It’s June which means summer, street festivals and Pride Month! Last year, we created a list of Top Ten Reads for Pride Month featuring authors such as Catherine Hernandez, Gwen Benaway, Kamal Al-Solaylee and Eileen Myles. This year, we spoke to actor and author Joanne Vannicola, about their new memoir, how their acting career influenced their writing and the queer authors they’d recommend.
Vannicola’s memoir, All We Knew But Couldn’t Say, launches on June 8 as part of Toronto Lit Up.
Your memoir, All We Knew But Couldn’t Say, addresses difficult experiences from your life, including encounters with homophobia and violence. Why was it important for you to tell this story and why now?
JV: In fact, it took many years to write and tell this story.
It started as a novel. I was trying to distance myself initially and didn’t want people to know that it was my experience but eventually, I decided to turn it into a memoir. So it took time to distill, find the right stories to tell and think about my purpose. There is power in speaking or writing about one’s experiences and letting go. I think the timing is actually good.
Following the rise of the Me Too movement, and with so much happening culturally with respect to LGBTQ+ issues, and the changes in policies and removal of certain rights for both women and LGBTQ+ people, I think my story fits at this time. I want people to understand that misogyny, homophobia, violence, power and social justice issues affect us all. And that even when we are struggling with histories that are complex or painful, that telling our stories really can serve a purpose, open a gate, allow for others to tell their stories, and starts a conversation.
I also think it’s important to be vigilant, to not think that just because we have the right to vote as women, or to marry as gay people, that somehow we are free. We do not have parity, [we] are not really free. When governments make laws that roll back the clock on medical care or access to employment or protections from discrimination, we are in trouble. How do we survive violence, and how do we rise and live and find our way to love, hope, community and action? How do we integrate and let go of the stuff that has harmed us? It’s important to tell our stories and take up space, be visible.
I’ve tried to make it a good read too! And I can only hope that my memoir is well received.
A percentage of the sales from your upcoming Toronto Lit Up launch will be going to the Two Spirit Renewal programme at Shining Mountains Living Communities Services. Tell us a little bit about the organization and why you chose it.
JV: I wanted to give back with the release of my book, like giving birth to it in a way that made a difference to [the] community, all at the same time.
And I chose this charity because it is a new project that is being funded by my friend Maggie Cassella, through her foundation, We’re Funny That Way. So it’s a new project, the Two Spirit Renewal Project. That region does not have any services for LGBTQ2 people yet and I think people who live in remote areas, who do not have the same access to large city services or possibly any services for LGBTQ2+ people, that it matters to give to smaller organizations so that they can get off the ground and make an impact in their own communities.
You’re an actor and appeared on CBC’s Street Legal. Has your experience as a performer influenced or helped your writing? If so, how?
JV: Well, Street Legal wasn’t picked up for a second season, so the show was unfortunately short lived. It would have been fantastic to explore the non-binary character I played, Sam, in season 2 but the television and film world holds no guarantees, like anything I suppose.
My experiences in film as an actor helped me cope with rejection. There was so much rejection in the early years of writing and reaching out to agent after agent. But I was determined to get this book out there and I now have the best team around me: Sam Hiyate from the Rights Factory, Dundurn Press, Gayle Abrams, and support of organizations like Lit UP, the Diaspora Dialogues program and so many individuals. It’s been quite a journey.
And the stuff of my life, as an actor, did influence my writing in multiple ways which includes speaking out about the film industry, the work that is needed and the barriers that prevent so many women and LGBTQ2+ people from equal representation and reflection. We have a long way to go. The other way that being an actor has influenced my writing, that I notice, is that I am used to reading and writing dialogue, and I had to learn how to do that differently in a book but I was remembering the words from my own life, and making them come to life. I have a very good memory for past events and the words spoken between people, so it helped. I also used to write out conversations in note pads, so that helped too.
I always wanted to write this book. I didn’t know the format, but it was always in the back of my head to do it, and so I think I just knew to keep notes. I used to do this as an actor as well in preparation for roles I would play. I would write out detailed notes with backstories, and info on relationships and fill in all the blanks.
JV: Oh well, I do love Roxane Gay, Vivek Shraya, Camilla Gibb, Sarah Waters, Audre Lorde, Alice Walker, Jeanette Winterson—to name a few.
What are you currently reading?
JV: I just finished The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas.