TMU alumna’s debut novel delves into Canada’s Black history
In honour of Black History Month, we spoke to alumna Sheila Murray (external link) about her acclaimed first novel, Finding Edward, which follows the main character, Cyril Rowntree, after he arrives in Canada from Jamaica to attend school, and becomes interested in the life of a Black boy born in 1920s Toronto. As the novel traces the parallel story of both men, it reveals some of the extensive history of the Black experience in Canada.
Murray has garnered impressive accolades for her book – it was a finalist for the coveted Governor General’s Award for English-language fiction, a CBC Books best fiction, selected for the CBC Canada Reads longlist, the Globe and Mail’s 100 best books, 49th Shelf’s best books and Toronto Star’s 26 books Christmas gift guide.
A graduate of the TMU journalism program and the master’s in immigration and settlement, Murray found inspiration in her experience as a mixed race newcomer to Canada to tell the story of the young Cyril.
You’ve gotten a lot of great coverage in the CBC about your book! Today I was hoping to ask you some new questions and cover some new ground. How did your personal background shape the narrative?
I wanted to explore what it means to be mixed race – when you are half Black and half white. When I first came to Toronto in the early ’70s, I was one of the very few Black kids at a big high school in Agincourt. I wanted to draw on this experience and explore what it means to be Black in Canada. Some of the book takes place in Jamaica, and that’s also been a part of my experience because my dad was Black, from Jamaica, and my mom was white, from England, and I was born and raised in England. While I’ve never lived in Jamaica, I’ve spent a lot of time there. It’s very dear to my heart and I hope it comes through in the book.
You have said that you really wanted to engage with the Black experience over decades in Canada. What made you focus on the past rather than a more recent moment like the Black Lives Matter movement?
There has been a Black population in Canada for a very long time and that population has made very real contributions to society. It’s important to illustrate that the Black experience in Canada is woven into the historic fabric of the past and present.
How did your master’s degree in immigration and settlement studies and bachelor’s in journalism inform how you told the story?
I was living in Toronto while I was in school, which was a huge influence on the setting. Cyril gets caught up in the search for a man born in Toronto in the early 1920s, which is sort of a lifeline for him because it gives him purpose in his first year of studies during a lonely time. I infused a lot of my research experience in the journalism program into the storyline, as Cyril dives into reference libraries. My immigration and settlement studies program helped me learn new perspectives and provided a roadway for the novel to explore the challenges of immigration.
You’ve received impressive praise for the book. You were a Governor General’s Award finalist. You were featured in CBC Canada Reads program longlist, CBC Books best fiction, the Globe and Mail’s 100 best books, 49th Shelf’s best books and Toronto Star’s 26 books Christmas gift guide. How does it feel to get such a positive reception?
It honestly feels amazing! Just getting the book published felt like an accomplishment because it took years for this to happen. I had very few expectations, so the reception has been truly amazing. The best part is that so many people are reading it and giving me great feedback, which is wonderful.
What’s the kind of feedback you’ve been getting?
People ask great questions and make such thoughtful and insightful comments. I've had people tell me that they understood exactly what Cyril felt because of their own immigrant experience. Others, who were born in Canada and are white, find their own personal connections, particularly to the descriptions of Toronto and other places in the book. And many older people find themselves in aspects of the history that Edward lives through.
It’s a beautiful thing when you create a world and the characters take on minds of their own!
I understand that you have worked as a documentary filmmaker and television sound editor. What made you decide to switch to written word and how is it different from what you were doing previously?
It is very different. I have been writing short stories for a long time and I've always loved writing. The beauty of it is that you can do it on your own. The challenge with making films is finding the money to support the work -- it takes a team of people and a raft of technology to create a vision.
With books there are editors involved but you can really own whatever story you are trying to tell.
That’s right. It’s entirely yours.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.