This week on the Chat, we’re in conversation with Cicely Belle Blain, author of the forthcoming poetry collection Burning Sugar (VS. Books/Arsenal Pulp Press).
Author Jillian Christmas says,“Cicely Belle Blain's Burning Sugar beautifully narrates a journey over more than lands and waters. It is an exploration of the near perfect bliss of brazen blackness, interrupted by in all its forms. But even that intrusion is outmatched by the beauty of Blain's wildest dreams that offer a sharp and unflinching analysis, with a tender belly and a steady voice. Each poem pulls its teeth from the book's title, and offers the soft and deliberate sweetness of what could have been—before the burning.”
Cicely Belle Blain is a Black/mixed, queer femme from London, now living on the lands of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh peoples. At the heart of their work, Cicely Belle harnesses their passion for justice, liberation, and meaningful change via transformative education, always with laughter, and fearlessly, in the face of resistance. They are noted for founding Black Lives Matter Vancouver and subsequently being listed as one of Vancouver magazine’s 50 most powerful people, BCBusiness’s 30 under 30, and the CBC’s 150 Black women and non-binary people making change across Canada. They are now the CEO of Cicely Blain Consulting, a social justice–informed diversity and inclusion consulting company with over 100 clients across North America, Europe, Asia, and Africa. Cicely Belle is an instructor in executive leadership at Simon Fraser University, a board member for the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival, and a dialogue associate at the Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue. Cicely Belle loves dinosaurs, Instagram, and YA fantasy.
Trevor Corkum: Congrats on the publication of Burning Sugar, Cicely. This collection is the second title published by VS Books. What was it like to work with Vivek Shraya through the mentoring and editing process?
Cicely Belle Blain: Thank you! It has been an incredible experience to be supported and mentored by someone who I have admired for a long time. When I first submitted to the VS Books, I didn’t feel optimistic about my chances—I had just had a collection rejected and felt really demoralized. But that rejection was a blessing in disguise because I am so lucky to get to work directly with Vivek and the team at Arsenal Pulp Press to bring my work to life.
The experience is something I wished for in many parts of my life—the opportunity to work with queer and trans people of colour who truly understand and honour my work. And I am so fortunate that my writing, something so deeply personal, is the part of my work that got this opportunity. I feel like I have made a life-long connection with Vivek (I hope she agrees) and am constantly feeling a mixture of awe, deep gratitude and inspiration in working with her.
TC: Many of the poems address issues of systemic racism and colonization in Canada and elsewhere. What does it mean to you that the collection is coming out against the backdrop of large and sustained worldwide protests in support of Black lives?
CBB: This is a strange time. Part of me feels no different—my entire existence, at least for the past five or so years has been about Black Lives Matter and Black liberation.
My world, my work, my writing, my social life is all wrapped up in a commitment to justice, in a deep kind of love that only queer and trans people of colour can have for each other, that sometimes there are brief moments where I blissfully forget the anti-Blackness of the world around me."
This moment in time is a reminder of how few people cared before; of how much shouting into the void we were doing. I’m still coming down from the high and euphoria of this history-making moment, mixed with the overwhelm, re-traumatization and exhaustion that came with it.
In short, it feels complicated. I am glad Burning Sugar is coming out in a time when people are more ready for it than maybe they ever were. I am also still processing the fact that my "success" as an anti-racism activist, consultant, and writer will always be because George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and so many others were killed.
I am looking forward to a time when I release a book and people want to read it just for what it is; not out of guilt or shame or because it took them 30-odd years to realize how white their bookshelf was.
TC: The poems in the first section are named for particular geographic locations—mostly towns or cities around Canada and the world. You map how particular spaces and places—both their present realities and also the histories that haunt them—are experienced by racialized and queer bodies. Can you speak more about this focus on geography in your work?
CBB: One of the greatest privileges and blessings in my life has been the opportunity to travel. It was something my parents always really valued when we were growing up. Even on a small budget, we would drive across Europe from England and see so many magnificent things. Their passion for seeing the world also extended into moving to different countries, too (they are now moving to Kenya in the middle of a pandemic, so nothing can stop them). I lived in France (which I hated) and the Netherlands (which I loved) before moving to Vancouver for university.
I recognize the privilege of these experiences but they are also mixed in with the complexities of my body and identity in these spaces. We would occasionally socialize or bump into other British families or attempt to find community among "expats." But there was no way I could ever belong—the word ‘expat’ is uniquely designed for white, upper middle class Europeans.
Regardless of my nationality or class, I was an immigrant, not an expat, and treated as such. In the small French village where I went to Catholic school, I was likely the only Black, queer kid for miles (although I didn’t full understand my gender and sexuality then). This early experience really exposed, even then, the impact of anti-Blackness on a young person’s desire to see the world.
Years later when I listened to the audiobook of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me while driving through endless flat planes of Manitoba, I realized what really did stand between the world and me.
My nationality told me I could go anywhere, I could have anything, I could demand respect in any land. My body, my race, my gender, my sexuality and the way the world interacts with me, had very different plans."
TC: A few of the shorter works feature a very delectable humour. I’m thinking of the super-short poem “Peachland”:
I didn’t find a single peach
and I’m fucking pissed tbh
Can you talk more about humour in your work, and in what ways you use humour in your creative practice?
CBB: I consider myself to be pretty hilarious. I would put my sense of humour in my top three skills. As a Sagittatius, I take great pride in my ability to entertain others.
I find humour to be comforting, especially for those of us who experience constant microaggressions and systemic racism. I believe finding joy and laughter is part of the revolution.
TC: Finally, over the summer many parts of Canada and North America are celebrating Pride. What queer authors have been most important to you? Any Canadian books or authors you’d like to recommend for Pride?
CBB: Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera is one of my favourite queer books; it’s such a beautiful and powerful story about finding yourself as a queer person of colour and a feminist. I also love the work of NK Jemisin. I don’t know if she is queer or not but her work frequently depicts queerness and gender non-conformity in a way that is both natural and magical.
I am a big fan of my friend and colleague Jillian Christmas and her recent work The Gospel of Breaking as well as Tanya Boteju and her book Kings, Queens and In Betweens.
I found Black people between groves of wheat
drove hours along open road back to Winnipeg
heard whispers in the topography
Ta-Nehisi said I could go anywhere
he told me in two hundred pages that Black folks could travel
said seeing the world is not a luxury
reserved for white men
we do travel though
some of us are still
“Manitoba” from the forthcoming poetry collection Burning Sugar by Cicely Belle Blain (published by VS. Books, an imprint of Arsenal Pulp Press, 2020). Excerpted with permission from the publisher. Burning Sugar is now available for preorder from Arsenal Pulp Press.