Witness and Memory: Robin Reniero
in Conversation with Lishai Peel

Lishai Peel

Malahat Review volunteer Robin Reniero talks with Lishai Peel, winner of the 2018 Open Season Award for Creative Nonfiction with her essay, “Letters To My Mother.”

 

Lishai Peel is an award-winning poet, creative consultant and community animator with roots in diasporic oral tradition. She has spent a decade creating and facilitating storytelling and writing programs in schools throughout Canada and has also worked extensively as a poetry coach with Toronto Public Health, The Toronto Public Library and Unity Charity. She is the co-founder of Ink Veins: Young Women's Writing Collective and the co-author of a graphic novel, Why Birds and Wolves Don’t Trade Stones

 

Read what contest judge Kyo Maclear had to say about Peel's winning essay.

First and foremost, allow me to congratulate you on winning The Malahat Review’s Open Season Creative Nonfiction AwardCan you tell me a little bit about what inspired “Letters To My Mother” and why you chose creative nonfiction as your genre? 

In life there are things we wish to say to people that, for various reasons, we cannot. Writing letters is a form of witness and memory; it can often be a reconciliatory tool. This piece was inspired by that impulse to bear witness, remember and reconcile. 

I didn’t realize I was writing creative nonfiction until the piece was finished. Poetry has been my main literary genre for the last decade. Writing creative nonfiction is new to me but felt true for this piece.

The racial intolerance experienced by your protagonist as a child causes her to feel further alienated as she tries to navigate the complexities surrounding her mother’s mental illness. When did you first understand that language had power?

I grew up in three different countries and discovered from a young age that language can mean access and inclusion, or the lack thereof. Language is an identity card and a social signifier. The power can also lie not in what is being said, but in the willingness to find a common language.

“Letters To My Mother” offers a powerful social commentary on many levels, particularly that of motherless daughters. I feel that this is one of those stories that needs to be told, and you do so masterfully. Your protagonist, while not orphaned in the traditional sense, is nonetheless orphaned by her mother who suffers from mental illness. In her groundbreaking book, Motherless Daughters, Hope Edelman writes about how, at the time of the alchemists, “[I]t was believed that orphans held special knowledge and had acquired an insight that others had not attained.” What knowledge or insight does your protagonist gain at each stage of her development? 

Through her observations in childhood, she feels that something is wrong but doesn’t know what it is because she has no other point of reference. Even as a child she is acutely aware that the foundations of her life are vulnerable. As she develops, she begins to build a companionship with absence and can name and observe the things in her life that ought to be different. She develops a sensitivity to the changing landscape of her home. Sensitivity is often borne out of necessity and self-preservation. It can be a mechanism of self-protection when one has experienced instability in childhood.

Edelman also notes that [a]t each milestone a [motherless] daughter comes up against new challenges that make her long for a mother’s support, but when she reaches out for her, the mother isn’t there.  The daughter’s old feeling of loss and abandonment return, and the cycle begins again.” Midway through your piece, however, your protagonist states, “I’m not writing anymore for you.” There has been a shift. This powerful assertion seems to hint at the transformative power of writing for your protagonist. Can you elaborate? How has writing been transformative in your own life?

I’ve always enjoyed creative writing and storytelling but there have been periods in my life where writing felt like an act of survival more than simply an artistic endeavour. The protagonist also treats writing with a similar impulse. At this point in the story arc, the protagonist realizes that the absence of her mother is complete and begins to assert her own autonomy over her life by writing as a form of witness and healing rather than a plea to be heard.

Most recently, having a child has shifted my creative practice. Before having a baby my career was deeply rooted in performance work. After having a baby, while on maternity leave and grappling with the exhaustion that comes with the job description of ‘new mom,’ I took a break from performing and redirected my creative energy into writing to cultivate a deeper connection with the craft. This subsequently shifted my career to writing full time. One of my former teachers, Geneviève Letarte, once said: “I write to know the person I don’t yet know I am.” This statement rang true to me during those tender and exhausting first two years of my son’s life. Writing transformed not just my career direction but it gave me a deeper knowledge of who I was becoming as a person and a mother.

In the final passage of “Letters To My Mother,” you write, But perhaps the things that are the most real are the things that make our blood speak.” In his Massey Lecture, “Blood: The Stuff of Life,” Lawrence Hill examines blood as “an historical and contemporary marker of [such ideas as] identity, belonging, gender, and race.” What might the protagonist be alluding to in these powerful and poignant lines?

The inescapability of our biology. The way time has carried our blood forward, providing us with a connection to those who came before us. The memories that are contained within us and transferred across generations. The way our bodies contain and store information before we register information consciously—how we know what we know before we know it. The way, at pivotal moments in my life, I felt like my blood was communing with me. The way blood can replenish itself, renew itself and contain within it the promise of continuation.

There are some bonds held together by blood that cannot be denied, such as the one between mother and child. The protagonist reaches a deep understanding that her mother will always be with her, even in her absence.

What are you currently working on or reading?

I received funding from Canada Council and OAC to pursue two projects, both of which required research here in India. One project I am not yet ready to speak about but the other project is a novel that I have spent years dreaming about writing. It's loosely based on my grandmother's early life in Mumbai. The research I'm doing is on the Indian Jewish community (Bene-Israel) who are believed to have resided in India for two centuries until mass immigration to Israel in the 50s and 60s. This project is partly a creative endeavour and partly a personal exploration of my Indian roots.

The book at my bedside table right now is 50 Greatest Short Stories, my favourites of which so far are: “A Pair of Silk Stockings” by Kate Chopin and “The Cop and the Anthem” by O. Henry.

 

 

Robin Reniero

Robin Reniero

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