by Jael Richardson
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The importance of history
My new novel Gutter Child, is set in a dystopian world. Like any good dystopia, the world in which Gutter Child is set pulls on some of the realities of the present and the past. I wanted to look at what it looks like to grow up in a world that’s designed for your failure, a sentiment that applies to many colonize nations that were built to uphold the values and interests of the colonizer with very little concern for those who are indigenous to the land. When I started the book, I had to regularly remind myself that Black people are Indigenous people as well. Growing up in Canada with parents who are American, the story of our history that’s told and retold is one that positions us as slaves. Very little time and emphasis is spent in Canadain and American classrooms, informing students that Black people are Indigenous to lands they were stolen from and on land that was stolen from them.
When I was working on Gutter Child, one of things that I realized was this history, this absence, this on-going exclusion that continually positions us as slaves not kings and queens and tribal leaders, politicians, elders, doctors, protectors, warriors. This struck me, in particular, when I had to develop my main character’s backstory. Of course it’s fiction and of course I can pull from anywhere I like, but for the first time it really hit me that I don’t know my history. I can’t say what nation I’m from. I can’t tell you what history shaped who I am, down to my bones and my veins.
I can probably do a DNA test, and find out what part of the world my genes link to, but I think it’s really important to understand how disconcerting it is, to be able to trace my ancestors through southern ohio, west virginia, tennesse and further south, only to lose that trace in the ocean, where let’s be honest, many of my ancestors died.
To learn history, is a form of power and privilege. My sister in law homeschools her boys. She’s from Ghana and part of hteir education has been a vast and deep dive into Ghanian history, traditions, foods, culture. They, unequivocally, know more than I do about Ghana. They have a direct link, and I revel in how that knowledge will shape them and equip them. It will remind them that they have a place and a story that begins before slavery. But I don’t have that story to give. My son, will have an ocean and a continent and a permanent sense of displacement. That is our history. It’s less than ideal. But it’s true and it’s important.
JAEL RICHARDSON is the author of The Stone Thrower, a book columnist on CBC’s q and the founder and Artistic Director for the Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD). Her debut novel, Gutter Child, arrives in 2021.
Photos Courtesy of Jael Richardson.