'An essential book for allies': Eternity Martis on Race, Campus Life and Growing Up at a Canadian University

On July 16, Equity and Inclusion hosted a virtual chat with author Eternity Martis in partnership with IGNITE and IBPOC Connections. The event centred around her novel They Said This Would Be Fun: Race, Campus Life, and Growing Up, which details her experiences at Western University as a Black woman.

Martis was joined by Minelle Mahtani, associate professor, Institute for Social Justice and senior advisor to the provost on racialized faculty; Maryam Nabavi, strategist, equity & inclusion office; and Daniel Justice, professor and Canada research chair in Indigenous literature & expressive culture. Martis was mainly interviewed by Justice.

An ‘Essential Book for Allies’

Martis began the event by sharing how she’s been spending her time at home before Justice asked the first question of the novel’s timing, amid COVID-19 and anti-racism movements worldwide.

“We’ve seen what’s happening in the world with George Floyd and the continued killings of Black people and the disregard for Black life,” said Martis. “There is something about this moment where everyone’s at home and everyone’s reading.”

Mahtani agreed with this, in her opening statement she noted that the book offers a “no holds barred portrayal of what it means to be a young Black woman studying in the ivory tower.”

As the fall semester presents challenges for students, Martis hopes that this creates an opportunity to talk about the book and race on campus.

While Martis initially believed that “no one would be interested in this book in the middle of a pandemic”, the recent deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and the “continued killings of Black people and the disregard for Black life”, proved otherwise.

In a review of the book by Erica Lenti of Xtra, the novel was heralded as an “essential book for allies.” Justice noted how it is a shame that we need this book while balancing its relevance to current events.

Bursting with stories

The discussion moved to what stories mean to Martis. She recalled pieces of writing from when she was only eight years old, talking about her experiences with grief. Early on in her career, she started to write about race.

Her grief in this novel came from the loss of the “university experience.” She said that writing was a way for her to process those emotions and her writing classes were a safe space on campus. At times when she was afraid to leave her house due to anxiety Martis would turn to writing.

“I would constantly get ‘Oh you’re so great, it must have taken a lot to tell that story,’” said Martis. “There was never a moment where I was like, ‘Maybe I should hold back here, maybe I shouldn’t tell this story.’” This sense of urgency to tell stories is what eventually led her to pursue journalism.

She initially intended for They Said This Would Be Fun: Race, Campus Life, and Growing Up to be a memoir, but also wanted to include experiences from other students of colour she had met.

“It felt so urgent to not only tell my story, but tell the stories of people who wanted to see their story represented, but weren’t getting a place to tell it.”

Universities and statements on anti-racism

Martis stated that she did not want the book to be solely about the problems at Western University when there are many issues happening at other universities.

Justice asked Martis to unpack the idea that the university mandate itself actually creates harm. She described the university mandate as a cushion, where hate speech and racially motivated incidents are protected under the guise of “free speech.”

“What we’re seeing a lot of is not necessarily hate crimes under the law, but hate incidents that possibly can target you or discriminate against you,” said Martis. “Students almost always do not get suspended ... and are allowed to behave in certain ways without fear of punishment.”

Many universities are releasing statements of solidarity during this time. Martis stated that putting out a statement is not comparable to understanding a given student’s situation, “these statements put a band-aid on what’s happening.”

She pointed out that universities are not collecting race-based data, which can show a lack of understanding for the challenges the students of colour face.

One question from the audience mentioned a quote from the NAACP Instagram page that stated: “Black students are not on college campuses to do free anti-racism work” and the emotional labour that these students face.

“[People] think that being a great ally is by asking a Black person ‘What do you think?’, and [these are] things you could easily Google.” said Martis

Martis also noted that Black students may also have to reassure people that they are “on the right track”.

When asked about advice for students who have stories that may not have the freedom to speak out, she highlighted Instagram pages such as Black at Western, where students can share what happened to them and reclaim their power.

“It’s a legacy or connection shared through trauma and pain but at the same time it inspires other people to share their experiences and add to that voice.”