An Interview with Bernadette Dyer

Interview by 
Chelene Knight
Bernadette Dyer

Bernadette Gabay Dyer was born in Kingston, Jamaica, and has lived in Toronto Canada for several years. She is a poet, a storyteller, an artist, a playwright and an author. Her work has been anthologized widely, and her short stories and poetry have been published in Canadian literary magazines, as well as the University of Miami’s journal, and London England’s St. Mary’s University’s Wasafiri. Recently, her poetry was included in the collection, TAMARACKS: Canadian Poetry for the 21st Century, published by Lummox Press in the United States.  Her science fiction short story “Just A Single World,” was published in Polar Borealis Press, and her historical fiction novel, Chasing the Banyan Wind was published by LMH Publishing in Kingston Jamaica. Bernadette works for Toronto Public Libraries, and is also the facilitator for an Open Mic Program, that gives an opportunity for writers of all genres to share their work with an audience. Bernadette is the author of three novels: Waltzes I Have Not Forgotten, Abductors, Chasing the Banyan Wind, and short story collection, Villa Fair. She is the illustrator of the book covers for all three of her novels.

ROOM: Tell us a bit about why you write.

Bernadette Dyer: I grew up in Jamaica in a multiracial family. Both of my parents brought stories into our lives. My father enjoyed telling humorous stories, ghost stories, and stories about his ancestry. My mother, on the other hand, read to us children from books. These were not children’s stories, but instead novels that she herself enjoyed. The most memorable being the novel Les Misérables, with our beloved hero Jean Val Jean, that held us enthralled night after night.

When I grew older, my first timid attempts at writing consisted of short stories—usually about diverse characters and on discovering rhythms in poetry. I began to broaden my horizons, finding beauty in the rhythms in poems such as “Tarantella”  by Hilaire Belloc and I wanted to create unforgettable verses supported with words that would sing. It is a challenge to write anything remotely memorable, but how surprising it was when my first poems and stories began to get published in little magazines. Such achievement inspired my desire to keep writing, and it was as though harnessed by a strange passion, I found that I had to continue to create stories in one form or another.

ROOM: What do you think Canadian publishers can do to better support Black women writers?

BD: I am not sure that I can give relevance to this question, except to say that in my naivety, I have always felt that engaging writing was more important than the colour of one’s skin. I am not sure if publishers are investigating one’s racial origins before accepting a submission. I have never brought up the subject of race in a query letter, but that is not to say that if a publisher focuses on publishing only authors of colour, that I would not mention that, yes, I am Black.  Since I am unaware of what takes place behind the doors of publishing houses, I would prefer not to make a pronouncement on this matter.

ROOM: That makes sense and I think to me, it’s more of a “what do they do once you are published?” Do they ask what you need? So often we are expected to write certain stories and tell certain tales.

ROOM: Ok, what are some obstacles you’ve faced since publishing?

BD: I have found that it is extremely difficult to promote one’s work alone. Publishing houses do not always assist with promotions especially if they are small. One has to find time to contact venues to read in, such as book clubs, halls, theatres, libraries, schools and universities. etc

Finding a reviewer for your work is a daunting task. Reviewers too, already have requirements to be met which does not include just any book, but books that are popular and award winners and by known authors. All this has to be done before your book becomes yesterday’s news.

I consider myself lucky to have recently been promised a review for my new novel, Chasing the Banyan wind, by the Historical Fiction Society. The reviewer will be a professor in the United States.

ROOM: What types of books do you gravitate toward?

BD: I was introduced to classical fiction in high school. I was intrigued by The Mayor of Casterbridge, and its slow building plot and sense of dread. I loved Jane Eyre for its intrigue, supressed passion, and isolation—not to mention the love story. But these stories did not reflect characters that resembled me. But I later, found novels such as the Guyanese Kaywana Trilogy, by Edgar Mittelholzer whose characters and setting were diverse and wild. and I was awed by the power of his stories. I was then drawn to the historical drama of the Falconhurst series that addressed slavery, and various shades of blackness, and it allowed me to recognize the resonance of a well told tale that included characters that resembled me.

 I also enjoy the writing and poetry of the late great fantasy author, Ray Bradbury whose aliens are from another world, and his novel, The Martian Chronicles will forever live in my mind. It was not until years later that I discovered the beauty of Makeda Silvera’s work, and the haunting quality of her novel, Remembering G.  I was lucky enough to happen upon Olive Senior’s work and it inspired me, and took me home to Jamaica. And I am not to forget Grace Hallworth’s amazing folktales in the collection called, Mouth Open Story Jump Out. Today as a result of all these literary flirtations I am attracted to many different types of literature, some similar to those mentioned, and some not.

ROOM: What has been your biggest success so far?

BD: Every time that a piece of my work gets published, I consider it a big success. I have published novels, short stories, and poetry, and am equally proud of each one of them.

ROOM: What advice would you give Black writers who want to write and publish?

BD: My advice would be to keep writing, and to trust yourself and your instinct to create. Find time to join writing groups, approach mentors, and read the works of writers you admire. Submit your work without fear of rejection, and if rejected learn from the experience and continue to submit fearlessly, and keep working diligently on becoming the best you can be.

Chelene Knight is the managing editor of Room, and the author of two books: a collection of poetry, Braided Skin (Mothertongue, 2015), and Dear Current Occupant (Book*hug, 2018).

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