The first piece of queer Mauritian literature ever published is by Montreal's Kama La Mackerel
The bookshelves (and supermarkets) of La Mackerel's home country are now stocked with their poetry collection
Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens.
All things considered, Kama La Mackerel is having a pretty great year. The Montreal-based Mauritian-Canadian multi-disciplinary artist (not to mention educator, writer, community-arts facilitator and literary translator) was awarded the 2021 Canada Council for the Arts Joseph S. Stauffer Prize in Visual Arts and was a finalist for the Dayne Ogilvie Prize of the Writers' Trust of Canada. They also celebrated the release of their debut poetry collection ZOM-FAM with a virtual event in La Mackerel's native Mauritius, an island off the coast of East Africa.
"That was amazing, really," La Mackerel says of the launch in Mauritius, which they attended online from Canada. "That felt like everything falling into place. It's almost like the book made it home. That's how it felt to me, because in many ways it's a book that was written in the Canadian context. I wrote it here, it was published by a press based in Montreal, but all the stories are about home — all of the stories are about Mauritius."
ZOM-FAM (the title meaning "man-woman" or "transgender" in Mauritian Kreol) is a gorgeous collective of expansive lyric poems that focus on the coming of age of a gender-creative child growing up in the 1980s and 1990s in Mauritius.
"What's interesting about it is that in the beginning, those were actually spoken word pieces that were written separately," La Mackerel says of ZOM-FAM. "I hadn't even realized that there was a storyline there. And it was only about in 2016 or 2017 that I was looking at my body of work, generally speaking, in terms of what I had written as separate spoken word pieces. And it really felt like, oh, this body of work is speaking back to me now and telling me, 'Hey, look here, there's a storyline.'"
La Mackerel initially developed the pieces into a manuscript for the stage, wanting to explore what poetry would "look like if it could move through the body, across space." The resulting show was supposed to premiere in Montreal in April 2020.
"Of course, that got cancelled and moved to October 2020 and then got cancelled again, just a few days before the premiere when the second wave hit," La Mackerel says. "In the meantime, I was already working with Metonymy Press because they had seen me perform at open mics and queer events as a spoken word artist. They were the ones who approached me first to ask me, 'Do you have a manuscript lying around that you want to pitch to us?' So I pitched them the manuscript that I had at the time, and that's the story of how it became a book. And that's something that, given the context of the pandemic, I'm so glad could take a shape that could still meet audiences, even if the physical body of the performer could not."
La Mackerel says that as the book came together, they realized that they were also coming to terms with their own childhood in the process — "and finding space for the child that I was," they explain.
"All the stories in ZOM-FAM are very much about my childhood in Mauritius. For me, that's been the most beautiful thing in terms of the journey of this book and this work: on the one hand, I feel like I created a safe space in my search for the child who still lives in me, but also the way it's been reaching people. It feels like the stories and poetry have been finding a place in people's hearts, because I think it does speak to the child that also lives in their own heart. And that's the queer child, specifically. And that's been beautiful."
For ZOM-FAM to now be reaching the hearts of readers in Mauritius — where, legally speaking, homosexuality in any form is still illegal — is a very big deal: it's the first piece of queer Mauritian literature ever published.
"To be able to write this story in such a personal way and then finally have it land there, having it take up its space, it was so overwhelming in all the beautiful ways," La Mackerel says. "The dream really is get the stories to other queer and trans kids out there. It gives them permission to write their own stories because even for a small place, a small island like Mauritius, my queer story is only one story and there are multiple stories out there that are yet to be heard. And so to see the physical book take up space in on bookshelves, in bookstores — and in Mauritius they sell books in supermarkets, so right now the book is in supermarkets!"
As for how La Mackerel is coping back in Canada, they perhaps should also be eligible for an award for putting the pandemic into perspective. When COVID-19 first emerged, La Mackerel "totally freaked out like everybody else."
"Then after a few weeks, I was like, 'Actually, I've been working from this place of urgency for so long — I know how to do this.' It's a different context — I had never lived through a pandemic — but I was like, 'Ok, how do I try to reinvent myself and readapt my work?'"
La Mackerel sees the process of coping with past year as being divided into two parts.
"One of them was: I needed to grieve because I know the importance of grieving," they say. "It's like watching a plant and the leaves dry and fall off so that another leaf can emerge. I always think about what other parts of ourselves we need to grieve in order to be able to give birth to new versions of ourselves. So grief was an important part and allowing myself to live through the grief so I could rebirth and so I could wonder... what's going to emerge from this? And then it becomes a question of reinvention."
La Mackerel paraphrases the poet Nayyirah Waheed in explaining one of the core thoughts they have carried through this process.
"She said something to the effect of, 'I do not pay attention to the world ending because for me the world has ended so many times and we just start again the next day.'"
"When I moved to Canada in the beginning, I was in debt; I didn't have status for a while; it was still under the Harper Conservative government. It was such a different world when I moved here. And I think about this a lot in terms of how marginalized people, specifically as queer trans people of colour and immigrants, how we actually have to be reinventing ourselves all the time."
Learn more about La Mackerel's work — and how to purchase ZOM-FAM here.