Eternity Martis is SFU’s 2022 Non-Fiction Writer in Residence

A conversation on vulnerabilities in story writing and the role of non-fiction

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exterior of W.A.C. Bennett library
The event featured readings from both speakers’ books and their insight on non-fiction and activism. PHOTO: Gudrun Wai-Gunnarsson / The Peak

By: Gurleen Aujla, Peak Associate

On January 20, 2022, the SFU Library and SFU Public Square hosted a virtual reading and Q&A event with award-winning authors and journalists, Eternity Martis and Kamal Al-Solaylee, to launch the non-fiction Writer-In-Residence program. 

The program began last year and aims to celebrate and emphasize “the power of non-fiction writing to share knowledge beyond academia.” 

The event began with Martis and Al-Solaylee doing short readings from their books. “Writing in itself is radical resistance,” Martis said. “It is a triumph. People can try to stop you from speaking your truth but no one can take your words away from you.”

When asked about navigating vulnerability when sharing your own story, Martis said, “Writing about yourself is really scary because you’re putting your heart, soul, your tears [into it].” She added, “Putting that into your book and living in the world that we live in where people can tear it apart so easily, that scared me a lot.” 

Martis connects non-fiction writing to different resistance movements and its importance in enacting change. 

“If we think about slavery, if we think about Jim Crow, if we think about residential schools, that has come from a lot of non-fiction,” Martis explained. She added the importance of non-fiction stems from documentation of these events so that we don’t replicate them. “I think it plays a massive role in resistance movements,” she added. “We get people reading, consuming, and then being so outraged, so touched, or so anything that they go out and act.” 

She recalled being told in her early writing days, “You don’t know whose hands your work is going to end up in.” Her work has been read in institutions and by police forces, lawyers, politicians, and decision-makers. “They get to make that change. The change comes from everywhere and resistance starts with words.”

When writing her memoir, Martis combined sharing her personal experiences with statistics on the commonality of issues surrounding race, gender, and gender-based violence on university campuses. 

Martis questioned how she could make the issue so visible that people could not look away. She said writing about her lived experiences as a Black student at Western University navigating predominately white spaces was a tool to show that such systemic issues are not isolated, but are very common. 

“When we look at the political [and cultural] climate that you’re in today, personal writing and sharing our stories has never been more important.”

Al-Solaylee added non-fiction writing is a bridge between fiction and journalism. Its writers bring in fictional elements, such as scene-setting and storytelling, and journalistic style.

This year’s Non-Fiction Writer-in-Residence program will feature a series of workshops on topics including non-fiction book proposals, memoir and personal essay writing, and how to write about trauma.

Martis’ work has been featured in The Huffington Post, CBC, and Maclean’s, among others. Her best-selling debut memoir, They Said This Would Be Fun: Race, Campus Life, and Growing Up, describes “what it’s like to be a student of colour on a predominantly white campus.” 

Al-Solaylee is the director of the UBC School of Journalism, Writing, and Media. He authored the best-selling memoir, Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes, and is a two-time finalist for the National Magazine Awards. 

For more information on the non-fiction Writer-In-Residence program and the event recording, visit the SFU Library’s website.