Reading Time: Less than 7 mins.
Synopsis: Chanel M. Sutherland is Explorance’s Director of Product Marketing and has made countless contributions to the company over her six years as an Explorer. This September, she was awarded the much-coveted CBC Nonfiction Prize, one of Canada’s best-known annual literary prizes, for her short story ‘Umbrella’. Explorance spoke to Chanel on what inspired her to write, her goals and inspirations, and what she has planned next.
Hi Chanel! Congratulations on the award. It’s been a little over a month since you’ve received it. How has the experience been for you?
The prize was definitely a surprise when I learned that I won it! I was not expecting that.
When I entered the competition, winning was not the intention. I’ve entered CBC literary competitions before, and each time the goal was just to make the long list – as in the Top 30. That itself is an accomplishment.
The way they (the CBC) reveal it is there is a buildup. You learn that you made the long list, and then it builds up and you learn you have made the shortlist, which is the Top Five, and then that you’re the winner.
I knew a bit in advance that I was the winner, and they do it that way so they can prepare the winner’s interview and the package for media coverage that comes with it.
However, there’s always that doubt, right? They told me that I won, and I still didn’t believe it for a time.
You mentioned that you’ve made several entries into this award competition over the years. How long have you been devoting time towards writing as a craft and what inspired you?
I grew up in a small village in (the Caribbean island-nation of) Saint Vincent. Growing up, we didn’t have access to a lot of toys or books or anything like that. My grandmother was raising four grandchildren and she was an amazing storyteller. She would tell us stories to keep us entertained after dinner. Naturally, there were a lot of Bible stories, but I remember hearing stories like ‘Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves’.
I’ve always wanted to be a storyteller just because I thought my grandmother was brilliant. Even at that young age, I was taking stories she told us and adding my own twist to them. She did that herself, adding little twists to stories to keep them interesting and keep us entertained.
That’s how it started. For a long time, it was all in my head. I was not writing anything down. I only starting writing stories in my late teens, after a teacher handed me Maya Angelou’s ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’. I was inspired to write by Maya’s story. It was a similar story to my own – she was raised by her grandmother – but happening in a different place. That’s where that spark was ignited for me – “Oh, people write about this stuff!”
This story, ‘Umbrella’, was written in a tumultuous year for everyone, with the pandemic and social distancing. And then there was the Black Lives Matter movement that was happening across the world, and that brought back a lot of memories for me.
In the story you provide a specific cultural perspective – the protagonist has immigrated from a different culture to Canada and is in this difficult period of adapting – but you’re also presenting a social situation that so many people can relate to. So many people can remember being young and not having the friends you should have – of clinging to any sort of relationship that you can while you’re in school. Did you specifically decide to write it in a way that would appeal to anyone who’s been in that tough social situation as a young person?
I think I did write it with the intention that, regardless of who reads it, they can relate. I’m aware that this isn’t a unique experience by any means. So, even if the story helps just one person, that would be a big win for me.
One of the things about the story is that it can happen to anyone. Take anyone from any country and put them in as my character, Nelly – and the story still works.
It’s incredible, I’ve had people from different cultures, different countries, and different age groups reach out to say that they had a similar experience.
For me, it was very important that whatever I wrote did two things. First of all, it had to be authentic to the 15-year-old me, and that meant the narrative voice had to be a 15-year-old voice. I needed to write it from her perspective and emotions.
I also didn’t want it to be too focused on the fact that she was from a specific country. I wanted Nelly to be anybody and everybody in a way.
When I write my stories, whether fiction or nonfiction, I try to make sure that almost anyone who reads them can relate in a similar way, especially when it’s about a real experience.
There is a great portrayal of the significance of the in-between-ness of peoples’ actions in this story. There’s a focus on peoples’ gestures and actions that portray a lot about them, sometimes even more so than words. Is that something that you’re naturally attuned to, as a person?
I think, naturally, as a writer I do pay attention. It’s one of the things you need to do if you want to write real, vivid characters and stories – you have to pay attention.
Given the fact that I have experienced racism and microaggression throughout my childhood and my entire life really, I can’t help but notice those in-between actions or in-betweens of people’s words. A lot of times, there are things going on behind peoples’ words.
I do tend to pick up on that, and then of course, I do ask myself – am I reading too much into it? Does this person need to be told? Are they deliberately trying to hurt or offend me? So, there is some processing that goes on in my brain at that point. Do I approach that person? Do I let this go?
Most of the time, I choose to just walk away. There have been many instances where I’ve tried to talk to someone about something offensive they’ve said. More often than not their response is, “I didn’t mean it that way” or “you’re reading into things.” And then I become the person creating a problem.
Sometimes there’s anger there, or sadness, sometimes I’m just neutral, and I choose to ignore it. More times than not, I choose to ignore it, which is not always the right thing to do, but I’m not an expert in how to deal with such things as racism and microaggressions. People are only now starting to talk about them openly.
The story follows an interesting arc. My interpretation regarding the ending is that the main character seems to be somewhat empowered, but the context just seems so wrong, and the resolution is hanging in the balance. Was it purposely written in that way, to reject a clear resolution?
It’s funny, people have put their own interpretations on it. I certainly didn’t intend it to be empowering, but I think the final action of Nelly, in keeping the two other characters waiting, was for herself – she literally took back some control.
Regarding the ending, I wanted to leave it that hanging. Anything could happen from that point onwards. There’s some universe where the two main characters go on to become friends, maybe Dee learns something and becomes a better person, or the friendship ends at that point. I know what happened, but if someone was reading it and found themselves in a similar situation, what I would say is that it’s not meant to be a judgement on their decision.
As you mentioned, there’s been a great response to the story, and it’s been your first big break. How have people responded to it?
In Saint Vincent we have a population of 100,000 people, and it seems like almost everyone there knows about it! I’ve spoken to the newspapers and made a lot of connections with people back home. That is really nice, especially when you are away from your country like I am. Whenever I speak to anyone, I just try to make it clear that it all started in the village where I was born in Saint Vincent.
As for my family, it’s funny because my Mom, Stepdad, and my sisters weren’t surprised at all. That was really surprising to me. I don’t say that to be boastful, but because I’m still not convinced that my story was the best of the top five, but I guess that’s a bit of the imposter syndrome we feel as writers. But, there were some stunning stories on the short list.
Maybe you can’t really judge something creative or artistic you’ve created, because just too close to it?
Yeah, maybe. I haven’t read the story in a while because I got fed up with finding flaws in it. Even after it was published on CBC, I was editing it. Now, I’ve put it away. I won’t read it for a while until I’ve fully soaked up this incredible moment. It’s a unique situation that’s once in a lifetime.
It’s not just non-fiction you’re interested in though – you also have an interest in other genres, including sci-fi! Are there any works in that genre that you’ve been enjoying over the past year?
Yeah, I’ve written more sci-fi stories than I have non-fiction stories!
I very much love Asimov and lots of other Sci-Fi authors. Recently, I’ve really enjoyed ‘The Three-Body Problem’, by Chinese writer Liu Cixin. It’s a very interesting, very involved sci-story that was translated into English and recommended to me by a colleague.
You’ve given us a taste of what you’re capable of with this story. Ideally, this award will also open up a bigger platform for you. Do you have anything planned for your next publication, and can you give us an insight into how you write and create?
Yes, I’m writing a collection of interconnected short stories that deal with the Caribbean immigrant experience. I think there’s a lack of Caribbean voices in the Canadian literature scene. There are some stories certainly, but there can be more.
As for my process, I’m still figuring it out. Sometimes I can sit at my computer and pound out a story in three hours. Some days, I just stare at a blank screen or page for hours. What I’m trying now is 25-minute writing sprints throughout the day, until it adds up to two hours. It relieves some of the pressure, but there’s also the urgency to produce something in those 25 minutes. Added to that, I don’t work with an outline, I free write mostly.
Honestly, I think writing a short story is harder than a longer one. With a longer story, you have more space. Usually, I try to keep my short stories below 5000 words, and I’ll edit – even if I’m not supposed to – I’ll edit as you I write. It’s a more difficult form of writing for me personally.
Would you have any words of advice for anyone at Explorance – or anywhere – who is considering getting more serious with writing? Be it fiction or non-fiction?
I think the most important thing is to write. You’re not going to get anywhere until you do, but also get your stories out there. I spent a lot of time writing for myself and my small group of friends, but not really getting it in front of readers who can give you feedback.
So, I think swallow your fear and just get your work out there. You’re never going to be totally satisfied with it, but you miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.
The other thing is to network with other writers. That’s been a very valuable part of my process. People see things you don’t. Network, and have that support group around you.