9 December 2022
Jillian Christmascredit Kay Ho

The Gospel of Breaking

by Boetumelo Julianne Nyasulu

Jillian Christmas describes herself as an introvert and a pretty private person. The poet, whose collection of poetry The Gospel of Breaking has garnered much acclaim, opened up in our interview about her need to hold close the “parts that feel like they need to be just for me, and then also share the pieces of me that feel like they can be offerings to the audience.”

 

Even while holding close those things that may feel sacred and private, the pieces of herself shared in The Gospel of Breaking are open and transparent, and mark entries to vulnerability. The connection created marks an intimate journey with the reader through Christmas’s own experiences of breaking, healing and becoming.

 

The experiences shared were not only useful for the poet witnessing things in herself, but they also connect to experiences of others.

 

“Social anxiety, fears that come up around the way we’re perceived by the world, and the parts that are kind of awkward and messy,” as she describes it.

 

Christmas is a former artistic director of Vancouver’s Verses Festival of Words and is an educator, organizer and advocate for the arts community. The humanity in the pieces of herself that she shares are what make the poetry in The Gospel  of Breaking so relatable. We’re all just trying to be the best mess that we can, and as relational beings what better invitation is there than to “bump up against each other’s humanity [and] know each other’s rhythms and minds,” as she puts it.

 

The title of the book comes from the poem, “The Gospel of Breaking,” in which Christmas writes:

I was birthed into a church too comfortable
with a God who would make closets into coffins
but I have been born again
into the religion of lost souls
baptized under bourbon-kissed streetlight

 

In the poem, Christmas describes her understanding of her queerness as “holy.” This stands in contrast to “celebrating the things that I learned in church and Catholic school [as] things to be avoided, like things of the body. And [instead] celebrating people who were willing to make their own constructions of happiness.”

 

In this sense, the poem stands as a reclamation and renaming of what feels sacred, and a celebration of breaking as a good thing. “Sometimes we’re breaking bad habits, breaking away from things that are holding us back or holding us in,” she explains.

 

A recurring theme in The Gospel of Breaking is home. Christmas begins with the poem “a home I can only leave once.” She explains that home in this instance is her body. She starts with this poem in order to “introduce the readers into the world of body, and how I experience it, and celebrate it and also see all of the sort of nuance that exists there.”

 

Christmas reminds us of our corporeal form that grounds us to experiencing life, physically and literally. In the poem, she encourages the reader to “come closer, dear heart”, immediately creating a safe space and intimacy while joining her journey. Outside of the home that is corporeal, Christmas also describes
different homes as geographic spaces in her poetry.

 

As a child of the diaspora—a first-generation Canadian with roots in Trinidad and Tobago—Christmas describes finding home in her body and in a place as a journey. What will be familiar to many children of the diaspora is her description of this journey as complicated and paradoxical. Christmas describes how one can feel as though they have many homes, but also don’t fit into one particular home. This speaks to the bittersweet nature of being able to build a home in several places but “being separated from the root of your being in a lot of ways.”

 

“(from the ground, up)”
A non-exhaustive list of things growing in mommy’s rainforest garden
plantain
julie mango
sweet lemon/ orange hybrid
cashew
avocado
cocoa
pomerac
regular island orange
breadnut
red cherry
white cherry
bayleaf
fig
banana
one sweet plump strange girl learning to tend herself

 

Christmas describes a tension within the concept of home when she visits Trinidad and Tobago: “As a queer child of the Diaspora, that one part of me was singing, seeing Black bodies and smelling the fruit that just felt like it was like a part of my DNA, and the sand under my feet and seeing my grandmother’s house and all of these things that were like home, home, home. And then there was this part of me that was like—if the people here know me, the fullness of me, will they claim me? Will it still be home for me?”

 

Christmas’s reflections on home remind  me of Ijeoma Umebinyuo’s Diaspora Blues, in which the Nigerian-born poet writes, “so, here you are/ too foreign for home/ too foreign for here./ never enough for both.”

 

Nonetheless, within all these tensions, Christmas offers solace in that she is continuing to find home “in my own body, in my chosen family and in the stories I carry. Those all feel like some kind of shape of home.”

 

Expanding on the poem “(and you say you want to sit at her table?)”, Christmas describes this process of finding home in the body as one of “conversations [with loved ones] to share what we have found in the world, loving up on the body and all of its shapes, feeding oneself and feeding others without those attachments or judgements.”

 

Excerpt:  “(and you say you want to sit at her table?)”
mommy is worried about my shape      more round peach
than stalk      she says that chicken has made me fat
and fat will make me old      too quick

after the first telling I thank mommy for the lesson
on second      I protest      I am fine just as I am (though
I do not mention how long it has taken me

to believe this      and in her presence I wonder if I
still do)

 

This poem, and others that reference the poet’s family members, really speaks to the uncharted and unfamiliar territory of breaking with those we may love who don’t quite understand the process. It refers to finding home in ourselves, but also recreating home as a safe space with others.

 

Even with this love for others, though, breaking and healing comes with the recognition, as Christmas puts it, that “We have what we need; we are ‘in spite of,’ ‘because of,’ we are our own healers.”

 

In other poems she describes her struggles with mental health. “Clean up in aisle 9” for example, references an experience of the poet’s at a Home Depot, in which she had a vision of people menacingly coming towards her:

 

“Clean up in aisle 9”
tell me what to do
the light bends incredible sights in directions unfamiliar
the mind inside the voice in my mind is not mine
and then it is      and that is worse

seven aisles deep in the biggest store for miles
surrounded by the familiar smell of cedar
lit by an alarming white light
every long crooked finger stretches toward me
skeletal fingers close in tight

the night I lose my mind in home depot transformed
into a wanderer with wide and empty eyes

an entire wall unhinges to swing in on me
menacing faces      consuming my surprise
as my love searches for the perfect piece
my expression puddles into confusion      terror      despair
please please can we go      take me home

and they are there      ushering me through my own frenzy
leaving the screaming orange signs behind
as I cover my eyes and follow them by the hand
through hallucinations in the brightest light

sometimes my mind is a place I cannot see
my way out of      dark corridor with all the exits shut
until you recognize me      call my name
you’re safe
you say when we reach the cool air

your face the only promise I can trust

 

Christmas included the poem out of a desire to talk about the frightening places that mental health challenges can take us to and the love that can bring us back. The Gospel of Breaking is a look into Jillian Christmas’s own process of breaking. We are invited to see ourselves in her poems, and to experience a place where emotions
are validated. Here, the telling of her experiences offers a form of solidarity or comfort that can only come from the transparency of stories that say, Me too.

 

Christmas adds, “I hope people find some joy in those stories, maybe some windows into healing, that people feel seen,” and, after reading it, sitting with it and speaking with her, I’m certain many readers will. ∇

If you found this article informative, consider subscribing to Herizons –get your very own copy in the mail quarterly, filled with inspiring stories of social justice in Canada and beyond.