WARNING: This article includes discussion of abuse and domestic violence.
Winnipeg writer Rowan McCandless says writing her debut book, Persephone’s Children, was a lifeline during a long-term abusive relationship.
Persephone’s Children details McCandless’s life as a Black biracial woman escaping the stranglehold of domestic abuse while reflecting on her family history. Through a series of structurally imaginative essays, including a contract, a crossword puzzle and a TV script, McCandless explores the complicated relationship between family, memory and trauma.
Persephone’s Children is a finalist for the 2022 Governor General’s Literary Award for nonfiction. The winner will be announced on November 16, 2022.
In 2018, McCandless was longlisted for the Writers’ Trust McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize and won the Malahat Review’s Constance Rooke Creative Nonfiction Prize. In 2020, she won gold at the National Magazine Awards. This year, McCandless served as one of the 2022 CBC Nonfiction Prize readers.
Writing in the thick of things
“It’s a book about surviving secrets and rediscovering your voice. It’s non-linear in nature. It’s a mosaic. People can pick up from any point, in order to get the whole of the story.
“The mosaic form aligned most with traumatic memory and how memories aren’t necessarily stored linearly. This gave the opportunity for the book to mirror how memories are processed and held.
It’s a book about surviving secrets and rediscovering your voice.
“I didn’t have any temporal distance when I was writing the book. I was in the thick of things, so form allowed me an intellectual distance. I was concentrating on structure and form in order to be able to tell this story myself without being overwhelmed by it. The form gave me a layer of protection.
“As much as it’s an intellectual exercise, it’s about letting the form meld with the content. Making sure there is that connection. If there isn’t that connection, it rings like a gimmick and that was certainly not what I was going for.”
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Creating for that one person
“When I’m writing, I’m writing for that one person who needs to hear the story. That’s what I kept in mind when I had any doubts or reservations. I was like, ‘No, just keep going with it. You’ve got something to say and there is a reader out there who would appreciate knowing this story.’
“I find, especially for BIPOC writers, it’s difficult to get our personal stories out there. I wanted to tell the story as consciously and carefully as I could because I was aware I was dealing with some difficult subject matter in the writing.
When I’m writing, I’m writing for that one person who really needs to hear the story.
“[I needed] to figure out that I was not to blame for what had happened to me. I carried the blame for that relationship the entire time I was there. To understand that it wasn’t about me, it was about this other person, made such a crucial difference in terms of how I see myself.
“Victims of abuse often take on that blame because that blame has got to go somewhere and it’s not like the perpetrators are too keen on taking that on themselves so you carry this blame and shame. Through the book, I began to understand that, ‘No, that is not mine to carry. It belongs elsewhere.’
“[I hope readers know] that there is a way out of domestic situations. It may not be easy. It may not be fun, but it’s doable.”
Resisting isolation through community
“The part [of the process] that touched me was the development of a writing community because I had been so isolated in that relationship. I was on my own. I had my adult daughters, but that’s a different type of relationship.
“Slowly, with the writing, I began to meet people and meet kindred spirits who liked these outlier hybrid forms and structures. I developed a community that I know cares and supports me. That’s been such a blessing. I also think it’s brought me closer to my daughters because they are my biggest cheerleaders.
“It helped enrich my inner life in terms of how I saw myself and view myself now as a person and then there being the outer life, connecting with people and writers and doing readings.
Writing the book taught me that I was a strong person. That I had a voice.
“Writing the book taught me that I was a strong person. That I had a voice, which was quite the surprise to me because I had been silent for so long. That it was something I could accomplish even though I was in the thick of things.
“I’m still riding on the high of the [Governor General’s Literary Award] nomination. It was quite the surprise to get the email. I think I read the first two sentences and then nothing else was coming in. I was happy-dancing from Winnipeg, that’s for sure.”
Rowan McCandless’ comments have been edited for length and clarity.
Support is available for anyone who has been assaulted or is experiencing domestic violence. You can access crisis lines and local support services through this Government of Canada website or the Ending Violence Association of Canada database. If you’re in immediate danger or fear for your safety or that of others around you, please call 911.
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