Why the poetry of Jillian Christmas examines the realities of Black queerness, femininity and community
'I'm undoing some of those deeply destructive artifacts of colonization.'
Jillian Christmas is a Vancouver-based educator, activist, community organizer and spoken word poet who focuses on increasing anti-oppression initiatives in spoken word. She is the former artistic director of Vancouver's Verses Festival of Words.
The Gospel of Breaking is her debut poetry collection. The book draws on Christmas's politics, family history and queer lineage, telling stories of love lost, friendship and community.
"When I started to put some of the poems together into a book, I realized that one of the elements that needed to be examined was some 'root work' for me — retracing of my arrival in this place — both for how I physically came to be here but also for the emotional context of my work. So I had to go home, and to a number of different homes.
"I had to go back to some of my family story — my origin story — and I had to go and travel to Trinidad and Tobago. This was to ground myself and my family's story. I would spend time developing those relationships that are disrupted by all of the distance that comes between us.
I had to go home, to a number of different homes. I had to go back to some of my family story — my origin story — and I had to go and travel to Tobago and to Trinidad.
"I spent a month with my grandmother in Tobago and started to write what would be the pieces that are held in parentheticals in the book. They are all, in some way, related to my paternal grandmother. That felt like a critical piece.
"The book started to come alive to me when I introduced those pieces to all of the other pieces that existed. They started to give them an anchor."
Feeling the flow
"The stories that all involve my paternal grandmother were all written while I was in Tobago and defined when I came back to Vancouver. I wrote every day while I was down there. Often I would take a little trip to the ocean. I would take in the day a little bit and then retreat to the bedroom to do some writing.
My writing comes to me in bursts. I tend, in my energy and in my writing, to have ebbs and flows. I try and lean into those flows when they come.
"Sometimes a good chunk of it also was sitting in the hammock which is one of my favourite things on earth. I have a travel hammock that I carry with me and I sat underneath this beautiful mango tree and did quite a bit of writing under there.
"My writing comes to me in bursts. I tend, in my energy and in my writing, to have ebbs and flows. I try and lean into those flows when they come."
Home is home
"The reality is that there are so many divisions between what I have imagined at home and what I've learned at home. There are a number of disconnections that happen being a member of the African Diaspora where culture, language and all of these these pieces that define us as a whole people start to get interrupted — and or continue to be interrupted in the presence of the colonial footprint.
I think part of this collection was a reimagining of what home was — and a new understanding of it.
"Part of this collection was a reimagining of what home was — and a new understanding of it. Even going back to Tobago — which I can call home — the reality is that there have only been short periods of life that I was there. Even though those periods involve massive leaps of growth you know they were still short in time and had that big of an impact.
"I have struggled a lot with that concept at home. Both with my relationship to Tobago and my relationship to Ontario, where I was mostly raised on Anishnawbe and Haudenosaunee territories. I now live here in Vancouver which is also on Indigenous territories which feels very much like home to me. But it's not the territory of my people, as very few of my family members have even been out here."
Black queerness and femininity
"I refuse to separate myself from myself. One of the harms of the white gaze or colonialism is that it asks us to show up as one facet of ourselves. That's quite tokenizing. It was important to me in this book that my multi-dimensionality was present. Sometimes there is a hesitance to lead into sexuality — specifically because of the ways in which society already deems Black femmes as hypersexual.
"It was so necessary and intrinsic for me to speak to my queerness and sexuality. These are pieces of myself that are so consistently present and have been so active in my own healing.
"One of the footprints that we talk about when we talk about colonialism — especially in the context of the Caribbean but also in many other places — is the introduction of homophobia and transphobia. It's not a thing that gets talked about terribly often. I am blessed to have some queer family members I can commiserate with, but it took a long time to even come to that understanding.
It was so necessary and intrinsic for me to speak to my queerness and sexuality.
"Part of my work in healing myself, healing my family line and undoing all of that harm that has happened is in being myself fully, naming all of these aspects of myself and naming them as joyful and healing. I'm undoing some of those deeply destructive artifacts of colonization."
Poetic complexities of being
"What I realized, in the shaping of this book, was that the home that I have is in my body. It's in my experiences, it's in my story and my acknowledgement of those connections that do not dissipate, even with all of this travel and disconnection and scattering.
"Some of those things are just imprinted in our and other bodies and DNA. The more I recognize that that was the true home — and it showed up in that first poem in the book — I started to feel pieces of my family history emerge without the need for asking questions and without the need for understanding in the common sense.
What I realized, in the shaping of this book, was that the home that I have is in my body.
"Just the instinctual knowledge, whether it be a religious practice that goes way back before colonialism, or whether it's in the cooking and food knowledge, these pieces are housed in me. I am the one to bring them forth in whatever way they existed, in this new version.
"It was a comforting realization for me. There can be a lot of disorientation that happens as a child of the diaspora and also as a first-generation immigrant."
Jillian Christmas's comments have been edited for length and clarity.