth telling on their shoulders, women writers are caught in a double bind, where their stories are often either waved away as hyperbolic (as Kai Cheng Thom noted in our interview) or deemed inherently autobiographical or personal. Writer Roxane Gay echoed this thought, that women are only allowed to be experts or authorities on their own lives, or “expected to cannibalize ourselves for content.” Instead, the writers here toy with the blurring of truth and subjectivity, speaking as both the many women they once were, and who they are now. Identity and truth are shifting and pieced together from one place to another. In contrast, Jaycee Tu has used writing as a conduit for the stories of those whose histories and presences have been hidden or left behind. The ability to tell one’s own history or story with accuracy and honesty (as much as is warranted or desired) is significant. Women have rarely been granted the authority of world building — Kai Cheng’s imagined City of Smoke and Light comes to mind — let alone the building of self and identity. By firmly centering elements of self in their
practice of storytelling, these writers have asserted and claimed the right to speak rather than be spoken for. Self definition becomes the groundwork beneath and behind each story, where identity can be molded. Beyond self representation, these women can wholly engage in their stories as both subject and teller — like Tania Peralta recounting the girl she was at five and her experience with illegal immigration. “It’s my story, always.” In this space between involvement and distance develops a concept noted by Leigh Gilmore: the “I” who lived, the “I” in the text and the “I” who writes. Drawing upon the positionalities, histories and experiences of the three “I”s forms the basis of confessional storytelling, and the story becomes a trialogue. Housed in language, these works can take on forms of tradition, myth, and performance, with identity equally entwined and shifting. Though the paths of truth telling and storytelling can either cross or diverge, a story by a woman does not always need to be her story or the story of all women. It is enough to just be a story that is being told.
jaycee tu First and foremost, Jaycee is a storyteller — a warm, funny one, whose writing and art in a variety of disciplines form a body of work rooted in history, solidarity and empathy. Always firmly grounded in the practive of writing, her art spans wheatpasting, zines, and documentary-style interviews. Linking up through a Facebook group for IBPOC, she spoke to me about the idea of positionality, democratizing art spaces, and building platforms and visibility for those who need it most.
ou wrote about storytelling practices. Can you explain what that means?
Yeah, so I’m really inspired by bell hooks’ idea of comparing academic ways of teaching with storytelling, and how storytelling can be just as beneficial and full of knowledge, just as much — if not more — than academic, institutional means of educating people. So I really love incorporating both; I love reading academic journals and learning that way, but I also love the idea of learning stories about lived experiences. I guess that’s my main idea of trying to incorporate storytelling practices in my medium, rather than kind of regurgitating what people already see as knowledge, and de-centering it from that. And posing the fact that storytelling and lived experiences can be a form of knowledge.
They’re definitely more accessible, I would say. Not everyone can get these big, broad academic terms. I feel like since storytelling has historically been passed down forever, it’s easier to grasp. Exactly, I grew up with parents whose English wasn’t their first language; I didn’t grow up around academic ways of speaking, so I get to university and I have to learn an entirely new vocabulary. It was really disjointing for me. I feel more at home in less academic jargon, and storytelling vocabulary is a little less formal. What role do you think storytelling has for you in writing? I think the connection it can easily make with people. Even if I’m talking about my particular positionality, as a Chinese-Filipina born in Canada, even if someone with a different background than me can still find a way to relate to, like the experience of diaspora, or there’s something there that people can relate to… whether it’s the way that I’m using my language, or the story itself, I find that is a lot more relatable than writing in an academic kind of way. When I’m reading academic writing, I feel like I have moments of, “Wow, this is a really great way of wording this issue,” but it’s not actually practicing it, compared to shared stories and real lived experiences. I’m using bell hooks again as an example, but the way she incorporates storytelling into her academic journals a lot of the time, I find that to be so much more effective and so much easier to absorb than that kind of academic tone. One thing I was looking at was how the women I’m interviewing, they may not necessarily be surrounded by academia but their work already embodies theory without knowing it, by living it, without actively using jargon and other modes of academia. Yeah, that’s a really interesting thought, because a lot of people are studying intersectionality and activism but it’s so dry and theory-based. A lot of marginalized people have been living that, but now we have language for it. Absolutely. In one of your works you noted relearning where you came from by speaking to your family and learning their experiences of immigration. Can you speak more to this idea of positionality again, and if you find it can be a way to uncover things of who and where you are? All of this art that I’m doing feels like it’s for an audience, but really it’s almost for myself to kind of relearn who I am. I grew up in areas where there weren’t a lot of Asian people, whether it was living in a largely white community,or black community, which have been most of my experiences, and being that token Asian girl.
The number one compliment I would get from people would be, “Oh, you’re one of us.” Like why is that a compliment, to have to assimilate into another community? I was forced to go to Chinese school every Saturday and I was embarrassed, because of the way people saw my culture, and I remember packing my super Asian lunch to school and my friends saying it was gross and smelled weird…. and now this food is trendy. I grew up with this kind of shame and embarrassment because of peer pressure and what I grew up in, and I learned in adulthood that I lost so much of a culture that’s in my blood because I gave into that pressure as a kid. I think through writing and through art and conceptualizing who I am and my lived experiences, I’ve begun to unfold all of these cultures I’ve been suppressing my whole life. And not trying to be like Chinese or Filipino in the strictest sense, but accepting my hybridity. Relearning about myself through digging into my parents’ cultures, Canadian context, and mashing them all together to figure out a part of who I am. Right, and finding your place and where you are. Yeah, and learning about myself as an individual and self identifying also helps me learn how to be of all these communities. Self definition and self representation are a big emphasis of this project, and how women are using writing to convey that, and shape it for themselves. With your piece where you worked alongside deaf and hard of hearing people, how do you find through your work you can best facilitate visibility for people who are often hidden? The kind of role that I made up for myself in making this project is a mediator. I feel I have a foot in each community— I’m hearing, but I grew up with deaf aunts and uncles, four of them, so my entire family on both my dad and mom’s sides all know sign language. I grew up within this community, it was normal for me. In university we studied accessibility and disability and I realized that not a lot of people have a full understanding of the deaf experience and how a lot of people see it as a disability — but a lot of deaf individuals see their deafness as a cultural experience, not as something that holds them back. It’s just a different way of experiencing life. And communicating. Yeah exactly! Deafness doesn’t mean that they can’t hear anything, that there’s just silence. There’s such a huge
It’s about seeing that certain types of people aren’t given the space they deserve, and then just stepping back, making your ego smaller, giving space, checking your privilege.
spectrum of deafness and what defines a deaf individual, which I just find that isn’t as widely known as it should be. I guess I took on the role as someone who has a foot in both communities, and as someone who is privileged enough to be given space in the world of art-making— since it’s super privileged and institutionalized. Why not take that and hand the mic over, so to speak? I interviewed deaf individuals in sign language and asked them about their experiences, and they can talk about anything they feel needs to be talked about. And I turned it into a zine that teaches the viewers sign language. For people who are deaf and do know sign language, they can kind of see themselves being represented. One important thing is that I don’t take up space in the sense that I put my name on it and it’s mine; it’s a co-produced project, I really don’t want to be that person that takes up too much space. Even the way that you did it, where there were photos of the participants and text… it wasn’t like you wrote it entirely from your perspective, you built the platform. I don’t want to twist words or inject my opinion about an experience that I don’t have, you know? I take them word for word and I translate them, and hand it back and say, “Is this translated properly? Did I capture the tone that you were trying to convey?” The translation from ASL to English, the written word, isn’t perfect. Translating can be difficult, it’s a lot of back and forth. More than anything I think I’m just an editor in this whole process, and I physically put the book together, but I’m nothing more than just that. I saw a tweet recently that said, “You don’t need to be a voice for the voiceless, just pass the mic.” I think your project really embodies that.
I find a lot of the time marginalized folks get spoken for, a lot of privileged people will be like, “Oh let me help you,” and it comes from a place of pity and charity, more than co-resisting in solidarity. It’s about seeing that certain types of people aren’t given the space they deserve, and then just stepping back, making your ego smaller, giving space, checking your privilege. Exactly, and knowing when it’s not your place. You had mentioned English and ASL, can you speak more to the role language has in your work? Speaking specifically to ASL and English translation, what a lot of people don’t know is that ASL isn’t merely just a sign language substitute for English, like word for word. It has its own linguistic and grammatical structures, it’s its own language. As for how English and language plays into my writing process... since I’m a multidisciplinary worker I don’t have a practice I’m consistent with, except for writing. It can be really confusing to explain in an art school because people will ask, “Where’s your art?” [laughs] I’m not making any art, I’m just writing. Most of the time it’s conceptualizing... and all of the essays I have to write for class, I just center it around my positionality and my experiences, and I try to speak to that and develop that voice as much as possible. If an idea for an artwork comes up, then I go, “What medium will best convey what I’m thinking about?” I find that a lot of artists stick to a particular medium and kind of form their concepts around the aesthetics that they’re interested in, and try to work with it in that way. For me, the concept is first and foremost the most important part of my work. A lot of my artwork, you could say that it doesn’t need to be put visually. My artwork stems from a piece of writing, which then never gets seen, just the artwork accompanied by the little artist’s statement. But my process always starts with writing. I grew up loving the arts in general. I grew up taking music lessons, I got into visual art like sculpture and painting
as a kid. I never really connected or found I was really good at it, but I loved it. I wanted to learn more about it, and in high school I learned about curation…. and how a lot of it is about learning art history, contemporary art, art theory, and being an art expert and creating exhibitions that relate to themes and ideas. I thought that’s the closest thing I think I wanna do, because at the time I didn’t want to make art, I just wanted to be around it and learn as much as I could about it. I ended up at OCAD and took curation, and a lot of it is writing and theory based. My life just fell into place from there — like, this is me. I was writing a lot and learning so much about art, and that’s when I was able to find my voice and find the confidence to make work and feel like it was good. Rather than learning painting and sculpture and feeling empty and disconnected, because so many of the classes are European-based and I didn’t connect with it at all. But now I’ve been able to develop my voice—which is concepts and writing—I’ve found it’s much easier to have that as a foundation. I could make any kind of art I want and base it on that, and feel that as long as the concept is strong, the work has the potential to be strong. That’s a really interesting place to start from—I’m sure many artists start from the medium rather than metabolizing the content or concept. Have you always been writing? I’ve been writing since I was really young, those embarrassing journals where you write your dark secrets in. [laughs] It was always private for me. But what art making has helped me with is being comfortable with sharing some of my secrets. Growing up—I’m sure you understand this—not seeing yourself represented, it’s realizing that if we’re not represented we have to do it ourselves. It would be amazing if the next generation after us grow up seeing people of colour, women of colour, represented in the institution, the art world, in positions of power. And seeing stories they can relate with. Because I didn’t have that. I didn’t feel connected with Asian TV shows and media because I grew up in this Canadian context — I related to the content of media growing up in Canada, but
not the bodies. There was always a question of “where am I”. Writing has been a way for me to self-identify and also think about the ideas of private and public and representation… turning my words into art has helped me become comfortable with sharing stories, if that makes sense. Everything I write feels so personal, and I was always reluctant to share the words I wrote, but turning it into art which could be abstracted by people, just seemed easier to share for me. Sharing my concerns and thoughts through the visual kind of allowed me to become comfortable with sharing my story as a whole. There’s a little bit of space I find with art, as opposed to say, reading someone’s journal where the words are very baldly there on the page. When you put it into a different context like art, there’s space and interpretation that must make it easier to share. For me to branch out to write and make art, it adds to its accessibility. If someone didn’t know English and were to see something visual that I made, maybe they’re able to take some meaning from that. Whereas someone who maybe knows nothing about art, they may have an easier time reading my artist’s statement and relating it back to the work. Accessibility is really important to me in my work. What is your process for writing? Do you still journal? I keep a journal with me at all times, I’m constantly writing ideas that come to my head. I have a horrible memory and I’m thinking about a million things at once, so having a journal with me is good for my mental health. [laughs] I can get it out, come back to it later. I’m constantly writing and only sometimes making art, it’s based on the work. I couldn’t make art without writing first. You’ve used archives and photos simultaneously, how do you use visuals and language differently to communicate? Other than the idea of accessibility in terms of photos, I recently did a wheat paste series.
“Writing has been a way for me to self-identify.”
It was called Finding Myself in History, where I was thinking about history classes growing up and how they’re very Eurocentric. I always knew growing up that there were Chinese people in Canada, because you hear of the Chinese slaves building the railroads, but that’s all you hear about. I grew up with that little piece of knowledge, and later in life I remembered all of these experiences of people assuming that because you’re a person of colour, there’s a chance you’re totally new to this country. So many times people have assumed I didn’t know English without me even opening my mouth. Oh my God, yeah. One time a friend’s neighbour thought I was an exchange student without me even introducing myself. Exactly, you know what I mean. After Trump won the presidency, I was walking down Yonge Street and these two young frat-looking guys walked past, and one made a comment hitting on me. I ignored him, he got angry and turned back and yelled, “Go back to China”. Ugh. Yeah. And honestly I kind of laughed, because I’ve never been to China. You know what I mean? That actually spawned the idea for this project. So thank you, frat boy! [laughs] I guess it was a response to that, you can’t lump together all the people from one race. You can’t just say that all Chinese people have this experience. There have been multiple waves of immigration of every race to Canada. First wave was the railroad builders, where it was only men. Later, there were other waves. My dad, for example, moved here as a refugee from the Vietnam War. And then I was born here. So the assumption that people have made, that I’m a brand new immigrant, is crazy when you think back to the fact that there have been Chinese people here since the late 1800s. So there’s me fuming, scribbling all these ideas down. And then I thought, maybe if we’re not learning about this in history I need to take up space myself. I’d always wanted to do wheat pasting and never had the right idea for it, and it just kind of clicked. That maybe I should take up public space and teach the public myself about how long Chinese people have really been here. So I did archival research, looking for old pictures of Toronto specifically. It took a while because there aren’t a lot of pictures, I eventually found a few and learned that Toronto’s first Chinatown was on Elizabeth Street, on Dundas between Bay and University. That tiny street, and
That was my project, it was a small gesture that spawned from anger turned to productivity. that was the first, of seven. I had no idea. In my archival research, I found all these pictures taken in that area, and I blew them up and wheat pasted them almost exactly where the original was taken, or as close as I could get. That was my project, it was a small gesture that spawned from anger turned to productivity. And education, too. Yeah, instead of just being angry or complicit or ignoring what happened, I tried to turn it into something productive. Can you describe wheat pasting a bit more? It’s a form of graffiti, but it’s something you already have prepared on paper, so you go out into town and paste it up. It’s flour, hot water and sugar. It’s temporary and gets taken down; I think that’s also a beautiful part about it, especially in the city. The landscape is always changing, and I really like how wheat paste mirrors that idea, of temporality. Even the ingredients are basic things that everyone would have, which is cool for marginalized people who don’t have the privilege to have art in a gallery or get a book published. Yeah, and back to accessibility, I always choose the cheapest, most easily distributable works of art. I even try my best to stay out of the gallery space because I find that a lot of artists’ work only gets seen by other artists, which can be good and fruitful sometimes, if they come from a better understanding of [art], but the kind of work that I do isn’t necessarily for other artists, as much as it is for a general community. It’s more about taking issues out of their everyday context and showing a new perspective. We were talking about the idea of storytelling earlier, how does your own identity come into play with the stories you choose to tell? The most important thing for me is to speak for myself and only for myself—not to speak about the experiences that I don’t understand.
For all of my work, I try my best to speak from a personal experience. That’s the biggest part of storytelling [for me]. I’ve seen a lot of work where people are speaking on behalf of others, and it’s becoming more prevalent now that artists are speaking from their own subjectivity and positionality. You can’t speak on the behalf of others. A prof told me once that the more specific and personal you are, the more relatable you are. People think that if you speak more generally you’ll relate to more people, but I’ve learned that the more specific you are about your own experiences, the more genuine and therefore relatable it becomes. I’ve also been looking at the difference between universality and specificity, and how with marginalized people, there doesn’t need to be a need to identify with every single story or film or show that comes out. Not every story defines every community or group, there’s a lot of beauty in specificity and that’s valid in itself. Exactly, I don’t identify with every Chinese girl, Filipina girl, we have different experiences. That completely changes with context, and I think some people don’t necessarily understand that. And I think it helps to stop speaking so generally and start being specific. And to really speak to our particular intersections, because if that grows as a trend, we’ll be able to understand each other a lot more. Are there stories you’d like to see more of? I would just love it if more space was given to marginalized communities. I had a class about professionalizing practices and our art, and one of assignments was to go through a bunch of grants and see which one speaks to our practice. There were so many general ones about artmaking, but only a few dedicated to people of colour or people with disabilities. The kind of stories I’d like to see, or the people who platforms should be given to... this is so utopic, but if enough space was given to queer, trans, IBPOC communities, so much so that we didn’t need to have specialized spaces just to make a little bit of room to feel like there’s a place for us. That shouldn’t have to happen. I still think it’s doable if we were to decenter our institutions from being so Eurocentric and have them realize that they do give privilege to white artists. These grants wouldn’t be needed if we had enough space to begin with. I’m doing an English course right now and it made me wary to see “race and ethnicity” as a corresponding topic for only one week of the syllabus, when it should be something that’s considered throughout the entire course, you know? Not just
one class and then we continue with everything from that same Eurocentric, white perspective. I totally feel you. Also going on the idea of allyship, I heard this amazing artist named Pamila Matharu talking about how we can’t call ourselves allies, we can’t just label ourselves as one. We need to be told by the group that we’re trying to co-resist with. And just actively practice it without having to call yourself one. Right, you shouldn’t have to say you’re a good person if you just are one. So you’re in your third year, do you have any plans for the future of your work or graduation? Since my major is Curation and my minor is Art and Social Change, it’ll probably have something to do with the two of them coming together. The thing that my profs have been most excited is my work about deaf communities, and my particular experience with the deaf community. I’m thinking my thesis will probably be somewhere along those lines, maybe curating or co-curating a show about deaf culture and deaf experiences. I’m trying not to give into the pressure of making something that the institution is looking for but rather something that I’m really passionate about and speaks to my experiences and helps me along my way of the things that I’m thinking about. With your minor of Art and Social Change, when you’re writing for academia, do you find that your voice or style changes? The biggest comment I get on my papers is that I’m too informal, or that it doesn’t strictly adhere to academic structures. But I find that’s just the way I write, and I’m not gonna change my voice. In that sense, I try to stay true to my voice. In terms of subject matter, are there things you like to explore with different forms of writing? It speaks to my art practice as a whole, I like the idea of translatability. I’ll take one concept and output it in a million different ways. I don’t find that my context changes, or my ideas or themes, because I really like taking a thought or concept and letting it branch out. Let’s say, the idea of my wheat paste, where it came from the idea of Chinese bodies in a Canadian context. I turned it tangible by writing about it, and then I also turned it into a wheat pasting project, but it could also very well be a zine, or a
poem, or a short story. I like that idea of translatability of disseminating and getting your message across in a lot of different ways, in order to make it accessible to people who might not connect with a particular medium or language.
I turned it tangible by writing about it... I like that idea of translatability, of disseminating and getting your message across in a lot of different ways, in order to make it accessible to people who might not connect with a particular medium or language.
I also did an interview with my father called From There to Here. My grandparents [on my Chinese side] were refugees in China during the second World War. They changed their names to Vietnamese ones, and moved to Vietnam. During the Vietnam War, my grandparents had sixteen kids. They could only afford to send two out of the country, so they sent my dad and one of his brothers, at fourteen and sixteen. People hear stories about refugees in a boat, and that literally happened to my dad and his brother. Their last name has been changed—my last name, Tu, was made up. My Chinese name is Choi, and when my grandparents arrived to Vietnam, they changed it. And my dad had to change it to arrive here. So my name is totally made up. It’s strange looking at this idea of naming yourself, but in a context or situation that isn’t empowering or “reclaiming”. It kind of speaks to the lack of connection I have that I’ve always been trying to grasp for, in trying to learn more about my heritage. And the fact that I’ve never been to China, and my last name isn’t supposed to be Tu. Just these ideas of feeling disconnected from my blood. I’m kind of relating my documentary with my dad, with him talking about his experience as a refugee. That and the wheat paste series, I think have so much in common but are totally different at the same time. And they both stem from my writing practice in being Canadian, Chinese, someone who came from a father with very little privilege, and now being this privileged person myself. My dad went to OCAD when he was 17 and had to drop out because the institution wasn’t made for refugees who don’t know English very well. And now I’m there flourishing and loving it, and I guess it kind of helps me ground myself to learn that OCAD isn’t perfect. My own dad had to drop out and give up his dream of being an artist because the institution didn’t give enough space for people like him. Even now, it’s better, but it’s not quite there yet. I’ve been forcing myself to take more agency and take up more space, because if we want the future to be better and get closer to that utopic experience we all fantasize about, we all have to make that real.
Going back to the fact that some think Chinese people, Asian people, people of colour, all have the same experience, look at my dad. He had to drop out of art school, so it’s clear that I have so much more privilege and opportunity than he did—but still, I don’t have nearly as much as some other people. That huge imbalance in privilege is something I’ve made my life mission to conquer. I get so frustrated sometimes with the kind of media that gets out there, when there are so many voices that aren’t given the opportunity or privilege to just speak and share. It really matters whose voices are being heard. Like even if a white professor is talking about intersectionality, they just don’t understand it the way an indigenous or black person does. I don’t know why, but this reminds me of this Canada’s 150 coming up where people are excited… like Canada is not 150 years old. What are we celebrating, colonialism? I’m not coming to this party. [laughs] That difference in subjectivity is huge. I think activism is becoming more popular, and people are realizing that small gestures build up and catch on easier… the growing idea that activism doesn’t have to be with a loudspeaker, it doesn’t have to be loud. It can be loving and between two people or a small group. Even just us talking can be more activating than wearing a pussy hat and walking in a march where there are so many overwhelming voices that no one is really heard. The important voices are often hidden. Exactly. I think a lot of people [in these movements] are too proud, they’re not willing to make their egos smaller, and even say “I’m wrong.” Especially people who are privileged and have access to educating themselves, I always wonder why they don’t... but they haven’t had to. I don’t wanna blame the system again, but here I am, blaming the system! You just need to listen. It’s as simple as that.
tania peralta “Soft, sweet, and full of power, what a pleasure it is to be a woman,” she writes. Tania Peralta’s ethos manifests in her words — with a sharply vivid yet soft way of retelling the stories she’s lived and sharing the many women within her through her poetry. Tania has traced her stories through the spaces, countries and neighbourhoods she’s lived in. In Parkdale, her current influence and home, we spoke about how motherhood shaped her work, her upcoming book Coyotes, and why women writers need to use narrative as a weapon.
ou always seem to have a project going on. Is there anything you’re writing right now?
You know The House on Mango Street? The vignettes? Yeah, how each piece stands alone but they form one story. There’s about fifteen vignettes for this one particular piece I’m writing. It’s called Coyotes… this is just a term for the guy to help you travel illegallly. You go in cars, in trunks, through rivers… so it’s a bunch of short stories about my time in Honduras and understanding illegal immigration as a five year old, that’s what I’m doing right now. So it’ll be from your first person perspective? Yeah, as a child. I have a letter at the beginning of Coyotes, addressing my parents, my siblings. Because as much as it’s my story, I do understand that it’s their story.
I represent an era of immigrants that had to understand being left behind, our parents are in America because it’s so bad here. But then why did they leave me here? So, I think for narrative for me, it’s those two things. It’s me, I’m the person speaking, but like I want you to understand that this is coming from when I was five and these things were happening. Narrative is important… not necessarily in Toronto are there lots of Latinas writing about immigration, but there are a lot of people that came from that era that I am from. But nobody has my story. I think narrative is a weapon I use to set myself apart from other writers. Even how I gave that example of Sandra Cisneros, that’s her story. As writers and as women, our stories can cross paths and all of that, but I use narrative as a weapon because it’s my story, always. Your poems almost tell stories, is narrative something you focus on in your writing? Clearly narrative is a big part of this story. Yeah… I can’t be anyone else but myself. I admire people that write fiction, that’s gold that I haven’t tapped into yet… So, yes and no. Sometimes I take half truths, I take truth from one place and one time in my life and put it together, and it doesn’t necessarily make sense to what actually happened, and I guess that’s sort of fiction, but it’s always coming from a time and place that I was actually in, or hope to be in. I think there are two parts of narrative, you’re choosing who’s speaking and also when that is happening. For example with Coyotes, I want you to understand the story for me as a child, for me to understand these things as a child. My daughter right now, all she knows is Frozen. At five years old I knew about Hillary Clinton exploiting Honduras. I knew things that other children wouldn’t understand.
Being allowed to tell our stories hasn’t really been afforded to women. So when we have that, it’s great that we can see patterns, that we have similar experiences. But still no one has anyone’s identical experience. My family hates that I write. Like how dare you, as a Latina, talk about something bad that happened to you. Narrative is like my best friend and weapon. There are so many identities that I am, which I why I feel like I have the entitlement to create stories and share them like somebody’s gonna care. Because I represent so many different people. In Toronto, my narrative as a woman when I write, half of the people that follow my work are following for [Sean Leon]. They’re looking for shadows of him in my work, I’m a decoration to that story. But this is my story. With women, we need to take narrative and that needs to be your right hand, your best friend, your weapon. We’re not a decoration to anybody else… we’re not a footnote. We need to create more so that we are the story. So much of the pain in the world has been carried on our backs, so it’s up to us to share these things. Latinos are uncomfortable with publicly speaking with what happened to them, because you know, qué pena para la familia, and especially as a woman with a black man, it’s out of wedlock, it’s un-Christian of me, it’s all these things. But these are the things that make me want to put a face to my narrative, so people are less embarrassed about talking about shit like this. Everybody has been through stuff, and God forbid a Latina tells somebody what actually happened. I tell my story because this is how I heal. My narrative is my weapon, it’s the only way I’m going to create anything.
“God forbid a Latina tells somebody what actually happened. I tell my story because this is how I heal. My narrative is my weapon, it’s the only way I’m going to create anything.”
There was a time when I was scared to write about the truth in my work, I was embarrassed, I don’t want people to know this happened. But that’s bad writing.
not. And it’s usually like qué pena, that other people are gonna read this and know that this is about you… I don’t know if that answers anything.
And you can see through it right away.
The question is very hard. I don’t know if there’s a solution. I think we aren’t looking critically at ourselves and our communities… thinking things like child abuse is okay and normal, and anti-blackness… we have to be able to talk critically about that and you know, air that dirty laundry. And then we can move forward.
I can’t write about a fairy tale that’s not happening to me and say that this is real. This is my story, this is my partner, this is our daughter, this is what’s happening here. In one poem you were writing about mothers teaching to suffer in silence, and how you were rejecting this. How can we as Latinas use writing to critique our cultures? Latinas are taught to nod your head, be quiet, stay no matter what, no matter if it’s physically unhealthy, mentally unhealthy… you’re taught to be the decoration, it’s hard. You’re taught to clean the house, feed the kids, and also be really pretty, there for the husband, tend to everyone who comes over to the house. And because of that you get Latina creatives like you and I, our moms may be resentful towards us. Or that they don’t want us to end up with someone like our father. I’m still learning how to progress from Latino culture and also pay respect to everything my mother, her mother, her mother went through… and I see how strong they are, and I cannot let another generation of us go through like this. Sometimes, it’s good when my mom reads my stuff, sometimes it’s
Because I’m a creative person I heal through things and I cope through things differently than my mom was able to. Even jokes like “a Latina will stab you and then ask you what’s for dinner in the same breath”… that craziness is generations of mental health untreated. Built up resentment, guilt, unfulfilled dreams. That’s what that crazy, sexy Latina is. Generations of mental health not dealt with. I’m learning how to critique Latino culture without condemning it and blaming it for everything that’s happened to me… pero there’s a lot of things. That’s something I’m still learning how to maneuver through. How do these pieces of yourself, like what you’ve mentioned as a Latina, as an immigrant, as a mother, how do they come together when you write?
I had recently written a piece about being a woman. This particular piece I purposely didn’t include any Spanish words, I didn’t include anything that was specific to music, because so much of my life is musical industry… basically I wrote it in a way that a white woman — Yeah, that “universal” voice. [laughs]
With women, we need to take narrative and that needs to be your right hand, your best friend, your weapon. We’re not a decoration to anybody else… we’re not a footnote. We need to create more so that we are the story.
Yes. And it got a big response. Like let me take my identity out of this, and all of the sudden this formula works, right? I had all this feedback from all these white women. And I asked myself what formal thing do I want to put out into the world, and what identity is that going to be? And at the core of that is my background, and that’s why I’m choosing Coyotes first. There are four things I’m doing for the next year. One is Coyotes, one is called Women I’ve Become, the other is 404, and the other is El Complejo. These two [Women I’ve Become, 404] are where my identities all collide, being a mom, being a Latina, dating a musician, being a creative, being an immigrant, being an immigrant in Canada… Even Coyotes, like, you and I are Latinas but our stories are different. Very different. Right now, I think my identity, towards what I’m actually working on, is the illegal immigration part of who I am, because of what you need to do to get into Canada and the US from Central America. The other one, Women I’ve Become, is exactly that, like here are twenty six monologues of all the women that I am. That one will be the perfect example of all those identities combining. Who I am in my Latina identity right now is influenced by me being identified as a mother. Who I am as a mother is very influenced by who her father is. Right now, every single one of my identities is influenced by the other. In all those things I’m learning how to take the good and respect the bad things that happened and not blame them, but learn from them and progress and heal from them. And address them. Yeah, address them! And have them work for me and my family. 404 is more specific to one identity, and it is being creative people of colour in Toronto, and what it’s like when you break through these systems and create things. I love how you explained that. Obviously [identities] all overlap and you can’t separate them, they’re always shifting, too.
Wait, let’s start from the beginning. How did you first start writing? Do you remember the brand Hilroy, for notebooks? Yes! With the map of Canada on the front. So my family came to America and then they came to Canada, I was still in Honduras. We were separated for five years. So I didn’t know them, I showed up to Vancouver and I was meeting my parents for the first time when I was five. That’s where my whole life kind of starts, my parents got me these pale yellow Hilroy notebooks. I was supposed to practice writing in these books; my siblings weren’t allowed to bother me if I was writing in them. They were supposed to respect that I was practicing my ESL and my work. My parents were always supportive in that way, recognizing that I was a creative, that I work in a creative way, before I even knew what that meant. They always gave that to me, this is your strength. I remember those Hilroy books vividly and I would write in them all the time. At school I was terrible in everything except for language arts. In ESL classes you’re told you’re not good at English, you’re not good at reading or writing so you’re in this class. So since I was in that class, I was doing it more than other kids. For classes, we had to write one page and I’d write five. I was always talking, always telling stories. I always reading because of ESL. I would read to my siblings when my mom was tired. That’s where my love of reading and literature came from. It was a good escape for everything that was happening around me, and it kind of gave me control.
call them. And people would call it poetry. But that was selfish writing. Once I became a mother my writing had a purpose. I felt like this was necessary, somebody needs to write these things, of who I am and where I’ve been, and who else but me? My writing is helping other Latinas, other mixed girls, other creatives… there are pieces that have influenced me that I hope have influenced other people. When I became a mom I just had more purpose to write these things and have them expressed. To be an advocate for the Latinas that cannot speak out, be an advocate for mothers in general. I just feel like I have a purpose when I write now. I love how whenever you post your work you usually have your voice reading it over. Is that an important component for your work? [My boyfriend] is loud, and he doesn’t know it sometimes. And he didn’t know why when he talks loud it brings up things for me like my dad and Latinas talking loud and all this shit going on in my head. I felt like I wasn’t being heard, we weren’t creating a space healthy, progressive, safe enough for me to voice what I was feeling, and my concerns. I remember when we lived at 404, years ago, I had written something and I recorded it. And I had wanted to do this, but I was scared, like people were gonna think this was gonna be weird. Let me see what people think. And people liked it, so I did it again. People closer to me were then copying me, so then I had to add music… and then drawings… and then moving visuals. But now, it’s like, whatever. I know they’re not doing it with the longevity and purpose that I am.
I felt like this was necessary. Somebody needs to write these things, of who I am and where I’ve been, and who else but me?
In grade 12, everyone’s looking at leaving for university and I needed to leave… someone brought this idea of going to school for journalism. Journalism and what I do are very different, and I did do it for a little bit and I still do it, but in journalism school I learned one way of telling stories, and learning how to writing those kinds of stories I learned that’s not how I want to tell my own. Then I wrote an honest poem about going out and the men my friends and I would meet, and it resonated with a lot of people. From that point I started writing more pieces like that, more excerpts… that’s what I would
And they’re not telling the same stories. Exactly. And I have a lot of white women that support my work, and I often critique white arts women. I think it was important for them to read my work in my voice, so they understood Spanish words, and they heard my accent, when it cuts in and goes out, why that happens… it’s powerful. I’m not trying to push those people away, but I want them to know what that looks like, and I want Latinas to say that sounds like me, that sounds like my mom, those are names I know, those are names of my
cousins, that’s what I look like. That’s why the voice is powerful. The sound component is another reflection of people that follow my work. I think that brings up a good point that you have to know that not everything is for everyone. Like Lemonade for example, I know that album was very much for black women… it’s not my place. Being able to acknowledge who a work is speaking to, who is meant to find themselves in something, is important. And you can appreciate something and also know it’s not for you. Is writing something you go to when you’re looking for catharsis, or when you’re really in your feelings? No... that’s reading. Writing is like… I’m a narcissist, I just wanna tell my story. [laughs] I think writing when you’re only sad, or emotional, that’s a very dangerous place to be. That place of “I can only create when I’m sad”, it’s a very romantic, addictive place to be. But it’s dangerous. You just romanticize suffering, it’s not healthy. Right now, I’m in a really good place, and I still have to write. Those feelings, I think I get that through reading other people’s work, and then I get inspired and then I go write. Writing is more about telling my story. Sometimes it doesn’t begin with a feeling, it begins because I need to say something. I think my writing is always birthed from that. I don’t sit down and think, I’m so angry, let me get this out. It’s more like, this just happened to me, I need to write this down. It doesn’t start with an emotion always — the emotion is there, but I need to tell you what happened. And sometimes I’ll write something and not revisit it for six months. And then post it. So… it’s just always about telling a story for me.
I think it was important for them to read my work in my voice... I want Latinas to say that sounds like me, that sounds like my mom, those are names I know, those are names of my cousins, that’s what I look like. That’s why the voice is powerful.
I feel like in my life, that’s one thing I want to keep telling other women and men, that it’s not a healthy place to be. I see it all the time… this girlfriend of mine wrote that being happy is detrimental to her writing. And I’ve been there, I get it, I have been one to romanticize being in that dark space and creating amazing art, pero…. you don’t wanna be there continuously.
Do you find that you learn about yourself when you write? I’m looking at writing as a process of uncovering. Sometimes I look back, or when I’m trying to channel a story or something that happened to me, I think like… I can’t believe this was happening to me. I can’t believe I did that. I am uncovering braveness I used to have. When I go back to my 404 writing and I try to organize it so that it’s in the structure of a book, I can’t believe the stuff we went through in that apartment. When I write about getting pregnant, I can’t believe that was me. Sometimes I’m channeling that version of me, thinking like I wish I was still like that. In high school I was so shy, I didn’t explore being Latina... the words we use now like “person of colour”, “creativity”, I wish I could go back and hug that girl and give her this vocabulary. Like, this is who you are, do something with it, you’re gonna be fine. I uncover where I came from. When I start writing about motherhood and postpartum depression and breastfeeding, I think about where my mom was, she wasn’t there to breastfeed me. There are parts of myself that I completely blocked out. I uncover parts of myself that I was not allowed to talk about, as a Latina. I think that’s also my weapon. Now I’m in this space by myself where I get to talk about it to myself, I get to write about it, I get to make things with it, and create an entire narrative to put out into the world. I think that’s the most important part for me, I’m uncovering and speaking to my old self who wasn’t allowed to talk about it. With writing that’s personal, you can take what it means to “be”... like be a mother, to be whatever... and reshape it in a way so that you have the control. Things you weren’t allowed to talk about, and now you have the control. When I was applying to Ryerson, you had to write about how a piece of journalism has affected you. I wrote a piece about how when my family was applying for citizenship, my parents would use newspapers from Honduras to show how dangerous it was, to show how one of my grandmother’s partners was killed because of politics, all of these things. I didn’t even ask, I just suggested that I could call my grandmother and ask her about these things. My mother basically said, how dare you make her revisit this... like how dare I wanna know? Like as if it was none of my business, when they left me
five years in Honduras. How dare I ask? And for now as I write Coyotes, I take that control back. They don’t wanna tell their part, and they don’t wanna meet me halfway, but this is what happened when you weren’t there. And it’s just gonna hurt you but this is what it is. And it’s your story. Yeah. And I think that’s how I take control back, as a Latina, as a girl... Coyotes is about girlhood. One of my favourite writers is Gloria Anzaldúa, who blends Spanish with English in a way that’s really natural and realistic... when you’re writing in Spanish, what does that do for you? For example, when I’m saying coyotes, something you hadn’t heard… that’s how that separates us as Latinas. This was a word I knew at three years old. When I write in English and those Spanish words slip in, it’s because I understood those words the most in Spanish. The other day I had written about motherhood, and I was walking through my mornings with my daughter and I said avena (oatmeal), because that’s the voice in my head. That’s just naturally gonna be written that way, my mother never said oatmeal. To me in my writing, it’s gonna be avena! There’s just words I’m never naturally gonna say in English. Like flip flops… why would I say that when they’re chanclas? [laughs] Yeah! Coyotes is written in English, but there are things in it that are just Spanish. That narrows my demographic in a way, but I don’t know… I have to keep those words in Spanish so that other Latinas can see themselves in it. It happens naturally, but I gotta keep them in there. It’s more honest, and it’s more natural that way.
I found this really great quote, that when we’re writing there’s the I who lived, the I who writes, and the I in the text. That’s perfect. I think that’s like what I was saying earlier about narrative, about who the person is who’s speaking, and choosing when that person is speaking. I think in my work I’m forcing you to understand who I was at that time, but that it’s also me reflecting. It’s about learning your past, where you are now, and where you’d like to be. They’re fragmented. But still together. Writing can be powerful, and you empower yourself when you unlock these things, but at the same time it can be scary, because you just revisit and you retrigger yourself over and over again. But I don’t know, there’s magic in it if you can get a balance of those three I’s. You can’t do all of these things unless you stay true to yourself. If you pretend, it’s not gonna work. It’s gonna be ugly, it’s not gonna be good writing. It’s never going to work. If you feel like people are copying you but you know yourself, you know that that’s not your story. Even if it’s the same format, same colour, same whatever. It’s not your story, and because you know yourself, you’re not bothered and you progress and create. It sounds crazy. [laughs] But if your present self has a good conversation with all three of those I’s, you can get magic out of that. And I think once you get a hold of that magic, that in itself is your weapon.
kai cheng thom H
ow did your writing develop and evolve? What form of writing did you start with first?
Beyond writer, poet, performer and social worker, Kai Cheng Thom is a mythmaker and world shaper. With a body of work that spans poetry, spoken word, essays and novels, her words read like myths — seemingly existing in their own world, one honed and created solely by her. Like her poems, her way of speaking is evocative, conjuring up imagery of story telling and new forged traditions. It was a privilege to listen to her speak about accepting multiplicity of truths, finding a homeland of the heart in the diaspora, and “enjoying the magic” of writing.
Like a lot of writers, I was always really interested in storytelling as a kid. It was a form of escapism and dissociation when things were difficult in childhood. It was an escape into storytelling to myself. I read a lot, I really loved fantasy and sci-fi. I always thought that I was going to grow up and be a fantasy or sci-fi writer, until I was in middle school, and I somehow absorbed the idea that genre fiction was not “real” literature which, you know, is a white supremacist, classist idea. I threw away all of my sci-fi books and decided I was only going to read like, Ernest Hemingway and Virginia Woolf. I was really miserable for years!
kai cheng thom
Until fourth year of my undergrad, I was like, “I don’t know why I’ve lost my love for reading — wait, it’s because I’ve been reading boring shit.” [laughs] Because of that I think I lost my taste for fiction, and I wrote a lot of poetry. Especially in high school, posting on my blog. It was horrible, rhyming love poems. But it was important, and I just kind of continued… I mean, I still have a blog. That’s actually how I blossomed into becoming a writer, just having a community of writers and readers on the Internet, responding to my stuff and I would respond to theirs. That gave me the courage to be a spoken word artist; I would take poems and read them on stage as a performer. From spoken word, I moved into theatre. It was from there that I got into long form storytelling through fiction writing. It’s a funny full circle, that’s how everything developed and is still developing. The idea of truth telling and storytelling has been coming up a lot, and how those two can converge. Is that something that runs through your work? Totally, both those things are really resonant to me. Storytelling as escapism but also possibility — you do a story, you can escape a reality into a different kind of possibility. I think that’s super important. And survival, activism, all these things. Truth telling is so important. My novel is called Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars, and it plays with this idea of the pathological liar. Even the word “confabulous” in your book’s title, like to confabulate, to make something up out of the absence of memory. Yeah! And I think a lot of people assume that book is autobiography and it’s not, but it’s autobiographical. It is fiction, but it moves in and out of this autobiographical tradition. I would be remiss to not mention how Audre Lorde invented this bio-mythography genre, from which my novel draws. The concept of lying and truth telling really interests me. First of all, the term “post-truth”. But way before that, I think leftists in particular have always been convinced that we live in a realm of fabrication. The most dominant voice is the one that has the most access to power, to make its fabrications truth.
So I think storytelling is really important as a way of re-fabricating and expressing different kinds of truth. I really come back to this idea of telling the truth of the heart — sometimes this Eurocentric fetishization of science and the facts really obscures an emotional reality, or the simple fact that memory can change. And that lived experiences have just as much value as the “objective truth” of science and academia. You’ve written about the need to accept multiple truths, what does multiplicity mean for you? Multiplicity of truth is something I find really important and powerful, but intoxicating and dangerous and scary, you know? When I wrote that novel, I was thinking a lot about different kinds of trauma, particularly sexual assault and child abuse, and how these things very rarely get spoken of publicly, in a way that isn’t sensational. The public tends to get obsessed with, “Is this true? How much of it is?” and the perfect victim narrative. Even having presented my novel to university classes, and having talked about this concept, I find that audience members will still ask me like, “What percent of this is true?” So what I really like to embrace is this idea that yes, everything happened, and none of it happened. Memory can change and truth can change as well. Obviously, I think we live in a very interesting time for this, how in the States there’s this idea of alternative facts. What I think is fascinating is that the far right is really starting to embrace the same ideas as the far left, in terms of multiplicity of truth and disseminating ideas. So it can become really difficult to rely on one’s community for truth when it comes to justice and addressing imbalances of power. I’m still kind of working on that one, and how scary that is, but how liberating. It seems really nebulous but also enticing, how much freedom there is in that idea. You’ve addressed this before in Sophomore Mag, but can you speak more to this idea of the “doomed trans woman” narrative you’ve written about? How do you want to challenge and change that through your work?
kai cheng thom
The doomed trans woman is… I don’t know, it’s certainly the first trans woman narrative I ever encountered. It tends to be the most pervasive, both in the mainstream and in the radical left. There are two kind of mainstream trans narratives; one is the crazy, deranged, violent person like in Silence of the Lambs, and the second is this doomed, tragic figure who’s obsessed with womanhood and is killed by that longing. The locus of blame tends to be placed on the person, even when the narrative being told is ostensibly meant to be educational or humanizing. The most recent example that was really popular was Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl, playing Lili Elbe, the first woman in Germany to get vaginoplasty. She’s portrayed by him as this pale, shrinking violet who’s obsessed with traditional femininity. She’s so obsessed that she “betrays” her wife and goes too far, wants the surgery too fast, and is killed. She’s beat up on the street in this very gratuitous way, where the cis audience is allowed to feel pity but not feel threatened or challenged by this character. What message does that send to trans women, I wonder, that we’re gonna die, or that our lives are always going to be tragic. You see this in a more subtle and insidious way in leftist media, particularly in 2015 when trans women murders started to get reported more. There was this statement like, “This is the worst year for trans women murders in history”, but it was just that the media was reporting them more as trans women’s murders, as opposed to men being murdered. People started to count, saying this is the seventeenth, the eighteenth…. you see it a lot on online news reporting. There’s something morbid about that, the way that the headlines are clickbait-y, and the way that gay rights organizations like the HRC will use the statistic around trans women of colour’s suicides, and blend them into a general statistic of LGBT experiences of violence, in order to raise more funds without directing them towards trans women. It’s all very problematic, and I think, violent. What I think is what’s really missing, and is fortunately starting to emerge, is that trans women are starting to own a more challenging narrative. And to create fictional narratives also, of trans women who are powerful, complicated, unlikeable. Not because they’re violent, but because they’re jerks. They’re people! Yeah! People are jerky. So that’s my take on that. I think we also only see this narrative of trans women surviving, as opposed to thriving — which sounds really corny — but you’re showing them
fighting and taking an active role. How does narrative guide the stories that you tell, whether it’s poetry or fiction? Your poems read like stories. That’s great, that’s how they’re supposed to sound! I think like many women of colour writers, I’m really fascinated by narrative, even the experimental. It was in vogue for a little while in English literature to do away with narrative and look at it as unimportant. But in general, marginalized women’s narratives are invisibilized so it creates this need to speak to that idea of truth. And to be acknowledged and validated and seen. So many experiences of marginalized women are erased, dismissed as hyperbolic or sensitive, so it creates this drive to tell the story. I think what interests me as an artist is playing with that idea, like to tell a story, but one that is slightly different or turns the commonly heard archetype on its head, you know? With the idea of the trans woman character who is not doomed, this alternate narrative, I think what’s really fascinating is to make her unlikeable in a lot of ways. Again, because she’s human, and because that creates
a lot of room; the best characters are complex and have unlikeable qualities. When you can write a poem or a story that has a lot of that human quality of self loathing and doubt, that’s when I think you have a narrative that really makes a connection between different kinds of people. So I was really into Greek mythology as a kid… I love it, me too! Sooo dorky! So this idea of myths and this kind of imagery really came up when I was reading your work. How do you kind of communicate that with A Place Called No Homeland? How do you forge these ideas of like, home, language, body, myth, diaspora? I think it’s interesting too, to be interested in Greek mythology…. I later got into Chinese mythology, but I think that speaks to diaspora, which is what the collection largely is about, among other things. I come from a tradition of diasporic women of colour writers trying to create a mythology for ourselves. When you are a dorky child of colour growing up, you can be interested in Greek mythology but the gods are always depicted as white, even if they probably weren’t. So one looks for one’s own tradition and history and can’t find it, because one is cut off from the motherland. And even if you do go there, if you manage to get there, it is undeniably foreign to you! So for those of us who are diasporic, or anyone whose experiences are the traumatic effects of colonization, the only homeland you can have is the homeland of the heart, right? And that’s a place of myth, of longing, it comes from the way your parents or grandparents talked about the old country, your own imaginings of a place that can hold your body looks like. And that’s especially difficult to do for those of us who are doubly or triply marginalized, like queer, trans people, we don’t really hear our parents talking about the homeland where queer, trans people live. More often we hear them saying, “Back in China, we didn’t have that.” Even though that’s not true. I think the same is also probably true for doubly marginalized in different ways. So one has to imagine, one has to create. How does one do that? I think a lot of women of colour writers reach into the realm of ghosts, concepts of ancient gods, fairy tales, in order to insert themselves there and take those elements. When A Place Called No Homeland comes out next month, there are poems in it that revolve around Medusa and European and Asian kinds of storytelling tropes. That was really powerful to play with, and fun. With the novel, I wanted to create a mythological kind of home for trans women, so most of the book takes place
Marginalized women’s narratives are invisibilized so it creates this need to speak to that idea of truth. And to be acknowledged and validated and seen. in an imagined city, called the City of Smoke and Light. Most of the characters live on a street called The Street of Miracles, where it’s always a party, always nighttime, and that’s where they live and work. Underneath the street lives the spirit of this archetypal mother-figure called The First Femme, who was the first trans woman murdered on the street, and her blood spilled and brought this nighttime. So she’s a ghost? Yeah, she’s a goddess, she’s a lot of things. Everything and nothing. Exactly! Having this idea of place, belonging, spirituality, a lineage — all of these are what I think mythology can grant us. Is the line between specificity and universality something you walk in your work? Trying to disrupt this idea that all trans women have the same story, they follow the same narrative? Absolutely. I do a lot of book reviews of trans women’s books, and I always ask them this question too. How do you feel about this concept, that sometimes trans women are supposed to be speaking for all trans womanhood, you know? And because of that, there’s Janet Mock and Laverne Cox who are seen as the only women to speak to for trans women’s issues. I think it’s an extension of tokenhood. You have Janet Mock and Laverne Cox, two very successful black women who are also trans, doing advocacy and media work in the States, and for a lot of folks it feels like there can only be one. And it creates this terrible sense of competition. Before my book was published, another Chinese trans woman and dear friend of mine, jia qing wilson-yang, put
â€œI come from a tradition of diasporic women of colour writers trying to create a mythology for ourselves.â€?
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out a novel with the same publishing company. Our books diverge entirely from there, her book is a Southern Ontario gothic, and mine is a surrealist fantasy — everything is different about them. But I felt this threatened, kind of jealousy feeling, and when I felt it I fortunately thought like, “That’s so interesting,” rather than just being lost in the jealousy. But I felt that feeling before, seeing other trans women perform or getting published. And I know other women of colour and trans women that have felt that towards me. It’s just terrible, because the richness and diversity of any group of people allows for an infinite number of stories, but the way that racist capitalism is set up is that there can only be one token, and this person will be the one to speak and get all the money. It’s terrible for people and communities, and it’s terrible for art. Your poem, “Don’t Become a Famous Token Trans” really notes that, how it’s become dictated and claimed by cis people, that this is the narrative you need to have in order to be successful. The title of your chapbook, Giving Birth to Yourself, was that about self definition and naming? How does language shape your perception of yourself? Language is my primary way of doing art. Relationships to language are a complex topic for writers of colour, particularly for those who are writing in a language that isn’t our parents’ language or traditional, the mother tongue. My first language is Cantonese, but I don’t speak it that well, and I also speak French but I write in English.
Québec, mostly Francophone. I tried to tell a story using only one word, for fifteen minutes, telling a whole narrative arc. The word was “no”. Saying that word over and over in different ways, inflecting it, drawing it out, to tell a whole story around consent and violation and repair. It takes a lot, it’s intense! It’s fascinating to see where the audience goes, too. The first time was a practice run, in a small cafe full of queer people. It was really amazing, the audience was there with me, we cried and laughed, all these things. The second time was in a French gallery, and everyone was so uncomfortable and frozen. It was a bigger, academic space. It’s really interesting to do work that pushes the boundaries of where language can go, and noting how even one word can evoke such a huge range of reactions depending on the context you’re speaking to. Do you still do performance art? I do a little bit, but it’s not a primary form of expression for me right now. I think because writing has taken up more time. I would really like to get back into it, but in a different way. With mainstream art spaces and galleries, there’s this genre where racialized or otherwise marginalized artists are invited to perform and are put on display in this very uncomfortable way. And the people who attend galleries, I learned, are not necessarily who you want to be watching you in that way. The other kind of way I did performance was through the spoken word community, which I find a lot more comfortable in terms of spectatorship. But I find the medium of spoken word and slam poetry pretty limited, it’s locked in. Everyone has the same poem, if you scream you get more points. You know?
The richness and diversity of any group of people allows for an infinite number of stories.
English is very much my friend, and I make it do what I want, but I have a very emotional reaction to Cantonese and a different reaction to French. Storytelling and spoken word and writing are really powerful mediums because they are rooted in language, with a very primal connection to the way we shape and understand ourselves through storytelling. At the same time, I like to be cautious of that, because language can betray us. The fact of expressing oneself, saying it in English, a colonial language, has a lot of implications. It can be painful, and there are things you cannot express when you are speaking a colonial tongue. When I was doing performance art, I tried to push the boundaries. This one piece happened in this gallery in
If I could find a space and the time, and financial support for a more complex, long form performance, I would definitely be interested in doing that. In another interview, with Jaycee Tu, she talked about trying to stay out of that gallery space, because the people she wants to engage with are not necessarily part of that kind of privileged space, it’s more for the community. It’s a bummer to hear about that idea of spectatorship found in these kinds of spaces.
Totally. I used to agonize about this! I felt really disenfranchised from written poetry for a long time, when I was a teenager. Even though I was writing it and reading published poetry, there was a disconnect there, and I was noticing how poetry can sometimes be a very inaccessible art form. I discovered spoken word through Youtube, and was blown away like most of us are — it’s so powerful, simple, you know? I got really into it, and I’m still very easily enchanted by this idea of a single person and single body using only their voice and gesture to evoke.
Storytelling and spoken word and writing are really powerful mediums because they are rooted in language, with a very primal connection to the way we shape and understand ourselves .
I also really value the written word, and for a long time I was grappling with this idea, like can a piece exist on both the page and the stage and be equally powerful, can you do both? And I realized usually, you can’t. But I think orality has a lot of importance, as a primary mode of communication. Very simply, writing is not always accessible because a lot of people can’t read — for many reasons, literacy, disability, all these things. I think the great thing about contemporary media is that oral storytelling can be done through a variety of platforms, and it’s not as ephemeral as it used to be. If you want permanence, it can be on Youtube, or whatever. When I think about oral traditions, I think it has a lot of resonances in various forms of indigeneity. Especially since indigenous folks here, on Turtle Island, primarily used oral storytelling and histories, as a way of transmitting knowledge to each other. Even in Asia, writing was something only the privileged could do. For marginalized folks, oral storytelling has a really powerful aspect. You see contemporary forms of hip hop grow out of that. Even on a day to day, how women communicate with one another, talking about shitty boys and professors! It’s gossip, and it’s oral and really powerful. I think that resonance, that power and day to day rhythm, is what I try to infuse in my work. A lot of folks who have read my work have said that they can hear my voice when they read it, and I think that’s the best compliment. If I can’t see or hear myself reading a piece out loud or performing it while I’m writing it down, I tend to edit it until I can.
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Are there some you would only perform as spoken word, or you would prefer to be written? Or certain topics you would rather use your voice for? That’s a good question. There are some pieces I’ve never written down. I tend to be a fan of an improv performance, so even if I write a piece, I don’t memorize it precisely so when I perform it on stage it’s different every time. I never write down myth or fairy tale, sometimes I use that in performance, and I think they need to happen with immediacy, with call and response. Right, and I’ve heard so many different “takes” on myths. Even say, Persephone and Hades — there’s the idea that they were in love and it’s romantic, but he also stole her from her mother. It’s interesting all the perspectives myths and stories can take when it’s different every time. Absolutely. There’s so many ways you can tell that one story, and sometimes it needs to change depending on the moment — who you’re speaking to and why you’re telling the story. Like, which aspects Hades and Persephone do you bring up? The fact that he loved her or that he kidnapped her, the fact that she resisted eating the fruit, or that she gave in? The fact that her mother never stopped looking, or her mother never let her go and grow up? Who do you emphasize and at what point? Are there things you feel more comfortable with, like if you want to speak about one thing, do you go to poetry or spoken word first? When I want to write my experience, and to explore these more abstract concepts like home and myth making, I will go to poetry automatically. If I’m having a bad moment with an intimate partner, I write angsty romance poetry. [laughs] If I want to write about something like a specific event, or a community dynamic, or complicated politics that are not my direct experience — like interracial politics, or rape culture — I tend to go into essay format. It’s not always as clear cut as that all the time, but it’s an instinctive feeling — this is an essay, this is a poem. We talked a lot about narrative. How do you think narrative can be reclaimed, since it belongs to dominant powers a lot of the time, and they get to dictate what our stories are and who we are? I don’t think I have a perfect answer to this, because I think every single way I have managed to create a narrative and put it into a larger public, there’s been at least some compromise. In terms of the medium, or how this
I think emphasizing the power of possibility in people’s stories when they are not professional storytellers is one of the most important things we can to to relaim narrative. kind of communication is happening. On the other hand, the Internet does have a lot of really cool possibility, in terms of independence and accessibility. What I always tell kids I’m working with, as a social worker, is that their stories are important. We also see this idea happening in queer communities, where they’re loosely assembled around activist celebrities. And I have been one at different points of my life, which is terrifying! Every urban or activist community has its own speakers and prominent figures. And while those people are often important and doing really important work, I think it’s much more important to shift towards a model of understanding community is a place where everyone’s story is important, everyone gets to be like, a writer, a storyteller, an emcee, if that’s what they want. I always tell folks, if you have a story to tell, a piece of art to make, just make it! Help your friends to get the resources they need to make their own pieces of art, and share them with each other. A zine or short story, whatever, that your best friend made is obviously not going to be as polished as like, Octavia Butler’s science fiction series. But it is as important because it comes from someone breathing next to you. And while Octavia is really important, she’s not everyone’s best friend — she’s important as a role model, but so are the people around us, equally. When I think about when I was a kid or pre-published, really longing for validation, what really helped was that the people around me read my work and believed in it. That’s why I think arts programming, in schools, alternative kinds of education are so important because they give people a platform for that kind of expression. A circle in which people can be heard. I think emphasizing the power in possibility of people’s stories when they are not professional storytellers is one of the most important things we can do to reclaim narrative. I think that goes back to how you were talking about oral storytelling and its history, too. How do you pay tribute to that? Whenever I do that — drawing on fairy tales and archetypes and stories that come from a line of women — I like to center my work, whether written or oral, within a
tradition of people. It comes back to this myth of exceptionalism, that there’s a mass of normal people and out of this rises one “star”. Like no, people who are storytellers are taught their stories and given chances, and even if they had to fight for them like I did, other people have harder battles, too. We all have to struggle and we are also given gifts. I have a long list of acknowledgments in both of my books, and I try to make sure I pay tribute to that in performance as well. You’re also keeping that tradition alive, and it’s evolved into spoken word. A lot of this is based on identity, and how women can use writing to assert it, challenge it… how do identity and writing converge for you? Oh man. I definitely have a constructed identity of myself as a writer, which is healthy and unhealthy. I was talking to a fellow trans woman writer, and like myself she has published a lot online. We were speaking about how scary and intense it can feel to feel like people are watching you, and scrutinizing your work for perfection and imperfection. And also feeling this drive to constantly create, and not feeling real or like you’re not contributing if you’re not writing. I’ve had this discussion with many other trans women and women of colour artists and writers, this idea that you’re not a writer if you’re not always writing, you know. And I think that’s a lot to take on. And having the pressure of representing so many sections of identity. Yeah, it’s pretty intense. You have to write responsibly, and I know I can represent my own experience, and I think there’s a call to write a diversity of experiences into whatever you’re doing. But it’s also, I don’t think I can do that without being appropriative. Or like you’re speaking for someone. Exactly. But I like to come back to this idea that both reading and writing should be fun, it should be an experience of escapism and fantasy and enjoying the magic.
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When I come back to that, like I used to be this little kid who would be reading in the corner, I think about how I still am that person. That’s how I resolve those complicated issues around identity, artistry, and writing. I think it’s bad to take oneself too seriously. But I do it a lot! [laughs] How do you see your work evolving? Are there any mediums you’d like to tackle that you haven’t looked at yet? I’m a little conflicted about this. Right now, one thing that’s really important to me is doing the shine theory thing. Doing pieces of writing or art that really highlight the work or art of other trans women of colour, particularly those who might not get attention otherwise. Writing reviews, feature pieces, using a platform to network that, is really important to me. And it’s really cool too, interviewing other folks and generating really cool dialogues. Like we both discovered that we both love Greek mythology and the world needs to know that! [laughs] But you know, there’s also that delicious but narcissistic — but I don’t care that it is — idea that I want to write into novels, like I want to write more books and I’m always writing poetry. Or it would be fun to do another solo show. And I want all these things for myself, but I’m trying not to be too greedy. No, you deserve it. Take it all! Yes! I would really like to see if it’s possible for me to just take a break. And not produce things, and still feel like a whole, vibrant, living person. I think that would be really good for me, and it would be good for “creatives” to not create for a while and see what happens.
The pressure is to be saying something and repeating what other people are saying, as opposed to like, what if you could take a break, so that when you talk you have something really worthwhile to say? Even when I think about my own ideas, I’m constantly reacting to other people’s art and saying I would do this, but I would do it worse, better, differently. Like can I just not? And see what emerges organically, or doesn’t? I think that comes back to that idea of how one person is called upon to represent an entire community. Like I’m sure all the questions Janet Mock gets asked are only about trans activism, trans lives. And I’m sure she wants to talk about other things, that’s not all she is. Yeah! Like what if Janet Mock wanted to start a cooking show? [laughs] Does she get to do that?!
One of my favourite trans women writers, Porpentine, wrote this really intense essay, called “Hot Allostatic Load”, how in this era of digital activism and constant communication, the pressure is not that we aren’t allowed to say things. It’s not like a repressive regime of old, or in other places right now, where you’re not allowed to say certain things. Moreso the pressure is that you cannot stop speaking.
Manuela wears a dress by Shaina Mote. Nadine wears a bra by Baserange and pants by Shaina Mote. Special thanks to Undone. (www.undone.me)
“I write to record what others erase when I speak, to rewrite the stories others have miswritten about me, about you.” — Gloria Anzaldúa
hen women are afforded the privilege of subjectivity, or they stake a claim on it, they have a hand in crafting and molding identities and stories as they see fit. Reclaiming control over a narrative often means snatching it back from those who have held it over your head for so long — like the “overwhelming white voices” noted by Heyishi Zhang that dominate the landscape of writing she occupies, along with many others. These writers have claimed a space and position of authority, one asserting the truth. Truth can exist and thrive in multiplicity, in acknowledging there are often many truths, many histories, many stories. These women refute and challenge a one size fits all narrative, or refuse to “believe in the monolith” of identity, as Yemisi said. By challenging the limits of a singular, fixed narrative, we can work towards what Nourhan Hesham noted: our conversations should remain constant, continue to seek complexity, and grow in sophistication. Not only are these women rewriting narratives that excluded or misread them, they are forging a future of stories for ourselves that are dynamic and unapologetically complicated. Sharine Taylor spoke of her need to disrupt existing stories that are inauthentic, poorly researched and edge dangerously to erasing history, context, and nuance.
If our stories are permitted to be complicated, storytelling and truth telling have the possibility to be both mutually exclusive and overlapping. Kai Cheng Thom’s response to questions of authenticity and autobiography in her work come to mind: everything happened, and none of it happened. By acknowledging the multiplicity of truth and its convergence with storytelling, patterns begin to unfold before us. Rather than questioning the “truth” of women’s writings, particularly those positioned as confessional, we should be looking for what is being hidden and which truths are being quelled. In Leigh Gilmore’s Autobiographics, which examines the relationship between women and autobiographical writing, she wrote how women often signify through their invisibility, through the stories not told of them. Zariya Allen similarly remarked, “If women aren’t writing, if women aren’t telling their stories, then they go untold or they get misconstrued.” The responsibility of a woman rewriting a story becomes two-fold, not only to rebuild or “fix” what has already been told — with honesty and authenticity — but to bring the “real” truth to light.
heyishi zhang Whip-smart and equipped with an impossible to replicate deadpan humour, Heyishi’s voice is always easy to find in her work. The screenwriter and director has received accolades, awards and hype: the short film she wrote and directed — entitled Gay Mean Girls — has a tidy 3 million views on YouTube. It’s a coming of age story for a young queer girl, Lucy Kim, trying to place herself in her friendships, school life, and sexuality. Along with Gay Mean Girls, Heyishi’s body of work includes Joy, a short film about Chinese identity and the divide between inner and outer lives told through the eyes of a nine year old girl named Jia Qing. Her films have both a hint of autobiography and a sly way of subversion by “winking” at audiences. We spoke about using white men’s confidence in shitty art to spur your own, how she weaponizes her vulnerability, and writing the lesbian gaze into film.
ow did your relationship develop with writing and film?
I went to an arts high school, where I was a visual arts major. My artist statements would always be like four pages long, whereas my work would be whatever. Through going to school for arts, I realized that doing fine art was not really my medium—you only had the one object, and that’s how you communicated with the viewer. It was too direct; it was too vulnerable for me to handle. I really like that film forces you to use all media, you have characters, story, music, the cinematography. You have many media to hide behind and many ways for people to interpret or see your art.
In terms of how I got started as a writer/director… during my time at Ryerson for film, I took stock of what other people were making around me. I was one of five Asians in my year, it was all white guys, and I honestly thought it was all really bad, like I can do so much better than this. [laughs] So that was when I started to really get into writing. There was a very key moment in my second year where my prof for Documentary made this comment. She was like, “You know, you’re not really making work that represents you.” During my first and second years, I tried to make work that was kind of universal, it was watered down. So she was like, “You’re not making work that speaks to you or people who are like you. You should be doing better.” For the first month after hearing that, I was so offended! Why do I have to be the one voice that speaks for all Asians? Just because I’m Asian that doesn’t mean I have to represent everything. That’s so much pressure. But later when I thought about it, there’s no one who can tell these stories better than I can, because I’ve actually had the experience of living through them. That was when I realized I had Gay Mean Girls, the story, sitting inside me the whole time. It was my first debut. Is narrative something you focus on when you’re writing? Does it start with a character, an event, an emotion? Usually with my films, I start off with a feeling. Not necessarily a feeling, it’s more an experience. With Gay Mean Girls, there’s a scene where Lucy stares at the back of Miranda’s head in class. It was also the scene where she walks into the Gay Straight Alliance room. I’ve had those two experiences. For Joy, there was a moment where it was spring time but still cold out, I was walking home from school feeling anxious and depressed, but it was still beautiful out, with golden hour. The light was exactly right, it captured the colour scheme I was going for in the film. It was the moment I was physically so cold but outside was warm -- the contrast of that, those two feelings. From there, I think what is it about those feelings that make me feel so strongly about them, what is it about those experiences? To want to communicate them. Yeah. Then I move into themes, and what are the themes that these feelings give me? What are the key concepts? Because feelings and thoughts are different things, so I’m trying to translate those. Then I go into the world of story, which in screenwriting terms is the universe that your characters live in and the physical spaces that they occupy. This is my favourite part of the screenwriting process, because my films are often political in nature, so it’s the world of story that give your characters their enemies. For example, the world of story
There’s no one who can tell these stories better than I can, because I’ve actually had the experience of living through them. in Gay Mean Girls is very postmodern, the characters live in this liberal world where everyone thinks they’re super anti-racist and anti-sexist, but their actions don’t match that. And that was my high school. In Joy, there was a big difference between the home life versus the school life, and then the character’s inner life. Then I go into characters and plot. But basically, the farther up you go on this list, the less likely things are to change. The themes can sort of change, but the feelings that inspire the story never change. How it works is I’m trying to communicate this one feeling, one of isolation. Let’s go back to that scene you had mentioned, because I had written notes about it watching the film. That scene of like longing, looking at the back of a girl’s head in class, was something really clichéd from a straight male perspective, but I had never seen it in this context. You’ve noted the lesbian gaze, can you define what it means to you? How did you try to communicate it through writing the film and shots like that? There are lines in the screenplay earlier: “Lucy gazes at Miranda gazing upon herself”, “Lucy glances at their fingers, slightly touching”. I wrote the lesbian gaze into the script, and what it means to me is the concept of “look don’t touch”. There was a poem I found: “It’s on/ But I don’t know if I wanna be her/fuck her/or wear her clothes”. That really personifies it well. I think a lot of it has to do with power, it’s kind of the concept of “I don’t care if I’m beautiful or not, I just want the power that comes with beauty” but everyone else interprets it as wanting to be beautiful. I spent an afternoon brainstorming with the cinematographer, Hayley Wong, about how to convey the gaze. Yearning and wanting to touch was something we really focused on instead of the actual touching. And in regards to power like earlier, whoever holds the camera is the one who has the power. When you’re doing the lesbian gaze, there’s a certain safety to being a woman with other women. Because of that, you want to humanize women, their feelings and their desire for other women, while being extremely cautious of not replicating the male gaze. And the male gaze on lesbians in particular. Yeah. With a lot of other queer women I speak to, there’s a lot of shame around our desire for women. It’s seen as
kind of creepy. So it’s about being very cautious of not being creepy while showing sexuality. Two cinematic examples—these came out after Gay Mean Girls, but still—are Hayley Kiyoko’s music video for “Girls Like Girls” and Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood. Visually, we looked at the fear of getting too close. You know how girls are allowed to touch each other often, but there’s still that line? Instead of watching someone perform intimate acts, it’s more like the camera engaging with them performing intimate acts. Part of my thing as a filmmaker is that I like a lot of distance; I like a lot of wide, long takes. It was important that we lingered on the characters after the scene was over. I feel like those are the silent moments where you get a lot of humanity. We would cut to a wide shot whenever Lucy and Miranda would get close physically. There was a scene where Lucy touches Miranda’s leg slightly, and right before we cut to a wide. In the scene right before they kiss, we cut to a wide. To kind of communicate the distance? Yeah. And also because Lucy and Miranda’s friendship was really toxic, that was another reasoning for it. Something that really stood out to me was when Lucy describes her sexuality as “floating”. How do you look to redefine sexuality through your work so it’s not always so concrete? I think there’s a lot of pressure for queer people to identify with a specific sexuality, or at least when I was going through it. I remember when I was in high school, I came out as a lesbian because I didn’t think anyone would take me seriously if I said I was bisexual. But that caused a lot of conflict with my own identity, because I was experiencing a lot of homophobia as the “wrong” sexuality. And so I wanted with this film, and with Lucy’s journey, to show how difficult it was to figure out how you identify and where you fit in. I wanted to show that, because that’s a very tough journey to make, especially as a queer woman. You’re trying to figure out your own sexuality and your desire, but you also have the immense pressure of how the world sees people like you, and whether you want to align yourself with that negative point of view. I think it’s really hard to be in between two things. Yeah, floating. What are some narratives you’re seeking to change through your work? Like the objectification or erasure of queer women, Asian women from film?
The biggest thing that was an obstacle for me as a creator was never seeing anything that was made for me. And so I think a lot about my relationship with my audience and what do I want to communicate with them, or to them? The main narrative I want to challenge is that there are stories for you. The stories that are about us, about marginalized people, they always feel like they don’t actually belong to us, because they’re always being told from the point of view of people who’ve never had those experiences. In my work, I want to value our perspectives, and show that our stories are worthwhile. That’s what’s motivating me. In regards to queer women and Asian women, I guess I’m answering the question in a bigger picture way, but I think to have narratives that are by us is important. In the Gay Mean Girls writers room, for the web series, all of our writers are women of colour, and nearly all are queer. We also have someone who’s in high school writing. That definitely helps a lot in terms of authenticity. When I worked on the short film, all of the creators were queer as well, and because of that, there’s a mutual understanding between all of us of what the story means and who the characters are. Most of our producers on the web series are white, and we had a Miranda-centric episode and it was really funny, because after it was written the producer was like, “This feels like a stereotype of white people.” Like, now you know how we feel! [laughs] It’s so funny that white people have like, a long history of cinema and being heroes and whatever, but they can never handle a negative or not glowing portrayal. Yeah! In all of my work, there’s an element of subversion. I really find that I can’t escape the overbearing white voices that exist in our world. For me, because it’s so overbearing, I work with it to kind of wink at the audience. The way that I see it, it’s like that idea of “taking candy with medicine helps it go down better”. After I posted Gay Mean Girls online, everyone was like, “This is a story about homophobia and this girl’s struggle to find her sexuality.” But really, the heart of the story is racism, and how Lucy’s friendship with Miranda is toxic. There were a lot of small moments—like when Miranda says Lucy is angry—where I knew that Asian women and people of colour would understand, but white people wouldn’t. It was about making sure that those moments get in. And I think also because I know my film is so commercial, it’s a way for me to “cheat” getting my film made — like white people don’t know I’m being subversive.
“The stories that are about us, about marginalized people, they always feel like they don’t actually belong to us, because they’re always being told from the point of view of people who’ve never had those experiences. In my work, I want to value our perspectives, and show that our stories are worthwhile.”
But people of colour do. With Joy, it was more about racism. I knew that it was my last chance to be able to make anything for a while, and so I thought I would seize that opportunity. Since we’re talking about micro-aggressions, there was that one character, Clara, in Gay Mean Girls, she really embodied fake allyship to me, especially how she labelled herself as one. When I was workshopping the script, what came up was how Clara is the foil to Lucy’s character, but Miranda is the real enemy and antagonist of the story. That was again something only people of colour can understand. You had mentioned earlier about your writer’s room, how do you think that narrative and representation can be reclaimed? I think they can be reclaimed if marginalized people are given the megaphone that white people have with their voices. And that what they’re saying is being heard—by the people who they’re meant to be heard by. With my work, I do my best to try to elevate those voices. For the writer who was in high school, she hadn’t had any experience like that, and I know that if you just stick someone new into a writer’s room, you’re setting them up for failure. Instead I took her through a process of how we’re going to write a script, and I took her to my old high school so she would understand the setting. So I think doing the work to set people up for success and to empower them to feel confident in their own voices is really good. And asking the questions that are important, and always questioning yourself and what you’re writing, as well. There was a moment where there was a possibility that Miranda was going to out Lucy, at gay prom. Then we nixed that idea, because it wasn’t respecting how big of a step coming out is. So we always have to check ourselves in that way. Another thing in regards to being subversive, I knew that with Gay Mean Girls had to be really pretty or people wouldn’t want to watch it. How do you communicate differently with visuals compared to writing? Visually, the style of a film is an extension of the world of story that I mentioned earlier. With Joy, there were a lot of maroons, oranges and greens inside the house, to communicate Jia Qing’s mindset. The world of story in Gay Mean Girls is very postmodern, very Tumblr influenced, so we used that because it was
important for the character, that it was a frame of reference. So that was visually where we placed them, in that kind of world. Do you find when you’re writing you focus on those details, and setting up the visual story behind it? You’re not really supposed to do that, that goes against what they teach in screenwriting. But what I do is that as I’m writing, I start creating digital moodboards. I start collecting these images to help me set the tone of the film. As well, these images help a lot when I’m pitching the story. I do start thinking about visuals before I start writing, because it helps. So how do screenplays communicate differently than other forms of writing? With screenplays, you only have the bare bones of what your story is and who your characters are. The rest is all left to interpretation by the director, and I’ve been lucky enough to direct my own films. I had a really important
lesson the first time I went to screenwriting class. My prof made us watch a scene from a movie, it was a character study, and he made us write down what we saw and heard from these characters. It was a scene between a girl who was a blonde bimbo trope and an old professor type. We all wrote she was dumb, and the guy was astute, studious. The prof crossed all of them out, because all of these things are judgements we, as the audience, have projected onto these characters. All that had happened in the scene was that she didn’t know where her classes were, and she was blonde and dressed in pink. That was it. And so that was where I learned to show, not tell. With screenplays you can only show. The fact that I’m able to leave as much room for interpretation is really nice, because it allows me to detach myself from these characters and the narrative. I like that screenplays are really contextual. You only have what you see and hear, and it gets rid of all this fluff. The fluff is what the director can interpret. For the screenplays I’ve written, they’ve all been pretty bare bones, because I’ve been the one to direct them. And you know how to frame them. Do you get attached to your characters? I think I have to, because all of my screenplays thus far have been inspired by my own experiences. And obviously I’m attached to those. I kind of have to, because that means that I care. Every character and every scenario that gets put down on the page is a concept. They’re not actual people, but figments of my imagination that others interpret as people. So I feel responsible for them, you know what I mean? The way that I’ve always thought about filmmaking is that you’re giving birth to a baby. [laughs] The whole pre-production process of planning, that’s the 9 months stage. The birthing of the baby is the actual shooting, and editing is raising it. When you finally go off and distribute it for other people to see, it’s going off to college. I’ve always thought of it that way! I feel like a mom in that way, I have to be responsible for these children. [laughs] That whole idea of “it takes a village to raise a child”. You’ve also noted this idea of how characters have redefined their own identities, can you speak more to that and how your own identity comes into play? I grew up in an abusive household. When anyone is stuck in an abusive relationship, the biggest thing is that abuse robs you of your identity. You’re never who you are, you’re who your abuser says you are. Growing up, I would hear my parents say these things about me, and eventually when you hear them enough, you start internalizing those feelings. I would say that doesn’t just
The fact that I’m able to leave as much room for interpretation is really nice, because it allows me to detach myself from these characters and the narrative. I like that screenplays are really contextual. You only have what you see and hear, and it gets rid of all this fluff. happen in interpersonal abusive situations, but also like white supremacist, big, oppressive power structures. People of colour are always told who they are. And so because of that, I think that identity was something I’ve always struggled with. Since I started doing creative things, that’s just been a reoccurring theme because I’m always thinking about it… like who I should be, or who I am. Whether it’s versus, or in relation, to what others see me as. In my stories, the characters always face some element of isolation, or they’re alone at the end of the day, because that’s the hardest part of the struggle. What motivates me, as cliché as it is, is to show others that they’re not alone. With Gay Mean Girls, a lot of it had to do with all of the characters being hyper-aware of how the world sees them. For Miranda, it’s realizing that being a lesbian is traumatic… realizing that the world hates you in any way is traumatic. For her, because lesbians are seen as ugly, she puts a lot of emphasis on the way she looks to feel good about herself. She acts out in that way. All of the characters are living with the weight of these stereotypes, and they all have their different ways of pushing through them to get what they want. For Lucy, she’s an ambitious person and she was feeling guilty for that because she was Asian, because you’re being “too Asian”. I dealt with this too, and especially in a white space you’re hyper-aware of that. On top of that, she’s queer and has this internalized homophobia. For Joy, it was about the silence of abuse. A big part of abusive relationships is that the victim stays silent about what they’re going through, or they’re complacent about what’s happening to them, because that’s the “normal”. If you think about the bigger picture about how you don’t see a lot of Asian-Canadians in the media, that affected how I grew up. A big part of the abuse for me was that my parents normalized it by saying, “This is just how Chinese families work”. So when I see another Chinese person who has a healthy relationship with their family
I always do a double-take. And also because there was no frame of reference for me growing up, so I thought that white families are happy and Chinese families are miserable, and I didn’t know better. I touched upon this earlier in relation to beauty, but it’s how I don’t want to be white, I just want the power that comes with it. That’s a big part of assimilation, and this idea that your race is never validated or heard. And so that plays a big role in Joy, because the character is silent for a large portion of the film, at one point she mimics her mother’s voice. I wanted to show how silence is powerful, because that’s how the character survives. Thinking about identity, what I considered “identity” back in high school was not the concept I think of today like race, class, sexuality. It definitely affected that concept, but it wasn’t what I thought about—it was more about where you fit in, if your friends liked you. I tend to write a lot of coming of age stories for that reason, because it’s a time for you to discover your identity, and you kind of have a built-in narrative already, for you to explore these themes. For Gay Mean Girls, prom itself has its own narrative. Knowing that what you’re working on is personal or has your personal frame of reference, like memories, do you find that you’re uncovering when you’re writing? Are things easier to talk about through it? I think because I view writing as a career—it isn’t just me writing in a diary, I’m showing it to the world—there’s an element of me weaponizing my vulnerability, which I think is a very feminine power. It was during a conversation with Hayley Wong where she remarked that “nothing hurts more than the truth”, which I think is key. I can only write about things after I’ve had some time to process it, after I’ve had space. You know how hindsight is 20/20? I can only write about things when I have a bird’s eye view of the situation. Certain things that have happened in my life, in the past few months, I know I’ll eventually write about. But right now, I can’t, I’m still there. It does force me to reevaluate my role in the situations I was writing about. What I really like about screenwriting is that on TV, a character can throw out a really funny comeback in the moment, and I’m like, “I wish I had that quick wit.” Like as a kid, I didn’t realize that someone wrote that.
... there’s an element of me weaponizing my vulnerability, which I think is a very feminine power. Part of writing for me is almost justice, getting back at those who’ve wronged me! You know? When I was writing Gay Mean Girls, I knew that it was for fourteen year old me. I felt extremely isolated with things I was going through at the time, and I knew that if I felt that way, other people would too. I write for different versions of me. Which on one hand, it’s so egotistical, but on the other…. what white man isn’t? [laughs] It wasn’t until after the hype of Gay Mean Girls died down, that I was having a conversation with a friend and I realized that I was actually writing an experience that traumatized me. Both films are about traumas that I had been through, but during the time I was writing Gay Mean Girls I didn’t realize I had been traumatized by high school. That changes the way I look at things, especially for the web series. The tone and the way I approach the characters is going to be different. Now that you have that knowledge. Yeah. And looking back at how I was writing the short film, and how I wanted it to be like, winky and funny, it was a way for me to cope with the trauma. You also do comedy and stand-up. Can you talk more about that? I’ve only done it four times, so I’m not sure if I’m qualified to say the things I’m saying. [laughs] With screenwriting, I can hide behind all these characters and stories, but with comedy I’m the performer. I can’t hide behind anything anymore behind the punchlines, and that means I have to be really funny for them to work! It’s a new sense of vulnerability that I haven’t dealt with, of facing the audience directly. There was this one time where my material was really dark, and I performed at this place that was really happy and accepting—not a comedy club. Everyone was kinda yikes about it. They still laughed, but you know. And so for a whole week after I had this big crisis, about whether or not I should continue doing comedy, like who is it for and why I am I writing this, does it really benefit anyone if
the reaction is so yikes? Again, it goes back to how in my writing, I tend to weaponize vulnerability. So the strengths that I have as a screenwriter are also the same that I have as a comedy writer as well. The biggest thing with comedy is that when people laugh, I feel like I’m being understood. The feedback is so instant because you either laugh or you don’t—you know instantly whether something is working. Part of my crisis was how after doing stand-up for the first time in my life, I felt like the funny friend. [laughs] Like, oh man. The power of that is no other. But it’s so exhausting! Like where does my comedy persona start and where does my real one end? That’s the grey area that you’re writing about. I think for me as someone who was starting out, that grey area is very, very grey. If I gain more experience, that gap will be less…. I’m mostly just doing comedy to supplement the fact that I’m not writing scripts at the moment, it’s to scratch the itch. The thing that got me inspired to do comedy was when one of my white male classmates did a documentary about himself doing stand-up for the first time. And in it, his girlfriend was so much funnier than him. Of course. I don’t think he really realized that, like of course his girlfriend isn’t funny. But I saw that, I watched it and I was like, “I can do so much better than this.” [laughs] Honestly, I’m gonna take that lesson and let that motivate me next time I see something shitty. And that’s how I got started.
“I was almost starting to believe this monolith, this reduction of identity down to a single story. Black. My black is cool and calm.” Her poems are often short — a few lines or more — but they speak with both softness and power on love, heartbreak, and fatigue in black identity. Yemisi’s own voice is soft spoken but firm, she’s self assured in what she’s communicating — another crucial element to her role as not only poet, but spoken word artist. We spoke about the personal as political, the pressure to constantly create, and how artists can take a leaf out of Nina Simone’s book. Shooting at Allan Gardens seemed like the perfect environment to best represent her natural and organic approach to writing and creation.
ow did you start to explore poetry, did you find that it came naturally to you?
I’ve always been interested in writing since elementary school, I used to write short stories. And then I transitioned to poetry in middle school, I was that angsty little pre-teen. [laughs] It was a good way to get out any emotions or anger that I was feeling. In high school I made a new friend who did spoken word, and I had no idea what it was until I met her. I thought, maybe I can do this because I write poetry. You know, learn this craft and own it. That was grade 10, and from there I started performing. I remember in your piece for Sophomore, you wrote about the differences between poetry and spoken word, and how you can almost create a rhythm or song with your voice, and how you’re emoting. Do you find that can translate to the written word, or is spoken word almost like a different component? I think they’re both art forms of their own. The way I write spoken word is different from the way I write poetry that I want to be read. And I’m sure people write the same.
Do you feel most comfortable communicating with poetry? Are there things that are too intimate, or make you feel too vulnerable, when you’re sharing things that are personal to you? It’s funny, last night I was thinking about how different people communicate and how it’s so much easier for me to communicate and express myself in writing. My friend was complimenting me and I didn’t even know what to say… [laughs]. But if I was writing her a note or a letter, I could write so much stuff. So… I think my poetry is intimate by nature, and there are definitely some I’ve questioned or sat on for months, thinking like, “I don’t know if I want to share this or post this.”
write poems for things. I was actually telling my friend this yesterday, that if someone asks me to write them a poem I stress out, I feel the pressure, because it’s for someone else. Someone else’s expectations. Yeah! And I always end up doing it last minute. Do you journal? Yeah I do, but not every day. At least once a week or every other week. For poems, I write them at least once a week, depending. I usually write short poems more than anything, more than full spoken word pieces. So how often do you perform spoken word? I think in the past year I’ve done it at least once a month. It’s been a big process, because when I moved to Toronto I saw the poetry scene and I was like, “I’m not performing, everyone is so talented, I’m so scared.” I would only perform on campus at York, and then my friend had some faith in me and said, “You’re performing at my event.”
I definitely feel most comfortable writing, it’s the easiest way for me to express how I feel. It’s the most effective way. What do you like to talk about the most? Emotions.
She hadn’t even seen me perform, but from there I started performing in the city, and people have contacted me.
Bad, or good? Both. [laughs] It’s easy for me to write from a sad place. You know, a pensive place. Usually “bad” emotions. I mean, I think they’re stronger emotions, that you really want to get out. If you’re just chilling, there’s nothing really to say, right? So what is your process for writing? I don’t know if I have one per se, I just write when I feel inspired… but sometimes people ask me to write poems for things. I was actually telling my friend this yesterday, that if someone asks me to
I feel that it would be so frightening, just to get up there. The first time it was. I used to perform in my hometown, so it’s not like I had never been behind the mic… but just the setting I was in, and knowing I was in the city with all these people… yeah. The first time was scary, but then after that it just got easier. And other people’s work can kind of strengthen your resolve?
Yeah, definitely, I have a couple poet friends that I draw inspiration from. I loved how you wrote about art as an extension of the self, especially when considering inner and outer selves, and what black womanhood means for you. How do all of these things come together?
I think even if I’m not sharing my poetry with anyone, it’s just a way for me to release things that I don’t want to hold on to, it’s like catharsis for me.
I had a thought for a while that art is survival, or art as survival, especially for a woman of colour. It’s a way to release all the stress and negative energy or microaggressions and racism… I think even if I’m not sharing my poetry with anyone, it’s just a way for me to release things that I don’t want to hold on to, it’s like catharsis for me. And just the act of creating something can help. In one poem you wrote about bitterness and how draining these things can be. Do you find that after that garbage year of 2016, poetry is like self care? It’s definitely a mode of self care. There’s one poem I wrote recently, and it’s about blackness, and it’s based off this painting. This figure is all black, and they have their eyes closed. The first line is “I close my eyes to retreat, the only vacation I can take sometimes is in my mind.” It’s about blackness, and exhaustion. I filmed a video for it at the gallery Blank Canvas, and on New Year’s Eve, there was a case of police brutality [against the gallery owner]. I’m like, how timely is this poem… I performed it in this same space a couple weeks before this happened. Nina Simone always says, “How can an artist not reflect the times?”So I think I kind of struggle with writing political work. I am political, but it’s not my main focus in my writing. And that’s a burden, it’s a big thing to carry, it’s a lot of responsibility. It is. This piece was something that my friend had asked me to write. And I just thought it was crazy how timely it was — this poem and those events happening. I definitely try to reflect the times, but I have that balance between thinking, is this because I want to write this piece, because of what’s happening in the world?
Am I taking care of myself and my emotions, and processing it the way I want to, and not, you know, forcing this out of myself and expending this energy? Is this actually coming from a place where I need this piece to be shared, because this is on my heart and I need people to know what’s happening? How can other women use poetry — or writing at all — to communicate what’s personal or political? For women of colour, personal and political issues intersect, and I feel that it’s up to the individual how much they want to disclose in their work. Writing is a form of catharsis, and writing about personal issues can be a form of release… I know it is for me. I think everything I write is personal to a degree because I can only write from what I know, from what I’ve experienced. Whether I choose to share certain poems or not is up to me. Looking at how many voices are already marginalized and don’t get the privilege to tell their stories, I think social media helps with its accessibility and revealing people who aren’t given the opportunity. Yeah, it’s a new age, it’s opened up the door for so many people. What are some poets or writers whose work helped or influenced your own? There’s this group called The Strivers Row… those poets inspire me so much. I got introduced to them when I first started spoken word. I don’t think I write like them, but I think I take from how they perform and their pauses and the subject matter, because they’re all black poets. I get inspired by other art forms, music is major for me. Musicians inspire me, sometimes listening to a song will spark the beginning of a poem.
“Am I taking care of myself and my emotions, and processing it the way I want to, and not, you know, forcing this out of myself and expending this energy?” I feel like they all go hand in hand as you add more elements, from poetry to spoken word to music. Did you find there was a learning curve, doing spoken word and finding rhythm? Do you practice before you go on stage? When I first started writing, I didn’t really know what my niche or style was, because I transitioned from poetry to spoken word. I remember my very first piece was about Africa, and stereotypes I faced living here. And I left that piece for a year, and I came back and was like, this is so bad. [laughs] We’ve all made shitty things! I totally revamped the poem and kept a couple parts, like a year later. I can definitely say my style has changed and developed over the years, just like anyone else’s would. As for practicing, I definitely like to memorize my poems before I perform them. I find that if I know the poem, I just perform better. Some people read off their phone which is fine, but for me personally I just do better when I know it by heart. Do you feel there’s a sense of community in performing spoken word? I definitely feel community, both in performing and being an audience member. Spoken word as an art form relies on an audience, and in my experience, I’ve had a good rapport with the audience and great support.
You’ve talked about the different ways to do poetry and spoken word, and how that reflected for you the different ways to be a black woman. I think there’s that stereotypical way people expect black people to perform spoken word — or black women — and being an introvert, I don’t have that kind of personality. I think there was a time where I felt like I had to perform like that, but it got to a point where I realized that’s not me, and I don’t have to conform to this way to perform. There are so many different poets and styles. I feel like there are so few voices that are allowed to speak, so when there’s that one you know, minority voice, it’s assumed that this is the one way that we do things, or write… it becomes limiting in itself. Yeah, exactly. I was also talking to my friend about how my poetry is sometimes predictive, or me speaking to myself… there was one poem I wrote about heartbreak, and I was talking to this guy who I met in October. I wrote this poem in December, and I didn’t think anything of it, because I was so in love or whatever. [laughs] And then March next year, some stuff went down and I looked back at my poetry, and it was like me speaking to myself. It’s almost like how my subconscious is feeling.
“Is this actually coming from a place where I need this piece to be shared, because this is on my heart and I need people to know what’s happening?” 8484
That’s so interesting to see, how you can dig that up without knowing. I’ve been looking at how there’s always this idea of a spectator in writing, even with personal writing like journals. Especially when a lot of diaries end up getting published. Do you find you ever consider an audience when you’re writing? I don’t think so, I just write to write… but I definitely consider an audience when it comes to what I post. There are poems I don’t think I’ll ever post, and there are some I wrote like a year ago, and I’ve still been sitting on them. How many would you say you have collected? I have no idea! But I’m trying to write a book, maybe by the end of the year, I don’t know what it’s like to publish, I don’t know what the process is like… I definitely need to start compiling and writing new material. I know I have a lot of old stuff I can put it in there. Amazing, do you think you would organize it with themes? That’s what I don’t know, since I write a lot about emotions and things surrounding love and heartbreak… so we’ll see what I come up with and what happens.
Is love something you go to journalling or poems for first? Lately I’ve been writing poetry… I don’t think I’ve been in [love], I think I’ve been in infatuation. The way I write about love is as a spectator, looking from the outside, like what is this weird thing that happens to people. Considering how you have dig deep or pull other emotions out, it’s funny how for love you do it almost through a lens. Do you think your work will change when you do fall in love? For sure. [laughs] Angsty and mushy and cheesy. It’s gonna happen. I feel right now I’m kind of in this limbo, not in a relationship or interested in anyone right now. Do you think your poetry will evolve as you get older? Is it something you can see yourself doing forever? Yeah… I remember thinking I wouldn’t even do it after high school, like I’m gonna have to focus on my career. I don’t know why I thought that I only had to do one thing. It’s something I’m gonna take with me, for sure.
In her writing and IRL, Nourhan has a way of tackling complex topics with wry wit and an understanding of multiplicity. Her writing often opens up much needed conversations; she’s written about cultural practices like female genital mutilation, along with choosing modesty in dress as a Muslim woman. (Her brilliant article about the cultural relevance of the E! Channel should also be noted.) With her background in political science, she schooled me on shifting diasporic identities, how we can challenge academic spaces to make way for people of colour, and the renowned Egyptian sense of humour.
an you tell me about your relationship with writing? How did it start?
In high school, I used to paint—that was my medium, it was how I would make art. Then the revolution happened in Egypt in 2011, and I felt really stifled by painting and art. So I had to find other ways to express myself that weren’t limiting, I needed something that gave me freedom, where I could really pour myself into it. I’ve always been writing, but I started to take it more seriously in second year, when I started seeing people around me publishing things. Other than that, I was just writing academic essays that later developed. I had the guidance, luckily, in university where profs told me that just because I was an academic, it didn’t mean I didn’t have to have feelings. And that really changed everything so I decided to start writing.
Do you think your background in Equity Studies has influenced what you write? Does theory have a foundation for anything that you write? The cool thing about my academic background is that I have the political science, which is really structured and conservative and “the rules of the game” in life... whereas equity studies is the theory of a feeling that you had. Like the oppression and injustice you feel, there’s a theory behind that, there’s people talking about it, they’re articulating it academically and looking at how to make room for it in society and deal with it. And so those two play together when I’m writing something. The personal is political! [laughs] Every time I write something I think about like, how am I reinforcing inequity through my writing, or how am I dismantling it? Who am I writing this for? What do I expect from it, and where does this fit into the grander scheme of things? It plays a huge role. And it’s nice when you read a piece of writing and it’s completely accessible—you know when you read something and you think, “That’s not for me, that’s an experience that’s not mine”? I hope I can get to a point where I can write something that everyone can feel is for them. And when I say that, I mean people of colour. Nearly everyone I’ve spoken to here writes academically in some way, but they also need to be able to apply theory in a real life way, where it’s actually accessible. My mom would always tell me something really interesting, she would say that the reason revolutions fail is that the information stops at some point and becomes inaccessible for the rest of the people. And it gets fractured and factionalized between classes, especially in a place like Egypt which is a very class-based society.
It is important to make information accessible, and I try to do that in my academic writing as well. To write a brilliant piece doesn’t mean to shove as many words in that you have to look up in a dictionary. When you’re writing academically, does it change what or how you’re communicating, do you find? Obviously to some extent. I’m an incredibly emotional writer, and everyone tells me that, you can tell I’m angry or sad or whatever. And someone told me that it’s good I speak from the ribs, but at the same time it’s hard to be coherent when you’re so sad and you’re writing an academic essay. [laughs] I have to put on my academic hat, you know, and the elbow patches. And you have to play by the rules a little bit, but at the same time you can infuse your own personality. You can bend the rules, you can be angry and sassy and whatever. Lots of famed academics would do that in the footnotes, talk shit in the footnotes. You can cite conversations with your friends, you can make your academic work personal and less monotonous. That reminds me of learning how to cite a tweet. Audre Lorde, in her personal books and essays, a lot of the citations were like, “This is based off a conversation I had with my friend so-and-so”. At first I thought academic writing was so constraining, but reading these black women academics and academics of colour, it doesn’t have to be. Because our cultures and experiences are so rich, I can’t believe we have to play by these Euro-American rules, to write something rigid that’s gonna end up on a dusty shelf in some university. How do you reckon with the identities you make up and spaces you occupy? I had to confront this idea of positionality when I wrote piece for your zine [about mixed race identity].
I mentioned that I get called brown a lot, and I have to recognize my position as an Arab woman, race is a construction and a hierarchy. It’s totally fake but it exists, and the hierarchies are very real and they affect us in every single way. So you have to figure out where you are on the hierarchy, and how you’re treating those above and below you—I mean below you on the hierarchy, not beneath you. As an Arab woman, I have to confront antiblackness and discrimination and racism against brown people. So when I mentioned in that piece that I get called brown, I also had to mention that I’m not going to take that term—even though I am considered brown in North America—because of how brown people get treated back home. I can’t just claim sameness when I have so much privilege. The way I’m treated is completely different from the way they are, and I think that’s really important to recognize your positionality. So then you’re not contributing to these constructed nostalgias and idealizing something you can’t claim. As a diaspora Egyptian, versus an Egyptian who lives there, my experiences are incredibly different, so I have to be very wary of that. Like, I can’t write a piece that a black woman should write. That’s recognizing your positionality, and you give it over to someone else. I can’t write a piece about Egypt without talking to actual Egyptians who live there and asking them, is this okay? You have to do the work because people can’t always teach you, you have to do it yourself. Yeah, and taking your privilege, removing yourself and building a platform instead. You can write from the perspective as somene who’s oppressed and the perspective of an ally. I think allyship is uncomfortable and should be, and if you’re comfortable as an ally then you’re not a good one. Your job as an ally when you’re writing should be like, what are we going to do the change this? The different identities that you make up, how do you look at that through writing? It depends on the topic. It gets really hard. When I wrote about FGM [female genital mutilation] for Sophomore, I was shook. [laughs] I even cried a bit. I was really scared that it’s gonna sound like I’m pro-FGM, but I’m not. What I’m trying to say is that I’m sick and tired of white people thinking they can take charge of that conversation that impacts my people. And has impacted my family specifically.
It’s really hard, I can’t say I’ve figured it out and that I will figure it out any time soon, but it’s trial and error. With an immigrant diaspora identity, as a person of colour, you’re always trying to be like, we’re just like you! We have pancakes on Saturday and we go to school and work! And I don’t want to do that completely, my identity is still valid. When I write from the perspective of a Muslim woman, I have to mute my Arabness sometimes, I feel. Because not every Muslim is Arab, I’m speaking to—not saying that my article will reach the billions of Muslims—white Muslims, Latino Muslims, black Muslims. So sometimes you have to tone one thing down if you’re emphasizing another, if that’s what you’re focusing on. That’s a good question, I’m gonna have to sit and take that one home with me! Let’s talk about FGM. So you’ve written about it, and how it’s important to take it away from that context of a Western, white gaze. Specifically with FGM, I wish I could have done a longer piece. I just want people to understand that most of these causes, that white people are now fighting for, were the basis of colonialism, like sexuality. Like, your perspective on FGM isn’t the only one, Egyptians also have a perspective. Back home, it’s not normalized because it’s something horrific that happens, but it is seen as normal. We have to ask ourselves why, and it’s extremely classist to assume that everyone has the same educational background that you do. I just wanted people to recognize that this is something so much more complicated than you think it is, and the way you’re going about it is completely wrong and simple. You’re not addressing all these complications. That’s the case with a lot of the things people of colour want to write about—like hey, that thing you wrote an 800 word piece for on Vox? It’s actually... a really serious and intense topic! [laughs] I want people to understand that the conversation is more complicated and nuanced than these surface level pieces we’re getting. And people of colour do not get enough representation in media and journalism. We don’t even get to talk about it. When I wrote the FGM article I was like, great, I can never talk about something happening in my community without a white feminist cartwheeling in like, “Oh, so you ARE backwards, you admit it!” [laughs] It’s just about trying to carve out your own little space.
How do you think we can continue to do that? Besides opening up platforms? I think passing the mic is a really important notion right now. I’m seeing a lot of really cool writers that are relinquishing their platforms and knowing that they shouldn’t be writing some things. Like you said earlier, positionality and accountability. If there’s a specific topic in mind and we know it’s rooted in a certain culture, we should be giving our spaces to a person from that culture to write about it. We should be doing our own Googles, not waiting for someone to take us by the hand and teach us. It’s a lot of work, but a lot of people aren’t willing to put in the work and want someone to do it for them. Coming back to FGM, how can women who have these experiences, or it’s rooted in their cultures and histories, how can they rewrite and reframe these topics through writing? That’s a good question. I guess there are some women that are starting to do it. For example, Mona Eltahawy’s book [Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution], which I didn’t like completely but I commend for her bravery—she’s writing about why Egypt doesn’t have a sexual revolution, why isn’t sex part of that, along with women’s rights and freedoms? But at the end of the book, she kind of ends up pandering to the West and talking about it in an Orientalist way. So I think the way we can write about this is not with a one-size-fits-all model. Like this idea that we’re all free if we take off the veil, this is how we will all be free. Offer multiple alternatives, not just one. Offer different accounts of how FGM impacted your family. I think class is really important to the diaspora, because it’s so embedded in our home countries, so I think it’s important to listen to everyone. That’s the issue with a lot of feminist movements, is that there’s one dominating voice from a specific class or culture and all the others are left out, so we don’t get to hear them. It shouldn’t be like, one person from Egypt writes about FGM so we’ve fixed the issue and we can move on. It should be a constant conversation, and we should be getting more sophisticated and complicated in how we discuss it. I think so much more women of colour should be involved in that conversation…. Egyptian women, women from Uganda and Nigeria who were actually impacted by this.
That extends to stories and narratives as well, that there won’t be one universal story that fits everyone. And not everyone needs to identify with every story. If an Egyptian woman writes something I don’t have to love it, that’s just accepting a breadcrumb. Like one Egyptian woman was given a platform? It’s important to understand that just like there are so many different opinions politically and personally here in North America, the same thing is back home. We don’t all agree on the same thing at all, or else we’d be doing pretty well right now. That’s really important. It’s the same with characters, like… I really don’t have to or want to identify with whatever Sofia Vergara is out there doing.
When Rami Malek made Mr. Robot, everyone was like, “Oh, he’s Egyptian, you obviously watch that show, right?” I don’t, but good for him! [laughs] One Egyptian is representing me in Hollywood, I don’t have to fangirl about that. That’s so sad, that we get nothing and there’s this expectation that we have to stan for it! I fantasize about it, like if I could make a show about an average Muslim family with things that are normal for me and my Muslim friends, like if I could see that on TV? It would feel so good. And whenever a “diverse” show comes out, like say Kim’s Convenience, people are always asking members of that group like, “Is that accurate? Is that how it is for you?” Like this is just one perspective! Right, like nobody goes up to a white person and asks them like, “So does your dad cook meth in the desert?” That’s the one defining white dad story. [laughs] So we touched on this earlier, can you tell me about how diaspora has shaped identity for you, and its impact on your writing? The diaspora is really cool because it’s not unified or universal, there’s different kinds of diasporas. There are different people within it. I think I remember someone saying that the act of writing is ritual atonement, making up for something lost or something you regret. It’s really cool how out of literature and writing emerges this space—that was once undefined—that finds a voice and narrative through it. And that’s the diaspora. It’s this undefined space and we get to give it a name, an experience. We get to write this culture and live it and experience it. That’s really important. I think it’s cool to see different diasporas, different Egyptian diasporas. There’s different Arab diasporas, different Muslim ones, and you can be a part of all three.
If an Egyptian woman writes something I don’t have to love it, that’s just accepting a breadcrumb. Like one Egyptian woman was given a platform? It’s important to understand that just like there are so many different opinions politically and personally here in North America, the same thing is back home.
How does language come into play with what you’re communicating? I’m so glad you asked me that! Egyptians are known in the Arab-speaking world to be incredibly sarcastic, and how everything is a joke. We speak in proverbs, and these very well-known cultural references, being a center of media and television and whatnot. So it was difficult for a time because I couldn’t translate that into English, I couldn’t translate my Egyptian sarcasm into it.
And my identities are not fractional, you know, I’m North African Arab, and Egyptian is a very political term, and I’m also Muslim and a woman. Through my diasporas I get to maintain my “membership” to all these different identities. It’s cool to be able to fluctuate between those and write from those very different communities.
I finally figured out how to do that, based on half-assimilation, and reading lots of books in English, and reading books written by Arab speakers who write in English. It’s really interesting to see how they do it, and then you mimic it and create your own style. I’m very sarcastic in my writing and I do like to make jokes and funny comparisons. I try to do that, because that’s just me being an Egyptian, that’s my language, my national identity! [laughs]
How do you find that they intersect in your work? Again, it depends on the topic. Say I’m writing about sex and relationships or sexual pleasure, that’s gonna go back to religion and culture, because what I learned about this specific topic, I learned from religion and being Muslim. If I’m gonna write about food, flavours and cooking, I’m gonna talk about Egypt, that’s where I learned it from. Or tourism or scenery, it’ll be from the perspective of an Egyptian. All of these things make up “me”, and so I have to write from that place, from where that identity dominates that topic.
Humour is a big part of it. My dad said something, that the only way he would be able to express his feelings is through Arabic. And I think that’s really important when you’re in the diaspora. It’s that little space in between, and you combine the two to find your writing style as a person of colour. Do you write with the two simultaneously sometimes?
It’s dependent on how the topic crosses paths with certain identities.
I’ve never written articles in Arabic, but I do speak it a lot with friends and at home. I just try to take that form of self expression, the satisfaction of expressing myself in Arabic, and do that in English. Which can be really fun.
Yeah. I think beneath everything religion plays a big role, it’s only after I moved to North America where I learned that atheism was a thing, that people could choose not to be members of their religion. I felt really weird about it, and I stopped talking about being Muslim for a while. And then I started again, because it plays a massive role in my life. And certain spiritualities are shamed. So no, I can talk about this, I can openly say I’m not religious but it plays a huge role.
So when you’re blending the two together, do you see yourself writing like that in the future? Absolutely. I recently read a book by two people whose English is not their first language, one was Sophia Al Maria who is from Qatar. She speaks Arabic and English, and what she does is have a glossary in the back —like if you’re gonna read this book, you have to know the meaning of these words and I’m not gonna explain it to you. She’ll blend English and certain words in Arabic. As someone who speaks both, it’s so fun for me to read that kind of writing.
Sometimes you write something and you don’t even plan on where it’s coming from. It just flows and then ends up being its own… thing. That’s the ritual atonement.
Instead of describing something in English, she’ll just use the Arabic word for it, and it works out so perfectly for me because how do bilingual kids speak at home?
I’ll speak in both with my parents... like this word just feels so good here, and I don’t want to use the English word because the Arabic word is the perfect one.
To use a language given to you by people who said your history is not important, and then to write that history, is really powerful.
So it’s great, you’re demanding the attention of the reader and saying, you’re going to learn if you want to consume my culture. Chinua Achebe, who’s a Nigerian writer, does the same thing. He speaks Ibo, which is a musical and oral language by nature. When Nigeria was colonized, they tried to make it into a written one. He said it wasn’t dancing anymore, it was rigid and heavy like wood. So what he did was combine both of them in his books, and it works, even though I don’t speak Ibo. And there’s a glossary at the back. He said this is his form of literary resistance, to use the colonial language to write his own history. Rather than being ahistorical, he was like, there are lots of people like me who are Nigerian and have an English education. And their histories and experiences are important. To use a language given to you by people who said your history is not important, and then to write that history, is really powerful. Is rewriting stories as something that’s important in your work? I was born in Kuwait, but I’m Egyptian and I lived in Egypt, but then I lived in Canada and moved around a lot. Lots of crazy shit happened during those times, like the Iraq War. So I don’t get to talk to other people about these experiences because not many have them. Even when I hear stories from family members, it’s so normal to them—my mom was displaced as a refugee because of the start of the Iraq War, and once she was explaining a story to me. I was like, “God this is so intense.” Then she stops and she’s like, “And the pilot who was flying the plane was so hot.” [laughs] And I’m like, what? That’s something that I need in literature, I would love to see a story like that. One that’s real.
To give a voice to all these experiences that no one talks about because they’re traumatic, but they’re also very normal, that so many people go through. And I feel like you need storytelling. What about the process of uncovering, and seeing these shifting pieces of identity, when you’re writing? That happened when I used to journal. I stopped because I didn’t have time, but when you’re journalling it’s a completely different style because you’re writing to yourself. It’s really personal and unstructured, and me personally, I just barf everything out and something pops out that you didn’t know you were feeling. But it just happens, it’s a kind of meditation with pen and paper. It’s like Hemingway-ing it, but sober.
sharine taylor H
ow did you start writing? Can you speak to the role it holds for you?
Sharine’s writing is brilliant in more ways than one, but her ability to marry theory, discourse and pop culture is unrivaled. With her eye on rewriting stories of AfroJamaican culture and dancehall, she fuses identity and cultural artefacts together seamlessly. She spoke to me about occupying different spaces in black womanhood, Jamaican-ness, shifting identities of diaspora in Toronto, and how authenticity is key in cultural narratives.
It’s really interesting, had you asked me this another day my answer would have been different. I just came back from a conference last week in Jamaica, a global one, hosted by the Institute of Cultural Studies at the University of the West Indies. A lot of the scholars there write about dancehall, and for me, being part of the diaspora and reading about dancehall in an academic way is really cool. But there’s a lot of pushback from traditional Jamaican society and the university from theorists who want to theorize dancehall. Anyway, all of that is to say that I started writing was because I didn’t see myself anywhere. Just being part of that space and continuing to write the way I do, and the things I write about, it really came from an almost sad place of trying to fill a gap.
When I’m writing freelance, I try to embed aspects of theory in a more universal way of understanding, to make it accessible to people who might not have that. How I understand myself and my identity, which fluctuates… as of now it’s as concrete as it’s ever been, but when I read things before about identity, or things circulating around politics, it was heavily informed by what it means to be black in America. Our histories are sort of similar, but it’s not universal. I come from the Caribbean so there’s a lot of nuances that don’t get talked about or developed and aren’t articulated the same way. A lot of my writing stemmed from—and continues to be—informed by what it means to be a Caribbean woman, part of the diaspora, a student relatively just trying to make it by. It’s super based by who and what I am. And it’s for the people who occupy similar intersections in my community. You had mentioned academia, and you’ve written about pop culture. How does academia recontextualize pop culture, do you find you approach it differently? How I write and how I blend academic approach with a freelance approach is informed by Audre Lorde, she always talked about marrying the streets to the university. They shouldn’t be separated. I’m coming from a political science background and I recently transitioned to Media Studies, and having the ability to write about my experiences and contextualize it in an academic way is really cool, because I’ve learned from that to maneuver between academic writing and my own style. I’ve found a really great balance to be able to occupy both simultaneously. I really try to group it all together. When I’m writing freelance, I try to embed aspects of theory in a more universal way of understanding, to make it accessible to people who might not have that… that’s why I feel like I can disseminate the knowledge. Going back to pop culture, when you’re writing does it begin with an event or a figure, like Solange in your piece about black women reshaping identities through dance?
Usually I’m mostly inspired by the things that I consume, which is music I’m listening to. Looking at how music can shape understandings, and the discourse around music. I think where it really started was how I saw discourses around things. For example, I think one of my favourite pieces is what I wrote for Noisey about dancehall, because I kept seeing people writing about dancehall in a way that didn’t make sense. Like what is tropical house? Or people calling things dancehall that weren’t, or giving credit to people who are not dancehall artists. I was like, uh no. Let me disrupt it this way and talk about it in a way that I know how. These kinds of writings are being disseminated and circulated and then they get reproduced. These are how entire histories get erased. I know that’s very hyperbolic, but still. As for music and how I consume things, I try to unpack and deconstruct discourses that I already see existing. I may not have the right answer, because I am writing from being part of the diaspora, I’m not back in Jamaica interacting with it the same way that I am now. But I feel like this is a more authentic or credible voice than some of the voices I see speaking about [dancehall]. You’ve written about music and dancehall and its relationship with black and Caribbean women. Can you speak to how to intersect media, culture and identity when you’re writing? A lot of what inspires me is things I read in school, texts that have really opened my eyes in ways I didn’t know was possible. For me, and what’s really shaped my journey, is that I didn’t see myself reflected in school either. Media Studies was cool because it’s so interdisciplinary, you’re getting scholars and texts from different places that can inform different understandings. One of the first eye-opening texts I read was called “The Oppositional Gaze” by bell hooks, and it was talking about female spectatorship, specifically black female spectatorship. I started understanding that the way I understand things is different from how someone else might, because of my lived experiences. And understanding where black womanhood is positioned on this social scale. I understood that my lens would inform a very specific way of understanding. I’m trying to stay updated to what’s current and be in school, which means marrying the two, and then being afforded opportunities in school to do that. I’m grateful that in this stage in my journey, if I see something outside of school, I can bring it back,
theorize it, write a great paper about it, get an A. And then pitch an article about it, now that I have a different understanding of it. For me, it all works in a circle—I see things on the outside, write about it in academia, see it on the inside of academia and then take it outside, and have that nuanced conversation. It’s full circle. Yeah, and these things like theory and representation don’t exist in a vacuum, they have real life implications. I really like what you wrote about Caribbean stories being told by actual Caribbean people, with that lens. Having control over narratives and stories and representation is so important. How do you think that can be held on to? I think it’s about getting people who are living those experiences speaking about them, and if they’re not directing it they’re still largely informing what they’re about. If you’re stepping outside of cultures you know and you’re stepping into unfamiliar territory, in my opinion it’s important to get people who can speak to those experiences. But there’s also power dynamics that are so beyond our control, like when people are going into other places to report what’s going on. Vice News did this thing a while ago where they sent in someone for Caribbean fashion week, which I thought was great—because so much of Caribbean fashion here is scripted as like summer wear, Caribana, carnival costumes, and nothing outside of that. There’s a rich history of traditional fashion but also current fashion, which is vibrant; it’s really nuanced and historical, which I think would have been a great opportunity to unpack. But the video was not about Caribbean fashion week at all, it had nothing to do with it. It was about skin bleaching and body modification. It made me think, what are the historical and cultural implications of having a white woman from England coming in to unpack experiences that are very much rooted in colonial understandings of the islands? To me, a better solution would have been someone who was well versed in this culture, who can maybe speak to those things in a way that made sense. I know these practices are something I wouldn’t do, but I understand there’s history there, and I don’t want to rob anyone’s agency. I’m understanding blackness as a place of possibilities, but I would have felt more comfortable as someone who was watching it, and is part of it but elsewhere, for it to be nuanced. I do understand that though there needs to be an involvement, there are power dynamics and accessibility and obstacles that are gonna script who has access to what. And that’s a really important factor that I think more attention needs to be paid to.
Do you think there’s a solution, besides just passing the mic when someone has the opportunity? I think so. Going back to that example, there’s a university there where they shot [the video]. Like y’all couldn’t hit up a student who has the university training and do the justice of consulting someone, seeing what the implications were, of what it means to have someone talk about something like that? I don’t care what anybody says, there are people everywhere who can do that. I’m sure there’s a Vice of sorts in Jamaica. There’s really no excuses anymore, like when people say “we couldn’t find x person from x background to talk about this”. Yeah, like you’re not even using an apology that’s creative. Be better. There’s a version of Vice somewhere, and it’s not called Vice, but it’s out there. They could have contacted those people, had this be a joint project. As somebody who is consuming and deconstructing, so much more needs to be done so we’re having more authentic representations of other people’s cultures, livelihoods, you know. And it’s not being reproduced in a way that, in my mind, reflects a lot of colonial attitudes towards people who are not “here” with us. They had a great opportunity to show something new, and of course they made it sensational and clickbait-y. It’s very transparent. To change topics, you also write poetry. Do you find that your relationship with writing changes? I think…. I’m so loud, like unnecessarily loud. [laughs] I think how people understand me is that I’m always talking. Poetry for me is another side of me, just a different side. We’re all complex individuals, whatever. I realized when I was posting it, people were messaging me like, “Are you okay?” And I’m like, I’m fine! This is just how I was feeling at a certain point of my life. It was cool that people were concerned, but also a little bit frightening that they didn’t understand that you could be complex, and that we experience different things and we’re not always the same at every moment. Poetry definitely came from a more vulnerable place that I really did want to share. I really wanted other people who identify similarly to be a part of it. It’s also a different kind of writing, it’s not all this academic jargon. They’re all short, and with posting them on Instagram there was a visual component as well. I like that it was a different kind of writing that allowed me to stroke a different side of my creativity.
Are there things you like to communicate more with poetry? I think that the writing I do in my freelance work is relatively PG-13. And not that my poetry is R-rated and you have to have a parent with you, but it’s just a different side of me. I explore that side, of relationships that I have, that I do feel comfortable with sharing—that stuff definitely goes into my poetry more than my freelance writing. And also this conflict I have between belonging and unbelonging, and being part of the diaspora for this imagined place that’s real—but it’s how I understand it because I’m so removed from it. Those are the two things I feel I explore the most. You were recently in Jamaica, did you write there? Do you feel your writing was different depending where you are? Yeah, first of all, I’m waking up and there’s sun beaming on my face and I feel like a princess. [laughs] Waking up is such a different sensation here than it is there, I have to run and get ready, and you don’t get to bask in what it means to start a new day, and break your fast. I’m being so extra, but when I’m in Jamaica, what I call home, I wake up when I feel like it. I open the blinds, the sun is there, I eat my breakfast and then I write. It’s beautiful and flowery and there’s so much more of me involved when I’m writing there. When I’m here I’m just upset and like, let me get this out on my phone. When I’m in Jamaica I have pen and paper and it’s a different kind of involvement. It feels better when I’m there. I guess that’s part of the diaspora experience, how your work changes depending on where you are. I also loved this quote of yours so much, how you were writing about finding yourself through black literature: “There is something incredibly reaffirming in reading a text that not only acknowledges your identity through content, but also acknowledges your identity through language.” Can you speak more to that? I know being here, specifically in Toronto, if I speak Patois, nobody cares. How blackness is understood here is if you’re a black person, chances are someone is going to assume you’re Jamaican or West African. Not acknowledging that there are other rich, diverse countries within the Caribbean. But my occupying Patois here is not as much of an issue. But when I speak Patois in other places, there’s a lot of socio-political implications, both on and off the island. In For Coloured Girls, which I believe I was speaking to in that piece, the author uses AAVE as well as Spanish, so she’s touching on a lot of intersections. To see that in
It’s important for me to reclaim that space. And for me to embed [Patois] in my work and continue to call it a language. a piece that is so important to me, and that has been placed in academia by virtue of what it enacts, was really important to me. I see the same kind of thing with Patois, which is considered a language of the poor. In a lot of upper-middle class areas of Jamaica, there’s what’s called speaky spokey, which is people speaking as much as they can in this standard English. What I’ve been able to do recently, and what I’m mobilizing towards, is to reclaim that space. A lot of the approaches I do are anti-colonial, so what does it mean when we call English a language, and we’re not calling Patois a language, when it’s so rich? It’s a cultural artefact in and of itself, because it’s an amalgamation of Twi, which is what our ancestors spoke, as well as Spanish. There are whole languages in this, so it’s important for me to reclaim that space. And for me to embed it in my work and continue to call it a language. It’s interesting to see this act of naming as self definition, is that something that comes up in your writing? Not so much in my freelance work, but in newer projects and my poetry, that’s something I try to be very firm about. It’s weird too, because I think even choosing to self identify as a Jamaican woman is a site of conflict in and of itself. When I’m here I can say I’m Jamaican and no one says anything, I can do these essays and say I’m a Jamaican woman. If I go to Jamaica and say that, they will literally laugh in my face and be like, where are the receipts. [laughs] Their identity is fixed to a location, mine isn’t tied anywhere, you know what I mean? Even when I’ve decided to embed Patois into my work, I’m also really insecure about it because it isn’t standardized. So how I speak or write it, people on the island might not even write it that way. Again, it’s not been standardized, which speaks to a lot of other things. But how I occupy Jamaican-ness and blackness in my work is still a site of contestation that I don’t think I’m fully over understanding the nuances of. How do you find you can kind of occupy those nuances, especially in the city?
I’m waiting for someone from Jamaica to write me a diss freelance piece. [laughs] I always try to fixate myself as someone from the diaspora, this is my understanding as someone from Toronto. I think Toronto is a special place because of how Jamaicans have migrated here. I can still be very rooted in my culture. I’m not too far removed from it.
I fixate my identity as not on the island; as understanding the nuances and what I’m analyzing as somebody who has the ability to be in two places at once.
I always try to make it clear in my writing and my socials, if someone wants to ever come creep me, I’m saying I am somebody of the diaspora and I was not granted the privilege of living in Jamaica—some people might see that as a privilege, others might not. I fixate my identity as not on the island; as understanding the nuances and what I’m analyzing as somebody who has the ability to be in two places at once. I can speak to Jamaicanness from here, while analyzing music, songs and texts from here, but that might be a completely different understanding from somebody who is there. And even it would be incorrect for me to group everyone, people might disagree with each other there. I try to make sure that I’m like, look, I’m a black woman, I occupy this economic space, I am heterosexual (because someone who’s queer might have a different understanding), and I identify as a woman. All of that really shapes my experience, and I can only speak to that. If anybody were to take that up with me, I’d be more than happy to unpack it. I’m not gonna be like, no, this is it, I am the Jamaican police. [laughs] In embodying all of these intersections, how do you see that comes through in your writing? It’s really weird, because I said earlier that my identity has always been in the process of construction. Before, I used to say I was African-Canadian. And then I thought, I’m not—I have African heritage and I’m a descendant, but I’m not African-Canadian. Then I said I’m Caribbean, but then I thought I need to get more specific here, I’m Jamaican. But then I thought, I’m not. I’m also a particular kind of Jamaican, I’m Afro-Jamaican. And I thought black was this universal term that covers everything, but I’m understanding now that black has different meanings across different regions. Living here, black is a homogenous term that I get, but I feel like I need to be more specific in my Jamaicanness. There are pieces where I feel like today, I’m a black girl and I can speak to what it means to be black. Like that piece of mine about dance referencing Solange, Beyoncé, Teyana Taylor, Misty Copeland, they all occupy blackness in America. If we’re being more specific, Beyoncé and Solange are Creole. But our blackness unites us, so I can speak to it in that way. Whereas that piece about Caribbean directors, it was like today I’m a Jamaican writer. There’s this shifting that allows me to speak
“How I occupy Jamaican-ness and blackness in my work is still a site of contestation that I don’t think I’m fully over understanding the nuances of.”
to different things. I don’t think ever there will be one set thing that I’ll be for life. I feel like I’m always gonna be at this process of identity construction and formation. I think that’s necessary if we’re gonna be looking critically at ourselves, if you have an identity that has a lot of moving parts. How do you feel about existing in those spaces? There’s this author called Paul Gilroy, who talks about blackness being made in the sea. By way of the middle passage. Through being removed from Africa to the Caribbean and the Americas, that’s where the concept and idea of blackness was made. I’m thinking about how even though I’m in Jamaica, a lot of the practices and culture are very much a Jamaican experience but still so rooted in African-ness. It’s a different kind of African-ness due to the histories that have taken place on that land, and even what’s Jamaican for me is very different for me being part of the diaspora. So I’m looking at how there are these three sites that have shaped my experience, and I have the privilege—I’m not sure if everyone is afforded this—I can draw on aspects or essences of myself from these different places that make me who I am today. I think it’s a huge privilege and a blessing, the idea of being able to speak to my experiences, that these different regions shaped my understanding of self, and that occupying these spaces shaped that. I think of these negative labels or traumatic atrocities that were inflicted on my community and the land, and how it allows me to understand aspects of myself. I think that is beautiful. We are really cool, transforming people who can adapt and recreate and exercise resilience and resistance, and still have these bomb ass cultures despite what’s happening. And we can channel the things we have overcome to produce and write and perform and create art. Absolutely. Do you draw from histories, especially of storytelling? I think that oral storytelling is something that I wish I had more access to, specifically in regards to back home. I sort of live through these experiences—not necessarily through stories, per se—but through quotes or sayings. Like if I do something, my grandma will say, “That’s something you learned that from your mom, who learned that from her mom, who learned that from her mom”. There’s one [saying] called “wha sweet nanny goat a go run him belly”, which basically means what feels good for you right now might not be good for you later. It’s not necessarily a story, but I think it’s cool to have that intergenerational thing that will be carried on.
How do you see your work evolving as a learning process, since you’ve mentioned a kind of learning of the positions and spaces you occupy? The work that I wrote earlier in 2016, sometimes I look back on it like, I missed a whole section of analyses, why didn’t I incorporate this? I don’t necessarily think my writing is bad, but because I’m constantly constructing and mediating, I’ll go back and be like, this isn’t accurate, this isn’t true. But even so, it’s cool because I see myself growing in my writing—it’s so cheesy, but there’s a snapshot of where I was whatever time ago. It’s also functioned in a way that I can speak to different regions, because there’s some pieces that have done really well in shares and posts from followers in the States, and others do really well from people in Jamaica or Toronto. I’ve also been able to learn what kind of writing and platforms speak to different audiences, and how they understand themselves through how I understand myself. That’s also been a cool way to track my growth.
Thinking about diaspora, you had mentioned early that you saw black as a kind of catch-all term and then you looked at your position, can you talk about that a bit more and when you realized that? It happened moreso when I really started to think about what it meant to be black in Toronto. I feel like it was more recent than anything, especially with the Black Lives Matter chapter here and the work that they did, and at the same time I was being introduced to intersectional approaches. Also I was frequently visiting Jamaica and being introduced to members of my family I would say I was Jamaican in front of and they would laugh. And I would be like, “Okay, but I’m not saying this as a joke!” [laughs] I’m being true to who I am. I say I’m Jamaican here as a sign of resistance, while I also acknowledge my place here as a settler. For me, it’s difficult for me to adopt “Canadian”, because whatever Canadian is, that construct is not really “Canadian”. We need to acknowledge where we are, for indigenous people and how our presence here is an implication on their entire community. Calling myself Canadian was always very uncomfortable for me. So when I located myself as a Jamaican here, it wasn’t an issue for anyone because I’m seen as a body that doesn’t belong anyways. I think occupying the space as being somebody part of the diaspora has been really important and again, I feel like I’m still constructing whatever my identity is. But calling myself a child of the diaspora for me is all encompassing, it functions in the same way that some folks have seen calling themselves black as all encompassing, if they have different kinds of identities... and how they’re read by other people as black. I’m black too, I’m not denying that. But for me to go to bed at night and be comfortable with who I am, identifying as somebody part of the diaspora and making that explicitly clear in my writing has been one of the most comfortable ways for me to express myself.
â€œIdentity acts. It acts in relation to skin, to blood, and to heart, and the process of finding this relationship is itself an act of identity. â€? - Sidonie Smith This book is wholly owed to the words of the writers profiled: Jaycee Tu, Tania Peralta, Kai Cheng Thom, Heyishi Zhang, Yemisi A., Nourhan Hesham, and Sharine Taylor. It was a privilege to hear their insights, experiences, jokes, and musings; ones that shaped my own perspectives on identity, self, truth. This small collection of writers illuminates the critical power of language and writing wielded by women. Women of colour writers continue to bridge the gaps between truth and story, to forge new paths for myth, to challenge and rewrite the stories told of them, and take control of the narrative and weaponize it. They hold the ability to write the self.
Iâ€™m Telling You Stories is a collection of seven different voices. It is an exploration of how women, particularly women of colour, can use writing for self definition, to assert, reinterpret or challenge notions of identity. From surrealist fiction to screenplays, each writer profiled explores, dissects, and plays with intersections of identity and self through their work.
I'm Telling You Stories, named after the Jeanette Winterson quote, is a print typographic book that compiles interviews conducted with seven...
Published on Apr 2, 2017
I'm Telling You Stories, named after the Jeanette Winterson quote, is a print typographic book that compiles interviews conducted with seven...