In Conversation with Cicely-Belle Blain

Interview by 
Jillian Christmas

Jillian Christmas, artistic director of the Verses Festival of Words, speaks with poet, artist and co-founder of Black Lives Matter – Vancouver, Cicely-Belle Blain.

Jillian: I have seen many photos of you doing work at the front lines, at vigils, marches and protests. Despite the difficulty of so much of this work and the tension in so many of these environments, one thing regularly sticks out in these photos. In almost all of them you display an energy of calm, fierce, joyful resistance. I wonder how you remain so buoyant through all of this challenging work that you do?

Cicely-Belle: I think I am always excited. I’m always excited to be visibilizing Black communities in a city that has historically erased them. I’m excited about the amount of people who show out and support us. Who come out and hear what we have to say, who believe in us, despite BLM being a group of young activists. Public speaking puts me in my happy place. Coming from a pretty white-centric upbringing and always wondering about my place in the world, finally finding something I’m good at and having the ability to make people listen to important causes fills me with joy. It’s a platform of privilege and one that I must navigate with precarity. Globally, Blackness is exotic and desirable, a culture that is over-consumed by non-Black folks yet under-appreciated when on Black bodies. Especially in Vancouver, Blackness seems so removed from most people’s daily lives (despite the fact that they probably engage in multiple pieces of Black culture throughout their day) that people sort of idolize Black Lives Matter. They are excited to listen to Black voices and they are excited to be seen as allies; people will listen to anything I say and so I have to be super careful. I think also subconsciously, I am trying to dispel the notion of an “angry Black woman”; for better or worse, my calmness and my smile makes me approachable and people more receptive to our cause.

Jillian: Tell me the best piece of advice that you ever ignored. Do you think you would listen today?

Cicely-Belle: A lot of people tell me to enjoy my life while I’m young—to explore more, to take more risks, to make mistakes and learn from them, to be wild but I have a really hard time doing that. Less than a week after graduating from UBC I started working full time at a job that is rewarding but very emotionally taxing, on top of being a part of Black Lives Matter and other communities initiatives. I pretty much never stop—as I write this I’m on vacation and yet still answering a hundred emails and working on my next Daily Xtra article. I think there’s a Sagittarius instinct inside me somewhere, begging me to throw caution to the wind and live a little, but so far anxiety has gotten the best of me! I’m only twenty-three so I hope the day comes soon when I can truly listen to that advice and do some things that scare me.

Jillian: With all of the incredible work that you do, your skillset and reputation for diligent, thoughtful, ethical work are almost mythical in their proportions. Which mythical creature best describes you? Why?

Cicely-Belle: This is the loveliest thought! I think the mythical creature that best describes me is . . . a dragon. Dragons have different meanings in different cultures and having lived in very multicultural cities my whole life and simultaneously been a fantasy book nerd I have absorbed a lot of different understandings. In European history (my Bachelor’s was in European Studies . . . Yeah, I don’t know why either), dragons represent chaos, danger, battle and resilience. Being an activist, these are things I relate to. I have to harness ferocity but sometimes (like when I’m confronted with people who refuse to remove police from the Pride parade) I do breath fire. In contrast, Chinese culture sees dragons as powerful, strong and full of good luck. My partner, who is Chinese, was born in the year of the dragon and I was born in the year of the rooster. Roosters are said to be super unlucky and to protect them and keep them safe, they need a dragon by their side. I’m lucky to have my dragon and be protected by their luck, courage and good fortune.

Jillian: Tell me about your five-year-old self, what was their idea of a hero how does it compare to your idea of a hero now?

Cicely-Belle: When I was five, my hero was either Action Man or my mum. Action Man was my favourite toy because he had a wolf as a pet and was way cooler than Barbie. My mum was my hero because she raised me by herself yet I never saw her falter. She is determined, kind, hard-working, strong, creative, thrifty and hilarious. Today, my mum is still my hero and so are so many other womxn and femmes. Being mixed race and due to having an absent father, much of the family I was surrounded by growing up in England were white. The past few years for me have really been about self exploration, coming out/in, unlearning, decolonizing, and blackness. Now my heroes are Black womxn and femmes who defy the odds, have pride in themselves, do self care, take no shit, make good art and love their communities. Ideally they would have a pet wolf too.

Jillian: In your most perfect dreams of the future, you pick up the phone, who is on the other end of the line? What is the first thing you say to them?

Cicely-Belle: These questions are deep! Most of the time I don't even have the chance to think into the next week . . . I think in my dream future I would be picking up the phone to my publisher. I've always wanted to be a published author and my dream is to live a life where my writing sustains me and my family. They would be telling me that my book is being made into a movie or that I'm being flown somewhere glamorous for a book signing. The book I'm currently working on is a YA fantasy novel about black justice and queer love. In some ways it's the story I always wish I had when I was a teenager . . . so I hope one day I can get it published and inspire some Black queer youth like myself.

Jillian: Were you raised in any religious or cultural traditions? What does prayer sound like to you today?

Cicely-Belle: Nope! My parents are religiously atheist! My extended family comes from a few different backgrounds of faith . . . many are Muslim and many are Christian. I have a deep appreciation for religion and spirituality but aside from being awarded “most gifted student” in Religious Studies in high school, I don’t have much of a connection to religion or prayer. However, while visiting my maternal family in Gambia and growing up next to a Mosque in London, I do really enjoy the sound of the Adhan (Muslim call to prayer). It doesn’t necessarily call me, but it does remind me of the sanctity and peacefulness of Islam that I have witnessed throughout my life. It’s something I remember often and something that grounds me in a world that is so anti-Black and Islamophobic.

Jillian: You and I are both settlers here in Vancouver, both travelling quite a distance to be here. What brought you to Vancouver? Why do you stay?

Cicely-Belle: I came to Coast Salish lands in 2012 to attend UBC. Not being able to afford many universities, my prospects were looking slim but I ended up being awarded a full scholarship to UBC. I never really considered myself an academic person, so UBC was hard for me but I managed to graduate in three-and-a-half years.

Why do I stay . . . I don’t know! I’ve found some really wonderful friends and communities, people who have inspired and uplifted me. After I came out as queer while I was at UBC, I lost a lot of friends. Thankfully, since graduating I became more involved in queer and social justice communities and they keep me tied to this city. In other ways, I’m coming to the end of my patience with Vancouver. It’s expensive, capitalist, apathetic and pretty boring. Ultimately, London is my home and I think it won’t be long before I return there.

Jillian: What is the one song that you cannot help but sing along to?

Cicely-Belle: R. Kelly’s "World’s Greatest" is a pretty cheesy classic. It was my high school graduation song and gets me all emotional and nostalgic whenever I hear it.

Jillian: Who is your activist role model? Have you had any people mentor you in regard to your work within community?

Cicely-Belle: Hmmm! I have many! I take a lot of inspiration from people my age. As a youth worker, I strongly believe in the power of youth activism and am constantly in awe of and inspired by my co-organizers in Black Lives Matter Vancouver—Daniella Barreto, Joy Gyamfi, Holly Bishu, Jabari Cofer, Oliver Marseille, Guy Noah, Mariam Barry, Ariam Yetbarak, and others who support in other ways. We lift one another up, keep each other grounded, make each other laugh and cause a heck of a stir across the city. Millennials are so fearless in the face of a society and an economy that constantly leaves us down in the dirt.

But ultimately, my activist role model is my grandmother. She was strongly involved in the campaigns for nuclear disarmament and she would often tell me stories about the protests she would go to. One of my earliest memories of with her is going to anti-gentrification rally in my old neighbourhood.

Jillian: If you were only allowed to whisper one word into your lover(s)’s ear for the rest of eternity, what word would it be?

Cicely-Belle: Probably “adventure?”—question mark included. We both enjoy spontaneity and some of our best moments have been going on random adventures. I hate the feeling of being stuck or trapped in a routine and sometimes I just like to drop everything and explore. That could mean going to Shoppers or it could mean going to New York. I get excited by the smallest things and I’m easy to please. Anything could be an adventure.

Jillian: When will we see you again?

Cicely-Belle: There’ll be some exciting BLM events this summer for sure! I also set up my own anti-racism consulting and workshop business (www.cicelyblain.com), so I’ll be engaging with different communities over the next few months in the hopes of encouraging folks to unlearning anti-Blackness. Aside from that, I’m hoping to get more sleep and eat three meals a day, so that may mean less of my face for a while!

Jillian Christmas lives on the unceded territories of the Squamish, Tsleil-Waututh and Musqueam people (Vancouver, BC.), where she serves as the artistic director of Verses Festival of Words: Canada’s largest alternative literary festival, happening April 20-30 in Vancouver. (For more information on 2017 events, visit versesfestival.ca.).

Jillian is an enthusiastic organizer and activist in the Canadian arts community, her focus being to increase anti-oppression initiatives in spoken word. She has participated in, developed and executed programs in partnership with Toronto Poetry Project, Wordplay, Brendan McLeod’s Travelling Slam, University of British Columbia, Vancouver Opera, and the CULTCH Mentorship, and facilitated spoken word workshops for youth and adults across the country.  

Cicely-Belle Blain is a queer, Black poet, artist and community organizer who has been a settler on Coast Salish lands for four years. Originally from London, England, they have been working on bringing social justice, accessibility and inclusivity to spaces, mainly at UBC, where they studied European Studies and Russian.

Cicely-Belle’s previous and ongoing projects include co-founding a chapter of the Black Lives Matter movement in Vancouver, archiving the history of racialized student activism across North America with the UBC Centre for Race, Autobiography, Gender and Age, and being the program assistant for BC’s queer and trans summer camp, CampOUT. They have also worked with the Positive Space Campaign and the Global Lounge, both at UBC, which have been instrumental in fuelling their passion for community building, intercultural understanding and safer space creation. They spend their spare time writing teen fiction, painting, and winning at pub trivia.

Verses Festival of Words, Canada’s largest alternative literary and spoken word festival, takes place in intimate venues across East Vancouver from April 20 – 30th, 2017. For more information and tickets to events, visit: www.versesfestival.ca

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