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Book review: They Said This Would Be Fun

A remarkable memoir about being a Black student on a white Canadian campus
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A debut novel on fighting for space within a racist and sexist campus culture. COURTESY OF PENGUIN RANDOM HOUSE AND COREY MISQUITA
A debut novel on fighting for space within a racist and sexist campus culture. COURTESY OF PENGUIN RANDOM HOUSE AND COREY MISQUITA

Eternity Martis begins her memoir, They Said This Would Be Fun: Race, Campus Life, and Growing Up, with the last day of orientation on Western University’s “giant grassy quad.”

In a few brushstrokes, she paints an image of Western that all are familiar with: the school with epic parties. The often-called “best four years of your life” become distorted through her lived experience as a Black woman on a predominantly white campus.

In her straightforward prose, she breaks down her university experiences with tact and humour, weaving together the complicated dynamics of race with themes of self-discovery, systems of oppression, and relationships — all under an overarching feminist frame.

Growing up within a multiracial family, born of an Irish and Pakistani mother and Jamaican father, Martis mentions that identity wasn’t a topic of discussion for the South Asian side of her family, and that her absent father didn’t connect her to her Jamaican heritage.

This situation left her as a “multiracial woman with Black features in a family of brown people.” As she left her hometown of Toronto to attend Western University, she “wondered what kind of person [she] was outside those confines, and university seemed like a good place to start solidifying the pieces of [herself] that [she] felt [she] couldn’t explore back home.”

As a Black person, I have found a reflection of my dilemmas through her experiences. At Western, almost everyone she interacted with referred to her Blackness either through microaggressions or through the constant hypersexualization of her body.

During my time at an all-boys high school, I’ve had my Blackness questioned multiple times. The most creative remark I’ve received is that I was akin to an Oreo cookie — Black on the outside, white on the inside. All this was because I was soft-spoken, academically inclined, and overall more feminine — traits that clashed against the narrow definition of what Blackness encompasses.

While these were said with the intention of joking, constant exposure to these jokes for four years chipped away at my — at the time — fragile conception of self.

While I’ve been able to ‘confirm’ my identity by making Black friends at Victoria College, Martis struggles to do so in a white institution desolate of Black people. Often, her Black folk were hostile against each other due to the sense that they were being policed by simply being visibly Black on a white campus.

During her time on campus, Martis writes about encountering blackface on campus; being called the n-word, Ebony, Ma, and Chocolate; and being hypersexualized and outcast by her white peers in class.

The strength of her novel is that she ties in statistics and research to her personal experiences. She uses data to situate her experiences within the greater scope of racism in Canadian universities.

For example, at one point she mentions that she had dealt with racism using binge-eating. She then points to research that depicts racism as a chronic stressor amongst racialized population. Her active approach vivifies her experiences and makes them harder to dismiss as isolated incidents.

The epitome, and perhaps the most refreshingly candid point of this novel, is when she outlines the concept of white rage.

In her unvarnished prose, she writes, “White rage is considered a legitimate, acceptable form of anger—one intended to maintain the integrity and purity of the country—so it is rarely viewed as threatening. White rage encourages and enacts violence against racialized bodies; yet when racialized people speak up against harm, they are told by society that they don’t have a right to be angry.”

In this era of Black Lives Matter, discussions surrounding racism and our institutions have been galvanizing mass reforms. Incidentally, one doesn’t have to look far on social media to see the experiences of Black other racialized people being undermined.

In some of my conversations with my peers, I’ve found myself wanting to package my own emotions to fit the concept of white fragility. I’m certain this is something many other racialized students have dealt with during these times.

In her final year, Martis directed the musical For colored girls who have considered suicide /When the rainbow is enuf by Ntozake Shange. Near the end of the play, a character in the play says, “bein colored is a metaphysical dilemma / i haven’t conquered yet.”

By the end of the novel, Martis hasn’t fully digested the politicization of her Blackness, just like I have not. It’s an ongoing process for some Black and racialized youth. Hand in hand with her crew on the stage, she instinctively feels “the reassurance that everything [is] going to be okay.”

This is the hope that keeps us going, the hope for a better tomorrow.