Success Story with Tanya Bellehumeur-Allatt
By Tanya Bellehumeur-Allatt
Twenty years ago, in the international aftershock of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, I wrote an essay about a year I’d spent in the Middle East when I was twelve. That year in Israel and Lebanon, in the middle of a war, had marked me. I could barely talk about it, let alone commit it to the page, so I condensed an entire year into a thousand words. I’ve since learned this is an effective way to write about trauma: in short, quick bursts. It’s like thrusting your hand into a fire. If you don’t pull it out quickly, you risk getting burned.
I submitted my essay to EVENT magazine’s CNF contest. To my surprise, it was shortlisted. Though it didn’t win, guest judge Ken Wiwa praised it in his editorial, calling it “a poignant story resonating with religious, sexual and political awakenings.”
Greatly encouraged by Wiwa’s words, I signed up for a writing workshop with Montreal writer and memoirist Joel Yanovsky. Joel’s keen interest and encouragement led me to a full rewrite. Six months later, Grain editor Rilla Friesen published my essay and nominated it for a National Magazine Award and a Western Magazine award.
I wrote a few more essays about my year in the Middle East, told from my twelve-year-old point of view, though it was excruciatingly difficult. The work involved excavating memories that had been repressed for decades. Appropriating the story for myself—telling it from my point of view—meant that I was deliberately deviating from my family’s mythology—our typical way of talking about that year, with my father, the United Nations peacekeeper, as the story’s hero. What would my parents and brother think of my rendition? Would it offend them? Would they insist I’d gotten it wrong? Writing about family members, whether living or dead, is challenging terrain.
I decided to share my work with my family only once it was published, and suggested that they read themselves as characters. It helped that 1983 was decades behind us; we were different people back then. To my relief, they received my stories with grace.
Awakening the memories was not easy. But as I tugged on one, others followed. I didn’t remember full conversations, but I could recall their tone and how I felt in my body. The adolescent fears returned in a distinct chain of memory: the feelings of powerlessness and hopelessness. The ache of confusion. The numbness. It was difficult to face, but also cathartic.
By then, I was a mother of four small children and a college professor of English literature. I didn’t have much time to devote to my writing. I felt frustrated and jealous of "real writers." I wrote in bits and pieces. When my youngest daughter started kindergarten, I made myself a writing studio in our home and took a leave of absence from the college. I applied for a Canada Council grant to expand my initial essay, “The Twelfth Year” into a full-length memoir—a prospect that was both terrifying and exhilarating. To my surprise, the grant came through.
As the years progressed, I realized I needed more training. More artistic community. In 2015, I took another leave of absence and began an MFA in Creative Writing from UBC. By the end of my five-year degree, I had completed three book-length manuscripts: Millicent of Rose Hall, a middle-grade children’s novel; Sam and Bianca, a YA novel; and Peacekeeper’s Daughter: A Middle East Memoir. In another leap of faith, I resigned from my teaching position to devote myself to writing full-time.
When I queried a prominent agent about Peacekeeper’s Daughter, she responded immediately. By then, a third of the chapters had been published in Canadian lit mags and anthologies, including Best Canadian Essays 2019 and 2015. The agent loved my writing style and my premise, but she stumbled over the twelve-year-old point of view, arguing that publishers wouldn’t take it on as adult nonfiction. She wanted me to rewrite it for a young adult market. Much as I wanted her to represent me, I didn’t share her vision for my book. A year later, I queried a second agent who told me the same thing. Peacekeeper’s Daughter didn’t fit into the industry’s well-defined categories.
To say I was devastated is a massive understatement. By this time, almost twenty years had passed since I’d written that first essay. So much of myself had gone into this story. In the fall of 2020, I queried several independent Canadian publishing houses. In January 2021, when Liz Philips, the acquisitions editor at Thistledown Press, wrote to say she wanted to publish my manuscript, I could barely believe it.
While I was working on edits, I received an email from Shoreline Press. The publisher had heard about the Poem a Day exercise that I’d done for the first three months of the pandemic. She’d read several of the poems and wanted to publish them as a book. I was surprised and flattered. Suddenly I had not one book contract, but two.
Peacekeeper’s Daughter: A Middle East Memoir—twenty years in the making—was published in September 2021. Reader response has been tremendous. The book made the CBC’s Fall 2021 Nonfiction List and was nominated for the Quebec Writers’ Federation Mavis Gallant Award for Nonfiction. Chaos Theories of Goodness, my debut poetry collection, was released in July 2022.