As an artist of colour, I am acutely aware of how underrepresented our work is in all areas of media. Many times, our work is not funded, ignored, or not reviewed but we forge ahead all the same. I once asked famed writer Austin Clarke, what a writer should do when they write something brilliant and its ignored. His answer to me was the writer should just continue writing. I’ve been following his advise ever since.
As a young filmmaker, I was prompted to start my career because of the lack of representation on the small and large screen. I started to create work that would be later described as cinema of duty: films produced to fill a void that existed in the industry. I’m sure there is a literary equivalent of this.
With this burden of representation and the sometimes narrowly specific material which the mainstream expects from writers of colour, I wonder sometimes if it is actually possible for a writer of color to write just about love for example. We, as people of colour are expected to relate everything back to our respective communities, as if love is experienced differently based on the colour of one’s skin.
What drove me to want to write was similar to why I first starting making films 30 years ago. I wanted to create stories that I wanted to read. This had something to do with representation but also pure expression as well. Since writing didn’t require any equipment or funding, I found the act of writing all the more liberating.
When I write, my characters don’t exist in some mythical place in Canada where only Black people live without any interaction, influence or by the larger society.
I don’t write about stereotypical caricatures; drug dealers, addicts or prostitutes, but I do write about people from the margins of society since I grew up and still exist in the margins of North American society. I write about mental illness, sexual and domestic violence but I always try to show that its not just happening to poor people of colour people but the general population as a whole.
In my novel Two Women, I present two women who share the same soul, born on opposite sides of the world who end up in the same social housing complex.
These characters are not imagined beings but are based on two actual women, my mother; a woman from Sandy Point, St. Kitts, and my former mother-in-law, a woman from Kevelaer Germany.
In my work I stride for authenticity. The way that I do this is by starting with something real. I believe all the years I spent making documentaries, capturing and listening to the lives and stories of real people has given me a unique perspective that I believe is advantageous to writing fiction. I believe it has made me acutely aware of how-to portrayal and present reality. This even comes into play when writing science fiction since the type of science fiction writing that I want to do has social commentary, akin to what Octavia Butler did and the social allegorical work done by George Orwell whose work I find myself referencing in both my films and my writing.
Normally when I set out to write, I don’t have race, class or gender politics in mind but somehow they creep into it since I write from my own unique lens and gaze, which happens to be black, female and marginalized but most of all human.
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In the writing of the short story Love in The Time of COVID, I didn’t know who the characters would be, but I did know they would be humans who were not defined by their race or class. They were just two people living lonely, isolated lives during a very precarious time in history.
After the characters are introduced, I then have to consider what will take place and create some tension between them. For this story the worldwide pandemic and the fear and protocols that come with it provided more than enough tension and drama to start with.
Here is the next excerpt from the story:
The two stood at a distance from one another, too afraid to breech the ten feet mandated distance between them that had been instituted since the beginning of the current pandemic. When the last pandemic had ended everyone had let out a sigh of relieve, believing that the worst was over, and they wouldn’t have to go through the same ordeal again since the last large-scale pandemic had taken one hundred years to reoccur. No one expected to be alive when the next one rolled out. But everyone had been wrong even the scientist whose job it was to track such things. When the first case of COVID-25 raised its ugly head in Los Vegas, Nevada, the world and the scientific community were baffled. They had not fully recovered from COVID-19 and here it was they were re-entering another period of uncertainly. Not knowing how long their movements would be restricted, more stringent protocols were introduced, and lock downs were immediately put into place. That one lesson, at least, had been learnt.
She stood there not knowing what to do, not even sure of where to put hers arms and fix her gaze. She and the stranger both pretended to be searching for items on the shelves in front of them.
He picked up a jar and peanut butter and pretend to read the label.
“Do you know where the organic section is?” he asked in a whisper but loud enough so that she would hear him from where she stood. He had just come from browsing that section, so he knew very well where it was.
Organic section, she thought to herself. He must have money and be very healthy. Two nice attributes for a future husband, she mused, getting way ahead of herself as she normally had the tendency to do.
“I think it’s back that way,” she replied softly pointing behind him.
“Oh, I must have passed it without knowing,” he lied.
“It’s a big place,” she added as she began to move away. She was afraid of drawing attention to the nonessential conversation that they were having. Nonessential banter along with greetings had been prohibited since the beginning of the new pandemic. The only nonessential dialogue between strangers that was normally permitted was the customary 'Stay safe and well'.
The few years of reprieve between the last pandemic had not been enough time for her to form a bond with anyone romantically, so the short exchange had made an impression.
As she moved away, she heard a slight murmur from behind her.
“My name is Adam, he blurted in low voice. “What’s yours?”
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.
Christene Browne, originally from St. Kitts, is a well-respected and internationally acclaimed Toronto independent filmmaker and was the first Black woman to direct a feature film in Canada. In 2011 she was awarded the Visionary award by the Women's International Film & Television Showcase for her ground-breaking documentary series Speaking in Tongues: The History of Language, which features Noam Chomsky. She recently completed a feature documentary on Toronto’s Regent Park, the oldest and largest Canadian housing complex, and is working on an animated documentary on the early life of famed Canadian author Austin Clarke. Her first novel Two Women (2013, Second Story Press) is about two women who share the same soul and deals with the cyclical nature of domestic violence. Her second novel Philomena (Unloved) (2018, Second Story Press) tells the story of a woman who lives a life devoid of love and deals with issues of sexual violence, mental health, and homelessness. She currently teaches at Ryerson University in the RTA School of Media and is developing her first libretto.