Whitney French on why nurturing the next wave of black Canadian writers is important
Black Writers Matter is a creative nonfiction anthology of Canadian writers that aims to reflect the "everydayness" of living in this country while being black.
Edited by Whitney French — who was named a black Canadian writer to watch in 2019 by CBC Books — the essays in Black Writers Matter, from new and established authors such as Rowan McCandless, Philip Dwight Morgan, Makeda Silvera and Chelene Knight, tackle historical and contemporary issues around as race, gender, sexuality, ancestry and Canadian identity.
"The project was gifted to me, in a way. Writer and editor Scott Fraser, who is also a contributor in the anthology, had the initial idea and connected me with the publisher. Collectively, we saw there was a need for something like this to come about. And they thought I was the best person to do the job.
I wanted to pay homage to the form while also subverting what the anthology usually is or it is thought to do.
"I envisioned a very creative and ambitious project. It was definitely a process. It was the largest project of this scale that I've worked on. I was looking at highlighting black Canadian authors who are currently writing creative nonfiction. I was also looking at the literary canon of black writing in Canada and the art of anthology as a whole. I wanted to pay homage to the form while also subverting what the anthology usually is or it is thought to do. I was looking at how the genre could potentially grow and expand."
Highlighting experiences from coast to coast
"I grew up in the small town of Bradford, Ont., and there are a lot of black Canadians who grew up like me in rural communities. I know my experience is not unique. But it was really beautiful to read stories from other writers whose experience was being the only black kid in the entire school.
"It was important was to have black writers from all across Canada and from a range of diasporic experiences. I recognized that previous anthologies about black Canadian writing were very Toronto-centric or English Montreal-centric; I wanted to showcase the full breadth of black Canadian stories and narratives — what it's like to be a black Canadian in this ginormous country."
Rigorous selection process
"My initial stab at creating the Black Writers Matter anthology to send out a general call out. I was naive in thinking that writers would be so excited about it that I would be overwhelmed by the quality of work — and everything would magically come together! Of course, that didn't happen.
What I was actually seeking was something truthful, bold and brutally honest.
"I did get a lot of the great pieces at first, but just not enough. Writers were submitting works that they thought I wanted to see. Much of it — while good — was very much catering to a white gaze. That's not what I was looking for at all. What I was actually seeking was something truthful, bold and brutally honest.
"For the second round, I made a wishlist of what I wanted to see in an anthology. I always had intersectionality in mind when curating this project, but I don't think I was intentional enough. I would love to always be that awesome feminist who's intentionally being intersectional in all her choices, but I had to grow and develop into that mindset."
Nurturing new and diverse voices
"I did a LOT of editing for Black Writers Matter. I would look at a particular piece and have to determine how much energy I was collaboratively willing to invest to get it to a publishable form. I was working with writers to craft and build their work, sometimes from scratch, sometimes from a rough draft. The entire process of working with the writers featured in Black Writers Matter reminded me a lot about the function of anthologies in general.
Black Writers Matter functions as a place where creative nonfiction writers are supported and championed.
"There have been black anthologies in Canada since the late 1970s. A lot of emerging writers get their first break or publication credit in an anthology. That fact is so important, particularly for black writers who are often marginalized in this industry. Black Writers Matter functions as a place where creative nonfiction writers are supported and championed — where they can work vigorously with an editor and have their work placed in a collection among more established writers. That was really important."
Whitney French's comments have been edited for length and clarity.