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Suzette Mayr explores the soul of Canada through Black history

The author has penned a historical fiction about a queer Black man navigating the 1929 social order in The Sleeping Car Porter
Author Suzette Mayr, recipient of the Giller Prize for her book, The Sleeping Car Porter, is a special guest at St. Albert Public Library's STARFest slated for Friday, May 12. SUPPLIED

In her latest historical fiction, author Suzette Mayr takes the reader through one of Canada’s ugliest periods. The Sleeping Car Porter, winner of the 2022 Scotiabank Giller Prize, is a deeply passionate and personal story that explores the subjugation of a queer Black man. 

The Calgary based novelist is a special guest at a STARFest presentation in St. Albert Public Library on Friday, May 12. Mayr was initially invited to attend the library’s 2022 STARFest fall presentation. However, she was unable to attend and the event was postponed. 

The Sleeping Car Porter is set in 1929. Baxter works on a train that crisscrosses the country. Although he serves the passengers’ every whim, Baxter remains invisible to them. Treating him like furniture, they are too lazy to remember his name and call him George. 

At the time, porters tended to be educated men — some with university degrees in medicine or business administration. However, racist attitudes towards Black people saw them as socially inferior and forced them to work in menial positions. 

Trapped in a disrespectful world where he is treated as less than a man, Baxter puts up with being called “George.” But inside Baxter refuses to bow to discrimination and saves every penny, nickel and dime he earns for dentistry school.  

Working long hours with only several hours rest throughout the day, the porter is sleep-deprived and worried about making a minor mistake that will cost him his job. Compounding the pressure is a burning fear his queer orientation will be compromised.  

“The story is very engaging with a little bit of mystery. I took a train to Vancouver and back and something about the writing feels like you’re on a train. The way she describes sentences makes you feel the book has a rhythm,” said Michelle Steinhusen, STARFest festival director. 

Mayr was inspired to write the book from two people she admired greatly. The first was a quote from American novelist Toni Morrison, the first Black woman to win the Noble Prize for literature in 1993.  

In the quote Morrison said, “If there’s a book you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it.” 

“I wanted to find my own history. I wanted to find the context,” said Mayr who is also queer. 

Although the idea percolated in Mayr’s mind for years, it was Fred Wah, Canadian Parliamentary Poet Laureate and one of her professors at the University of Calgary that gave her a final push. 

In her early research, Mayr discovered that several prominent Canadians were once porters: musician Oscar Peterson; Senator Calvin Ruck; Stanley Grizzle, the first Black Canadian citizenship judge, and Rufus Rockhead, owner of Rockhead’s Paradise, the famous Montreal jazz club. 

A writer can choose an number of viewpoints to anchor a narrative. In selecting a train porter as the central character, "they seemed to have baked in drama. It was not the greatest job. It was really humiliating doing this subservient job,” she said. 

Baxter is also in love with Edwin, his mentor and a man who leads a double life with a wife and children. 

“He has to deal with being in the closet. I do know what it’s like to be in the closet and hide from people you love and relate to. I had to infuse my character with my own past in having this obsession with a great love. I had to find out his likes and dislikes and what as a gay man he would have to face,” said Mayr. 

The author paints Baxter as a “sweet, kind, passionate and in love with Edwin, and that love gets him through the day. He’s vulnerable to the pressures of the job and sensitive to the passengers.” 

But it’s the interactions with passengers that builds the novel’s scaffolding. 

“As a group, sleeping porters were invisible to passengers. They were part of the wallpaper. They were servants. But in the service industry, porters could see the reality and passengers' secrets.” 

And as the train chugs its way towards Vancouver, secrets are revealed. Steinhusen said, “The journey on the train is complete by the end of the book, but Baxter's journey is complete as well.” 

Calgary writer, playwright and filmmaker Cheryl Foggo, author of Pourin’ Down Rain, will interview Mayr at STARFest’s informal setting. Foggo’s 1990 is being re-released for its 30th anniversary and copies from Audrey’s Book Store will be available. 

“Cheryl is very forthright and very plain spoken. She has so much knowledge and passion about Black history she makes interesting discussions. And she has a great sense of humour that makes talks engaging.” 

The event begins at 7 p.m. Tickets are $7 at 

Anna Borowiecki

About the Author: Anna Borowiecki

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