In what ways do the diverse cultural identities that have coexisted within Canada for millennia affect the work of authors? Three authors recount how their multiple roots played a role in the creation of unique works.
The title of this conversation, “We Contain Multitudes,” was inspired by a poem by Walt Whitman. He was defending his right to contradict himself and to embrace his different identities. What’re your thoughts on this idea?
Esi Edugyan: It pretty much encapsulates what we do with literary fiction: to depict idiosyncrasies and complexities that we all have as human beings. For myself, I’m very changeable. I have so many different opinions that are constantly in flux. It’s a process of allowing your viewpoint and your opinions about it to be changed as well by others’ thoughts.
Kim Thúy: I hope that we do contain multitudes on a cultural level and that it’s changing, not just over the years, but even within a single day. We have the opportunity to be able to play several roles that sometimes contradict each other, and that enriches us. I am always asked, “Are you more Canadian? Québecois? Vietnamese? French-speaking?” And it depends on who I’m speaking to. I am enriched by all those cultures.
Catherine Hernandez: I do believe that we contain multitudes because identity isn’t necessarily this label that you can put on yourself like a stagnant thing. It’s more like an intersection.
How aware are you of your different identities—race, gender, sexuality, nationality—when you write?
EE: I’m looking at the world through the lenses of my identity as an African Canadian and as a woman, but I’m not always consciously looking to write through those. My first novel was set on the prairies in Alberta, looking at things through the lens of two young black girls, but also a middle-aged black man, and that book felt to me like me trying to locate myself within Canadian histories. Trying to find black histories within Western Canadian spaces.
CH: As a queer brown feminine person, I live in a society that is constantly seeking to shut me down, to silence me. Just the mere act of breathing and creating work that people are going to be reading is already resistance. When I write, those identities are constantly with me because I know that my perspective is important and dangerous, because it challenges capitalism and misogyny, homophobia and transphobia.
Do you feel a responsibility to maintain a theme of identity in your work?
KT: When I write, my only goal is to share the beauty and wonder of humankind. In life, because I’m lucky enough to have a microphone, I have the responsibility to speak for those who don’t have a platform—for the refugees and immigrants—because I’ve been lucky enough to survive and to arrive in this country that gave me a life of freedom. ■
Esi Edugyan is the author of the novels The Second Life of Samuel Tyne, Half Blood Blues, and Washington Black, winner of the 2018 Giller Prize. Catherine Hernandez is the author of the novel Scarborough, which won the Jim Wong-Chu Emerging Writers Award. And Kim Thúy is the author of six books, including Ru, an international bestseller.