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Shapeshifters: An interview with Délani Valin

In anticipation of the Thursday, April 20th reading at 6pm, where Massy Arts Society and Nightwood Editions host a celebration of Shapeshifters by Délani Valin, we present an interview with the author. Join us as we’re drawn into a moving, ever-shifting collection of poems that explore the complexities of urban Métis and neurodivergent experience, and moves through multiple personas to enact empathy as a form of resistance.

In support of this launch, Massy Arts was able to talk to author Délani Valin about shapeshifters, empathy and imagination.

Massy Arts: First, I would like to address this book’s title, and cover’s graphic design. What do you think the word “shapeshifter” and the urban scene of its cover represent from the book? What is a shapeshifter in your poems’ perspective? Are we all shapeshifters somehow?

Délani Valin: When I started writing the very first poems in this book, I was in my early twenties struggling to find my voice. My writing instructor at Vancouver Island University, Marilyn Bowering, suggested I write from the perspective of personas. In the first part of the book, I take on different personas in the form of capitalist mascots, such as Barbie, the Michelin Man and the Starbucks siren. These were some of the figures I grew up with, and I wanted to explore their inner lives. It gave me permission to express a range of emotions and experiences that prepared me for the more personal poems found later in the collection. So, there is a kind of shapeshifting throughout the book. And I think it also reflects the ways in which many of us adapt and shift — sometimes due to unjust systemic circumstances, but also the ways in which we can grow and heal. 

MA: This book’s synopsis affirms that your work explores the cost of finding the perfect mask. What is this cost? By writing on/about different personas, what images were you trying to convey and present to your audience? Are these personas you are observing, or personas that you find within?

DV: I think that writing these poems showed me that there is no such thing as the perfect mask, and that the cost of this endless honing can often mean feeling increasingly alienated from one’s emotions, preferences and needs. Yet, this is also an important survival strategy. Masking, for many of us, creates a bit more safety in the world. For instance, in my life and in my writing, I have in the past found it most safe to show up as self-effacing and unassuming. Quite the opposite of, say, Ronald McDonald’s brash (and creepy) smile. In the poems, I ask: what if that uncanny positivity was also a mask he had been made to wear? What would happen to him in a moment of absolute humility, naked and confronted by wildlife? Of course, all of these personas and their inner lives are my own projections, and ultimately, I come to grapple with my own inner experience as it pertains to trauma, ancestry and belonging. 

MA: Do you think empathy is a form of resistance? What would be empathy’s power in this context?

DV: I think empathy is a powerful way to connect and create change. I remember the empathy I accessed as a child. An older boy followed me from school one day. He had a broomstick, and when he caught up to me, he threatened to beat me. I was terrified, but also curious. Why beat me? I asked him, and he said he didn’t know. I asked where he found his broomstick and he told me he stole it from someone’s porch. At a certain point, he tossed the broomstick and we kept walking together. When I saw him again, I told him he’d scared me. He thought about this, and apologized. He even shared his raw ramen noodles with me (a delicacy for neighbourhood kids). Nowadays, I find it can be so challenging to access that curiosity about others, especially if they are a real or perceived threat to me. I’ve witnessed more suffering, so I’m quicker to judgement. Yet, I haven’t been motivated to change through shame or loathing. It’s been other peoples’ gracious empathy that’s transformed me. In my writing, I try to give myself the space to attempt that sort of empathy. The kind that transformed my neighbour and I.  

MA: Why choose magical thinking (portals, flight, telepathy and incantations) as part of this book’s images? And why are they metaphors for survival? In what context is survival being addressed in this book?

DV: Magical thinking, such as the portals and incantations, are used throughout the book partly as a way to cope with traumatic events. Flight can collapse time, incantations give agency and power, portals offer an escape from unjust situations. In that way, they all contribute to survival. But I would also offer that these devices are not only dissociative, that is, a portal doesn’t just take you away from a bad spot, it has the power to take you somewhere different. Imagination has the potential to show us the way things could be, and I think this can be so important for anyone who is healing from trauma — the space to imagine what should have happened, and the space to imagine future relationships that impart the dignity and care the person deserves. There is a powerful magic in that. 

MA: Could you choose one poem and share it with our readers? Why did you choose this poem, and what do you think it represents in the book?

DV: The poem I’m sharing is called “Dear Gregor Samsa.” Gregor is the main character who suddenly becomes an insect in Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, and in this poem, the speaker is also a bug visiting Gregor. I think this poem illustrates why masks are often created. In the aftermath of repeated adversity and trauma, it becomes easy to believe there is something bug-like and grotesque within — something deeply othering and unworthy of belonging. The mask in this poem is a bunch of scarves and an unwillingness to be vulnerable and human with another. It speaks of internalized shame, and I think in the book it’s a pivot-point where later poems chip away at the notion of unbelonging and the need for a constant mask. 


I hope it wasn’t insensitive to bring
you a garden snail in our wretched states. 
See it in its terrarium, stomach foot and shell, 
how graceful it paints the glass with slime. 
We skitter to your room. I remind you I’m here
at great risk to myself. I’m covered in scarves
but there are parts of me I can’t hide. 
The snail stretches its tentacles—
slow radial twirls, eye stalks scanning
moss and twig, unseeing my monstrous
shape. I place the glass box by your bedside 
and I fill you in: Britney Spears 
is free at last. They’re still making
fried chicken sandwiches with 
fried chicken buns, etcetera. I shiver
when you brush against my thorax—
grotesque rippling of skeleton and skin. 
It’s getting late, I say. It’s nearly dawn and 
the snails will be out for their morning meals,
my neighbours will soon be gathering 
in the lobby to make eye contact and chatter.
It’s been good. I unfurl my legs beneath me—
tarsi and tibiae waterlogged from rain 
and ragged. I haven’t looked at yours and I won’t. 
You croak, Do you still love me? I tell you the snail
likes its shell gently scrubbed with a toothbrush. 
I tell you the snail is partial to apple, cucumber, 
mushroom, boiled and cooled carrots. 
I tell you what else is palatable.