About the Author

Tessa McWatt

Tessa McWatt is an acclaimed author whose work includes novels for adults and young people. Her fiction has been nominated for the Governor General’s Literary Award, the City of Toronto Book Awards and the OCM Bocas Prize. Most recently, she published the novel Higher Ed and co-edited Luminous Ink: Writers on Writing in Canada with Rabindranath Maharj and Dionne Brand. She is the author of the forthcoming Shame on Me: An Anatomy of Race and Belonging, an analysis of the race debate from a personal perspective. She is also a librettist and professor of creative writing at the University of East Anglia. Where Are You, Agnes? is her first picture book.

Books by this Author
Shame on Me

“What Are You?” 
The ducklings liked the new island so much that they decided to live there. All day long they follow the swan boats and eat peanuts. 

Eight years old, I am sitting near the back of the room in the grade-three classroom of my suburban Toronto elementary school. My desk is close to the window, and I am easily distracted by the birds; one particular bird preens itself on a branch, its feathers shuttering up and down. I am not paying much attention to what the teacher is saying. We’ve been reading a book out loud together and I haven’t been asked to read. I feel off the hook, set free to daydream. A few minutes into daydreaming, I feel a change of tone in the teacher’s voice and the class goes quiet. I snap out of my reverie. There’s a question in the air. I look around at my classmates, who are looking at each other in search of an answer.

“Anyone know what that word means?” the teacher says. 

Oh, I think, I’d better pay attention because there’s a new word and I will need to know it.

“Does anyone know what Negro means?”

Good question, I think. What does that mean? I continue to look around at my classmates to see if anyone is going to come up with the answer or even a guess. The teacher seems anxious; this word has weight. Kenneth Percy puts up his hand. The teacher invites him to speak.

“Yeah, Tessa,” he says, as he points towards me at the back of the room.

Everyone in the class turns to face me. I freeze, my mind goes blank and all that is going on in my body is a low fizz like a misfiring electric circuit.

As I now realize, my teacher tries to rescue me from something she herself sees as a slur, a word that is fine in a book but not in person. “Oh no, not Tessa,” she says, to comfort me and all who might worry about what is in their midst. The other kids continue to stare at me.

Doing her job as the class’s moral compass, she thinks fast: “No, Tessa’s something else.”

The misfiring electric circuit spews shocks through my cheeks, my arms and my legs, which begin to shake.

“What are you, Tessa?”

What am I?
I have no idea what she’s asking. I feel as if I’ve failed a major test. I should have been paying attention, I should know how to answer this.

“You know, people are certain things,” she says, still trying to help, but wounding me deeper and deeper with every second she allows the class’s eyes to remain on me. “Things like, say, Mexican . . .” She waits, but I have nothing. “Brazilian . . . Filipino . . .” she carries on, offering possibilities she sees in my face, but in that moment I hear only words that describe all the things that everyone else in the room isn’t.

She waits, the circuit hums and it becomes so unbearable that I fold my arms on the desk and put my head onto them. I go away, deep inside myself. I don’t remember where I go or for how long, but when I look up again everyone in the class has gone to recess and the teacher is wiping the board. She doesn’t try to speak to me as I get up from my desk and leave the room, heavier now, saddled with something corrosive.

There, with my head in my arms, I learned that I could disappear; I could become invisible. I wondered why the teacher had not asked anyone else in the class the question, why my best friend didn’t have to answer it. I kept these questions and my invisibility to myself.

I understood, without being able to articulate it, that language had the power to change me completely with the utterance of one word. I had known what black was—our extended family and friends were an array of shades—and I had known where I was from, but that wasn’t what I had been asked. Negro was a word like species, a scientific word that clever people knew, but I didn’t. I began to pay attention to the power of words. In being asked what I was and realizing I did not know, I set off to find out. I believe it was the moment I became a writer. 

Images visit me now as the sun sinks below the north London rooftops in Kilburn, where I sit at my desk, thinking about shame. They come in flashes like newsreels from the past.

There is my Chinese grandmother, running from rape. She is running also because she comes from a family of people who have running away in their DNA. Born to Chinese parents who had arrived in British Guiana from Hong Kong towards the end of the nineteenth century, my grandmother’s family had escaped the Sino-Japanese War, after a different uncle, a dentist, had been strapped to his own dentist’s chair and shot in the head by a Japanese soldier.

When I imagine my grandmother as a young woman, she is running.

My mother gave me the story of her mother’s rape when I was a teenager. “Granny ran away from the countryside,” she said, and nearly whispered the rest. I assumed it was her way of warning me about the perils of being a woman, as she had warned me about so many perils as a child. But it was the running and not the rape that stayed with me. I wanted to run towards something that was mine, like most teenagers do, and I wanted to understand what to do with all the words in constant motion in my mind. My mother often let slip nuggets of family history that were at times uncomfortable, at other times mysterious and poetic, and at still other times so distant and unreachable that they could only become myth. She had no way of knowing that she was feeding a writer, and I had no way of knowing what truths she was avoiding or concocting.

Like most families, mine is steeped in the anecdotes of grandparents and parents who recount their histories through the lens of desire, aspiration, loss and shame. We Caribbean families rely heavily on oral histories because we come from ruptured roots, transplantation and whispered heritages related to slavery and colonialism. For substantial strands of my ancestry, there are no solid family trees or traceable lineages. So there’s no knowing for sure where, when or why my ancestors fled or were forcibly taken, or how they arrived in what officially became British Guiana in 1831. 

Of course there are the grandparents I knew, and many uncles and aunts, both blood-related and not, but I can only imagine those who went before them. I know from stories that my ancestry includes Scottish, English, French, Portuguese, Indian, Amerindian, African and Chinese forebears. And there are rumours of hidden bloodlines—that possible French Jew.

My Indian ancestor’s journey from the subcontinent might be one of those documented in the log books of governors and plantation overseers as they procured indentured labour for the colony. There was a scarcity of women. Slavery had been abolished; she was “precious cargo,” arriving on a boat that carried 244 Indians, 233 of whom were men, six of them children, and only four other women. I imagine she resisted it, but necessity won out, and she was forced to bed the overseer to secure the chance of early freedom from her indenture contract.

Other stories bear the weight of secrets, like smuggled Portuguese lace, and they must never be openly mentioned. But some are playful and dance with the tropical light.

My Indigenous great-great-grandmother was described to me by my mother as a “buck” (“My daddy’s family had buck in dem,” she would say), a word that obscures the proper names of peoples—Arawak, Warrau, Arecuna, Akawaio, Patamona, Wapishana. Buck in the way my mother said it meant a wild thing, a man with a spear, a woman free to roam the jungle. I imagine this woman content, alone in her corial. When I paddle a canoe on a lake in Ontario—bounded only by the earth, sky and water, while wildlife plays and hunts in the shadows along the shore—I am like her.

The Scottish McWatt of my surname and the English Eyre of my mother’s side are my links to Europe. I had once imagined that I was secretly related to the Jane of my favourite book. But names themselves are unreliable. McWatt or Eyre might have been names my ancestors took to anglicize or legitimize themselves in a former slave colony. Whispers and shadows: a longing to belong to the mainstream of a new place after the rupture from their places of origin.

It’s my African ancestor—my great-great-grandmother—on whom I focus my imagination. She is the gap in my family’s storytelling that I need to fill, though I can’t trace her precise roots in Africa. Hers is the story that has been buried deepest, most painfully ignored. Hers is the story that bears such deep shame that it has been erased. But the body is a site of memory. If race is made by erecting borders, my body is a crossing, a hybrid many times over. My black and white and brown and yellow and red body is stateless, is chaos. Her body is stolen territory.

I am the result of the movement of bodies on ships: as captains, as cargo, as indentured servants, as people full of hope for a chance of survival. I also come from people nearly annihilated by those who arrived. Guyana, formerly British Guiana, a territory won by the British from Dutch and French treaties of war in the early 1800s, is the only English-speaking country in mainland South America. It is culturally Caribbean but geographically continental. Its pulsing river arteries connect mountains, savannah, rainforests and coastal plains. It is a land of jaguars, tapirs, giant anteaters, otters, monkeys and capybaras, and it has one of the highest levels of biodiversity in the world. It is a land fought over for its natural resources, and its colonial history is a story that relies on ships from Europe, Africa, India and China, along with the dug-out corials of the Indigenous peoples. The paddles, the sails, the winches, the shackles. 

My ancestry centres on one crop: sugar. My history pulses with moments of miscegenation, a hybridity that eludes any box I am asked to tick on census papers or job applications.

I am a song of sugar.

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Step Closer

Step Closer

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This Body

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Vital Signs

Vital Signs

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It has come to me like a dog comes to its master: tail curled between hind legs, wet muzzle nudging to be forgiven for its very existence. This thought has come: I am not worthy of her.
Anna is wearing an electrode cap. Eighteen ultrasensitive electrodes are listening to her brain, translating the signals of the synapses to numerical pulp for Dr. Mead’s diagnosis. He stands before a terminal and monitors the tiny shocks of meaning. He ticks off boxes on a chart. I am slain by the look on Anna’s face that says that this is how we end up, this is how the rakes of decades gather the scatterings of a single being: poorly.
 “The hummingbird is nursing,” Anna says, and Dr. Mead nods, taking more notes. When he asks her how many children she has, her answer is, “Thirty-four,” and I try to decipher if she means three or four, perhaps counting the one that she miscarried after Fred, but I think this is reaching on my part. She has said thirty-four.
Dr. Mead makes more markings on his chart. When he finally releases Anna from the grips of the machinery, his face is sombre.
“If you see the receptionist, she’ll line you up with a few appointments.”
“What kind of appointments?” I ask.
“A range of different tests. I deal with the neuropsychology of these kinds of speech patterns, but . . .” He hesitates.
“I’m going to refer her. We’ll send you some details. If you take a seat for a moment, Theresa will come and get you.”
Dr. Mead is the type of man who can smell rain approaching.
Afterwards, in a café on Bloor Street, Anna’s hands tremble with a will to order, as if to hold a sentence in them and lay it out flat along a plane of reason. This is not impossible, but she doesn’t know that. Instead she picks up her glass of lemonade and drinks.
“Cold eating child,” she says and grimaces, knowing from the expression on my face that it didn’t come out right. I nod and doodle on my napkin with the marker I use when reaching for an image, and so I draw a figure of a child on a seesaw. I know she means that the lemonade reminds her of something in her childhood, and I smile to try to reassure her that I’ve understood. Lemonade is her favourite refreshment, and she likes hers sweetened with the darkest of demerara sugars. I sip my beer, knowing that she won’t challenge me over this early drink for fear that nonsense will spew forth from her mouth. These little advantages I now take, and my vileness bounds over fields, ears and leash flapping in spring breeze.
The drive up Highway 400 toward home is filled with a silent hum of regret, but I believe it’s only mine. Anna seems calm, staring out at the sprawling commercial complexes that make all of this area between the downtown we have just left and our farmhouse an hour away seem like part of the same, flabby city that cannot seem to contain itself.
A shoulder bone. It was the empty curve that did it—her blondeness and the bones, nothing more, I swear.
“Did you call Sasha back?” I ask. Our youngest is the one who makes her laugh the most. Sasha’s mere presence is like a promise that the universe has balance.
“No,” she says, and shakes her head, but smiles at her daughter’s name.
I wish that I had access to a sketch pad and my pen. I vow to carry them with me from here on in. There is an obvious sign for Sasha—for the poise with which she stirs the air, on stage and off. Sasha is our wind whistling in trees. I step on the accelerator, signal and pass the slow truck in front of us.
The other two are more problematic, graphically speaking. Fred, the eldest—more like my father than even his name suggests—would be something that evokes a job never quite finished or a race perpetually run. There’s a glitch in his stride. Whatever it is he’s running toward, his efforts seem more like duty than fulfilment. Charlotte, middle child and the most difficult, is the one I know the least but suspect I am most like. She is selfish and proud, like a statue, but she too has a contour I must work out. I’ve done this secretly in my time—fangled signs for everyone I know. I wonder, if Anna loses all her linguistic abilities, whether this kind of expression might be a way forward or, rather, a way back—to small, quiet moments of clarity between us. But I would have to work faster than I ever have before.
In my years as a partner in the design firm, I had the leisure of being my own boss¸ and knowing that good design took time. How I enjoyed the slowness of creating shapes, even when computer programmes took over. For there is still deliberation in digital imagery. The manipulation of individual pixels is not dissimilar to the slow, exact marking of pen on paper. Eventually, though, the business ran faster than I could, and so I sold my share of the company and went freelance. Then I had to work harder to make a living, and as I worked, my family morphed into fat, vacant shadows. Lately, the work has slowed, so most of my time is now my own. In six short years I turn sixty-five (am I really only a blink away from the pasture?) and I will stop altogether. And then what?
I had envisioned us travelling. For years Anna and I denied ourselves, saved for all the eventualities that have indeed arrived, and invested everything in our children. Even so, Fred—have I unconsciously pressured him into being more successful than I was?—has a medical degree that is of little use in solving the malfunction in his mother’s wiring.
“An aneurysm,” Fred said, flatly, in the composed tone all doctors learn in their final years of study. “She has an aneurysm,” he repeated, as though he had diagnosed her himself, ignoring the fact that Dr. Mead had already explained the condition using the same word. But then Fred is not a neurologist. I put my foot down at financing advanced degrees for any of them, so Fred is a general practitioner, and bitter, I sense, that he isn’t better able to help his mother now.
Still, expert or not, Fred has reaffirmed what in all likelihood is happening to Anna: a strained and seeping aneurysm in the anterior communicating artery. It’s possible that the arterial wall has always been defective, but at some moment in the last few months, blood started to drip into her frontal lobes. It’s that moment I wish I could return to, to catch her, to stand stalwart against the leak—or at least to crawl inside her now and press my hands against that arterial wall to shore it up against further damage.
There, behind the office building, she whispered that I didn’t need to be afraid.
“Sweet keys of sun in the dusk of the toaster,” Anna said one morning at breakfast. I looked up at her, briefly, but made nothing of it, distracted as I was with the morning paper. The day continued quietly as we went about our routines, and other things she said didn’t cause concern. But in the afternoon, as she came in from the garden and wiped her shoes on the mat, she said, without looking up,
“Fissures on the hummingbird’s feet.” Although I reasoned with myself that she might be puzzling something out, I felt a quiet alarm. “Turn up the jet trails; there are steam engines and poor magpies; useless to try to do anything about them,” she blurted out that evening, as she sat at the table while I took the roast chicken out of the oven.
I looked up then, feeling the heat through my oven mitts. She put her hand over her mouth.
“What was that?” I asked. She shook her head and we sat down to a silent dinner. I thought she was angry with me, but when I asked her she smiled to reassure me.
Anna and I have always been comfortable with silence. The first time I acknowledged it to myself was one long afternoon, nearly thirty years ago, in my Clinton Street apartment. We had exhausted ourselves with each other, drinking one another’s breath, my hands and tongue probing the curves and crevices of her olive skin, my own body a starved, chalky spade digging, digging to be nearer to her until we lay still. On rising, we spent the rest of the day contentedly washing, reading, cooking— all without speaking.
When Sasha left home two years ago, we greeted the return of our solitude and its silences with some relief. It wasn’t unusual for us not to speak for long periods, and it was no different that day when Anna first uttered her involuntary riddles. She had gone to bed before me, slept soundly and risen silently to make breakfast for us both. But the dusk on the toaster, the fissures on the hummingbirds, and the poor magpies could not go unexamined.
“How are you feeling today, Anna?” Dr. Mead asked her on our first visit. The same question had been asked by our family doctor a few days earlier. Upon hearing Anna’s answer, he had made an emergency call to Toronto Western’s neurology unit.
“I’m fine, I’m fine, the tortoises have lain and are crawling slowly and singing the song for six trees that run through the garden, and we could have dinner on the lawn, but Mike has brought the car and if the teeth are cleaned then we all . . .” she paused, looking, I believe, at the astonishment on Dr. Mead’s face, and then turned towards me.
Everything went quiet. Dr. Mead reached for his ophthalmoscope; I looked into my lap, guiltily. Anna held her breath as though to cut off oxygen to the nonsense. Or rather, I thought it was nonsense at the time. More and more every day I find myself drawn into the puzzle of her speech, determined to unravel meaning in each sentence, because now I’m sure it’s there, if I only listen to her in a way I have failed to listen for thirty years.
According to Dr. Mead, what Anna has been doing, and continues to do with increasing intensity, is to compress all of her life moments into one when she speaks. Confabulation, he has told me, stems from a problem of self-definition in time. When she’s with me or the children she seems less scattered about the decades, but what I hear when she’s with Dr. Mead is language scrambled in a time machine. “What’s your name?” Dr. Mead asked her on our first visit. “Me? I’m Anna Tractor, of course,” and then she looked at me, wanting me to confirm that she hadn’t ever taken my name—she was not that kind of woman—and that she was indeed Anna who went by her maiden name. But that name is not Tractor.
Anna’s first name is really Aygül. Aygül—the rose of the moon, in Turkish. It became Anna somewhere along the journey as a baby from Istanbul to Toronto in the 1950s. She grew up as Anna Yilmaz in a row house in the west end of the city, near High Park, and was raised like many immigrant children to be obedient, grateful, humble. Anna told me when we first met that Yilmaz means “never give up.” This moon rose is nothing if not unyielding. She is a vibrant, eccentric and intelligent woman. She has nothing in common with a tractor. Undoubtedly the light of my life, she is, of course, the curse of it as well, because there have been many days over the last three decades when I believed that without her and the drone of married life and fatherhood I might have lived something magical. I know all the clichés of my “coulda been a contender” regret, but most days I sense that she was my last brilliant choice. Since then I have made choices that have diminished who I was meant to be and what I was meant to have.
Now I must count on Dr. Mead to perform magic: mend the tear in her brain and give my wife back to me, whole, linear, complete. But he is a theory man, not a surgeon, and confabulation is a tricky foe. From a Stayner library book called Brain Fiction, I know that confabulators have problems with context. While they appear to have a grasp on their autobiography, it’s a slippery one, like a driver’s control of a car on a snowy highway. Memories drift, swerve, and can skid into a pileup.
When Charlotte was fifteen and we let her go out to a movie with that boy who had teeth too big for his lips,“No!” I said to the teeth and the boy. “Gentle,” you said to the fifteen-year-old in me who had not known how to treat a girl. When she came home I hugged her, and asked if she’d enjoyed the movie. You— you arranged her nightclothes on her bed in an order that was like a sign I could not decipher, a configuration that said, from now on, she would sleep differently.

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