Poetry, Cyborgs and Black Exploitation Month: An Interview with Whitney French

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Whitney French is a storyteller and multi-disciplinary artist; she is a certified arts educator who has executed over 100 workshops in schools, community centres, prisons, group-homes, and First Nations reserves. Her debut collection 3 Cities was self-published in April 2012. Her writing has also been published in Descant Magazine and anthologized in The Great Black North: Contemporary African Canadian Poetry.

Whitney is the founder and co-editor and of the nation-wide publication From the Root Zine. Recently, she launched the successful workshop series Writing While Black, an initiative to develop a community of black writers. Whitney has since transformed her findings from these workshops into a travelling lecture series and has visited local and international conferences in Montreal, New York, and Pittsburgh. Her forthcoming verse-novel, O, is a sci-fi chronicling the journey of a young astronaut’s mission to find a new Earth.

To learn more about Whitney, follow her on twitter and check out the #WritingWhileBlack hashtag and Facebook page. To learn more about From the Root Zine, visit their website and twitter and Facebook pages. 


Cira: Is poetry your preferred genre of writing? Have you explored genres other than poetry?

Whitney: I love poetry. For me, writing poetry is like working with building blocks. The genre is very incremental. It allows you to break down words and place them together in unconventional and interesting ways to create something new, whether it be a new emotion, vision, image or even sound. Even though I read a lot of poetry growing up, I didn’t actually begin writing poetry until my early-twenties. I have so much love for poetry, for what it’s done for me. It’s changed my life by giving me a new set of eyes to view and interpret the world. All that said, my preferred genre of writing is actually short fiction. I’ve been writing stories my whole life, and even though I consider myself a poet, my poetry is very narrative-driven.

Cira: What are the major themes that pervade your poetry?

Whitney: I never write with specific themes in mind. I allow my narratives to dictate the themes of my writing. (For me, the story also determines the form of my writing. A piece could start as a poem, become a short story and end up as a screenplay.) Multiple themes naturally rise out of my writing. When I was writing my first poetry collection, 3 Cities, I was constantly moving between three places–Bradford, Montreal and Toronto –and didn’t have a real sense of belonging or home. Although I didn’t know it at the time, I was in a lot of pain and the book came out of that pain and longing for identity and desire for a place to settle.

Lately, I’m really interested in using poetry to portray unlikely things or images. I’ve been writing poems that bring together things that don’t belong. I recently wrote a poem about an origami crane in a dark swamp. I’m interested in contrast and how people react to contrast, whether the reader gravitates towards or rejects contrast.

Cira: Describe your writing process.

Whitney: My writing process has changed as I’ve changed. I’m always inspired by nature and by physically being in nature. I love to climb trees and used to climb trees and write on a regular basis. There is something inexplicable about being in trees that inspires me to create and to write, even if what I’m writing about has nothing to do with our natural world. I have sat in trees and wrote about cyborgs taking over the universe. The process of climbing trees also reminds me of the writing process. Both activities involve making careful choices. And being in a tree literally gives me a new perspective on reality and reminds me to step outside my everyday reality and write with fresh perspective.

But speaking more specifically about my writing process, I tend to write my first drafts by hand. If I’m stuck or trying to do something different or want to write in stream-of-consciousness, I write on my typewriter. Then I transcribe my first draft onto my computer. I love this part of the writing process. I love editing. The magic is in the editing. Writing the first draft is like running a marathon–it’s a very vigorous and aerobic process. I’m always anxious to finish the first draft so that I can edit and see if the piece is any good.

Cira: What inspires your writing?

Whitney: I always draw inspiration from people, from people's stories. I also take inspiration from odd things I see. I used to commute everyday from Bradford and Toronto. I spent, on average, 20 hours a week commuting. I would look out the window, waiting to see strange things. I like to write about strange moments or images that can easily be overlooked. For instance, one time I saw a man passing a BBQ tank over a fence, which is an image that made its way into 3 Cities.  

Cira: What poets do you read? Who inspires you to write?

Whitney: I just devoured three books by Octavia Butler. I’m obsessed with her right now. It’s the ten year anniversary of her passing. As someone coming from a black, afro-diasporic community, I need to be conscious of those who came before me. Octavia’s spirit is influencing me, and I see it as my responsibility to read her stories in a very particular way.

I recently read Yannick Marshall’s Old Friend, We Made This For You. I also re-read Yeats not too long ago. I first read Yeats when I was 19. I didn’t understand the significance of all the gyres and the chrysanthemum. Now I read it as cyber-punk, as coming from a futurist lens.

Another poet I really admire is Claire De. She’s a Montreal-based poet who wrote a book of haikus called The Sparrow Has Cut the Day in Half: A Pointillist Novel. The book is organized like a novel in that all of the haikus come together to form a story; and yet, each haiku also stands on its own. I can read the whole book in a day and just weep or I can just Russian roulette it and just take in one at a time.  

Cira: Your poems are politically charged. How do you see poetry as capable of bringing about political change?

Whitney: A part of me wants to say, “all poetry is political!” and that as a black woman in a western, racist, white supremacist society, everything I do is political. When I first started performing, my audience wanted inspiring, rage-filled, political poems. I felt that my audience wanted me to rise up as a spokesperson for various political topics. But if I’m true to myself, I don’t actively try to write political poems. I’ve written poems about black bodies being killed in the street, but these poems come out of emotional, personal states. I think the political and personal is a false dichotomy–my personal life becomes political when I’m most authentic and honest with myself.  

Cira: Your poem “Thirty Percent Off” was published in the the Body Issue, of From the Root. The poem’s speaker is a black woman who has undergone cyborg transformation, a transformation that physically strengthened and immortalized her. How do you see sci-fi and themes like transhumanism and postbiological evolution as an effective or powerful way to illustrate coloured people’s fight for survival, power, and autonomy?

Whitney: That’s a loaded question! I included this poem in the Body Issue because there weren’t any other poems dealing with the body and technology. I personally wouldn’t want to attach different technologies to my body, but I’m fascinated with technology and the future of technology and envisioning a digital landscape. I was interested in what a black cyborg would look like and if a black cyborg would have the upper-hand. For thousands of years, black folks have not had the upper hand on anything! But biologically speaking, black folks are of the strongest people. Imagine the strongest people benefitting from the added bonus of technology! I want to portray an alternative evolution that empowers black people, specifically women. Women naturally possess so much magic and power, and I’m interested in how technology could enhance those qualities. I’m also curious about what safety would look like for black female cyborgs who could defend themselves against male attackers. Sci-fi allows me to envision a world free of physical abuse against women.  

Cira: You are currently working on a sci-fi verse novel called O. Why do you feel drawn to sci-fi?

Whitney: I’ve always been fascinated with sci-fi. Anyone working in the medium will tell you that sci-fi is like the universe–it’s always expanding. There are no limits within sci-fi. The genre allows me to create a future with black people, to further the tradition established by Octavia Butler, Nalo Hopkinson and the entire afro-futurist movement. Afro-futurism is often criticized for not engaging with the here and now, with the current issues and oppression facing black people. But I don’t want my identity to rest  solely on oppression. Also, real life is dark and painful. Sometimes some distance, some time and space, enables me to portray black experience in a more hopeful manner.

Cira: What inspired you to start From the Root? Why was it important to you to establish a journal by women of colour for women of colour?

Whitney: When I first moved to Toronto, I was working in publishing. It became very apparent that there were very few people of colour and very few black people in the scene. I was upset. The only journal created for people of colour I knew of was Rice Paper. I knew my work didn’t fit into any of the journals I was submitting to, but I was submitting anyway and constantly facing rejection. I knew there needed to be a black literary journal in Canada. South of the border, there are countless journals and creative spaces for black people. I’m not a segregationist–I don’t think everything has to or should be separate. But it’s so important for black voices or voices of colour to come together. I felt like voices of colour weren’t being highlighted in the Canadian literary scene.

I had the opportunity to fly to BC in in 2013 and shared my dream to create a journal for women of colour with Josiane Anthony H. She is editor of the first issue of From the Root, The Hair Issue. At the time, I was still figuring out my feminism and didn’t think I was ready to start the journal. She made me realize the urgency of the project. If it weren’t for her, From the Root wouldn’t exist.

Cira: Each issue of From the Root has a specific theme. How you do determine these themes?

Whitney: A co-editor helps me with each issue and the co-editors choose the themes. Josiane chose “Hair,” Medgine Mathurin chose “Body” and Melena Roberts chose “Mind." I trust these women and think their ideas are valuable. We are a team, a collective–I could never have done this project without them.

If there are any women of colour out there who want to join our editorial team, contact me! We are looking for connections in Montreal and the Maritime provinces and even more specifically for visual art contributors and editors to help us curate the visual art component of the journal.

Cira: Can you discuss the creative workshops that you facilitate?

Whitney: I’ve been facilitated writing workshops for about seven years. I’m wildly passionate about facilitation work! I do a lot of workshops for youth-based writers and adults. But I’ve also worked with incarcerated young men and young kids. I’ve worked in schools, community centres, First Nations reserves. I’ve worked with people of so many different perspectives. I’ve also worked with people privately. I love working with people. I love story-doctoring and helping people edit.  I love investigating conflicts and characters. I apply the same rigour and intensity to other people’s work that I do to my own. I want to be as invested people’s stories as they are.

February 11 marked the one year anniversary of Writing While Black, a writing workshop series I created for black writers. If you want to learn more, check out the #WritingWhileBlack hashtag. Writing While Black came about shortly after George Zimmerman was acquitted for killing Trayvon Martin. I was filled with so much rage and felt hopeless. I was away from home at the time and needed a community. When I came back to Toronto, I decided to start the workshop. I advertised it on facebook. I expected only a few people to attend, but 40 people showed up to the first session!

Cira: Last month was Black History Month. What does BHM mean to you? Do you participate in any events?

Whitney: I often refer to February as “Black Exploitation Month." I get countless offers to speak, perform and give workshops every February. In years past, I accepted all the offers, but now I’m learning to say “no." I’m choosing to participate in the events that I feel are valuable and make me feel valued rather than exploited and tokenized.

But despite my resentment of Black History Month, I will always be that person who believes that it is important. Growing up in Bradford, my highschool didn’t acknowledge or participate in BHM. In grade 11, I asked my principal if we could participate. Without giving me any explanation, he replied, “no." In that moment, I not only felt personally devalued but like my entire culture and race was being devalued. I bothered my teachers until my principal gave in and allowed our high-school to participate.

There are many problems with BMH. To start, it seems to focus primarily on slavery, but neglects other important topics like pre-slavery, or how Canadian and American slavery were different and plantation slavery. And there is little to no focus on black futures, on where we are headed. But all that said, I do believe it is important to look back on the past. BHM will never be irrelevant, in my opinion. It is ignorant to think that we don’t need it. There is still so much work to be done. And it will always be important to me on a personal level, because I had to fight to participate in it.