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Last Modified: February 14, 2023
Feature image for Uche Umezurike interviews Suzette Mayr
Uche Umezurike interviews Suzette Mayr

Uche Umezurike: Congratulations again, Suzette, on winning the 2022 Scotiabank Giller Prize! You have mentioned your struggle with imposter syndrome as a writer. So, has anything changed since winning this prize?

Suzette Mayr: Thank you so much, Uche! My comment about imposter syndrome during my Giller Prize acceptance speech was a little bit of a joke because if I truly had imposter syndrome, I probably would have given up writing a long time ago. But that said, I am feeling a little less on the fringes than I did before as a writer in terms of the Canadian literary scene.

How did you keep the idea for The Sleeping Porter alive for over a decade, and what kept you believing the story needed telling?

The research kept me going. I always made sure that I kept my books, articles and historical images physically close by even if I was working on something entirely different, and every so often I’d leaf through a document like an Eaton’s catalogue from 1926, or a novel written in the 1920s, or a criminal record or mugshots from 1917 Vancouver, or a Henderson’s Directory that would give random details about who lived on what street and what they did for a living in downtown Winnipeg or downtown Calgary in the 1920s, and I was drawn in every time. I loved trying to uncover the ridiculous minutiae of day-to-day living in the Canadian prairie provinces in the early 1920s—it was like a jigsaw puzzle that I kept trying to solve one piece at a time.

Looking back now, what did you find most exciting while writing the book?

Definitely the days when I would uncover the presence of queer people living in early 20th century Canada because for so long I couldn’t find anything. Historian Steven Maynard’s articles about gay sexuality in Ontario in the early 1900s were fascinating for me, for example. There’s also an earlier chapter in Valerie J. Korinek’s book Prairie Fairies: The History of Queer Communities and People in Western Canada, 1930–1985 that included information about men’s cruising spots in Winnipeg in the 1930s that I find astonishing.

In your acceptance speech, you also said, “I see you,” and I think of the power of the gaze, more aptly, of recognition braided with ethics and politics. The Zulu of South Africa have this saying, “Sawubona,” which loosely means, “I see you.” What are your thoughts about the connections between literature and ethics?

When I said “I see you” in my acceptance speech, I was referring specifically to queer people and our continued marginalization in mainstream culture. It’s really rare for queer people to be embraced for our whole and complete selves even in the most accepting of cultures, to be properly “seen” and acknowledged and integrated. Pride parades and rainbow flags are great, but then you go home and there’s still your mother who doesn’t quite accept you and your partner as a legitimate couple, or there’s your uncle who won’t speak to you, or maybe you have a sister who won’t let you babysit her kids, or you have a work colleague who avoids you or refers to your romantic partner as your “friend.” Those family members and communities who don’t trust us or accept us are the ones who need to think about ethics. Me saying “I see you” was me calling out to my own; this novel is a letter of appreciation to my own.

There is this passage in The Sleeping Car Porter where the train glides between trees and rocks, over flatland in Ontario, and “ancient stories.” I am curious about other stories you might have found in the archives that will never make it to literature or even the newspapers.

I think in that section I was alluding to the concept of Turtle Island and that as this train full of settler-invaders speeds over the land, there’s a plethora of stories that are happening simultaneously to all kinds of people who aren’t riding the train. But I couldn’t figure out how to show these stories properly—the versions I tried never gelled. I ended up limiting myself because of the parameters of the book, which was that the bulk of the action had to take place in the claustrophobic space of the train cars among this small set of people, and the story had to be more or less focalized through the main character Baxter.

One of my favourite passages from the book is when Baxter fearfully chucks a copy of The Messenger into the garbage can. Later, Judy, a passenger and an abolitionist, enthuses over the magazine. Could you speak more about the irony in that passage? What did you mean to convey in that encounter between Baxter and Judy?

For readers who might not know, The Messenger was an American magazine that began as a “radical left,” pro-union publication that specifically focused on African-Americans and was a key publication in the founding of the Brotherhood of Pullman Porters—it was so radical that the US Justice Department apparently labelled it as a “dangerous” publication. Later on, the magazine became more of an arts and culture magazine.

Baxter throws the copy into the garbage can because he could lose his job if it’s caught in his possession; Judy, as a white, upper-middle-class passenger, on the other hand, faces no danger if she owns or reads a copy of the magazine. It’s nice of her that she is encouraging about the magazine and what it espouses, but she’s not living that reality; she’s only doing lip service, and her sympathies don’t do someone like Baxter much good in practical terms. Baxter is not an overt activist—he’s just trying to keep his head down and get through his days without getting fired so he can make a better life for himself, but ironically, in trying to survive the day-to-day as a gay, black sleeping car porter, he is living the activism. Just continuing to exist is a radical act, especially in Canada at the time.

Lastly, someone recently asked me, whom I write for, so I would like to know if you always have a readership in mind when you write.

I don’t have a readership in mind when I write because that would hold me back too much, caring what other people think. Also, I very much appreciate what Toni Morrison once said, which is that “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” I guess I am my own readership, and every time I send a book out into the world, I cross my fingers that someone else might want to read it too.

Uchechukwu Peter UmezurikeUche Umezurike is an assistant professor of English at the University of Calgary. An alumnus of the International Writing Program (USA), Umezurike is a co-editor of Wreaths for Wayfarers, an anthology of poems. He is the author of Wish Maker (Masobe Books, 2021) and Double Wahala, Double Trouble (Griots Lounge Publishing, 2021). His poetry collection, there’s more, is forthcoming from the University of Alberta Press in March 2023.

Headshot of Suzette Mayr. Photo by Tonya CallaghanSuzette Mayr is the author of six novels, including her most recent book, The Sleeping Car Porter (2022)  Her fourth novel Monoceros won the ReLit Award and the City of Calgary W.O. Mitchell Book Prize, was longlisted for the 2011 Giller Prize, and nominated for a Ferro-Grumley Award for LGBT Fiction and the Georges Bugnet Award for Fiction. Monoceros was also included on The Globe and Mail’s 100 Best Books of 2011. Her novels have also been nominated for the regional Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and the Henry Kreisel Award for Best First Book. She has done inter-disciplinary work with Calgary theatre company Theatre Junction, visual artists Lisa Brawn and Geoff Hunter, and she was a writer-in-residence at the University of Calgary and at Widener University, Pennsylvania. She is a former President of the Writers’ Guild of Alberta and teaches Creative Writing at the University of Calgary. Author photo credit: Tonya Callaghan. 



The Sleeping Car Porter

Suzette Mayr (CA)

Published: Aug 29, 2022 by Coach House Books
ISBN: 9781552454589
Dr. Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hall

Suzette Mayr (CA)

Published: Apr 24, 2017 by Coach House Books
ISBN: 9781552453490

Suzette Mayr (CA)

Published: Sep 13, 2011 by Coach House Books
ISBN: 9781770562783
Moon Honey

Suzette Mayr (CA)

Published: Oct 16, 1995 by NeWest Press
ISBN: 9781896300009
Widows, The

Suzette Mayr (CA)

Published: May 16, 1998 by NeWest Press
ISBN: 9781896300306