Wayne Grady Reads from ‘Emancipation Day’

Wayne Grady feature image for YFile

Recently, York’s Canadian Writers in Person course and lecture series presented author Wayne Grady reading from his novel Emancipation Day. Special correspondent Chris Cornish (BA Hons. ’04, MA ’09) sent the following report to YFile.

She turned to Jack but he wouldn’t look at her. She wanted to place his hand on her belly and tell him there was nothing to worry about, nothing that mattered, but of course it did matter. He was looking vague again, the lost little boy in a sailor’s suit, and her heart went out to him. He had let her bring him to Windsor two years ago so she could see this, and she hadn’t. Everything had been too new to her then, she hadn’t been able to connect one oddity to another. But now, with everyone gathering in one room, she could finally see them for the first time. 

from Emancipation Day
by Wayne Grady

photograph of writer Wayne Grady
Wayne Grady

Wayne Grady admits that the disclaimer at the front of his debut novel is “an entire lie.” Typically in a work of fiction, “all resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental,” but Emancipation Day blurs the lines between fiction and non-fiction. It began as an exploration of Grady’s family history, which led to some surprising discoveries (and spoilers that won’t be shared here), and eventually became his debut novel.

Emancipation Day follows the story of Jack Lewis, a young musician who leaves his home in Windsor to join the Navy in WWII. He falls for a girl he meets while stationed at a base in Newfoundland, but as that relationship becomes more serious and the war is ending, Jack is confronted by the secret of his identity. It is this issue of identity that drives the novel, and also drives Jack to run from the reality of his past or to simply disbelieve it. It leads the reader, and author, to question established notions of family and heritage through an engaging fictional story.

After a lengthy and distinguished career in non-fiction and translation, Grady didn’t intend to write fiction, so he naturally approached his family’s story that way. When he brought this research to his father, he found his father to be conveniently evasive about it. During the process of writing the book, both his parents died, so he was unable to get every side of the story. Grady realized that it wouldn’t stand as an objective piece of non-fiction because it would always be “Wayne Grady’s version” with some of it being his own speculations. In fiction there’s only one version of the story and he had his own beliefs about why his father did what he did, and wanted to tell that story. Somewhat contrary to the standard advice of writing what you know, “I think we write to find out what we want to know,” he told the audience during his Canadian Writers in Person presentation.

Furthermore, Grady highlighted studies proving that people believe fiction more than they believe non-fiction. He also pointed out that writers in earlier centuries, such as Daniel Defoe, would go out of their way to make their fictions about characters like Robinson Crusoe sound authentic by presenting “documentary” evidence and tone. More modern examples, such as Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, continue to play with readers’ perceptions and beliefs. Yet, Grady said he believes that readers want to believe what they’re reading is true, and this suspension of disbelief mirrors Jack’s attitude about his own identity.

Cover of Wayne Grady's book, Emancipation DayGrady joked that he mistakenly believed fiction would be easier because he could make up anything he wanted. He realized that though this is true, there is still “only one right thing” and that is often very difficult to find. It took him 23 drafts and 20 years to write the novel, and at one point it was a multigenerational epic that spanned from 1790 to the present day, and included an episode in which Victor Hugo goes to Vietnam (which his editor kindly suggested he remove). The present novel is an expansion of only 70 pages from those earlier drafts, focused mostly on what happens in the 1940s.

He also had to figure out how to narrate it and, with the help of his editor, decided that it couldn’t just be from Jack’s point of view because he would, by necessity, be an unreliable narrator. He used the voices of Jack’s father and wife to balance out the reader’s perspective, which interestingly reflects the non-fiction approach Grady wasn’t originally able to take with his book. He also borrowed from historical incidents, such as the Detroit riots of 1943, to propel what he needed to happen in his fictional narrative. This interesting grey area between both worlds, fictional and non-fictional, is fertile ground that Grady also explores with his creative writing students at the University of British Columbia.

Though this is a story that resonates truth with many readers, many of whom have thanked him for opening up the issues his novel raises, for Grady it was of course a deeply personal one that shook his sense of what he had previously accepted as truth. At one point, his editor pointed out that he needed to forgive his father because the way he was presenting the character was too unlikable. “Talk about writing as therapy!” he said.

Although the novel wasn’t published while his parents were alive, Grady said he likes to think that he still would have shared it because “if you’re going to be a writer, you can’t write something and hide.” Grady’s is a very specific story; it speaks to something we all have in common: “Every family has its secrets so be careful when you shake that tree,” he said. “You don’t know what’s going to fall out.”

The Canadian Writers in Person series of public readings at York, which are free and open to the public, is also part of an introductory course on Canadian literature. It is sponsored in part by the Canada Council for the Arts. For a full schedule of upcoming writers this year, see the Sept. 15 issue of YFile.