Evelyn C. White is a journalist and author whose books include Chain, Chain, Change: For Black Women in Abusive Relationships (Seal Press, 1985) and the biography Alice Walker: A Life (W. W. Norton & Company, 2004). A former reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, she now lives and writes in Halifax, where she has published articles in The Coast, The Nova Scotia Advocate, Halifax Examiner, and other local newspapers. In what follows, she shares her reflections on the writing life, her advice for aspiring writers, her experience working on Alice Walker’s biography, and more.
How long have you been writing? What drew you to writing in general, and non-fiction in particular?
I have been writing since about grade 5. I have always been an avid reader and especially loved newspapers. My hometown had an afternoon newspaper and I can still hear the sound of the newspaper landing on our front stoop.
You have an extensive background in print journalism. How did you find the transition from working for a newspaper to writing book-length non-fiction projects?
The transition from being a staff reporter on a daily newspaper to writing non-fiction books was not difficult. I welcomed the space to expand my own voice.
In addition to working as a writer, you’ve taught non-fiction workshops and worked as a part-time tutor with the Nova Scotia Community College. Do you see a connection between the practice of writing and the practice of teaching?
One must have and/or develop confidence in one’s creative and technical skills as a writer. As a teacher, I enjoy helping my students build their self-confidence.
You recently participated in an event co-organized by the WFNS and the Delmore “Buddy” Daye Learning Institute in honour of poet Maxine Tynes, where you shared some moving words about Tynes’ work and career. If you had the opportunity to meet Tynes, what would you say to her?
I would thank Maxine Tynes for learning to love all of herself in a province that has marginalized people of African descent for generations. The history of Blacks in Canada begins in Nova Scotia and it is a sad commentary on the white power structure here that African Nova Scotians have not emerged (because of racism) as the prototype for Black excellence in North American. Nova Scotia had a free Black community for nearly a century before my African forebears were emancipated from slavery in the United States. So what happened here? The free Blacks in Birchtown were so mistreated that they got back on ships and returned to Africa. This is one of the saddest chapters in Canadian history—recounted beautifully in The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill. Every Nova Scotian should make it a priority to visit the Black Loyalist Heritage Centre (BLHC) in Birchtown. It is one of the finest small museums in the world. I have been privileged to visit the Perfume Museum in Barcelona, the Women’s Museum in Aarhus, Denmark, the Parasite Museum in Tokyo (yes, that’s what I said), and the Kentucky Fried Chicken Museum near Louisville (again, that’s what I said). The BLHC is situated in a beautiful landscape and houses a history that should be of paramount interest to every Canadian and especially to Nova Scotians.
As for Ms. Tynes, her early poem “Poet, Weaver, Woman, Dreamer” ends—despite everything she suffered as a Black female in Nova Scotia—with this line: “I wonder, who is casting jealous eyes on me.” She was triumphant. I never met her but am eternally grateful for her shining example of self-love.
In a Q&A published on the Halifax Public Libraries website earlier this year, you discuss your work on Alice Walker, including the biography Alice Walker: A Life (W.W. Norton & Company, 2004). In this interview, you explain that you have a personal relationship with Walker. What was it like to write a book about someone you knew personally?
My relationship with Alice Walker during the writing of my book is best described as “collegial acquaintances.” We had a mutual understanding of each other as writers who greatly value artistic freedom. I never perceived her as someone who might interfere in my writing process. My sense is that she did not perceive me as someone who would disrespect (in any way) the great honour and privilege she granted me as her official biographer. I think that most writers, by virtue of the demands of our profession, tend to keep a certain mental remove from others. In my view, such distance helps to sharpen our powers of observation and discernment.
That said, Alice Walker and I had (and have) many common interests. It was enjoyable and enriching to attend movies, lectures, and concerts with her. I once attended one of her readings. There were so many people (beyond standing room only) that officials at the auditorium brought out extra chairs to be placed on the stage around her. As I’d arrived late (long story), I ended up being among those seated on the stage. This meant that I was able to gaze out at the audience as Alice spoke from the podium. The sight was breathtaking. Because what I saw being beamed back to Alice Walker was pure love. From people of every age, background, ability. I saw love, happiness, pride, delight, wonder, appreciation, joy, peace, comfort. I will carry the magic of that “accidental moment” with me for the rest of my life. I think it is rare to witness a sea of humanity at total ease. Everyone in the room was alive and rejoicing in the sheer presence of Alice who was completely and totally herself.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Advice to aspiring writers? There is zero commercial profit in it—except in extraordinary cases. Most of us are not extraordinary. One must be motivated by and find reward in something beyond money. Writers are poised to have a wealth of experience and the satisfaction of self-expression. Beyond that, writers suffer just like everyone else. There is nothing special about being a writer. Most do not rank high on the “excitement” meter. I count myself among that number. I’d much rather chat with a marimba player. It will be a great day when I meet the genius who invented black sesame ice cream.
What’s great about writing in your part of Nova Scotia?
The new library is the best part of my writing life in Nova Scotia. It is one of the main reasons that I moved here from BC. I love everything about it. I make excellent use of its excellent interlibrary loan system.
Do you remember the first time you were paid for your writing? What was it like?
I was paid $13 for a book review I wrote in the late 1970s. An unexpected cheque (on goldenrod paper) arrived in the mail. I was dumbfounded by what I then viewed as “magic money.” For the longest time, I considered all income from my writing as magical. No more. The cost is very high for bearing witness (and living to tell it) as a writer. Doubly, triply so for writers who are not white, male, heterosexual, and from the privileged class. Let us not forget that future Nobel Literature Laureate Toni Morrison started with The Bluest Eye and Sula. I am hard pressed to imagine the emotional strength it took for her to write those novels.
Did you have a mentor when you started writing? What was that relationship like?
All of my writing mentors/muses have been musicians. I aim to write with the mastery exhibited in “Car Wash” by Rose Royce, “Dream” by DeBarge, and “Somewhere” by Aretha Franklin. I am infinitely inspired by the unhinged authenticity of Celine Dion. I took note when a group of Black drag queens (the ultimate in discernment) declared Celine Dion the only contemporary singer with talent equal to that of the late Queen of Soul. They were right.
What are you working on right now?
It is not my practice to discuss current writing projects. I maintain an intimate relationship with them that contains multitudes—but in an unspoken way. A recent essay about Michael Jackson and climate change will be published in a forthcoming anthology.