The Next Chapter

Jael Richardson's debut novel Gutter Child is a dystopian look at Black identity and belonging

The writer, columnist and festival director spoke with Shelagh Rogers about making her fiction debut.
Gutter Child is a novel by Jael Richardson. (HarperAvenue, Simon Remark)

Jael Richardson is the founder and the artistic director of the Festival for Literary Diversity (FOLD) and the books columnist for q on CBC Radio.

Richardson, who is from Brampton, Ont., is also the author of the nonfiction book The Stone Thrower, which was adapted into a picture book of the same name. 

Richardson is now a novelist too, having authored Gutter ChildGutter Child is about a young girl growing up in a world divided: the Mainland, where people of privilege live, and the Gutter, a policed state where the most vulnerable reside. A social experiment results in 100 babies born in the Gutter to be raised in the Mainland.

One of those babies is Elimina Dubois. But when Elimina's Mainland mother dies, she is sent to an academy with rules and a way of life Elimina doesn't understand.

Richardson spoke with Shelagh Rogers about why she wrote Gutter Child.

Gestation period

"It took me eight years to write Gutter Child. I was creating and working on the FOLD literary festival as I was writing the story. 

"I've realized, in working on this project, is that writing is a compulsion. It's a pressure that I feel that I have to relieve or everything else falls apart. It was hard to find the time at certain points, but it was also a necessary urge.

I've realized, in working on this project, is that writing is a compulsion.

"When you have that urge, that push, that drive, you find time to create things like this."

Literary connections

"Gutter Child is connected to my memoir, The Stone Thrower. When I was working on The Stone Thrower, we went to my father's hometown. We met a young man who was the same age as me, and he was living in the projects, where my dad had grown up. He was talking to my dad, about how my father would know his mother and they used to live next door. It was that moment that actually started Gutter Child

I was thinking about how, in one generation, my father had changed the whole trajectory of my life. I had never lived in a low-income community or known any kind of poverty.

"I was thinking about how, in one generation, my father had changed the whole trajectory of my life. I had never lived in a low-income community or known any kind of poverty. I started asking questions about what it looks like to grow up in a world that's designed for your failure."

If you've been taking time to reflect on issues around race, justice and equality, you might be looking for something to read. Books shape our lives, they can help us feel less alone or understand difficult events in a broader context. Our books columnist, Jael Richardson, joined Tom Power to share some books that have been important in her own personal journey to understand what it means to be black in Canada. 8:32

Lived experiences

"With Elimina, I wanted to create a character who was, at the start of the novel, unaware, and had to discover the world. She was familiar with a certain part and a certain experience, having grown up on the Mainland as part of this experiment. Then she has to re-enter the world and learn what the rules are and come to understand what her place is. 

I started asking questions about what it looks like to grow up in a world that's designed for your failure.

"She's been an outsider. Now she's back with kids who are like her, who come from the same place, but who have grown up very differently. 

"That is an interesting experience, especially when we connect it to the Black experience. You can feel like a little bit of an outsider as you navigate that — as you come to look at the world.

"Depending on where you live, you may also feel like Elimina, in terms of being an outsider in a community."

Jael Richardson's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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