Pushing Past the Fear of Writing Nonfiction—By Chanel M. Sutherland

The trees of St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

If I’m being completely honest, writing nonfiction terrifies me. 

But recently, I’ve felt compelled to write the truth.

To write the stories that have shaped the trajectory of my life and—as if that wasn’t enough—have lodged themselves into my creative conscience, demanding to be told at all costs.

It started with a single story, “Umbrella,” that I wrote out of pure exigency two years ago. 2020 was a heavy year for many reasons. The world became saturated with personal stories and confessions. Everywhere I turned—social media sites, the news, books, conversations with friends—people spoke out about their experiences with various kinds of discrimination and violence. 

Suddenly, I found myself confronted by my own memories. They rose out of the trenches of my mind like shadows growing bolder in my darkest hours. They wanted to be written.

Before, if you had asked anyone who knew me as a writer, they would have told you that my stories mainly deal with the unreal or unproven: futuristic robots, aliens walking around in human skin, scarecrows climbing down from their perch to seek revenge on those who impinge on their domains. This is the realm of storytelling where I feel most at home. One can argue that I write these stories to stay detached from real life.

I had spent more than two decades circumnavigating my memories and deferring the day when I’d have to finally write about them. When they began to emerge unprompted, I knew my time had come. For the first time in a long while, I found myself turning away from speculative fiction to write something that made me uncomfortable. Nonfiction.

“Umbrella” is the second nonfiction story I have ever written and the only piece I have shared with readers. Perhaps it is short and breathy for that reason. A panic attack on paper. When it won the 2021 CBC Nonfiction Prize, not only was I surprised, I was frantic. 

Was I ready to expose myself in this way?

The simple answer was no, but I’ve since learned that nothing is ever simple when it comes to writing. If it were, it would hardly be worth it.

It became clear that nonfiction had chosen me, and I had no choice but to take the plunge and see it through. Once I decided to start curating a collection of stories based on my experience as a Black Caribbean immigrant child, I faced another difficult question.

How much can I reveal about others in my stories?

In this case, the “others” were primarily my family, and without their support, I knew that I would not be able to write the collection. There were no stories without them. My mother was the catalyst for many integral moments in my childhood. My grandparents the glue that fixed the pieces together in many ways—however imperfect. 

I’ve always been a solitary writer. I prefer to be completely isolated when writing, and I usually avoid discussing any story until it is completed. With these stories, I knew there were people I needed to speak to and include from the start. 

Not only was nonfiction changing my craft, but it was also now impeding on my process.

Having that first conversation with my mom was one of the greatest moments we have shared. It was a warm autumn day; mom and I were meeting up for our weekly walk around the neighbourhood. I don’t recall how I broached the subject of writing the stories. Knowing myself, it would not have been direct.

What I do remember is the excitement mom expressed in learning that I wanted to do this. She answered any questions I had, voluntarily filled in gaps in my recollection, and even offered to help with the research. Her reaction trickled down to my sisters and aunts, and before I knew it, everyone else was on board.

I will forever cherish a messaging thread between mom, my sisters, aunts, and me. We were trying to remember the name of a tree native to St. Vincent and the Grenadines. We all knew it by a different name and had our own tales about it, but no one could figure out its one true name.

This tree became the emblem of my nonfiction endeavor. A thing from my family’s collective past that—though still elusive—we are learning more about each day from one another. 

As I continue to research and write these nonfiction stories, there is a certain sense of unshackling from the past. And while I begin to see who I am today refracting from each new piece, I am also illuminated by another light: that of my family. 

So, maybe being terrified of writing nonfiction is not such a bad thing after all.

Chanel M. Sutherland is the winner of the 2021 CBC Nonfiction Prize for her story “Umbrella” and the recipient of the 2022 Mairuth Sarsfield Mentorship, a component of the Quebec Writers’ Federation’s Fresh Pages initiative. Born in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Chanel moved to Montreal, Quebec when she was ten years old. She holds a BA in English Literature from Concordia University, and is currently writing her first book, a collection of short stories that explore the Black Caribbean immigrant experience. csuther.com

Photos: Lyn Gateley via flickr; Chanel M. Sutherland (headshot)

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