Poet and activist Cicely Belle Blain is part of a growing cohort of writers who’ve experienced the strange process of launching a book during COVID. Their first book, Burning Sugar, was released in August 2020 by Vivek Shraya’s VS Books and was recently short-listed for the 2021 Pat Lowther Award by the League of Canadian Poets.
Instead of in-person readings and signings, there have been online events and virtual festivals. As a result, Blain has co-ordinated a thoughtful backdrop for Zoom interviews like this one, dominated by muted greens and vibrant pinks, including the sunset-hued Burning Sugar.
Shraya launched her own book, The Subtweet, at the pandemic’s outset, Blain says. “And she went all out with this beautiful dress and had this whole setup with a piano. I was like, ‘Oh my goodness, I don’t know that I can put in that much effort.’”
Even without a splashy launch, Burning Sugar has made an impact. Blain’s poetry explores the legacies of colonialism, slavery and racism in powerful, emotive verse. Writing it allowed Blain, an anti-racism consultant, to approach their work from a new angle. “I thought it would be a cool way to branch out from the work I do in my everyday life, and experiment with this new medium of communicating my experiences to the reader in a more artistic way.”
Blain also runs an anti-racism consulting company that has grown from three people to 11 in the last year. After thinking about how they had adapted their workplace to ease pandemic burnout and increase accessibility for staff, Blain was inspired to work on another book. What We’ve Learned: A Year of Fighting White Supremacy in a Pandemic, a collection of essays and stories by a diverse group of writers, will be available as an ebook on April 30.
For National Poetry Month, Blain talked about their favourite poets, their love of sci-fi, and the pleasure of escaping through fiction.
The Tyee: What do you like to read?
Cicely Belle Blain: Sci-fi or young adult fantasy is usually my go-to. I like the escape from reality, and I feel like when it comes to fiction, my brain has not really left being 15. I’m currently reading Legendborn by Tracy Deonn. I love Angie Thomas and The Hate U Give, and I just got her newest book, Concrete Rose. I’m excited to start that.
Why do you think that you’re drawn to those genres?
I think it’s mainly escapism of transporting yourself to a different realm. I love N.K. Jemisin’s work. I find it very difficult to read, like most of the time I don’t know what she’s talking about, but I love how she’s creating this totally other world. It’s so removed from reality. I’m fascinated by how her brain works, and by fantasy writers who can create something that’s not even based on planet Earth.
What sci-fi book would you give someone to convince them to dive into the genre?
I think The Martian is a really good book. The one that got made into a movie with Matt Damon — that’s a good book-to-movie adaptation, which is a selling point. Even though I am not a scientist and I don’t really understand science, I think that’s what makes it so interesting, is that the story is based on the hypothetical but very possible ways that we could use science. I think when people get freaked out by sci-fi, they worry it’s too unrealistic or too weird, but The Martian is a story about what could happen in the next 20 years.
Were you a big reader growing up?
Yes, much more than I am now! I was always a big Harry Potter person. And my grandmother gave me this book — I can’t remember what it’s called, but it had like a thousand funny poems. I loved it so much. It was just so accessible; you could just open it to any page and it would have a hilarious poem or lyric. I remember having it with me all the time and carrying it places, or when guests came over I would be like, “Let me read you something from this book.”
What poets do you love now?
My favourite poetry book is Salt by Nayyirah Waheed. I think that was the first book of poetry I read as an adult that wasn’t a school text or something. And it was written by a woman of colour, and really showed me that you can use poetry to talk about whatever you want. Poetry is often considered to be romantic, or about nature or something. But I think that was the first time I encountered poetry that was about oppression and trauma and all of the hard stuff.
Reading that invited me into this whole new way of expressing the things that I like to talk about anyway. It opened my eyes to show that you can write about these things in an artistic way or a non-traditional way and it can still have the same weight, if not even more power to it.
Was that a big influence on your book of poetry?
Yeah. I always saw the work that I do in consulting and training as not necessarily being as evocative or emotional. That’s what I felt was missing from my work — like I’m trying to educate people about racism and oppression and anti-Blackness, but because it’s being done in a corporate-training way, it’s not evoking the same emotion that I want people to feel. It’s not drawing out as much empathy as I want people to have. And I felt like poetry could do that, in the way that I felt reading Nayyirah Waheed or Rupi Kaur or Vivek Shraya.
Did writing Burning Sugar change the way you do the more corporate work?
Yes, but only sort of coincidentally, because the book came out last year when, you know — we’re in a pandemic, and also there was much attention to Black Lives Matter and just an explosion of conversation about anti-Blackness. I felt more validated in my experiences and more seen, and whereas previously, especially in corporate environments, I had felt I was seen as too radical or too political. So I was kind of like toning myself down to some extent. But now, not to say that everything’s drastically changed, but at least now conversations about racism that weren’t happening before are happening on larger scales and on mainstream media. It allows me to be more vulnerable, to be more expressive, and relate my personal stories to my work a lot more.
It seems like over the last year a lot of people who haven’t previously been involved in anti-racism or anti-oppression movements are finding their way into those movements after reading about others’ lived experiences. Are there writers you admire who don’t necessarily write about activism, but write in ways that inspire others to take up those movements?
I would say in that regard, probably my biggest inspiration is adrienne maree brown. Emergent Strategy is one of my favourite books, because it’s very similar to my philosophy of the convergence between grassroots activism and the rest of our lives and our professional spaces, which are usually kind of posited as extreme opposites. But I believe that they can be brought together. I think adrienne maree brown really does that, in the way that her words are accessible, and her values are so radical. Her values are rooted in destroying white supremacy, but the ideas are articulated in such a way that a corporate leader could pick up that book and learn something from it without being turned away.
Also with Ijeoma Oluo, I feel like she does a similar thing with articulating these causes. I think sometimes within academia or within activist communities, we go so deep in our jargon and our language that we forget that, you know, change is not going to happen if the mainstream doesn’t also get on board with this. So I really appreciate writers who are able to stay true to their values, but then also communicate with other groups.
Do you have any favourite characters in fiction who you identify with?
In N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, nobody’s explicitly described as queer, they’re just people who have these relationships; there are no gender roles or coming out, it’s just humans loving each other, which I think is really cool.
I also loved the book Juliet Takes a Breath [by Gabby Rivera]. I feel like every young person of colour has been through what Juliet goes through in that book — exploring and discovering feminism but then realizing it’s white feminism that doesn’t quite include you. It was extremely relatable.
Dreaming of post-pandemic travel, is there anywhere that you want to visit now that you’ve read about?
After reading The Clothesline Swing by Danny Ramadan, I would love to see Damascus. It sounds very beautiful. But I think what’s changed for me, in the past year, was just realizing there were a lot of things we took for granted before. And in the future, I want to dedicate my travel opportunities to going places that have some connection to me in some way. I’d love to go back to Jamaica where my dad’s family is from.
Are there any other writers in Vancouver that you admire?
I love Jillian Christmas. It was just so serendipitous that we both had books come out in the same year, had this similar experience of pandemic book launch, and I feel like her book [The Gospel of Breaking] is similar to mine too.
Also, my friend Maneo Mohale — they moved back to South Africa but started writing their book [Everything Is a Deathly Flower] when they lived here in Vancouver. They also explore experiences of Black queerness and was a huge inspiration for my work as well.
And what about other Canadian authors?
I really like Ian Williams. His book Reproduction — I’m still recovering from reading it. I didn’t understand what was going on, but I just loved that about it. I loved that I was being taken on this kind of trip. I like books that are really focused on characters, and less about some dramatic event.
When I was writing my book, my mentor was always encouraging me to explore non-traditional styles, but I was nervous about it because I’d only ever written in an academic way or the way you’re taught in school to write poetry. So I was really inspired by that work to see you can actually just do what you want. I mean, I don’t think I’m brave enough to go as far as [Williams] does. But it fascinates me — all the potential, all the possibilities that are out there if you throw away the literary traditions.
Any other favourite books that made a deep impression on you?
Probably my favourite book, like as a young person in school, was Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. It was probably one of the first non-white authors I read, and I felt like a world opened up, learning about the history of another country in a way. I was almost angry because I was like, wow, there’s so much going on in the rest of the world and in the rest of history that we’ve never been told. It was eye-opening to consider that billions of things have happened that were really important and significant to this culture or this community that I’ve never heard of. It set me on a path to keep doing that learning.
What are you excited to read next?
I just got The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett. I’ve heard lots of good things about it, so that’s on my to-read shelf. Also, I just got Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi as well.
Another one is Fearing the Black Body by Sabrina Strings. One of the chapters that I’m writing in the ebook What We’ve Learned is about fatphobia and how, during the pandemic, there’s been a whole narrative about gaining weight in quarantine. Already our society is so obsessed with dieting and all of that. So I got that book to learn more about the anti-Black and racial origins of fatphobia. It’s interesting to me, how we perceive people’s bodies and the moral judgments we place on them, even though they’re nobody’s business. It’s just so ingrained in our society.
One last question — what was the best book you read last year?
Back to Black by Kehinde Andrews. I don’t often read non-fiction, and because my brain is always so full of anti-racism stuff, I don’t usually want to read extra books about it. But Back to Black was a really cool message to young activists of how to reclaim the radical roots of activism and inspiration from the Black Panthers and pan-Africanism.
Oh, I also read one of my favourite books ever — it’s called The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs, by Stephen L. Brusatte. I’ve never thought a book could make talking about paleontology for like 300 pages feel like a story, but it was amazing.