Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Catherine Bain and Gayle Gonsalves

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Catherine Bain and Gayle Gonsalves

Catherine Bain and Gayle Gonsalves are two of the contributors to In The Black: New African Canadian Literature (Insomniac Press), edited by Althea Prince.

As we celebrate Black History Month, we are thrilled to witness and discuss the varied and fascinating books authored by African Canadians. Today we speak with Catherine and Gayle about their pieces in In The Black, the intersection between history and community and how the anthology came together.

Open Book:

Tell us about your contribution to In The Black: New African Canadian Literature.

Gayle Gonsalves:

My short story "A Good Woman" tells the story of a woman, Sandra, who is torn between her love for two brothers. Set on the Caribbean island of Antigua, Sandra is frustrated and unhappy in her marriage because her husband, Kelvin, spends an inordinate amount of time at the local rum shop and leaves her alone. His constant absence allows his brother, Linden, and wife to grow very close; soon, they are spending all of their time together. Sandra is desperately torn between her commitment to her husband and the bond she shares her brother-in-law. Even Linden’s sudden abrupt departure from the island doesn’t stop their bond and Linden continues to obsess about Sandra from his new home in Toronto.

Catherine Bain:

My contribution to In The Black collection is, "One Hand Can’t Clap". It is a story of spousal abuse and a woman’s desperate effort to break the cycle spurred on by her daughter and her friends support.


How did the collection come together? What were the criteria for inclusion?


Dr. Prince was familiar with my work and approached me about submitting a short story for consideration for an upcoming collection of African-Canadian writers. She felt that it was time for a literary collection that featured the diverse work and voices of African-Canadian writers.


The collection and the criteria for inclusion were made by the editor, Althea Prince. Her experience of years of writing successful works of multiple Genres, and her intuitive gift of being able to identify writers whose stories will interest readers by content of shared experience, a spark of interest or taking the readers on a journey of discovery they may not have considered makes her perfect for this role.


The volume includes multiple genres. What was the motivation to include a diversity of prose, poetry and non-fiction?


Writing has many genres that speak to individual preferences. Including many genres will speak to a broader audience of readers.


Is there a connection between history and community, in your opinion? Is it important to explore the history of a group in order for the group to be strong in the present?


I have no doubt that there is a strong line, with no gaps or breaks, between history and community. As an African-Caribbean woman, I grew up both in Canada and the Caribbean. My schooling in the Caribbean gave me the knowledge of history that many of my friends who grew up in Canada don’t have. This historical perspective has also helped me to understand community related problems that stem from colonialism and slavery that directly impact the African-Canadian community.

As a community I think it’s important for us to understand our history because past actions/experiences have created present conditions. But history is the past and not the present; so I also recognize that a new lines needs to be drawn that will veer in a different direction to build a new future.


There is a connection between history and community. It is important to explore the history of a group to strengthen their presence in the community. The most basic reason is an acknowledgement of the groups’ presence beyond, “those people” which usually means we don’t have to engage them.

Each group brings its own history, the glue that binds their lived experiences. It is one element of identification to each other and strengthens their feeling of belonging. That is why we have areas where different groups build communities around what is familiar and give their lives meaning. But groups also have a commitment to not just themselves but to the whole. Isolation and disengagement weakens the group and the bigger community. It is like Janus with two heads. Glancing backwards our history reassures us that the stuff that has shaped us is with us, but we have a responsibility to use that strength to be engaged building a new community right where we are by looking forward. Community strength is as strong as the sum of its different parts.


This book feels very positive — is this something you set out to do or something that emerged from the writing?


As a contributor, my story is one of several pieces in the collection. I wrote the story knowing that my heroine would find her personal emancipation but I wasn’t fully sure how she’d achieve it — whether it was through her relationship with her brother-in-law, her marriage or on her own. I do like happy endings and to some degree, I try to create positive outcomes for my stories.


The positive feelings about the book I did not set out to establish. My story stirs up many emotions. In the writing I intentionally used all my skills to make it interesting, engaging and real to the reader.


Canada has so many talented African Canadian writers. Tell us about one or two of your favourites and what you love about their work.


My favourite African Canadian writer is Lawrence Hill. I read his first book, Any Known Blood, while I was on a plane and there were several times when I chuckled aloud, and I got some strange looks from those seated next to me. I was so engrossed with the novel that the five hour flight went very fast. And when I got to my destination I couldn’t put down the book. His novel, The Book of Negroes, is one of my favourite novels. I love how he brings history to life by telling the story of a slave whose life jumps from the pages through her ability to triumph through all the hardships she experiences. It was so wonderful to see a history lesson come to life in a book.


Two of the writers that I admire are Olive Senior and Althea prince. Althea Prince and Olive Senior touches every area of Caribbean Life, the good, bad, the ugly and the in between of the mixture. They tell of women redefining themselves and in spite of obstacles they soar to new heights, while others remain imprisoned to the past and lost to the future. Prince’s book The Politics of Black Women’s Hair is powerful. Black Women’s relationship to their hair is complex and for many of us difficult to identify or articulate. But Ms. Prince got to the root of the matter again by allowing women in their own voice to tell their story, leading us to the beginning of our relationships with our mothers and how they dealt with their relationships of maternal nurturing or lack thereof.

I love Olive Senior’s use of dialect. It adds for me a new dimension of clarity and authenticity that sometimes formal English does not convey. I think of Chaucer’s writing being “different” to the Standard English of our time but it does not detract from the telling of his story or understanding it. The Arrival of the snake women is my favourite story. I love the strength of Coolie in not compromising her selfhood. This was a difficult thing to do as she was hemmed in on every side by discrimination, abuse and cruelty. And the chains of Colonization that was designed to divide confuse and ravage the population. She looked inward for her strength instead of the ugliness around her to be her true self.


What are you working on now?


I’m presently working on a collection of short stories that I’ve written over the past ten years. These stories talk about life in Canada and the Caribbean. And At the same time, I’m also continuing to work on a coming of age story set in the Caribbean.


I am working on a short story about a yearly aquatic competition set in Grenada and also my poetry writing.

Gayle Gonsalves’ first publication was a short story, “Tamarind Stew,” in The Bluelight Corner, an anthology that featured writers like Jamaica Kincaid and Alice Walker. Her stories are about the lives of the people in Antigua, the Caribbean and Toronto, the city where she now resides.

Catherine Bain has been a nurse for thirty-five years, and has been practicing for thirty-two years in Canada. In sharing her experience of relocation from Grenada to England and eventually to Canada in her writing, it is her hope that the trauma that such a move can cause can be highlighted, and that the nursing profession will eventually become more sensitive in providing a supportive network to make this transition smoother.

For more information about In The Black please visit the Insomniac website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

Check out all the On Writing interviews in our archives.

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