How Chanel M. Sutherland wrote the story that won the 2021 CBC Nonfiction Prize
Born in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Sutherland moved to Canada when she was 10 years old. She's currently a product marketing director living in Montreal. She is working on a collection of interconnected short stories that explore the complex relationships and experiences of life in a small Caribbean village.
Sutherland wrote Umbrella because she wanted to confront racial microaggressions and remove the subtleties that these actions and comments often hide behind.
She spoke to CBC Books about how she wrote her winning entry.
A writing prompt
"I think I was carrying Umbrella with me for many years, but I kept it in my head rather than writing it down for some reason.
"The only line I wrote down early on was the first line, which is, 'Do you like being Black?' I was always building the story in my head, but I wasn't ready to face it. The face, the memory itself, there were so many emotions. Even now, I remember a lot of things I was feeling during that time and the discomfort of that moment that added to the overall experience.
I was always building the story in my head, but I wasn't ready to face it.
"Then one day this writing group that I was a member of had a writing prompt. It was, 'Write a story where your main character is trespassing' and suddenly there it was — Umbrella was ready to be told. I didn't intend to do anything with it beyond sharing it with a small group of writers for feedback."
A confrontational piece
"I almost gave up on writing Umbrella. I wrote the first part of the story. Then I felt it was too confrontational a piece. I was nervous about how people would perceive it and whether or not it would be accepted. Even when it was completed, I was unsure.
"I'm not a confrontational type of person. I try to avoid conflict and I know that there's a lot of sensitivities in the world right now, and this is a sensitive piece.
"When I expressed how uncomfortable I was sharing it with one of the writers from my writing group, he said something to the likes of 'it's other people's problems if it makes them uncomfortable, this is something you experienced. So too bad for them.' At that moment, I realized that he was right.
This is my experience. There was nothing for me to be afraid of.
"This is my experience. There was nothing for me to be afraid of. There's nothing for me to be ashamed of. I think a part of it was that I was ashamed that I allowed myself to go through a lot of it, especially with pronouncing the different words that [my friends] had me do. I was very ashamed of that and I'm still very ashamed."
Wanting to be accepted
"I think it comes down to being lonely. Being a foreigner in a strange new place, I had no friends. This girl was one of the first people to speak to me who was my age. Everyone else who spoke to me back then was either my sister, my parents or my teachers. Here was this girl who took an interest, although it was the wrong type of interest. She took an interest in me and her friends took an interest in me as a result.
"I was suddenly like, 'I can be part of something,' even if it was not the best situation. But it was belonging and being part of something when you've been removed completely from everything and everyone. So I would insert myself into any group that would accept me."
Writing about real experiences
"This is one of the few times I've ventured into a literary story, specifically nonfiction. I think that's helped me get over my fear of writing about this experience and the Black experience and specifically the Caribbean experience.
I feel like I'm a bit bolder and a bit braver when it comes to writing about these things.
"I feel like I'm a bit bolder and a bit braver when it comes to writing about these things. And that's because of Umbrella and everything that's happened as a result of writing and entering the story into the CBC Nonfiction Prize."
Chanel M. Sutherland's comments have been edited for length and clarity.