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Books Black Writers Matter: an anthology that captures the lives of these creatives

Life for the average human is filled with joy and pain; it involves work, friends, family and a need to connect to others and to nature. Yet when we think of these very ordinary matters, rarely do we think of black people. In film, television, magazines and books, both the imagined and real protagonists tend to be white. Growing up in the eighties and early nineties, I saw myself as the angst-ridden teen or twentysomething in movies such as The Breakfast Club and Reality Bites, but at the same time I was never able to actually see anybody in those movies who looked like me.

How revolutionary, then, is a book written by black writers – Black Writers Matter (University of Regina Press; 208 pages) – who casually refer to their actual lived experiences without any irony or hyperbole? Despite the socially constructed hierarchies that demand from them an inexhaustible well of emotional, psychological and physical energy to constantly prove their equality and their humanity, that “proof” lies effortlessly in the narration of their lived experiences. Despite the insistence of a monolithic “whiteness” to inaccurately capture a monolithic “blackness” in a still portrait of prejudiced realities, these black writers are doing their best to survive life’s challenges and thrive. The humanity is already a matter of birthright. It’s in the celebration of how these black writers love, rage, grieve, challenge, define, heal and attempt to understand themselves and each other. We talked with three writers in this anthology about their contributions.

Whitney French:

How did this book come about, and why was it important for you to bring all these emerging writers together to collaborate on this book?

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Whitney French.

Val Bah/Handout

I was pitched this project by the University of Regina Press. One of the contributors, Scott Fraser, was spearheading the conversation about a text of this depth regarding black Canadian experiences. I got a phone call one day asking if I wanted to put together an anthology of creative nonfiction where all of the writers were black and living in Canada. I agreed to take on the responsibility of being the editor of this collection. I’ve been hosting a creative writing series called “Writing While Black” for over four years now. I know the magic of what happens when you get a group of black writers together in a room, or in this case, together in between the pages of a book. When you know some of these writers won’t get a voice any other way, it becomes almost sacred, so you want to do a good job.

In your introduction, you speak briefly about injecting a new meaning into the word “diversity”... how would you describe the new meaning or definition of diversity you are trying to create through your book?

Diversity could be shorthand for black. It could be shorthand for immigration. It could be shorthand for queer. It could be shorthand for a lot of things, and I really wanted to come to terms with what diversity in blackness is. When folks think about what black writing can be, there seems to be a particular type of narrative. For example, just how black folks came to be in Canada is a very specific narrative. Others who don’t understand the nuances in diversity of black people and the histories of the different ways in which they came to Canada feel very comfortable with that singular narrative. ... What I’m trying to do is just shake up the nuances of the word “diversity.”

French was pitched this project by the University of Regina Press, and agreed to being the editor of the collection.

Val Bah/Handout

You also say you aren’t interested in “asking people to see our humanity, you’re just here to celebrate it.” ... How do you think Black Writers Matter celebrates our humanity and why is it necessary to not “ask others” to see it?

I think asking to be seen is a very human thing, particularly if you’re coming from a community or a group where you’re often ignored, or at first made to feel invisible. Constantly being asked to be seen, or to have your humanity acknowledged, or having to ask for space, becomes a belittling of your spirit. My thought process was to celebrate our humanity because it’s there. We’ve already proven that to ourselves and to our community. If other folks acknowledge and see it, that’s cool, but I don’t have to gain that approval elsewhere. It’s sometimes challenging to celebrate blackness in an anti-black context, in relation to the amount of pain and suffering that lies in our history, and the lack of invitation to do so. Even the pieces that deal with racism allow for the writers to voice those feelings unapologetically in a safe space. I’m here to help create that space for the people who want to partake in that celebration without having to dwell on those who need convincing.

Fatuma Adar:

How long have you been writing, and what’s your artistic process?

Fatuma Adar.

Jalani Morgan/The Globe and Mail

I’ve been writing since I was 13. My dad gave me his hand-me-down laptop, which I used to type stories onto Microsoft Word, and I’ve been creating ever since. I started off writing mainly sci-fi fantasy, but as I got older, I began writing more creative non-fiction and novellas. Currently, I’m into play-writing and I’m actually working on a musical that’s taking up a large chunk of my time. As far as writing goes, what I gravitate towards in the process is being able to pick one moment in my life that I think is either interesting or defining and seeing how I can explore that.

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How did you become involved with the book?

I wrote the piece that was included in the Black Lives Matter anthology at the start of last year, to fulfill a new year’s resolution to start applying to more short fiction or short non-fiction contests. I know that writing is rewriting in order to get better at something, and I wanted to work my writing muscle. Whitney French and I met at a “Writing While Black” workshop and she was incredible and charismatic. I couldn’t help but want to talk to her about writing all day. It was during that time that she was approached by the University of Regina Press about the anthology. The story I ended up submitting for the anthology had originally been longlisted for a CBC Creative Nonfiction Prize; however, it wasn’t shortlisted. So I shared with Whitney this story that never got to see the light of day, and she wanted it to be included in the book.

Adar has been writing since she was 13, and started off with writing mainly sci-fi fantasy.

Jalani Morgan/The Globe and Mail

What’s the importance in being given a platform to share your story?

Black Canadians have had varied experiences throughout different times. Sometimes we’re looked at as a monolith, which really does a disservice to the many different kinds of black people who live in this country. Growing up, I always knew I wanted to be a writer. I didn’t know about the other labels identifying me as a black writer, black woman writer or black Muslim writer. I eventually realized those are all things that I would be tagged with as a creator. I think the beautiful thing about this anthology is it gives us a space to be ourselves because inherently anything that we do as creators is somewhat politicized.

Phillip D. Morgan:

How long have you been writing, and what’s your artistic process?

Phillip Morgan.

Jalani Morgan/The Globe and Mail

I’ve been writing for three years now. I was working on a PhD in urban history and took a leave to figure out next steps. During that time, I wrote an op-ed about race and representation in Canadian media that got published and sparked things. My process is usually just trying to get the words down as quickly as possible. I’ve realized as a writer that much of the work is in the behind-the-scenes research and contemplation of ideas. Once I get the words down, I edit relentlessly and try to represent the ideas as closely as possible on the page.

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How did you become involved with the book?

I saw the call for submissions online and I just sent in my submission. I think there are still a number of barriers to racialized people getting into the industry, and anthologies have a long history of being a way for people to get through the door. Also, a lot of these stories are underrepresented and, with this particular anthology, Whitney curated a collection of emerging and established writers from across the country and all walks of life.

What’s the importance in being given a platform to share your story?

My particular piece is about race and wilderness and that’s often something that’s not talked about. So, for me, it was an opportunity to write about some things outside of what I normally do, which is usually concerned with racism and policing. It was great to show a different side of myself and to say, "Hey, I’m actually really involved in the outdoors and have a strong sense of adventure, and here’s some other reflections that I have.”

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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