Books

Tessa McWatt
Shame on Me

Shame on Me follows a life spent piecing a fractured self into a whole, rooted in the moment a teacher asks eight-year-old Tessa McWatt: “What are you?” Drawing on history, literature and science, McWatt dissects the assumptions that cling to body parts, concluding: “But biology is insufficient when it comes to belonging.” This is evidenced in the stories McWatt inherits, and the black writers and thinkers she cites. Her prose is lyrical and haunting, looping back upon images and phrases in expansive circles.

“I am a song of sugar,” McWatt declares, her family’s history bound to the production of sugar in the former British Guinea: the cousins of her Scottish great-great-grandfather were overseers of slaves, while her maternal grandmother was the daughter of Chinese indentured labourers. An imagined interaction with her African great-great-grandmother emphasises the ruptures in her lineage, which includes Indian, Arawak, Portuguese and French ancestry. McWatt reflects on growing up in Canada, while family photos add to the text’s intimacy.

Part elegy, part call to action, Shame on Me invites readers to consider their own bodies, histories and responsibilities in an increasingly divided world. It is a dialogue between past and present, a mirror held up to author and reader. McWatt’s questions become the reader’s, implicitly and through direct address. Her willingness to engage with her fears and shame prompts readers to examine their own biases and the function of race-making. Similarly, her message to her nieces and nephews is a message to us: “… they must avoid the greed that creates race, the lie of ‘success’”. In the latter half, the author’s sad loneliness shifts to anger while her wistful desire to belong to a single place swells into a call to redefine “freedom” and “success”, to disrupt language and the stories we tell.

References to police brutality, racist attacks, Meghan Markle, Grenfell Tower and wildfires across Europe underscore this is not some abstract history lesson but our reality. The racial hierarchy and structural inequality of the plantation live on. McWatt forcefully demonstrates how we all have a stake in dismantling the status quo and creating new paths towards true freedom: “a place outside both the master’s house and the field”. Shame on Me is a tale of our time, yet also timeless.

Shu-Ling Chua

Scribe, 272pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 14, 2019 as "Tessa McWatt, Shame on Me". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: Shu-Ling Chua