Ontario Author Profile: Catherine Hernandez

NOW Digital Residency: Ontario's Best Books

As part of this month’s Ontario’s Best Books Digital Residency, we’re profiling some of this province’s prominent authors. See all of the profiles here.

What’s your most recent work about?

Scarborough follows the lives of three children in the low-income Kingston/Galloway area of Toronto’s east end over the course of a school year.

Do you have anything specific you do for your writing process?

There is an Indigenous tribe in the Philippines called the T’Boli. The sacred women of this tribe receive dreams from our ancestors and then commit those dreams to woven fabrics. They are dreamweavers. My work as an artist is to decolonize my work so that I too am a conduit to the whispers of the universe and am simply committing to the page what the universe is telling me.

Describe one opportunity that improved your life as a writer.

When I submitted the unpublished manuscript to the Jim Wong-Chu Award, I was a playwright wanting feedback for my emerging fiction practice. I had no clue I would win. When I did win, I remember the late Jim Wong-Chu telling me “Your career has changed now. Your life has changed now.” And it did. Shortly after, I was signed on at Arsenal Pulp Press for its publication.

What’s one thing Ontario creative industries could do to be more inclusive of authors from indigenous and diverse communities.

Here’s the problem with this question: “one thing.” There is no “one thing” people can do to create change. Inclusivity is a multi-tiered process of liberation from the structures that oppress particular communities in the first place. That may seem overwhelming for privileged folks to grasp – that change cannot happen with one simple action. But believe me, it is overwhelming being a queer brown woman, every day.

One of the first steps is to consider who has a seat at the table, be it the table of jury members, the table of funders etc. And if we’re continuing with this metaphorical table, I mean a goddamn seat at the table. Not serving the table. Not wiping the table down. Not at the end of the table. Consider what it means to allow under-privileged folks a full steak dinner with a side of mashed potatoes. Consider if this means giving up your seat. What price are you willing to pay for liberation when oppressed folks pay this price every day? This requires a great deal of unlearning and learning and I encourage organizations and funders to incite change by engaging in regular anti-oppression workshops. Those concepts, the language and putting it into action is where change can begin.

Another step is to honour the ways in which folks from various communities tell their stories. An example of this is when we, in the performing arts sector, call certain works “multi-disciplinary”. The Brown and Black diaspora, before colonization, simply called this “storytelling.” Even Filipino traditions of debate was done using spoken word. If we open our hearts to the multitude of ways storytelling takes shape, it means that our criticism and evaluation of those works has to progress. Our critics have to learn anti-oppression, and our body of critics have to be a more inclusive bunch.

A final step I can share (although there are so many when it comes to liberation), is to do the work personally. Do your homework. There are a wide variety of reading materials on anti-oppression and allyship that people in creative industries and beyond can use to better themselves. We are living at a critical time when checking diversity boxes just won’t cut it. Being polite, being “colour-blind” (which is ridiculous. If you can see a yellow shirt or a blue box, you can see White Supremacy), being shocked, being ashamed serves no one. It changes nothing. But doing your homework, sitting with the unease of your privilege, learning tools to change your behaviour around oppressed communities means change. On the other side of that discomfort is progress.

What’s one piece of advice you wish someone had shared with you when you were first starting out as a writer?

“Don’t worry about winning. If you have been shortlisted, you’ve already won. Just buy yourself a new dress and some shoes.” I say this because I thought that after I didn’t win the Toronto Book Award, I thought I was going to be a One Trick Pony and no one would care about my book. Author David Chariandy teased me about this saying, “It’s that girl who was only shortlisted! Don’t look at Catherine! Her shame is contagious!” He thought I was silly for thinking this and he was right. Of course, books are not as fleeting as theatre. My fears were completely unfounded. This industry has been very generous with me and has recognized me in many ways since, including other shortlists.

Do you have any favourite Ontario authors or books?

I am Team Cherie Dimaline all the way. I would start a fan club, but I have to … you know … write my own books or something.

Name a person in your field who you think deserves more attention.

My powerhouse of an agent is Marilyn Biderman from the Transatlantic Agency. Recently joining this group is Leonicka Valcius. Leonicka is a champion of diverse Canadian literature. I am proud of Transatlantic for giving this unstoppable and talented Black woman a seat at the table.

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