"Not Only Landmarks, But Vibration" Tanya Turton on Her Love Letter to Her Toronto Neighbourhood and Black Queer Womanhood
To lose a sibling as a young adult is a brutal experience. For Jade Brown, the protagonist of debut novelist Tanya Turton's Jade is a Twisted Green (Rare Machines/Dundurn Press), the tragedy is made even more complex by the mysterious circumstances around her twin sister's death.
Seeking distraction in love affairs, friends, travel, and adventure, Jade eventually finds herself forced to take stock, and to turn to the few connections she has to her sister, including an ex-girlfriend who knew her sister and with whom Jade shares a complicated connection.
Discovering herself as a twin without her counterpart, as a queer Black woman, a writer, and a lover, Jade's journeys both internal and external are richly told, deeply moving, and utterly authentic, proving Turton's chops as a serious literary talent right out of the gate.
We're excited to speak with Tanya today about Jade is a Twisted Green and how a project ten years in the making came to be. She tells us about the very moment (to the minute!) that the book first began for her, why the north-west Toronto setting of the book was absolutely essential, and shares the heartbreaking personal losses that informed the writing of Jade is a Twisted Green.
Do you remember how your first started this novel or the very first bit of writing you did for it?
It was 1:03am on April 10th 2012, I was twenty-two and just graduated my Bachelors or Social Work, I was working at a youth centre and trying to figure out life as a Black queer woman in Toronto. I wasn’t sure what exactly this book would be, I started a character sketch of Jade and wrote in first person. I knew I wanted to explore grief and coming of age in Toronto. I still have a few pages of the original first draft but unfortunately lost the bulk of narrative to a tech accident. That turned out to be a gift because in 2019 I picked-up the concept again and with better skills began writing the novel from scratch, then as a 29 year old with perspective on my side. About 3% of the current novel is text written from that time in 2012, but the concept and main character remains 100% true to the original vision and intention.
How did you choose the setting of your novel? What connection, if any, did you have to the setting when you began writing?
I craved a book written in Toronto, on the north-west side of the city I grew up on. A lot of what I knew about life and understood came out of this particular cultural experience. My lens was crafted in primarily immigrant communities and while traveling back and forth from the west-end where I resided to downtown for school and work. As a young girl I craved an intersectional story that showcased the realities I saw around me and allowed Blackness, queerness and womanhood to come together. Toronto is not only a setting in Jade Is A Twisted Green, the city is an additional character, contributing just as much as the various members of Jade’s friend circle. Toronto is a city with a heartbeat, deep sense of culture, and its own way of communicating, I knew I needed to convey not only landmarks, but vibration.
Did you find yourself having a “favourite” amongst your characters? If so, who was it and why?
I struggle to choose a favourite, but I think Imani and Amethyst both stole my heart for very different reasons. Amethyst embodies sisterhood and while she didn’t always agree with Jade, her love never wavered. She shows us how we can love someone who is grieving with accountability and compassion. Amethyst is the best friend we all need. Imani is brilliant, self-actualized and a joy to be around, her impact on everyone she meets is simply note worthy. I don’t think Jade would have began speaking more honestly and building her confidence without Imani as an inspiration.
If you had to describe your book in one sentence, what would you say?
Jade Is a Twisted Green is an homage to self-reclamation, exploring the complexities of relationships and the importance of family, love, and care.
Did you do any specific research for this novel? Tell us a bit about that process.
I got the idea to write the book in my early twenties but did not dive in deep until I was 29, which meant my primary research was life. I took notes of my environment and what made coming of age in Toronto unique. The book primarily unfolds in 2014, and I wanted to embody the nostalgia. I researched fashion, culture, slang, and the language used at the time. During the flashback scenes of the 80’s and 90’s I used the internet for pictures to help me visualize, going as far as looking up hospital procedures or policies for medical scenes.
Focusing on Toronto’s Jamaican diaspora was an intentional choice, but I couldn’t only rely on my personal knowledge, I researched the way others spoke, talked to Jamaican’s both in the city and back home to find the heart of the culture and portray our experiences with accuracy. Many of the American scenes required additional research because while I had visited some locations, in the short time my manuscript was due, I couldn’t visit them all, so I watched YouTube vlogs of the cities and talked to my American friends. My research was not only focused on facts and details, I worked to understand nuance and convey what is often unspoken. Like many other writers, having a diverse research strategy was pivotal to the descriptive prose Jade Is A Twisted Green offers.
Who did you dedicate your novel to, and why?
I dedicated my novel to my sister who died by suicide at twenty-two when I was eleven. Her life forever impacted the course of my work and my commitment to mental health. I also dedicated my novel to Black women and femmes twisted in their becoming. When Black women experience mental health challenges, historically we are labeled various things and it is seen as a character flaw. The focus becomes “what is wrong with you” instead of “what happened to you”. Much of my work focuses on offering understanding, compassion and nuance for us, this book is an extension of my life’s work. Our stories and brilliance inspired this body of work and I feel grateful to offer my insights.
What if, anything, did you learn from writing this novel?
Writing Jade Is a Twisted Green was deeply emotional and I learned the value of the writing process. 95% of the book was written between October 2020 and March 2021. During that time we were in the thick of a global pandemic and lockdown, I also went into preterm labour at five months pregnant, losing my son and almost my life due to medical neglect. I share this to say, I wrote this novel in the storm of grief and it brought up the past grief of losing my own sister. I had to build tools that allowed me to take breaks when I needed it and also pour into the pages when I needed to. Ultimately I learned to write for myself. While I hope others enjoy the story and find it helpful, this novel became a catharsis and outlet for me, allowing me to experience a therapeutic exchange. We tend to focus a lot on readers and the release date, I learned to stay present to the process and truly experience the writing.
Tanya Turton is a storyteller, educator, and mental health advocate. She fell in love with storytelling when she began to feel displaced in her own world and found creative writing. Jade Is a Twisted Green is her debut novel. Hailing from Jamaica, Tanya was raised and lives in Toronto.