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Charlene Carr explores Black and biracial identity in the Maritimes with her novel We Rip the World Apart

Charlene Carr is the author of Hold My Girl. (Charlene Carr - image credit)
Charlene Carr is the author of Hold My Girl. (Charlene Carr - image credit)
Charlene Carr is the author of Hold My Girl.
Charlene Carr is the author of Hold My Girl.

Charlene Carr is the author of Hold My Girl. (Charlene Carr)

Charlene Carr's writing often explores themes of race and motherhood. Her latest novel, We Rip the World Apart, highlights the complex experience of being an interracial family in rural Nova Scotia.

(HarperCollins)

We Rip the World Apart tells the layered story of Kareela, a 24-year-old, biracial woman, who finds out she's pregnant and is struggling to find herself; her mother, Evelyn, who fled to Canada from Jamaica in the 1980s; and her paternal grandmother, Violet, who moved into their house after Kareela's brother was killed by the police.

The novel weaves the past, present and future as secrets are shared and buried and choices are made that have lasting reverberations.

Carr is a Toronto-raised writer and author based in Nova Scotia. She is the author of several independently published novels and a novella. Her first novel with a major publisher is Hold My Girl. She was named a writer to watch in 2023 by CBC Books.

Carr spoke with The Next Chapter's Ryan B. Patrick about biracial identity in her novel.

So you have a new book out. It is called We Rip the World Apart, which is an amazing title. You can definitely feel that image, that tension, that violence and the power of that imagery. Tell me about the title. 

We went through a lot of different titles and this was mostly one that I came up with. I'd originally come up with "I'd Rip the World Apart", which is a line taken right from the story and we changed it to We Rip the World Apart.

That change really changed the meaning for me but I still think it works. The novel deals a lot with the idea of biracial identity and so for me, I guess what it means is this concept that biracial people, in my mind at least, bring into question this whole idea of race and then racism.

We're not separate species, which is the idea that was put forth and that enabled slavery and all these other horrible atrocities that have happened and when you see that a person can be mixed of different races how can that not bring all those ideas into question? I think that's what the title means.

Biracial people, in my mind at least, bring into question this whole idea of race and then racism. - Charlene Carr

We Rip the World Apart is a story that has levels. There's three women, they're connected by love, they're connected by blood and by secrets. There's Kareela, Evelyn and Violet. Can we first talk about Kareela? What is she struggling with? 

I think she's struggling to figure out where she fits and where she sits in the world. She's had a very traumatic upbringing. She lost her brother at a really young age and her parents were dealing with just extreme, complicated grief and kind of left her to fend for herself in many ways.

Also, she grew up in Toronto, which is an extremely multicultural city and then moved to a place in rural Nova Scotia where she was the only Black student in her entire school. That certainly would have been how she was viewed but she's biracial and so she's not only Black. We meet her in this story [in Halifax], which is a place with more diversity than you'd find in rural Nova Scotia, and she's just really trying to figure out where she fits and what she wants for her life.

Kareela is a Canadian woman of mixed heritage, you are a Canadian woman of mixed heritage. She was raised in Toronto, you were raised in Toronto and now living on the East Coast. So there's some parallels there. In terms of Kareela's journey and yours, what was happening here?

In many ways there are a lot of parallels between both my story and my family's story in this novel. So my family, rather than moving to rural Nova Scotia, we moved to rural New Brunswick. It was extremely difficult moving from Toronto where diversity is just everywhere, to a place where — in my high school there were other students of colour, but all of them were actually biracial.

There was not a single person in my entire high school who was completely another ethnicity or race beyond white.

Let's talk about Evelyn, who is Kareela's mother. Talk about that dynamic, what's happening there?

She's very traumatized. She's feeling lost. She's feeling like she doesn't know how to make sense of the world and what has happened in her life.

She loses her son in a horrific way and this is right in the description of the book so it's no spoiler. Her son is killed by police, he was unarmed, he was not being aggressive yet the people around her seem to imply that it was his fault. She has all this complicated grief. There's no outlet for that in that there's no justice for what happened. Her husband Kingsley is in his own spiral of grief and Evelyn is just trying to do better, to come out of it and things keep happening in her life that make that incredibly difficult.

She has all this complicated grief and there's no outlet for that in that there's no justice for what happened - Charlene Carr

What does [Evelyn's understanding of race] look like by way of her marriage to her Jamaican husband, her loss of her son [and by] living in Jamaica for a bit? What's her perspective on race and racism?

I think probably initially she was somewhat naive. She grew up in a place where race wasn't really an issue because there weren't people of other races.

It's a fictional town in rural Nova Scotia and that is the real life case of many towns in rural Nova Scotia where you might grow up never meeting a Black person. There's certainly some places where there are large Black communities, but there are others where unless you're traveling around, you may not see them.

And so for her, I think moving to Jamaica, she didn't have a lot of preconceived notions about race or Black people. She was very open, she was very accepting but there was a lot of naivety in that. And she was accepted largely in Jamaica, which I think was the experience of my mother as well.

Demonstrators take a knee on Spring Garden Road in Halifax to protest the death of George Floyd.
Demonstrators take a knee on Spring Garden Road in Halifax to protest the death of George Floyd.

In this June 2020 photo, demonstrators take a knee on Spring Garden Road in Halifax to protest the death of George Floyd, a Black American man who died during a police takedown in Minneapolis that year. (Brian Daly/CBC)

The book overall explores past, present and future. We're looking at anti-racism, at Black Lives Matter and the George Floyd murder. What was it like writing these scenes?

It was difficult. I think I started writing out of a need. After George Floyd was killed, I had a lot of people reaching out to me, asking me how I was doing, how it was to live in the world as a Black woman, which was kind and very well meaning, but it just kind of emphasized the fact that a lot of these people hadn't realized what both I and Black people the world over had been dealing with for generations.

And so it just kind of came upon my heart to write a story that explored that, what it would be like for a family before this widespread acknowledgement that racism in Canada exists, so there are a lot of scenes in here that were very difficult to write. I've experienced my share of racism in my life, never physically violent, but very verbally violent…being put in situations where I didn't feel safe and so I pulled from that for some of the scenes in the novel.

As well, I know my brothers have gone through similar things and it was emotionally trying to write about that, but I also felt that it was important that these stories continue to be told.

Despite all the world ripping and trauma that happens in this book, I think it also attempts to kind of give space for these characters to learn and grow. What does healing look like for these characters? 

I think it's being vulnerable enough to admit the ways in which they were confused, or they were wrong, or they had misconceptions about each other and being willing to forgive.

Forgiveness, I think, plays a large role, especially toward the end of this story and realizing that who they thought the other people in their relationships were wasn't because of all these secrets or because of all these things that they were holding back. I think that's where the potential for healing and becoming a family again really sits.

Forgiveness, I think, plays a large role, especially toward the end of this story. - Charlene Carr

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.