Books·In Conversation

Kaie Kellough plays with words and sound to write vivid poetry and fiction

The Montreal writer discusses his mixed heritage, the power of writing fiction and poetry and how his recent books, Magnetic Equator and Dominoes at the Crossroads, are connected.

'It's important to explore race. It's not something that exists outside of our lives'

Kaie Kellough is a Montreal poet and author. (Marie-Claude Plasse)

Kaie Kellough is a Montreal poet and sound artist who is a writer on the rise.

His debut novel, Accordéon, was a 2017 Amazon.ca First Novel Award finalist, his 2019 poetry collection, Magnetic Equator won the 2020 Griffin Poetry Prize and CBC Books named his short story collection Dominoes at the Crossroads one of the works of Canadian fiction to watch for in spring 2020. It is currently on the 2020 Scotiabank Giller Prize longlist.

Kellough describes himself as a "word-sound systemizer" using language and verbal performance as a way of expression. His work explores the geographical connections between identity, race and culture.

Kellough spoke with CBC Books about the power of writing fiction and poetry and how they are connected.

Do awards and award nominations give you validation as a writer?

I was only peripherally aware of awards culture until about 2017, when Accordéon came out and it was a finalist for the 2017 Amazon.ca First Novel Award. That was the first time it struck me that there was this awards culture that actually overlapped with me and with what I'm doing.

As a young black Canadian writer in Calgary... there was very little representation [of black writers] on the literary landscape, especially out West.​

When I was younger, as a black Canadian writer in Calgary — just experimenting and thinking that I liked doing it — there was very little representation [of black writers] on the literary landscape, especially out West. 

There were a few, but we didn't see much of them. So I had this perspective that this was something that was not going to be possible for me. But I was going to do it anyway — and enjoy doing it and pursue it — and see where it went. I had this fatalistic perspective that it wasn't gonna be possible, and I was never going to really be able to be a real Canadian capital "W" writer. 

It's interesting to be included in part of the literary culture now. 

Walking with Kaie Kellough in Montreal

2 years ago
Duration 7:03
Montreal poet Kaie Kellough takes us on a tour of his chosen home. Filmmaker: Craig Desson 7:03

How has the Canadian literature scene grown in your eyes?

It's fascinating that there are a lot of young writers of colour who are coming up with debut books who are being published by small and mid-sized presses. Some are seeing their books debut with bigger presses. That's remarkable. That's something you didn't see years ago. 

There are a number of remarkable writers and poets who are really experiencing a lot of success and momentum right at the beginning of their careers. It is very refreshing to see. I hope that that success continues — and that they're able to cultivate their voices over a long period of time.

How has your own cultural background shaped your work?

My grandparents, my mom's parents, immigrated to Canada from Guyana, South America in their 50s. My mom had come to Canada a number of years before that to study and then all her siblings came as well. My mom's parents' house in Canada had Guyanese food cooking. There were pictures and maps of Guyana. There were books by Guyanese authors. Guyana was something that was discussed. It was real, it was an important presence. 

It was like growing up with an awareness that a person like you has a place elsewhere, you're not just from here.

It was also a magical place that was, I think for my grandparents, frozen in time. It was very different from Vancouver or Calgary, the cities where I grew up. It was like growing up with an awareness that a person like you has a place elsewhere, you're not just from here. There is this entire set of Indigenous mythologies, various histories of various groups — Portuguese, African, Chinese — that inform your lineage in your presence and your existence. It's through them that I have the connection and awareness of thinking about how fascinating Guyana is. 

On May 26, 1966, Guyana set off down a path of independence and toward developing a new cultural identity. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

What was your life like growing up?

Growing up in Calgary and in Vancouver in the 1980s, there wasn't a deep understanding of an experience with diversity, people of mixed race or people of mixed cultural heritage. Guyana provided that for me. Thinking about Guyana could give me the understanding of how a person like me came to being and how he could have a place in the world. You had all these different cultural groups that came to Guyana and then mixed there.

Thinking about Guyana could give me the understanding of how a person like me came to being and how he could have a place in the world.

I have an Arawak name in the name Kaie. In my family history, there are a variety of different such groups. In my personal cosmology of Guyana, that developed in my grandparents house, I had a place. I didn't have one here. 

You've grown up in B.C., Alberta and Quebec, three distinct regions in Canada. How does that define and inform your work in addition to your connection to Guyana, South America?

It informs Magnetic Equator and Dominoes at the Crossroads, which were two books written at the same time. It informs my thinking about diaspora — and about how perhaps this notion of a suspension of arrival and never fully being completely rooted in one particular place — is in a way not something that impoverishes a person.

You can be informed by multiple places and see one place in the other.

It is its own experience and it is an enriching experience. You can be informed by multiple places and see one place in the other. They can be a conversation that occurs across your experiences of different places within you.

The police shooting that rocked the city

4 years ago
Duration 2:23
Thirty years ago, Anthony Griffin was shot and killed by Montreal police in NDG. CBC’s Antoni Nerestant takes a look back at how the death of the 19-year-old unarmed black man affected Montreal’s black community. 2:23

What is your connection to race in your work?

It's important to explore race. It's not something that exists outside of our lives. It exists within the fabric of our society. It's there, it's part of the world we live in. We have to navigate it one way or another when we wake up and look at ourselves in the morning.

There were some moments that were very formative for me growing up. Some of them are mentioned in both books. The Oka Crisis was a very moving moment. I remember watching the news at the time with my parents and thinking that some of the people in Quebec, who were throwing rocks at the cars as they were leaving the reserve, looked exactly like some of the white people I grew up with in Calgary.

It's important to explore race. It's not something that exists outside of our lives. It exists within the fabric of our society.

Some of the Indigenous people look like me and like members of my family. To see that degree of resentment and hatred and rancour and violence was something that gave me pause when thinking about whether I belonged in this nation — and what my presence meant and how I was thought about.

The other things that were very formative for me were the stories of Neil Stonechild and the 'starlight tours' in Saskatchewan. And also police shootings of youth in Montreal; Anthony Griffin was one of them. Those incidents shaped my sense of belonging, or not belonging, in this nation and my own vulnerability as a young person of colour. I was thinking of some of the dangers and experiences that I might have to navigate; some of those boys could very easily have been me on the prairie or people that I knew. 

What do you hope readers take from works such as Magnetic Equator?

I hope that they enjoy the language, even when it's a rougher language. I hope that they get a sense of a kind of expanse of language. I was thinking a lot about the idea of language as landscape when writing it. So about the vastness of language, a playfulness of language and a language that holds a variety of different registers at the same time — from more formal English, to slang, to bits of patois and to French.

[It's written] in a language that is expansive. That's one thing I hope that people get from that. It's a language of diaspora, one that's informed by all of the different places that you've been in and experiences that you're aware of through your movement in the diaspora.

You've described your creative approach as being a "word-sound systemizer." Can you explain?

In Jamaican dub poetry, there is the expression of "word sound power." I thought of just riffing on that and adapting it to my own individual practice where it's a relationship between words and sound. They have a function within an overall structure or system that governs everything. 

It's one thing to work in different forms — to write poetry, to write fiction, to do some performance and musical work — but they all inform one another. 

It's one thing to work in different forms — to write poetry, to write fiction, to do some performance and musical work — but they all inform one another.

They are all part of a conversation.

How do you define success both as a poet and as a writer of fiction?

That's a good question. It's nice to be recognized for a big prize like the Griffin. Success for me is the ability to have a sustained career and to work with the people I work with and be in conversation with the people that I admire like Dionne Brand, Wayde Compton, David Chariandy.

And to be able to participate in that cultural conversation—  a conversation about being, belonging, aesthetics, culture —  and to be able to contribute something to that conversation. That for me is its success.

Kaie Kellough's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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