Poet works to connect racialized writers

Jónína Kirton is a poet and a builder of bridges. Of mixed Icelandic and Métis ancestry, the award-winning author works to connect other Indigenous and racialized writers to the literary community, a sometimes-elitist world where non-white writers can struggle to feel at home. Jónína also considers herself a forger of chains—by mentoring emerging writers, she hopes they will in turn mentor the writers who come after them.

Yet building bridges and chains can be heavy, exhausting work. Jónína joined SFU’s Community Capacity Building program looking for a way not only to build her own capacity, but also the capacity of those she strives to help.

“For writers who are new, especially if we come from a marginalized community, it’s difficult,” she explains. “I wanted to expand my knowledge of how to increase capacity, because what we need is people who have similar experiences as us to edit our work, to mentor us, to help us make our way in this world. It’s not the same for a white writer who has privilege, education, money. When they enter a room, it’s a very different experience for them than it is for us.”

A relatively new author herself, Jónína published her first book of poetry in 2015 at the age of 60 and is now working on her third. At times, it’s been a precarious balancing act trying to write while continuing her efforts in the community. Jónína works with the Indigenous Editors Association, which provides a supportive network for Indigenous editors and publishing professionals. She also serves as “BIPOC Auntie” for the Writer’s Studio program at SFU, supporting and guiding students who are people of colour. Complicating the numerous demands on her time, Jónína also battles a painful chronic health condition.

Adding Community Capacity Building classes to the mix might have been overwhelming for her, but fortunately, the program facilitators place enormous emphasis on self-care. “More than giving us tools, they’ve given us permission to take care of ourselves and operate from a much more centred way,” says Jónína.

The learning she found most helpful, she explains, is the concept of defining a “mountaintop goal”—a vision or mission statement that can guide all your work. “I’ve really gotten clear on saying no to things that aren’t going to fit with my mountaintop goal, which in turn aren’t going to fit who I am,” she says. “I always felt like I was rushing off in about 50 different directions, but I’ve learned to narrow in, and not feel I have to be all things to all people.”

Jónína says she’s grateful to SFU for the opportunity, and appreciates that the program is funded, eliminating any financial burden on the participants. It’s allowed her the space to focus on developing those much-needed bridges that will help racialized and marginalized writers to no longer feel like outsiders.

“It’s my heart, my soul, my reason for being here,” she says. “My ancestors struggled, and I’m the recipient of their struggles. I’ve also been the recipient of the hard-won privilege secured by my Métis father and white mother who became homeowners when I was 14. Things were rough at times, but we always had what we needed. I feel a sense of responsibility to be there for people who haven’t had that or who, like me, lost it due to systemic barriers.”

By Kim Mah