Best of 2020 Q&A: Debra Thompson

Debra Thompson appears on our Best of 2020 list for the piece “My Black ancestors fled America for freedom. I left Canada to find a home. Now both countries must fight for a better world.” You can read it at The Globe and Mail.

GCL invited writers on the list to answer a questionnaire to give us further insight into their work. The following are Debra’s answers:

How did you start working on this story?

I was asked to do a public lecture as a fundraiser for the Museum of Natural and Cultural History in Eugene, Oregon. The “Ideas on Tap” series is hosted at a local brewery and is designed to bring academic research to a broader audience.

I wasn’t ready to present my latest research, but I knew I was leaving my position at the University of Oregon and had a lot of complicated feelings about leaving the United States to return to Canada. So, I decided to talk about it to an audience of strangers. Much to my surprise, the brewery was completely packed. The audience was so interested and engaged and supportive that I thought maybe the piece could turn into something publishable.

How long did it take to write this piece?

Probably about a month to write the presentation and I then spent some time over the next several months tweaking it.

What was the most challenging part of writing it?

I am a political scientist – by training, anyway – and so I don’t write about myself. Ever. Writing from or about personal experiences is not an approach that is viewed positively in my discipline. Writing for a general audience is also a very different style than what I’m used to.

In many academic settings, opaque writing is a kind of moral credentialing; complexity is frequently considered a proxy for intellectual worth. But you can’t reach a broad audience that way. At the same time, I write about race and racism and I will never simplify the terms of the debate. There is too much at stake. So, striking a balance between complexity and accessibility was certainly a challenge.

Do you have a particular writing ritual you follow?

I have two children under five, so I write when I can, as fast as I can, anywhere I can. Sometimes I try to get up early to write, but somehow, they know. And they wake up. And then we’re all just up early.

What did you find different about writing during a global pandemic?

The schools and daycares in Oregon shut down in mid-March. They did not reopen. Any semblance of work-life balance I pretended to have pre-pandemic was eviscerated in an instant. It is impossible to work full-time and take care of children full-time.

Any time that I found to write had to be negotiated with my partner, who had his own full-time job and obligations, or was stolen while my children napped or were momentarily distracted. The pandemic has most tragically stolen lives from us, but it has also stolen time, and my sense is that we – all of us, but most especially women, racialized minorities, and low-income populations – will feel the psychological, emotional, and professional consequences for decades.

What was the most surprising thing you learned about your subject (or in the case of a personal essay, yourself) during the process?

Huh. I guess it was surprising that anyone would be interested in hearing about my very personal and peculiar take on my experiences of racism in Canada and the United States. This is also my research, and so I think and write and live and breathe it all day, every day. So, the surprise was both wonder at the incredible reception to my story, and shock that so many people had never thought about the realities of racism in these countries.

What sort of reaction has your piece received from readers?

It’s hard to tell, actually. My sense is that the piece struck a chord with many people. I’ve presented different versions of this piece in various forums, and the audiences are always large and captivated. But it’s also an essay about race and racism in societies that are still defined, overtly and surreptitiously, by white supremacy. I get a lot of hate mail.

For any fellow non-fiction writers reading this, do you have a favourite writing tip to share?

If you get stuck on a sentence or idea, write around it and keep going. My drafts frequently have the phrase “[something something]”.

What writing projects are you working on currently?

I’m turning the essay into a book! More details on that should be announced soonish. And, of course, I have my day job as a political scientist at McGill University. In 2021 I’ll be finishing up a project on racial inequality in Canada with Dr. Keith Banting of Queen’s University, writing an article on Black Lives Matter and Black Political Thought for a special issue of the journal South Atlantic Quarterly and I think I have committed to write three book chapters for edited volumes. It’s going to be a busy year, but what a charmed life I have, to write for a living. 

Find Debra on Twitter: @debthompsonphd

This Q&A may have been edited for clarity and length.

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Best of 2020 Q&A: Julian Brave NoiseCat

Julian Brave NoiseCat appears on our Best of 2020 list for the piece “Interiority Complex.” You can read it at the National Observer.

GCL invited writers on the list to answer a questionnaire to give us further insight into their work. The following are Julian’s answers:

How did you start working on this story?

My father had an art show opening in Whistler—his father’s territory. Originally I was going to try to get some local journalists to cover it, but then one of my friends and editors, Emilee Gilpin, who was at the National Observer at the time suggested that I write the story.

How long did it take to write this piece?

It took a few interviews and a couple of days. Not long at all.

What was the most challenging part of writing it?

I like to see and interact with the people and subjects I write about in person. During the pandemic that obviously wasn’t possible, which was a bummer because I was really excited to see my dad’s first show in his fatherland.

Do you have a particular writing ritual you follow?

As I’ve learned more about writing, I’ve gotten pretty big on process. I start by typing up all my interviews and then I figure out an outline. To get through writer’s block and the fear-of-blank-page phenomenon, I trick myself into thinking about the task as turning notes into prose.

What did you find different about writing during a global pandemic?

I don’t like just reporting over the phone and wish I could have seen my dad and his art in person. I do think you get more of the details, and therefore the literature, that way.

What was the most surprising thing you learned about your subject (or in the case of a personal essay, yourself) during the process?

The piece is about my father’s complicated relationship with his father as well as my complicated relationship with my father. The title, “Interiority Complex” refers to one of the core tensions in the piece, which isn’t just about our inherited inferiority complexes as Indians, but also about how my dad has felt “less-than” in the art world because he’s not from a coastal nation and is sometimes looked down upon in the art world for that reason.

What sort of reaction has your piece received from readers?

My dad loved it and cried. That’s good enough for me.

For any fellow non-fiction writers reading this, do you have a favourite writing tip to share?

Writing takes time and practice. If you put in the work and the hours, over pieces and years you will see your writing improve by leaps and bounds. I can hardly bring myself to read the stuff I was writing just a couple years ago.

What writing projects are you working on currently?

Lots of things! I’ve always dreamt of writing books and am hopeful that I might get to do that soon.

Find Julian on Twitter: @jnoisecat

This Q&A may have been edited for clarity and length.