The Next Chapter

Tessa McWatt explores race through the lens of her own multi-ethnic identity in her latest book

The Guyanese-born Canadian writer talks to Shelagh Rogers about writing the memoir Shame on Me.
Shame on Me is a book by Tessa McWatt. (Christine Mofardin, Random House Canada)

This interview originally aired on May 9, 2020.

Tessa McWatt is an author of several works of fiction, including Dragons CryVital Signs and Higher Ed.  She was born in Guyana and came to Canada when she was three years old. Her heritage is Scottish, English, French, Portuguese, Indian, Amerindian, African and Chinese.

Shame on Me is her memoir about identity, race and belonging by someone who spent a lot of time trying to find an answer to the question, "Who are you?" and who has endured decades of racism and bigotry while trying to figure out who she is and where she belongs. 

The memoir won the nonfiction category of the 2020 OCM Bocas Prize, which celebrates literary work published by Caribbean authors.

McWatt spoke with Shelagh Rogers about why she wrote Shame on Me.

Writing my reality

"I've been dealing with these central issues around race and belonging in all of my fiction up to this point. 

"I started to write my memoir Shame on Me after 2016 — after Brexit, after Trump got elected. I needed a more direct way of talking about the things that I had been previously talking about in fiction.

I needed a more direct way of talking about the things that I had been previously talking about in fiction.

"Shame on Me really deals a lot with language and a lot with stories. It's a lot about who we are based on the stories that we come from and the stories that we tell — and also the fact that race is a story that has been told as a way of having power over others.

"Language is a key to me unpicking the whole idea of 'What are you?' and how we deal with that question in society."

Where I'm from

"I knew that my family was Guyanese. I knew we were from the Caribbean. I knew that it had some complexity. It had a lot of wonderful, great food that we eat at home all the time and it had all kinds of cultural and social things that were part of my family life. 

I knew that my family was Guyanese. I knew we were from the Caribbean. I knew that it had some complexity.

"But I didn't know about the complexity of what made it — and what made Guyana that very multicultural, multiracial place. And what made it was the slave trade and the industry of sugar."

Assumptions of race and identity

"My background is based in Guyana and the sugar plantation. After the abolition of slavery, plantation owners were forced to bring in indentured labourers to continue the production of sugar. 

My background is based in Guyana and the sugar plantation.

"Within the group other Europeans, but also Chinese and Indian indentured labourers came, and that became what the structure of the society was in Guyana as well. That plantation structure is what I'm formed of basically — and so that's where the 'song of sugar' comes in.

"The assumptions that people make on physical and biological traits are really dangerous. One of those threads through the book is this idea of belonging — where do I belong, which one of those categories and which one of those spaces can I claim belonging. 

"The answer ends up being you know that belonging is not something I really need anymore or care to actually pick a place for anymore because that sense of belonging in one place is limiting for me."

Tessa McWatt's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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