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.


My Black ancestors fled America for freedom. I left Canada to find a home. Now both countries must fight for a better world

“When I moved to the U.S. a decade ago, I thought those ghosts would welcome me home. I felt like I was returning to the land of my ancestors, the country they built, where they prayed, and sweated, and toiled, and were tortured, and resisted, and fought, and wept as their children were stolen and sold, and were traumatized as they were raped for profit and murdered for sport; the country where they died, the places they still haunt. They escaped, and I returned to lay claim to the opportunities they were denied and the humanity they were refused.”

Debra Thompson – The Globe and Mail – June 2020