The ÄLPHÄ Interview
aquarius/sagittarius/sagittarius…I’m not super well-versed in astrology but apparently this means I’m a total commitment-phobe (boys, I’m single 😉 )
Tell us about where you grew up.
I grew up in downtown Toronto in this housing project called Alexandra Park. Parts of it were super fucked up, like any government-funded and -administrated housing project, but it was also right in between Queen West, Kensington, and Chinatown, which are three of the most lit areas of the city. it’s sort of hard to explain. Have you read Zadie Smith or seen that show Chewing Gum? Growing up in Alexandra Park was sort of like how I imagine it would be to grow up in council flats in London, except it was Canadian.
Tell us about where you live right now—or—Describe your usual writing environment—or—Describe the environment in which you wrote Our Lady of Perpetual Realness.
Right now, I live in Montreal in an apartment in Little Italy. I’ve lived here for about three and a half years. I wrote the majority of Our Lady of Perpetual Realness while living here. Most of it I wrote in my room, where I am currently answering this questionnaire. The tenants who lived here before me painted my room this awful shade of Teenage-Mutant-Ninja-Turtle green, so then I had to paint it white, but I did a real sloppy job so bits of green still show through if you look hard enough. My room’s cute though. My desk is in the shape of a pentagon and instead of a window there’s these two huge glass patio doors that lead out onto a balcony. I get a lot of light.
Tell us about where you would like to live.
My wants are fairly simple: I want to live in a large urban centre, not necessarily directly on a major street but close enough to hear traffic faintly. Ideally some sort of loft or really large bachelor apartment situation in a building that isn’t too big. I want a bathtub large enough to lie down in comfortably. I also want a couch in the bathroom because I think that’s so chic. Basically, the bathroom will need to be ginormous. I want a kitchen sink that faces a window so I can have a view while i’m doing the dishes. Preferably in a city that never gets too hot or too cold, with friends and family nearby.
Tell us about one or two of your favourite sensory experiences.
I love the smell of nail polish and nail polish remover. I love the sound of traffic, especially the sound of a bus or a streetcar on the tracks. I love wearing things that dangle or swish: big earrings, wide-legged pants, skirts and dress that flow, a billowy shirt, a draped scarf, a long coat. I’m always playing with the backings of my earrings.
Tell us about the aesthetic, the ~scape, of your writing. How do you think it feels? How do you want it to feel?
The music video for Ironic, the one where Alanis Morissette is goofing around with three other versions of herself in a car on some sort of winter road trip. I think it’s perfect. The song too. What a good song! It’s like 10,000 spoons when all you need is a knife/it’s meeting the man of your dreams/and then meeting his beautiful wife. Doesn’t that line just break your heart? I want my writing to be like that: mundane but in a glamorous way, funny, a little sad.
Who do you consider to be your aesthetic kin and why? What, in your reading or your background, led you to write the way you do write? Where do you think your style of writing came from? Was it a gradual accumulation, out of your character? Or does it have literary antecedents?
The incredible poet Canisia Lubrin once described my writing as a cross between David Sedaris and David Foster Wallace, which made me seriously blush. I feel indebted to the short stories of Langston Hughes for their insight and humour. To Capote, for his facetiousness. To Baldwin and Hilton Als, for their dedication to emotional clarity. The work of Brontez Purnell, a writer/musician/dancer from Oakland, has taught me to give less of a fuck. I’m also writing within a lineage of Black writers in Canada, both past and present: Austin Clarke, David Chariandy, Dionne Brand, Canisia Lubrin, Whitney French, among others. My voice came from these sources, as well as from the influence of my friends (many of them artists I collaborate with and who constantly inspire me), my peers, my sisters, my family. And the city! I think my voice has been created by the landscapes of Toronto/Montreal.
What is your dream of happiness?
If I’m being real, I wish I didn’t have to have a job and every day was the weekend. All I would do is take ballet classes, read in the bath, and go to the movies. All my friends and family would live nearby. My diet would be incredible but I wouldn't be patronizing about it and my skin would be clear as fuck.
How does a story start for you?
Usually, I’ll be thinking about a particular topic/event/circumstance (either something happening in my own life or something more broad) and then a character or a scene or line of dialogue will manifest, and then that’ll roll around in my head for a while (usually a few days), until I can’t bear it anymore and then I’ll write it down just to get it out of my head. I have to drive myself a little crazy in order to get started. Then the story will start to build itself over time from that single kernel. I’ve realized I’m a really slow writer—I just don’t get how people are constantly churning out new shit! Writing a story can take me a couple of months. I gotta let things marinate.
Do you ever suppress anything from entering your writing?
I have trouble writing family, even in a fictional context. I think maybe I’m not ready to “go there,” which is why I admire Marcella’s work so much, her ability to be so candid with such artistry. One of the things about having a book of fiction out in the world that’s so interesting to me is the assumption that because I use elements of non-fiction and write mostly in the first person, all the characters in the book are me. I’m fascinated by the tension that creates between writer/reader, but it makes writing family difficult, because readers are going to make assumptions about my family based on how I present families in a fictional context, and implicating my loved ones in that way makes me uncomfortable. Recently I’ve been feeling much more private, like maybe I don’t want to share details from my life in such a direct way in my writing. I find some biographical readings of my work reductive, or lazy, or reflective of a voyeuristic/fetishistic desire to consume me (my Blackness, my poorness, my queerness) rather than engage with the work itself. That being said, I recently realized that there’s only very minor mentions of family in Our Lady of Perpetual Realness! I’ve written a book full of orphans. I’d like to bring more family into my work in the future.
Do you have a secret hobby?
I like to collage, but I keep it on the DL because collage has a bit of a reputation for being adolescent and twee. I keep a shoebox in my closet filled with different images I’ve collected over the years from newspapers, magazines, fliers etc. If I’m feeling stressed out and need to relax, I’ll get stoned, grab the shoebox from my closet, and glue some shit together.
What writers/books do you most frequently recommend to people?
I think I’ve recommended Johny Would You Love Me If My Dick Were Bigger? by Brontez Purnell and The Babysitter at Rest by Jen George to everyone I’ve had a conversation with in the past six months.
What are you reading right now?
Right now I’m reading: Forced Entries by Jim Carrol and Soucouyant by David Chariandy (both of which I’d recommend). Negroland by Margo Jefferson is next on the docket.
Cason Sharpe is the author of Our Lady of Perpetual Realness
& Other Stories, which was released by us in the fall of 2018.