Author spotlight: Jaime Burnet

Jaime Burnet is a writer who practices law and a lawyer who writes fiction. She has a master’s degree in Women & Gender Studies and Sexual Diversity Studies from the University of Toronto and a law degree from Dalhousie University. An associate lawyer at Pink Larkin in Halifax, her work is focused on the areas of labour, employment, constitutional, and human rights law. Released last fall, Crocuses Hatch from Snow (Nimbus Publishing / Vagrant Press) is her first novel.

How long have you been writing? What drew you to writing in general, and fiction in particular?

I think I wrote my first story when I was eight or nine. It’s called “The Harmonica Girl” and it is very earnest. I still have it. I was also a pretty big liar when I was little, mostly just trying to make my life sound more interesting to my friends. I guess that’s still my approach to fiction – asking what my life would be like if it were slightly different in a few key ways. I also find it cathartic to write about a character going through similar experiences to those I’ve had. I like it better than journaling about my own life, which feels so close that I have a hard time writing honestly about it. 

Your first novel has just been published by Nimbus. How would you describe the experience of publishing a book?

I’ve daydreamed of publishing a book since I was a kid, so it’s wonderful to have finally done it. But it is nerve wracking to have this story that I’d been writing since my early 20s out in the world. Even though it’s fiction, there’s a lot of me in it. It’s political, there’s a bunch of sex in it, and it was one of my main creative outlets for over a decade. It’s a very personal project. But those are the sorts of books I love the hardest – books that come out of an author’s real life. 

I had a very positive experience with Nimbus/Vagrant. It was incredibly important to me to find a publisher that shared my view of appropriate editing practices when a privileged person writes about characters who are oppressed by the same token. My book features African Nova Scotian and Mi’kmaw characters, as well as white characters, and a lot of the story focuses on systemic racism and colonialism in Halifax and elsewhere in Nova Scotia. 

Whitney Moran was committed to engaging African Nova Scotian and Mi’kmaw readers to review the book for cultural accuracy and respectful characterization. I’m very thankful to Tiffany Morris, Andre Fenton, Rebecca Thomas, Cheryl Maloney, and Lindsay Ruck, and to my friends, Michael Davies-Cole, Okanta Leonard, and Balraj Dosanjh, for reviewing the story and providing invaluable feedback on my representation of Mi’kmaw, African Nova Scotian, and South Asian characters and issues. Whitney also paired me with Stephanie Domet, who was such an insightful editor, and really helped me to ground the story in place and create a kind of resolution at the end without tying everything up into a neat package. It’s a strange experience to have something that was such a solitary project for so long become so collaborative, but I like the book much more now.

Were you worried at all about writing characters outside of your personal experience? What steps did you take to make sure your portrayals are culturally sensitive?

I was absolutely worried, and I think that’s an appropriate way to feel if it spurs you to do your best to represent characters in true and respectful ways. I’ve read comments by white authors who say they feel policed and censored by concerns about cultural appropriation. But no one has the right to write whatever they want and face no criticism. I think it’s positive and necessary that BIPOC authors’ and critics’ opinions about white authors who write BIPOC characters are being heard. If a writer is causing harm, they should be told so. 

I was concerned that, even if I did my best, I could still cause harm. But I also believe it’s necessary and valuable for white people to talk about racism and white privilege – particularly with other white people. Writing a white character who is learning about these things was my attempt to engage with white readers about these issues. Writing African Nova Scotian, Mi’kmaw, and South Asian characters was my attempt to write a story set in Halifax that more truly reflects the people who live here.

I tried to be responsible and accountable by doing research – watching documentaries, reading books, essays, blogs, and poems, attending talks, plays, poetry readings, and art openings, and listening to friends, partners, neighbours, classmates, teachers, and coworkers to better understand the experiences of Mi’kmaw people, African Nova Scotian people, and other people of colour. I asked Indigenous, African Nova Scotian, and South Asian friends, and white anti-racist friends, to read my manuscript and provide me with feedback before I submitted it to Nimbus/Vagrant. And then, as part of my publication contract, Nimbus/Vagrant committed to engaging Mi’kmaw and African Nova Scotian readers to further review the story. This process doesn’t create any kind of seal of approval on my book, but I hope readers feel that it was respectful and responsible, and I hope that the story rings true.

How did you find time to write while working a demanding job?

I mostly wrote Crocuses in the summers in my early 20s. I barely did any work on it during law school, or when I first started working as a lawyer. Just before I went on mat leave in 2018, I submitted it to Nimbus/Vagrant, and a few months later it was accepted. I did a lot of work on it during my leave, often typing with one hand while I held my baby in the other. It was like a writing sabbatical but with lots of breastfeeding and very little sleep.  

Having read Crocuses Hatch from Snow, I wasn’t surprised to read about the areas of law you specialize in. How were you able to incorporate your legal interests in your novel?

I wrote most of the book years before I considered going to law school. I think anyone who knows me wouldn’t be surprised that this is the sort of book I would write, or the sort of law I would practice. I read and think and write and work on issues of social justice because they are critically important. That was part of my reason for writing this book – to hopefully provide another entry point, via fiction, for readers to learn and think about racism, colonialism, white privilege, homophobia, ageism… I think that’s one of the most important abilities of art – opening people up to new ways of understanding things. 

Crocuses Hatch from Snow touches on many things: love, family, and community among them. I also read it as a love letter to Halifax’s north end. What is it about this part of the city that makes it special to you?

Halifax was the first place I lived away from my family, and it feels like my home more than any other place has. I first lived in the south end as a young university student, and then later moved to the north end, because rent was cheaper and that’s where my friends were living. I started playing music, hanging out at the Roberts Street Social Centre / Anchor Archive, and getting involved in queer, feminist, anti-racist, anti-capitalist activism. It was special to walk from my house to Roberts Street for movie nights, dumpster pitas from the Lebanese bakery, have organizing meetings and anti-racist book clubs in friends’ living rooms, bike all over the neighbourhood, go out dancing, play quiet songs at folk punk house shows and loud angry songs at Sad Rad and Radstorm, and kiss my friends at the queer bathhouse. 

As I learned about the destruction of Africville, the forced relocation of members of that community to Uniacke Square, and the gentrification of the north end, I started to think more critically about my presence in that neighbourhood. It’s been wild to witness how quickly it’s been gentrified, and how the demographic has shifted. This is a big focus of Crocuses – the gentrification of Halifax’s north end. Part of the story is set in 2007/2008, and the neighbourhood has changed so much more since then. So though I loved living there in many ways, I also feel very complicated about my presence in the north end and what I represent there as a white person. Even though I wasn’t actively gentrifying the neighbourhood by buying low income housing and flipping it, or opening an expensive boutique, I was still part of it. 

Over a year ago I moved to Herring Cove – not to get away from being a white person in a rapidly gentrifying, historically Black neighbourhood (white privilege exists everywhere – you can’t get away from it). I moved to be closer to the woods and the ocean, and so my family would have more room to garden and run around. And also because queer Halifax can feel very, very small. 

This may be a related question, but where is your happy place?

In the woods with my kid and partner and dog, or reading a book and drinking tea in the early morning before they all wake up. 

What are you working on right now? Any chance current events could make it into your fiction writing?

Maybe in five or ten years, once I’ve had some time to process it. Right now I’m working on a novel about an abusive queer relationship, as a way to work through my own experiences of that. And about pregnancy and birth and motherhood, which is such a central part of my life now. That being the case (my kid is now two), I write in the tiniest bits of time, so it could be many, many years before I finish another book. But I’m doing my best to write because it’s good for me.

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