Image: Michele Comeau

Zalika Reid-Benta is author of Frying Plantain — a short story collection about Kara, a Jamaican-Canadian girl growing up in a largely Jamaican neighborhood in Toronto. She is also the program manager for Diaspora Dialogues, a nonprofit literary organization based in Toronto that runs mentorship programs for diverse writers across Canada. This year, Frying Plantain was long listed for the Giller Prize. Vincent Ternida spoke with Reid-Benta in October after her panel at the Vancouver Writer’s Festival, where she shared the stage with Derek Mascarenhas and Hassan Ghedi Santur and spoke about stories of belonging, home, and the in-between.​

Vincent Ternida: 

How has unbelonging, the diasporic story, and the in-between influenced your writing?

Zalika Reid-Benta:

As a second generation or third culture kid, the story of the in-between interests me. Growing up, I lived in a neighbourhood that’s predominantly Portuguese and Italian; I wasn’t able to relate. I didn’t feel Canadian, but I am Canadian! My home culture and heritage had a strong influence in my identity even if I didn’t necessarily feel connected to my neighbourhood or knew what it meant exactly to be Canadian. I knew what it meant when I left Canada.

Navigating what it means to be Canadian and to be Jamaican — juggling both those worlds through a personal lens informed my short story collection. Now I’m currently writing a young adult novel and I feel that I’m touching on the same themes of unbelonging. It’s a typical fantasy setting, the protagonist starts off on Earth and traverses to another world. She does not feel she belongs on Earth and she also feels she does not belong in that world.

What’s the working title of your YA novel?

The working title is called Kiini. Right now it’s a placeholder, as there is a big debate between the people of the diaspora and the people of continental Africa about appropriation. I’m super bad with titles and in Frying Plantain, almost all the stories in the collection went through 10 different titles. (laughs)

“Pig Head” was first called “Playground Games” and then for the longest time it was “What Happened In Hannover.” Different mentors asked me to change it to “Pig Head” because it’s a story of a girl who finds a pig head in the freezer and is traumatized about it. It felt like Snakes On A Plane because it was literally about snakes on a plane! 

An interviewer in Brampton told me that she felt that that exact story happened for real. That moment was very visceral and it stuck with me. I reacted quietly when I opened the freezer and found the head there. My mother took me away but one day I said that I’ll write about that experience.

How do you answer when people perceive your stories as autobiographical?

During the panel earlier [at the Vancouver Writer’s Festival], I was asked if there was something I don’t want to be asked and it was, “Please don’t ask if this is based on my real life.” When I was at the [University of Toronto’s] School of Continuing Studies, my workshop kept telling me to change the name of “Kara” to my name as they felt it was autobiographical, and I said that the stories are not about me. There were only two people of colour in my class: myself and this Japanese woman who wrote a story about an assassin who transforms into a cat. That woman then comforted me later and said “Do [the people from the workshop] also think I’m an assassin who transforms into a cat because I happen to be a Japanese woman?” It is ridiculous. I wrote a post about it for Open Book and other authors tweeted “Stop asking these questions to people of colour.”

These days, I have a calm jadedness about it. The questions still come up and I’m emotionally fine. I’m writing about the experiences that I can relate to, but they didn’t necessarily happen to me. In “Snow Day,” I didn’t personally experience going to the washroom and a guy coming after me. It happened to a friend of mine, but I didn’t know that until she read my story. Another review I have mixed feelings about is one that said “it reads like a memoir.” If I wanted to write a memoir, then I would write a memoir.

Are short stories making a comeback?

Diaspora Dialogues does professional development workshops and I heard a conversation with one of the agents who said that short stories don’t sell. The participants said, “Zalika has a short story collection and it’s doing okay.” I agree, I look around and see that Derek [Mascarenhas] has a collection and Catherine [Hernandez] has one and it’s being turned into a TV series. There definitely seems like an interest with short story collections and I find it interesting that people of the diaspora are writing English short story collections. Even with non-writers I encounter, there’s a genuine love for short stories and when I tell them that short stories don’t sell, they’re surprised.

In Frying Plantain when I wrote the first chapter, my mentor said, it reads like a short story. Completing the second chapter, they said “you keep writing short stories.” So I went with that as I didn’t want the responsibility of a novel at the time. There’s a resurgence of short stories, I find that comforting, and I feel it’s something that should be explored more.

You started with Diaspora Dialogues as a Short Form Mentee, could you tell me about that?

I submitted a short story to Diaspora Dialogues while I was doing a certificate program for creative writing at the University of Toronto. I was accepted and was paired off with Olive Senior for a month. That was really important for me, because that’s the first time I was paired up with a Jamaican writer. We corresponded through email and met twice. They published my short story in the physical anthology called TOK. Because of that I went to the launch and for the first time I went to a launch and did a reading, which was nerve wracking at the time. That program prepared me for my MFA and my literary career.

When I submitted to Diaspora Dialogues’ Long Form Mentorship earlier this year, I felt intimidated by the alumni who went on to publish and many are now award-winning writers. I eventually did submit and my experience learning from my mentor (Thea Lim) has been fantastic. How do we advise emerging writers hesitant to enter because of this apprehension?

ZRB: Personally, impostor syndrome never goes away. It’s present in established writers and many feel it all the time. I find that comforting because I don’t feel that way alone. When you meet these writers, they’re mainly at a different point in their careers, but they’re still down to earth people. Speaking of Olive Senior, a mentee came to the mixer and when he saw her, he turned to leave. But I encouraged him to speak with her and they ended up talking all night. Submissions feel nerve wracking and intimidating but it’s subjective. Go in looking for growth and not validation. If you go in with that mindset, it becomes less scary.

Vincent Ternida’work has been published by Ricepaper Magazine and Dark Helix Press, and has been long listed for the CBC Short Fiction Prize. The Seven Muses of Harry Salcedo is Ternida’s first novellaHe has a collection of short stories in development. He lives in Vancouver, British Columbia.

This interview first appeared at Ricepaper Magazine and is reprinted here with permission.

Image: Michele Comeau