He stuck his fingers in the shape of a gun and pointed at the cashier. His face was obscured by a sweater and baseball cap. He raised his arm towards the cashier, and pulled the trigger.
It should have been an innocuous event. It could have been a joke. They could have been friends. He was far ahead and I could not see his face. But when the man in the sweater and baseball cap stuck out his arm, I imagined it was a threat.
I discarded items from my shopping list, taking only what was necessary. As I dashed through the aisles, I thought about possible routes to escape in case he came back with an actual gun. It was the moment I realized trauma had taken hold of my life.
Four years ago, there was a shooting at my workplace in Ottawa and I was evacuated from my office by an armed guard. I heard the gunshots burst out of a speakerphone while talking to a colleague.
Racing through the grocery store, I realized how the sound of successive bullets pounding through the air had lodged itself inside my memory, and was materializing in different iterations.
As a nonfiction writer, I often find myself trying to negotiate between what is true and what isn’t. After the incident at the grocery store, I recognized trauma was a prominent aspect of my life. As I began to work on my book tentatively titled, The Time That Betrays Space, I began to realize that writing a memoir with only a marginal treatment of how I experience trauma would lead to an incomplete story.
When I first set out to work on this project, I centered it around what I considered to be the single most important moment in my life: witnessing and experiencing hate crimes by neo-Nazis during my last year at a top-ranking Ottawa-area high school. That six-month-long series of events was at the centre of how I came to understand myself as a Black woman, and most importantly, how I came to understand the repercussions of being a Black woman interacting with others in Canada. I believed these were the only moments my readers – who I assumed would be similar to the upper-middle-class white people I lived alongside throughout my childhood and adolescence in suburban Ottawa – would accept as worthy. I tried to shape my story around my identity as a Black woman, and started to gather every racist incident I could remember. I hid parts of my story like the workplace shooting at Parliament Hill even though those parts gnawed at my trust in others and my sense of security in purportedly-safe spaces.
I began to write a particular narrative of trauma.
This concealment created an anxiety that sat underneath the page as I struggled to maintain ownership of my story and respect my boundaries, often not knowing how to work this trauma — unrelated to living as a Black woman — into my narrative; often wondering whether this experience was severe enough to warrant a story worthy of being read; often feeling as though I have to explain why I’m triggered.
A therapist once told me to focus on my body whenever I’m triggered. My heart beats loud, echoing in my ears and drowning out the music radiating from my headphones. My breaths sit underneath my jaw forcing me to push them through my nostrils. My hands turn hot. The unpredictability of triggers, and my potential response to them, often keeps me nailed to the couch. The shame of being unable to return to my previous sense of security before the shooting, when I wasn’t triggered by loud noises and random men raising their arms in the air, often plunges me into silence. Instead, I write essays about seeing a white supremacist spit in my friend’s face, and op-eds about the long history of white nationalism without fear or anxiety because I feel propelled by a societal acceptance of these as my areas of expertise. But these are only small parts of the story I feel compelled to write.
The pressure I feel as a Black woman to consistently write about my experiences with racism, and of a trauma that is supposed to come from those racist experiences, feels restrictive like a glass wall; a barrier to break through to take up space and exist. But not just to simply exist as I am, but to exist as I hope to be. Each letter I type of my complete story — the one I must write regardless of whether it’s deemed acceptable for me to write — chips away at that glass wall. Pages filled with words strewn together in sentences that connect my unrelated trauma pile into a block strong enough to shatter the invisible, yet tangible, barrier. I cling to the confidence in knowing a completed manuscript awaits me on the other side.
I decided to dedicate my book to the trauma that has governed so much of my life; trauma that is my own, and trauma that I have experienced vicariously. I wanted to share the impact of traumatic events on my life and to discuss the many ways I felt the failure of the Canadian system to support me as a Black woman. By situating myself around my all-encompassing experiences with trauma – whether direct or indirect – I continue to chip away at the walls that confined my creative imagination to the topics I thought certain readers wanted to see.
I recognize, however, that my book is not a replacement for therapy, and knowing this helps me to stay focused on my voice, and on the conversation I want to engage in. I think about what I want my readers to know, what I want them to consider. I also think about myself and what I want to accomplish: to look through my past trauma towards the future I will create.
Angela Wright is a writer and political analyst based in Toronto. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in Catapult, The Fiddlehead, The New Quarterly, and The Brooklyn Quarterly. In her previous life, she worked as a political staffer at the House of Commons and the Legislative Assembly of Ontario. Her political commentary has appeared in The Walrus, The Globe and Mail, Maclean’s, Toronto Star, CBC, and others. She is currently working on a book-length personal memoir of hate crimes, violence, and trauma with the support of the Canada Council for the Arts and the Ontario Arts Council.