Vancouver Writers Fest: Francesca Ekwuyasi and Jillian Christmas

Interview by Isabella Wang

From October 19-25, the Vancouver Writers Fest inspires 40+ events with local and international writers. As they write, “Words shape our worlds. They can delight, inspire, provoke, comfort and unite—as do the authors, journalists and poets who wield them.” In anticipation of the festival, I have sat down with several of the festival authors over email, to hear about their books, what it means to be a writer in the present moment, as well as what they are most looking forward to.

ROOM: Hello Francesca and Jillian! Thank you all so much to take the time to join me in this space. First of all, how are you feeling in your body? With less than a week leading up to the festival, what excites you?

FRANCESCA EKWUYASI: I feel nervous and excited 🙂

JILLIAN CHRISTMAS: I’m bursting at the seems, very excited to be sharing “stages” with beloved peers,

ROOM: Will this be your first virtual performance this year? What does it mean to you to be situated in the current moment—both as a community citizen and as a writer—sharing your words to an online community of audiences?

FE: This won’t be my first virtual performance, but it’s still new, I’m still trying to figure out the best lighting, and what cute shoes to wear even though the audience won’t see it ha!. I’m not sure what it means to be situated in the current moment, I don’t think it will make sense until after it’s passed; I think innovation, adaptability, and perhaps a deeper level of awakeness are required and I’m always down to be fluid with life. It feels surreal, exciting, and a bit wistful because while it’s very much a dream come to be sharing my writing, and to be doing so from the comfort, safety, and familiarity of my own home, there’s nothing quite like feeling the energy of the folks you’re engaging with – it’s that much more elusive with a screen between us.

JC: I’ve had the pleasure of performing from my living room many times this year. I feel honoured to be invited into people’s homes and it feels nice to invite them into mine. Performing from my home space means that I’ve been able to include my drum kit as backup instrumentation without needing to lug it across the country. That has been a nice adventure. I have unfortunately experienced the upset and disappointment of zoom trolls and the racial violence that they often introduce into a space, which was really difficult. So for me part of being in the world and performing in this way has been to find ways to keep myself safe and nurtured by these events, and beyond that, to find ways to create intimate and even sacred space across the wilds of the internet.

ROOM: Each of you are involved in your communities as much as your own remarkable writing. Would you like to tell us about your individual commitments to the arts, filming, slam, diversity and inclusion consulting, festival directing, and more?

FE: My communities and craft help make the seemingly unbearable actually bearable and even worthwhile. In many ways, my day jobs and creative practices are about storytelling, and I love storytelling! I’ve been incredibly lucky to still have access to them during this wild storm of a year. One of my jobs is at Venus Envy, which is an education based sex shop and book store, the other is at South House Halifax which is a sexuality and gender resource centre – both of them are rooted in anti-oppression frameworks and practices. I mention these because I don’t believe that my creative practices are separate from the rest of my life which includes work/ selling my labour for money ahahah! As a storyteller across various mediums like literature, film, and fine arts the mundanities like work, and now zoom inform the art I create.

JC: Community building has been a deep and persistent drive in my work. This year I got to experience that in a new way, both in my work as Speaker and Talent coordinator of Stratagem Virtual (an annual conference put on by Cicely Blain Consulting) and in my work as spoken word coordinator for VWF. One of the things that has been so exciting about this online format is the opportunity to commune with artists and audiences a world away. I have deeply enjoyed this opportunity to build global community and to showcase artists I adore who may not have been able to make it here otherwise.

ROOM: How would you define community in your own words?

FE: Ah! I’ve been thinking about this a lot. I think that community can be a choice to participate in each other’s lives beyond shared identities. So while identity based communities – Black communty, queer community, Nigerian communty, faith communty – come to mind upon hearing the word, I’m more interested in intentional community, weather because of or in spite of sameness or difference. My community in Halifax comprises folks across various spectrums of identities, what we have in common is a commitment to care for, celebrate, and liberate each other.

JC: I conceive of community as a gathering, physical or otherwise, that calls from us a responsibility to wellness, joy-seeking, curiosity, mutual care, support, understanding, celebration, learning, accountability and love (and more) for the collective and for the individual. This does not make community a perfect “place”, it is complex and full of contradictions because we are human beings moving and growing and mistaking inside of it. For me, “community” necessarily makes space for the humanity of the individuals within the group and for that reason community does not treat humans as disposable, but it holds us up to the best versions of ourselves and asks us to try.

ROOM: I’m very eager to hear about your own current writing and projects. What’s fuelling your inspiration right now? What do you do to balance work and breathing?

FE: Ooof! This is a difficult question because life is always happening and sometimes, for me, to create I have to experience life, and the processing of the experience becomes my art. But life has been life-ing extra this year! No space to process yet. Sometimes poems come to me when I’m sleepy, so I write them down; other times dialogue and bits of stories here and there, usually in the shower or when I’m out walking. Right now I’m just experiencing and compiling. I have some short stories that need tending to, so I’m picking at those. I love short stories so it gives me pleasure to re-work them. Other than that, I’m reading and listening to music, experiencing other people’s art, dancing. Oh and crying, lots of crying! I think it’s healthy to get stuff out.

JC: Honestly, during pandemic times I have not been putting too much pressure on myself to produce. I sit down to write and sometimes that looks like working toward a specific project or journaling for my own sense of wellness. But deadlines seem to have a more flimsy quality these days when compared to all we are holding, processing and trying to imagine. So I’m trying to be extra gentle with myself and with others. And writing has been coming, perhaps I’ve given myself some room to breathe, perhaps because it had to come out one way or another.

ROOM: What is on your mind right now?

FE: Right at this moment? My home city, Lagos, there’s an uprising in Nigeria right now. Perhaps a revolution. It started out as protests against police brutality. My heart is broken by events from a couple days ago; on October 20th 2020 the Nigerian military opened fire on peaceful protesters. The government is denying any involvement, denying that there were any fatalities when I saw folks get shot and killed on my Instagram live. I didn’t mean to, but I saw it. Their denial is an insult, the whole thing is an insult. So right now, I’m heartbroken and enraged and really trying to find the purpose in their (the protesters’) sacrifice.

I’m thinking about power and the possibilities for a new world, and what I’m willing to sacrifice. I’m thinking about what role stories have to play.

JC: Racial justice, the global treatment of indigenous people, housing justice in the DTES, getting cops out of schools, defunding VPD, datajustice, the mental health ramifications of these times, and basically anything that will contribute to the healing and thriving of our communities.

ROOM: What are some books that have really resonated with you lately?

FE: I’m such a book slut but I’ve been careful about my literary diet lately, I only want good feeling stuff in my head right now, so I’ve been returning to The Book of Delights: Essays, by Ross Gay.

JC: Five Little Indians (Michelle Good), The Problem with Solitaire (Lucia Misch), Burning Sugar (Cicely Belle Blain) The Certainties (Aislynn Hunter), It was Never Going to be Okay (jaye simpson)

FRANCESCA EKWUYASI is a writer and multi-disciplinary artist from Lagos, Nigeria. Her writing has been published in Winter Tangerine Review, Brittle Paper, Transition Magazine, The Malahat Review, Visual Art News, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, GUTS magazine, and elsewhere. Her story “Orun is Heaven ” was long-listed for the 2019 Journey Prize. Her debut novel Butter Honey Pig Bread has been long-listed for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. Supported through the National Film Board’s (NFB) Film Maker’s Assistance Program and the Fabienne Colas Foundation, Francesca’s short documentary Black + Belonging has screened at festivals in Halifax, Toronto, and Montreal.

JILLIAN CHRISTMAS is a queer, afro-caribbean writer living on the unceded territories of the Squamish, Tsleil-Waututh, and Musqueam people (Vancouver, BC), where she works as Speaker Coordinator at Cicely Blain Consulting, and served for six years as artistic director of Verses Festival of Words. She has won numerous Grand Poetry Slam Championship titles and represented both Toronto and Vancouver at eleven national poetry events, notably breaking ground as the first Canadian to perform on the final stage of the Women of the World Poetry Slam.

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