Umbrella by Chanel M. Sutherland
2021 CBC Nonfiction Prize winner
Chanel M. Sutherland has won the 2021 CBC Nonfiction Prize for Umbrella.
If you're interested in the CBC Literary Prizes, the 2022 CBC Short Story Prize is open for submissions until Oct. 31.
You can read Umbrella below.
This story contains strong language.
"Do you like being Black?"
Dee holds the cigarette loosely between her lips so that the question is distorted — goo woo wike weing wak — but I understand what she's asking.
She leans back on one elbow, her long blond hair brushing the grass. Smoke drifts lazily around her face, but I can tell she's wearing that look. The one she puts on when she wants to seem nonchalant. Like the question just occurred to her, and she's asking out of pure boredom or to sound cool. I don't buy it for a second. Dee never does anything without a real purpose.
I shrug and say, "It's okay, I guess." Not exactly an answer, but a silent plea. Don't start with this shit again — it says.
She takes short draws from the cigarette, blowing clouds through her teeth. My lungs scream. A whistle screeches across the soccer field and pinny-wearing players push and shout at each other. It's Saturday, and we are trespassing on school property, again. But Dee always wants to do something we aren't allowed to do. Trespassing, shoplifting, smoking. I never say no — I don't know how to say no to Dee.
Whatever answer she was expecting, what I said isn't it. She flicks ash at the ground, and I sense a bitterness in the gesture.
"Just okay?" she asks.
"Yeah," I tell her.
"It's fine if you don't," she says. "I get it."
She jams the cigarette stub into the ground and pulls out the lip gloss we stole from the dépanneur. The scent of cherry mingles with the smoke, and makes my stomach do cartwheels. When she doesn't hand me the tube, I know something is definitely up. Dee has her tells. She's nice when she's nice, but if something is bothering her, she has a gift of finding ways of letting you know without letting you know. Like not passing the cigarette or sharing the lip gloss.
The first time Dee spoke to me was in Grade 5. I'd just moved to Montreal to live with my mother, and our teacher Ms. Worsley asked me to stand up and tell the class about myself — where are you from? What do you like? — That sort of thing. Snickers creeped around me before I even started speaking and exploded into riots of snorting when I opened my mouth. Worsley had follow-ups — what kind of foods do you eat in St. Vincent? What do the beads in your hair represent? — giving the fire more to feed on.
I should have resisted, I know, but I had something to prove.
At recess, Dee and her friends approached me in the school yard. She flicked my beads and pulled at my jacket. Then she held up a piece of paper with a word scrawled across it. Umbrella.
"Bet she doesn't know how to read," she said, her blue eyes flashing.
I should have resisted, I know, but I had something to prove. "Am-brella," I said, swapping the U with an A and pushing down on the wrong syllable. They all laughed.
My mom doesn't like Dee. She's never said it out loud; not in so many words. When I told her that Dee and I were put in the same homeroom in Grade 7, she lectured me about making new friends. "It's a whole new start," she said.
I wasn't sure how many new starts she expected me to face.
I used to tell her about the jokes Dee made in class, like the time in moral education when she asked Mr. Davies if Black people had an extra muscle because their ancestors were slaves. The whole class laughed so hard Mr. Davies had to give us all a week's detention before we settled down. Mom didn't laugh, and I stopped telling her about Dee.
"Kyle Gaillard thinks it's more than okay," Dee says, making smacking sounds with her lips.
"What, that I'm Black?" I ask her.
We sit silently for a few minutes, Dee showing no sign that she heard my question or plans to answer it. She stares out at the soccer field, winding a blade of grass around her finger so that the skin is blue and bulging. I wrack my brain trying to figure out what's up and what it has to do with Kyle and me. Kyle is extraterrestrial. He's a senior, he's an athlete, he only dates pompoms. When it comes to guys like Kyle, I'm invisible.
"He's been asking about you."
I don't remember when Dee and I became friends. She kept up her lunchtime games throughout Grade 5, asking me to say words, and laughing when I mispronounced them. I did it because it was something to look forward to since everyone else ignored me. It's what happens when you join elementary school right before the end. Everyone was already in their impenetrable groups and there was nowhere for the new girl.
Dee and her friends shifted and made room for me; I was at the centre of their circle and I was to perform for them. European. Ask. Film.
I'd say the words.
They'd mimic me.
The sad thing is, I looked forward to it. Playing Dee's game was pretty much the only interaction I had with my classmates.
"Why don't we ask him?"
I don't notice that soccer practice is over until Dee stands. When I look over at the field, Grade 10 boys are approaching us at different speeds — running, jogging, jostling. I spot Kyle. At six feet, he sticks out at the back with a group of boys bouncing a soccer ball off their heads. Dee's eyes are glued to him, and her fingers shake as if they are itching to hold something. It makes me nervous. It makes me scared. I want to get the hell out of there before Kyle gets too close.
"Actually, I don't really care." I push myself off the grass and wrap an arm around Dee's shoulder. "Let's just go."
The pressure of not knowing what's coming pushes against my stomach and chest.
I try to be casual, but my insides are filling up. The pressure of not knowing what's coming pushes against my stomach and chest. Threatens to block my throat. My eyes sting. My hands and feet leak. Kyle gets closer, and I know the moment he sees me. Dee notices too and shrugs my arm off. She walks towards him, and I mean to follow her, but I can't move.
"Hey there, Dee. Hi Nellie."
Kyle smiles, and in that instant, everything seems so fragile. Dee stands as close to him as she had been to me just moments before, and I know that he must notice her lip gloss, smell the scent of cherry and cigarettes. I begin to wonder if the entire thing is a setup. Is this another one of Dee's practical jokes? Is Kyle in on it?
"So, Nellie was wondering why you're asking about her."
"Oh! Just out of interest, you know?"
Kyle shuffles his feet and looks at me as if to verify what Dee is asking. For a moment, I feel bad for him. I start to realize that maybe he's not in on Dee's plans after all. That maybe he's just another piece in her game. I feel like he's already broken some sacred rule that we all must follow when it comes to Dee; say what she wants or don't say anything at all.
"And nothing. Just seen you around and was curious."
He says this directly to me, and then steps around Dee. I'm still pressed to the spot, and I swear I can feel the grass sinking beneath my feet. Kyle is close enough that I see my reflection in his irises. We stare at each other for a moment, and an intense shade of pink creeps across his cheeks, down his neck. Behind him Dee looks back at us, but never fully turns around. Her fingers are like hummingbird wings on the air, her breaths are hard and fast. She pulls out another cigarette and lights it up. Clouds of thick smoke blow from her nostrils like a bull ready to charge.
"So, you like her?" she asks.
"Yeah, I guess so." Kyle replies.
In elementary school, Dee was known for her sleepovers. She had one on the first Saturday of every month, and the girls who were invited had the best stories to tell. Dee's mother and stepfather were the cool parents. They allowed her to drink booze and watch scary movies. Dee didn't have a curfew and any girl who slept over was treated the same.
I was invited to one of Dee's sleepover parties in the middle of Grade 6. At first, my mom said no, and I hated her for an entire week. Then Dee's mother called and set my mom's mind at ease. Movies, popcorn and in bed by 11 — that's what she promised.
That evening, Dee met me at the bus stop. She told me that the other girls had bailed, and it would just be us. We went to Videotron to rent movies — Dee was in the mood for gore and the new Friday the 13th movie had just been released — then we went to the dépanneur and bought cranberry juice. Dee's parents made cranberry vodkas and I had my first taste of alcohol.
I learned a few new details. Like how our principal had asked her to befriend me.
That night, Dee's stepfather told me about all the different cars he'd driven in his life. I liked cars, and Guy grew up working in his father's garage. He spent his weekends joyriding in his customers' cars — Jaguars, Benz, Porches — cars I knew I had no business in, but there I was. He spoke to me like an adult. He asked me about my family back home, about moving to Canada, about school. He listened when I told him how much I missed my grandparents. Dee was on her third glass of cranberry vodka when she started talking about my first day of class. I learned a few new details. Like how our principal had asked her to befriend me.
"I had to report back every Friday," she informed us.
"Report what?" Guy asked.
"What we did that week? Anything new I'd learned about her. I told him about our little English lessons, and even got extra credits."
I didn't laugh, but Dee lost it.
"Do you like her hair?"
Kyle turns back and looks at Dee. Smoke drifts lazily around her face, but I can tell she's wearing that look. The one she puts on when she wants to seem nonchalant. Like the question just occurred to her, and she's asking out of pure boredom or to sound cool. I don't buy it for a second. Dee never does anything without a real purpose.
"Yeah, it's cool."
I lift a hand and touch my braids. They are new and my neck is still not used to the weight of them, but my mom spent an entire day working the intricate designs into my hair. They hang loosely across my shoulder and down my back giving me the length I crave but will probably never come by naturally.
"Even if it's not real?"
"What's your point?"
Kyle looks like he's about to say something else, but Dee pushes past him and hands me the cigarette. I take more pulls than I'm used to, and have to swallow hard to calm the urge to cough. I pull in more smoke, and exhale quickly watching the air change in front of me, opaque and insubstantial.
They both stand waiting. Neither say anything as I pull in and exhale, pull in and exhale. I remember the urge to keep them waiting, and at the same time the need to finish the cigarette. It would be the last time I smoke and the only time Kyle and I speak. Dee and I had many adventures after that, but we eventually grew apart. I still think of her every once in a while, but never enough to reach out.
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Listen to Chanel M. Sutherland read Umbrella
Listen to Chanel M. Sutherland on The Bridge
Listen to Chanel M. Sutherland on As It Happens
About Chanel M. Sutherland
Chanel M. Sutherland is a writer and product marketing director living in Montreal. She was born in St. Vincent and the Grenadines and moved to Canada when she was 10 years old. She holds a BA in English literature from Concordia University. She is currently working on a collection of interconnected short stories that explore the complex relationships and experiences of life in a small Caribbean village.
The story's source of inspiration
"The story comes from a lifetime of uncomfortable moments where I was reminded ― whether with direct intentions or not ― of my 'otherness.' As a Black woman, racial microaggression is nothing new to me, but somehow I am always shocked when it occurs. I tend to step around these errant comments or behaviours and seethe in silence. A silence born from being told too many times that 'they didn't mean it that way' or 'it's just a harmless joke.'
"I wanted to write a story that confronts racial microaggression head on by stripping away the subtleties that it often hides behind. That's why I chose to open with the line 'Do you like being Black?' There's nothing covert about this statement, and some readers might find it jolting and uncomfortable ― much like the victim of a racist act. There are more subtle moments of racism within the story, some masquerading as jokes, as I was forced into an uncomfortable moment with a crush on a soccer field."
The winner of the 2021 CBC Nonfiction Prize will receive $6,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts, have their work published on CBC Books and attend a two-week writing residency at the Banff Centre for the Arts and Creativity. Four finalists will each receive $1,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts and have their work published on CBC Books.