The Next Chapter

Why Janice Lynn Mather writes from a youthful point of view in her short story collection Uncertain Kin

The Vancouver-based author discusses growing up in the Bahamas and how she drew on those early experiences for her first adult fiction book.
Uncertain Kin is a book by Janice Lynn Mather. (Doubleday Canada, Janice Lynn Mather)

Janice Lynn Mather is a Vancouver-based novelist and short story writer of Bahamian heritage. Her books include the YA novel Learning to Breathe, which was a finalist for the 2018 Governor General's Literary Award for young people's literature — text and Facing the Sun, a YA novel which won the 2021 Amy Mathers Teen Book Award.

Her latest, Uncertain Kin, is a short story collection set against the backdrop of The Bahamas. It follows the lives of girls and women as they search for identity and belonging during moments of profound upheaval.

Mather spoke with Shelagh Rogers about writing Uncertain Kin.

From the eyes of a child

"Most of the stories are not only set in the Bahamas, but they're set in the Bahamas from the point of view of children. And I think I wanted to go back and think about and try and make sense of experiences, moments, things that I witnessed, things that I lived through or saw others living through, that were part of my childhood or very early adulthood. And I wanted to go back to try and see if I could understand them in a different way or just sort of pay homage to them.

I wanted to go back and try and make sense of experiences, moments, things that I witnessed, things that I lived through or saw others living through, that were part of my childhood.

"In Centipede, [the first story of the collection], the storyteller uses the traditional way of introducing the story. 'Once upon a time was an old, old time. Monkey chewed tobacco and spit white lime. Bullfrog jump from bank to bank while mosquito keeping the time. It wasn't my time. It wasn't your time. It was old, old time.'

So she's keeping a tradition alive. She's also a regular community member for Samantha, the main character in Centipede. She's also a neighbour. So through the story, we also see that she's someone who witnesses and has an interaction with someone that crosses Samantha's path and comes into her family's home and does something awful to Samantha's older sister. And Samantha sees the storyteller hailing this man after. The storyteller is one of many adults that misses signs that something is wrong in Samantha's home and that something is wrong in the community." 

Coming full circle 

"It would be a missed opportunity to not have [the storyteller] open a collection of stories in which, much like traditional folktales, the characters are trying to make sense of the world around them and where sometimes reality is bent a little bit. And because some, not all, of the stories in the collection are linked, you'll see that some characters dip in and out of different stories.

"We might see someone as a teenage girl. We see her again as a grandmother. We see someone as a child. And we see her again as an adult woman moving through the world in a different way. But perhaps we see how the way that she behaves as an adult was informed by her experiences when she was younger. So the last story in the collection, Laundry, we see Samantha's older sister in a different situation, in a different light. So that's the other reason why I wanted to just give that sort of circularity." 

We see how the way that she behaves as an adult was informed by her experiences when she was younger.

Drawing on real life events 

"When I was probably about 18 or 19, I was working as a newspaper reporter. And while I was there, boys began to disappear. This happened on the island of Grand Bahama, which was terrifying. You would just see in the news, this little boy has gone missing. And then a short time later, there would be another. And this went on over months and months. It was a long, really painful time of mystery and of terror, especially in communities where it wouldn't be unusual for children to be able to run fairly free. 

"You know, I think in [the story] Mango Summer it was just coming back to that time and trying to again make sense of it, which is very hard to actually do. This happened when I was in my late teens, and even then it was just baffling and really, really terrifying. So in Mango Summer, I wanted to go back and look at it from the point of view of a child who experiences it as close to home as possible."

The power of joy

"So many people, I'd argue most of us, perhaps have experienced some sort of tremendous pain. We're handed something that's terribly unfair, an illness, some sort of violence, some sort of loss. But sometimes you meet someone and they have so much joy pouring out of them and it's only when you get to know them a bit better or you listen that you realize that they're this way in spite of.

Sometimes you meet someone and they have so much joy pouring out of them and it's only when you get to know them a bit better that you realize that they're this way in spite of.

"I wanted to capture some of that to kind of offset some of the pain and to add some hopefulness because throughout the collection, the characters, they do keep going. And we don't always necessarily see them and their moments of joy and shining." 

Janice Lynn Mather's comments have been edited for length and clarity. 

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