Of mixed Filipino, Chinese, Spanish and Indian descent, and identifying as queer, Catherine Hernandez’s new novel, Crosshairs, imagines a dystopian near-future Canada where an oppressive regime is rounding up those deemed “Other”—people of colour, the disabled and members of the LGBTQ+ community—in concentration camps. She talks to Tom Tivnan.
Can you talk us through Crosshairs—the story, the background and how it came about?
After the Pulse Nightclub massacre [in Orlando, Florida, in 2016], where 49 racialised LGBTQ2S [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Two-Spirit] people were killed, many of us from the QTBIPOC [Queer Trans Black Indigenous People of Colour] community wondered if we needed to get guns to protect ourselves. That’s where the question arose: what is the price of fighting back? And what is the price of being passive? I then created a novel which explored the many ways fascism manifests, and the difficult choices made in the face of war.
A big theme of Crosshairs is privileged people’s allyship of black indigenous people of colour and LGBTQ+ folk, and that well-meaning white liberals might not be doing enough. Are you pessimistic about allyship ever being more than essentially performative, even if it is in earnest? In an ideal world, how would you see real allyship played out?
I would not have written the book if I was not hopeful. There are countless pieces of stunning art in numerous mediums depicting the oppression of marginalised communities. I wanted to create a book that served as a play-by-play towards true change. The civil unrest we are seeing around the world is the price we pay for superficial relationship-building. True allyship is a combination of critical analysis and body awareness.
Allyship means nothing if it doesn’t start from the body. Embodied allyship means believing, with your whole body, that each of us deserve to live and love equally, and to live those beliefs everywhere, from conversations to organisational structures to government policies. In ways that may seem insignificant, white supremacy affects our bodies in substantial ways. It teaches people from birth to disconnect from their bodies, and from the painful truth around them: Some lives are valued more than others. Since white supremacy is instilled in us daily, any counter practice must also be daily—much like committing to a practice of yoga.
It’s just a matter of choice: do we continue to play nice and pretend to be progressive? Do we continue with the performance? Or do we dig deep, no matter how much it hurts, and commit to true change?
This is a dystopian novel, but what is jarring as a non-Canadian is that the Canada of Crosshairs is essentially a Trump-ite state. Is the perhaps blinkered view from abroad—that Canada is a more progressive, kinder version of your neighbours to the south—incorrect?
Canada is very talented at marketing itself as a welcoming, peaceful nation. But its own government has helmed a genocidal campaign against the indigenous people of this land for generations. Not giving equal access to clean water, nutritious food, education and family safety to indigenous communities is genocide. Coupled with the state-sanctioned violence against black lives, Canada has much to be ashamed about. But our leaders are too preoccupied spending calories on the marketing campaign rather than imagining more equitable systems of being in relationship with one another.
You were meant to go to Frankfurt this year with many other Guest of Honour authors. What are your thoughts on the state of Canadian literature at the moment? Is it a vibrant time, with new exciting voices coming through?
I am proud to be part of a new generation of authors who work hard to lift the veil on this false Canadian marketing campaign. Unapologetically and without fear, I am among some pretty brave folks who are using their art as a call for change and accountability. This is far from easy, for any of us. And we are quite aware of the risk it takes to speak these truths in an industry that is led by and supports mostly white, able-bodied, cisgender, heteronormative voices. But this critical chapter in history shows us the price we will pay for remaining silent.
A big issue in the UK books world the past few years is diversity and inclusion in the titles UK publishers release, which obviously has come into sharper focus during the Black Lives Matter protests. Do you think Canadian publishers are reaching out enough to writers from previously under- represented communities?
I think we need to think of the bigger picture here. Often when people think of inclusion, they think of inclusion that’s nice; inclusion that shows the public there is some change, without truly changing the systems that cause the inequalities in the first place. Unless underrepresented community members are seen in leadership positions, and are given agency to make bold choices in arts organisations, then there is no real change. Those underrepresented community members should have a seat at the table, from boards of directors, to editors, to leadership, to juries, to reviewers. Otherwise we are simply puppets for a vanity project.
You’re a novelist, screen- writer and a playwright. I’m curious about the process of multi-hyphenate writers who work across disciplines. When you are thinking of a project, do you think of it from the beginning as a novel or a play, or do you decide as you go on that a story would work better as, say, a novel?
I write my work out loud to see if the sentence structure works, then commit it to the page, then read it out loud again. In theatre, when you mess up a line over and over again, it’s a cue that you need to re-write it. I do the same while writing a book. I interchange wearing the hat of playwright, author and screenwriter often, and the transition always seems natural to me. I don’t make a big fuss about the shift, and consider it another way to tell a story and to get an idea across. Each medium is another tool, and I enjoy the process very much.
I think I am almost legally obliged to ask a Covid question: how have you fared during the pandemic? Have you been able to write as you normally would?
Seeing the realities of your novel unfold in real life has been traumatis- ing. It’s also given me hope for a new world, with new systems of being in relationship to one another with equal access to resources. The universe, knowing my intentions towards the creation of this new reality, has been very generous to me in the form of ideas, images and words. I am extremely grateful for these gifts.
Catherine Hernandez’s first novel, Scarborough (2017), was shortlisted for the Toronto Book Award and Trillium Book Award, and is being adapted for the screen by Compy Films. She is a playwright and artistic director of Toronto’s b current performing arts; her plays include “The Femme Playlist”, “Eating with Lola” and “Kilt Pins”. She has also written two children’s books, M is for Mustache and I Promise. Crosshairs was published in September by HarperCollins Canada and Atria (US), and will be released by Jacaranda in the UK in January 2021.