The following interview is part one of an eight-part series of conversations with BC poets which I released in April 2021. All eight interviews were originally posted at ReadLocalBC.ca. This was the third year of my collaboration with Read Local BC (you can read the 2019 interviews here, and the 2020 interviews here).
excerpt from “transatlantic | zombie | passages” - Junie Désil
in the ocean where we were disposed of by drowning or shark ravaging
salt-brined unmarked graves paradoxically our freedom the very molecules
of sea-womb water we are here we still remain our DNA ingested and
upcycled by every single organism our bodies extracted ingested this
probably made your heart lurch and sink and beat and flutter all at once
if i say that in fact time is unable to absolve/dissolve if i say five hundred
years ago we were bondaged bodies if i say that despite the passage of time
if i say that time in this case is measured in residence time and that five
hundred years is not five hundred years ago that past horror is not past
that it is present time if i say our ancestors are still here we are still here
if i say that we are zombies we are ghosts we are traces we are revenants
Reprinted with permission
from eat salt | gaze at the ocean
Rob Taylor: Early in eat salt | gaze at the ocean you wonder “how to write about zombies: / when you’re a generation / removed from the soil”. Your parents immigrated to Canada from Haiti, and you were born in Montreal. Did writing this book bring you closer to your Haitian culture? In writing and publishing this book, what insights have you learned about writing about a home you weren’t born in?
Junie Désil: I can’t say that writing this book brought me closer necessarily. I think the fact is I will always be removed from “home” and “culture.” There are ways of being and knowing that I can attribute to my culture and upbringing, but at the end of the day there is a sense of loss at the interruption, whether it’s my parents immigrating to these territories as a result of the political atmosphere in Haiti, or the larger interruption of the collective “Black” history. Certainly, that not-home/un-home feeling informs my writing and, in particular, this collection. I think it’s something you’ll note in many of the Caribbean diaspora writers.
Haiti is there whether I speak to it or not. I suppose it’s like loss, you don’t get over it, it’s always there, it imparts a gauze on your lens, and you either make peace or not. For myself, I found it organized my thoughts and feelings on the subject. It forced me to confront the things not talked about in my family. As a result of who I am, where I was born, the choices my parents made, the choices I’ve made and continue to make, there will always be unknowns and the unresolved. I suppose then that the insight is just that writing about “home” will always be an unfillable hole.
RT: Let’s move from “home” to the other half of that quote: zombies. “How to write about zombies” speaks not only to your distance from Haiti, but also the trickiness of writing about zombies within a Canadian/American cultural context (earlier in the same poem, you list zombie movies you’ve watched: I Am Legend, World War Z, Shaun of the Dead, etc.). Was it daunting to write about Haitian zombies through the fog of American media representations? Do you think the gap between Haitian traditions and pop culture is bridgeable, and if so, was it important for you to try to bridge it?
JD: It certainly was fascinating (appealing to the nerd part of me) and daunting for a number of reasons. The information and the directions I could go with zombies were so vast; I felt inclined to write a dissertation of sorts! I think what was overwhelming was realizing how much heavy lifting the zombie imagery does. For a moment it left me bereft. I know this sounds dramatic, but hear me out. The zombie is a metaphor for the condition of slavery, and here this very metaphor is still “working” across the screen, across various narratives, to be what we need it to be. It’s seeing how this symbol in Haitian culture has become American culture. That even in death/undeath Haitians can’t catch a break.
Anyway, it was more important to share what zombies mean and that zombies aren’t what we’ve grown up knowing; that zombies have been misrepresented. There was also the thrill of understanding and re-discovering what zombies meant to Haitians, and more so the thrill of discovering that Zora Neal Hurston, a writer whose fiction, essay and anthropological work I long have admired, was also interested in Haitian folk tales, zombies, etc. She really put her whole self into the study of zombies and Haitian spiritual and cultural life.
RT: You mentioned there that you “felt inclined to write a dissertation of sorts” and in your book’s acknowledgments you note that you “have not pursued what [you] thought would be a career in academia.” It’s clear, though, that you brought some of the academy into eat salt | gaze at the ocean: the book teems with historical research (and archival documents, which sometimes appear directly in the text). Could you talk a little about your movement away from the academy and towards creative writing? How did that journey shape the book you ended up writing?
JD: I love academia, or rather learning. I’ve had terrible experiences with academia, and also realized it’s not the be-all and end-all. I can still learn, share, educate in other ways. What I did not realize or what I did not have in my academic time was the ability to be creative about my academic pursuits; the permission to weave creative writing with academic research/learning.
I moved from Montreal when I was 19. I’d never been in BC and didn’t know much about it. I gave up a scholarship and acceptance at McGill. I struggled. I struggled with the blatant and subtle racism. I struggled with the lack of room to explore and shape my thoughts and opinions in a political and creative way. I struggled with the loneliness of being Black in BC. I couldn’t articulate this. I thought that academia could be a place to intellectually pursue research, work and study on equity and justice etc., and found that I couldn’t research these things while actively being the “PROBLEM.” So writing on the side, in secret, was my only way to exist and articulate these things.
I’m lucky and blessed that over time various people like Wayde Compton, Dr. Yvonne Brown, Cecily Nicholson, Mercedes Eng, Hari Alluri, Betsy Warland and so many others, saw that there was something of value in what I had to say. I wouldn’t be here without folks like the aforementioned. Listen, in a (paused) heartbeat I would do it again, but maybe only because I’m older and supposedly wiser with a lot more resources around my belt, and a strong, supportive community of folks and family.
RT: I’m glad you struck off on your own path, interweaving academic research and creative writing. It comes together so powerfully in eat salt | gaze at the ocean. In the excerpted poem that opens this interview, you write that “past horror is not past”. In another part of that same poem you say that “there is no pastness”. Throughout the book, your own life is palimpsested over, or mixed into, the more “academic” historical events the book explores. The Haitian Revolution, the crimes of The Cotilda, the 2010 earthquake, Black Lives Matters protests, and your father’s saying he’s “never met a cop who doesn’t respond to respect,” all seem to be speaking back and forth to one another simultaneously. Similarly, in an image from the book you map out your own “triangular passage” between Haiti (Ayiti-Kiskeya-Bohio), Winnipeg (Treaty 1) and Vancouver (Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh), beside that of the slave trade.
Could you talk a bit about how the present and the past feel merged, for you, as you go about your daily life? Do you think it could have been possible for you to write authentically about your ancestral past without also writing about your present (or vice versa)?
JD: I don’t think I could have written this without merging past and present. I mean – who I am, how I am here, is informed by my past, my ancestry, and my ancestor’s experiences. I’m here in these occupied territories because my ancestors were removed from their lands and shipped various places. I’m here because my parents’ lives were impacted by US (and Canadian and French and other) imposed dictators, ongoing colonial projects and practices. I’m here and not there (Haiti/Dominican Republic) because there isn’t necessarily a home to go to. Also, this is how I understand and organize my world, if we’re being literal. All of this only makes sense in the context of the past that keeps haunting me/us.
As to the matter of authenticity, the other reason I wrote it this way was to ensure that what I wrote about wouldn’t necessarily be taken as absolute truth. There are omissions and gaps in this text; these are both deliberate and accidental (because of time, memory, and trauma). I’ve mentioned, or tried to convey, that this writing is an act of re-membering (Toni Morrison): putting myself back together through memories, stories, and events, but I only have a particular perspective so the process will be incomplete, imperfect and ongoing. So is it authentic? Yes and no. I couldn’t get complete answers from my folks, they too have an incomplete memory, and their experiences are mediated by their own traumas, their own displacements.
RT: Incomplete and inauthentic are different things – I appreciate so much how you threaded together what you knew of both your past and your present.
To close the book you ask “when will I feel alive”: is there a connection between the omnipresence of the past and your inability to feel alive? What would change for you if the past could truly be in the past?
JD: It’s a complicated question (and answer), and also a vulnerable one for me. I’m not supposed to be here. Historically our timeline was interrupted; there is an active, subtle and not so subtle desire to extinguish us. I mention briefly being 15 and making an attempt on my life. I couldn’t explain it, my mother was so preoccupied she was not aware that I’d swallowed half a bottle of pills, and I was trying to cover up what I’d done. What I’m saying is that it is an act of labour to stay alive, in myriad ways, despite the zombie personas we adopt (or have placed on us).
The more I know, the more I explore, the more I wonder when I will feel alive. This uncovering, re-membering is painful. Like therapy; sometimes you keep digging and unpeeling and it’s too much and you want it to stop, but you keep going because… well you have to have hope sometimes. So while I say that I don’t feel alive, that I am the walking dead, I am here and that’s an act of love, on my part, on my family’s part, continuing on even when there seems to be no reason to.
RT: Yes, an act of love—exactly. What do you think would change for you if the past could truly be in the past?
JD: I don’t know that the past could ever truly be the past. I think that’s the thing we argue when seeking reparations, asking for statues to come down, renaming schools, streets, etc. None of these horrors are past; they just have a different form and serve as a reminder. We’re all collectively haunted, and hauntings are about the unresolved, unconfronted and unacknowledged horrors.
RT: In regards to endless haunting, in the book’s middle section you write “it is exhausting to write about slavery, ongoing oppression / as if that’s my only history or point of interest… in fact it is your history”. Did writing about slavery and oppression in eat salt | gaze at the ocean feel like a choice? If not, to what extent was that because of your own needs and desires v. those of white Canadian readers?
JD: It didn’t feel like it was going to be a choice, but in my “limited choices” I made decisions of how and what I was going to talk about. I considered implications on my family and myself: putting out personal things, and being aware of the balance of how to write about the difficult things that implicate parents while shielding them from potential judgement.
I also chose not to do too much “trauma porn.” When it got too much I couldn’t write. There was a period of a few weeks where nothing was coming out. I knew what I wanted to write but I couldn’t find my way in or around. I took it to mean that there are some things I’m not prepared to confront, or write about; there are some things that are not meant for the world. Some stories deserve protection and care. So I made a series of choices along the way. Sometimes I think What if I had written this collection this way or another way, what would it have looked like? I know I made choices because of time constraints. I made some choices instinctively and wonder what it would have looked like to be mentored through the process. Would I have taken more risks?
RT: I think all writers wrestle with those kinds of questions (before and after our book are published!).
With some more time and experience behind you now, do you see a way forward to being able to write about other “points of interest” in your life? What would you like to talk about?
JD: I‘ve been thinking about this question for a while now, and don’t have an answer. In November, while on vacation, I felt like I could write again. I worry about not being able to write. I once had a five year absence from writing because of work, and I promised myself I wouldn’t let that happen again. I could see myself getting back to that place and I started worrying. While on the break I felt inspired and thought Great, I can write about something else. Well, I realized that it would again be somewhat autobiographical (again) and that it would be political.
I’ve wrestled with how to balance writing about the things that “matter” and the things that I want to write about, and I keep coming back to this poem by Ross Gay, “A Small Needful Fact.” This beautiful poem is about Eric Garner, and the extrajudicial killings of Black people at the hands of law enforcement, but it’s also about life; he talks about seeds, and the gentleness of placing seeds in the ground to grow and nurture, the circle of life. I think I worry that writing about “other points of interest” means giving up writing about the difficult things, the political things. American poet Tiana Clark‘s debut collection, I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood, perfectly encapsulates what I’m trying to say. Clark recognizes that the trees where Black folks were lynched contain a history that is inescapable, and like me she weaves in personal and public accounts to talk about the horrors, the present hauntings: trees.
There will always be this tension; I can’t un-know things so I can’t write about anything neutrally. I haven’t found a way to do so. And some of the tension is about participating in trauma porn, commodifying Black pain.
Ross Gay sums up some of the concerns that I grapple with in his blurb for Clark’s book:
“Critiquing the commodification of [B]lack pain while also acknowledging and revealing your hurt as a [B]lack person is tricky as hell. It is dangerous. And that is precisely what Tiana Clark does in these beautiful, vulnerable, honest poems.”
I always look to the writers I admire when trying to sort out these questions. I’m not the first to navigate these things, and I know that the ability to tap into such wisdom lies in access and privilege. In any case, what I want to learn to do is just what Toni Morrison says: “The best art is political and you ought to be able to make it unquestionably political and irrevocably beautiful at the same time.”
RT: That’s no small task, and one I think you’ve accomplished here. And I’m glad that you pointed to Gay’s poem on Eric Garner as an influence.
As the book’s title suggests, salt, and the awakenings salt induce, are central themes in eat salt | gaze at the ocean. In one story/poem, eating salt is what awakens the Haitian zombies working in American-owned sugar cane fields, reminding them they are dead and sending them running to their graves. The salt sting of the ocean into which rebellious slaves were tossed is also tied to both awakening and death.
The salt sting that seems to explode this book into awareness—that sears together its composite parts so fiercely—is the Black Lives Matter movement, and specifically the 2016 killings by police officers of Black and Indigenous people. When you write about that year, the poem overflows (both emotionally and formally, as the poem becomes prose and fills almost two pages with solid text). Would you consider that moment in the book an “awakening” of sorts? Was 2016, and all that came with it, a kind of “salt” you consumed, bringing with it both awareness and death?
JD: Growing up Black one is always taught about the “dangers” of existing while Black. My parents tried to shield us from this as much as they could as they were going through their own painful processes. I remember hearing some of the stories and being unable to comprehend why my parents were subjected to the treatment they received at work.
I didn’t have a political language to articulate the experiences of growing up Black in Winnipeg or attending high school and CEGEP in Montreal, and I was a relative baby when I moved to Vancouver. Still, I had awareness. While I was in high school in Montreal, the police infamously pulled up to our school and bribed young Black boys with pizza so they could take their pictures for a lineup. I also experienced the Rodney King beating and riots when I was 13, and the horrific beating and sexual assault of Abner Louima at the hands of the police in 1997, when I was 19. Those two events were shocking to me, and started to linger in my consciousness.
So yes, perhaps I was like a zombie and over the past five or six years there was a strange and repeated awareness and death cycle. What I’m saying is that absolutely 2015/16 was a particularly explosive awakening; this was when cell phone videos provided irrefutable proof that law enforcement was killing Black people. But also it wasn’t an awakening; these were part and parcel of being Black. I think 2019/20, with what seemed like an epidemic of extra judicial killings of Black women, Black trans folks, and Black men, was too much. The difference being that I had actually watched the video of George Floyd’s killing, and it hit differently.
RT: What made it hit differently? The “watching” instead of “hearing about”?
JD: I don’t know that I can talk about it properly; likely I’m not ready. Obviously watching the filmed extrajudicial killing of George Floyd is the difference; I have always avoided watching any of what is tantamount to snuff films. This time I did. I honestly don’t know why. After watching the film, I avoided people, but went to work and went through the motions of existing in this world. I asked my partner to shield me from people and their desire to imperfectly do or say something. I avoided text messages, emails, etc. from well-meaning people. And I just grieved for about a month. It’s not an answer to the question, I know, but how does one articulate their feelings about ongoing state-sanctioned killings of Black people, and having to defend their very existence? Perhaps the hardest part of this was that it felt impossible to mourn, or when we mourned we wondered what about this particular death made it harder. And the mourning for me felt messy, the grief didn’t feel like it had a proper container to hold it.
RT: Thank you for talking about this, difficult as it is. It’s hard to imagine any container could hold such grief. But I think you hold a portion of it, in a powerful and transformative way, in eat salt | gaze at the ocean.
A book that had a similar effect on you as I suspect your book will have on young Black and Caribbean readers, was Haitian poet Edwidge Danticat’s Breath, Eyes, Memory. In your acknowledgments, you write that reading that book made you believe you “had something to say.” Could you speak a little more about Danticat’s influence on your writing?
JD: Edwidge Danticat occupies a particular place for me. Growing up I was an avid reader, and while reading was encouraged, I did not have access to Black writers or writers of colour. My parents would talk about Haitian literary greats, but they were also the product of a colonial education system, so they referenced THE CANON of French, Russian and English writers.
My father had a closet full of textbooks and other books, so I would dig through and read Checkhov, Tolstoy, Orwell, or French philosophers. When I was old enough to check out books on my own from the public library, I wasn’t really reading anything by writers of colour. The African-American History class I took in my undergrad year at UBC was the first time I read Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, Frederick Douglas, W.E.B. DuBois, etc. All this to say that I was in my 20s before I read something by a Black Writer, and later still when I read Edwidge Danticat.
When I discovered Danticat, it was like pieces of my childhood narratives coalesced: being Haitian, understanding some of my parents’ unnamed trauma. I think it was the moment when I realized that I too could write stories that matter, that influence, that change people. Of course I must mention Toni Morrison as a literary role model. I hope that once I start writing fiction that I can write so well about hauntings and horror.
RT: In addition to Danticat (and Morrison—yes!), eat salt | gaze at the ocean also brings to mind so many tremendous Caribbean-Canadian poets (Dionne Brand, M. NourbeSe Philip, Jillian Christmas…) who write about slavery and the history of the African diaspora in the Caribbean and Canada. Could you talk a little about other writers on these subjects, whose books showed you a way forward?
JD: Dionne Brand writes about not having a home, as Caribbean diaspora. Yes we can say we are from Haiti, Jamaica, Dominican Republic, but this is an interrupted history as well, a second other home, with an inability to trace back precisely where/what home is.
There is a familiarity and a specificity, and a range of experiences in the Black Caribbean Canadian experience, and to me this has been a beautiful thing to see and be a part of. Toni Morrison says to write the book you never got to read (I’m paraphrasing) and I think there are still books that have yet to be written. That moment of recognition is beautiful when you read something that speaks to you and your experiences. Something that understands the deepest, most secret parts. That is what I love the most about writing and reading, and what I look for.
Junie Désil is of Haitian ancestry. Born of immigrant parents on the Traditional Territories of the Kanien’kehá꞉ka on the island known as Tiohtià꞉ke (Montréal), raised in Treaty 1 Territory (Winnipeg). Junie has performed at various literary events and festivals. Her work has appeared in Room Magazine, PRISM International, The Capilano Review, and CV2. A recovering academic, a UBC alumnus, and most recently a participant in Simon Fraser University’s Writer’s Studio, Junie currently works in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, on the unceded and Ancestral Lands of the xwməθkwəy̓əm, Sḵwx̱wú7mesh, and səl̓ílwətaʔɬ (Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh) and lives on qiqéyt (Qayqayt) Territory (New Westminster), juggling writing and life.
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