Africville was once a vibrant community in Halifax. For over 150 years, it was home to Black Nova Scotians. Due to neglect and targeting by the city government however, the community eventually shuttered in the early '60s, with the residents forcibly removed to public housing. It remains an essential place in Black Canadian history and has been designated a National Historic Site of Canada.
It's this rich history that Shauntay Grant builds on in Africville (Groundwood Books, illustrated by Eva Campbell). In this poignant tale, packed with gorgeous illustrations of the titular community, a young girl visits Africville and imagines what it was once like in its glory days, connecting those thoughts with the current memorialization of the Africville site and her own family history.
It's a powerful book that brings an important chapter of Canadian history to life for young readers, and we're excited to welcome Shauntay to Open Book today to speak about Africville as part of our Lucky Seven series.
She tells us about starting the text for the book while sitting in the park that now occupies the former Africville site, how the book explores the concept of home, and how she was able to work with former Africville residents during the writing process.
Tell us about your new book and how it came to be.
Africville is based on the text of a poem I wrote while sitting at the site of the former community, which is now a public park. When writing about a specific place, I’ll often go there to draw inspiration from the physical land. And so this poem was one of the gifts of that experience, sitting near the shores of the Bedford Basin in Halifax, listening, and reflecting on the community of Africville.
Is there a question that is central to your book, thematically?
One question that consumed me during the writing process is, “How do I make the Africville story accessible to children?” Often when we hear about Africville we hear about the negative things that were done to the community – all of the unwanted services brought by the city like the garbage dump, railroad tracks, slaughterhouse, the hospital for infectious disease, and lack of sewers and running water. But that is only a part of the story. For more than 150 years Africville was a vibrant, self-sustaining community. It was a home. And this celebration of home is a central theme in the book.
Did this project change significantly from when you first started working on it to the final version?
For sure. The first draft was conceived as a poem. The second draft, as a poem for young children, so a few tweaks with the language. And later, once I began working with Groundwood, I had the opportunity to share the draft text and illustrations with former Africville residents. It was such an incredible experience, to receive their feedback and affirmation. They helped make it a better book.
What do you need in order to write – in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?
Silence is good. I talk as I write so hearing the words bounce around the space I’m in without other noise interference is helpful. I like to start with pen and paper, and then move to computer when I’m editing. Though sometimes I start with just voice – speaking the words aloud to myself, over and again until it feels right. I can pretty much write anywhere but I prefer an uncluttered desk, or an open space outside (weather permitting of course!). Tea is always good. Peppermint. Or Ginger.
What do you do if you're feeling discouraged during the writing process? Do you have a method of coping with the difficult points in your projects?
I go for a walk. It’s central to my writing practice. For me, the work doesn’t just happen at a desk in front of a computer or with pen and paper. There’s something about walking – coupled with listening and quiet reflection – that just makes everything clearer. I also have a habit of needing to hear the words aloud before committing them to paper, especially when it comes to dialogue. Exploring rhythm, meter, pacing, cadence is crucial to my practice, be it poetry, children’s books, playwriting, or any form of creative writing.
What defines a great book, in your opinion? Tell us about one or two books you consider to be truly great books.
I’m drawn to books that read like poetry. Whether poetry or prose, if the words sing and the writer is clearly concerned with the rhythm of the language, I’m hooked. One that I keep returning to is At The Bottom Of The River, a collection of short stories by Jamaica Kincaid. The writing is full of imagery, metaphor, music, feeling… you really get swept away.
What are you working on now?
My next project is a work for adults – a play. I’ve been developing my stage play The Bridge as playwright-in-residence at 2b theatre company. It’s set in a rural Black Nova Scotian community and explores the complexities of a relationship between two brothers strained over 20 years of secrecy, sin and shame. The play will premiere at Neptune Theatre in January 2019, a co-production between 2b and Neptune in association with Obsidian Theatre.
Shauntay Grant is a descendant of Black Loyalists, Jamaican Maroons and Black Refugees who migrated to Canada some two hundred years ago. A writer and performance artist, she has won the Joseph S. Stauffer Prize, and she has published several picture books. Shauntay also lectures in the Creative Writing Program at Dalhousie University. Her professional degrees and training include the Master of Fine Arts program at the University of British Columbia, and the Bachelor of Journalism program at the University of King’s College. She lives in Halifax.