When Perdita Felicien set out to write her family’s story, she expected it to be difficult. But the struggle she faced behind the scenes caught her totally by surprise.
With her athletic career flickering, Perdita Felicien was in need of some coaching. The summer of 2012 had brought a third wave of Olympic heartache for Felicien after she failed to qualify for the London Games thanks to a false start at the Canadian trials. But by the time the former NCAA star found herself back on a university campus that fall, packed stadiums and podiums were not top-of-mind as she had already pivoted in a new direction.
Felicien knew there was something there with her family’s rich, often difficult backstory — she just required some high-level council about whether it was really the kind of thing that could be bound together and put on a shelf. That prompted her to reach out to someone she had met two years earlier as part of the 2010 edition of CBC’s Canada Reads competition. “I remember messaging Lawrence Hill out of the blue,” says Felicien, referencing the Canadian author of the award-winning Book of Negroes. “I met with him at this little café on the [University of Toronto] campus.”
Whether talking over coffee or putting pen to page, words have a way of spilling out of Felicien. She loved keeping a journal as a child, even fashioning herself as a writer for a dress-up day at her elementary school. Sitting with an accomplished literary figure, though, Felicien laid out her anxieties about taking on the role in real life. Could her family’s themes of — among other things — poverty and perseverance be sewn into a cohesive narrative? Was she within her rights to offer uncompromising details about the lives of siblings she cherished, a mother who was her north star and a father who sometimes wreaked terror over their entire unit? “You have a story,” was Hill’s advice to her. “If you can tell it honestly and authentically and with love and your truth, you have a story: You need nobody’s permission to tell it.”
Felicien’s athletic arc alone would have provided more than enough dramatic tension for a compelling read. She’s a 10-time national champion and, in 2003, became the first Canadian woman to win a gold medal at the International Amateur Athletic Federation World Championship. The following summer, she carried best-in-class aspirations and expectations to the Athens Games, only to graze the first hurdle in the final and crash out of the race. Four years on, a training injury caused by a misplaced hurdle meant there would be no redemption at the 2008 Olympics in China.
“You have a story. You need nobody’s permission to tell it.”
But if Felicien just wanted to write about athletics, she wouldn’t have required that important validation from Hill. Her memoir doesn’t tackle track and field in any meaningful way until nearly halfway through the book. Instead, My Mother’s Daughter: An Immigrant Family’s Journey of Struggle, Grit, and Triumph — released March 30 — places her mother, Catherine Browne Felicien, at the centre of the story as we trace her journey from a little girl selling trinkets on the beaches of St. Lucia, through a difficult transition to Canadian life, to cheering on her world-beater daughter. While Felicien is happy with the final result, exploring everything her family went through to arrive at this place was an exhaustive process for multiple reasons. “It’s not a perfect story,” she says.
By the time Felicien spoke to Hill at U of T, she knew any book about her life and family had to come directly from her. Many former athletes leave the actual sentence construction to an established pro, but the only person she would have trusted to ghostwrite it — beloved Toronto Star sportswriter Randy Starkman — had unexpectedly passed earlier that year. Starkman and his wife, Mary, had always encouraged Felicien to do what she never had during a decade of standing in front of microphones and speaking to the world’s media — tell her whole truth. “I don’t know if anyone who hasn’t lived this experience with me could actually put it on the page the way I would,” she says. “Sure, I could sit in a room and talk to someone for six months, and they can record me and then write the book for me. But I knew it wouldn’t have the same emotion, and I knew it wouldn’t have that same rawness to it. Because this story is so deeply personal — it’s family history, it’s sensitive — and it’s not only my story. I only trusted me with it.”
A couple years passed before Felicien was truly ready to dive into the project. In 2014, she enrolled in the University of Chicago Graham School’s two-year creative non-fiction program. Her four-year NCAA career had taken place just a couple of hours’ drive away at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, so she had some familiarity with the area. “I wanted to be away from my environment. I wanted to be away from my every day, and that really helped,” she says. “I needed the space, too, after competing.”
Felicien devoured memoirs and personal essays, and plunged into conversations about the craft with teachers and fellow students. Writing the smaller pieces that would ultimately form the basis of the book, Felicien dredged up memories that were still dripping with muck. She recalled scrambling to collect her mother’s clothes and other personal items the night her father, in a rage, tossed Catherine’s belongings out the door and onto the front lawn of their home in Oshawa, Ont. When, along with her mom and older sister, Felicien was forced to re-locate to a women’s crisis shelter, little Perdita would entertain herself by leaping from the top bunk of the bed on one side of the small room to the bunk bed on the other side.
Of course, given the fact that the book starts with her mother as a child, Felicien had to start asking the questions that would give concrete form to family stories that had swirled around her youth. One of them centred on Perdita’s own arrival into the world. When Catherine was pregnant, she was working as a live-in housekeeper for an older, white couple in Oshawa. The night abdominal pain alerted Catherine to the fact it was time to get to the hospital, she lurched up two flights of stairs to tell her employers she had to go. After grumbling about how inconvenient it was that the baby was coming early, the unflinchingly cold matriarch of the house — called “Mrs. Harry” in a book where some names have been changed and some last names withheld — asked Catherine to prepare some food before she left so the couple wouldn’t have to worry about fixing their own tuna sandwiches while she was gone.
Re-living these moments with her mom often left the writer feeling the same way any reader surely would. “I would have went home; I would have went to St. Lucia,” Felicien recalls telling her mother countless times. “I’m not banging on this door of this country where I just can’t get footing.”
All of these conversations led to one question: “Why did you keep going?”
“Here I am, telling the story of my mother and I, and I’m fighting to become a mother.”
The answer was that her children gave Catherine purpose, and she wanted to make sure they had every chance to live a life full of opportunities she never had. Felicien obviously made the most of that opportunity, becoming the best in the world in her particular discipline. Writing this book was a way to honour her mom’s sacrifices. It was also a chance for Felicien to tell the kind of story the white, privileged world is finally starting to lend an ear to.
“These stories are being put front and centre because people are saying, ‘You know what, I have blind spots,’” Felicien says. “[Maybe] the immigrant story is not your narrative, but you’re stopping now to pay attention and listen, and to use whatever power and voice you have to shed light on those things. I think that is what the BIPOC community is really asking for; it’s just simply asking for equity to hear our stories, hear our plights, hear where we’re going. I love all our hashtags, but these hashtags are actually people’s reality; they’re people’s true-life stories.
“So when we say, ‘Representations matters,’ it matters. Because when I tell you there will be a little girl who will read this story and feel seen — even if she can’t relate to it exactly — she will say, ‘Perdita Felicien, former world champion, Olympian, re-invented herself into an author. I can re-create my life; I can do something different in my life.’
“I’m so proud to be a woman — a Black woman — telling her story.”
Felicien knew penning this book meant examining her own parentage. Bruce — the man she called “Dad” growing up, and the person who once heaved her mother’s belongings onto the front lawn — was not her biological father. That man had no physical presence in her life. Felicien also understands the relationship she has with her mother — the two were never apart from the time she was born — is less complicated than that of her siblings, who were born in St. Lucia and lived there with Catherine’s parents for a significant portion of their childhood before coming to Canada as immigrants themselves. “It’s something I reconcile with on the page,” Felicien says.
What Felicien never expected to be grappling with was a struggle become a parent herself. She was 33 when she hung up her spikes and — in addition to kicking around the idea of writing a book — immediately threw herself into a new career as a multimedia journalist. When she and husband, Morgan Campbell, decided it was time to expand their family, they soon found themselves in a situation one in six Canadian couples experience — living the rollercoaster of hope and despair that comes with infertility. “It was very surreal to know the reality of it was, ‘Well, you can keep trying, but it might take 10 years or it might just never happen,’” Felicien says. “Here I am, telling the story of my mother and I, and I’m fighting to become a mother. I’m writing a book about intergenerational family, and then I can’t even continue that on my end. And all the women in my family are extremely fertile, so that was another thing I struggled with. They have their children and they don’t even think twice about it.
“It made me question myself, too, because I put so much into my career as an athlete — as I had to — and it made me wonder, did I make the right move? Because here I am, putting all my [focus] into sport and I pushed it all the way [competing] until I was 33. Then I went on to do broadcasting [and delayed trying to get pregnant].”
“It’s a really messy story, but that is the human condition.”
As if the mental burden weren’t enough, Felicien also endured the physical strain of regular needle pokes for hormone injections and the regimented medication that go with the territory for a woman attempting to get pregnant through in vitro fertilization. While things eventually paid off for Felicien in that she was able to become pregnant through IVF, nothing about the next phase was easy, either. Nova stopped growing while she was still inside her mom’s belly and wound up in the neonatal intensive care unit after being born a month early at just four pounds on April 26, 2019. There were tense moments for both mom and baby, but they fought their way through. “She was so tiny, but she was scrappy,” Felicien says.
Even as Nova was steadily gathering her strength in hospital, Felicien was back at work on the book. It was originally due to come out in the spring of 2020, ahead of the Tokyo Olympics slated for that summer, meaning much of Felicien’s final push to meet her deadline was done with new-to-the-world Nova by her side. “It really gave me a sense of, yeah, writing the book was the absolute right thing,” she says. “[It also] allowed me to understand my mother’s love, the intensity of it, so much more.”
In the following months, as Felicien chugged toward the finish line, Catherine — now a happily re-married woman and recently retired personal support worker — would come by and take care of Nova so Felicien could have the time and space required to make sure her account of their life together was perfect, even if the lives themselves weren’t. “It’s a really messy story, but that is the human condition,” she says. “I’m proud of the story. I also think this is a story not just for Black people; this is not just a story for people of colour. This is a story for every single person, it’s a human story, it’s real story, it’s a mother-daughter story.”
And, thankfully, that final thread has a sequel.