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Creating Community through Creativity: An Interview with Whitney French

Whitney French is a writer and arts-educator. Her writing has been published in Quill and Quire, Geist, Descant Magazine, CBC Books and anthologized in The Black Notes: Fresh Writing From Black Women and Girls (2017) and The Great Black North: Contemporary African Canadian Poetry(2010). Whitney is also the founder and co-editor of the nation-wide publication From the Root Zine as well as the founder of the workshop series Writing While Black: an initiative to develop a community of Black writers. Her latest project is an anthology of creative non-fiction by Black Canadians called Black Writers Matter published through the University of Regina Press.

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Tell me a bit about how it was growing up in Bradford.

Bradford was a really beautiful place to raise kids, unless they were racialized. [Laughs] Or maybe, a better way of putting it is like, a big part of my childhood is very important by being situated in Bradford… At the time [when I was growing up], it was very rural, it was along the greenbelt, very agricultural… you know, this very idyllic [place], rolling down hills, and bike riding. There was an apple orchard in our backyard, and a swamp right in front of us. In that respect, [being in Bradford] connected me to nature at a very young age. But because of the lack of diversity and lack of presence of Black folks or racialized folks, it became more difficult growing up, or it became really obvious at a very young age that my differences or my sister’s differences very much informed the ways in which people perceived us, or policed us, or engaged and interacted with us in a very intense and a real way.

I have a book called 3 Cities in 2012, that I self-published, and a third of the book is pretty much me unpacking all of Bradford! [Laughs] It was just a very early negotiation about race and race politics.

You mentioned in your introduction to Black Writers Matter that your second grade teacher encouraged you to write. Is that when you knew you wanted to be a writer, or did you come to writing much earlier?

I was always already involved in some creative expression, but I think it was she who literally told me what a writer was. Like… at the time, I didn’t fully grasp the concept of this person creating a book, and there was this profession that could be behind it.

And when did you know you wanted to be an educator? Your role as an arts educator takes you to many different spaces. Last year, you were in Nemaska in northern Quebec, and recently, you were at Tl’etinqox School as part of an artist residency with non-profit N’we Jinan in BC. It seems like a very niche kind of role, to keep moving into remote areas outside of the comfort of urban spaces; it’s almost nomadic. When did you know that you wanted to be an educator in these particular spaces?

I think – and maybe it weaves into the Bradford effect because Bradford’s not that remote but in Bradford, we didn’t have a whole lot of resources in that particular way. So, I know what it feels like to be a kid – specifically, an artistic kid – because I feel like resources reach smaller towns, or smaller communities, most of the time through sports [laughs]. Both of those communities I mentioned before, they have a big hockey, or basketball, or volleyball presence, because sports is the way to engage young people in a meaningful way. And it’s not as though that there isn’t space for arts, but it’s almost an afterthought.

As soon as my second grade teacher told me to be a writer, I thought I had to do it on my own, because there were very few examples of people creating or writing… It was just me in a library, and maybe one or two teachers who would help you out.

And so, being an educator and a professional writer, and showing up in that space, and say you can do this art form in a professional manner, really opens up their imagination in a real way that I definitely didn’t have access to (even though [Bradford] wasn’t as remote).

Your career trajectory has been deeply entrenched in community work. Even your role as a creator of From the Root Zine engages with that aim to create community for Black writers in Canada. Yet, Black Writers Matter was published by a university publisher, which seems to be at odds with your [grassroots] work. How do you negotiate the two worlds?

I think this anthology is my introduction into this other world [that is not grassroots]. So, I don’t know if I am walking a parallel path with both of the worlds. This is definitely the first time that I have done traditional publishing. Whereas, with the zine, it was very grassroots and I love it, and can’t wait to get to, actually [laughs]. Or even, when I am in the city, creating workshops for all Black writers, or when I am with my students at Story Reno Studio – we just released a zine in November ; for me, self-publishing, that quick and dirty [process],  [working with] those very amazing cutting edge marginalized voices – and I don’t even mean marginalized in a traditional sense, but I mean, you don’t see this kind of writing anywhere else – is very exciting. And, there are very few gatekeepers, we hold each other accountable. We want to make sure that everything looks good, and we edit it really well… We are just pushing, and pushing, and pushing the boundaries.

So yeah, it is a very interesting negotiation because I learnt a lot about the publishing process, the editorial process, [and] that there are lot more things to consider. And, I do think it’s a lot more nuanced [in both processes of grassroots as well as traditional publishing]. I guess, in a way, one [process] opens up a key for the other. So I guess, being able to have these twenty-five plus writers published [in the anthology], and people [being able to] access the books in so many other stores, to me, is huge.

On the flip side, when this [process of traditional publishing] slows down, I am so hungry for grassroots work, to be sustained in a different way, whether it’s more access to opportunities while I am doing that grassroots work – this morning, I was doing my finances, and I had all this money to put into From the Root Zine, which I never had before… I am still learning how to grapple with the two [processes], but I don’t see them as entirely polarized. I am trying to be as creative in the way that I engage with them, in the same sense that I [am] creative with words.

In the foreword to the Black Writers Matter anthology, Dr. Afua Cooper points to the mix of voices as “a jambalaya of Black Canadian voices.” Further, in your introduction, you mention that while an anthology is a form of canonization (it includes as well as excludes), your “intention” behind the anthology is that it is “an invitation to read, share, and tell stories of Black narratives.” Can you speak a little more to this intention?

When I was first charged with putting together this anthology, I looked back to previous Black Canadian anthologies. I went as far back as Harold Head [Canada in Us Now: The First Anthology in Black Poetry and Prose in Canada]. I think it’s in 1976?… I was thinking of what that legacy [of Black writing in Canada] is, what an anthology can do. I guess when I said an anthology canonizes, I was speaking to when I held my very first Black Canadian anthology, Eyeing the North Star: Directions in African-Canadian Literature, in my mind I was like, these were the writers who I need to know, and engage with. It was almost declarative. I think it was brilliant and necessary for its time; it came out in the nineties.

What I wanted to do was kind of figure out what was possible within this anthology. It was also recognizing that this anthology was not going to be who’s-who in Black Canada. One, because quite frankly, I don’t have the resources to get all the top names we have in here [laughs].

And plus, they have other spaces, I think.

I know, and I think that legacy of who are going to be the Black writers in 2030, I don’t think that narrative is going to die, and I don’t know if I am that person to do that work. I am thinking of a story I read by Cristelle St. Julien [titled, “Memoriality”] of her father losing his memory. And, this is a blog post!… I read this blog post, and I said, let’s publish this. And it wasn’t like, where is she in her career, or is this literary fiction, or what its merit is. I mean, how often do we get this in-depth access to Black folks talking about mental health, and family, and kinship? For me, I was looking for those kinds of opportunities, and I was trying to figure out how can this anthology [collect] stories we have never heard before.

In your interview with Now Toronto, you mentioned that Bruce Walsh, the publisher of University of Regina Press reached out to you. And at the panel at Harbourfront, Scott Fraser admitted that he put you in touch with Bruce. Did you have any challenges working with a university press, considering the university as an establishment can often be anti-Black or anti-Indigenous?

There’s a lot of dynamics, right? I come from a very grassroots point-of-view when it comes to publishing work. So, for me, sitting and spending time with a writer whose piece needs a lot of work, we do that labour. We always do that labour because we invest in other people. When you are working within a more established or institutional space, you got deadlines, you have to get a lot of paperwork done… I am starting to recognize that all those things have a place to a certain degree, and you can see the pay off, the pay off being… a lot of exposure. But in a very real way, the book is getting a lot of attention, and the bottom line is that I want these writers’ work to be read widely. Within my grassroots circle, I don’t know if I would be able to get this [attention] at this capacity.

But then also, especially when you are talking of institutions inherently being anti-Black or anti-Indigenous… right now, there is no space for Black publishing in Canada… and that’s some real shit! [Laughs] And even Scott [Fraser] also said that he’s one of the few Black editors of a senior editorial position, he’s an editor at Dundurn Press; that’s huge representation. But that’s also very lonely, it’s very empty.

And he is the only person within a sea of other people who may not be BIPOC.

Exactly. So, it’s just do you want to be the only one in the sea of resources and bring up your own, or do you want to have a team or a crew on a grassroots level and constantly be in a struggle? It’s really tough. You need a lot of resource, a lot of connection, to do it right, and to do it well, and to sustain oneself.

I do think it’s important to talk about the electricity of working with Black writers, because almost all of the writers I worked with either confirmed or reaffirmed the electricity of working with a Black editor. And this is not me toot[ing] my own horn, but… many times I have heard people say, oh you are pushing me even further, or allowing me to be my “Blackest” self [laughs], for the lack of a better word.

There are always going to be challenges, but at the end of the day, what the University of Regina Press did well for me was they always told me, ‘this is your book.’… I am grateful that they gave me the agency to take the lead.

In the same interview, you mentioned that “Black liberation outside the conversation of Indigenous sovereignty is not liberation;” that, the conversation about “solidarity” between the two groups came about organically in the anthology, and “speaks to a direction toward collective and collaborative freedoms.” Can you speak a little more to these “collective and collaborative freedoms”?

I have been having conversations with [a lot of people] and just thinking about collective cohesion. As fierce as I am about carving out space for Black writers, that’s not the end goal. The end goal is liberation. To position myself, or the book, or Black writing in general, as almost an exclusive Black people club… that’s not the end goal.

I have to situate myself, my ancestry, my relationship to the land, my intentional community work with Indigenous communities and Indigenous folks, and recognize what that is, and what that means. There have been a lot of conversations about how do folks of colour really join in solidarity with liberating Indigenous sovereignty. Like, what does that look like? How do we work that in? And it would be completely remiss to put together an anthology, and not necessarily recognize [the need for this conversation]. Some of those narratives came organically through the pieces because the writers are very intelligent and think of things that impact both [Black and Indigenous] communities, like race, imperialism, oppression, anti-Blackness, anti-Indigenous sentiments. We are in this time where some of these Black writers are great thinkers.

Some of it was intentional, like my [interviews] “My Ancestors’ Wildest Dreams”; it was me collecting these stories of folks who straddle the worlds of being of Black heritage, and also being of Indigenous lineage. And there is such an erasure of that story. It’s either you are Black or you are Indigenous.

And, there is this discourse that if you are of the land, you are just Indigenous, even though Black people have five hundred years of history of being in this country. And this is something Rinaldo Walcott also talks about a lot, that you cannot divorce discourse about Black people in Canada from Indigenous people in Canada, because they have an intricate history together.

Exactly. That’s why it was really important to publish Mary Louise McCarthy’s “Diasporic Narratives”. All that work that she is creating in New Brunswick – she is literally talking about the gravesites of her ancestors who have been there for generations in Canada. I have heard many narratives around Nova Scotia, and Halifax, [but] my ignorant Toronto self didn’t know that there were many Black folks in New Brunswick, let alone enough that there is an entire gravesite with Black bodies. When you think about the land – in a literal sense, in a theoretical sense –, literally, Black descendants have been on this land [long enough to be] physically part of Canadian landscape for many, many generations. And like you said, that cannot be divorced from Indigeneity.

In your introduction, you also mention that the blending of the voices and genres in the anthology is “organically Canadian… unlike the branded benevolent multiculturalism we’ve been fed for far too long.” Can you expand on this idea of being “organically Canadian”?

Being racialized is like a pulling of things together – a gathering – because we are coming from so many different places. And I don’t want to fall into the trope of [happy] multiculturalism…There are particular narratives of Black immigrant families arriving, they work really hard, and then their kids go off to school, and they make their immigrant parents proud. That is just a singular story. And that singular story within a singular story has an explosion of many other narratives. Like, I come from that narrative. But it was Sapphire Woods’ s piece, “Becoming Poetry,” and this idea of not just being a singular person, but being like a prism of what you are perceived to be [is what I meant by organically Canadian].

In your essay in Write magazine (Vol 45, Number 2, Fall 2017) titled, “The Community Is the Curriculum: Holding Space for Black Writers,” you write you want to “prioritize healing over productivity;” that, for you, it is “knowing that the writer next to [you] can be a part of [your] voice too.” This statement is in line with your beliefs about community creation especially for Black Canadians. Can you speak a little more to community as survival, and what that means to you personally?

As a writer, [there is] the work of sitting at my desk, alone, and in isolation with my words. And then, when I get stuck, I look at my bookshelf, and there is an extension of a community of writers, particularly, I am seeing Black writers. But even farther than that is having a conversation with community, with people who live on your street… on your block… in your cultural group, and also people who are writing alongside you. I think that there is something indescribably nourishing about how a community functions from how individuality functions, and I haven’t figured it out [laughs]… I think what’s important is what is the process, and what is the healing. What is the living that is happening while you are making the work?

Sapphire [Woods, for example] delves into suicidal ideology, and how Black queer writers, [and] Black feminist writers, essentially pulled her out of that head space. I think that’s also important because you mention survival, and writing community, and I never underestimate the power of a story or a poem to really pull people out of [a certain] space. I rebirthed myself because of those works [in the anthology].

In your essay for CBC on how to be a successful Black writer, you talk about thinking outside of CanLit. To me, that was inspiring because a lot of people inside CanLit don’t like talking about going outside of this literary space. How do you see yourself – and the work that you are doing – within the context of CanLit? And also, how do you see this anthology functioning outside of CanLit? Considering the anthology seems to be aimed at Black people in Canada – even though I think everyone should read it –, do you think it’s possible for the anthology to do so?

I am thinking about abundance over scarcity, and I feel like when BIPOC people are talking about CanLit in whatever capacity, or whatever context, there is always a strong sense of scarcity. This doesn’t jive well with me. And you are right, CanLit is a space… in my practice, in my work, CanLit is just a space. And I don’t give it too much merit, because it’s always changing, it’s always flexing. Like, Canadian literature looked very different at a certain time than #CanLitSoWhite. And I don’t want to be consumed by that limitation. Because when I think of what words actually do, [when it’s] done well, [and] crafted well, [words are] expansive. It’s international, interspecies [laughs]. It has an impact on environment… on society. When we really sit and think about the potential capacity of what words can do, and then talk about the confines of CanLit, it seems like such a disservice. I also wanted to gift that to Black writers, because writing while Black… just acknowledge and recognize the work will find a space to live. Or, you will create a space for the work to live. And, anti-Black racism exists in this country, but it shouldn’t stop you from what the power of words can bring you. And sometimes, the work is just not good, and that’s okay! [Laughs] Like, I had to say no to some essays!

And the second part, there are anthologies [from other countries] that I have on my bookshelf… They exist here, and they have a space here, and I don’t feel as though that [Black Writers Matter] needs to be limited within a Canadian context. I am actually excited to disrupt the idea of being Canadian to non-Canadians… And so, hearing these voices from Black Canadians who have or haven’t been here a really long time, and have faced some kind of hardship and turmoil on this land we called Canada, and the world needs to know that story.

Amongst your inspirations, you mentioned Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, M. Nourbese Phillip, and George Elliot Clarke. Do you have any other inspirations? Are there any contemporary writers whose work inspires you, outside of the anthology?

In the context of those four writers, they were my foundation. Right now, because I am writing in the realm of science fiction and speculative fiction, a writer who constantly nourishes and feeds me, is Nalo Hopkinson’s work… N.K. Jemisin’s great. I am reading Chantal Gibson’s How She Read (2019), and the poetry and poetics is really startling. I am always astounded by David Chariandy… There’s also Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Yesika Salgado, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, and the writers within the Writing While Black community, who may or may not have been published, [and] who are just pushing the boundaries of where a story can go.  

Do you have any current or future projects?

I am working on a science fiction novel very slowly. I have been working on it for many years now. But a big project I want to work on is Project Whitney Wellness [laughs], and it’s just me chilling with my pillow, eating good food, reading good books, writing, ‘cause as much as I love this anthology, and love where it’s going, I think my relationship with the written word has changed quite a lot… I want to do some wellness for myself, and I am already reframing my relationship with the written word, being playful with my writing, reading for fun again, and just continue to look after my well-being, so that I can continue to do the work that I do.

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This interview was conducted over Google Chat on February 22nd 2019. It has been edited for length.

Photo of Whitney French: Valerie Bah.

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