Interview by Emma Cleary
Welcome back to Between Us, a conversation series that spotlights immigrant/first-gen Canadian writers. In this second installment, we focus on hyphenated Canadian identities—writers born in Canada whose families also have roots elsewhere—and consider how place and migration shape generations. We’re looking at how writers create, connect, and conceive of their work, moving between languages and across forms, informing the canon in new and unexpected ways.
We’re honoured to be joined by Tanya Evanson and Kaie Kellough, two incredible poets and creative collaborators who work in the oral tradition and in sound. Tanya Evanson is an Antiguan-Québécoise performer, producer, and whirling dervish whose forthcoming book of poetry, Bothism, is an experimental play of opposites. Originally from Vancouver, residing in Montreal, and with roots in Guyana, Kaie Kellough has coined the term “word-sound systemizer” to describe himself. His first novel, Accordéon, richly depicts the streets of Montreal and honours multiple, shifting immigrant narratives. It was shortlisted for the 2017 Amazon First Novel Award.
In dialogue with Emma Cleary, Evanson and Kellough discussed the paradoxes of life in Montreal and the trickiness of conversations about cultural heritage, including the estrangement inherent in the question, “Where are you really from?” They spoke of transcending language by taking it apart and putting it back together again, phantom linguistic presences, and ancestral mother tongues forever out of reach.
As writers who were born in Canada and who also have roots elsewhere, how do you explore home-place in your work?
Kellough: For me one of the recurring themes has always been place. I find myself often writing about place in a very specific way, not just mentioning place in passing and having it reside in the reader’s mind as a backdrop to whatever else is happening, but explicitly investigating place, and investigating social norms and people’s behaviours, the urban or suburban geography of a particular place, the demographic makeup of specific neighbourhoods, the layout of a city, things like that. For me, place has always been very important because I’ve always been aware, coming from a family that has roots elsewhere, how important a role place plays in shaping a person’s character and experience. And shaping the experience not only of an individual but of a family, of an entire generation.
For instance, if I think about my grandparents who are from South America, their lives were very different in Guyana from what they were in Canada. They immigrated probably in their fifties, and I would hesitate to say that their lives were richer in Guyana, but in Guyana, that was their culture and they had a place there in a way that they didn’t have a place here. They had access there. I’m really trying to articulate this without drawing away from their experience, but I’ll just put it out there: there they were central to the culture, they could participate in the play of ideas and contribute to shaping a society, they were teachers and school headmasters, shaping the ideas and minds of a younger generation. Whereas here, their lives were a little more restricted. They went to work, they came home, they paid their taxes, they helped raise their grandchildren, but they weren’t enmeshed in the fabric of the society like they had been in Guyana, and I think that that was a loss that they suffered when they came up here. That’s just one of the ways in which place affects a person’s experience, what a person’s life looks and feels like from the inside.
Evanson: It’s interesting because I would say I’m almost approaching home and place in an opposite way. I’ve always felt like there was something missing here, and I didn’t always know what it was because my father—who is from Antigua and Barbuda in the Caribbean—never fully transmitted certain elements of his culture to me. He grew up very poor so he adopted certain ways and ambitions that are perhaps more connected to wealth acquisition and status in society, to give his family opportunities he did not have. My dad is a doctor and he used to work at the Royal Victoria Hospital here in Montreal, and he told me, “I always dress up for work because sometimes I wheel my patients around to their next appointment, and if I’m not dressed well with my stethoscope around my neck, people would sometimes think I was the porter.” There were always elements of trying to elevate your status so that you’re seen as equal—you have to work twice as hard just to be equal.
My approach to place in the writing is more about going out into the world—which is why I’ve travelled quite a bit, for myself and also as a touring artist—always looking for what’s missing. In the end, I went and lived in Vancouver. I also lived in Istanbul, Turkey. But what happened in Vancouver was very interesting because I did find what was missing, and that was Sufism, and I became a student of Sufism. In fact, it wasn’t the outside place that was missing, it was an inner place that was missing. It was the work of the heart, the work of the spirit, and that place is now the place from which I write.
Kellough: That leads me to a question. I read your recent manuscript, Bothism. Bothism is a peculiar word. It looks and it sounds like a riff on the word “Buddhism,” and I’m not intending to speak about Buddhism, but I’m wondering about this as it relates to place. For you, could we say that place or home is something spiritual rather than physical? And that home is both here and elsewhere and nowhere?
Evanson: Absolutely. It’s called Bothism for several reasons. It’s the concept that if one thing’s true the opposite is also true, which you see in how Kaie and I are approaching this question. I’m also a student of Buddhism. It’s interesting when you’re a student of two different spiritual practices, how they work together and occasionally even against each other. What happened when I had this discovery of Sufism was that, because anyone can be a student of Sufism—anyone can be a student of Buddhism as well—it creates a new sense of home or place or family with everyone or with anyone. Regardless of what you look like or where you’re from, because there’s a certain common intention, and an intention toward unity. For human beings to really be together, to meet in a certain place—that place ended up being the heart, and that’s why it spoke so much to me.
I was wondering if you could talk a little about each other’s work. What resonates for you and how do you collaborate?
Kellough: Recently Tanya and I did a performance for a music festival called X Avant at the Music Gallery in Toronto, with the saxophonist and electronic musician Jason Sharp, and the graphic designer Kevin Lo. It was a forty-minute mixed-media performance with sounds, text, and visuals. One of the things that I love about working with Tanya is that Tanya just sounds so good. Especially when there comes a point when the performance needs to have volume unleashed. Tanya can sound just excellent at high volume with vocal intensity and presence. The sound travels through the air, it creates an actual resonance, you feel it physically.
Evanson: What I really appreciate about working with Kaie is his attention to detail of the physical space that human beings occupy. That’s why he’s someone that I often give my writing to, because he can really dissect it, whereas I’m coming from this place that’s kind of floating, or maybe that’s in outer space.
He also really pushes the envelope with regards to the possibilities of spoken word. Whether it’s from a textual perspective, a sonic perspective, or an electronic perspective. I’m always amazed that every time I see him perform it’s something completely new, completely different. That helps to push me in my own arts practice. Especially because both of us are coming from spoken word, which is so often usurped by the slam tradition.
I think it’s important to push the whole arts practice forward by sometimes going back in time to this kind of griot tradition, where you have someone who has fifty different job titles, and all of them add to your purpose in the society. You’re the poet, you’re the storyteller, you’re the genealogist, you’re the librarian, you’re the ceremony participant, the singer, or the dancer, the chief’s assistant. The job titles of the griot. We’re part of that continuum, and I’m always interested in pushing that continuum forward and stretching it into the future, and to do that we have to go into the past. I think both of us do that in our work in different ways that complement each other.
Kellough: I also like that Tanya works in a variety of different forms: solo vocal performances based in text; whirling, musical performance with different types of ensembles and instrumentation; and everything from direct lyric poems to weird sound texts to books of poetry. But for both of us one thing is fairly consistent which is that we are grounded in language.
Evanson: Even though we also want to use it as a launching pad, and kind of leave it—you have a history, Kaie, of doing pieces that use sound, that may be based in language but could be understood by anyone in any language. That’s a difficult thing to do and that’s where you come at things as a sound poet. The more I tour as a poet out in the world, the more I wonder, can I create work that can transcend language, even while using it? I think that’s an interesting paradox that we’re both playing with. It’s an interesting place to be in this world that is so much more globalized than it was even ten years ago.
Kellough: It seems like you’re always pushing the confines of individual languages and moving outside of them, moving into other ones, moving back. Do you think being a child of the African diaspora and having experienced say, English and French—because both of us are bilingual—as colonial languages, there’s a certain degree of dissatisfaction with residing within those languages exclusively? And just moving back and forth between English and French?
Evanson: Absolutely. When Kaie and I speak sometimes our conversations move from English to French to dialect and Patois very naturally. It’s something that happens from a placeless place, but it could also only happen between two people of Caribbean descent living in Montreal. Or perhaps two people of Caribbean descent living in Paris, or France. Quebec is definitely its own bubble within Canada, it almost lives on its own kind of cloud within Canada.
I would say that we also know that we are always going to miss an original language that we will not have access to outside of dialect. Dialect is the closest we could get to an ancestral African language. Because as descendants of slaves we don’t know what our original language is. A lot of people say, “Oh, learn your mother tongue.” Well, my mother tongue was French, because that’s the language my mother spoke.
Kellough: Aside from Guyanese nation language, I would have no idea what my ancestral language would be. I mean, there are certain languages that, probably if I did a genealogy test—you know the one Henry Louis Gates administers to African American celebrities? If we did that we could probably pinpoint the specific region we come from, maybe it’s Ghana, who knows? And we might be able to pinpoint a set of languages that we might have had some likelihood of speaking at some point. That’s as close to knowing what your “ancestral mother tongue” would be.
It’s almost like there’s a phantom tongue or a phantom language that exists and you just kind of feel it, it’s like a presence. I’m not saying it’s like some magical sense of a language, where suddenly you get struck by lightning and then you can speak this other language. But it’s an awareness that there is another language that hangs back in the distance, that people you descended from spoke at some point. And not just that they spoke, but that they thought in, that their entire sense of being and orientation to the world was codified within. And so, that is like a phantom linguistic presence, you know? And I think that for me and maybe for Tanya that motivates a kind of searching through language, and wrestling, fighting, and grappling with it.
Evanson: Deconstructing it, and then putting it back together again.
Kellough: And struggling with its limitations.
Evanson: That’s actually why I called my company Mother Tongue Media. Not because I am speaking a mother tongue—in fact I’m not speaking my mother tongue right now—but because it’s something that I’m always seeking, that I’m always looking for. And I may never reach it, but I’m always grasping for that. It’s also about just the quality of the mother. Where is my original mother from? There’s some hidden ancestry, something in my DNA that recognizes the language of Sufism as something that perhaps my ancestors spoke. I’m very naturally immersed in that world and always felt at home there.
How does living in Montreal shape what you write, and how you write?
Kellough: I’m originally from Vancouver and Tanya was born in Montreal, and we crisscrossed the country in different directions. So we both have the experience of living in Quebec, with perspective on what life is like outside Quebec, in that other nation.
Evanson: Montreal has its own way of being. It’s very particular. You have to be slightly badass to live here. You have to deal with French and you have to deal with cold. And you gotta have a warm heart to do that. It doesn’t mean that we don’t have racism and that we don’t have xenophobia and that we don’t have all those things. But there’s something about the quality of togetherness that people experience here. It’s an inexpensive place to live and it’s full of artists and great collaborations.
There’s also the Charter and Bill 62 about people covering their faces when using public services. These are anti-immigrant laws that are coming into place, so while there are pushes forward on certain cultural levels, sometimes there are very conservative, orthodox ways in which church and state are butting heads. Montreal is full of paradoxes like that.
Kellough: I’ve lived here since 1998, and while it is home, I’ve never fully thought of myself as being Québécois. I’ve participated in the experience of living in Quebec, but I feel like an immigrant here. I grew up speaking French, I’m bilingual, but French is still my second language, so I still feel like I am something of an immigrant here in Montreal. In a way, by moving to Montreal I’ve kind of duplicated the experience of my grandparents and my parents and maybe that’s what I was seeking, who knows?
Evanson: Well, it’s like a resolution of that. You’re trying to resolve that.
Kellough: Coming to terms with it and seeing it from up close. I feel like a perpetual outsider in Montreal and that allows for a certain freedom when it comes to observing the city you’re writing about. Because I’m in it but not so close that I’ve lost perspective on it.
Evanson: The opposite is true, too. Because even though I was born here and French is my mother tongue—I grew up speaking French—when people ask me where I’m from and I say Canada or Montreal that’s still not good enough, because as people of colour we’re still not considered someone who could be Canadian, which is ludicrous but that’s still an annoying reality. And so the question of cultural heritage ultimately arises and we’re always looking for creative ways to get around that question and not have to basically tell everybody everything about ourselves.
Kellough: Yeah, the investigation of a person’s origins because you’re brown?
Evanson: “Where you really from?”
Kellough: It’s a tricky type of conversation to enter, because sometimes it’s welcome and sometimes it’s not. In some respects it can be affirming, because it creates this point of solidarity with other people and it affirms the fact that you’re actually from this other magical place, right? But at the same time it brings to mind the fact that you are also to some degree not fully from here, and that is a very difficult thing to reckon with consistently, because you’re always forced to. You do battle with it, you worry about it when it comes to jobs, when it comes to acceptance at literary events, when it comes to topics that you want to write about: are people going to be interested in them, are they going to want to publish those things? It’s a constant point of contention with yourself. It’s something that you’ve probably been, as a person of colour, rejected for growing up, and your origins in a distant place are probably looked down upon as evidence of inferiority, right? So when that’s brought up in those moments, it can be very frustrating, it can bring up a lot of . . .
Evanson: Anxiety and uncertainty about how to deal with the situation. It’s only maturity that allows you to decide how to answer in those situations. When I was younger I was always ready to give everything up, in whatever way I would gain some kind of acceptance by this person in this situation. But now as I get older I’m open to “no,” the exploration of the word “no” has much more attraction. It’s the confidence that comes with being of a certain age.
Kaie, I was really interested in how you deploy the symbol of the flying canoe in your novel Accordéon. Why did you decide to incorporate it?
Kellough: There’s a myth in Quebec called la chasse-galerie, and I don’t know how right I’m getting this, but it centers on men who work out in the woods, at a distance from home. It’s winter and it’s around 200 years ago. They’re at a cabin and they’re drinking and they’re talking about how they miss their wives. The devil appears and offers them the opportunity to go and visit their families, and offers them a canoe that will fly over the cold landscape and take them there. Of course, there has to be a catch, which is that when it returns, they can’t look back. One of them looks back—and they experience some troubles but they resolve the situation.
The story itself isn’t the point. Rather, it’s the canoe. In all the representations I’ve seen, the makeup of the people in the canoe doesn’t include any Indigenous people or any Africans (Quebec held slaves), which is to be expected given the period. But when I think of a canoe, the first ship that comes to mind is Bill Reid’s The Spirit of Haida Gwaii, that magnificent sculpture with many of the different characters from Haida myth looking in different directions, occupying different positions in the canoe. So Accordéon attempted to look at the myth of la chasse-galerie and reclaim its central vehicle, or reinvent it in a way that could reflect the Montreal we know and inhabit.
Recently I read an interview with the author Maryse Condé, in which she was trying to identify the qualities that make a novel “Caribbean.” She says: “You have to find the Caribbean technique of telling a story, a polyphonous technique.”
Polyphony is the major conceit in Accordéon. The book has multiple narrative voices, it regularly switches from first to second person, and the dominant voice attempts to multiply itself by relating varied stories about its origins, so that at any given point, we don’t know where the voice is coming from or who it really belongs to. There are obvious social reasons for attempting this kind of narration, for instance giving voice to those who are silenced or whose presence is erased, but beyond that, I am interested in formal narrative techniques through which a deeply mixed society, like Quebec, can explore its selves.
Emma Cleary is from Liverpool and lives and writes in Vancouver. Her short fiction appears in Lighthouse Literary Journal, Shooter Literary Magazine, and Salt Publishing’s Best British Short Stories. She holds a PhD in Literature from Staffordshire University. Between Us is a collaborative project by Jasmine Sealy and Emma Cleary. Read instalment one.