Throughout the month I'll be interviewing various authors. Today I share my conversation with Michael Fraser. Michael has been published in numerous national and international anthologies and journals. He was included in the Best Canadian Poetry in English 2013 anthology, and won Freefall’s 2014 and 2015 Poetry Contests. Last year, Mr. Fraser won the 2016 CBC Poetry Prize. His latest book is To Greet Yourself Arriving (Tightrope Books, 2016).
I was born in Bermuda, my mother is from Jamaica and I've spent the majority of my adult life in Canada. Trying to define “home,” is a constant under current of my work. Similarly, you were born in Grenada, raised in Edmonton and now reside in Toronto. How do you define “home,” and how does that definition influence your poetry?
I used to have issues with this question and notions of “home” when I was younger. I presently believe this notion of “home” is highly constraining and limiting. It’s matched with questions like “where are you from?” Oddly enough, I believe our preoccupation with the “home” question is very Canadian and it encumbers visible minorities from fully taking our place at the table. I’ve lived the vast majority of my life in Toronto, so Toronto is “home”.
Of course, I think you’re also referring to whether one is accepted by the other citizens of one’s “home”. This is where the tension lies. At some point, it occurred to me I don’t require another’s validation of my citizenship or right to belong in this country. I survived seven Edmonton winters as a child. Seven! This was long before snow pants! I believe this makes me more Canadian than people who’ve lived their entire lives in Vancouver…lol At day’s end, we have to live our lives. I believe overly contemplating notions of “home” is a waste of time.
Serenity of Stone is a very personal book whereas, To Greet Yourself Arriving takes it's influences from figures in black history and culture. What inspired the change in approach?
Austin Clarke was at the book launch and afterwards, he told me I had to specifically write about our experiences as African Canadians. Our stories have either been ignored by others or told by others. We have to tell our own stories. The construction and representation of African Canadians in the collective consciousness is heavily influenced by American media and great neglect and erasure from Canadian media and history. This poses an additional but necessary burden on African Canadian artists, writers, etc. We have to rewrite historical wrongs, educate the general populace, and most importantly, educate ourselves. We owe it to the millions who’ve endured slavery, and yes, slavery existed in Canada. The first slaves were brought here in 1629 and slavery wasn’t abolished in British North America until 1835! Most Canadians are probably unaware there were 200 years of African slavery in this country.
Last year, you won the CBC Poetry Prize for “African Canadian in Union Blue.” The historic influences to the poem are obvious, but how much research was involved in the work? What was the methodology behind your research?
To be perfectly candid, I’ve always been fascinated by war and in particular, the Civil War. The number of innovations and technological advances that arose from the Civil War is mindboggling! Everything from submarines, machine guns, ironclad ships, long-range weapons, torpedoes, ambulance corps, aerial reconnaissance, paper money, the sewing machine, standard clothing sizes, embalming, nation-wide telegraphs, etc., were created during the Civil War! It was the first modern war. There wasn’t any rigorous academic methodology with regards to the research. It was very organic and evolved naturally since I was a child. The main issue was compiling Civil War slang, regional terminology, and military terminology of the times. I essentially created my own dictionary over a two year period. I amassed the lexicon through internet searches, reading Civil War letters, and most importantly, reading books about the African Canadian soldiers who bravely joined Union forces only to be underpaid, mistreated, and ill-equipped to fight. The adversity and horror these men endured is truly remarkable.
A trend that I find in black Canadian literature, is the idea of the author as historian, why? Do you believe that To Greet Yourself Arriving fits into this cannon of black Canadian literature as historical text?
Yes, To Greet Yourself Arriving certainly does. I believe my answer to question two addresses the author as historian issue. For African Canadian writers, artists, etc., it’s a necessity. We must write our own stories and vanquish the false and wayward narratives that have been created for us by others. I would also argue that all texts are historical. Everything from reality TV shows, novels, movies, buildings, store signs, roads, clothing, cars, etc. are reflections of the times in which they were produced. Everything we humans produce is historical.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Dane Swan is a Bermuda-raised, Toronto-based internationally published poet, writer and musician. His first collection, Bending the Continuum was launched by Guernica Editions in the Spring of 2011. The collection was a recommended mid-summer read by Open Book: Toronto. In 2013 Dane was short listed for the Monica Ladell Award (Scarborough Arts) for his poem "Stopwatch."