Based on her 2015 Vice article, “London, Ontario was a Racist Asshole to Me,” Eternity Martis wrote a memoir of her time in college, They Said This Would be Fun, which comes out this March 31. The book follows Martis’ time at Western University and the racism and sexism she experienced there. This is not a book about one time or place, though. The systemic issues and lack of formal policy to bring stories like hers to light are widespread. Martis writes about the body in stressful and harmful times, boyfriends gone so wrong they dip into Greek tragedy, and separates the chapters with pithy interstitials named “The Necessary Survival Guide for Token Students.” Her memoir dives into friendship, family connection and growing up as a woman. It is her first of a two-book deal with McClelland & Stewart. In this interview, Columbia Journal’s Online Translation Editor Stephanie Philp caught up with her over the phone. Eternity Martis is an award-winning Toronto-based journalist and editor whose work has been featured in The Huffington Post, VICE, Chatelaine, Canadaland, Salon, CBC, Hazlitt, The Walrus, The Ryerson Review of Journalism, J-Source, Xtra, The Fader, Complex and many more.
Tell me a bit about how this book got started.
I’ve been writing this book on and off for ten years. When I moved to London, Ontario, I almost immediately started experiencing subtle, ignorant racism that I had never experienced before. I’d go back home and I’d tell family and friends and they’d be like “What! That doesn’t make sense,” or “Maybe you’re exaggerating.” And as the behaviour in London started going from ignorant to more malicious and people back home started believing me less and less, I thought okay I need to start writing this down. No one was talking about it! I started keeping track of people saying, “oh, you’re funny for a Black person” or making comments about my hair. I wrote them down on scraps of paper, thinking I might put them in a blog. That didn’t feel right so then I tried to write a play in my third year and that didn’t feel right, and then in my fourth year at Western I was doing a certificate in writing and the end of the course was a major project. I chose to write a book proposal.
How did you keep track of these stories?
That’s funny you ask because I’m going to do a video on this. I have an accordion folder full of scraps of paper and pages from my notebooks I wrote while I was in class at Western. Some of it was on my computer, some of it I workshopped in a course, some of it was in voice memos. When I really started writing, during my masters of journalism at Ryerson, I had massive piles of paper that I tried to put into one document. I had 64 chapters when I started.
Can you tell me about opening up as a survivor of assault and intimate partner violence?
I struggled to write it even though we are in this #MeToo moment, because there’s so much stigma and so much fear of talking about sexual assault—even when there are other people talking about it. You worry about what people will think of you. When I was writing the book I was worried about dealing with questions like, “Why did you stay so long?” or “Why did you drink so much?” Questions I didn’t know if I could handle. But I felt like it was really important to be open. Writing about it was a way for me to put my story out there and work through it and also help other people who weren’t in a position yet to speak their own truths.
In this book, you capture how your body is affected by what you are experiencing. I’m thinking of lines like, “How could I be comfortable in a space where my presence not only made men want to sexualize me but hurt me too?” and “To be a Black woman today means to live in constant awareness of your body.”
This book is about race, but to me the book is mostly about the body. It’s about what the body goes through in stressful and harmful times and also what the body is capable of. At the time I was writing I was constantly contending with my body, being a Black woman, not being able to leave my doorstep without hearing sexually racist comments, not knowing if someone wanted to date me because I was a Black woman and they wanted to check me off their bucket list—which had happened many times. My body was growing as a young woman at the same time I became a victim of sexual and physical assault. Then I had to deal with the effects of racism on the body. In Canada I don’t think that we’ve done enough research—though there are some great researchers doing this work—about the health effects of racism and sexism on the body. A lot of this book is me deteriorating. I had self-destructive habits, I felt alienated in my body after bad relationships and becoming a racial novelty for men. All these things had an impact on the body itself, on my mental health. I don’t think I set out to write a book about the body but to me that’s really what it is.
There is also a lot of humor in this book. What does humor mean for you and your writing?
I didn’t want this book to become another book about Black pain or trauma porn. It’s a huge opportunity to be able to have a book about my life published, especially by McClelland & Stewart, which is part of Penguin Randomhouse Canada, but I didn’t want it to just be about pain. Sometimes it feels like stories are only picked up when they are about pain and suffering. I think there is so much Black joy that doesn’t get spoken about. One thing that makes Black people and other people of color resilient is that they’re able to laugh and poke fun at themselves and poke fun at what’s happening. I wanted that humor to be there, to be like, “hey look this shit that’s happening is terrible, but let’s laugh about it and let’s not take it so harshly.” The interstitials about being a token on campus is a different tone than the rest of the book. It’s tongue in cheek and very bold and dry, and that was supposed to replicate the kind of conversations that people of color have with their friends about these situations. I wanted it to be a book that makes you think, but also makes you laugh.
How has it been working with your editor Haley Cullingham?
It’s been really great working with Haley. She’s the kind of editor that is very in tune with the work. Her edits are very gentle, she offers suggestions that don’t force you to take them. She’s also really opened my eyes to narrative flow and helped me decide what to include and what not to include. Every edit with her feels like you’re going deeper and deeper into a piece. One thing I’m very grateful to her for is keeping in a lot of the family stuff. When I was writing the book I felt like it was going too long into my family and my childhood but she was able to offer an opinion that I hadn’t thought of: that people love stories about families, people love to see themselves in other people’s families. A lot of feedback I’ve gotten from the book is like, “I love your grandfather!” He’s a fan favorite now. I wouldn’t have been able to do that if it wasn’t for Haley. She got me thinking outside of my own head, outside of what I thought the book was.
I’m wondering about some of the formal choices you made in the book, particularly the interstitials, the Greek tragedy chapter and the letter to Joshua, an ex-boyfriend who crossed many lines. How did these come about?
As a journalist, I’m used to hearing, “you have to kill your darlings.” The interstitials were the only darlings I refused to kill. They actually started as a chapter and what you see in the page breaks is that chapter broken up. I didn’t want to let go of it, no matter how many drafts we had. Haley suggested we try it as an interstitial, like in Scaachi Koul’s book One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter where she has screenshots of conversations with her father. We decided sections would break up the book, add some humor and a different tone, that it would work there.
For the Greek tragedy chapter, I don’t know what possessed me…it just felt like the more that I wrote about it the more I saw that it all followed Greek tragedy, which at the time I was reading. It’s great to have a book of all one format but I wanted to experiment a little bit and having that added some humor to the situation. I think all of us can write about bad boyfriends but by formatting that way it was easy to understand why it was bad.
The Joshua chapter is the chapter I struggled with the most. I had been writing and re-writing the chapter longer than anything else in the book. It just didn’t feel right to write it the way that I had written the rest of the book, which is kind of like a show-and-tell. I didn’t want to villainize him because I think that we were young and villainizing anyone without admitting your own faults isn’t really effective. I didn’t want to sound like I was blaming him. I wanted something intimate and I think about a week before my final deadline it came to me to write a letter. I was going through my basement and realized I had some letters that I had written to him that I’d never sent just as an exercise to work through it and I thought what if I write it as a letter? It allowed me to get at what I really wanted to say without it being bogged down in detail and description.
You mention near the end of the book that writing, in itself, is an act of resistance. Can you tell me more about that?
When I was a student I spent a lot of time feeling down about the world and about what was going on. One of the things that always made me feel better was reading other people’s stories. In particular reading theory: bell hooks, Audre Lorde. That really helped me get through things. These words were part of a whole public record of knowledge. I think for me, especially right now, writing is resistance as a woman, as a woman of color, it’s about having your story on record at a time when so many of us are being silenced. It feels like the silencing and harassing and doxing just for speaking up is happening because there’s so much fear about what our words and stories could do to the status quo and the systems in place.
I open and close the book with a quote that’s been attributed to Zora Neale Hurston: “If you’re silent about your pain they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” I think that especially for women right now, there’s so much fear and wanting to be silent because our speaking is met with resistance. I hope that by writing this the resistance would be that though it is scary to write about race, and scary to write about being a woman and all these things my writing could spark someone else to share their story and that might spark a greater movement where no one can be silenced.
You have a two-book deal, can you give us a sneak preview of what’s to come?
I’ve heard a lot of advice that the best thing to do while waiting for your book to come out is to write the next one. So I’m going to start thinking about that very soon.
You can pre-order They Said This Would be Fun here.