October 26, 2023 | Alumni
Charlotte Gill’s new book tells the personal account of her biracial family
By Coby Zucker
For author Charlotte Gill (BA 1996 INNIS), U of T is where it all began. The Faculty of Arts & Science alum's first experience with creative writing came in an intimate 10-person poetry class at U of T. “That first life-changing class in a discipline you know you are going to fall in love with, you remember it for a long time.”
Gill says that first class in the Department of English opened her eyes to the possibility of writing as a career. Sharing her work with peers gave her the confidence and the know-how that set her on the path she’s still on today. These days, Gill is an author and a writing instructor at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity and the University of King’s College in Halifax.
“People say, ‘Oh, you can't learn how to write. It's something you're just born with.’ I 100 per cent disagree,” Gill says. “I think it's a skill that can be learned, like plumbing or accounting.”
A personal memoir with a historical lens
Gill's newest book, Almost Brown: A Mixed-Race Family Memoir, was published in June 2023. In it, she explores the story of her mixed-race, immigrant family, creating a deeply personal memoir with a contextualizing historical lens.
The story begins in the 1960s in London, England, where Gill’s English mother met her Indian father, in a time and place where their interracial love was far from welcome. The story follows her family’s life as immigrants in the United States and Canada, as well as “all the tragic comedy of being an immigrant family as well as a mixed-race family.”
Almost Brown was a story that had been rattling around in Gill’s mind for some time. An essay on the subject in 2018 was a starting point. Then the COVID-19 pandemic gave Gill the time and space she needed to write the book, including the painstaking historical research needed for many works of historical non-fiction.
“I love reading memoirs that are just strictly the story of the person at the desk, typing away,” Gill says. “They can be fascinating and very moving and allow people to feel as if their experience, which they may have felt was isolated, is something shared with many people.”
Changing perceptions of mixed-race identities
Almost Brown is also an exploration of racial identity. As a biracial woman, Gill is keenly aware of the ways in which the world has — and hasn’t — changed when it comes to perception of race and people who are mixed-race.
“I call myself a vintage biracial because when I was growing up, there really weren't very many people I knew who were mixed-race or biracial. And if we were, we didn't talk about it,” says Gill, who didn’t hear the word “biracial” until she was a teenager.
“There's a whole generation of young people growing up as mixed people who don't face this lack of vocabulary for talking about themselves. And they have been a total inspiration to me, of course, because they know exactly who they are.”
Gill is critical of strict race categories, and of censuses and checkboxes that force you into binaries that may not be reflective of her own experience. Her experience of race is “a hugely fluid thing” based more on context than anything else.
“Often with people who are mixed, the way they look has really very little to do with who they actually are on the inside,” Gill says. “I don't think we're inherently broken just because we're not of one racial identity, and we're having to reconcile these two things.”
three successful books
Almost Brown was not Gill’s first foray into non-fiction. She began that journey with Eating Dirt, a complicated exploration into the world of a tree planter, a job Gill held for 17 years. Eating Dirt became a national bestseller and won the B.C. National Award for Canadian Nonfiction.
Even though Gill lists some of the many accolades her books have racked up on her website, she’s deeply humble when it comes to her success. She paraphrases author Zadie Smith, who said, “don’t confuse honours with achievements.”
“It's very fluky,” Gill says. “I'm really grateful when things do well, but I don't feel like I can take credit for it.”
Even with three successful books published, Gill has reservations about being an author. “I don't know that I would recommend it for anybody who really likes any kind of stability in their lives, but this is where I ended up,” Gill says. “It has been a tremendous adventure.”