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Exceptional Memoirs of Late

By kileyturner
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"The pain of yesterday is the strength of today," writes Brazilian novelist Paulo Coelho, and these eight memoirs bear testimony to his words.
A History of My Brief Body

A History of My Brief Body


The youngest ever winner of the Griffin Prize mines his own personal history to reconcile the world he was born into with the world that could be.

Billy-Ray Belcourt's debut memoir opens with a tender letter to his kokum and memories of his early life in the hamlet of Joussard, Alberta, and on the Driftpile First Nation. From there, it expands to encompass the big and broken world around him, in all its complexity and contradictions: a legacy of colonial violence and the joy t …

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A Letter to Nôhkom
This isn’t a book about you, nôhkom. A book about you, a book in which you appear uncomplicatedly in a world of your own making, would be an anti-nation undertaking. Canada is in the way of that book. To write that book I would need to write crookedly and while on the run. I would need to write my way out of a map and onto the land. For now, you move in and out of my books as though wind in a photograph. I swear no one will mistake you for a deflated balloon hanging from my fist. Here, and in my poetry, you’re always looking up at the sky, longing for the future. In order to remember you as a practitioner of the utopian, I need to honour the intimacies of the unwritten. This book, then, is as much an ode to you as it is to the world-to-come. In the world-to-come, your voice reminds those in your orbit that we can stop running, that we’ve already stopped running.
Often I remember that you likewise have been denied the relief and pleasure of stillness. When I do, my heart breaks. When it does, I gather the shards into the shape of a country, then I close my eyes and swallow.
Courtney, my oldest sister, and I have a running joke about how you call her only when you’re searching for me, because for whatever reason you can’t find me between the hundreds or thousands of kilometres that make the world too wide for you to be beside me anymore. In the summer of 2016, for example, I travelled to Honolulu for the gathering of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association. Before I boarded the plane you said this to me over the phone: “Don’t forget to call me, because I’ll go crazy if I don’t hear from you.”
What a sentence! Built into the mechanics of love is the possibility of mismanagement, for we can never adequately anticipate how our relation to a love object might shift or morph over time. Love has a tendency to shatter; it is prone to weakening and to running amok without notice. Perhaps, ironically, this is how it anchors us to a world, how it makes us want to give everything to the project of living well with others. Without love or the object into which we hoard parts of ourselves, we might go “crazy,” lose our bearings. Although distance and time have pried open a barely translatable gap between you and me, we still find something worth tending to in the history of us that is unavailable elsewhere.
You love to tell the story about how when Jesse, my twin brother, and I were babies, you had to sit me in a jumper and him in a saucer to feed us concurrently. You would shovel a bit of oatmeal into my mouth then turn to Jesse, you inform us, smirking. You fill the room with laughter each time you describe and re-enact how impatiently I would wait for my helping. Begging, high energy—you had to pick up the pace to appease me. I’m floored, not only by your ability to call up a decades-old memory, but also and more acutely by the joy that having had such an experience brings you.
Even in my earliest memories, I’ve always intuited your presence as a capacious one. I was a “kokum’s boy,” so to speak. You took me everywhere—albeit not to the bingo hall! You showed me a level of unconditional love that I rarely find at all nowadays. You were and are at the core of an extended family unit, balancing, back then, the fine line of encounter between my mom and my dad, your relatives and his. As kids, as you know all too well, Jesse and I rarely spent the night anywhere but our little house in the bush. Yes, we often made ambitious plans to do otherwise, but you always answered our late-night phone calls spurred by a sudden bout of sickness and then drove anywhere between fifteen and thirty minutes to fetch us. Truth be told, we were seldom ill; we simply wanted to be where you were.
It seems now that this flow of emotion has inverted as I’ve grown up. Today, I sometimes forget to call when I said I would, or I habitually wait for your number to flash across my phone. This monumental change is a disorienting fact of adult life—we stretch outside the collective skin of the family. But back then your love incubated a refuge, one I can always return to if need be.
To speak of the possibility of losing me because I’m not near you might also point to the ways that we inhabit imperilled bodies in a shrinking world in which we don’t remember how to coexist without stymying collective flourishing. It’s as though you’re saying, à la Warsan Shire, that I’m “terrifying and strange and beautiful, someone not everyone knows how to love.” It’s as though you’re warning me that your house might be the only sanctuary for NDN boys who love at the speed of utopia.
Nôhkom, I’m not safe. Canada is still in the business of gunning down NDNs. What’s more, state violence commonly manifests as a short-circuited life, one marked by illness, sadness, and other negative affects by which we become ruled until what remains of a body is a ghoulish trace. Despite the stories of progress and equality at the core of Canada’s national identity, a long tradition of brutality and negligence is what constitutes kinship for the citizens of a nation sat atop the lands of older, more storied ones. I can’t promise I won’t become snared in someone’s lethal mythology of race. What I can do is love as though it will rupture the singularity of Canadian cruelty (irrespective of whether this is a sociological possibility). Herein lies my poetic truth.
Love, then, isn’t remotely about what we might lose when it inevitably dissipates. How unworkable love would be were we to subject it to a cost-benefit analysis! In the world of the statistical it doesn’t survive and is stripped of its magic; love dwells somewhere less rhythmed by anticipation, less mediated by prediction and calculation, all of which fools us into fighting to preserve a sovereignty that doesn’t exist. In Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity, José Esteban Muñoz writes: “To accept the way in which one is lost is to be also found and not found.” What has stayed constant between us is this cycle of losing and finding, this unending transference of vitality, without which we might feel directionless. Love of this sort, however, isn’t about making a roadmap to an other who then becomes your compass. It is a proposition to nest in the unrepayable and ever-mounting debt of care that stands in opposition to the careless and transactional practices of state power that mire the lives of NDNs and other minoritized populations. Having inherited your philosophy of love, which is also a theory of freedom, nôhkom, I can write myself into a narrative of joy that troubles the horrid fiction of race that stalks me as it does you and our kin.
It’s likely that you might feel confused at times by my style of writing, its dexterity, its refusal of easiness, but I know that you’ll sense the affection bubbling up inside each word. That affection is joy, and it started with you. Now, I see it everywhere.
Bill, Edmonton, AB

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Hello I Want to Die Please Fix Me

Hello I Want to Die Please Fix Me

Depression in the First Person

Award-winning journalist Anna Mehler Paperny's stunning memoir chronicles with courageous honesty and uncommon eloquence her experience of depression and her quest to explore what we know and don't know about this disease that afflicts almost a fifth of the population--providing an invaluable guide to a system struggling to find solutions. As fascinating as it is heartrending, as outrageously funny as it is …

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How do you talk about trying to die? Haltingly, urgently: in mes­sages and calls to friends. Abashedly: you stand in the middle of a hospital hallway on a parent’s cell phone as your grandfather bel­lows, “No more stupid tricks!” Gingerly: you stand in your psych ward at the patients’ landline, conscious of fellow patients watch­ing TV just behind you, white corkscrew cord curled around your finger as you murmur to your grandmother who understands better than she should. Who is the first to tell you, as you lean against the orange-tinted counter with its row of cupboards for confiscated belongings below the sink, that you have to write all this down. And even though you put it off for months, agonize for years, you know she’s right.
Quietly, desperately: in one medical appointment after another. Trepidatiously: to colleagues. Searchingly: in interviews. Increasingly loudly. In a book? With the world?
A disorder hijacks your life and becomes an obsession. Know thine enemy. Chart in minute detail the way it wrecks you and seek out every aliquot of information out there. Butt up against the con­stricting limits of human understanding, smash yourself against that wall and seek instead to map the contours of collective ignorance. Know the unknowns of thine enemy, learn them by heart. Because even if you never best it, never loosen its grip on your existence, at least your best attempt at understanding will give you some sem­blance of agency.
No one wants this crap illness that masquerades as personal failing. I had no desire to plumb its depths. The struggle to func­tion leaves me little capacity to do so. But in the end I had no choice. I approached this enemy I barely believed in the only way I knew how: as a reporter. I took a topic about which I knew nothing and sought somehow to know everything. I talked to people in search of answers and mostly found more questions.
Personal experience has made me more invested in addressing the gross inequities depression exacerbates, in hammering home the human, societal, economic costs. The depth of depression’s debilita­tion and our reprehensible failure to address it consume me because I’m there, spending days paralyzed and nights wracked because my meds aren’t good enough. But this isn’t some quixotic personal proj­ect that pertains to me and no one else. Depression affects everyone on the planet, directly or indirectly, in every possible sphere. Its very ubiquity robs it of sexiness but not urgency. I found this in every interview I did, in every article I read, in every attempt I made to sort out how the fuck this can be so bad and so badly unaddressed.
This book is also my way of exorcising endless guilt at having been so lucky—to have benefited from publicly funded inpatient and outpatient mental health care; to have maintained, for the most part, employment; to have had patches of insurance lighten the burden of paying for years of drugs. This shouldn’t be the purview of the priv­ileged but it is. We fail the most marginalized at every level, then wonder why they worsen.
I don’t want to be the person writing this book. Don’t want to be chewed up by despair so unremitting the only conceivable response is to write it. But I am. I write this because I need both life vest and anchor, because I need both to scream and to arm myself in the dark. Maybe you need to scream, to arm yourself, too.

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The Smallest Lights in the Universe

The Smallest Lights in the Universe

A Memoir

Canadian MIT astrophysicist Sara Seager interweaves the story of her search for meaning and solace after losing her first husband to cancer, her unflagging search for an Earth-like exoplanet and her unexpected discovery of new love.

Sara Seager has made it her life's work to peer into the spaces around stars--looking for exoplanets outside our solar system, hoping to find the one-in-a-billion world enough like ours to sustain life. But with the unexpected death of her husband, her life became an …

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My Father, Fortune-tellers & Me

My Father, Fortune-tellers & Me

A Memoir

My Father, Fortune-tellers & Me: A Memoir is a powerful and witty coming-of-age story of fate versus free will. As the daughter of southern Italian immigrants joined in an acrimonious arranged marriage, Eufemia Fantetti weathered the devastating consequences of her mother’s treatment-resistant schizophrenia for years before moving to the West Coast to escape the constant turmoil. In her search for meaning beyond a host of ancestral superstitions—malocchio, maledictions and stregheria—she w …

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Older Sister. Not Necessarily Related.

Older Sister. Not Necessarily Related.

A Memoir
also available: Paperback

Winner of the 2019 Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction
A beautiful and haunting memoir of kinship and culture rediscovered.

Jenny Heijun Wills was born in Korea and adopted as an infant into a white family in small-town Canada. In her late twenties, she reconnected with her first family and returned to Seoul where she spent four months getting to know other adoptees, as well as her Korean mother, father, siblings, and extended family. At the guesthouse for transnational adoptees whe …

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Minutes after I was born, my grandfather—that is, my father's father—gifted me a name. Then he signed a contract that struck me from the family registry. That ripped me away from my mother as she frantically counted my wrinkled and already-reaching fingers and toes. She pressed her mouth to my wet hair only once before I was taken away, what remained of the salty wax slip of her own insides thick and earthy on her lips. 

For thirty years (and still to this day in the mouths of most), my name was replaced by one so expected it might have been Jessica or Meghan or Kimberley. Names of varying degrees of impossibility to Korean speakers. Mine is a name that I answer to, but that I wear only because I'm accustomed to it. Because others are accustomed to it. Not because it suits me. Early on, I was scrubbed until my skin turned pink. I was programmed to speak English, then French, and to place my fork and knife side by side on my plate when I had finished eating. I disappeared into a life of cream-of-mushroom casseroles, Irish setters, and patent leather Sunday school shoes. I was buried under Bach concertos, feathered bangs, and maple sugar candy until my own mother wouldn't have recognized me. 

But of course I couldn't  stay missing forever, and around 2009, I was reborn somewhere in the dusky November mountains of Seoul. I came back to life with a long wooden spoon in one hand and flat silver chopsticks in the other. I came back when my Korean father called me by name, when my Korean mother called me daughter. When my youngest sister called me unni, older sister, and I understood what that meant. 

I learned by mimicking others. I tried to fall in line with a culture practised by people who use given names only for those younger than themselves. I peeled giant apples in one long curl. I recognized spiciness by the redness in the bowl. I came back to life when all the ginkgo berries had fallen and the entire ountry of South Korea was filled with their cutting scent. I came back to life when all that remained were persimmons clinging to bare branches. 

While my homecoming was something to be celebrated, it also planted lingering heartache once all the soju had been drunk and all the kisses had been given and received. I watched my parents, reunited after being torn apart on the day I was taken, fumble through what could have been our lives, if only. They came together, reclaimed the love they'd lost decades earlier. They thought they'd outsmarted fate. I thought I was happy. 

I watched my own unni's life crack and splinter and shatter when it became clear that our father had always been pathetic and her mother had sometimes been both weak and cruel. She tried, my unni, to love me despite all the disloyalty that went into my making, but in the end we had nothing to hold on to. And although there is even less between us now, I still whisper stories to her into the sky, fallen eyelashes and dandelion fluff. Confessions and prayers to an older sister, related but not really. Wishes that, one day, everything will be forgiven.

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Dead Mom Walking

Dead Mom Walking

A Memoir of Miracle Cures and Other Disasters

"A comedy for catastrophic times." --CBC
"A hilarious memoir of effervescent misadventures." --Toronto Star
"How am I laughing at someone's mother's cancer? How? We think we can't laugh about death, about cancer, about our mothers and their suffering . . . and we can't, but we can. And there's so much relief in that." --Carolyn Taylor, BARONESS VON SKETCH SHOW
A traumedy about life and death (and every cosmic joke in between)

When her mother is diagnosed with cancer, Rachel Ma …

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I was lying on a buffalo skin rug, high on ayahuasca. My thoughts were going deep: Why can’t she just get the damn surgery? How long will she keep this up for? What exactly did she mean by the “quantum plane”? I waited expectantly for access to a higher realm — and maybe some insight into my mom’s magical thinking. Suddenly my face felt wet. I opened my eyes. The shaman was standing over me, flicking Peruvian flower water on my head, chanting “Sha-na-na-na-na-na-na.”

Doing drugs was not my idea. I prefer to keep my visions 20/20. But what do you say when your sixty-seven-year-old mother asks you to go to the woods with her to take hallucinogens? To be clear, Mom was never the acid-droppin’ hippie type. She was more of a New Age junkie, always on the lookout for a new fix. And now the stakes had never been higher: she’d been diagnosed with cancer and was trying every potion under the sun — except for chemo.

As part of her alternative healing journey, Mom had decided to attend an overnight ayahuasca ceremony in the countryside an hour north of Toronto. The psychoactive plant remedy, used by Indigenous peoples in the Amazon for centuries, had become all the rage among Western spiritual seekers. Made from the vine and leaves of two separate plants and consumed as a molasses-like tea, ayahuasca’s effects are said to be cleansing and transformative. It’s been used to help overcome depression, anxiety, addiction, and many other conditions. “People say it’s like thirty years of psychotherapy in one night,” Mom boasted. That’s supposed to sound appealing?

Unsure of what to expect, Mom had asked me to come along. “It would be nice to have you there for support,” she’d said. “And maybe you’ll have your own spiritual awakening.” Spiritual awakening? My spirit likes to hit the snooze button and hates leaving downtown. But I loved my mom, and if she was going to experiment with drugs I’d rather be there to keep an eye on her. At the very least it would be a mother-daughter trip to remember (if only in flashbacks).

We arrived at a log house, where the shaman greeted us with the kind of deep, meaningful hugs that last way too long. He was a very friendly white guy in his mid-fifties who introduced himself by his Peruvian medicine-man name (I imagine his real name was something like Jerry Goldstein). Mom and I said hello to the few other participants, who were already huddled around in the living room. We found some floor space on the rug and rolled out our sleeping bags so that our feet faced the fireplace-turned-altar, adorned with feathers, crystals, and antlers.

Then, to my horror, the shaman proceeded to hand out large empty yogurt containers because, as he explained, it’s common to “purge” when you take the “medicine.” Apparently I was the only one not aware of this fun fact. But it was too late — the psychedelic slumber party had begun. The shaman blessed the ayahuasca and, one by one, we were invited to sit at the altar and do a shot. When it was my turn I gulped back the bitter brew and headed back to my cocoon, where I chased it down with some orange Vitaminwater. With notes of rancid coffee, rusted metal, and jungle rot, it wasn’t a mystery why they called ayahuasca “the vine of death.”

Now, going into this, I’d thought the shaman would just be on hand, like if I had any questions or wasn’t feeling well. But no, this ceremony was intimate and interactive. As we started our trips he began making his rounds, each time with a different act. First, he waved a fan made of feathers in my face. Next, he shook dried leaves around my body. Then he blew tobacco smoke into my sleeping bag. Um, thanks?

By the time I was being baptized with flower water, I figured things couldn’t get any worse. Then my stomach began to rumble. I absolutely hate throwing up, so I was determined to keep the poison down, even as my tummy churned like a washing machine. However, I discovered that if there’s one thing I hate more than throwing up, it’s hearing a room full of people — including my own mother — violently puking their guts out into yogurt containers. It was a sober vision of pure hell.

By about 4:00 a.m., the hope of sleep putting me out of my misery was all but lost. “It’s music time!” someone announced. I braced myself as a long-haired hippie dude picked up a guitar and began to serenade us. “Free, free, like a dolphin in the sea,” he sang repeatedly. He obviously hadn’t seen The Cove.

If ayahuasca was bringing any clarity to my life, it was that saving Mom would have to wait for another day (and that I should never leave home without earplugs). I glanced over at her. She was adorable, all strung out, swaddled in her sleeping bag. Is this how she used to look at me when I was a baby?

I was feeling restless. I wondered if it would be rude if I excused myself to go watch TV in the bedroom. Maybe I could play Scrabble on my phone? There was really no way out. So I went back to the altar and downed another shot.

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We Have Always Been Here

We Have Always Been Here

A Queer Muslim Memoir

How do you find yourself when the world tells you that you don't exist?

Samra Habib has spent most of her life searching for the safety to be herself. As an Ahmadi Muslim growing up in Pakistan, she faced regular threats from Islamic extremists who believed the small, dynamic sect to be blasphemous. From her parents, she internalized the lesson that revealing her identity could put her in grave danger.

When her family c …

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Sonia and I were the same age and instantly liked each other. She had a mischievous way about her that pulled me in. She always smelled of oranges, her fingers sticky from sucking on slices of the fruit as the juices dripped down her chin and hands. She left a trail of orange peels everywhere she went. I was in awe of her pin-straight hair that could do anything she wanted it to but mostly rested on her shoulders, two vertical lines framing her gamine face. Mine was curly and unruly, and my mother insisted on having it fashioned into an unflattering bowl cut. Since I was no longer allowed to go outside or visit friends without my parents chaperoning, much of our playing happened at our house. Sonia never asked why—I just let her believe it was because my parents were extremely religious. When we weren’t building blanket forts, we spent afternoons on the veranda flashing everyone who walked by, spreading our legs wide open and exposing our vaginas, breaking out into peals of laughter with each look of horror we received.
Some days, Sonia wanted to play doctor. She’d pull down her pants and ask me to give her an injection, and I’d pretend to inject her warm skin with a piece of chalk, its tip pointy and startlingly cold. The chalky imprint of my hand would remain on her bum as she pulled up her pants, laughing. We’d often play in the musty, abandoned room on the second floor above our unit that was full of discarded furniture and yards of fabric my mother had purchased to bring to Sonia’s mother. One day, when I suggested we tell each other stories instead of playing doctor, she began to tell me a dirty tale of two lovers, Idris and Sahar, who undressed in front of each other—but she abruptly ended the story just when my heart started racing with anticipation. I needed to know what happened next.
“I have to go,” she blurted. “Next time!” She patted my mop of curls and grabbed her backpack, flashing me an impish smile on her way out the door.
For days, I waited for her to come back and finish the story. A week went by. Unable to bear the suspense any longer, I told my parents I was going to visit Sonia, knowing full well I wasn’t allowed to venture out unaccompanied. When they prodded, I recounted the whole sordid story. As expected, my parents told Sonia’s parents that she wasn’t allowed to visit our house ever again.
It was nearing four o’clock and my mother still had to pick up a cake before the guests arrived and my dad came home from work. She asked Pinky to keep an eye on my sisters and me so that she could run some errands and swing by the bakery. She knew how much I loved the dense, spongy cake soaked in rosewater and layered with thick cream and ripe fruit. As she opened the door, the smell of burning tires infiltrated the hallway. Without giving it much thought, she headed out the door, the smell lingering in the air. After all, the birthday would be incomplete without the cake.
The bakery was only ten minutes away, so we were worried when an hour went by and neither my mother nor my father had come home. When my mother finally showed up, she had with her Osman and his mother, along with five other Shia families from the street. Sunni and Shia conflicts had erupted throughout Lahore, and my mother had gathered this band of strangers together and offered temporary refuge from the rioting in the streets. As Ahmadis, we were the only family in the neighbourhood to be spared the wrath of Sunni extremists. For once, the target wasn’t us.
The cause of the conflict goes back some fourteen hundred years. Immediately following the death of Prophet Muhammad, the two sects clashed over who his successor should be. Shias believe that Ali, the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law, was the rightful successor, whereas Sunnis argue that it was Abu Bakr, the Prophet’s trusted advisor. Centuries of bloodshed have followed. Shias claim that Sunnis have received preferential treatment from the Pakistani government since 1948, soon after Pakistan was founded, and that their freedom of speech is consistently threatened. Around the time of my birthday, things had gotten particularly violent after the assassination of Arif Hussain Hussaini, founding leader of Tehrik-e-Jafaria, a religious organization that represented the Shias.
Amid all the mayhem, I marvelled at how my mother had managed to find a cake when all the shops were either closed or vandalized. I was even more shocked that she had made it home safe, unaffected by the tear gas or the rioters who were setting fire to everything in sight, the thick fumes permeating our house through the roofless courtyard where everyone had gathered. To a seven-year-old, it seemed the world was coming to an end. If my mother was panicked that my father was still not home, she certainly didn’t let it show.
I looked at Osman, who had taken refuge under his mother’s arm and was pressing his nose against it. There were other children, too—some my age or younger, some old enough to require a burka to hide the curves of their bodies. I couldn’t help feeling relieved that this time it wasn’t us. But the fear I witnessed was intensely familiar. Who belonged if none of us did? I had never felt as close to Shias as I did that day.
My mother, perhaps opting for a distraction, removed the wrapping from the cake and placed it on the dining table. Pinky heated a pot of goat’s milk for chai and poured it into eight terracotta cups. The smell of cardamom temporarily replaced the pungent odour of burning cars.
When the phone rang, my mother almost dropped the tray of pakoras and ran toward it. “Kee haal hai?”—How are you?—she asked ironically, knowing my father was probably plotting how to get home safely while police had blocked off access to our street. She spoke in Punjabi, the language my parents used when they didn’t want us to know what they were talking about, not realizing we’d picked it up over the years.
We were startled by a flurry of loud knocks on the front door and the voices on the other side demanding that we open it. We all knew that the men outside were after the Shias hiding in our house. My mother hung up the phone and, with the help of the other women, pushed a heavy cupboard full of china and ceramics in front of the door. As the thumping persisted, she silently lit the candles on the cake, one for each of my seven years. Taking our cue from her calm demeanour, we all gathered around the table as if nothing out of the ordinary was happening. After a loud chorus of “Happy Birthday” drowned out the noise in the background, I blew out the candles. My mother carefully plated each dish with an equal slice of cake, pakoras, and chaat and handed them to everyone in our house.
Soon it was time for Maghrib prayer. Pinky and the other women lined the concrete floor with bedsheets, and we Ahmadis prayed with our Shia neighbours for the first time, our bodies so close there was barely space between us. My eyes wandered to the different placement of hands on the chests of our Shia guests, placed higher than I was accustomed to. It struck me that despite our differences, we were all terrified of the same people.
The knocks eventually stopped and we wondered if the riots had too. Then we heard a heavy thud on the roof. We all lifted our heads in panic, and mothers tightly clutched their children. Then my dad emerged from the top floor, climbing down the stairs to the courtyard. Eager to unite with us, he had scaled the wall of a house at the end of our street and jumped between the rooftops until he reached ours. I had never in my life been happier to see him.

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Shame on Me

Shame on Me

An Anatomy of Race and Belonging

Interrogating our ideas of race through the lens of her own multi-racial identity, critically acclaimed novelist Tessa McWatt turns her eye on herself, her body and this world in a powerful new work of non-fiction.

Tessa McWatt has been called Susie Wong, Pocahontas and "black bitch," and has been judged not black enough by people who assume she straightens her hair. Now, through a close examination of her own body--nose, lips, hair, skin, eyes, ass, bones and blood--which holds up a mirror to t …

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“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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