The Half-Drowned: EJ Kneifel Interviews Trynne Delaney
Trynne Delaney is a writer currently based in Tiohtià:ke (Montréal). They were born on the West Coast and raised on the East Coast. the half-drowned was their first book and A House Unsettled is their second. In their spare time they like to garden.
when we spoke, it was a weekend. trynne had biked, had had another long phone call; was now eating curry, now talking to me. i pictured some leaf big over their shoulder, leg over the side of a chair-arm, swinging. i pictured trynne so tall, too, with everything they knew about this world, but they crouched down next to me; we leaned over the tide pool together. they cupped the water of a world they’d created, with each question, starfish, as though it were the first time. water that broke into rhythm, dreams, green, the ocean’s knowing chewing us tiny. reflected the rocks, the sky, the edges of shapes, the edges of voices, the mud in between.
EJ Kneifel: Since we have our voice boxes on, we’re talking out loud, I would love to start with rhythm, of sound and story. Harbour is someone’s name and it’s also a place. There’s clarification about that at times, as though someone were speaking. Do you feel like this story is being told aloud?
Trynne Delaney: Yes. Yes I do. I read the whole thing out loud to myself multiple times when I first wrote it, and many times before I could finalize it. I envisioned it as an oral story because orality is so important to Black history and Black narratives, and also queer narratives—any minoritized community usually has an oral history that’s not necessarily documented.
EK: How many rhythms you see happening in the cadence of the book? Do you feel like every character has their own speed or beat?
TD: I think it’s more like it’s all the same rhythm underneath, and that rhythm is the breathing of the ocean. But then people will interact with that differently, so I guess you can think of it as movements in a long musical piece.
EK: I’m curious about Kaya’s knowledge, especially of song, which also kind of underlies the whole community. Where does that knowledge come from? Are Kaya’s songs sky songs? Are they ocean songs? Are they songs about the ocean or about the sky?
TD: I think her songs are pieces of other songs. They’re continuations of the songs that have brought the people that are still left in the world to that space.
I was thinking about the process of sampling music, and how that continues a music’s legacy but also makes something new of it. I think about sampling a lot in poetry because I believe that everything is a collaboration. So often we talk about creative geniuses; those people are really good at collaboration, whether they know it or not.
And I was thinking of ways music has upheld community and created community over time, specifically in Black music. Because Black music is the foundation of all music that’s popular now, so that’s continued on and lived through our bodies. Even if we don’t necessarily know all the words to a song or where it’s coming from.
EK: That’s resonant with the moment where [Harbour and her mother] are talking about the underground railroad, and the knowledge of it has kind of been warped such that there’s this question of how they followed the big dipper if they were underground, and the answer is that the ground would open up. Do you feel like there’s also warping that happens—or not warping, maybe warping is the wrong word—but that the songs have also been changed?
TD: I think that’s the same process that’s happening. The way that our knowledge is bent, or, I think warped is a good word, but without the negative connotation, because it’s not a bad thing; it’s just what happens. You can’t remember things properly, because you’re not a computer. Unless you are.
EK: You’re not a computer, unless you are. And maybe there’s love in a warped thing too. Floors and books and stuff.
TD: Yeah. A book that has such a well-used history fits better into the world that they live in, which has more connection to alterity or mysticism. Because things [in this world] are not the way that they’ve been for most of the earth’s history. The stories would have to change and the songs would have to change to fit into that.
EK: Did someone teach Kaya these songs? Or was Kaya just born knowing them, kind of like the idea of the prophet?
TD: Both. It’s like that thing where people are like, “How do artists figure out how to make such a unique sound?” and it’s because they have been taught but also because there’s something in them that connects to a certain frequency.
EK: I’m really curious about the sequence right near the end that’s all in italics—dare I call them dreams. What you would call them? What’s happening there? Who is speaking through whom? Tell me about green? I want to know everything.
TD: Dreams. What are dreams? I think that’s what I’m asking [in this section].
I personally was going through a period where I was having a lot of disturbing dreams every single night and I felt like they were prophetic in a way but also connecting to some past that I wasn’t necessarily a part of. So I was like I need to do something with this because I feel crazy with this being in my head.
These aren’t dreams that happened to me; they’re creations. But I was thinking so much about what it would mean for dreams to be a doorway into a history connected to trauma, to be connected to some future. How they can predict things that might happen in real life, even if it’s just like, “I had a dream last night that I got ice cream” and then you’re getting ice cream.
Some of them are imaginings of histories that are more personal, or more historical; most of them come from when I went to go visit nova scotia when I was on a research project for this book. The one that talks about pit houses is specifically connected to Black loyalists’ arrival in mi’kma’ki. The green one, kicking balls: I played soccer a lot growing up, and sports were perceived in my household as a way to escape the place where you’re from. And so the way that sports give a lot of opportunities but also a kind of desperation, disconnection from your environment. The greenness around you. And you think that the goal is moving forward.
But I also think that I wasn’t necessarily trying to be as focused with the dreams, because it felt more somatic. It felt like the rhythm that’s behind the text, but I let it be how it was. It hasn’t changed too much since the time I wrote it.
EK: “What is a dream,” what is a prophet. I’m thinking about what you said about these histories coming to you in dreams. You have this line: “a past that chews at her without ever swallowing.” I wonder, where is a prophet in the tenses? Past, present, future. Is that too leading of a question?
TD: No I think that’s a good question, because a prophet sees all of those things. I can go deeper though.
EK: Okay, go deeper.
TD: It’s thinking about the ways that historical or personal trauma makes you feel like you’re able to see the future. And also the way that it makes you recontextualize your past and present moments.
EK: I’m thinking of the rhythm again: is that trauma? You notice the patterns of human behaviour or something? Why do you think you get a feeling of clairvoyance?
TD: I think it’s a lot of that, but also, like literally, it’s not that hard to predict the future. [laughter]
Remember at the beginning of the pandemic when everyone was like, “I can’t believe parable of the sower is so the present moment”? Octavia Butler was just paying attention.
And then revisiting this book, at first it felt like, “I can’t believe I predicted the future,” but then I was like, wait, it’s actually not that hard to predict the future if you pay attention to patterns that are around you a lot. And then it felt bad, because it was like, ugh, if bad things happen I don’t want to know that they’re going to happen. I’d rather it be a surprise.
EK: Do you think it’s easier to predict bad things?
TD: I think that the way that we do history is just a documentation of all the bad things that happened to people. So if we’re thinking about history I think it has to be connected to the atrocities of the world and what atrocities are to come. And seeing those things coming doesn’t necessarily mean that there won’t be great things that will happen. It’s just that those moments in history are a lot less well documented.
EK: I’m thinking about this line, “you tell me I am history only when history is done.” I wanted to ask you about that. When does history end?
TD: I guess it depends on what we’re talking about when we talk about history. Because I think in a way history’s cosmic mark will never go away, and so it’s something that exists forever and always. But I think how we perceive history, the standard definition has an endpoint. So when people aren’t creating definitions anymore for history maybe that’s when history ends. But I also don’t know. I think I wrote that because I also don’t know.
EK: So there’s this ceremony in the book, as you know: the rites. Do you get a certain status if you go through it, or is it about knowledge?
TD: It’s about knowledge. If you go through the rites, you’re a specific type of person that people might go to, you might carry on a specific type of knowledge that you share with people.
EK: How would you characterize the knowledge? Do you feel like it’s each person tapping into that underlying rhythm or the histories?
TD: Yeah, I think that’s right. It’s like the underlying knowledge or histories or rhythm or collective understanding of the histories.
EK: That’s an interesting way to introduce the access to that. It’s kind of a nonlinear passing down, because the knowledge is kind of just in space, and then you drink the mushroom tea and then it lands in your body.
TD: Yeah, it connects your bodies all together, and you become an organism. You’re able to access something greater than a single person’s memory or knowledge.
EK: I feel like I just got really tiny.
TD: That’s just what being on mushrooms feels like. [laughter]
EK: Is there anything you wish I had asked you about?
TD: I want you to ask me about the map that I made.
EK: Can you tell me about the centrality of ancestors? Or maybe I’m not looking at the map right – is there a centre?
TD: Well, there’s a centre from our perspective. But there’s not necessarily a real centre. Ancestors is bigger and in the middle of the page, which is supposed to kind of give it this importance from how we currently read things.
EK: Where is the rhythm?
TD: Maybe in the axes of the intersecting things. Rhythm is where something hits something else, right? So it must be at the intersection.
These rocks are real rocks that are from the bay of fundy, and that’s really the Atlantic ocean. I made these freehand stars with a sharpie. I wanted them to not be traditional stars; I didn’t want it to be like a compass, you know? I wanted to incorporate the elements of a map but not in the traditional way, so I wanted the star to not designate any directions. I made an open space between the ocean and the rock. I guess it would be the mud.
EK: The idea of a map as a collage is very interesting.
TD: I wanted to talk about counter-mapping, often used to decolonize space. So it’s not a traditional map. It’s not a traditional way of conceiving a place or a space. It’s just the vibes. The mapping of the vibes. But actually, it’s a map that’s created in response to a colonial perception of what the land looks like, or where the land should be. I feel like thinking about the way that we represent our globe is really interesting because some countries are drawn way bigger than others, even though they’re completely different sizes in actuality. So it’s a kind of a way of reckoning with the way that we read maps or the way that we expect to read maps.
EK: What do you think about the boundary or border on this map?
TD: There are definitely boundaries, but they don’t interrupt. At the top, the land overlaps the ocean, but on the bottom, the ocean overlaps the land. So the boundaries exist, but they’re not necessarily consistent.
EK: Yeah, like maybe this is a capture of the map, and the actual map is moving all the time.
TD: Yeah, because I was also thinking about the bay of fundy and the tides there being so dramatic. What is land and what is sea has a really big grey zone. Especially with climate change. Every time I go back, you can really see the effect the ocean has had on eroding the land.
EK: What shape do you think this book, or story, is?
TD: That’s a great question. I’m not sure. I think it would be a shape that’s always changing. Like slime or something. I hope that it can be malleable.
EJ Kneifel lives in Montreal, QC.