How a Toronto writing group opened the doors for queer and trans Caribbean writers

What possibilities emerge when you provide access and space to diverse writers? It was this question that led to the creation of 'A' is for Orange.

The legacy of 'A' is for Orange can be felt throughout the city

A poster for one of 'A' Is For Orange's events. (Dianah Smith)

I recently watched the first two episodes of the new FX series called Atlanta, produced by actor, writer and musician Donald Glover (aka Childish Gambino). I was immediately struck by casual nuances in the writing and, though I've never lived in the city of Atlanta, there was an undeniable feeling of authenticity. And I later learned that Atlanta is one of the few shows in television network history to boast an all-black writing staff. When questioned about his motivations for curating an all-black writing team, Donald Glover responded: "I wanted to show white people, you don't know everything about Black culture."

What possibilities emerge when you provide access and space to diverse writers? It was this question and desire for access and space that led Toronto-based writer Dianah Smith to create 'A' is for Orange (pronounced "A is for Ah-range"), a creative incubator and reading series for emerging queer and trans writers of Caribbean descent. The group is no longer active, and there is very little digital documentation of its existence, but the legacy of 'A' is for Orange can be felt throughout the city.

The story of 'A' is For Orange begins in 2005, when Smith took a leave of absence from full-time teaching to develop her writing. She enrolled in several classes at Ryerson University, including one on autobiographical writing. However, her initial enthusiasm was quickly replaced by a growing unease and discomfort as she realized the realities and limitations of the university classroom.  "I would present my stories and there would just be flat or very uncomfortable questions," she tells me over the phone. "Typical questions focusing on the food or the music or whatever ethnic parts of the story and not really the content and the craft. It was really frustrating."

In a context where the canons of classic literature are shaped predominantly by the writing of white men, there was little space for her narrative. "Who I was wasn't represented, honoured, respected or actually safe in those mainstream spaces," she says. "I wanted to write more stories and didn't feel like it was safe to do that in the context of mainstream writing spaces." As she shared this experience with her friends and family, Smith realized that she wasn't alone. There were numerous queer Caribbean women who had literary ambitions but felt alienated from mainstream writing spaces. It was then that she decided to create 'A' is for Orange.

Who I was, wasn't represented, honoured, respected or actually safe in those mainstream spaces. I wanted to write more stories and didn't feel like it was safe to do that in the context of mainstream writing spaces.- Dianah  Smith

From its inception, 'A' is for Orange was a grassroots project that found its magic within the intimacy of small group dynamics and collective affirmation. Smith avoided the temptation of applying for funding, a decision that allowed her to avoid the bureaucracy that often consumes grassroots projects. Instead, she employed cost-cutting measures that also indirectly deepened the community they were simultaneously building. Sessions were held in her house or in the homes of other members and food was provided through potluck.

The participants were emerging writers developing poetry, short stories, non-fiction essays and novels. The topics traversed the experiences of their lives and the fruits of their imaginations. They came from a variety of English-speaking Caribbean Islands, including Trinidad, St. Vincent, Barbados and Jamaica. Their ages ranged from mid-twenties to late-sixties. The sessions generally would happen once a week but were not beholden to a particular schedule.

My friend kyisha williams was one of the youngest participants in 'A' is for Orange. Within the writing group, she found important mentors. "I was able to see older black queer women telling stories and living their truth and doing what they wanted to do, existing in whatever space they wanted to, without even knowing that was impacting how I saw the world and what I felt my options were," kyisha told me. "I didn't feel super limited. I didn't feel like I had to be anything other than who I was."

Prior to meeting Smith, kyisha had never identified as an artist or writer, but Smith recognized within her a voice that needed to emerge. That recognition and affirmation empowered kyisha to explore her literary voice.

The success of television specials such as Canada Reads and the celebrity status of writers such as Margaret Atwood are hallmarks of a country with a rich appreciation for literature. Unlike many of the members of 'A' is for Orange, kyisha was born in Canada, yet as a queer black woman she struggled to find a community where she could bring the entirety of her experience.

"In queer spaces, people just had a really limited understanding of black community and they'd be like, 'Caribbean cultures are really homophobic,'" she says. "And that was the end of it. So there wasn't really a space for me to be like, 'Actually my parents are chill and I'm out to my great-grandmother and I'm out to my whole entire family and they are accepting.' In the black community, sometimes there wasn't a lot of space for my queerness. As a black femme, I was just assumed straight. 'A' is for Orange was a space where I could be black and queer and an artist and really share some things."

Dianah Smith at an 'A' is For Orange reading. (Dianah Smith)

Over time, 'A' is for Orange began to hold public readings of their works-in-progress at community spaces such as the now defunct Toronto Women's Bookstore, Harbourfront Centre, the Palmerston Library Theatre and b current theatre's annual Rock Paper Sistahz Festival.  Existing in the space between an open mic and a professional reading, each showcase was a jam-packed site of critical reception and communal celebration. Audience members laughed loudly, talked back to the stage and participated in ways that defy Western notions of audience decorum but are intrinsic elements of Caribbean and African theatre.

The first show was an illuminating experience for Smith, who began to realize the impact of the work that 'A' is for Orange was producing. "I was overwhelmed by the incredible reception and just the power of that space," she recalls. "I realized that it wasn't just about us. I was not fully aware of this need for stories and these spaces. This was healing and it became a responsibility in some ways."

Smith recognizes that as a result of 'A' is for Orange her writing grew tremendously — in ways that she believes it could never have developed at Ryerson University. "It grew because we had people around us who could honour the things that we'd experienced. And we didn't have to explain what breadfruit was. We didn't have to feel ashamed if we were beat by our parents or the poverty that we experienced. So all of that stuff, that shame, that toxicity that stops us from doing art, we were able to have a very accepting space for that."

It grew because we had people around us who could honour the things that we'd experienced. And we didn't have to explain what breadfruit was. We didn't have to feel ashamed if we were beat by our parents or the poverty that we experienced. So all of that stuff, that shame, that toxicity that stops us from doing art, we were able to have a very accepting space for that.- Dianah Smith

As the weight of coordination became heavier and the goals of the group began to move more toward performance rather than craft development, Smith realized that she needed to shift her energy and attention toward her own writing, which was now fuelled by the confidence she found within 'A' is for Orange. "At the last event, I remember we were saying that we're emerging queer Caribbean writers and then somebody said, 'You guys have emerged. I don't think you can actually call yourselves emerging writers anymore.' I realized from the first shaky reading in the fall of 2005 to the last of 2010, a very different voice, a very different feeling of confidence."

Smith is now finishing her first novel. Other alumna include Michelle Chai (who was published in the Diaspora Dialogues anthology), Akhaji Zakiya (who self-published a book of prose and poetry last year and coordinates open mics at Glad Day Books) and Samson Brown (who is currently an Artist-in-Residence with d'bi young's Watah Theatre). The legacy of 'A' is for Orange continues in the work of its participants and for some — like kyisha williams — it never truly ended.

"It existed with such ease that it doesn't really feel like it ended," kyisha says. "It feels like it's still around and like we could just send an e-mail and start up again."

About the Author

Amanda Parris

Amanda Parris writes a weekly column for CBC Arts and is the host of Exhibitionists on CBC Television and Marvin's Room on CBC Radio. In her spare time, she writes plays, watches too many movies and defends Beyonce against all haters. In her past lives she wrote arts based curriculum, attended numerous acting auditions, and dreamed of being interviewed by Oprah.

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