Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Hanging Out with Lawrence Hill and Wayde Compton at the GritLit Festival

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Hanging Out with Lawrence Hill and Wayde Compton at the GritLit Festival

There I was, sitting in the sunlit dining room of the mixed-race, best-selling author (multiple use of hyphens not intended) of The Book of Negroes, when a sense of uncanny serendipity fell upon me. A sense that the very kind of writing I had done for so long—poetry, the language of metaphor and magic—took hold of the very environment I found myself, the moment in which Lawrence Hill, the Lawrence Hill we have all grown to respect as a one-of-a-kind author, was now sitting before me as a friend, even mentor, asking me if I preferred lemonade over water. Here we were, now, as fellow journeyers on the road of life.

It was only a few years back that I had read his 2001 Black Berry, Sweet Juice: On Being Black and White in Canada, a first-person memoir about growing up in a black-and-white family. Now I was being invited into his family home, to have lunch and talk about the upcoming Diversity Panel at Hamilton’s GritLit festival in which I, along with the equally inspiring writer and academic Wayde Compton, would converse about race issues with Hill as moderator.

Driving with Hill to the panel just last Saturday, I had the opportunity to ask him about historical fiction, the difficulty of infusing one’s story with historical records, and the even greater challenge of writing a contemporary novel that doesn’t rely on past records for authenticity. When we got to the panel, our conversations continued around the various notions of authenticity pertaining to culture, race, ethnicity, and so on, and how such notions have played out in the literature we have both read and attempted to write about.

The panel, which was meant to bring together Hill, Compton, and myself in order to discuss notions of diversity and tolerance was a success. We discussed our own critical and creative works that have sought to parody and revise (self-consciously) the contours of mixed-race identification (including my most recent book which I edited alongside Andrea Thompson, Other Tongues: Mixed Race Women Speak Out). We agreed that race has always been a social, political, and cultural reality as much as it is a physical one; even without scientific basis, race and racial designation remain social conundrums, and, as The Hamilton Spectator highlighted in their coverage of the event, race is both abstract and arbitrary as well as very real and reflective of the opportunity structure available to communities of colour.

We read from our works and engaged in friendly debates about Canadian mixed-race identities, and as the audience chimed in our topics broadened, leaping from race in Canada to the larger questions around the difficulty North American political discourses face in accounting for or legitimizing ambiguity in any aspect of identity; the dangers of multicultural discourse; ways in which to use humour and irony to answer the tiring “where are you from?” question; and, most interestingly, U.S. President Obama’s recent decision on the American Census to check the box that said “Black” as opposed to “mixed-race.” Suddenly, conversations on purely literary subjects switched places with the larger political implications of the topics we had put forth. There we were, three mixed-race Canadian authors wading the proverbial and peripheral waters of racial discourse, with an audience that was both intelligent and attentive. I truly felt as though something had come full circle for me as a writer at that moment.

In the end, what all participants came to terms with was the reality of interracial relations as an integral part of Canadian history, literature, and cultural discourse, as well as the need to sketch the heterogeneity of our multiracial populations and diasporas in order to elucidate the ongoing and mutual need for self-definition. To paraphrase Calgary poet Fred Wah, in order to resist the silence created around issues of interraciality, we must employ poetic tools of disturbance, dislocation, and displacement; and through this creative process, see to it that Canadian history gets redefined, revised and reconstructed. Thanks to the GritLit Festival for making this happen, and for contributing so brilliantly to literary programming in Canada.

To read The Hamilton Spectator's coverage of the event, click here.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Adebe D.A.

Adebe D.A. is a writer whose words travel between Toronto and New York. She recently completed her MA at York University, where she also served as Assistant Editor for the arts and literary journal, Existere. Her debut poetry collection, Ex Nihilo, was published this year by Frontenac House, and subsequently longlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize, the world’s largest prize for writers under 30.

Go to Adebe D.A.’s Author Page