Interview with RSJ alum Eternity Martis, author of "They Said This Would Be Fun."
From the life of Eternity Martis comes a powerful memoir about her experience as a student of colour at a predominantly white institution. Martis, who is a Toronto-based journalist and senior editor at Xtra, earned an honours BA and Certificate in writing at Western University. She later went on to earn an MJ at Ryerson University. In her debut novel They said this would be fun: Race, Campus Life, and Growing Up, Martis explores the various stages of her womanhood as she recounts memories of abuse, tokenism and more. She uses her award-winning reporting skills to connect her own experience, which highlights pain but shows resilience, with those of her readers facing similar issues today. Martis’ journey of self-discovery is truly one to be commended and celebrated.
You share a lot of personal experiences in your book, how did you find the courage to be so transparent and vulnerable with your readers?
Being vulnerable is not something that comes easy to me at all—but being a journalist, transparency always has. It was terrifying to put myself out there like this, especially with the paradox of people wanting personal stories then attacking people for having these experiences. There's a lot in this book that isn't easy to read, or relive—moments of racial harassment and discrimination, sexual assault and intimate partner violence, friendships and relationships gone sour. But in my years at Western University, and subsequent years writing this book and hearing from students and women who had, sometimes verbatim experiences to mine, I felt that telling my story outweighed my own personal fears, because I knew I had the platform to be able to help start a long-overdue discussion about campus life for women and people of colour.
What was the most challenging part in writing this book?
I didn't expect to be so affected by writing about this time in my life. I thought that writing about my life would be a pretty easy feat. I wasn't prepared for the emotions that came with reliving things. In writing it, I realized that I hadn't dealt with a lot of things and emotions that happened while I was a student —and that the things I had gone through were actually quite traumatic and could explain a lot about who I am today. For example, I was quite angry and untrusting of people when I graduated from Western, and I've carried that with me into adulthood. But writing this book, I realized where a lot of that came from, and have been able to now work through it. Writing this book has been incredibly therapeutic, and I feel like I'm in a much better place for it.
What was the most joyful part in writing it?
In the same way that it was challenging to relive these moments, I also found a lot of joy in remembering certain occasions. A misconception people have about the book is that I hated Western and I hated being a student—I actually had a wonderful time and met incredible people who kept me laughing, kept me sane and have become lifelong friends. There's some scenes early in the book where I'm having a great time dancing around my friend Malcolm's dorm room—those were moments of pure joy that will never leave me. Running to catch the last bus of the night with my best friend Taz in our cheap stilettos with a tube of lipstick between our teeth is such a reminder of how young and fun we were. I really did have a great time—it was unfortunately the other things I had to deal with that made that continuation of joy really difficult.
What things did you learn about yourself?
I learned quite a few lessons while I was a student. The first was that I am much more resilient than I thought. A lot of the book is about what happens to the body under extreme duress. To be so far gone and battle depression and anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder—all while still being a teenager and young adult—and come back out on the other side of it is a major achievement that I've learned to give myself credit for. I also learned how to stand up for myself—how to talk about things that bothered me, like comments about my race or skin colour, as well as learning what my needs were in relationships. I used to be someone who allowed people to walk all over me, and I wouldn't say anything because I wanted to appear like the perfect friend or partner. Coming out of those four years, I started to realize that I firstly needed to be there for myself and honour my own needs before anyone else or I'd fall into the same patterns that I did throughout the book. That was a hard but very rewarding lesson.
Race is a very important aspect in your book, whether it was about your campus life, your dating life or your family life—it was a recurring theme. Why did you choose not to shy away or sugar coat any of your race-based experiences?
I don't think that race gets talked about enough—it's quickly dismissed as "Not everything is about race" or "Talking about race is divisive." The fact that systemically, people of colour continue to be precariously employed, have poor health profiles, are victims of state violence, among many other issues, means that everything is about race—we just don't want to admit it, or perhaps we don't even see how. Writing this book, I didn't want to sound like a broken record, what I wanted to show was the ways that race permeates every institution around us — university, police, media, even our own families. I don't think we gain anything by sugar-coating racial experiences; it's gotten us nowhere. I'm also very aware that by talking about race, people want more than just experience—they want to see facts, data and history. That's where I used my career as a journalist to fill in the blanks. My experience guides this book, but so much of it is tied to what's happening in the world right now: the rise of white supremacy and the alt-right; their infiltrations on campus; the well-documented reports of health effects of anti-Black racism; the prevalence of sexual assault on campus (especially of women of colour), and the lack of formal, unified policies to deal with it across universities. These are things that are happening in the world that we are experiencing, and none of this is fun. None of this is stuff to shy away from if we want things to change.
Recently, there was an incident at Western where a student confronted a professor for saying the N-word during a lecture in class. After the student chose to speak up, the university president Alan Shepard, struck a working group to target issues of racism on campus. Is this a step in the right direction?
This is definitely a step in the right direction and I'm very happy to see this kind of direction and action from Alan Shepard. He has also been quite supportive of my book coming out, which I'm grateful for. While racism on campus has been a decades-old problem, I think universities are realizing that in our current cultural climate, it can't be ignored any longer. I think universities are also realizing that racism on campus isn't a failing of their particular school—it's an inevitable part of any institution, and any and all schools. With that shift in mindset, I hope schools will be more active in learning and applying new ways to get both faculty and students involved in making campuses more welcoming.
While reading your book, I noticed you made a few academic connections that highlighted/enhanced your experiences. Was this an intentional choice? (For example, I’m thinking of your inclusion of Patricia Collins, author of Black Feminist)
Absolutely! My background is in the arts and social sciences—I have a double honours degree in English Language and Literature and Women's Studies and Feminist Research. I love theories, and how they connect and help us make sense of what's going on around us. When I was going through navigating Western and London, I had so many questions about the types of things I experienced—sexual racism, misogynoir, comments made about me as a Black woman. I didn't know how to deal with these things and I felt alone—until I stumbled across Black and/or feminist scholars and theorists like bell hooks, Patricia Hill Collins and Gloria E. Anzaldúa that helped me make sense of my experiences, and place them in the larger intersections of race, gender, class, age, etc. I really wanted to showcase this to my readers, but also give them that gift of scholarship that meant so much to me in the hopes it could also help them work through their own situations.
If you could go back and give your younger self a piece of advice, what would it be?
Stop stressing about things out of your control, and instead choose your own happiness and peace.
How does it feel to finally be able to share your life's truth in this memoir?
It's been a long time—10 years of patiently waiting and writing and editing. It's definitely an achievement I'm proud of, and I'm so excited and honoured to be given a platform by my wonderful and supportive publisher McClelland & Stewart at Penguin Random House Canada to share this truth. We don't get a lot of stories about being a woman and a person of colour on campus, and this is really such an incredible opportunity to open up that conversation.
What do you want readers to take away from reading your book?
I hope that readers take away that we need to start really taking young people and their experiences seriously. No more ignorant comments about how Millennials are lazy, entitled, selfish and self-absorbed. We're fighting so many things right now in which we are overrepresented — violence, poor socio-economic conditions, mental health, cyberstalking, hate crimes, police carding, and we’re leading so many movements against racism and sexism and sexual misconduct. I think young people deserve more credit, and we need to stop dismissing and infantilizing them. Many of us are not having the time of our lives when we're fighting for our lives.