By Natalie Stanczyk
Photo by SFUPAMR
For Wayde Compton, heaven would be a kind of library, much like how Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges envisioned it. A poet, scholar, and the program director of SFU’s Writer’s Studio, Compton has recently been shortlisted for the National Magazine Awards for his short story, The Instrument, which follows a young filmmaker attempting to document his father’s life.
The Writer’s Studio is Compton’s most recent venture, having just come on board this past January. Part of SFU Continuing Studies, it is a one-year creative writing program with a spotlight on collaboration and community, with one of the highest ratios of teacher-student contact hours of similar programs in North America. “The mentorship model makes it different,” says Compton: working in isolation after a three-hour lecture isn’t quite as effective as collaborating in smaller groups. “Learning to write creatively is a social process.”
The program has a growing reputation. Last fall, two graduates from the program were offered contracts with major publishing houses HarperCollins and The Penguin Group. “Alumni tend to be very active in forming and continuing this writing community, often long after their time in the program,” says Compton.
Finding inspiration and overcoming writer’s block are mysterious processes for non-writers, but Compton’s remedy is a simple one. He admits, “I do require a certain state of mind to write. Being near people in a quiet space is best for me.” His first encounter with writing was guitarist Jimi Hendrix. “I was a big fan as a kid, and was fascinated by his psychedelic song lyrics. I thought of them as poetry.”
Compton has also been invaluable to raising awareness on issues around Vancouver’s black community. He co-founded the Hogan’s Alley Memorial Project, an organization aimed at protecting the public memory of the city’s original black community. He’s also behind Commodore Books, the first black-oriented press in western Canada, an important move in overcoming obstacles to publishing black literature.
“The protagonists in my stories are often black or mixed-race. Some, however, are white, and other times their race is not mentioned. But I’ve noticed that if my protagonist’s race is revealed to be black late in a story, editors will ask me to change that and mention their race early on, presumably because this piece of information changes how they have been reading the story,” says Compton, though if the protagonist’s race is white or unmentioned, he gets no grief from editors. “I believe this is because there is a bias to read a character as white unless it is otherwise indicated. I don’t think that bias should be accommodated or encouraged by the author.”
Compton has a point. The ultra-popular book trilogy The Hunger Games cast young black actress Amandla Stenberg as Rue, a character who is described in the books as having dark brown skin and hair, but bigoted fans still objected to the choice of actor, subjecting the movie cast to racist comments on Twitter in the weeks following the film’s release.
These are the kinds of issues Compton addresses in preserving and promoting awareness of the social and literary sides of the history to Vancouver’s black community, and his efforts are various. Being an active member of a community is key, and Compton finds a way to express the things he cares about in his writing.
To tie up our chat, I asked what was on Compton’s bucket list. “If the world was going to end this year, the only writing task that would matter would be the creation of more stories to tell my daughter.”