Books

How life in a Trumpian, post-Brexit world prompted Tessa McWatt to explore race and identity in her new memoir

The Guyanese-born Canadian writer and professor is the author of memoir Shame on Me.
Tessa McWatt is a Guyanese-born Canadian writer based in London. (Christine Mofardin, Random House Canada)

Tessa McWatt is a fiction writer who has been nominated for the Governor General's Literary Award, the Toronto Book Awards and the OCM Bocas Prize. 

McWatt's parents emigrated to Canada from Guyana when she was three years old. Her ancestry includes Scottish, English, French, Portuguese, Indian, Amerindian, African and Chinese.

Her racial identity is something she explores in her memoir Shame on Mea memoir about identity, race and belonging by someone who spent a lot of time trying to find an answer to the question, "Who are you?" and who has endured decades of racism and bigotry while trying to figure out who she is and where she belongs. 

McWatt spoke with CBC Books about how she wrote Shame on Me

Shame all around

"I grew up in Willowdale, Ont., which was totally white at the time. We were the only Black family for miles. It wasn't so much that I understood being Black, I just understood being different from everybody else.

"The book starts with that kind of moment, when understanding that you've been singled out as what everybody else in the classroom isn't. That becomes a kind of traumatic moment for a kid. I held that for my whole life. I held that as a Canadian as not being other for my whole life.

It wasn't so much that I understood being Black, I just understood being different from everybody else.

"There's shame when it comes to inequality and race —  and there's shame when you come from both sides of that equation. It's the shame of slavery and the shame of those white ancestors who participated in the plantation. Then there's the shame of those in poverty, of the first Black ancestors who had to sell their children to survive. 

"It's also about the shame of living in a society. Canada is a fantastic place in many ways. But it's about the shame of living in a society that has still got huge inequalities based on race and based on who we consider 'other.'"

Breaking down race and racism

"In 2016, Trump got elected, Brexit happened, and the whole world seemed dominated by people who wanted more division, more cages, more refugee camps. I've been writing about race and belonging my whole career. That was through fiction.

"I decided that I had to bring myself into [writing nonfiction] as a way of managing my own anger. So I decided to talk about myself through my body; the structure of the book is through body parts. Then I decided that I wanted to unpack what race was through body parts.

Race is a construct whereas racism is the reality every day — on the street, in the classroom, within the boardroom et cetera.

"I was looking at my own multiracial heritage and trying to understand racism. as opposed to race. Race is a construct whereas racism is the reality every day — on the street, in the classroom, within the boardroom et cetera. I wanted to break it down so that I could undermine the biological notion of what race is — because I have a body that conforms and doesn't conform to stereotypes of all my multiracial backgrounds.

"It became a science experiment: I was going to dissect what race was and dissect my body in order to bring up these other issues."

Sensitive to other people

"I wanted to be truthful to the ideas and to the story of race that I wanted to tell. So when I was in it, I wasn't censoring myself. I wasn't worried about exposing anybody or hurting anybody. But then when it was finished, I had to think about how I wanted to have it out there because it's not just about me. It's also about my family, my siblings in particular and our experiences as kids.

I wanted to be truthful to the ideas and to the story of race that I wanted to tell.

"I was sensitive to what they might feel about it. I think there is some natural censoring that goes on there — you don't want to hurt anybody by saying things that I didn't need to. But I think I said everything I needed to say. And I cleared it with them in early drafts."

The novelist Tessa McWatt on her award-winning memoir Shame on Me: An Anatomy of Race and Belonging 21:03

Delving into the truth, into the past

"We, the people in the diaspora, were made of people who don't have one place to come from. There are all these stories that leave a place when people leave it. Sometimes these stories are locked, they get broken. But those stories are important. 

We, the people in the diaspora, were made of people who don't have one place to come from. There are all these stories that leave a place when people leave it.

"My nephew and my cousin had done a lot of research on ancestry.com to find out the first McWatt who went to Demerara, Guyana, around 1830. So they did a lot of the groundwork. A lot of the book is about me trying to piece together what's real and what's the story.

"The real part is what comes from ancestry.com and from documents through my family. But even that information I found was faulty. Therefore it was more important for me to tell the stories that I know from my family.  They were as important as the actual tracing of anybody.

"They come from different members of my family, many older than myself. I left Guyana when I was three. So I relied on family stories from my mother and my late father." 

My life, my story 

"A memoir is interesting in that you know it's not an autobiography. It's not your whole life. It's a portion of your life and it's focused on a particular thing. For me, it's focused on race and belonging.

The focus actually helps me choose; it's not so much censoring, but filtering out things that aren't important that you want to talk about. 

"The focus actually helps me choose; it's not so much censoring, but filtering out things that aren't important that you want to talk about. 

"This book is also about an essay and I'm making a point. So it's not just about my life. I'm just used as a vehicle to talk about the things that I wanted to talk about." 

Tessa McWatt's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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