Interview by Jennifer Amos. Photo by Zahra Siddiqui. Makeup by Charm.
Catherine Hernandez is a proud queer woman of colour, radical mother, activist, theatre practitioner, and writer. She is also the Artistic Director of b current performing arts. Her plays include The Femme Playlist, a one-woman show; Singkil; Eating with Lola (first developed by fu-GEN Asian Canadian Theatre); Kilt Pins; and Future Folk, which was collectively written by the Sulong Theatre Collective. She is the author of the children’s book M is for Mustache: A Pride ABC Book and her plays Kilt Pins and Singkil were published by Playwrights Canada Press.
Hernandez recently received the Asian Canadian Writers’ Workshop Emerging Writers’ Award and was shortlisted for the Half the World Global Literati Award for her debut novel, Scarborough, which was written after she spent years working with Scarborough children as a home daycare provider. Scarborough is currently a Toronto Book Award Finalist, and Hernandez will be in Vancouver for LiterAsian and Word Vancouver events this September.
Scarborough begins with a unique and moving dedication: “I was fifteen. You were four. / I taught you drama in a Scarborough community centre. / You were surviving neglect. / Wherever you are, I hope you are safe / And know I loved you enough to write you this book.” Are you willing to share the story behind it?
At fifteen years old, I was a volunteer drama teacher at a Scarborough community centre. The centre was tight on funds and staff. My manager wanted me to focus on teaching drama games to kids who had particular difficulties being part of the general population of summer camp kids. One child was a survivor of neglect. She was a young girl, four years of age, whose mother abandoned her, and whose only next of kin was her grandmother who didn’t want her either. Her symptoms were so acute that I still remember teaching her things like brushing her teeth in the centre’s washroom.
The last time I saw her, she was on the subway with her grandmother. I introduced myself and this woman did not want to have anything to do with me. She clearly did not want to share space with me or her granddaughter. When they got off at Main station, it was a crowded platform. I remember seeing this woman walk as fast as she could down that platform trying to lose her granddaughter. My heart sank. The last image I had of her was this four-year-old girl trying her best to catch up with her grandmother. I think about her a lot. I hope she is alive. I hope she is safe. When you do frontline work, that’s all you can do sometimes: hope.
In addition to your art, you’ve also taken on projects like spending twenty-four hours in a lifeboat filled with dirty water to raise funds—and awareness—for recurring disasters in the Philippines, with Operation Lifeboat. Would you also categorize your writing as a form of activism?
I am a proud queer brown woman. Me simply existing is an act of resistance. Everything I do is resistance. That includes my writing.
I know you did a number of interviews with members of the Scarborough community to inform this work—what stands out for you from those conversations? Going into them, did you already know what your novel would be about, or did their words help shape the themes?
I can’t disclose my interview conversations, unfortunately, due to privacy reasons. The purpose of interviewing is being open-hearted to how the material will reveal itself. You don’t go into an interview expecting the interviewee to fulfill your idea of what you want to write about. I try to remain open-hearted at all times.
You use a multitude of viewpoints to tell this story (I think I counted nineteen if we include every name from the Ontario Reads Literacy Program administration). How did you arrive at the decision to tell the story this way? And out of all these voices, do you have a favourite, or one that particularly resonates with you?
Scarborough—the place—is a neighbourhood of characters. That’s how I grew up: people telling you stories all the time. The book had to be the same in flavour.
The one voice that people seem to be connecting to is Bing and I have to agree with them. I wanted to author into being the possibility of a queer femme who has an ally in their own mother and has support in being who they are. Bing is my dream come true.
You made a point of ensuring the diverse voices in your novel were authentic by engaging community members to check out your cultural references. You also made sure that you recognized those efforts. Why was this important to you?
Again, I can’t disclose the nature of those conversations due to privacy, but I can say this: It is imperative that when you are writing about a culture that is not your own, you check with someone from that culture and you pay them—either through an exchange or through money—for their time. It’s not their job to check you. It’s your job as a writer to do your due diligence. Be open to being wrong. Be open to making changes. Then thank them. Otherwise it’s cultural appropriation.
What feedback have you been receiving from the Scarborough community about this work?
All of the Scarborough folks who have approached me have done so with a great amount of gratitude for capturing their neighbourhood with sensitivity and honesty. This was such a relief to me as I wanted folks of all income levels to feel seen, to feel honoured and respected.
I was interested in the thread of Sylvie telling this story about Clementine the orangutan, and understand you even went to the Toronto Zoo to conduct orangutan research. I wonder if you could speak to the significance of this story?
Funny enough, I did that research way back in 2008 for a story that never came intro fruition. When writing the book this story suddenly had a place: The true story of when an orangutan had managed to use a piece of plastic as a raft to swim to the other side of its moat. I wanted to include this in Sylvie’s narrative because I thought of Sylvie as this magical little girl who dreams of escape, who dreams of another world but can only get there through storytelling.
Jennifer Amos is a writer based in Kingston, Ontario. Her work has appeared in FeatherTale, The New Quarterly, and has been longlisted for the CBC short story prize and shortlisted for Room‘s Annual Fiction Contest.