May 4 • 41M

Saga Boy

My conversation with Canadian writer and musician Antonio Michael Downing

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Tara Henley
Conversations with heterodox authors and journalists from around the world, asking the questions that are not being asked.
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When Antonio Michael Downing set out to write his memoir, he gave himself some instructions: “Tell it plainly. Let the sweet be sweet. Let the sour be sour. Let the truth ring its own bell.” It’s a wonderful North Star for writing, and one that led to his critically-acclaimed book, Saga Boy: My Life of Blackness and Becoming. In it, the Canadian author and musician recounts his childhood in Trinidad, and his experiences adjusting to life in various cities and towns in Ontario, in Brooklyn, New York, and on tour — and reflects on what he’s learned about humanity along the way.

Antonio Michael Downing is one of our country’s most talented writers and thinkers. He joins me today for a wide-ranging conversation about his life story, fathers, masculinity, the crisis between men and women, the culture wars, and why he believes we need more robust public discussion and debate.


TH: Antonio Michael, welcome to Lean Out.

AMD: Blessings to you, Tara Henley. I’m happy to be here.

TH: So great to have you. This book is exquisitely written. I relate to a lot of its themes and I want to pull some of those threads today. But to set this up, I want to start by reading a quote: “This is a story about unbelonging, about placelessness, about leaving everything behind. This is about metamorphosis: death and rebirth. About being shattered over and over and reassembling yourself across continents and calamities. This is a story about family and forgiveness. About becoming what you always were.” Take me back to the South Trinidad rainforest of your youth.

AMD: Well, amen. First of all, I love your radio voice. I’ve been listening to Lean Out for a bit, so it’s beautiful to be here. And thank you for reading that passage, which is really an attempt to encircle the heart of the book.

If you look at a map, Trinidad is tucked into the South American continent. It’s an island in the Caribbean, but it’s really just like a little splinter off of Venezuela. In fact, if you’re a strong swimmer, you could just swim to Venezuela at several points in Trinidad. So: Unlimited rainfall, unlimited sunshine. The trees grow massive. The insects grow massive. The birds that eat the insects grow massive. And the things that eat those, you don’t ever want to meet. There’s some monsters in that bush. That’s where I grew up — a place of unlimited fecundity, just bursting with life. I grew up with my grandmother and my brother and my adopted brother. My grandmother really believed in that New Testament Jesus life, and so I grew up surrounded by people that she was always helping, taking into her house.

Trinidad, a British colony. So we didn’t have a Governor General like they have in Canada, we had a Governor. That meant no laws, no voting, no members of parliament, no agency whatsoever. It’s a hard life. And that woman was born in 1904. She taught me two things: how to read and how to sing. She was always singing, mostly hymns. Her eyes were bad at that point; she was in her eighties. She taught me how to read when I was three and a half, so that I could be her eyes — so that I could read for her, because she still needed her salvation.

TH: I love hearing you talk about Miss Excelly. I want to speak about your parents, “a wisp of smoke that blew through your childhood.” I want to focus on your father, and on your grandfather, the saga boy from the title of this book — and ask you what you learned of masculinity from them.

AMD: What a great question. I never knew my grandfather; I knew him in the tales that were told about him, as he had passed away. My dad was alive, but he was never around. And so I learned about him from the tales that were told about him. The very first thing I learned was that being a man is about showing up. I learned how to be a man by what not to do, basically, from my father. I love him to this day; I talk to him regularly now because of writing Saga Boy. We didn’t talk for a very long time, but we’ve found a place of friendship. You know, I tease him all the time. I say, “I can talk to you now because the expectations are so low. There’s nothing you can do to hurt me.” I’m joking, but it’s a serious joke. Like Miss Excelly would say, some things, if you don’t laugh you’ll cry. We choose to laugh.

But yeah, I learned that being a man is about showing up, not hiding, not running, not finding a reason to be elsewhere than your duty. That’s a hard thing. It takes courage and it takes commitment … If you read Saga Boy, the dramatic foil for Al, my father, is my high school basketball coach. Everything my dad does wrong, he does right. He shows up. He creates a safe place for me. He offers me love and respect, just for the price of admission. He took an interest; he would show up to my basketball games, show up to my music shows. I had never had that experience. I’m the kid who, when I played at University of Waterloo, I would finish games and if my high school coach couldn’t make it, I would see all these people with family in the stands, coming down to hug them and love them. Console them if we lost. Cheer them if we won. I’d be like, why don’t I have that?

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TH: When you’re 11, your grandmother Miss Excelly passes away. You are brought to Canada to live with your Aunt Joan. You write in the book that you fell asleep in a rainforest and, a few days later, woke up in a blizzard. Take me back to that time and what it was like for you adjusting to life in this small town in Northern Ontario.

AMD: If you’re in Canada and you know where Winnipeg is, if you go east across the border into Ontario about an hour drive or so, that’s where we’re talking about. It’s the Northwest and it’s known for the wind. When I arrived in that blizzard, this wind is just howling outside like a demon. The lakes are all frozen by December, snow upon snow upon snow. Biggest thing for me was the icicles. Let me tell you, Tara Henley, I had never seen ice outside of the freezer do anything but melt. I was mesmerized for weeks on end.

But of course I was traumatized as well. Imagine all the things that define who we are — the house you live in, the people who raised you, the people you grew up with, the food you eat, the language you speak — imagine all of that just gone, ripped away from you. The weather reflected the dramatic change. So, we were shocked, we were traumatized.

My brother was sent to boarding school. I was fascinated and terrified by this brave new world that had such people in it, to quote Shakespeare. The interesting thing is that when I was a kid in that little colonial schoolhouse in Trinidad, the only white face I’d ever seen was Queen Elizabeth II looking down from the schoolhouse. And then I got to North Ontario. I was maladjusted. I got into fights. I yelled and screamed and cried. I threw tantrums, nobody cared. I was really good in school in Trinidad; I was exceptional. And so when I came here, I was the age for grade six [but they put me] in grade eight. Bad enough being the only weird black family in the town, but I was also traumatized, and I was also, now, in a grade where grade eights don’t care about someone that’s 12 years old. Plus, my Aunt Joan was a bible thumper and would dress me in these church boy sweaters with a shirt under it. I was definitely geeky.

I went to Queen Elizabeth district high school. That was my first cue that something was going on that’s bigger than me. How can everything change — but the same white lady is staring down at me when I go to school?[Laughs] So, yeah, that’s what that period was like. I got into heavy metal, much to the terror of my Aunt Joan, who thought that if there was ever the devil's music, it was definitely that. But mostly it was just a loneliness, to be real. It was a loneliness against an avalanche of change.

TH: That loneliness, the rootlessness — I felt a real understanding of that feeling that you were expressing in the book. Throughout your adolescence, you moved around quite a bit. As you say, the things that give people bearings — parents, language, community — those things were gone. There was a moment where you were staying with a family when Aunt Joan was away, and you got to see what this family looked like. And you write that it felt “as if I had been dying of thirst and someone gave me a taste of water.” That longing for family is a theme in the book. And I think something many people will relate to in this time of fragmentation and social isolation. How do you think about that now, with a bit of distance?

AMD: Wow, great questions. They told me you were dangerous, now I know why. [Laughs] I can see why the CBC is out to get you; your questions are too good for them. [Laughs] Yeah, that’s such a great point. You know, we live in a time where I think the importance of having a father in a family is probably overlooked. I had a lot of mother figures. It’s great because there’s always a woman that tends to take that on. But the father role is so crucial. It’s so crucial. For me, in that moment, I saw a father who was firm, but encouraging. Was involved and engaged, but also drew clear boundaries. I loved the boundaries. I was a wild kid because I never had that. I was like, “Yes, give me rules, give me structure.” And the incredible security and the internalized confidence that comes from that. I feel like I’ve sought that my whole life. Also, what that seeking turned into was, as an adult, it became really difficult for me to offer that to people that needed it. Because it was alien to me.

If you multiply that by millions and millions of people, you can see the effect on society. And, by the way, I would argue that the impact on women of not having strong, present, emotionally-available men … Being a heterosexual man — being a mostly straight man — in the 21st Century, I meet the women who didn’t have that man. I’m telling you, it’s a problem.

So that’s how I feel about it. I feel like my life is just this microcosm of what happens in society. The nuclear family is fractured. It’s common and fashionable to say, “You don’t need a man. Who needs a man?” But what does that masculine energy mean? It’s irreplaceable. There’s no facsimile for it. The same as maternal energy; there’s no facsimile for that. You cannot replace that.

That’s been my journey; I grew up without it and, and always longed for it, always craved it. And I found it where I could find it. Thank goodness, I feel healed and available to bring that energy now ... I have a lot of brothers; all grew up without their dad and all are incredible fathers. I think the lack of it teaches us the importance of it.

TH: This is something I wanted to ask you about, as well. The things we’re talking about — family, marriage, masculinity — it’s not necessarily top-of-mind in the mainstream agenda right now. Speaking about heterosexual relationships in particular, it does seem like there’s a crisis. Less and less people are marrying. Those who do marry, marry later in life. Elite marriage has held pretty steady, but working class marriage has completely fallen apart. We’re also seeing a sex recession right now. It seems like there’s this growing disconnect between heterosexual men and women. What do you see as the status of things between men and women?

AMD: What a topic. What a deep ocean to dive into. Personally, I believe that it is a bit of a crisis. The things that have anchored the relationships between men and women are broken. And what is that shift? I think there are a lot of things. Working class people, first of all, are run ragged. We’re run ragged. We’re not allowed time to think, or be present. Because we got jobs. You got bills, you got them kids; you gotta be out there doing your thing. The system is designed to make us work, work, work.

If we’re mapping where we were 40 years ago, in terms of working class families, unions were very strong. And there’s a reverse correlation between unions declining in strength and the gap between the rich and the poor, which is increasing in our society. What that means is you have less rights as a worker, you have less stability in your job. Which means you’ve got to work extra. Which means you can’t be home. You can’t be present. Weekends aren’t weekends. Weeknight dinners don’t happen. Presence is what makes families work. Now you don’t have that presence, because we’re over here working. I think that’s what’s threatening working class families.

I think, also, there’s a mental health component that isn’t talked about … I’m privileged to be the Black artist in residence at the school board that I graduated from and I’ve been meeting young people and hearing them talk about their relationships. There is a crisis of identity, of who we are. There’s a crisis of mental health. And sexual assault is a massive thing. I’ve talked about this, and I talk about it in my book — because I’m a survivor of childhood sexual assault — it’s not just women. They say one in four women before they’re 18. Well, it’s one in six men. That means a lot of men. For men it’s so demasculating that we don't talk about it. Think about it: That’s millions and millions of people. Here’s one of the big fallacies, as well: 45 percent are by women. We’re being told that men are perpetrators and women are victims. Which is true, in many cases. But you know, women are also perpetrators in almost half of one in six men. So that’s just one example of these hidden epidemics.

You have such a spirit of resilience and keeping on and don’t complain. You don’t even acknowledge that you’re hurt. You don’t acknowledge the pain. If you were to acknowledge it, all the other working class people are busy. They’ve got to work. Do you have extra money to go get a mental health professional? Even if you can get to that point, is that supported in your job? Well, no, because you ain’t got that union that would fight to put it in your benefits.

So you suck it up. And we have a culture of self destruction. We over-consume; we over-shop and get into financial debt. We over-eat and our bodies go out of control. We over-smoke marijuana. We over-drink. We over-sex. Well, not sex, really; we over-consume porn, which is why there is a deficit of sex … These are just symptoms of a disease, which rolls back to the lack of presence, which rolls back to the state of the working class. Which used to be way more empowered but is way less now. And the wealth gap increases. And, as a result, the working class is not available for their families. And guess what? Families don’t function as they should.

I don’t believe we want it less. I believe we want it more. I believe we crave it.

My band is all women in their twenties, and early thirties. I’m like the big brother, so I’ll hear their relationship problems. They’ll ask me for advice, which I’ve learned to give very carefully. [Laughs] But, you know, there’s a point where I come to them and say, “Look, if I said to you that you can have whatever you want, however you want it, exactly as much as you want — does that sound like an empowered woman to you?” And they’d be like, “Yeah, absolutely. That is exactly the life I’m trying to live, my best life.” I’m like, “Okay. But do you also want to have a relationship with someone that’s loving, a partnership that lasts and is nourishing?” They say, “Yeah, absolutely. That’s definitely what I want. Of course. Everyone wants that.” They don’t see that those two desires are contradictory. One is a deep-seated human need for companionship. And the other is a whole package of illusions that they’ve bought into. Usually pushed by people who are trying to sell them something — makeup, high heels, workout plans, self-help books, courses on the internet, Etsy.

What’s a real relationship? Well, it’s sacrifice. It’s giving up for the team. I learned that playing basketball. We’ve got a real deficit of that quality. All our illusions about ourselves are selfish, and self-driven. And being selfish is the opposite of what makes teams work. So, marriages fail. Relationships fail.

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TH: That’s a really deep and comprehensive analysis. I appreciate you thinking it through on that level and sharing what you’ve shared. I think it’s a really important perspective.

AMD: Tara, you know I answer in podcasts — sweeping and epic. [Laughs] But it’s a great question. It’s an important question.

TH: Before we go, I want to ask you about how you’re processing this woke moment that we are in right now, which you know I’ve been very critical of.

AMD: It’s been critical of you, Tara Henley. [Laughs] I profoundly believe that the things that make us similar and the same are more plentiful and more profound than the things that make us different. That is a cornerstone belief.

It’s supported by science. Science doesn’t even study race. Because it’s such a small percentile of the genes, it’s not worth studying. Which doesn’t mean that it doesn’t matter. But I come with the lens that fundamentally we are the same. And I think that’s because I’ve traveled a lot. I’ve lived around Indigenous people, Black people, East Indian people, white folks, German folks, French folks, English folks.

I see the similarities. If I were to say to any of those people, “What are the goals of your life?” They would say, “I want to make some money. I want to have a career that I don’t hate, and hopefully I love. I want to be around my friends, be around my family. Travel a little bit, eat some good food, and grow old with people that love me.” That transcends all these boxes we put ourselves in. And I don’t feel like they’re not important. I love being a Trinidadian man. I love being a Black man. I love being Canadian. I love being an immigrant. But my Black skin doesn’t define me. There’s so many greater things. I’m a friend. I’m an employer, I’m an employee. I’m a performer. I’m an artist. I’m a creator. I’m all of these other things — and that’s what we’re really fighting for. I think the woke movement of the left is always trying to reduce us down to, in my case, my pigmentation. My identity. In my case, I’m obviously Black. I’m like, you know what? That’s like the people who say like nice racial stereotypes, like, “Oh, you’re Black, you must be a fast runner. You’re a great dancer.” I always look at those things as just as offensive as if you tell me I’m a lazy and want to steal from your store. Because, to me, in both cases you are reducing me down to my skin. And I see that as a very small part of all the things that I am.

What are we fighting for? Choice is power. I always say, Tara, if you have choices, you have power. So I don’t want my choices limited by the left or the right, or by anybody else. I want to be the person that chooses what I’m going to be. And that’s what I feel about the woke moment.

I agree with the objectives. Whether you believe in critical race theory or not, whatever you feel about it, it’s an undeniable fact that the history of North America has been written by one side of the story. And we’re having a moment where the other side is coming through, and people are saying we want power. What’s more American than that? What’s more Canadian than that? We hold these truths to be self-evident that all people are created equal. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This is enshrined in who we are. And we’ve never fully been that. And we’re trying to get there, to aspire to this idea. I love it. I feel like: What a great thing to have ideals that are so great that you always have to keep striving to get to it. What a tremendous thing; what a blessing we have.

The reason why we live in Toronto and not Tehran is because we can have discussions and debate — and we can convince other people of our ideas. That’s what I think the great casualty of this movement is.

Whatever side you believe in, I’m not even getting into that. What I am going to get into is how we have the conversation. There are people dying in Kyiv right now, and in Mariupol right now, to fight for the rights that we have, and we take for granted, and pretend they don’t matter. They do matter. People get on boats in Cuba, on little rafts, and brave the Atlantic Ocean, sharks and waves and storms, so that they can have these rights that we have. And we just talk about them like they don’t matter. Having debate is what it’s all about. This is what it’s all about. This is what we’re supposed to do. We’re supposed to have more conversation. And, yeah, you know what? There are people that believe some ridiculous things. That’s okay. We’re allowed to have that; that’s who we are. This is our ideal that we’re striving for — more conversation. Let the battle of ideas go on.

I’m going to talk about you, Tara Henley. I didn’t even check the ramifications of you leaving the CBC. I just read your article and I was like, “I support that.” Because, again, I believe, profoundly, we are all the same … I’ve been reading a lot of George Orwell lately, as you know. And Orwell says, look, we know that they are illusions. We know that it’s very easy to point out how things are not fair. But we choose to believe in these illusions. And illusions matter. These are great illusions. Maybe these ideas about democracy, and freedom and rights, and freedom of speech, and independent courts — maybe these things are illusions, but we believe in them. And that’s why everyone wants to come live here. Because we believe in them.

We’re still in a struggle, and it’s a legit struggle, to extend that to Indigenous folks and Black folks and brown folks who have never had it, and all these different identities. Because they are just like us. So they deserve to have that. Because they have something to give to this, and they’ve been giving, and it’s not been recognized. So, I’m all for that. But let’s have more conversation. Let’s not forget what we’re fighting for. Let’s convince people, because that is the privilege of living in a democracy. It should be.

This transcript has been edited and condensed.

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