Chelene Knight is working on her third book, a novel about a friendship between two black women who grew up in Vancouver (Hogan's Alley) in the 1930s and '40s.
"But you don't look that black."
I remember walking into an event where I was asked to be a guest reader by a woman who had "heard about my book." We had never met, I was unfamiliar with the other readers, never heard of the venue, but was still interested in expanding my literary horizons.
This is what emerging writers need to do, right? I introduced myself to her and she stared back at me for a good 15 seconds before furrowing her brow and saying "But you don't look that black."
I was left feeling "less than" and not worthy of being part of the event because I didn't fit the mould of what black should be. I didn't meet the expectations of the diversity hashtag.
My mother is an American-born black woman. My father is an East Indian-Ugandan who was kicked out of his country for not being black. Now, I am left to question my own blackness in a room full of white people with all eyes on me. I fumbled through my reading without ever looking up from my book.
What do comments such as this mean to a mixed-race writer, woman, Canadian, artist, creator, just trying to share her stories? What if every time she woke, she saw herself as two people; a writer sitting across the room from a black writer.
Sometimes there is a divide depending on where I am and whom I am with. I am split in two. The first me is comfortable in her skin, doesn't feel the need to explain her own ethnicity, while the second me comes to the table "orally armed," ready to defend herself as soon as the slightest pebble of doubt is tossed at my feet.
What does it feel like to occupy one body that is essentially your own, but as two separate people; a black woman writer and a writer? For one, it's extremely difficult to write while constantly bouncing back and forth like this. Walking into a literary reading to a full house where you are the only non-white face will always bring up questions: Am I the physical representation of a diversity hashtag? Is my writing good? Can I read to this particular room of people?
As a woman of colour, having to prove my "blackness" should never be something on my list of things to accomplish. Like other marginalized people, I work in a mostly white world, which for me happens to be the Canadian literary community.
Knowing this, I worry there is no "how to" manual to make sure everyone gets the chance to speak, and that we are offered the same opportunities. What is my responsibility to other writers who aren't white? And do I think we are being included because an event, publication or panel needs a writer to be "less white?" Or are we wanted because our story is important?
My writing revolves around these questions: Who gets accepted into the literary world, who is left out and who decides. There is a fine line between tokenism and offering up a platform for marginalized voices.
I want to be heard. But does that mean I need to scream louder than everyone else, or say something that no one else is saying and defend it to the death? While this is exhausting, through hard work, muscles form. Repeating a constant repetitive motion creates strength. It builds a confidence. And that confidence brings about trust. I'm learning we can't always question why we are being included or why we are not.
Of course, I do still question what it will take before writers like myself stop seeing themselves as a double. And at what point will I walk into a room full of writers, readers, panelists and speakers without feeling like the diversity hashtag? I don't think anyone should have all the answers, but these questions will always be shouting in my mind until we do.
I just hope my stories will shout louder.