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In Conversation With Sierra Skye Gemma

TFW when the weather matches your cocktail date! It’s Sunday and sunny. I could not be happier to be joined by the warm, kind and talented Sierra Skye Gemma. She self-describes as an afternoon person. Did you know the song “Afternoon Delight” is actually just about her life? (JK.)  

We start our Caesar journeys at Tap & Barrel in Olympic Village on a sunny corner of the patio facing the seawall. Oh, Vancouver, I get it now. This is what we pay for. We order single Caesars that come with 2 peperoncini, a pepperoni stick and a slice of lime.

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Mallory, you’ve caught me at a really good time to chat. I had a life-changing experience this week. This week, I had the third most significant moment I will remember in terms of change on my world perspective.

Wow. And was it a significant moment for the positive?

Yes. I am a part of an equity and inclusion group in the creative writing community. There were some discussions going on within the community and one of those discussions was about a female writer who made a significant error in judgment related to cultural appropriation. They were called to account back when the issue happened.

From my perspective, with all of my advantages, I thought this writer was someone I looked up to for their activism, social justice, and equity and inclusion in my community. I thought, this writer is still in trouble for a past wrong? The idea of her not being able to achieve forgiveness worried me about myself and my writing. I took the discussion about this person’s mistake personally in thinking there may not be hope for me as a writer because internally, I acknowledge I’ve made my own mistakes.

Right, there’s anxiety for artists surrounding making an error in judgment.

I sent an email response to the committee and a woman of colour on the committee responded to me saying that I am privileged to be upset while she feels her and other POC’s have to easily forgive and forget and accommodate white people’s feelings. My anger and reactions are a form of privilege.

The concept of what she said hit me so hard. It reminded me of when I was in an unhealthy relationship where the man I was with would go into black-out rage episodes where he would rage against me and say hurtful things then come back and collect himself, and not remember the raging.

That must have been really confusing and scary.

And whenever I would stand up for myself or at times express my own anger, he’d tell me “Calm Down, Sierra.” Then it occurred to me: why did he feel he was the only one allowed to be angry? I have anger too.

So that email exchange with that committee member resonated with you because the idea of who can own which emotion at which time is an issue you’ve encountered before, but in a very different context?

Yes, so she basically invited me to look at my privileges, the fact that I get to be angry. That really hit me because it made me feel that women of colour have the lens of an abusive relationship, not with just a partner or a specific person, but with a whole society. The whole world gets to tell them they don’t get the privilege to be angry.

So what feelings went through you when you read the email from her?

I felt feelings of empathy and shame. For example, coming to terms with that we all live in a rape culture and we are all participating whether we mean to or not. Not that all men are bad, it’s that we live in a culture that allows and belittles rape. So with this particular correspondence, I had a realization of me living and participating in a white supremacist society.

Right. We are part of this oppression.

We are part of it. I knew it always in an intellectual way, but that day, that email, I felt it in my bones and I realized how I was participating.

Then I got in touch with my old co-host from a reading series we did and I asked her how many black readers we had over the past years we ran the series. There would have been around 30 readers in total. None, she confirmed with me. None of them were black. We had one reader who publicly identifies as biracial. But that was all.

It’s not accidental. It’s not purposeful exclusion but statistically, we misrepresented our community.  I felt how was participating in racial oppression. So that really affected me. If we aren’t consciously making efforts to be inclusive, the result is hurtful to the ones you leave out. We need a strong, sustained effort to be inclusive in Can Lit. And that correspondence gave me a profound world-view shift.

And how did this shift feel?

I thought, who has the privilege of being angry? White men. And their anger is taken seriously and is acted upon. White women’s anger is rarely taken seriously and only sometimes acted upon. And women of colour, their anger isn’t taken seriously nor acted upon.

I told the woman in an email, thank you for taking the actual extra emotional and physical labour in writing that response to me. I know it is exhausting.

Yes, that’s work for her. Like explaining feminism or sexism to someone. It takes work.

And she did that work for me. And I thanked her. And it’s made a profound impact on me. I felt like her reaction and words were a gift.

Neal Brennan, a writer for the Dave Chappelle show, has a special called 3 Mics and on this special, he talks about how white people tell black people in the US to get over slavery. Saying it happened so long ago. If slavery had happened to white guys, we’d live it, talk about it, breath it, remember it every single day.

And no!, black Americans still have a right to be angry about what happened. It still impacts their daily lived experiences.

Right. And aside from systemic racism instilled by that painful history, I also believe in inherited trauma. If trauma is part of your history, it’s a part of your story and lens today.

Absolutely. I did my undergrad in history and sociology at UBC, which was a weird experience—learning this is how we’ve fucked up and this is how we are still fucking up! I come from a very poor family and I feel classism very acutely.

And you were born in America?

Yes. And I have Canadian citizenship now, too. I remember reading an article in one of my sociology classes about how the American Dream is complete bullshit. The upward mobility we are made to believe in doesn’t exist. Statistically, 90% of people in the US will be as financially secure as their parents or slightly worse.

No one has access to the American Dream.

And for me, being able to go to University was a privilege I had because I married a Canadian and there’s lower tuition fees compared to the US.

True. And even then, they’re still unjustly expensive.

I was able to get a University education.

Two degrees!

Yes, I never thought I was going to be able to do that. Some people may dream that one day they hope to win the lottery. For me, I dreamt of going to post-secondary school. My parents were super, super religious so they didn’t value education.

They were Jehovah’s Witnesses?

Yes. They thought the apocalypse was coming and education was a waste of time. That conversion was the purpose of life. So when I read that article in sociology class, I cried because I felt a real lack of hope. It doesn’t matter how hard I work or how much education I get, I will always be poor. Statistics say that. And I realized that’s why we have a complacent society because everyone wants to set themselves apart and make it big. Break free and achieve the American Dream.

We’ve talked about applying the lenses of race and class in how we see things. It is work to apply those different lenses and to critically think but I want to do the work and many of us do. I get sad when I realize how many aren’t doing that work, going for passivity instead.

It takes work. There is a course I was just informed about online called Unlearning Toxic Whiteness. I’m going to take that class and I am really excited. It’s a 10-week online training program for white people committed to racial justice.

Oh, that’s awesome. It’s helpful to have resources to help us learn and listen harder.

Yes, especially when we are in a community  surrounded by people who are very strong and good at story-telling and who care about the stories they tell.

Your story-telling, Sierra, is so cinematic and sharp.

God, it goes through so much editing. So much work to achieve the end result.

Well, I do think we have different types of vocabulary, distinct inner voice shifts. The colloquial and the written. And for one person, myself included, those two will really differentiate strongly and it’s surprising, but true.

True, when talking I do a lot of false starts. Lots of “ums” and “likes!”

Me too with the “likes.” I wish there was an app that counted them in your day-to-day.

Like a Fit-Bit but for likes on your mouth? BRB gonna go build an app!

(We didn’t do that. We kept drinking)

I never think of myself as a tactile person. I’m not overly crafty or hands-on but with writing, we are mechanically putting our hands to work in connection with our brains and quickly, innately typing. It can be fast. Furious momentum. I always forget that. That it is a physical act. Motor to brain.

I do a lot of mind-writing. I do many drafts in my head before I put it on paper. I don’t do that many paper-drafts but when I do, I find they’re extreme. I am a 1 draft person or a 40 draft person. Depends. So when I do sit down to write, it is fiendish!

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And I can be in pain. It hurts. And at weird hours. 6am to 1am. When I am invested in a project, I’ll write until I get muscle issues in my neck and back and I’ll get nerve pain in my arm. When I’m in the zone on a particular project.

Mind-writing! That’s so cool. Do you find it hard, process-wise, to be around people when you’re in that stage?

I have supportive friends who are amazing writers. And my partner is great. I hit the jackpot with him.

He seems great.

He’s so kind and patient, self-aware and also open to feedback and change.

And you guys take nice selfies together.

I do have to force him to take selfies with me.

Well you went into that relationship with a lot of selfie wisdom.

Selfie-actualization.

***

After polishing off our caesars, we stroll down the seawall and over to Bodega, a nice indoor refresh from booze in the sun. Bodega is adorably decorated—really inviting and quaint. Air-conditioned. Easy-listening music. Great tapas. And beautiful caesars with a choice of tequila or vodka.

Tequila please!

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This Caesar is so red and good. Better than the last one. A deeper tomato flavor.

Look at this—we have olives, prosciutto AND shrimp. Shramps! Very generous!

Agreed. So, what are you writing right now?

I got a grant to work on a piece on sexual assault on university campuses. I thought I would use my own experience in a recent sexual assault investigation, but upon the advice from a lawyer, they suggested using too much of my personal experience would be unsafe for me. So now I have to rethink my approach for the piece.

I don’t want to say the project was set back. It is just more difficult than I anticipated it would be. It’s not as ready as I hoped it would be by now. I’m not satisfied with it on a personal level and will continue to work on it. But that’s not new to me—there are some pieces I started three years ago I am still working on. My process is slow. I’m proud of the pieces I write but they take me a long time.

That long-term process must make you lose motivation at times.

Yes. Motivation is the hardest part of writing.

And you had a stressful year where it was probably very hard to write.

Well, when the whole Can-Lit Dumpster Fire of November 2016 happened, at that point, I hadn’t been able to write for a year already. And then there were veiled threats on Twitter from established writers kind of warning emerging writers with a different stance than theirs to be quiet or careful. And to see writers with power using their voices to silence people was absolutely devastating.

So I responded on Twitter to one of these writers with an epic, long response and I didn’t realize until after that, that was the longest piece I’d written in awhile. Even though it was just on Twitter, it felt like a real act of writing, an act I’d really missed.

I find a stream of Tweets like that almost take on a poetic quality. And you were in the Globe and Mail to speak as a complainant in the UBC creative writing sexual assault case.

Yes, and I had no idea there would be so much backlash and hurt from me doing that. It was way worse than I imagined. Men’s Right’s Activists online threatened to kill me and my family. I really had no idea how misogynistic and disgusting and violent the reaction from that article would be.

Yes, and you’re not alone in feeling that. It was horrifying to a lot of us the way everything unfolding and the way survivors were treated.

There were so many absurd cruel comments made about the complainants. Some of them were obviously directed toward me. I bet her son grows up to kill prostitutes or women like her! Another one was That bitch needs a bullet in the face! And I think it was important for letter-signers of UBC Accountable to realize that this was the result of what they had done. This is what they’re perpetuating—extreme misogyny and violence.

I think when that letter came out, we all realized the values of some of our literary heroes and the misguidedness of our own industry. It’s been painful to boycott writers that helped shape me into the writer I am today, but I am doing so and will continue to do so. The weight of taking books by those writers off the shelf, the physical weight and size of them all piled together, was emotional for me.

I know of a local bookstore who sells used books that said that so many people brought in books from those authors after the letter was released.

And on the other side of this, there were lots of specific individuals and writers who were working hard through all of this to do the right thing.

There was and still is a lot of hard work being done to heal this community. Listening and healing take work and I know when you are able to hit the ground running with your piece, it will be wonderful. Stories and research we need to hear.

***

We pay our bills and take the bus up to Nomad, a joint with great cocktails located in Mount Pleasant. The sun is at its peak for the day and we sit on the patio that’s half inside/half outside the restaurant. The Caesars here come with a nice peppery, spicy rim and two pickled beans. Sierra was so excited for beans!

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This is the denouement of our Caesars.

Finally achieved your “character goals.” But like, what do you want in this story? Beans!

So in your award-winning Globe and Mail essay, My Sexual Education, you mention a lot of how to teach and talk to your teenage son about sex.

Yes. Masturbation, for example, we talk about freely. I’ve always told him it’s healthy and normal.

That’s good. It is healthy and normal. I feel like young people often don’t have that support to feel like they can talk about sex or their bodies changing.

Masturbation feels good and everyone should do it. But I was unsure how to talk to my son about pornography, which statistically, most people his age are consuming. So I googled how to talk to your child about porn and the results were very disappointing.

Zero results?

Two kinds of results—Pray with your son to resist the temptation of the devil. And the other one was the scenario of your son or daughter accidentally looking at pornography one time.

Accidentally?

Yeah, riiight. And I wanted to be realistic about this. People watch porn. Young people are watching porn.

And there are violent depths to porn.

Right, I wasn’t worried about him looking at naked bodies. But I thought if there’s nothing good online as a resource for parents in regards to pornography, I was just going to have to write that.

So you worked on that essay at The Banff Centre.

And it took a lot of research. I had to have a draft done before I even arrived there. At the core, I knew what direction I wanted it to go in but I went beyond the scope research-wise than what actually got published.

There are a lot of different angles to approach the issue of young people looking at porn.

I read a lot of court cases of kids getting charged for child pornography for sharing nude photos of their boyfriends or girlfriends. That’s just one example. I read a lot of different sociological studies as well and had to consolidate those statistics.

Victor Dwyer, the editor of the Globe and Mail, was the person I worked with at Banff and he helped me decide to keep my angle more personal. Victor was also the editor for the piece once it was accepted by the Globe and Mail. It’s funny, he had just been transferred to the Focus section right before my piece was assigned to him. So he already knew it inside and out!

So you write relentlessly for a month, you have a first draft, and then go to Banff.

Yes, so when I got there, the director of the literary journalism program at The Banff Centre gave me feedback that the piece didn’t sound like my other work. It was too technical. Lacking heart. It was too sanitized.

Did you agree with him?

Oh yes. The piece needed guidance and more of me. More heart.

So it got saturated with facts and you lost your voice.

Yes, exactly! So I worked with Victor to make it better. My next draft was almost double the word count but way better and then we had to scale back again.

Because in that program at Banff, they’re trying to support you to make it a publishable word count, a succinct length.

Yes. And the director helped me get the piece into The Globe and Mail.

The trajectory of that piece is amazing. From the pain and experience of your abusive childhood to your personal life as a mother to societal structure and a lack of sexual education for young people. It’s very vast.

And the help of my editor really helped shape that trajectory. Editors know what readers want to read. That piece would never have won the National Newspaper Award without the strength of my editor.

So you and your son were also in a piece where you interview him on SAD Mag as well as an interview on CBC radio.

He’s an artist and writer too. He was so articulate and amazing on CBC. More than I was!

That’s where you go—”Yep, I made that person!” and you don’t have to speak at all!

I always say Create the change you want to see in the world with your vagina.

How does he feel about having a mom who is a writer?

He is very open about my writing and me writing about sex. And he’s so funny. One time he raised out his two arms to me and said hey mom, see how much stronger my right forearm is than my left? You know why? And I reached out my arms and said see how much stronger MY right forearm is than my left?

You guys have such a unique parent-child relationship and it’s so different than what a lot of us grew up with because for you, there’s no fear or judgment to talk about sexuality and sexual health.

A lot of adults treat kids condescendingly and I’ve always refused to do that. And I know of a lot of parents are against being friends with their kids and I do agree with that to a certain extent. I am a guide for my child.

And an authority figure.

Exactly. But at the same time, I think you can be there for your kids the way you are for your friends in a nonjudgmental way and also guide them without condescension.

And maybe sometimes you don’t always know what to say to him?

In those cases, I tell him honestly, that I don’t know. Sometimes there are things I am not better at dealing with than him. Things are still new to me too sometimes. And it really is hard being a teenager and no one acknowledges how hard that is except for other teenagers.

There is a lack of empathy for teens in society. And I notice in the media, we really mock teenagers for their hormones or their appearances or their behaviours. It’s often so satirical.

I tell my son, if things feel like they really suck, you are not being overly emotional or hyperbolic. Things can be really hard when you’re a teen and it’s real.

In your Sad Mag interview, your son mentions that sometimes socially he feels like he’s performing, or only showing fragments of himself and that resonated with me intensely. If I think back to my own high school days. I don’t miss the experience of performative socializing. I found that exhausting.

And I want my son to know it gets better. You just have to wait out this tough phase.

And what has he been up to with his art and interests?

He’s in the Kitsilano Secondary Film Studies program and they are doing a TV series. They show a couple episodes every Thursday at the Rio Theatre or in the high school and it is really good. And entertaining. I am so impressed with the overall production in every way. It’s cool as a writer, to watch scenes of my son’s work and I’ll be able to pick out his voice even in a collaborative project.

Pieces of his personality coming out in a collective way.

Yes, I have a teenage son who is a critical thinker, a good communicator and he is comfortable expressing himself. And I really want to help him learn to make good decisions for himself. Teenagers are such interesting people who get shit on so often by authority and the media. Teenagers are the hope of the future. If any group of humans is going to save the planet, it’s going to be this generation of young people.  I do think it’s going to be millennials.

Millennials care so much and we sometimes have trouble channeling our empathy. But we are a collective generation. I find it so misguided that we get the selfish rep a lot.

I know and I have to ask—who is actually more selfish? A generation who takes selfies or a generation who actively destroys the environment for profit?

 

We finish the last of our drinks. We take a well-lit selfie. Sierra, I enjoyed our afternoon so much. On the inside and outside, you are vibrant and genuine. You are an important pillar in this community and I am so glad we could chat today!

 

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Sierra’s Caesar ratings:

 

Tap & Barrel:

Taste: 3/5 (not rich enough)

Rim: 4/5

Garnish: 5/5

Patio/Atmosphere: 5/5

 

Bodega:

Taste: 5/5

Rim: 5/5

Garnish: 6/5 AMAZING.

Patio/Atmosphere: 5/5

 

Nomad:

Taste: 4/5

Rim: 5/5

Garnish: 3/5

Patio/Atmosphere: 5/5

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Sierra Skye Gemma is an award-winning writer and journalist. She is the recipient of a National Magazine Award for Best New Magazine Writer and a National Newspaper Award for Long Feature. Sierra has been listed in contests with House of Anansi Press and Room and has won literary contests sponsored by The New Quarterly and Rhubarb.

Sierra’s non-fiction has been published in The Globe and MailThe New Quarterly, The Vancouver SunThe Vancouver Observer, WestCoast Families, Plenitude Rhubarb, and elsewhere. Her work has been anthologized in the Best Canadian Essays 2013, Boobs: Women Explore What It Means to Have Breasts, and Rock is Not Dead: Short Fiction Inspired by Rock Music.

Sierra has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia. She resides in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada with her son.

https://sierraskyegemma.com/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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