Faith is the recipient of the 2020 QWF Mairuth Sarsfield Mentorship
Before I learned of Mairuth Sarsfield, I was searching for her—I didn’t know exactly who or what I would find, but I hoped it was someone like me. Really, I was trying to acquaint myself with a lineage of Black women writers who have lived and created in the lands we call Canada. This term was the first time in my 18 years of education that I was assigned a book by a Black woman writer from Canada, and it wasn’t until university that instructors had some answer for me when I noted the absence of an acknowledged tradition of our own. But I’m not after a hollow representation—creators from marginalized identities are too often pitted against each other in deeply hierarchical literary scenes and expected to speak for their entire communities. Black women are multitudinous even amongst ourselves, defying a single story—some of us arrived here in chains with coastal salt brewing in our blood; others fled from below the border with the promise of freedom and farmland pushing their feet; more, like my family, said goodbye to African and Caribbean homelands to grant their children other chances. I wanted to honour that kinship made across time.
Enter the Quebec Writers’ Federation’s Mairuth Sarsfield Mentorship Program, exactly when both my poetry and my research practices were demanding more care. My current project is a serial poem directly engaging with Black women writers’ poetic lines in a form called the glosa. It can be considered a quintessentially Canadian form as it was innovated and proliferated by national literary icon P.K. Page. I was interested in playing with it since it’s a form directly invested in lineage—the writer integrates a quatrain from another source into their piece. The deeper I searched for writing by Black women in these lands, the wider the historical gaps grew. Why were poets who were considered so pivotal, like Claire Harris, in limited circulation or completely out-of-print? How was it that writers like Dionne Brand or Nalo Hopkinson could ascend to superstar status, yet so few students were engaging with their work in classrooms? Why was there little access to our histories and creative production, unless you knew where to look?
Learning more about Mairuth herself provoked me out of self-doubt and into applying for the program. She was wholeheartedly dedicated to justice in storytelling, whether by sharing what must be told, or rewriting the narrative that one has been handed. Her acclaimed novel, No Crystal Stair, invoked Montreal’s thriving Black communities of the 1940s when the historical record usually covers our footsteps. It’s thrilling to traverse the city and share these landmarks that defined her life and creativity. Her influence even reached beyond the page into curating, at Expo ’70 and the Canadian Museum of History, and environmental activism with the United Nations. She is a guide in how to chase after an ambitious career.
That No Crystal Stair was also ‘rediscovered’ and rescued from obscurity reaffirms the urgency of preserving Black women’s literature in this country. Not every Black woman writer is lucky enough to be featured in a Canada Reads competition, or become an internationally renowned journalist and activist. If the output of a writer with this impressive reputation can be at risk, I feel obligated to draw recognition to the artifacts, contributions, and struggles of the women before me in the best way I can—the expansive world of a poem. QWF’s sponsorship of this program at such a critical moment in our literary landscape is encouraging—they are cultivating a space for writers like us to develop our own voices and discover our creative ancestors in the archive, waiting to meet us.
Faith is being mentored by Gillian Sze for the 2020 Mairuth Sarsfield Mentorship Program.