Alumna’s memoir explores race, city and self

Special to Western NewsEternity Martis, BA’14 (English Language and Literature/Women’s Studies), will release her debut memoir, ‘They Said This Would Be Fun,’ next spring. The book that captures her difficulty of navigating white spaces as a woman of colour.

A novel would have offered anonymity through embellishment. A play would have muddied things in actor interpretation. But with a memoir, Eternity Martis’ life is out there for all to see.

“A novel. A play. They didn’t feel true,” Martis said. “Why fictionalize it when this was actually real and happening? People need the truth. People need to know what’s happening – and not under a fictionalized account. What felt the most true, the most honest was to write it as a memoir.”

Next spring, Martis will release her debut memoir, They Said This Would Be Fun. While the much-anticipated release will open eyes to the difficulty women of colour have navigating white spaces, its journey to the page revealed just as much to Martis about herself as a person and a writer.

“It’s a pretty dark book. There’s a lot on inter-partner violence, sexual assault, racism, hate crimes,” said Martis, who brought her personal story to Walrus Talks Storytelling this week.

“But through writing it, I’ve exorcised ghosts. I wasn’t expecting that. I have come out on the other end and feel like a completely different person. I still feel attached to those experiences, but they do not control my life any more. I’ve made peace with them. I’ve grown a lot. Now, I’m ready to talk about it.”

A decade in the making, the journey to the book started when Martis, BA’14 (English Language and Literature/Women’s Studies), came to Western and London in 2010.

Each weekend, she brought home to the GTA stories about the “messiness of university life for women of colour.” Her family and friends found them “unbelievable.”

Martis began to scribble the stories down on pieces of paper or save them on her laptop. They gathered and soon started to reveal a bigger picture. She knew she was on to something when she shared the stories with others.

“There’s something liberating about sharing a story that feels almost universal with everyone around you,” she said. “When you sit with your friends of colour, and you’re talking about stuff, and you’re like, ‘Oh my god, girl, like this happened to me, too,’ you realize that there’s a common thread here. I felt like I had to speak on it.”

During her time at Western, she shared many of those stories as a popular writer, a clever firebrand, in a way, with bylines in The Huffington Post, Daily Telegraph and Vice. She is perhaps best known locally for her 2015 article, London, Ontario Was a Racist Asshole to Me, that captured a lot of her experience in the Forest City.

Her work was known for being honest, raw and relatable to a long-ignored part of the community.

But that style is not without its drawbacks.

When she strayed into the comments section of one of her earliest national pieces in 2013, the comments left her in bed for two weeks. Tears. Anxiety. Stomach pains. Could not go to class.

She was only 20.

“I have gotten a couple of death threats here and there. But it has really thickened my skin,” she said of the blowback on her articles.

She expects even more when the book is released. The personal nature of her writing, combined with the uncomfortable nature of the subject matter, creates uncertainty in advance of its release.

“I am afraid,” Martis said. “I am a little late to the game of my own vulnerability. I definitely feel exposed. I go and talk to classes about memoir writing. I tell them you have to be comfortable and back up what you put out there because it’s with you forever.

“Can you walk into a family party and realize that these people now know details of real life they probably never thought of? I’m kind of grappling with that right now. But it’s like a very necessary book, and that necessity outweighs putting myself out there.”

Trolls abound – and they seemingly target any woman with an opinion, she said.

“You cannot do anything without getting trolled. For me, that is scary. I’ve been called a slut, delusional, picky and whiny. I’ve been called all those things. But those things are never about my work.

“I can handle that kind of pressure, that kind of harassment because I know what I put down is factual, correct and I stand by it. So, yes, it hurts. But you can attack me, my appearance, you can say what you want to say, but I know I am working.”

They Said This Would Be Fun holds up an uncomfortable mirror to a campus and city of the early 2000s. She writes about encountering blackface at parties, racial slurs at the bar, teachers asking permission to discuss race in classrooms where she was the only student of colour.

But this isn’t about getting even, she stressed. It is about getting things out in the open.

“I went to Western and I was in London, but the book is very much about all campuses across Canada. I do not want to place blame on a city or a school,” she said. “This is a problem across countries, across continents. The book is about me, about being on campus and off campus experiencing racism and sexism. While this happened in London, it is also happening across the country. But it is also a larger take. It’s a look at what’s happening.”

While she sees the problems persisting on campus today, she is buoyed by the fact there is no longer a fear of campus conversations – no longer do administrators or students shy away from talking about race, gender, sexual assault.

“I am ready to talk about it, not just from how I have experienced things, but how do we move forward for our students who are at university or college right now. How can this book help them? How can it help change rules and policies and laws?”

The book also held up a mirror to her own life.

“When isolated in writing this book, I started to see patterns of myself, disruptive or unhealthy habits that I had. I was talking about partying and why I was partying,” she explained. “I added a chapter about my father, who has been absent for most of my life. Writing about my dad really threw me off the rails.  “I had no idea I was harboring that kind of resentment. I had no idea how his absence had changed my whole life course at university and my relationships in my life.

“This book was like therapy. I learned a lot about where I needed to grow just by writing about it. It’s been a bit of a confessional, but also very healing.”

They Said This Would Be Fun is part of a two-book deal with McClelland & Stewart.