Off the Page, with Emily Urquhart

Off the Page is a regular interview series produced by the National Magazine Awards Foundation. In today’s conversation we chat with Emily Urquhart, folklorist, mother and winner at last year’s National Magazine Awards gala. Her incredible memoir on raising a daughter with albinism, “The Meaning of White,” published in The Walruswon Silver in the Personal Journalism category.

Two years after being published in The Walrus, her story is being revisited with her upcoming, debut book Beyond The Pale: Folklore, Family and the Mystery of our Hidden Genes (HarperCollins), which will be in bookstores on March 31.

NMAF: Your background in folklore brought an interesting perspective to understanding human differences in your story “The Meaning of White.” How would you describe the creative process of writing this piece, in which you combined your study of folklore, experience as a mother and passion as a writer into a single story?

Emily: I knew right away that I wanted to document the early stages of my daughter’s life as we went through the process of discovering that she has a rare genetic condition. She was three months old when she was diagnosed with albinism—which is a lack of pigment in the hair, skin and eyes, and causes low vision. I started taking notes shortly after she was born. Back then, it was a way to process and understand what was happening.

I recorded the details of events and encounters, as well as my feelings and observations, on lined recipe cards that I stashed in my purse and around my house. I had a newborn, so sometimes I could only manage a few words, or a list, but as I found more quiet moments, the words became sentences and eventually paragraphs.

At that time I was in the final stages of my PhD in folklore at Memorial University in St. John’s, NL. I’d been studying folk tales, legends, beliefs, rumours, ballads and tall tales — the stories people tell to explain and illustrate their world. I realized that human differences were at the heart of many of these genres. I looked specifically at albinism and discovered worldwide beliefs and stories about this condition. Some were beautiful and I wanted to relate these tales to my own. Some were terrible and I wanted to turn away. Ultimately, exploring both good and evil helped me to come to terms with my own feelings about disability and difference, and what it means to be a parent. I wanted to write about how I came to this conclusion, both through my research and the story of our life.

After a year passed I pitched the idea to John Macfarlane at The Walrus. We worked on the idea together through a series of emails. He accepted the story and gave me far more space than I’d originally asked for. I’ll never forget receiving that message. I was so excited I couldn’t tell my husband, Andrew. I just handed him my phone so he could read it himself.

"The Meaning of White" by Emily Urquhart (The Walrus, April 2013). Illustration by Byron Eggenscwhiler.
“The Meaning of White” by Emily Urquhart (The Walrus, April 2013). Illustration by Byron Eggenschwhiler.

NMAF: Due to be released at the end of March is your debut non-fiction book, Beyond The Pale: Folklore, Family and the Mystery of our Hidden Genes. Your name appears on countless lists for books to look forward to in 2015 (alongside your mother and celebrated novelist, Jane Urquhart). Did you always intend to write a book, or was this something that came after publishing your story in The Walrus? What was the process in turning a 5,600-word memoir into a full-length book?

Emily: By the time I turned in my first draft of “The Meaning of White” I’d cut it by one third and it was still over my allotted 5,000 words. That was in June 2012. The next month we travelled to St. Louis to attend a National Organization of Albinism and Hypopigmentation (NOAH) conference. I’d never seen another person with albinism besides my daughter. Suddenly I was surrounded by hundreds of white-haired people of all ages and everyone had a story to tell. I also learned a lot more about the discrimination and violence against people with albinism in East Africa, particularly Tanzania.

We arrived home and I sat down with my husband and told him two things: I’m going to Tanzania, and I’m going to write a book. Either statement didn’t surprise him. He said, “OK, I’m coming with you.”

The book follows the first three years of my daughter’s life, so the narrative expands on the article published in The Walrus and also picks up where it left off.

NMAF: Your memoir certainly received international attention. It was featured in Reader’s DigestLongform, Byliner and The Dish, and was even translated for an Italian magazine. How has recognition, such as your award from the NMAF, helped to propel your writing career and bring this story to a larger audience?

Emily: The National Magazine Award was a huge thrill. I’d finished writing the book based on the magazine memoir by the time I attended the award ceremony. Getting that kind of recognition at that point in the creative process was extremely validating. Winning a National Magazine award is up there with defending my PhD as one of my major career highlights, and I can only see it helping my career going forward.

When “The Meaning of White” went online I started receiving several emails a day. Some of the messages came from people with albinism, but a lot were from parents who related to the story and shared stories of their own with me. I’ve heard from people across North America, as well as Europe, Africa and Asia. Messages continue to trickle in now, almost two years after the memoir first appeared in The Walrus. My community expanded after publishing this story. I’ve met a lot of great people and received a lot of support. It’s been amazing. I see all of this as having a positive impact on my daughter’s future.

NMAF: You’ve written for many other award-winning Canadian magazines, such as Azure, Flare and The New Quarterly. Did you always have aspirations of being a magazine writer, perhaps during your days as an undergraduate student at the Ryerson School of Journalism? Or was this a career path that came as a result of your passion for writing? 

Emily: Magazines are definitely my first love. When I was a teenager I read an article in Sassy magazine where the journalist wrote about touring with a heavy metal band. I wasn’t into heavy metal, but the writer crafted such an engaging tale that it didn’t matter. The story was fascinating, but so was the journalist’s career choice. She was paid to go on tour with these guys and write about her experience. I wrote a story about this experience in 2009 for The New Quarterly.

My mom is a writer so I understood that you could be a novelist, but I hadn’t seen non-fiction as a career choice until reading that piece.

I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t writing and it was during my two years in the graduate program at the Ryerson School of Journalism that I saw a professional outlet for this passion. I also loved—still love—the act of reporting. It gives me a rush to approach a stranger and then ask them to tell me their story. I’m still nervous before every interview and I still feel a sense of elation afterwards.

NMAF: Undoubtedly, 2015 will be a milestone in your career with the release of your debut book. As a Canadian writer, what else is on your list of things you hope to accomplish? What might readers expect to see from you in the future? Do you want to write more novels, continue with magazine writing or pursue any other creative endeavours?

Emily: I wrote a memoir ten years ago, but shelved it because the material was too difficult for me to revisit at that time. It concerns a period in my mid-twenties following the death of my oldest brother. I went to great lengths to escape my life—a reporting internship amidst the chaos of post 9/11 New York City, a soggy winter in Vancouver, and nine months at an English language newspaper in Kyiv, Ukraine during the lead-up to the Orange Revolution. Some of the material is dark, but revisiting it from a safe distance I can see that there’s also a lot of potential for humour. Transforming the original memoir into a more cohesive narrative is my next project. At the same time I hope to keep writing for magazines. There are a few ideas that have been waiting in the wings while I finished my book and it’s time to set those stories free.

Emily Urquhart is a National Magazine Award-winning writer and author of the forthcoming non-fiction book Beyond the Pale: Folklore, Family and the Mystery of our Hidden Genes. Find out more at emilyurquhart.ca and on Twitter @emilyjurquhart.

This interview was produced by Leah Jensen for the National Magazine Awards Foundation.

To read the full text of “The Meaning of White” and hundreds of other National Magazine Award-winning stories, visit our online archive at magazine-awards.com/archive.

To read other Off the Page interviews–with writers including Sierra Skye Gemma, Heather O’Neill, Arno Kopecky and Byron Eggenscwhiler, who illustrated Emily’s Walrus story–visit blog.magazine-awards.com/off-the-page.

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