Author spotlight: Shauntay Grant

Shauntay Grant is a spoken word artist, poet, children’s writer, playwright, musician and choir director. Everything she does is centred on African Nova Scotian history and experience. Everything she does is done with passion and purpose.

For example, her first children’s book, Up Home (Nimbus Publishing, 2008) was written as a thank you to the Black community of North Preston, where Grant spent many happy years of her childhood. Africville (Groundwood Books, 2018), nominated for a Governor General’s Literary Award for Young People’s Literature, is a joyful exploration of historic Africville from a child’s perspective. The delightful board book My Hair is Beautiful (Nimbus Publishing, 2019) carries an “empowering message for families and children of colour, for whom wearing natural hair is both culturally significant and vital to forming a positive sense of self.” (Quill & Quire). There are more children’s books to come, proving that Grant continues to be an author to watch.

In recent years, Grant has turned her attention to drama. Her first play The Bridge (Playwrights Canada Press, 2021) was completed while Grant did a residency with 2b Theatre Company. The play is set in a rural Black Nova Scotia community and explores the complex relationship between two brothers strained over 20 years of secrecy, sin, and shame. It debuted at Neptune Theatre in early 2019 and received 11 2020 Robert Merritt Award nominations, winning four, including Outstanding New Play by a Nova Scotian.

Grant has two new plays in progress. Reunited with 2b Theatre, she is working on Maridzambira, set in modern day Halifax and ripe with notes of African Nova Scotian and Zimbabwean music and culture. The play is a collaboration with Zimbabwe’s musical treasure, Hope Masike. As well, Against the Grain Theatre (AtG) has commissioned Grant to write Identity: a Song Cycle for baritone Elliot Madore; Grant will collaborate this time with composer Dinuk Wijeratne.

I was lucky enough to catch a performance of your play, The Bridge, at Neptune Theatre back in 2019. What was it like to see your play move from script to stage production?

It was really interesting to see the production. To see words that were written for performance come alive onstage. To hear the music of the play woven into the fabric of the spoken text.

In addition to being a playwright, you’re also an accomplished poet, spoken word artist, musician, and picture book author. How does the way you tell a story shift between these different genres? 

The root of all my writing is poetry. My spoken word performance pieces are essentially poems spoken out loud. Almost all of my picture books have poetic text. And my plays have strong poetic elements. The Bridge, for example, adapts the lyrical poetry of The Song of Solomon as a conversation between a preacher and his lover. And there’s also the gospel and blues song lyrics that are, in a way, folk poems set to music. So with poetry as my grounding place, the shift happens when deciding which audience I’m writing for, or in which genre I want to write. If it’s a picture book, I’ll often lean on repetition or rhyme or other playful devices. With playwriting and spoken word I’ll often invite musical elements to explore the interplay between music and text. And with prose I’ll usually go for succinct, rhythmic lines that feel like poetry.

Speaking of your award-winning children’s books, do any interactions with young readers of your work stand out for you?

I remember sharing Africville with a group of third graders in Toronto shortly after the book’s release. The school was located near several residential buildings, one of which had recently suffered a fire that left hundreds of people without a home. In my visit with the students we explored themes of community and displacement. And when I shared with them how Africville was razed in the ’60s, a young boy raised his hand and said, “This sounds a lot like what happened to First Nations people in this country.” And I so appreciated how—at just 8 years old—he and his classmates were already having meaningful discussion around these challenging parts of our history as Canadians.

 You served as Halifax’s third Poet Laureate from 2009-2011. What was your personal approach to taking on this role?

I really wanted to create spaces for conversation between poets and other creatives. Part of that was collaborating with the Halifax Jazz Festival and other venues to create spaces for poets to collaborate with musicians in a performance setting. I also organized a national gathering of Canadian poets laureate—a first for the country at the time. And of course creating poems rooted in my experiences living on the east coast; for example my second children’s book The City Speaks In Drums is about two kids exploring the sights and sounds of Halifax, and it was published during my term as poet laureate.

You’ve had many students as a professor at Dalhousie and WFNS workshop instructor. What do you enjoy most about teaching creative writing to emerging voices?

I love those moments when a new writer starts to really own their story, and to trust their voice as an artist.

You’ve mentioned before that site-based writing is an important part of your creative process. What was it like do this for Africville, a site that looks very different today from the vibrant and deeply rooted African Nova Scotian community that the City of Halifax demolished in the 1960s?

For me, site-based writing is about deep listening on the physical land. The spaces I visit are often visually different from the historical moment I’m trying to access. But the land has stayed. And sometimes just planting my feet in the soil and trying to remember (or to imagine, or dream) is all it takes to begin to access that moment, and for stories to coming rushing in.

Can you talk about the importance of telling this story through the eyes of a young Black protagonist from the present day, rather than as a purely historical narrative?

Research is a key part of my creative process and while I love learning about history, I think it’s important for readers to encounter Black characters and Black culture in present-day contexts. Approaching this story from the perspective of a young Africville descendant taking in the annual reunion festival and reflecting on the community’s history was a way of honoring Africville’s past while also emphasizing that the community is still very much alive today.

A French edition of Africville was released last year with Moncton-based publisher Bouton d’or Acadie. What kinds of discussions did you have with translator Josephine Watson as she brought this latest iteration of the project to life?

Josephine and I didn’t interact during the development of the translated text, but I was in touch with the publisher at the time, and pleased with the translation. I had the privilege of giving a virtual author reading alongside Josephine during Black History Month this year, and was pleased to learn that she also has a background in poetry and spoken word. It definitely shines through her translation work—she did a great job.

Would it be fair to say collaboration is a cornerstone of your overall creative practice? In your experience, what are some of the hallmarks of a strong artistic partnership?

I’d say collaboration is pretty important. Right now I’m writing the poetry for a song cycle that Against The Grain Theatre will premiere in 2022—a collaboration with composer Dinuk Wijeratne and baritone Elliot Madore. In book publishing I’ve worked with illustrators and editors. In theatre I work with actors, musicians, directors, producers. With collaboration, I think having respect for what each person brings to the table is key. We may not always agree with each other—or even have conflicting visions for the project—but the respect for each other’s work is what keeps the collaboration strong, and helps guide us through those moments where we may have creative differences.

What achievement are you most proud of in your writing career thus far?

I’m not sure I could name one thing that I’m ‘most’ proud of but you wouldn’t believe my excitement when I saw Africville among the books listed in a Scholastic Reading Club flyer. I lived for those flyers when I was in elementary school and regularly pestered my parents to order new books every time the flyer came out. And it never occurred to me at the time that some day I’d have a book listed there. So I was pretty excited about the reading club edition of Africville making its way into the world.

How would you define a “successful” day of writing for yourself these days?

Any day that I get to write feels satisfying. Whether it’s just jotting down a few lines here and there, editing a work-in-progress, digging into research materials, listening and observing on the land… it’s all part of the process. And no matter how big or small the activity, it’s helping me to develop as a writer. So I’m grateful for any time—no matter how big or small—that I get to write.

Questions by K.R. Byggdin