A Conversation With Fiona Raye Clarke
Fiona Raye Clarke’s talents, works, and efforts towards Black mobilizing and empowerment spans the breadth of law, politics and art in the Black Diaspora. Fiona is highly accomplished, having attained a Master’s degree in Law, and being called to the Bar in 2017. She has also edited and published three anthologies: "Basodee: An Anthology Dedicated to Black Youth," The “Black Church in Canada” and now, “Black Like We: Troubleshooting the Black Youth Experience,” and is currently working on her own literary text. This young, awe-inspiring woman continues to work with Black youth in and around GTA in efforts to engender change for the better, especially around self-actualization. In light of all these achievements, A Different Booklist found that it would be most fitting to highlight Fiona Raye Clarke, in the wake of her latest anthology.
Tricia: Hi, Fiona Raye Clarke. Thank you so much for making your presence felt at A Different Booklist—not only in the title that you have offered us that has been published, but also, you, here. Thank you so much for being here!
Fiona: Thank you for your invitation.
Tricia: We’re going to start with your writing because you seem to be very involved in writing. How did you first get into writing, authorship, etc.?
Fiona: Well, I started writing when I was a little girl. You know those class assignments that people hated doing? I loved doing them and would get stars for them. Then I guess I started writing novels, tracing out the size of a book and writing to that size, binding it together and calling it a novel. Then I entered contests, and placed really well. I wrote throughout high school, but then I wasn’t able to pursue a BFA or anything like that, so it wasn’t until I had started working that I decided to try to professionalize my interest in writing. I first got a grant from the now defunct, sadly, Office of the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth, and that was for the first iteration of this book which was Basodee: An Anthology Dedicated to Black Youth. So I gathered writers—both emerging Black writers and established—that I knew in my circle, and we put together a book. And I decided to do it again because it was just impossible to ignore the things that are happening in the world. I won a pitch contest to put this together, and I guess between that time I had started blogging around Black life and profiling Black excellence and things like that in Toronto and I eventually started writing my own creative works. Both these books, Basodee and Black Like We feature my short story writing.
Tricia: So what is the blogging experience like? What has been the response to that?
Fiona: I blogged for “Who’s Who in Black Canada,” which is one of the main sites of documenting the achievements in the lives of Black folk in Canada, and so my highlight for that, other than the wide readership (I think they have like 10, 000 people who subscribe), is that I got to do a profile on the origins of Caribana—when it was called Caribana—and I got to interview Charles Roach before he passed away. So there were amazing things within that and just uncovering the history. Yes, that was a huge highlight for me.
Tricia: Awesome. So doing some research on you, I found conversation about you having lived in Nicaragua, Poland, and England—how did your global experiences of living have an effect on your world outlook today?
Fiona: Well, I haven’t lived in Poland; I travelled through Poland, but I think I started seeing common threads around Blackness, and the issues that we are all facing, particularly as a young person at that time, and so I really wanted to investigate that.
Tricia: So even as a child, you had those sensitivities to racial issues?
Fiona: I did because I came from here, and I lived in Texas when I was 10 through 13. And at that time, there was that lynching of James Byrd when he was dragged behind the truck in Texas—that and all the other things that were happening. And I didn’t see these firsthand, but I’d heard about the disparities between the way Black folks lived and how others lived, and you know, you were warned about going to different wards withing the city and all that stuff.
I also had access to this wealth of Black reading that was not available in my day here, so I just consumed everything that was possible about Black culture, about Black literature. And then I came back here, and I didn’t really see that for a really long time. And so these books are a part of that expression and that need, and there has been a proliferation of Black literature and Canadian literature, but I still wanted that representation of youth voices.
Tricia: I read your last story in Black Like We, and you seem to be inspired in a sense by Afrofuturism. Can you tell us what it is about Afrofuturism that you deem suited during this time to tell our stories?
Fiona: I think that a lot of the political climate is telling us constantly that we, a) don’t matter, and b) we don’t deserve to be here; we don’t deserve to be alive. And for me, Afrofuturism is a direct opposition to that in that we have longevity, in that we might even have powers that we don’t know about, especially harkening back to ancestry. My particular ancestry is rooted in the Transatlantic Slave Trade and the legacy of that, and so for me I draw a lot from imagining the strength of my ancestors and the fact that I exist here. To me that’s a part of a constant reality. I would not be alive if it were not for the strength of my ancestors.
Tricia: So how does imagining figure into this? Imagining the future Afro self?
Fiona: I feel like, for me, I like to focus on the Black body, the Black woman, our agency in the future, because I think that, right now, there isn’t that much inspiration for me. I’m currently working on a contemporary novel that flashes back to history and now. I actually struggle with the contemporary perspective because it’s like, what can I grab on to here, in this time, now? I either love looking at the past, or I love looking into the future: You can imagine anything as possible then. But here in our current circumstances—I’m a millennial, for example, and everywhere you go, you are told either that you’re lazy, or you’re burning out. You’re this; you’re that; you’re not achieving enough; or your values are skewed. And so for me, I like to project a future in which I do have agency, my people have agency, we have a voice, we’ve established ourselves. Maybe we’re somewhere else where we don’t have to constantly fight to exist, to matter, to achieve some sort of standard of equity.
Tricia: I’m thinking of your law background. Based on my research—I’m not sure how current it is—but you have a Master’s in Law? Done already or continuing?
Fiona: Yes! So I have a law degree and a Master’s in Law, and I was called to the Bar in 2017.
Tricia: Congratulations! Yayyy! So how does your work in law figure into your activist practice, your writing practice, etc.?
Fiona: Well, I think that right now, for me, I use my experience having been trained in criminal defense—that’s the area that I specialized in—in a project called “Confluence Arts” in which we are an activist/abolitionist/artistic collective and we work with women who are institutionalized currently, or women who have recently been institutionalized by incarceration and the prison industrial complex. And so we make art that speaks to their lived experiences and their future and imaginings.
Tricia: So it all works out!
Fiona: Yes! And it’s geared towards literary and performance arts.
Tricia: Nice! There’s seems to be an intent towards Black social-political engagement with your work and how that figures into the broader aspects of what you are trying to achieve?
Fiona: I am a community-engaged artist first and foremost. Most people don’t even really understand what that is, but, to me, I feel like having an artistic practice necessarily entails community engagement in some form or fashion, and so I center my community engaged practice around Black storytelling and gathering oral histories with a political and artistic purpose. I’ve done so far two projects under the umbrella of INTERGENERACIAL. The first was really just about gathering stories related to the questions, How did you get here, to Canada? What are your experiences with racism? How have your dreams been deferred or affected by your experiences with discrimination? And what have been some of your struggles as a gendered person, or an immigrant or somebody who has constantly been asked, “Where are you from?” And so we created an oral history play verbatim piece from that called From Their Lips, and it was geared towards stories around escape and survival from domestic abuse. We also included some of the Regent Park story of community bonding, and the violence that is experienced in that area, around gun violence, in particular.
The one that I most recently did was “2168: Ancestors Rising,” which was more Afrofuturistic. We asked people what they saw Blackness looking like, feeling like, and their hopes for 150 years from now as we had just had the Canada 150 celebration, which I did not see too much discussion around being Black within that. So I wanted to project Blackness into the future in Canada, and we ended up with a story that actually took us out of Earth, and we imagined going to a Black planet. It was geared towards finding a place that was our own, that wasn’t here, and gathering resources, and gathering the strength and the ability to find another world where we belong. And so for me, having those conversations, and, particularly, focusing on inter-generational discussions is important. This relates at least to my own personal life. With my Caribbean background, my elders are kind of tight-lipped. We don’t always share our experiences, our stories. I got to interview my own mother in this project. I was able to ask her questions about her life in this context that she would probably never answer, and so, to me, bridging the struggles of the young and the elders is important because they kind of seem to repeat. And that’s what I’m seeing a lot in this project: That what we’re facing is what they faced 50 years ago!
Tricia: And you’re wondering, where are the interruptions that were supposed to have happened? So why the orientation around youth, at least with your anthologies?
Fiona: I think in general my work is centered towards youth because I feel like we are one of the most criminalized of our people. There’s all this projection of stigmas around violence and around low achievement. Even in my own culture, being Trinidadian, I feel like you are silenced constantly because you’re supposed to respect your elders which is great, but your voice is never really taken into account until it is an absolutely, dire situation. So I want to give folks that voice and that chance to speak, and that chance to articulate themselves, however that articulation comes out because it’s often not valued. For me, giving a literary or theatrical voice to Black Youth specifically is super-transgressive.
Tricia: It is! One thing I am thinking around with my own research is the ways in which those stigmas that are 500 years old, they’re just so…
Fiona: Present and so still felt!
Tricia: Yes! And hardly any shift! When will my Black body be read outside of pain? When will my Black body be read outside of sadness, outside of violence? And to be able to empower youth—when you think about the strength of those representations that we internalize! So this is the strength of what you are doing, to be able to dismantle those thoughts from very early on to see self differently. And I really look forward to youth engaging with the work and trying to have those conversations and dialogues around everyday experiences.
Fiona: It’s super-true because with our first book it had gotten into the hands of an English teacher at an institution in Gravenhurst, and she was, like, “Oh, I teach this to the male inmates that I work with!” You know, it’s just so incredible. You never really realize—I mean now I do with my legal, abolitionist, artistic engagements—but there are people who have no freedom, who are looking at these representations and seeing themselves. They are appreciative of it and need it, so to me it’s something that we need to keep producing—the myriad of voices and experiences.
Tricia: And I like that you mention the myriad of voices from every corner of life. You have these varied voices speaking out, which is one of the most powerful aspects to this anthology. Can you talk a bit about the anthologies that you have edited—Basodee: An Anthology Dedicated to Black Youth, The Black Church in Canada, and, now, Black Like We: Troubleshooting the Black Youth Experience—in terms of inspiration, the process, the outcome?
Fiona: In terms of the process—I spoke a little bit about Basodee—but I was basically seeing that there was this thing, Black History Month, and there aren’t that many youth expressions within that, at least at the time there wasn’t. Then, The Black Church in Canada came out of a conference that had happened through the Ontario Black History Society, where they had spoken about the history of Blackness and Christianity. They had decided to put together an anthology, a collection around that topic, and I, coming from a background that was Catholic, I wanted to look at Blackness and Catholicism. One of the things I’d discovered is that there was this specifically Black Catholic church in Toronto, which I had never before visited! And it’s literally a Black Priest, Black choir—they have food cook up in the basement at the church. It’s not like the forty-five minutes, and people wear whatever. It’s a Black church, but Catholic.
Tricia: You mean it’s evening wear, and people have to be at church looking a hundred?
Fiona: Yes! Yes! So I went and was like, this is incredible! But then I discovered that it had this long history as well, and people had fought for it. It was just super-incredible. And there were other pieces around Black Catholicism in the east coast, but, apparently, they were too controversial I guess to publish because the publisher was actually afraid of the Catholic Church. That was an interesting piece of that project, but that’s how that anthology came together.
With this one, like I said, I was in law school in England, and I was going to meetings around being Black and was just hearing about Black experience in England—and they were the exact same things! We’re getting pushed out of schools; we’re this; and all of this stuff. I also had this really terrible experience with our law society. Just like here, it is split between barristers and solicitors. So the barrister group which is the Inns of Court Society put on this “Slave for a Day Auction,” but the Inns of Court executives were mainly Black students! And so, they were going to auction themselves off to the highest bidder, to be their slave for a day.
In that moment my disbelief interrupted the entire interview. It took a moment for me to process that an event of that nature would occur in this time.
Fiona: Yes! Yes! And I was, like, “Are you absolutely kidding me?”
Tricia: How do you as an activist sit in a meeting and listen to this?
Fiona: I wasn’t involved in the executive, but this was something that just came down, and oh! People were thinking, “Hahaha, this is so fun! It’s a great fund raiser.” And I put a petition together, I went around to the Black people from the States, Black People from England, and people from Canada. And I got us all together. But the thing was the Black people from England said, “This is how it is. We don’t even say anything anymore.” So with that knowledge, I still wrote to the executive, and I was like, “Actually, this is extremely offensive, given this country’s background of colonialism, transatlantic slavery, that entire legacy.” And some of them were, I guess, either continental African or Black European, and so they said, “Actually, in my boarding school in Uganda, we do this all the time, and nobody is offended!” And I was, like, “Well, I’m offended!”
Tricia: You should be offended!
Fiona: All these people are offended! Let’s take a minute to help you be offended! But they didn’t get it, and I said, “Okay, well, fine, I’m not saying don’t do the fundraiser, but could you at least call it something else, like, ‘A Helper for a Day’. Just do not use the language of enslavement.” And yes, yes, yes, yes, they agree. I go to the event, and I’m there, and I’m watching—I’m certainly not participating—and: “Slave for a Day!” And, “Who wants so and so to be your slave for the day?” They were waving their pounds, and I was just in disbelief. And it was mostly white students bidding on these Black people. They were waving their pounds in the air, and I was, like, “Oh my God!” They were paying cash for them! And, there were shouts of, “You win!” and “Come up on the stage and claim your prize!”
Tricia: Auctions! Oh my God!
Fiona: It was the worst thing that ever happened during my time there. So I was like, “Look at this. I need to talk about this somehow.” So I actually was interrogating the process of post-secondary education, and the impact of being Black in that because, to me, this was part of my post-secondary education—and my peers were auctioning off themselves!
Tricia: It’s not being done to you! You’re doing it to yourself now!
Fiona: And they had no issue with it, no issue with it. They saw nothing wrong with it—where they were, what we were doing. We were to be lawyers! So I interviewed people online, and I put out this poll, and interviewed all these women around their post-secondary experiences, some of whom weren’t able to complete due to financial or emotional or personal struggles. I also interviewed others who did complete “successfully,” but you know, they either went into extreme debt, were extremely alienated, or had suffered hardship. With all of that in mind, I saw an opportunity when I came back and finished law school here with ArtReach. They had a pitch contest for community arts projects, and so I pitched this because so much had changed for me personally in terms of living in the UK, along with what was happening in the States with all of the deaths and the murders and the exonerations. And so that’s how this came about. And there were so many submissions…
Tricia: I read in an interview that you hope to have this anthology span beyond just the collection but to move into workshops and outreach programs. To what extent has this desire been fulfilled, and what else do you hope for?
Fiona: I’m still working on that, but, definitely, I’m looking to gain more experience around working within the institutions, like federal institutions and provincial institutions. Like I said, that was something that had came up with the last book, but due to all of the bureaucracy that are in those institutions, it’s actually either impossible or just something that is too “difficult,” or made to be too difficult to actually pursue. And so I’ve been able to at least get clearance to work within those institutions. Often there’s a skew towards apolitical work. There’s a desire for that within these institutions, and so it’s been my white friends who have gotten us into places!
Tricia: Do you sneak in through the back, and go, “Oh yeah, I’m going to bring my politics now”?
Fiona: Yes! And so that’s definitely somewhere that I want to bring this book and the concepts within it. Also, within the education system because, let’s face it, it is still absolutely, abjectly failing us.
Tricia: Absolutely! In so many ways!
Fiona: I’ve done some speaking engagements and workshops and stuff within schools, and so I’d like to continue that work, which is also difficult because we tend to be marginalized. We tend to be overcommitted, having family and financial obligations, but if there were funding resources, we can start a collective or a movement where we are able to bring the beautiful work that we do among ourselves into these institutions and create interventions within them. That would be my absolute hope.
Tricia: And I must say that I am super-moved by your passion for what you do. All the energy you put into it and all your continued efforts. A lot of times you hear people speak about their interest in marginalized Black lives, but there isn’t the passion to push against all the barriers because there are a million and one barriers. So kudos to you! How does one push, keep pushing, keep working, and also ensure that the politics remain and are not sold off just for the funding?
Fiona: Well, thankfully, I find that actually the arts councils—at least the Ontario and Toronto Arts Councils are receptive to political work, and they interrogate those politics actually, within their discussions.
Tricia: That’s amazing. So, last question: What’s next for Fiona Raye Clarke, so young and so accomplished? What’s next? What haven’t you done? What will you do?
Fiona: I guess the abolitionist/artistic collective project. We’re starting that this week, actually. And I will also be working very hard on revising my short fiction collection that I worked on through Diaspora Dialogues last year and a novel that I’m working on through Humber and U of T. So I’m hoping to publish my own book of work.
Tricia: Nice! We look forward to everything that you have to offer, and, hopefully, you continue the journey you have started. Thank you so much for coming in and sharing with us.
Fiona: Thank you!
Interview With Christene A. Browne
Author, Filmmaker, Entrepreneur...
Christene A. Browne was born in St. Kitts. In 1970, she moved to Regent Park, Canada’s oldest and largest low income community. Her experiences there helped shape the person she has become. Browne attended film school at Ryerson University and started her own production company, Syncopated Productions, in 1990. Her filmography includes: Brothers in Music (1990), No Choice (1993), Another Planet (1999), and the acclaimed Speaking in Tongues: The History of Language (2008) (Winner of the WIFTS Foundation 2011 Best Documentary Award). To date, she has published two novels: Two Women and Philomena (Unloved).
In light of her most recent launch of Philomena (Unloved), at A Different Booklist Cultural Centre, “The People’s Residence”, as part of the Black and Caribbean Book Affair 2018, Christene A. Browne agreed, post-launch, to sit with us, and have a conversation about her activism, her filmmaking, and, most importantly, her new book.
Kyrell: Hello, Christene.
K: Thank you for agreeing to be interviewed by us.
C: No problem.
K: I’m very glad that you had your book launch here and your film screening. Thank you for continuing to support the space.
Christine smiles and nods graciously.
K: So I’ll launch right into it… You’re known to be highly active within both the Black and Regent Park communities. What led you to being so active in terms of community work, and what projects are you most thankful for having been a part of?
C: Many questions in one. To answer the first part, why am I so active? I’m really not that active, but I’m active... In terms of my work, I think that I’m very active. So that activism started out in Regent Park as a part of the Regent Park Video Workshop. That’s actually where I started making films. As a young person growing up in a community like that, when I looked around, I saw so many things that were wrong, and so many things that I didn’t agree with. So we did a series of videos while we were there, and we did one called It Ain’t What You Think, where we’re trying to dispel some of the myths that people had about the community, and we interviewed so many people from the neighborhood. So we’re trying to show that we’re not all drug addicts and that whole stereotype of what people who live there are. And so, I think the activism started there, in that community, in that workshop space. Did I answer that part of the question? And the second part of the question was…?
K: What projects are you most thankful for having been a part of?
C: The projects that I am most thankful for being a part of […] you can’t choose which one you prefer...so your film projects are your babies, right? I am thankful for different projects for different things. Another Planet was my very first feature film. I’ve tried to make more after that, but I haven’t been able to, in terms of putting budgets together and whatnot. I’m thankful for that because every project that I take on is like a test to myself. I say, “You know what? I’m gonna try this,” and I succeed. And then I say, “Yeah, I can do that!” Like, I made a feature film: “Okay, I can do that! I can do that again!”
When I was doing Speaking In Tongues, which is a documentary series—I had never done one before—I didn’t know anything about linguistics, and [I thought], “Let me just try to do this,” and I did it! You know? So, it’s like testing what I can do and also broadening my horizons and just having fun basically, because it is good, just having fun, and not even proving anybody wrong but just proving the fact that I can do these things. Like, for example, I’m going to be doing an animation, probably towards the end of the year, and I’ve never done an animation before…so what?
Novel writing, that’s another thing: I have wanted to write since I was—well, as a filmmaker I was writing all the time, anyway, because I’m writing scripts and whatnot, but I knew that I had novels in me. I still have lots of novels in me, and, uh, that was another test, and you know what? I know I can do this, and I’m going to do it!
So, to answer the question: I’m proud of everything because I’ve grown as an artist, doing all those projects, and I’ve grown as a person as well. I’m particularly proud of Speaking in Tongues because it’s probably the most expansive project that I’ve done. I spent a year doing research; I interviewed all the top linguists in the world, and the project was completed in 2008. And I’m still getting royalties for that, so I’m pretty happy about that.
K: That’s great! And see, you kind of answered my second and third questions. My second question was going to be , “Which project do you hold closest to your heart?” You touched on Speaking in Tongues, and I guess if I could substitute a question, it would be What advice—because you’re talking about your filmmaking, testing your limits, and being from this community where people have a very specific perception of who is coming from the community—would you give to young filmmakers who may be in that same position of wanting to break out of a specific box they have already been put in or of not having a set budget to make a film?
Christene laughs with all the freedom of adventure that she seemingly lives by.
C: I would say just do it! Just do it, you know? I think as artists, as human beings, as marginalized people, I think the limitations are in here [Christene points at her head.] We don’t need to put limitations on ourselves, right? So, just believe that you can do it, and do it. In this day and age, it’s so easy to pick up your smartphone and record something. And then there are apps within the smartphone to edit as well, so, basically, you can make a movie—a little thing on your smartphone. Technology is such—and it would be good quality, too! We didn’t have that back in nineteen-eighty-whatever when I started. I look at this stuff now, and I say, “Oh, my gawd! Ugh! This really looks…really bad!
K: You know, a couple years ago, I went to the Regent Park Film Festival, and there was a filmmaker there. I cannot recall the name, but he screened a movie that he had done as a high school project back in, like, the late ’80s or early ’90s, but it was still powerful!
K: Well, the film was about his dad’s drug addiction, and he kind of followed his dad, and he talked to a guy who lived in the neighborhood who was a drug dealer.
C: This was someone who lived in the community?
K: He lived in the community. He lives in L.A. now, but this was a movie he had made as a high school project.
C: And you don’t remember the guy’s name?
K: I can’t recall, but I just remember watching it, and this is like a film he had made when he was 15 or 16. It was 13 minutes max—
C: And it was powerful?
K: It was obviously low budget, but it was powerful. There is a shot where he was secretly recording his dad, and his dad was talking about his drug addiction…
K: And it was impactful! Even though it was this short movie. It was made with literally zero dollars.
C: Yeah! And that’s where I’m at right now. It’s so empowering! I did a workshop at Ryerson, and it was called “You’re Doing Your Passion Project”! And I’m at a stage now where, you know, I can go and try to get a decent budget together, but you know, I’m just tired of that, and the very last project that I completed in terms of—I got funded for this last one—but the one before that, which I did as part of my Masters project, I did with zero budget… zero dollars, right? And it went! I won an award in Germany for that one, and it screened at the Pan-African Film Festival in Cannes—and from just this small little thing, with no budget.
My son shot it; my mother was in it; my daughter was in it, so it was like this family-made thing with all of this heart. It just went to a far place, and I knew I had it in me to do it because that actually was my second experimental film. That’s something that I wanted to do, experimentation with film, because I had done straight documentaries; I had done straight dramas. But I wanted to do experimentation, and it was just so much fun! And I am at the point now where I’m just having fun! I don’t give a rat’s ass about anything!
Christene laughs off her cheeky comment.
K: Can you talk a bit about the inspiration behind your first novel, which is Two Women? You’re making this transition from filmmaking—you’re still writing scripts, but you are putting those practices into writing a novel?
C: So, Two Women actually started off as a film script, a film script for which I couldn’t get a budget together to make. And I couldn’t get anyone behind me, and it had gotten to the point of a table read with actors. So, it got to that point, and just listening to the actors say the words. There was a lot of description, maybe too much description within the script itself. I think it was that moment, that evening that I said, “This sounds like a novel!” that I started writing it as a novel.
Then as a novel, I was able to go places with it that I couldn’t go with it as a script because I introduced magical realism, and all these things that it would be hard to—well, you could actually show [these elements] on film.
And I also enjoy the solitude of writing because I was getting really tired of working with people . I was getting tired of working with people, and this quote/unquote collaboration, and when you’re dealing with the broadcasters you have to get X, Y—you just have to jump through all these hoops, and I was just tired of doing all that stuff, and dealing with people. I just said, “You know what? I have it in me to write; I want to write,” and I just sat down, and I started writing.
K: You touched on this earlier, but how does writing compare to your filmmaking practice and writing a script?
C: I think when you’re writing a script and work in film, you’re bound by the budget and limitations of resources. When you’re writing a novel, there are no limitations, and I love that! I said to someone before, you’re playing God, basically, right? Because you can decide when these people are living, when they die…whatever! I have a lot more fun writing novels than I do writing scripts, so I want to be doing that. I’m probably going to leave filmmaking—maybe not. Maybe I’ll just continue doing experimental things.
I have a third novel that I started already, and I’m just dying to get into it, but I have to finish this film first, and then I am committed to do the animation as well, which I’m going to have lots of fun doing because I’ve never done it before. So the third novel is there, and I’m writing a little bit every day, and thinking about it every day. It’s about climate change, so every day there’s stuff on the news, and okay, that’s going to go in there…
K: Do you think making animation will be the same as you see writing a novel—very unrestricted?
C: Yes! Exactly! It’s going to be very unrestricted too, because—
K: Because you get to do all this crazy stuff—
C: Yeah! So whatever I can think of, I can tell it. Because I don’t draw myself, I have three animators that I’m going to be working with, and they’ll be drawing whatever I can imagine, or we’ll collaborate with images and transitions and whatnot, so, yeah, it’s going to be fun!
K: Your writing is highly visual. How does your experience as a filmmaker play into your writing practice?
C: When I’m writing, I’m imagining that I’m actually in the space. And I can see everything; I can smell everything; I can taste everything; and everything is 360, so I am putting myself in the space, and I’m also putting myself in the person’s body as well. Like I was saying, my experiences in terms of sexual violence and homelessness—I don’t have those experiences at all, so it’s all a matter of observation and just trying to put myself in that space at the time.
Something that I wanted to investigate was how someone ends up homeless. And so I thought about this for a while, and then I thought, And so I thought about this for a while, and then I thought, you know this thing where she’s just losing it and she starts eating from the can—
K: Yeah! And not leaving home, staying in bed—
C: Yeah, and then all of sudden she’s just on the street! You know, so I’m thinking that…there’s this saying that you’re only one paycheck away from living on welfare, and then maybe two paychecks from homelessness, so the majority of people live like that. I myself don’t live like that because I’ve never had a regular paycheck in my life ever. I learned to live and budget, and, you know, do all that stuff, and make a little go a very long way. I think that’s probably my Caribbean upbringing as well too—stretching your resources, right?
K: And the cause and effect was actually so real because she wasn’t getting that money anymore, and she wasn’t motivated and because of this mental illness that she was already experiencing; to go out there and get something—the transition made sense.
C: Yeah, and it just happened so quickly, right? And that’s how I’m sure it happens, just from listening to testimonies from people about how they ended up in that situation. There’s one man who is in the documentary—I deal with homelessness in my documentary—and he was from a small town. He got sick; he lost his job; he moved from Vancouver to Toronto. He didn’t know anyone in Toronto, couldn’t get work, ended up living on the streets! So he went from living on the streets [to getting] himself a job dealing with homelessness and the issues of income insecurity. And then, you know, he owns a condo now. But he’s a white male, and he actually talks about the fact that, as a white homeless person, he was treated better than Black homeless people. He was able to get out of that because he was white, basically.
K: So there is discrimination even with homelessness?
C: Yeah! Isn’t that something?
K: Can you give the readers of this interview more background information to the story Philomena (Unloved) and maybe talk just about why “unloved” is in parentheses?
C: The original title was “Philomena Loveless” because of this whole thing that I want to investigate: What happens to someone if they’re “unloved,” and they lived without love—just loveless. So they wanted me to change it. The publishers changed “loveless” to “unloved,” and I agreed with them because they were saying that “loveless” sounded like someone in a loveless marriage. “Unloved” I embraced because that’s essentially what it was. She was unloved, you know? Her father’s dead before she arrives; her mother leaves her; her grandmother doesn’t have any sense of feeling anymore. She is just desensitized because she has raised all these kids, and she just wants to be left alone. And then she finds this semblance of what she thinks is love with the pastor, but it’s not love at all; it’s perversion, basically, right?
K: And she just cleaves to that, this tiny slither of what looks like love...
C: Yeah, and I think that happens to so many young girls. And some of the stories in the book are actually real. Like, I personally knew a girl who was a victim of incest, and I don’t even know if I actually touched on it, but […] I don’t say her name or anything like that, but I used her story more than once in the book—just aspects of her story that I used for different [characters]. Her father molested her, but then they came to live almost like husband and wife, if you can believe that. Isn’t that—just the perversion of that whole thing… and I don’t know how many times that type of thing actually happens, but that was happening in the building right next to where I was living. I’m not answering your question, but I just want to give this story: I remember going to her house, like, I didn’t know what horrors were going on in that house. The parents were also drug users. I remember I was maybe 8 or 9 years old [when I was] going to her house and seeing that she had a Barbie dollhouse, and that was the only thing that was in that house. There was no furniture, there was nothing… there was a Barbie dollhouse, and everything was blank. The walls were blank. But I, being the 8-year-old, seeing the Barbie dollhouse, that’s all I saw! This is adult me looking back. It is adult me saying, “Oh, my God, horror of horrors that must have gone on in that house!” But as an 8-year-old, I was saying, “Oh my God! She has a Barbie dollhouse!” And that’s all I focused on. She had a puppy dog and a dollhouse, and I was so jealous of that! I was saying, “Oh, my God, I don’t have a Barbie dollhouse! I don’t have a puppy!”
K: It’s just this crazy juxtaposition: The child who is being wronged, and this is what is in the house, in this blank space, in this empty space.
C: Yeah! Isn’t that scary, and sickening, and hurtful, and…painful and…? So when I was writing that in the book, I just remembered that scene. I just remembered being in that room, and thinking, “My God, I didn’t even know any of that was going on. I wasn’t aware of any of that.” And my heart just bled for her.
K: So were there other experiences in the book that were kind of drawn from these real-life people?
C: All those experiences, everything was drawn from something real. Well, I told you I don’t have experience with mental illness, but the realness comes from, you know, the time she was in the hospital and stuff like that. I actually watched some documentaries on sexual assault, and I took stuff from there, but then there were also YouTube testimonies of people talking about electric shock therapy. [They talked about] going through that, [about] how they felt before, during and after, so I used that, and put it in there too.
As a documentarian, I want—and this is my pet peeve: When I read books, and [they don’t] ring through as true, I say, “This is crap!” There are some books—I’m not even going to name names—but [they are by] some very well-known people who have won awards, and I just take the books, and I just throw them away because I don’t believe anything. There’s nothing.
K: And I don’t want to be robbed because you’re taking me outside of that space that I want to be in. I want to be in the story; I want to experience it.
C: Yeah, and there’s nothing in those stories, and these are highly regarded people. There’s nothing in those stories that ground you in any form of reality, and I feel that’s a problem. I spend a lot of time reading writers who are long dead, and I can’t read what people are writing now because I don’t enjoy it.
K: I think my final question is going be What do you want people reading the novel to take away from it, and to take away from you as an author?
Christene starts to answer the question, but mischievously flips it back on me.
C: You answer that question: What do you take away from reading the book?
K: I think for me, the toughest thing is to face realities of what people can do to other beings, to rob them of their lives. Because it seems so real, like, to the point that you don’t know if she’s going to get better. It just kind of increased my sensitivity to and awareness of the incapability of the systems in place to help do something substantial and of the day-to-day interactions with people who have gone through these experiences—how we seem to be so unaware and callous.
C: Desensitized! Yeah, very callous! I wanted to put an audience in the middle of that, you know, in the middle of what it is like to be a person suffering from mental illness—a marginalized person, someone who’s an immigrant [with] all that weight, on you. What does it feel like to be that? I’m only half of those things, and I don’t understand all of it, but I wanted an audience to feel what that weight could be like.
In all my work, I try to start a dialogue about marginalization; about how we treat poor people, how we treat mentally ill people, how we treat people of colour, you know, all these things, and [about how] to be sensitive to these things.
In the writing of the book and putting the book out, I realize how marginalized I am because the book is not getting reviewed. I haven’t seen any reviews of the book anywhere! So what is that all about? What does that say about our society? You know, when I was sending it out to publishers, I would get these notes back, and about a dozen of them said, “Oh, it’s really well written, but it’s not for us.” And I’m thinking, “What? Aren’t you looking for books that are well written and engaging?” But: “It’s not for us.” So I have so many letters. I call them my “sweet rejection letters” because I have tons of them from agents, from whatever.
One of the things that I wanted to do as a writer, or one of the things that I thought was going to be easier was—because we have a history; there’s a long history of Black women writers […] you know, they’ve done some beautiful work: Toni Morrison, Alice Walker— to get an audience. I would be able to get people to pay attention to what I’m doing, more so than in filmmaking because there’s only a handful of Black female filmmakers in the world and, you know, when we put work out there, people don’t know how to react to it. They really don’t.
I had a screening in Vancouver—this was years ago—[for] my first feature film, and people came up, and they said, “We love the film!” But, it’s funny that they didn’t ask me, “Which filmmakers have influenced you?” They asked me, instead—this was a French journalist—“So who have you been reading?” Maybe she liked the writing in the film, but she didn’t ask me who I was influenced by as a filmmaker, and I felt that was weird. And then she said, “You should be reading Jamaica Kincaid.” I’m glad that we had that conversation because, prior to that, I hadn’t read Jamaica Kincaid, so I started reading her. And I loved it! And it ended up influencing everything that I did.
So I’m reminded every step of the way how marginalized I am, and my subject matters are so marginalized as well, so I’m not going to change that for anybody. I don’t care if they don’t review me.
I had a conversation with Austin Clarke before he died—you know who Austin Clarke is, right? Before he passed away, I was hanging out with him—this is who the animation is on, Austin Clarke—and this was after writing Two Women, and the same thing happened: You know, I don’t think I got any reviews on that one either. It didn’t even get into the bookstores, like Indigo. This one is in there. So I said to him, “What do you do when you write something, and you know it’s good, and they ignore you? They just simply ignore you.” He said, “You know what you do? You just continue writing.” And that’s what I’m going to continue to do: Just going to continue writing. I don’t give a shit.
K: Because you have a voice!
C: Yeah, I have a voice. I’m using it, and I have a publisher who is willing to put it out there. I mean, I was ready to [put my voice out there myself] before I found a publisher that first time—I was like a week or maybe two weeks away from self-publishing—and then I found a publisher.
K: You’re just brave.
C: Yeah, I was about to do that.
K: Thank you, Christene!
C: I just kept talking!
K: No! Thank you! Your responses were great!
"Black and Caribbean Book Affair": A Conversation with Neil Armstrong
When he first walked into the bookstore, on time for his appointment, I was unaware that he was the one with whom my colleague and I would be meeting that day. All I noticed about him, apart from his warm smile and eyes that take in everything around him was how he launched into a story with Itah with much vigour. All eyes were drawn to him as his words and body became part of his storytelling, bursting into easy laughter like it was somebody else telling the story, and he himself was hooked. Later introduced to him, we eased into familiarity as we settled in to discuss his passion as a journalist, community efforts, and his role as co-ordinator of the “A Different Booklist Cultural Centre: Black and Caribbean Book Affair”…
Kyrell: Thank you for agreeing to be Interviewed.
Neil: Thank you , Kyrell.
K: I’m just going to get right into it, let’s go to the first question. When I did my initial research on you, I found a lot on your journalism. Can you tell the audience, including and aside from your journalism career, a little more about yourself?
N: Well, ok, my journalism career has me spiraling off to doing many other things, such as what I do with literature and books, hence the space we’re in, “A Different Booklist Cultural Centre”. I’m very involved in community initiatives, and projects. So, there are things over the years that I have done with the Jamaican Canadian Association, the Jane & Finch Concerned Citizens Organization, various initiatives in Brampton and in Toronto, and I’m always organizing events with friends. A colleague from my university days at UWI in Jamaica, The University of the West Indies, reminded me that I was always organizing something. So, these aren’t necessarily events that will make the headlines, but, I like socializing and organizing social gatherings and stuff like that, and, editing books, and writing forwards for books, and doing various things like that in literature.
K: Ok, so, you’re a very busy person, obviously, so would you have the audience, I guess describe you as a renaissance man? You’re -
Neil busts into laughter, taken off-guard by my assertion…
N: Renaissance man? Wow!
K: You're just talented at many, things… you’re not just a journalist, you’re more than a journalist...
N: That’s right! Yes, Jack of all trades.. master of…
K: Of many! You’re mastering some!...
(Interviewing the late author, Austin Clarke,
at a naming of benches ceremony at the Harbourfront Centre,
initiated by A Different Booklist - November, 2014)
K: So what first attracted you to journalism, and what has kept you in the field as a journalist?
N: Hmmm… I think it was always the urge to tell stories, and usually these stories came in the form of concerns that were within the community in which I lived. I’m from Jamaica, I lived in Spanish Town, in a community called Ensom City, where, on Eider Road, we lived as a family – all the families on that road. We would paint the sidewalks together, we would organize trips to the beach in rural Jamaica, and that sort of thing, and we always did everything collectively. So, when there were potholes on the roads in the community, I would put my pen to paper and write letters to the editor of The Gleaner, the paper that I now work for, and those letters were published. And people would see the letters, and see their concerns there, and call me about various matters as it related to the community. And so, there was always that urge to do that, and, it so happened that I got into radio, at Radio Jamaica. And I think, by happenstance, perhaps, this was a sort of precursor of what would eventually be my career. I was at the National Stadium at an event, and someone from Radio Jamaica approached me to interview me for a vox pop, and I said, you know, my voice, I was hoarse from cheering for whatever, I think it was a track and field meet, and he still wanted to hear from me. And it so happens eventually, he became my colleague at Radio Jamaica.
K: Does writing energize you or does it exhaust you?
He breaks into mischievous laughter, obviously tickled by the question, but then falls deep into thought...
N: Wow! Hmm, does writing energize me or does it exhaust me…?
K: Because obviously, you’re busy. You’re doing a lot…
N: I know, I know… you know what? It…. It energizes me, to the point of exhaustion. I can think of… there are times that I sit to write and I have to be conscious that I need to get up and move around, but then I’m back at it and I’m trying not to spend as much time in front of the computer screen. An example, yesterday I was writing about a group of Trinidadian and Jamaican migrant workers, farm workers, who have filed a $30 million dollar class action law suit against the province of Ontario. And I contacted their lawyer; I had the statement of claim that was filed in the Ontario Superior Court. I wanted to hear from the Ministry of the Attorney General. I wanted to hear from Justicia for Migrant Workers, which is an advocacy group for migrant workers, and then I got an email from the person who coordinates the stories in the Gleaner in the North American Copy. I sent him my stories that I had written, and he said, “I don’t have a front-page story.” And I said, “I’m working on this, but I have all these pieces I need to put together and I won’t have it ready for..” - we always work a week in advance for next week Thursday’s paper – “…I’ll have it ready for the following week”, and he said, “Oh, but if you could only...” and I said, “Well... what’s your deadline?” and he said, today at noon. So I thought to myself, “Well, today at noon, I will be on-route to the Gleaner’s office.” So, I pretty much stayed up for most of last night and wrote the story and sent it to him. So, I was energized to do it, but I was exhausted at the end of doing it. So, yeah, I enjoy writing.
K: Ok, what was the experience seeing your name in a byline for the first time. Can you tell us what that was like?
N: (Mumbling to himself as he sinks into thought) Hmmm, byline for the first time… I’m trying to remember…. I’m trying to remember when was the first time that I had a byline… Hmm…
He takes a moment, sifting through the memories of myriad early bylines…
N: I think my first byline was a story I wrote in a newsletter at Radio Jamaica Ltd. (RJR) when I worked there. There was an earthquake and I wrote about the reactions of my colleagues in the newsroom and what we did afterwards in our coverage of it. In Canada, it would have been when I wrote the piece about the three Black actors -- Conrad Coates, Xuan Fraser and Roy Lewis -- performing at the Stratford Festival in the mid-90s. I think it was for Pride News Magazine as I now recall a photo of all three actors being on the cover of the issue. I went there for the sole purpose of interviewing these Black actors who were on stage, and I met them after their performances and interviewed them. I was pleased with the presentation of the story, and the fact that they were interested enough to actually publish the story. I don’t think I was paid for that story… (he smiles reminiscing on his beginnings) but it was published.
K: And that’s just a stunning thing, to just see your name in print; I feel like a lot of writers nowadays don’t get that experience because so much of journalism is online.
N: That’s true. Yeah.
(Launch of "Welcome To Blackhurst Street" exhibition,
spearheaded by A Different Booklist. From left; Eldon Mascoll,
Itah Sadu, Neil Armstrong. October, 2016)
K: What is your personal mandate with regards to how you see yourself, in terms of direction as a journalist?
N: I think my mandate is to tell stories about my community, and that community is the “ABC” community. I call it the “African, Black, and Caribbean” communities. There are many things that are happening in our communities, and they don’t get the time of day in mainstream media, so I like talking to people, and from that, using their stories to tell other people about what’s happening in the community. I think that’s what drives me and I always try to bring someone in to share in that opportunity to tell stories. So at the Gleaner, when I was full-time editor, I brought people on board as writers and photographers and even in my capacity as a free-lancer, I still bring people on board to do things for the Gleaner.
K: Oh, that’s great! How easy, or how difficult is it to stay neutral as a writer? Do you think you do that in your writing?
In his way that I have now grown accustomed to, he repeats the question to himself.
N: I know in communication classes at CARIMAC (Caribbean School of Media and Communication), at the University of the West Indies, we always talk about, “Can a writer truly be neutral?” Dionne Brand has a book, “No Language is Neutral”… I think it’s good to declare where you’re coming from; to declare your bias and then seek all the sides that you can get in telling the story, and leaving it to the audience to make a judgement – an informed judgement. But it can be a challenge to say you are neutral. I think yes, given the audience you may appear to be neutral, but you have your bias that you might not put out there for the world to see what it is, unless asked explicitly, “What is your bias?”, that kind of thing, but otherwise, in writing, you try to put all the sides out there and then leave it to the reader to make their judgement.
A moment of silence passes as he takes on, for a moment, the role of mentor/advisor, prodding me to continue…
K: As a very experienced writer, can you walk us through that writing process, kinda give some advice to writers, who might be less experienced, or new to the game? What is writing like for you?
N: It’s, well there’s a process… there’s a process. Let me walk you through what I’m thinking of doing right now. So, I usually look, like weeks ahead, to things that are upcoming and what I could write about upcoming things. So, October 17th is the date set for the legalization of recreational marijuana in Canada, and I’ve been thinking. A couple months ago I wrote a piece about what people within the Black communities were saying about this. They were calling for the records that many young Black men have for charges of marijuana to be expunged from their records etc., as the government introduces this. So I thought, ok, I can’t write that story again. What other story can I write? But I want to write something before October 17th, so I jotted down my thoughts and then I thought, well who would I like to hear from? Whose perspective would be good to include in this piece? And so I sent a couple of emails out; one to Afua Cooper who was here the other night, she’s at Dalhousie University, and the other, Grace Edward Galabuzi who is from Ryerson, but for the whole year, for most of the year was on sabbatical in Uganda. And then I thought there are people I have in mind but I have spoken to them before; I want new voices. So even while coming here, I was thinking, who else, who else can I talk to? And so at some point, I will follow up with these people to see what their thoughts are. I will possibly do a Vox Pop with my tape recorder in Little Jamaica, around the Eglinton/Oakwood area or go up to Jane & Finch and just by the mall there and chat with people, and then I’ll try and put something together. And having all that material on a tape recorder, or on my phone, I then go through my research, and go through what was said and write the story. And, after writing it, going back to look at it to edit, and proof read, and after doing that, going back to look at it to edit further, and when I think it is where I want it to be, then it’s ready to be sent. And I will ask or have a photographer with me to take some pictures that will complement the story.
K: What do you struggle with most as a writer?
N: I think the unwillingness of some people to realize that what I do is valuable and worthy of being paid for. There are people who will approach and want you to write something for them, but they want you to volunteer to do it. Or they approach you and you say, this is how much I charge, and they tell you their freelance budget is full, they can’t pay that, they’ll get back to you another time, or whatever… So that becomes the challenge… To what extend do they value what you do?
K: I think that for many writers reading this, that would be a familiar struggle. What drew you to the “Black and Caribbean Book Affair” Project?
N: Wow, let’s see…. My association with “A Different Booklist” has spanned the history of the bookstore. So when it was previously owned by Wesley Crichlow, to being owned by Itah and Miguel... and so I was always in the bookstore, either buying books, or at events there, and through that, developed a relationship with the owners over the years. And, because when I worked in radio, apart from being program director, and news director, and acting station manager and all that stuff, I had a literary programme where I would interview many authors and publishers, so almost every book that was published would be sent to me and I would read them. I don’t interview anyone without reading their book. So I would read their books and then I would arrange interviews with the authors. And out of that came opportunities to do things with “A Different Booklist”, and that’s how my association with the “Black and Caribbean Book Affair” came about. I loved attending, and I was asked to help make it happen, and that’s what I’m doing now… helping to make it happen.
K: The final question I have for you, is in two parts: Firstly, what is your overall vision for the “Black and Caribbean Book Affair”, and with one of the events that’s part of this Book Affair that has passed, which is the Book Launch for Philomena (Unloved), how do you think that went? Did it match up with your vision of what you think this event should be?
N: The overall vision is to celebrate writers from our community, and there are many books being written, and those writers also have support systems. And it’s good when they have their launches here or visit schools to see the support that’s there, and their interaction with students and their audiences. Philomena (Unloved) was launched here by Christene A. Brown, a filmmaker. I’ve always known her to be a filmmaker. I was meeting her for the first time as an author, and this was her second book. And I like the fact that many of her friends as well as family members were here in the space. And that what she shared was a love letter to Regent Park where she grew up. And it’s interesting to see the perspective that that film came from, how she spoke about writing the book that she wrote, Philomena (Unloved), and, just the audience participation. It’s always good to have direct feedback from your audience when you have written a book. So, yeah.
K: Thank you so much, Neil! Thanks for today’s interview, for shedding a spotlight on the community and for continuing to do so throughout your career.
N: Thank you.