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Haig-Brown writer in residence working on connecting with local writers

Karolyn Smardz Frost talks telling difficult stories, writing history as literature
Historian and author Karolyn Smardz Frost is this year’s Haig-Brown House writer-in-residence. Photo by Marc Kitteringham/Campbell River Mirror

Karolyn Smardz Frost isn’t taking her role as this year’s Haig-Brown House writer-in-residence lightly.

“I will talk to anybody who wants to write,” she said. “I’m available. I’m really happy to discuss.”

Located in Campbell River, Haig-Brown House is the former home of noted author and conservationist Roderick Haig-Brown. In the winter months, it hosts a resident author, providing a tranquil place to pursue their own projects while taking on a literary leadership role for the local community.

Smardz Frost is the author of six non-fiction books on the underground railroad and Canada’s Black history. She got her start as an archaeologist and was part of excavating the first underground railroad site in Canada. From there, she spent decades researching the history of the Blackburn family, who owned the property for her book “I’ve Got a Home in Glory Land: A Lost Tale of the Underground Railroad.”

“I spent 20 years tracing their lives in slavery and freedom to produce that book,” she said. “The book became the first and, to date, only book on African Canadian history ever to win the Governor General’s Award.

Over the years she’s gotten her PhD in Canadian History, as well as received numerous awards for her literary work. That body of work now includes six books that are currently in print, as well as articles, educational materials and other research.

”I didn’t really see myself as a literary figure,” she said, thinking back to when she won the Governor General’s Award in 2007. “I’ve got six books in print but I didn’t really see myself as a literary figure. I saw myself as an archaeologist who writes books.”

However, that self-perception has changed over the years.

“When I started the Blackburn book, ‘I’ve got a Home in Glory Land,’ I wanted to write a book about a story people would want to read. The New York Times did a full page on that book in the New York Review of Books and it said it read like a novel. That’s what I wanted to do. I wantd to write books that people would want to read.”

While her oeuvre is history, Smardz Frost reads far more than just history books. She likes page turners, and says reading beyond her own subject matter helps make her books more accessible to readers.

“I try to make traditionally academic subjects accessible and interesting and fun for people who aren’t academics,” she said. “My whole career has been devoted to bringing back stories that have been lost.”

This includes delving into historical and genealogical records of people who were at best mentioned only in passing.

“There were 35,000 people came to Canada on the Underground Railroad, we know this much about 600 of them,” she said, holding her fingers up and showing just a pinch.

When the painstaking and time-consuming task of research is finished, “there’s only one way to write a book,” she said. “You sit down at your desk.”

“I get up at about four o’clock in the morning, I do some exercise and then I sit down and I write,” she said. “I write for five or six hours a day, most days. I’m really lucky, it just flows through me.”

Writing about Black history without having a Black experience can be difficult. Smardz Frost has always worked to ensure she was not appropriating the voices and stories of the real people portrayed in her books.

“It’s difficult writing difficult histories,” she said. “There’s no formula for it. It’s about being away of the sensitivies of people, being careful and being polite … I never do work in Black history without going first to the community.”

However, she is not the only white author writing histories of non-white communities in Canada. One of her plans for her time in the Haig-Brown House is to hold a writer’s workshop about writing difficult histories. However, since that workshop will involve delving into vulnerabilities, she said, “I want people to know me and trust me a bit before we do that.”

Smardz Frost is also this year’s Haig-Brown lecturer. The lecture will be on Feb. 17 at the Rivercity Players Theatre. Smardz Frost will speak about her field work, as well as Victoria’s own history of African American migration. Tickets are $10; online and at the door.

READ ALSO: Prestigious Haig-Brown Writer-in-Residence program becomes retreat for local writers in 2020

Marc Kitteringham

About the Author: Marc Kitteringham

I joined Campbell River Mirror in early 2020, writing about the environment, housing, local government and more.
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