Perdita Felicien’s beautifully written ‘My Mother’s Daughter’ is a ‘love letter to my mother’

Apr 2, 2021

We know Perdita Felicien as a Canadian and world champion hurdler, two-time Olympian and, now, as a CBC broadcaster. There’s a story behind her trajectory, though, and that story begins with her mother, Cathy, who grew up on the Caribbean island of St. Lucia. One day, she walked up to a tourist and asked if she could babysit their child. That bold question ultimately led her to Canada, paving the way for her daughter’s success and also years of struggle. And so, when it came time for Felicien to tell her own story after retiring from track, she knew she had to begin with her mother’s. The result is the beautifully written and compelling memoir “My Mother’s Daughter: A Memoir of Struggle and Triumph.” The Star spoke to Felicien on the day her book launched.

Happy book birthday, as they say.

It’s finally out in the world! I really wanted it to come out around Mother’s Day. It’s like a love letter to my mother. It also is an intergenerational tale … my grandmother was really one of the people that made this possible because she takes care of my mother’s young children (in St. Lucia) so she can go to Canada and try her luck. And Nova, my own daughter, shows up in the final pages — there’s four generations of this family you can see evolve.

It’s such a story about strong women, but also women who can be vulnerable at the same time.

I think as a kid growing up you don’t see your parents as who they are. For me, (with this book) I saw my mother’s humanity, saw her as a woman, not my mother, not my friend. I have so much more respect and admiration for her. Our story as a family is pretty messy in parts. It’s a deeply human tale. But I could not tell a sanitized version just to make us look better or proper or whatever is acceptable. I had to tell our truth.

It’s a difficult story. When did you decide you were going to write it?

In 2012, I remember calling Lawrence Hill, who wrote “The Book of Negroes.” I met him in 2010 when I was defending on Canada Reads — on a whim because I had this crazy idea of writing a book about my mother and my family. I needed someone to tell me if this is just silly or ridiculous or whatever. I was concerned about a few things. The first was: can I do this? The second was: by virtue of telling my story, I’m telling other people’s stories who might not want their story told.

He said to me: you can do it. And you should. And then he also said you don’t have to ask anybody permission to tell your story if it’s your story. And if you tell it truthfully and honestly, and with respect in the care that you’re actually speaking to me, then you should tell the story. I left that meeting feeling, “I’m going to do this.” I was so crazy scared.

There’s a line in the book trailer that says “before she carried the hope of a nation, she carried her mother’s dreams.” That’s a heck of a lot of responsibility.

My mother had never put pressure on me. She never said “You have to do this.” She just literally wanted different for us. She wanted my siblings to go to school. Her vehicle for us was education. It wasn’t me going to track and going to the Olympics and getting a scholarship to go to university. It was just: don’t make foolishness with your life, meaning just do what you’re supposed to do with your life. Don’t get pregnant. Go to school. Don’t put a foot wrong. The pressure I felt when I was competing was my own. Because I’ve seen my mother cry, I’ve seen her be taken advantage of and I didn’t want to be on the list of things that made her sad. As a five-year-old I would wipe my mother’s tears, so I’m not going to contribute to making those tears.

Calling it “a memoir of struggle and triumph” refers to both of your stories. There’s an Olympian feel to it.

I didn’t want to lose that piece. Canadians know me as an Olympic athlete, went to Athens, and for a long time I’ve been trying to — not shed that identity, but you want to reinvent yourself and be known for something else. And what I realized is: don’t bury the sport aspect. That is still very much who Canadians know you as. So even though you want to be seen and known for something else, don’t throw that away because it is such a unique experience.

Even as you tell that part of your story your mother is there, she was there through all of it.

I was this teenager who was headstrong; I was smart, but I was kind of stubborn. And I can say this, without a doubt: had it not been for my mother’s as she calls it, encouragement, I always say incessant nagging (to get back on track after a tough loss in Grade 8). I had good grades. I loved writing. I wanted to make good money one day. I never knew (sport) was a vehicle for anything. I had no idea that it could be lead me to upward mobility in life.

It’s astonishing the effect the whims of people had on your mother’s life. One family deciding one day they want her to go. Another unjustly calling the police. Passive aggressive power plays. Clearly we know these types of stories are out there. But it’s a tough thing. We like to think we’re better than that, don’t we? And we’re not.

I think the prism that some of us might look through it as is, well, this country was harsh and mean to you. And I think my mom has been pressed on that in some interviews. And it’s so interesting to me because she said it wasn’t Canada, it was the individual people. But the truth is we do try to frame ourselves as Canadians: we don’t have racism, we’re great to immigrants that come here. We aren’t always. This story I think really pulls the veil back on that.

And I think now you have a name. Perdita Felicien. You have Cathy Felicien Browne. These are two people that you’ve seen come up through the years. And so now, it maybe gives you some deeper resonance, ‘Oh, this does happen to people in our country.’ It’s not the nameless, faceless people with names that you can’t pronounce. There are two people that you know well. And this is our history, this is our story and it happened here.

Your mother agreeing to have her story told helps other families, helps the shelter in Oshawa where you had to stay for a while — it’s the Denise (House) shelter now.

A lot of women would not have agreed to this story being told. My mother knew that me writing this also was healing for me. It was me being able to tell Nova, who is going to be two next month, here’s my story as a woman.

For a long time my mother wanted to tell her story. I know when she gave me the permission to tell it, it was to give power to the nameless other women who have lived the same existence. One thing she would always tell me is, “I’m not the first and last woman who has lived this kind of life. You can tell this to give another woman permission to do better things and to grow and to change and to be inspired.”

That’s courageous.

My mum knows who she is and despite any of the missteps that she’s taken, the right or the wrong turns, that strong sense of self has never left her. She passed it on to me and that is something I plan to pass on to my own child.

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