New books by Eternity Martis and Tessa McWatt expertly navigate the experience of coming into their respective authors’ identities as Black women. For Martis, finding a community amid isolation slowly strengthens her. For McWatt, the question “What are you?” transforms into “Who are you?” as she explores her family’s multiple histories, heritages, and stories.
Martis’s debut book, They Said This Would Be Fun, is guaranteed to find a readership among those who have ever felt isolated or discouraged on university campuses in Canada, especially people of colour. During her undergraduate years at Western University in London, Ontario, Martis encountered a nasty and entitled culture of racism and sexism: Blackface at parties, slurs at the bar, forced hypervisibility in the classroom, and constant interrogation of her Canadian identity.
She quickly noticed that while innocuous actions by Black and Brown people were deemed hostile and made them targets, openly threatening actions by white people – catcalling, drunken fights, overt racism – were not met with similar scrutiny. Universities, Martis wisely notes, are spaces where young white people, often the perpetrators of racist and racially insensitive acts, can perform their greatest desires for Blackness, and enact their most “anti-black fantasies.” University administrators, in turn, distribute mild punishments, if any at all. The behaviour is justified as youthful ignorance with no hateful intent.
Black people on campus learn to code switch, to avoid each other on the street and on public transportation, and to not be seen gathering in groups, which intensifies already entrenched isolation. In her upper years, Martis finds a community of Black women and other women of colour in a Black feminism class. But when some of these students of colour transfer to other universities, she stays. Martis opens readers to her experiences – her repeated mistakes and errors in judgment on full display – with introspection, reflection, and forgiveness of her past selves. We see her learn about how abuse masquerades as romance in relationships, how emotional trauma cannot be truly solved by excessive partying and alcohol, how close friendships can fade, despite everything.
Important to the larger narrative is Martis’s discussion of her relationship with her family – her South Asian mother, who raised her, and absent Jamaican father, with whom she briefly reunites. She learns of family she never knew, forming and fostering new relationships with her half-siblings from her father’s side. She struggles with her South Asian family members’ surprise at her choice to identify as Black – a fact not always acknowledged – and their tendency to attribute her on-campus experiences of anti-Blacknes to her own anger or to suspect that she might be exaggerating. However, through candid discussions and concerted efforts, they become her fiercest advocates, learning that the way she views herself may be different from the way they view her.
Martis’s memoir is heartbreaking, sobering, and, at times, difficult to digest. Her detailing of the treatment of Black people in predominantly white spaces – and the audacity of white students – may require some to pause. But the book is also funny, endearing, and sharp. It offers critical insight into the ways Black and Brown women’s bodies, identities, and ideas are policed and targeted by the mainstream, making it a well-rounded, well-crafted text.
Shame on Me, Tessa McWatt’s original and moving memoir, interrogates ideas of race, belonging, shame, purpose, destiny, desire, and identity. Through an examination of her physical body, she holds up a mirror to the ways culture and society read race and the bodies of others – their skin, hair, bones, and more. She does this with remarkable research and precision – an anatomical and literary close-reading of her own history and heritage.
By examining her hair, McWatt investigates proximity to whiteness that people of colour grapple with – hair as aspirational, a site of contention and racial consciousness. By examining her ass, she addresses the history of the dehumanizing sexualization of Black women and its reclamation. By examining her bones, she explores her mental health, therapy, and the way language can join or push away. Since childhood, McWatt has been asked, “What are you?” The answer to that question is long and complicated and rich.
Among other accomplishments, Shame on Me dives into the history of British Guiana (Guyana), where African slaves, Indigenous Peoples, and South- and East-Asian indentured workers endured hardship from European colonizers.
McWatt, who was born in Guyana, guides readers through her family’s different roles and circumstances during the country’s long past. British Guiana, McWatt tells us, was the site of prominent sugar plantations dependent on slave labour in the 19th century. The plantation – with its fraught mentality, hierarchies, and modes of oppression – is a heavy representation of the effects of colonialism and othering. Sugar, and the ways in which it infiltrates our lives, becomes a symbol of danger, negligence, and inequalities of wealth that form the rippling effects of colonization. Yet McWatt notes that her ancestry centres on sugar; she is a song of sugar. Her memoir is deeply reflective and intellectually profound. It speaks with confidence, experience, and learnedness, a patient voice that will resonate with readers.
Both Martis and McWatt find inspirational lessons in Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf as well as in other Black women writers, poets, and feminist theorists, including Dionne Brand and Patricia Hill Collins. Both writers interrogate their families’ apprehension with their respective choices to identify as Black and investigate the distance or non-acknowledgement of Blackness on the part of others. And both writers approach their stories and pasts with deep care, love, and tenderness. They invite their readers into their stories – stories that speak assertively to the power and resilience of women of colour.