Interview by Jieun Lee
Jaclyn Desforges is the author of a picture book, Why Are You So Quiet? (Annick Press, 2020), and a forthcoming poetry collection with Palimpsest Press. Her first chapbook, Hello Nice Man, was published by Anstruther Press in 2019.
Jaclyn is a Pushcart-nominated writer and the winner of the 2018 RBC/PEN Canada New Voices award, the 2019 Hamilton Public Library Freda Waldon Award for Fiction, the 2019 Judy Marsales Real Estate Ltd. Award for Poetry, and a 2020 Hamilton Emerging Artist Award for Writing. Jaclyn’s writing has been featured or is forthcoming in Room Magazine, THIS Magazine, The Puritan, The Fiddlehead, Contemporary Verse 2 and others.
Jaclyn is currently writing a collection of short fiction with the generous support of the Canada Council for the Arts. She is an MFA candidate in the University of British Columbia’s creative writing program and lives in Hamilton with her partner and daughter.
Why Are You So Quiet? is both gentle and powerful, exploring the importance of observing and listening. What were some of your inspirations for Myra Louise’s story?
I knew I wanted to write about a quiet kid, a kid like I was. So many characters in picture books are noisy or silly or foolhardy or adventurous. And I was too, in some ways, but only within my inner world, or around my safest people. When I was at school, I was incredibly overwhelmed by all the noises and people and expectations. The question “Why are you so quiet?” has stayed with me throughout my life – it’s been asked of me many times, starting in early childhood and continuing on through my first job, through university, through adult life.
I think the question stayed in the back of my mind because it was a bit of a mystery. For one, I literally did not know the answer. I knew that it felt good for me to sit quietly and listen and observe. And I felt frantic and anxious when I went against those inclinations. And it also confused me because sometimes the question is intended to be a genuine invitation to share, and sometimes it can be a dressed-up version of What’s wrong with you? Because to be quiet and thoughtful and reflective and sensitive are not prized traits in our culture. And they certainly were not prized traits in the suburbs of southwestern Ontario in the 90s. They’re shadow traits. My entire childhood, I was haunted by the spectre of being a loner. I went against my own heart in order to avoid that terrible fate.
There’s a page in the book in which Myra Louise starts to feel smaller and smaller – this is reflected beautifully in the illustrations by Risa Hugo – and that’s what happened to me. Imagine that you’re sitting there at your desk, completely immersed in reading a book – you’re deep in your inner world. And then the teacher says, “It’s dodgeball time!” And all the other kids start jumping up and hooting and hollering, but you just want desperately to read your book. Maybe you say, “Actually, I just kind of want to read my book.” And then the room goes silent. And then everybody looks at you. And they say, “What’s wrong with you? Dodgeball is way more fun than reading.”
Maybe even the teacher says that, or your mom, or your closest friends. So you go play dodgeball. You put a smile on so everybody thinks you’re enjoying yourself. That’s where masking starts, where you stop expressing your true responses, because they’re considered weird or boring or whatever. You desperately want to have friends. You desperately want to be acceptable.
I wrote and sold this book back in 2018, and it wasn’t until after it was acquired by Annick Press that I learned I had undiagnosed inattentive ADHD and that I was autistic. I learned about neurodiversity and the Actually Autistic movement and I learned about how frequently girls and AFAB kids go undiagnosed and unsupported. I began to understand ableism and neurodiversity better and began untangling the shame I’d felt my entire life – the shame of reacting differently to the world than other people did.
When I wrote this book, I just wrote it. I wasn’t quite sure where it all came from, but it was there. Reading the book two years later, it’s clear to me that the story is about Myra Louise seeing the world differently than the people around her, feeling cast out, and then taking action to make room for her own ways of being in the world. Making room for the beauty and power of quietness. But it wasn’t until after I wrote the book that I realized how deeply it was influenced by the suffering I experienced as someone who was neurodivergent and quiet and introverted and highly sensitive. And it wasn’t until after I wrote the book that I started to value and assert my own natural ways of being in the world – setting boundaries around what I will take on and what I won’t, and allowing myself the privacy of not worrying if I am normal or abnormal or whatever.
And the pandemic! Oh my goodness. If we’ve learned anything this year it’s that overvaluing action, aggression, just doing stuff, marching forward no matter what – like, sure, we can do that, as a species, but we might just march ourselves right off a cliff. We need to balance the energies of the world. Highly sensitive kids are observant, and I picked up early on that the energy of DO was more valid, acceptable and morally right than the energy of BE. What gives me the right to sit and think about things instead of providing concrete value to the world? I still struggle with that one, and I struggle with the fact that I’m still struggling with it. I want to be able to cast out all the ableism and capitalist conditioning and denigration of stillness, but that’s the soup we’re swimming in. My work as a writer is to direct my reader’s attention to the soup, whether that reader is six or 47.
What was your process for writing Why Are You So Quiet? Was it different from writing poetry? How are the two forms similar?
I wrote WAYSQ the same year I wrote my poetry chapbook Hello Nice Man (Anstruther Press, 2019). Since that time, I’ve written more fiction – I’m writing a book of short stories for adults right now with the generous support of the Canada Council for the Arts – but it felt a bit nerve-wracking at that time to actually write a plot. My editor Claire Caldwell at Annick was very helpful. Looking back, I’m glad I came into this process with a few years of writing poetry under my belt. You don’t realize how important musicality is to a picture book until you’re reading one out loud that doesn’t have any. If you don’t pay attention to the rhythm, the syllables, the music of the language, then the grown-up reading that book aloud is going to suffer through all 32 pages. It’s going to feel exhausting.
My process is basically the same for all the genres I work in. I get myself into kind of a trance state and I freewrite and get everything down. It’s a mess. It’s not anything. And then I go back and I highlight lines that give me a little feeling. Like, Oh! That could be a thing. Or, Oh! That hurts my heart a little bit, so maybe there’s something there. I highlight those lines. And if it’s a poem, I start to put those lines together and see what happens when they’re side by side. I start making stanzas out of them. With WAYSQ, I consider every page to be a stanza.
Your book also represented something that is increasingly important in our culture today: highlighting and magnifying voices that are not always heard. What are some ways that we can take inspiration from Myra Louise when being advocates for marginalized voices?
Believe people when they share their experiences of the world. Believe people when they share their experiences of embodied consciousness. Not everybody sees the world the same way you do. Not everybody experiences that house party, that perfume, that quality of light, the way you do. When somebody tells you that something has hurt them, emotionally or physically, believe them. Don’t try to argue people out of their sense of reality. Another person experiencing the world differently from you, encountering challenges you’ve never imagined before, is not a slight against you. Because we all have different experiences, different histories, different ways of being in the world, it’s very easy to hurt each other. And when we find out that we have hurt somebody, it’s hard to acknowledge that. It feels easier, maybe, to say You’re too sensitive than it is to say You’re right, I hurt you. I’m sorry. I will do the work to fix this. To choose the latter option takes strength – inner strength. And it takes practice.
When someone tells you what it feels like for them to be in the world, that’s an opportunity to learn and to listen. Don’t squander that moment, regardless of how uncomfortable it may feel. The discomfort is a sign that there’s work to be done. Being alerted to that need is a gift.
Risa Hugo’s beautiful artwork really brought your writing and Myra Louise to life. What was it like to work together on this gorgeous project?
It was a quiet collaboration! Risa and I have never actually spoken – once my part was done, it was up to Annick to choose the right illustrator for the project and to manage all of that. I received updates through my editor Claire and it was a delight every time I got to see Risa’s illustrations. I didn’t want to be too involved – I’m a writer, not an illustrator, and I didn’t want to get in the way of Risa’s expertise and the expertise of the team at Annick. I loved everything she did and had very few notes. My big visual contribution to the book was requesting an umbrella in one of the scenes so Myra Louise’s listening machine wouldn’t get wet.
The fact that we weren’t directly in touch made the whole process feel a little bit magical. I was so delighted when Claire let me know that Risa had envisioned Myra Louise as mixed Japanese Canadian. I was thrilled because that’s my daughter’s background, too, and Risa had no idea! Finding mixed Asian representation in the books we read together is really important to our family. My daughter was four when I showed her the first drawings of Myra Louise. She said, “She looks just like me!” It was a really special moment.
Can you tell us what you’re currently working on?
Writing-wise, I’m working on that book of short stories these days – I’m so lucky to have the incredibly talented writer Elisabeth de Mariaffi as a mentor through this process. Writing is hard and scary and it hurts sometimes to dig up all that pain and trauma and psychic goop and make it into art. It’s good to have support. I have a poetry collection coming out with Palimpsest Press in 2022. And I’m doing the world’s slowest creative writing MFA at UBC, taking one class at a time with breaks here and there.
My partner and I also just bought a beautiful old house here in Hamilton, so I’ve been dealing with a lot of physical reality lately while we get ourselves set up. And I’m doing homeschool grade one for my daughter through the pandemic. This week I discovered the Procreate app on my iPad and I started drawing a duck.
Most days, I feel like I’m failing at everything. It takes me two weeks to answer an email. But I love being awake and alive. I love getting up and making my coffee and reading the news and writing my thoughts down and talking to people who love talking about big ideas. I’m annoyed when I’m tired and I have to go to sleep because all I want to do is to keep reading and writing and talking. It’s kind of funny — the more I learn to accept and love and nourish that quiet part of my heart, the more I find myself drawn towards participating in the world. The more I listen, maybe, the more I have to say. I am so grateful to be able to do this work. I’m exhausted and overwhelmed and happy.
Our reviews of Jaclyn Desforges’ books: