In this month’s double-feature of “Reading Practice,” I spoke with two poets, Cicely Belle Blain and Terese Mason Pierre, on fantasy, self-exploration, and early reading experiences that had left an impact. I also took the opportunity to ask them about their current work. Pierre launched her second chapbook, Manifest (Gap Riot Press) in July 2020, and Blain’s first collection, Burning Sugar (Arsenal Pulp Press), will be released in September.
[This interview was conducted over the phone and has been edited for clarity.]
Cicely Belle Blain
ROOM: In an article for The Georgia Straight, you were quoted as saying, “We don’t just have one single identity or one single story. We’re all made up of different facets of our identity. Within that, for some we experience privilege and for others we experience oppression.” In that interview, you were speaking on allyship and responsibility, but to use this quote in the context of books, and the stories that we consume and see ourselves in, how would you describe your “bookshelf identity”? In what ways do books influence you? Would you say that what you read defines you?
CBB: Ooh, that’s a good question. [Laughs] Yeah, I mean, I would say in relation to that idea that we are all made up of multifaceted identities that I treat books the same way, whereby I like to engage with literature and with poetry and the other things that I read that kind of see different parts of my identity. Same with my writing I think, you know my upcoming book, [Burning Sugar], is really an image about my life and the intersections of my identity and I think it needs to be approached as such. Sometimes, especially as activists and writers, we get sort of pigeon-holed into one category: This is a Black writer. This is a queer writer. But I’m trying to portray the message that our identities are so much more complex than that and are also so informed by our geography, our social location. A huge part of my book is about travel and going to different places. Interacting with different human beings also informs your access and relationship to oppression or privilege. I think sometimes when we have these conversations about identity or about intersectionality we sort of make the mistake of thinking that we are talking about isolated experiences or isolated identities but they’re actually so informed by every new place we go to and every new person we interact with. And those things can also change throughout our lifetime which was also important for me to dig deep into my own past and relationship with race and gender and class growing up. So yeah, I think it’s still really important to think about these concepts of intersectionality and allyship beyond activism and recognize that activism is actually a lifelong journey and something that we can do even if it’s just as simple as picking up a book engaging with other people’s stories and experiences.
ROOM: What books did you read as a child?
CBB: As a child I read a lot of fantasy, a lot of sci-fi. My favourite writer was Malorie Blackman. She writes some fantasy, some magical realism style. My favourite of hers was Noughts & Crosses which just got made into a tv show and it’s basically a reverse society where Black people have power and privilege and white folks are oppressed, and it kind of exposes the current reality when it’s flipped. It forces you to look at things differently, and you know at the time as a young person I didn’t necessarily have the same critical lens but I still remember feeling very— lots of emotions were evoked, my internal sense of judgement was inspired. I really like books that are able to talk about justice and political issues under the veil of sci-fi or fantasy. I think that’s a really important way for young people to start getting into these important conversations.
ROOM: Do you have a favourite book memory?
CBB: I’m hesitant to say because of the whole stuff that’s going on with JK Rowling, but Harry Potter was obviously a huge part of anybody my age growing up. I still hold it dear. I remember I would be in the bath and my mum would read it to me and I remember being so scared, especially the second one with the big snake. I was terrified. I think that will always be dear to me; that experience of how important Harry Potter was and still is for so many people. I really like the movement of folks taking Harry Potter for themselves and decentering it from JK Rowling, which I think is hard to do. But it’s still possible to love the work and also be critical of it, and be critical of the writer at the same time. I think there are a lot of folks from my generation feeling like, “oh my gosh this was such a pivotal piece of our coming of age time of our life”. It’s a complicated space to be in.
ROOM: What’s your favourite fantasy trope or a trope you’d like to see flipped?
CBB: Something I’m starting to see in newer fantasy, though I’m not sure it’s necessarily new, the idea of gender-bending in fantasy. I really like N.K. Jemisin’s work where there’s a very fluid sense of gender in a lot of her characters. I used to be really into this series The Tower of Ravens by Kate Forsyth. I recall a gender fluidity being a key element and the way it was normalized. It was never called upon as “this character is trans” or “this character is nonbinary”. It was just like one day this character is embracing a more feminine spirit and one day embracing a more masculine side and that’s something that I think is really cool and can be done so seamlessly in fantasy because it doesn’t need to have labels. If you’re creating a made up world, it’s much easier to play with things that are less accepted in the real world and I really like that.
ROOM: If you could be a character dropped into any book, which book would that be?
CBB: Probably, although it’s a bit dystopian, the Divergent series. It would be cool to explore that world. I like the revolutionary aspect of it. That’s also a fantasy/sci-fi trope that I like, that the future holds this idea of humans trying to separate themselves into categories, or this capitalist future where we streamline society by capitalizing on people’s one skill that they have. As you read Divergent you’re like obviously I’d be a Divergent. But I think everyone thinks that and everyone thinks they’re the only one thinking that. If folks aren’t familiar with the story it’s basically that people are split into five groups and then the Divergents are the ones who don’t fit into one group, but obviously that’s everybody as humans and I think that’s an interesting concept. I feel like that’s kind of what I am doing now, obviously not to such an extreme extent, How society tries to put us into boxes. For me, true liberation is people being able to be free with their gender and how they present themselves, so I think I would be a good part of the revolution in Divergent.
ROOM: Your debut poetry collection, Burning Sugar, comes out soon. Tell me about your relationship with poetry. Who do you read? Which poems do you return to?
CBB: My favourite poetry book is salt. by Nayyirah Waheed. I remember reading that at the end of university. That was the first time I’d read poetry since high school and reading old white dude’s poetry. I was very uninspired and thought that poetry had to be a specific way, and “salt.” was the first book that I saw, “wow, you can actually do so many things with the form and flow and grammar.” I had written a couple poems here and there but never loved them or felt proud of them because I was trying to follow these other more rigid “highschool type poetry” formats. It wasn’t until I read “salt.” and then Rupi Kaur and r. H. sin, that I saw you can actually be very experimental. Another barrier I had with poetry was that I felt like, as an activist and anti-racist consultant, that the only kind of writing I could do was writing that was educating other people. For me, poetry was stigmatized in my mind as not serious or not important or too artistic. It wasn’t until reading Vivek Shraya and so many other queer POC who are poets, that I realized if you want to you can still infuse informative, or educational or radical things into poetry. After that, I started to write a lot more and that’s what became my book.
ROOM: And lastly, I have to ask, what are you currently reading?
Terese Mason Pierre
ROOM: What’s your reading practice? Do you annotate or highlight? How long does it take for you to finish a book?
TMP: That’s a good question. It depends for me what kind of book I’m reading and the purpose of the reading. If I’m reading a book for a review I will annotate, underline and make notes that will enhance my understanding of the book but also cause me to generate ideas and angles to approach the review and the analysis of the book when it comes to relaying that to an audience. If it’s for myself, it really depends on how much time I have and my mood. I’ve finished entire books in one day, fiction or poetry. If it’s something that I am interested in or it’s a book that I am really looking forward to reading, then I’ll try to consume it as quickly as possible so I can either talk about it with other people or go and talk to the writer if they’re someone in my circle and let them know how much I like it. So, this is all just to say that I don’t really have a standard or strict reading practice. I kind of let the changes come and go depending on what I’m doing or how I’m feeling.
ROOM: What book have you reread the most? And why?
TMP: I’m not a big rereader. I keep books. If I read them once I still keep them. A book I would like to reread at some point is How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa. It came out recently. I really loved it. I’d like to go back and look at it again. I don’t like to reread because I’m constantly always buying books, so then the time that I’m spending rereading is time that I could be spending reading a new book. I try to allocate my time according to that. I’m not against the concept of rereading. I think I’ll be able to talk more about it in a couple of years when I’m able to think about the books that have stayed with me in my mind.
ROOM: If you were to do a book look for a book from your childhood, which book would that be?
TMP: Oh, I know exactly what book that is. I have to do it soon. It’s in my phone, the cover. It’s called Name Calling, by Itah Sadu. It’s purple and green. I read it for the first time when I was four and it’s about a young girl, I think she’s in grade school. Do you know the story of Chicken Licken? Someone says a thing and this person tells another person and they tell another person and it’s like a chain going around. I really liked that book because it was the first time I saw myself in a character at a young age. I really loved this book when I was four or five, then I forgot about it for a very long time and recently, a couple years ago I just remembered, What about that book I used to love? And then I couldn’t remember the name and I was very upset. I was very surprised at how upset I got when I realized I couldn’t remember the name of the book, but I found it and I’m going to be doing a book look for that. I don’t know when, but it’s in my bank of images and I really love that book. Do you know of A Different Booklist? It’s a bookstore in Toronto. I think the author owns that bookstore. I have yet to go in person and meet her but yeah, she runs that.
ROOM: What draws you to Speculative fiction writing? Why is it important?
TMP: Speculative literature is the genre that lends itself most to imagination not only in terms of unreal and fantasy aspects, but also in real life when people want to think about how they want the lives of their people to persist, whether it’s in a real world setting and we’re talking about this future or whether we’re talking about an alternate history or an alternate reality. I think speculative literature is most sympathetic to that kind of imagination and change. It’s wide enough that the writer or even the reader has the freedom to explore themselves through the writing and it’s also very fun. People associate sci-fi that’s fun and very imaginative with childishness. There’s this very weird rift between the traditional, literary, realistic fiction and the speculative genre in that the latter is not seen as adult— but that’s not true. It does tackle adult themes. I also like speculative literature because it engages with issues surrounding technology and philosophy in the best way that I’ve seen. I have a background in philosophy and when we talk about thought experiments or we talk about really big ethical questions I find that sci-fi in particular really gives a platform and a landscape to explore those questions in real life. If we talk about the Mind-Body problem, are the minds and brains different, or if we talk about alternate universes, that genre is the most flexible to be able to approach those questions.
ROOM: Do you feel that since you’ve studied philosophy that it aids in your writing process?
TMP: I do. I think they complement each other very well. Whenever I go to write science fiction—I write mostly urban fantasy right now—I always think about those larger questions. I want to make sure that the science fiction I write is always in some way tackling a larger question because you already have so much space. Why not address a big question? I do the same thing in my poetry as well. I’ve just started getting into speculative poetry and fantasy poetry. I still have a long way to go with reading and writing about the writers who came before me, but it’s something that I’m always going to be interested in and always going to be willing to learn more about.
ROOM: If you could turn any one of the poems in Manifest into a full length novel, which would it be and why?
TMP: I have two in mind, but I’m just going to pick the title poem. Some of the speculative poetry I write I try to imbue it with Blackness at some point. One of the poems is “Fin” and it’s about a mermaid in the Caribbean. There’s a poem called “Aliens in the Caribbean”. “Manifest” is about a Black person who is enslaved and is visiting a different planet with their master, in something of a colonization attempt. They’re doing all this work and they realize—when they’re communicating with the people who live on that planet—and they learn more about freedom and ownership of the body and autonomy in terms of the access, the physical and the mental, you have when it comes to learning about yourself and your own spirit. At the end of the poem, the slave character decides to stay on this planet so that they can be free and live there. I’d like to turn that into a longer piece. Obviously there are going to be lots of questions about history and excisions of colonialism but I think that it would be a really large and interesting project if I were to do that. That’s the one poem I feel is sort of my favourite. I don’t have favourites, but I’ve always been interested in that particular poem especially when I heard feedback when I workshopped it.
ROOM: What are you reading right now?
I’m not really reading anything right now, but a book I’m supposed to be reading right now…. My friend, Dominik Parisien, is a poet and he writes a lot about disability poetics. He has a forthcoming poetry collection called Side Effects May Include Strangers. We’re reading each other’s work so we can do a dialogue conversation/interview. That’s the book I’m going to be focussed on for the next couple of days.
ROOM: Dear Readers, what’s a book you like to read for fun?
Share your answers on Twitter using the hashtag #roomreadingpractice!