In July 2020 we invited award winning author Téa Mutonji to interview Eternity Martis on her new memoir “They Said This Would Be Fun”. Below is a lightly-edited (for blog-readability) transcript of their conversation on the WOTS Toronto twitter. You can interact with that thread by clicking here.
Téa Mutonji: Welcome to the July #WOTSauthorchat! We’ll be chatting here for the next ~hour. I’m @teamutonji and my favourite part of @eternitymartis’s book is her resilience.
Eternity Martis: Hi Téa!
TM: Hey Eternity! I just want you to know moving forward, that I’m playing Taylor Swift’s newly dropped album in the background. Congratulations on the inaugural Journalist in Residency at UBC and the on-going success of your book!!!
EM: Awesome! I’m listening to Bad Bunny’s older album because I am a Stan. Thank you so much! It’s been an amazing journey. And congrats to you on your Trillium award win and the third print of “Shut Up You’re Pretty”!!
TM: Walk me through the moment you sat down and decided to document your experiences as it was happening. How’d you get there and did you always know you were writing to publish it for an audience? What was the initial purpose of your practice?
EM: The exact moment is hard to define because I had so many, but I knew from my first week in London there was a story to tell. I had actually started writing bits and pieces of my experiences down from when I first got to Western in first year—that’s how jarring my experiences were. To come from Toronto and then suddenly be thrown into this environment where everything is about the colour of your skin, about what your worth is as a Black woman shook me to my core. And because my loved ones back home didn’t quite understand it, I started documenting it in case I ever believed it wasn’t true: on scraps of paper, napkins, and on documents on Word. In second year, I created a blog about it, and in third year I tried it out as a play. But it wasn’t until [my fourth] year when I decided I wanted to write this as a memoir.
TM: I remember that exact feeling when my family first moved to Oshawa. That moment when you first realize you’re Black, as in BLACK IN CAPS, the sudden fear of the world around you—I felt that throughout the book, this urge for safety. My fears when writing any piece of non-fiction is that someone’s going to ask me for proof, for my bruises. As a woman, and particularly as a Black woman, I find that I’m always asked to either defend my experiences or have concrete evidence that they happened. Where do you stand on that? Was your decision to use data, statistics, research, doctors and professionals to further your thesis a matter of journalist practice or was there a part of you that thought, “I need someone with credibility to make my point”?
EM: It was definitely both. I’m a journalist, and so in my day-to-day life I’m always talking about facts (which I’m sure gets annoying for some!). And like you, I had been so gaslit by other people, both whom I knew, but also through *white* strangers reading my work who would literally say, “I don’t believe that because that’s never happened to me”, “that sounds extreme, she must be exaggerating.” “Prove it.” Even at the time I was in journalism school, personal journalism was considered indulgent and not “real” journalism. And so I learned the hard way that few will ever believe me without facts behind my experiences – and even then maybe not. While writing the proposal, I wanted this book to be all memoir. But when I graduated from Western, the world had completely changed. So much of what I had been saying was now coming to light. Hate crimes had hit an historic high. Media was picking up these stories about racism and gender-based violence. So it felt like I had to show that this wasn’t the isolated incident people thought it was, this was history repeating itself.
TM: Oh wow, it’s weird to think how recent that was. #Metoo just happened. Half of my personal timeline only found out about racism yesterday, apparently. I remember in writing workshops, people often believed my fiction to be real (???) but questioned all of my essays as untrue, lol.
EM: Yes it did! Ah yes it’s so frustrating, isn’t it. I think people feel safer in fiction than admitting the truth that’s in our essays.
TM: Touching on #metoo, you wrote: “There’s a deeply held belief that Black women can’t be abused and won’t tolerate it. Black women have been viewed as strong, animalistic and unwomanly.” What needs to happen to dismantle this prejudice? I often think to myself that as a creative, I’m in the business of humanizing Black women.
EM: It’s so exhausting. We need more stories of Black women out in the world that illustrate our complexities, like everyone else. We haven’t had that chance, because we’re not valued or even in the door when it comes to putting out narratives (re: publishing, in TV writer’s rooms, as directors of films, as media editors). These narratives, which are often created by people who aren’t Black women (AHEM Tyler Perry), feed into these stereotypes that are incredibly damaging to Black women, and play out in our everyday interactions, from our relationships, our jobs, and our social lives. Re: dismantling narratives about Black women, I would highly encourage Patricia Hill Collins’ “Black Feminist Thought”, + shows where Black women are centered (and created by Black women), such as “Insecure”, “Chewing Gum” and “I May Destroy You.”
TM: And thank you for bringing up I May Destroy You. In the latest episode, one of the characters said that Black women don’t get rape… and with the erasure of Black women during the #metoo movement: what were you thinking of when you decided to open up about IPV.
EM: Even in my own experience of sexual assault and intimate partner violence, I was getting the same message over and over from society: Black women don’t get abused. Black women don’t tolerate that. My situation was complicated by my abuser being Asian. So we were both up against opposing stereotypes: that he was passive, effeminate, unable to abuse a woman, and I was viewed as aggressive, domineering, and impervious to abuse. I wanted to show that, but also the ways that young women of university age are completely erased from conversations about IPV.
Young women 15-24 are the most at risk of IPV *in the country*. IPV is *just as prevalent a crime on campus as sexual assault*. So where are the services and resources? Why is no one researching or funding research on this age group? Does the narrative of college/uni students affect if they are taken seriously as victims of IPV? I needed to explore that. In the book I list young female students who had been murdered by their boyfriends. So many of them needed help and were turned away like I was. This is a silent epidemic.
TM: That was definitely the hardest part to read. Knowing that “you’re not alone,” and “#metoo” also reinforces that rape culture is real and only getting worse, especially on campuses and with cyberbullying and cyberassault.
EM: Absolutely. And young women are also at high risk of cyberbullying, cyber assault and cyberstalking. As a society and our schools need to work faster to address this.
TM: Let’s talk about Black Joy and humour as a literary device. This is something you excel so well at. Chapters aren’t necessarily written in the same format, it breaks them apart, in the same way Desmond Cole’s “deep breaths,” chapter did in The Skin We’re In.
EM: Yes! As you probably know, when you’re with Black folks or you’re laughing, everybody stares. It’s like people are both afraid of you and annoyed. Black joy has gotten folks killed, punished, and discriminated against. But Black joy is such an integral part of our survival. I don’t take myself too seriously, so humour was a big part of the book. Especially in the survival guide sections, which actually came out of my own experiences as well as the experiences of my friends, ones I couldn’t fit organically into the book. It’s representative of the ways me and friends would laugh about this stuff and that laughter and joy, and friendship *became* the survival guide. In writing these, I hoped they would serve as a friend for students of colour who are alone and going through what we went through and need a pick-me-up.
TM: Samra Habib just won Canada Reads for her memoir We Have Always been Here. Which concludes with a letter to her younger self, a practice I think we should all engage with. If you could write a letter to 19-year-old Eternity, what would be the focus of your letter?
EM: Totally agree we should all do this (and a future letter too). I would’ve told myself to take some time to know and love yourself. I didn’t build that foundation — I assumed I had to be partying, in shitty relationships, deal with toxic and racist behaviour because that was part of the package of university and “the time of your life.” I think it would have created a lot of strength and healthy coping mechanisms during this time. I should really write this letter to 19-year-old me!
TM: We’d love to see it!!! Thank you Eternity, your book is wonderful and so important. I’m genuinely proud of you.
EM: Thanks, Téa!! It means a lot. I am proud of you too. I love to see you out here thriving!
TM: Eternity, before we say goodbye: Who did you write this book for?
EM: This book is for alumni, current and prospective students who want to make sense of and validate their experiences. It’s also for education administration and faculty, allies, parents, and policy makers. We all play a role in supporting and uplifting students of colour!
TM: Thank you Eternity! And thank you everyone for following along. Eternity’s book, They Said This Would Be Fun is the World On The Street’s July book of the month! Sending you all good vibes, and if you haven’t read this book yet: it’s essential.
EM: Thank you, Téa and @torontoWOTS! It was so great to catch up, and thanks for the great convo.