How literature can change the world.
“When we study the humanities and create art, we’re analyzing culture, language and how we express ourselves. It’s all about gaining a critical understanding of each other. And in the absence of that, that’s where conflicts arise.”
Matthew is a poet with close to half a million reads on the popular digital platform Wattpad. And he’s the author of Until We Break, a young adult novel published in 2022 when he was a double major in the School for Advanced Studies in Arts and Humanities (SASAH) and English Language and Literature at Western University. And he’s only 24.
With success like this at such a young age, you get the feeling this all happened easily. But it didn’t. Rather, Matthew’s emergence as a new literary voice was a slow and messy evolution.
When he was growing up in Portmore and Spanish Town, Jamaica, Matthew was like most adolescents – his interests and passions came and went. “I went through a lot of hobbies and phases. I was really into track and then I wasn’t. Then I was into debate and then I wasn't, then I was into languages and then not. Every time an interest would fall away from me, I would think, ‘Who am I? Nothing seems to stick.’”
But writing did stick – and storytelling had an important benefit in a larger sense, beyond mere hobby.
It is this search for personal identity that drives his lead characters in Until We Break. Matthew’s central character, a Black teenager named Naomi, has a passion for ballet. Her ballet teacher thinks she shows serious promise for the big time. But after her best friend, Jessica, is killed in a car accident, Naomi can’t seem to let go of her grief. It follows her around, usually in the spirit of Jessica, and pulls her into a chasm of self-doubt that threatens to destroy her ballet future.
Another character, Saint, is also a Black high school student. His mother has died, and he is caring for his brother and their sick (and very difficult) father. It’s a tough life, but Saint has a passion for art, specifically drawing. They both feel stuck. But when Naomi and Saint become friends, they start to show each other that there are options for life they hadn’t considered.
Just as writing and storytelling helped Matthew see his path, he wants his work to do the same for his readers.
That’s the impact Matthew hopes to make. But it works both ways. Matthew got to this point because of the impact other writers had on him, including Jamaican poets Olive Senior and James Berry, as well as high-profile American novelists Toni Morrison, James Baldwin and Cassandra Clare.
“I learned to write from other writers. I started off as a reader. Early on, I was always noticing the power of storytelling and how people specifically use that power to engage audiences. I was very keen about that without ever actually knowing it. My development as a writer began to look a lot more deliberate when I began to take literature courses in high school, and I began to pay more attention to literary techniques and devices.”
He also praises Wattpad, a popular digital platform for creative writers (and the publisher of Until We Break).
“With other writers, we had a kind of book club, where we were able to read each other’s stories and give feedback about what worked and what didn’t. Every writer needs that kind of sounding board. That is very much impact. That experience has been a very important part of my journey.”
Matthew is thankful he was able to take part in a similar writer exchange during his term as Western’s Student Writer-in Residence.
He also hopes his work can contribute to conversations about the Black experience.
“How do people identify, and is that identification necessary or important to the work they’re producing? I think it is necessary. Being Black and, specifically, Caribbean, it’s important to me that I engage with what it means to come from the place I come from, and that the stories I’m telling are truthful to the experiences of me and my family and my ancestors and the people who look and talk and dress like me.”
And, in that spirit, he’s especially taken with the reaction he’s received about Naomi in Until We Break.
“Mothers of young Black ballet dancers have told me the book makes them feel like their daughters have a place in the world and that it’s impactful to see someone else enduring the processes and the challenges their daughters are going through. And together, I think we forge something really beautiful outside of the work itself. There’s also some community building that takes place, and I’m lucky I’m able to be a part of that.”