The Writer as Traveler and the Gift of Prismatic Vision: An Interview with Stephanie McKenzie

March 9, 2021


A photograph of Stephanie McKenzie, sitting in an armless chair in a natural setting, while holding a bowed instrument upright in the lap
Photo by Sonette Watt

Stephanie McKenzie is a poet and scholar who works for the English Programme at Grenfell Campus, Memorial University of Newfoundland. Her scholarly work has traced the flourishing of Indigenous literature in Canada during the 1960s and 1970s, undoubtedly contributing to the growing interest in studies of Indigenous authors. In 2007 she published Before the Country: Native Renaissance, Canadian Mythology with the University of Toronto Press, which has since been reprinted in 2019. In this text, McKenzie argues that Indigenous work needs to be understood on its own terms and that scholarly care needs to be given to the aesthetics and the languages of Indigenous authors.

While her scholarly work has advanced consideration of underrepresented figures in Canada, her creative explorations have involved field work outside of the country. In order to write Bow’s Haunt: The Gusle’s Lessons (2018), McKenzie traveled to Serbia and lived there to study the gusle, an instrument that is integral to epic poetry. In Saviours in This Little Space for Now (2013), McKenzie explores the work and the lives of Emily Carr and Vincent van Gogh, tying threads together between these two disparate artists. Identity for McKenzie shifts and changes, but ultimately people are more connected than they might first appear to be. In Grace Must Wander (2009) and Cutting My Mother’s Hair (2006), she begins to explore these connections between personal identity, travel, and art. In 2015 she won First Place in Room Magazine’s Poetry and Fiction Contest for “Cut from Guyana Journals,” which was praised for its representation of Guyana and for its critique of the lyric tradition.

In this interview, which we completed asynchronously, we explore two key aspects of McKenzie’s creative work: identity and travel.

Tom Halford: Could you describe how you would identify yourself (in terms of local, regional, or national identities) as a writer?

Stephanie McKenzie: This is a tough question, and I think it is dependent on my standpoint at the time. If in Newfoundland, I identify myself as a writer from Corner Brook. If in Canada, I identify myself as a writer from Newfoundland. If I am traveling internationally, I identify myself as either a Canadian writer or a writer from Newfoundland. This seems to be the main pattern. However, that said, I am not comfortable with labels, though they are necessary at times: for example, to qualify for funding, such as Newfoundland & Labrador Arts Council grants, or grants from the Canada Council, one must follow such identifiers.

My main discomfort arises from the fact that I am more than wary of nationalism and its regional counterparts. Nationalism is responsible for so many wars, the taking of lives, and the literal boundary lines that dismantle human rights. I’m thinking, for example, of those boatloads of Syrian refugees who are being turned away from many countries or left to die at sea. Their national identities are largely responsible for other countries not respecting human rights. I’m also thinking of Trump’s wall—both physical and mental--and the manner in which it is responsible for separating thousands of Mexican children from their parents due to what is seen by fascists in the United States as protecting the US. News stories reveal that these children are living in the most despicable of conditions, and, in my estimation, both children and parents will be emotionally scarred for a very long time, if not forever.

There are, though, different realities. If one takes a look at Newfoundland, for example, and the manner in which one might try to foster the longevity of songs and stories from outport Newfoundland, let’s say, then the identifier “Newfoundland literature” is acting, in a way, to support human rights. By presenting to those who listen to or read Newfoundland’s stories, a unique cultural way of knowing is made available. And it is my belief that a diversity of cultural ways of knowing is necessary to reduce an imperial homogenizing of culture.

So I hate labels, and I also employ them.

A diversity of cultural ways of knowing is necessary to reduce an imperial homogenizing of culture.

Halford: How does your sense of identity influence your writing?

McKenzie: Having grown up in British Columbia, having lived in Quebec City, Montreal, Toronto, and Jamaica and Guyana (in terms of the latter two, for a less amount of time than my Canadian places of residence), and having traveled to about thirty countries, I’m not sure I can pinpoint my own sense of identity. I do not adopt, however, the title “citizen of the world.” How could I when there are so many places I could not travel to because of danger that is increased by the fact that I am a woman and lesbian? One noteworthy example deems it impossible to ever consider myself a citizen of the world: Mount Athos, Greece, where no women are allowed. That cuts me off from being a citizen of the world (as, ipso facto, Mount Athos is part of the world).

Perhaps I can say, though, that my sense of identity is fluid, and while I do not wish to embrace identity based on politics and the boundaries put between nations, my identity is also not fluid at times, as most people seem to need to know where an individual comes from. In my writing, there seems to be a lot of confusion when I am writing about various places. Perhaps my confused sense of identity, then, leads to a confusion regarding both self and places. I seem unable to pinpoint identity, and my writing is informed by many different places. This might lead to nonfixation regarding identity in my work, and I’ve noticed over the years that I tend to evaluate how I shift according to different perspectives.

One noteworthy example deems it impossible to ever consider myself a citizen of the world: Mount Athos, Greece, where no women are allowed.

Halford: How do you feel travel informs and influences you as a writer?

McKenzie: Travel influences my writing in the best possible way, and I have come to determine in the last decade that travel, for me, is essential for the development of my writing and also my “self.”

A significant part of my writing, for example, derives from the extended time I have lived in and traveled throughout the Caribbean. I am less likely now (than I was a couple of decades ago) to see the world in terms of absolutes. Jamaica, for example, where I studied for six months at the University of the West Indies, Mona Campus, Kingston, is one of the most dangerous countries on earth. However, it is the most beautiful place I have ever traveled to, and it is a place where I feel truly alive as soon as I hit the streets—with their frenzied paces, bustling crowds, and a vital sense of passion I have not yet encountered elsewhere in my travels. I’m thinking here of a phrase Jamaican Canadian poet (and there’s a label!) Pamela Mordecai termed to try to identify the worldview that might govern Jamaica and the larger Caribbean: “A non-linear Caribbean style of cognition called prismatic vision [may be] defined as ‘the disposition to construe reality in sometimes unresolved pluralities.’” This means that paradoxes and the inability to resolve them is part of the Caribbean psyche. I think, too, that this view might also have grown to define my own sense of self.

Travel, for me, is essential for the development of my writing and also my “self.”

Travel has made me accept difference and accept those cultural rituals and behaviors with which I would be uncomfortable living in Newfoundland or a larger Canada. For example, the Canadian sense of “my space,” and the possible legal ramifications for another stepping into someone else’s space, would not warrant a second thought (certainly not litigation) in other parts of the world. Try to tell a Latin American to not pull you in suddenly for a kiss on the cheek. Try to tell people from Quebec that their passionate responses with angry tones (which go away quickly) in the middle of conversations are not appropriate. I think my travel writing has grown a certain bewilderment with the world, and perhaps that’s a good thing.

Halford: Where do you travel to, and how do you write about these places?

McKenzie: I travel to as many places as possible, and I tend to take copious notes, photographs, and speak to as many people (if a shared language will allow) as possible. While I also visit arts galleries, museums, and places of cultural interest, I am really more interested in getting a sense of contemporary culture. I visit each neighborhood and try to note the differences between them. I check out the price of renting apartments to get a sense of the costs people are living with day to day (and in order to determine if I could come back for a longer period of time at some point in the future). I spend a lot of time in grocery stores (even if I am not staying in the country) for a prolonged period of time to get a sense of foods that are important to cultures. Even though I have many, many field notes, as it were, I might not write about the place and experiences for a long while.

For instance, I have been working on a book of poetry about the Caribbean for over a decade, if not fifteen years. Although I have a full-length manuscript ready to send out, I am still uncomfortable writing a book about someone else’s culture. Voyeurism can be an adjunct of dangerous colonialism and romanticization. However, I also feel that drawing strict parameters around cultures and their bodies of literature is not healthy. It is important to consider other cultures and interact with people in cross-cultural ways. I hope that “A Woman’s Travels,” the working title of the poetry manuscript, underscores the fact that I am questioning myself along the way and being self-reflexive about the act of travel and the act of experiencing different cultures and various parts of the world. As I put it in one of my journal entries during my later years of travel in the Caribbean, “one cannot make full sense of other cultures and places but only of the self in different places.”

This same kind of questioning is at the heart of another in-progress manuscript: “Travels of a Pentecostal Backslider Dyke.” This is a memoir where I speak candidly about the experiences that have shaped me and the way I enter different worlds. It’s an uncomfortable work to write, but if I am to examine other cultures and places in the world, I must also examine my self. I feel it might be my strongest work to date, but it also makes me feel naked.

At this point in my life, when I can work virtually on university matters, I can travel each year between April 15 and September 1. I research different places in the world and typically choose a country (usually its major city) and base myself there. I also have the pleasure of taking sabbaticals, which allow me to hunker down somewhere for even longer.

Thus far, I have traveled to the following countries for various periods of time: Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Barbados, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Czech Republic, Dominica, France, Greece, Grenada, Guyana, Ireland, Jamaica, Martinique, Morocco, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Serbia, Montenegro, Spain, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, Turkey, Ukraine, United States, Uruguay, and Venezuela.

There are many people who have traveled to many more places, but I have spent extended time (one month or more) in a number of places.

My rule for myself is that when I travel to a place, I must read at least three works by local or national writers while there.

Halford: Do authors and texts from these places influence your writing?

McKenzie: Yes, absolutely! My rule for myself is that when I travel to a place, I must read at least three works by local or national writers while there. Sometimes this means in translation. What I do, just as importantly, if not more so, is build this new reading and exposure into my teaching.

For example, this term I am teaching Jamaican author Tanya Shirley’s second collection of poetry, The Merchant of Feathers, to two classes. When I got back from Guyana, having lived there for six months on sabbatical between January and June 2014, I taught To Sir, with Love, by E. R. Braithwaite. This is a classic Guyanese novel, and it is one of the most precious national identifiers in Guyana. I didn’t know how this would go over, but students loved it. I also developed a course called Jamaican Canadian Women’s Writing.

The way in which the various texts I read during my travels, though, have the most transparent effect is on my blog. I chronicle my time in different places, which sometimes involves interviewing different authors and reviewing their literary works. Most recently, when I was living in Argentina for a month, I met Arturo Desimone, a talented poet who was born in Aruba and raised there for the first twenty years or so of his life and who now lives in Argentina while traveling the world extensively.* What I am trying to do now with my travel is to produce primary sources (such as interviews) for the basis of archival study. My travel, therefore, has really shifted the nature and future of my scholarly focus.

Halford: How long do you travel for, and does the length of stay influence your writing?

McKenzie: Yes, length of stay affects my writing. While moving from one place to the next quite quickly can be very exhilarating, this mode of travel does not impart to me a real sense of the place I might be in. I try to stay for a minimum of a month, and sometimes I stay longer (as was the case with Serbia in 2017 when I lived in the capital, Belgrade, for three months). During my stay there, I studied the traditional and ancient instrument known as the gusle (common to many countries in former Yugoslavia), and I wrote my fourth book of poetry based on my study: Bow’s Haunt: The Gusle’s Lessons (2018).

However, even living for extended periods of time like these in different countries could never give a full sense of the culture.

Halford: I think we have covered a lot of ground. Thank you so much for doing this interview and for how thoughtfully you have answered each one of these questions. I’m just going to leave the link to your website here in case anyone is interested in reading more. Thank you again. I really appreciate it.

McKenzie: Tom, I just wanted to say thank you for taking the time to interview me. It’s a great honor.

March 2020

* The interview with Desimone was published, subsequent to this interview, in the Journal of West Indian Literature 28, no. 2 (2020): 141–56, and the video recording is now housed with the Digital Library of the Caribbean (dLOC).

Tom Halford is a scholar and writer who has taught at the State University of New York in Plattsburgh, Chonnam National University in South Korea, and at Grenfell Campus, Memorial University of Newfoundland. His chapbook Mill Ratis forthcoming from Frog Hollow Press in 2021. He studies crime fiction and representations of writers in Canadian novels.