“When You’re Strange”
I felt like a stranger in my family—and in my country of origin, Canada—long before my father ever spoke those hurtful words. Orville Douglas is a dark-skinned, gay, Black man and no doubt his experience of discrimination in Toronto is informed by his identity, his personality, and—I suspect—his family (who seem not to have prepared him for life as a Black man in racist society). I am a light-skinned, mixed-race, straight, Black woman; I may not be as physically intimidating as Douglas, but I still know how it feels to walk the streets of Toronto and feel utterly invisible. If I hadn’t chosen to emigrate twenty years ago, I too might have internalized enough racist rejection to make a degree of self-loathing inevitable. I never wonder why I left, and I have no regrets. Had I stayed in Canada I doubt I would have earned my PhD, and I know I would not be an award-winning author of books for young readers, a published poet, and a playwright.
The title essay of my memoir, Stranger in the Family, is heavily indebted to Stuart Hall’s seminal text, “Minimal Selves;” I first read it in 1998, just before leaving graduate school to pursue my dream of becoming a novelist. I learned recently that Hall once dreamed of becoming a creative writer as well. He was a brilliant cultural theorist and the honesty with which he wrote about his migrant experience was both shocking and liberating for me. Hall admitted with apparent ease the deep, dark secret I kept buried within:
Migration is a one-way trip. There is no ‘home’ to go back to. There never was…The truth is, I am here because it’s where my family is not. I really came here to get away from my mother. Isn’t that the universal story of life? One is where one is to try and get away from somewhere else. That was the story which I could never tell anybody about myself. So I had to find other stories, other fictions, which were more authentic or, at any rate, more acceptable in place of the Big Story of the endless evasion of patriarchal family life.
The recent death of Stuart Hall led me to revisit his work and reconsider its impact on my thinking about migration; I now see even more parallels between Hall’s journey and my own. I didn’t know it at the time, but in my senior year of high school I went through a serious depressive episode and have lived with depression ever since. In a 1992 interview with Kuan-Hsing Chen, Hall reflects on his years in Jamaica and admits:
“When I look at the snapshots of myself in childhood and early adolescence, I see a picture of a depressed person. I don’t want to be who they [his parents] want me to be, but I don’t know how to be somebody else. And I am depressed by that. All of that is the background to explain why I eventually migrated.”
When I was a teen, I hid from the camera; I believed messages I got from my family that said I was hideous, and so embraced the invisibility imposed upon me by Canadian society. I spent hours alone at home, curled up with a book (usually Dickens); I slept up to twelve hours a day, hoping to make time pass more quickly. My father had already moved to the US by then and my mother was mired in her own depression. My older sister—the only Black female role model I had at the time—dropped out of university to follow her boyfriend across the country. The disintegration of my family seemed complete and I clung to the hope that a scholarship to university would transform my sad reality.
Stuart Hall also sought escape from a dysfunctional (if intact) family. He, too, found “a huge gap” between the life he wanted for himself and his parents’ expectations of him. The “strange aspirations and identifications” of his upwardly mobile, color-conscious, and pro-colonial parents ultimately destroyed Hall’s sister Patricia. Her nervous breakdown and subsequent electroconvulsive therapy rendered her unable to leave home while propelling Hall out into the world. This traumatic experience, Hall explains,
“crystallized my feelings about the space I was called into by my family. I was not going to stay there. I was not going to be destroyed by it. I had to get out. I felt that I must never put myself back into it, because I would be destroyed. My decision to emigrate was to save myself.”
I left Canada with the same sense of desperation, and I now draw upon my migrant experience as I attempt to develop a mythology of displacement for Black teen readers. My commitment to writing speculative fiction emerged directly from my childhood consumption of British fantasy novels by E. Nesbit and C. S. Lewis. My invisibility within those much-loved texts demanded that I develop the capacity to dream myself into existence, and as an adult I hope to spare twenty-first-century Black children the complicated task of “decolonizing” their imagination. My “Afro-urban” project seeks to develop hybrid forms of “Black magic” that could reasonably exist and be accessed by youth of the African diaspora living within New York City. It’s important to me that children of color believe their community has intrinsic value and equal potential for magic and mystery; urban kids should know that they, too, can have fantastic adventures without having to escape into a book that denies their existence, or that figures the city only as the site from which ‘good people’ try to escape.
My books for children have received little critical attention in Canada, and even here in the US, titles like mine are often invisible to those who acquire books for libraries, bookstores, and schools. This invisibility then extends to award committees and the academy, where children’s literature scholars, when they study Black authors at all, prefer to focus on one or two celebrated figures rather than seek out unfamiliar or emerging voices. I then find myself in the awkward position of having to analyze my own work in order to assert its existence, argue its merit, and advocate for its inclusion within the field. A friend once suggested I leave Brooklyn and return to Canada where I could “corner the market” since so few Black Canadian authors manage to get published in “the Great White North.” But I agree with Canadian speculative fiction author Nalo Hopkinson, who has written, to my knowledge, the only fantasy novels that feature a Black teenager in Toronto (Brown Girl in the Ring and The Chaos). Though Hopkinson publishes almost exclusively in the US, she recognizes that dominance does not serve the field. In a 2002 interview with Nancy Batty she explains:
I took part in an online chat recently where one issue raised was whether [the anthology] Dark Matter had created a “flood” of black writers in the field…Fewer than twenty stories doth not a flood make. Not when there are thousands of white writers. Then someone from the audience said that “if there were to be too many of you, you would become too common.” A well meaning statement, but it reveals that to some at least, our value seems to be in our rarity. Makes us seem “exotic.”
Canada suffers from what I call the “big fish, small pond” syndrome. It is doubtful that publishers even bother to look for other writers of speculative fiction when they can claim Nalo Hopkinson as “proof” that the Canadian scene is “already diverse.” Many US publishers also tend to champion one proven author of color at the expense of emerging writers, but I still prefer being tossed about in the American sea to treading water in Canada’s small pond. I will likely never become a famous author here in the US but life in this country has given me something just as valuable—affirmation of my abilities and room to dream of what may yet be possible for a “freak” like me.
Read PART I The Does Canada damage b;ack people?
Born in Canada, Zetta Elliott moved to the US in 1994 to earn her PhD at NYU. Her writing has been published in several anthologies, and her plays have been staged in New York, Chicago, and Cleveland. Her essays have appeared in Horn Book Magazine, School Library Journal, and The Huffington Post. She is the award-winning author of four books for young readers: Bird, A Wish After Midnight, Ship of Souls, and The Deep. Zetta Elliott is Assistant Professor in the Center for Ethnic Studies at Borough of Manhattan Community College and currently lives in Brooklyn. zettaelliott.com Twitter @zettaelliott
This article was commissioned for our academic experimental space for long form writing curated and edited by Yasmin Gunaratnam. A space for provocative and engaging writing from any academic discipline.
- “You can’t do that! Stories have to be about White people” (mediadiversified.org)
- Writing and Reading While Black. Lessons learned. (mediadiversified.org)
- Black Girls Hunger for Heroes, Too: A Black Feminist Conversation on Fantasy Fiction for Teens(bitchmagazine.org)
- Why Hasn’t the Number of Multicultural Books Increased In Eighteen Years?
- Children’s Books by and about People of Color Published in the United States(http://ccbc.education.wisc.edu)
- How to Write Women of Colour and Men of Colour if you are White (mediadiversified.org)