Like many Canadians, sometimes it feels like I know more about American politics than our own politics. American politics are louder, flashier, and take up more space in our news. So I’m trying my best to continue to monitor my country’s politics, particularly when it comes to issues of equity. That’s what drew me to Can You Hear Me Now?: I had heard of Celina Caesar-Chavannes and her rocky experience as a Black, female Member of Parliament. But I had another reason to read this too: Caesar-Chavannes is a business owner, an entrepreneur, and this is a memoir about the lessons she has learned and the mistakes she has made. With my best friend Rebecca’s birthday in February, this book seemed like a great gift for an entrepreneur like her.
Caesar-Chavannes pulls no punches in this memoir. She discusses childhood abuse and molestation, and into her adolescence and adulthood she gets real with us about her struggles to complete school, get a degree, stay out of a toxic relationship, and later on, miscarriages, an affair, etc. She lays herself bare to the bone here in a way that is uncomfortable, certainly—but her vulnerability is powerful. Too many leadership memoirs focus on what the author did right, with maybe an anecdote here or there about hilarious failures that helped them learn an important lesson. In contrast, Caesar-Chavannes’s memoir feels more like a litany of “and then I made another mistake”—not only does this feel refreshing and human, but it’s also a reminder not to mythologize ourselves. Too often we look to leaders to tell us stories that paint them as larger than life because we, too, yearn to be that larger-than-life figure. Caesar-Chavannes reminds us that success is not a state you obtain and then you write a book: success and failure come and go in waves, and eventually you might write a book, but that doesn’t mean you’ve “made it.” She’s still got work to do.
Let’s talk about race. I’m white, and therefore I have never experienced racism and discrimination. It’s important for me to read books like this, because Caesar-Chavannes pulls no punches when it comes to calling out racism either. She is not afraid to criticize various politicians, including Prime Minister Trudeau, and I am here for it. She recounts awkward, belittling conversations with the PM where he basically lectures and mansplains at her, and it presents such a stark image to the “cool Justin” reputation Trudeau tries to cultivate for himself. But these sound bites are really just the tip of the iceberg. Those later chapters where Caesar-Chavannes recounts her tumultuous experience in the House of Commons are difficult reading, for it really exposes just how anti-Black the upper echelons of our government are. We teach our children that this country is a bastion of tolerance and diversity, but when you look at the representation in our House of Commons, it’s still very white. Caesar-Chavannes is careful to point out that she is not the only person on Parliament Hill who experiences racism, but that her position as an elected MP protected her in ways staffers and public servants were not. So that was another interesting point for me to think about.
Basically what I’m trying to say is that if, like me, you are interested in anti-racist praxis, this book is a valuable complement to the anti-racist books that are more academic or broader in their scope. Caesar-Chavannes’s personal experiences are worth listening to, because “I don’t see these problems” and “I didn’t know this was going on” are not acceptable statements from us white folks.
Let’s talk gender. I like that she points out the discrepancies between how her parents treated her and her brother from an early age. While some of this might seem obvious, especially to cis women readers, again, I think the very personal and thorough ways in which Caesar-Chavannes explores these ideas creates such a compelling case for institutional sexism and misogyny (not to mention misogynoir, that is, discrimination specifically against Black women) in a way that people who avoid more academic books on feminism and racism can’t miss.
One message she hammers home: representation matters, but access to representation matters more. It isn’t enough to have Black people and Black women in particular in positions of power and responsibility. They need to be accessible to younger Black women so that there can be mentorship and connection. This is something I will take from this book and think about, in my positions of power as an educator—how can I facilitate this within my sphere of influence?
Let’s talk learning from your mistakes. Really, this is the theme of the book. Caesar-Chavannes carefully articulates how important it has been, throughout her life, to listen to herself and to honour the lessons from mistakes she has made. In particular, I like that she reminds us to make space and let ourselves rest in between projects. Don’t dive right into the next thing because you think you owe it to yourself or others to be productive. Give yourself time to rest, time to recover, time to regroup. You deserve that.
My one critique, honestly, would be that I wasn’t a huge fan of Caesar-Chavannes’s voice as it comes across in her writing style. It’s quite straightforward, with a few flourishes here and there—and it might be just that the strict adherence to chronology feels very confining at times that I want her to burst out with an anachronistic comment or aside. So it took me a while longer to warm up to this book than I would have liked. Nevertheless, I walked away from it with the lessons I hoped.
Accessible, thoughtful, hopeful, courageous—I could list a bunch of generic adjectives that apply. What Can You Hear Me Now? comes down to though is honesty. This is not a book that panders to our white supremacist society’s idea of what a Black woman who is a business owner and was a politician should say about her experiences. She isn’t moderating her tone, isn’t going to follow the narrative. Celina Caesar-Chavannes tells her story the only way she can: personally and with deep, humble honesty that reflects the limits of her experiences and the limitlessness of her ambition.