G. Barton-Sinkia on how Lee Maracle inspires emerging writers to live their truth
G. Barton-Sinkia is a writer and author based in Toronto. Her debut novel, By the Next Pause, is a sweeping epic set in a diverse and multicultural Toronto in the 1980s. When Pam Allen leaves Jamaica to live in Canada, circumstances force her to leave her infant daughter Simone behind.
Years later, after the death of her aunt, Pam is forced to take in the daughter she never wanted and they try to coexist in a run-down apartment complex.
Below, Barton-Sinkia takes the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A and answers eight questions from eight fellow writers.
1. Pasha Malla asks, "Who is one writer, living or dead, who you wish could edit or critique your drafts?"
If I had to choose one author to critique By The Next Pause it would be author Lee Maracle. She is a fascinating and incredible storyteller. After listening to her speak at this year's Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD), I think she would be that one person who could tear my work apart, down to the studs, but then help me dig even deeper with one of her lovely anecdotes that would set everything straight again.
Her advice to new writers, like myself, brought me to tears. Her main advice was to always find your truth in the stories you are telling. As a new writer, the biggest hang-up I had was not being able to fit the mould that the traditional publishing industry demands. Hearing Ms. Maracle's advice further solidified the path I'm on. You have to live in your truth. Your work will always find its audience as long as you remain authentic to the story you are trying to tell.
2. Russell Smith asks, "What is the musical soundtrack to your latest book?"
That's an easy one. Laura Mvula with Metropole Orkest inspired many scenes in By The Next Pause. The album is a collection of songs from her Sing to the Moon album, re-arranged by Jules Buckley. It not only inspired many of my scenes but Mvula's music helped focus my writing. I remember on one occasion I was sitting in a Four Season hotel room in California. My husband and children gifted me a weekend away for Mother's Day. My son had just turned one and being a mother again overwhelmed me.
My husband thought it would be a good idea for me to get away before I cracked under pressure. At the time, I was in the middle of writing my novel and could barely find a spare moment to write a paragraph. I used that time to lock myself away and wrote three chapters that weekend. But what stood out the most was listening to Mvula's Father, Father while crafting the scene in which Pam Allen reaches her breaking point and doesn't know if she can handle the possibility of raising another child alone. The song's arrangement was so beautiful and haunting and evoked the right amount of sadness to help me write the emotional scene.
3. Nazneen Sheikh asks, "Have you ever been frightened by what you write? How and why?"
I am always frightened by what I write because I put so much of myself in everything I create. It's hard to expose so much of yourself even though it is fiction. You want to be authentic in your approach but living in your truth means exposing a part of yourself that is often left hidden. While this novel was not autobiographical, there was so much about Simone and Pam's relationship that I could relate to because I often reverted to the experiences I've dealt with to bring some realism to their story.
The distance between Pam and Simone often reminded me of some of the struggles I had with my mother and some of the difficult times I have with my daughter. At times I had to ask myself, "Do I want to expose that much of myself in my work?" It took me a while to gather the courage to do it, but in the end, it made my story stronger. Good storytelling has to stem from somewhere. If you can't tap into an emotion or memory to express those feelings all it ends up being are words on a page.
4. Sarah Raughley asks, "What do you think about diversity and marginalization in writing and do you commit to this issue through your writing?"
I am a huge advocate of diversity in all mediums. Thanks to the Internet, our world is getting smaller. We are all connecting in ways that were not available to us in the past. As artists, we have a responsibility to be as inclusive as possible in the work we create. I was born and raised in Toronto where diversity in friendships, food and culture was an essential part of my upbringing.
As children, it didn't matter that our friends were from different cultural backgrounds. We gravitated to each other based on the important stuff; who was obsessed with New Kids on the Block, who could perform the Moonwalk like Michael Jackson and who knew all the words to Funky Cold Medina. That was our collective culture. We didn't care what everyone's skin colour looked like or if we had an accent or not. As I got older, it was a culture shock moving to the United States and finding communities that did not actively promote diversity. It felt odd to me. In my writing, having more than one voice or point of view makes storytelling more compelling and creates a setting that feels familiar to many instead of the usual few. I want to showcase characters that may be different but in the end, also shows how universal we are. In By The Next Pause, I tried to capture those moments; the feeling of being a community, despite our differences, and the idea that Toronto is resilient and robust because we embrace our differences instead of running from it.
5. André Alexis asks, "Are you conscious of the rhythm that paragraphs have, their length, when you're writing? Or is that something you work on as a form of sculpture afterwards?"
It depends on the scene I'm writing. If I'm on a roll, I write quickly to get the words out before I lose momentum. I can easily get distracted. It's why I find that it works best to dump everything on the page and then go back and re-write afterward. There are times when I look at my pages, after writing non-stop for two solid hours, and I realized that I just pulled a "Blanche Devereaux." That was the episode of The Golden Girls when Blanche finished her great American novel, after a weekend of writing with no sleep, food or water. She ended up creating the most amazing piece of incoherent dribble. Once I get to that point, I pull the reigns and regroup.
6. Djamila Ibrahim asks, "What dream job or jobs did you have growing up? Has it or have they appeared in your writing?"
My dream career, growing up, was to be a singer. It has never appeared in my writing. I guess because I never had a chance to become a singer, I find it hard to write a character that has had my dream job. I tend to write characters that have jobs I would never think to do. I start to research that job, and it allows me to stay focused on the necessary aspects of that career for my character's development. If I wrote a character that was a singer, I think my excitement would lead me astray, and I would end up including scenes that have nothing to do with the story or enhances the plot.
7. Aisha Sasha John asks, "What do you care nothing about?"
I don't care about cats. They make me sneeze and my skin itch and my throat tickle, so I care very little about them. I certainly don't care how cute they are on YouTube. In my mind, they are the devil.
8. Lawrence Hill asks, "If you could start your life all over again and writing were not an option, what work would you most love to do?"
If I had to do it all over again, I would be a singer — specifically a backup singer. I'm pretty shy singing on my own, but I love singing harmony with others. There is nothing more amazing than hearing two or more voices, beautifully blending notes.