photo by Dahlia Katz

The Author Spotlight Series shines a light on writers creating heartfelt and original work across genres, giving them an opportunity to talk about their books and why they do what they do.

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Catherine Hernandez

“Catherine Hernandez is a queer Filipina femme, Navajo wife, radical mother, award-winning author, and the artistic director of b current performing arts. Her children’s book, M is for Mustache: A Pride ABC Book was published by Flamingo Rampant, and her plays Kilt Pins and Singkil were published by Playwright‘s Canada Press. Catherine’s first full-length fiction, Scarborough, won the Jim Wong-Chu Award for the unpublished manuscript, was shortlisted for the Toronto Book Awards, shortlisted for the Evergreen Forest of Reading Award, and longlisted for Canada Reads. Scarborough made the “best of 2017” lists for The Globe and Mail, National Post, Quill and Quire, and CBC Books. Catherine was named one of “17 Writers to Watch” by CBC Books. Scarborough is now being adapted into a full-length film by Compy Films, Telefilm, and Reel Asian Film Festival”.

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
My mother was a pioneer of Filipino folk dance education here in Canada. I grew up knowing that as Brown folks, our stories were important and we have to keep the traditions alive. This translated into a love of painting pictures using words. As soon as I learned how to read and write, I remember feeling a dull ache in my fingers if I had a story in my head and I had to pen it immediately. It still is that way.

Do you remember the first thing you ever wrote?
The oldest piece of writing I can find is a horrible rhyming poem about finding my true love and living in the forest together.

How did you develop your skills?
I went to theatre school thinking that acting was the medium for my storytelling. During those traumatic three years I was taught not to be a Brown person. If I was to survive as an actor, I would have to speak with an English or American accent, I would have to learn how to perform “classic” text and maybe, maybe if I was lucky, I could be spear-holder number three at the Stratford Festival. I knew I had entered that institution a storyteller, and left there thinking I wasn’t. I had to go on a process of reclamation. I remembered the T’boli tribe in the Philippines, where their sacred women dream messages from the ancestors then weave those dreams into fabrics. I knew I had to return to that place. I needed to simply listen to what the ancestors were telling me. I dedicated years through trial and error to create processes that help an artist decolonize their art practice and listen to their ancestors. When I write, I am simply listening to what they are telling me.

Who are some of your biggest literary influences? Do you have a favourite book/author?
Rohinton Mistry. I had read many books before, but when I finally stumbled upon his work, I felt like writing my own stories were in the realm of possibility. It was a terrifying and exciting sensation.

How would you describe your work?
Theatrical. All of my words are spoken out loud before they are committed to text, which means it’s easier to perform for author readings. I can’t help but create work that lives off the page.

What’s your writing process like?
An image or concept will pop into my head. I know this is a message from my ancestors. It’s usually something vague. I let it gestate. I remain patient and let it form in my head. When it is ready, I sit in front of my laptop and let my fingers move across the keyboard. If I am breathing, if my heart is racing, if the words feel good as they are released from my body, then I know I am on the right track. If I am struggling, if I am not breathing, if I am tuning out, then it is time to rest, research, go for a walk, eat, talk with others. I need to care for my body so that the ancestors can continue communicating with me. This decolonized art making ensures I am centring story rather than my ego. It reminds me that the story is bigger than my body, my lifetime.

Tell us about your most recent book.
I Promise turns the Birds and the Bees conversation on its head and shows how queer families always start with the promise to love a child. Illustrated by another queer parent, Syrus Marcus Ware, each page showcases the joys and challenges of queer family life from building pillow forts to putting ice packs on ouchies. It’s funny, tender and endearing. Yes, I wanted cis/het folks to see that LGBTQ2S families struggle with the same realities any parent faces. More importantly, I longed for LGBTQ2S parents of any kind to be acknowledged and celebrated.

What are you working on now/next?
My next novel, Crosshairs, is out fall 2020 from Harper Collins Canada. It’s about QTBIPOC folks taking arms against white supremacy.

We are currently working on the film adaptation of Scarborough, which is produced by Compy Films with the support of Reel Asian Film Festival and Telefilm Canada. Every day I am on set, I am fighting back tears because I am blessed.

Catherine Hernandez will be appearing at The Word On The Street Toronto’s 30th Anniversary festival this month. Visit their website for more