Books·How I Wrote It

Suzette Mayr's novel The Sleeping Car Porter uses magic realism to highlight Black Canadian history

The Calgary poet and author's sixth novel won the 2022 Scotiabank Giller Prize.

The Sleeping Car Porter won the 2022 Scotiabank Giller Prize

The Sleeping Car Porter is a book by Suzette Mayr. (Coach House Books)

Suzette Mayr is a poet and novelist based in Calgary. She is the author of the novels Dr. Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley HallMonocerosMoon HoneyThe Widows and Venous HumMonoceros won the ReLit Award, the City of Calgary W. O. Mitchell Book Prize and made the 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize longlist.

The Sleeping Car Porter tells the story of Baxter, a Black man in 1929 who works as a sleeping car porter on a train that travels across the country. He smiles and tries to be invisible to the passengers, but what he wants is to save up and go to dentistry school. On one particular trip out west, the train is stalled and Baxter finds a naughty postcard of two gay men. The postcard reawakens his memories and longings and puts his job in jeopardy. 

The Sleeping Car Porter won the 2022 Scotiabank Giller Prize

Mayr spoke to CBC Books about how she wrote The Sleeping Car Porter.

Uncovering Black history

"Years ago, a dear friend of mine, who is a former creative writing teacher, told me that I had to write about the Black railway porters. I had no idea what he was talking about.

"I started doing research into what that actually meant. I learned about this whole group of men and I thought it was an amazing story. And how strange is it that this pretty significant chapter of Black Canadian history was something that I had never heard about.

"So I thought, I'm going to write about this.

"I was nervous about writing historical fiction because I've never done that before. I thought, 'OK, what can I do to make myself feel confident in this?' I read a lot of books written at the time. Also, by coincidence, there was a perfectly preserved railway passenger car in Cranbrook, B.C., which is not far away from me. I thought I'd go there and do research and pretend I'm on this train. 

I was nervous about writing historical fiction because I've never done that before.

"I read quite a few books about these railway porters. People concentrate a lot on their importance in terms of the labour movement and the building of the brotherhood and the unions — and that is important. But I was thinking, 'Where are the queer folks? And what about, the everyday folks who weren't activists?'

"What I found, and possibly other writers of historical fiction find, is that you have all this research but not yet a story. And so the supernatural elements, the hallucinatory magic realist elements, the queer elements were those were a result of me looking for story. The research was just the beginning."

LISTEN | Suzette Mayr talks to The Homestretch about writing The Sleeping Car Porter:

A Calgary writer's latest book has been shortlisted for the 2022 Giller Prize. Suzette Mayr's historical novel about a queer Black railway employee is up for the biggest prize in Canadian literature. Mayr joins us to talk about the nomination.

Being Baxter

"Writing the character of Baxter was a bit of a struggle. Part of my struggle too was I thought, 'OK, not only do I have to time travel, but also — possibly because I'd originally thought about setting the book in Montreal — I have to go to another part of the country that I don't know as well.' 

"I've visited it, but I've never lived there. Then I also have to switch genders. I ended up thinking about the book set in the Rockies, which I'm more familiar with. But I also thought, 'What if this guy was queer?' 

"I'm queer. I can relate to that. I can't relate to being a gay man, but I can certainly relate being a queer person. So that's how he came to be. But another way that I accessed his character was thinking about what would he be interested in. What would I have been interested in if I was born in the 1920s? 

For most of my work — maybe all of my work — the reason I tend towards magic realist, weird fiction or whatever you want to call it, is because I find that language is inadequate to describe certain experiences.

"I love horror and I love magic realism. I love certain kinds of speculative fiction. I thought, 'What could he be reading? What about Dracula? What about weird tales? That's how his interest in that type of fiction developed.

"For most of my work — maybe all of my work — the reason I tend toward magic realist, weird fiction or whatever you want to call it, is because I find that language is inadequate to describe certain experiences. If I can take a metaphor and make it literal — if I can make dreams real, make dreams better, then it makes more sense to me. 

"It gives me a much larger lexicon, to deal with, to work with my own story." 

About legacy

"One of the things that I want people to take away from this book is to be nice to people in the service industry. It's important that Black people become part of the fabric of the history of this country. It gets a little tiring when the only time you talk about it is in February because it's Black History Month. It's every month. It's everywhere. 

"It's all the time, and it's not necessarily about Black pain or suffering or victimhood. The porters were important in helping to establish a Black middle class, one that had a ton of impact in all kinds of ways including labour rights.

It's really important that Black people become part of the fabric of the history of this country

"This particular group worked really hard to get ahead. I'm not necessarily related to one of these porters, as far as I know, but they've paved the way for me in all kinds of ways.

"Black history matters, every month of the year."

Suzette Mayr's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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