The year was 2013, the city was Trois-Rivières, mi-chemin entre Montréal et Québec. We were both in the Explore immersion program, a sort of French Canadian summer camp for Anglophone adults. I sat beside her in my French class. Half the time I had no idea what was going on. But she never judged me and responded to my tentative inquires.
6 years later, I hope I’m asking Grace Bannerman better questions. We’re conducting this interview on a train from Mont Saint Michel towards Paris, where I’ve been living for the past 2 years and my dear friend came to visit.
Grace currently resides in Toronto, where she has been working for a surgical quality improvement database for the past 19 months. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Literary and Critical Theory and Neuroscience from the University of Toronto and a Master’s in Science Communication from Laurentian University in Sudbury.
Grace is one of the most good-natured, considerate, and incisive people I’ve ever met. While some men play Devil’s Advocate for causes they don’t necessarily believe in and will leave no stone unturned, Grace has the uncanny ability to flip only the conversation stones that need to be adjusted… with tact and style. You feel like you’re building in each conversation with her because you can’t talk to her without thinking of things in a new way. A large portion of my memories of being in Toronto are imbued with this feeling.
“I like getting to explore what makes people tick,” the 25 year old says. It’s easy to tell when Grace is thinking hard because she makes the odd contemplative noise. “Oh, I make a sound before I talk sometimes,” she admits. “I go hmmmm, and then I talk.” “Sometimes you do it even when you’re not about to say something,” I laugh.
Not one to suffer from tunnel vision, Grace is perpetually curious. “I am open to most things, although I am more dubious about country music,” she quips. The daughter of an English teacher and an actor, she always loved writing songs and stories and is grateful to have been exposed to various cultural events growing up.
Attending plays “gave me this sense of reverence,” she says. “The quiet and stillness, we’re going to come here, and sit here, and this thing is going to unfold, and you have to be quiet and something magical is going to happen.”
“It’s like a ritual,” I agree. “Even when we’re in a church, you always take off your hat.”
“Maybe in another life, I had stronger religious feelings,” Grace says.
Although not an actress herself, Grace certainly knows how to read the room. A barometer of sorts for people’s emotions, she’s acutely aware of what affects her peers.
I ask her what she thinks about drama. “It’s fun to indulge in sometimes,” she says. “I love dissecting people’s feelings and the minutiae. Other times it’s emotionally stressful. My favourite metaphor for extroversion (or being a people pleaser, more accurately) is it feels like you’re constantly hosting a party. I’m invested in the conversation.”
“That sounds overwhelming,” I reply.
“It can be,” she nods. “Without meaning to, you’re like, How does everything affect people in the room?”
Keep reading to learn more. //
RS: How would you characterize yourself as an extrovert??
GB: The label came second for me. Because I feel comfortable around people, nothing is one hundred percent, but I tend to draw energy from being around people.
RS: I would say the exact opposite about myself.
GB: It’s not always true for me. I equally like the feeling of being alone. Ok maybe not equally, but on a Saturday morning I sleep in and make myself a more involved breakfast.
RS: What’s your favourite breakfast?
GB: Something ridiculously decadent . A lot of potatoes, avocado, croissant, big pile of eggs.
RS: What is your life philosophy?
GB: Hopefully it’s evolving over time. Martin Luther King Jr. said everybody can be great because anybody can serve. Even if I’m not talented at something, I can work hard.
RS: Like the splits! [Note: at the time of this interview, Grace is stretching daily to do the splits.]
GB: And wrestling is a big part of my life where I never felt like I was naturally talented. Resiliency is important to me. No matter what my situation is, I have choices I can make about how I react.
RS: How did you get into wrestling?
GB: When I started going to the exciting downtown Saint Catharines high school, they had sports that I hadn’t gotten to try before - namely, rowing and wrestling. Wrestling tryouts were the first day. I felt really bad at the fitness tasks and I was kind of embarrassed - that sort of fed into it. I just kept wanting to prove that I was better at it. 8 years later, here we are.
GB: There’s so much to learn with wrestling and there’s so many ways you can apply it. You have to match what another person is doing and know enough different moves that you can react to the way they’re standing and the way they’re moving their weight. You’re organized by weight classes. It’s kind of cool because, as one coach of mine remarked, wrestling makes it as close as possible to fighting yourself. They match your age, your weight, one opponent even had a similar name to me, and I was like, Okay, I get it.
RS: What else did it teach you?
GB: If I’m having a mental block in wrestling then often I’ll realize later that it’s in the rest of my life. The whole time I was wrestling, I never felt like I was very good, even though on paper I would be doing pretty well. I had some good finishes. That’s where the dark side of that hard work and resiliency coin comes in - I’m not doing enough, I’m not measuring enough. Now looking back, I realize I was okay!
RS: You were awesome at wrestling. You even did it in university.
GB: The dream moment, which I really enjoyed, was when I was at a tournament and I heard other people talking about me in the bathroom. One of them I had faced and the other one I was going to face that day. And I got to walk out of the stall - they saw me, I saw them. That was very cinematic. It’s brought me some heightened experiences (and devastating disappointments) but it’s an amazing feeling.
RS: Where do you get that heightened state in other scenarios?
GB: Sometimes when I’m freestyling with dance or, dare I say, freestyle rapping because it’s the sort of thing where there’s skills involved but then in the moment you just have to be reacting. I’ve had coaches talk about it - no mind - where you can’t think, you just react. Whether it’s a dance choreography or coming up with the next line of a poem, that feeling of Maybe I've practiced the skills, I’ve practiced the moves, but I just have to throw them together in a new way.
RS: What’s the scariest thing you’ve ever done?
GB: When I was younger, probably going off the high dive at the public pool. I had various phases. At some times I would be totally okay with it and then I got nervous. I probably read too much Chicken Soup for the Soul and some of those books where everything was going great in this person’s life, and then there was a tragic accident. So I was like, What if everything goes great in my life and then there’s a tragedy? I got nervous about that. There were definitely times when I would get up there and then I had to do the walk of shame back down the ladder but I’m glad to say I was able to do it at various points.
RS: What do you think young people need?
GB: Support, understanding, patience, communication, the ability to fail and be forgiven, the opportunity to forgive others for things. People should apologize to young people when they’re wrong.
RS: How did the environment in which you grew up affect you?
GB: I was really lucky, I grew up in a small town with my mom, dad, and younger sister. We had neighbour kids to play with, went to the local school. It wasn’t like every single person in town knew each other but you knew most people. We had a lot of freedom to go outside, Oh, you’re probably at the neighbour’s house or they’re probably at our house.
RS: So what brought you to Toronto?
GB: I guess what I was describing was early childhood. In your teenagehood, living in the small town of Niagara-on-the-Lake is not ideal. It’s super spread out. You’re driving everywhere, half an hour to the grocery store. I joined an extended French program in 7th grade, I was riding a school bus to high school. If you want to do an extracurricular activity, there’s only one bus that leaves the school so your parents have to come pick you up all the time (shoutout to mom and dad for giving me a lot of rides and letting me borrow the car). And so that’s one reason I wanted to go to a big city like Toronto. We’d sometimes gone into Toronto for the day as a family and I really liked it. In Niagara-on-the-Lake, I think we had one Chinese restaurant in town, everything else was bar and grill kind of stuff. In Toronto, if I want to try something new, it’s always there for me. And I love that I’ve gotten to build a community.
RS: Speaking of community, can you tell me about your time in the housing coop?
GB: I had never heard of housing cooperatives before. A friend of mine was in it in second year and told me to apply, and I did. I had 12 roommates, great for an extrovert like me. We got access to this beautiful home that otherwise I would never be able to afford, a lot of really nice spaces, gorgeous big staircase when you walk in. It codified various social interactions for me, which was great. I think it has been informative for me in terms of my expectations surrounding domestic labour - who’s going to do it and how and how often? How do you communicate around those things? The first year living there in particular was a really happy time for me; everyone got along.
RS: You had parties with hilarious themes too. What makes a party for you?
GB: A long and goofy name. Also if there’s an element of participation. We did Legalize Justin Trudeau (this was when the debates were first happening whether marijuana should become legal in Canada). We put up posters and people wrote captions. At my apartment recently, we had the theme Foods That Are Rolled Up - sushi, crêpes, fruit roll ups. People brought takis and tortillas. I also do like a good costume party. I was a small camp in the co-op about this but I love playing dress up.
RS: Oh, you were small camp as in not in the majority ? I thought you meant you were campy.
GB: Oh I am both, I am camp. Camp can be hard to achieve in an affectionate way in media/writing/creative work because you’re adding a second remove. It’s not just do a thing…. It’s like how do you do a thing that seems like you’re making fun of a thing, but you’re not… maybe.
RS: You love glitter and rainbows. What inspired your current hair?
GB: The glib answer is that I love colour and I hate decisions. I’m really lucky to have a great family friend who used to do wigs and hair for theatre who does my hair now.
RS: What’s your favourite colour?
GB: Magenta. I like a deep royal blue. I’m getting into greens. There’s a lot of good stuff out there.
RS: So what do you do?
GB: That’s a big question. Like all day? Most of my day is taken up with work. Right now I work with a surgical quality database, specifically in a transplant department. I basically read about the medical histories of people who donate or receive a donated organ (liver or kidney).
RS: You’re tracking their journeys?
GB: Exactly. I’m looking forward to having more data to start doing more analysis. On a micro-level it’s kind of interesting to read about people’s lives but then the data collection can get a bit monotonous. On the macro-level, I’m really eager to start seeing these patterns. How can we talk to people that are on the floor working directly with patients (like the nurses and surgeons)? My dream would be to find some weird solution or change that could actually make a big difference and improve people’s outcomes after surgery. Luckily, most people are doing well.
RS: How long can you keep up with the patients?
GB: Up to a year later. Sometimes I phone them to follow up if we don’t have a certain record. I just close the call with “I hope your health continues” because that’s all I’ll ever know about them.
RS: I know you cherish privacy.
GB: I mean in my personal life I have location services off all the time except for this vacation.
RS: Thank you for accommodating us.
GB: It’s dead useful, which is the danger. In my professional life, I’m aware of [the importance of privacy] because you have to handle people’s health care information. There’s certain data sources that I know exist, but I'm not allowed to use because it’s not directly part of my work.
RS: Before this, were you not involved in something encouraging people to donate organs in undergrad?
GB: I didn't know how to be an effective undergrad science student. I didn’t quite realize, Oh you’re supposed to find a lab and then you do your master’s in that lab and then you go to med school or become a scientist or whatever.
RS: But you never wanted to go to med school?
GB: You know what, I never did actually. I liked human physiology courses but med school was never really my dream. At times I went, oh maybe. Because everyone around me at U of T studying Life Sciences was like, This is just one stop on my way to med school. But I think you have to really want it. I fell into this whole transplantation thing in 3rd year. I did my undergrad research placement in the transplant department where I work now, which also involved a lot of data collection. My first summer, we had an extra challenge - What if you had to design a science centre exhibit about organ donation and transplantation? That sort of fed my interest in doing a science communications masters. I remained in contact with some of the people from the program during my master’s, I was still contributing somewhat. I ended up writing my thesis on Canadians’ knowledge and awareness of organ donation and transplantation.
RS: So cool! And how did you get into the sciences in general?
GB: I did actually have one of those moments you can point to. It was grade nine. My high school teacher said, “I assume you’re going to consider a career in the sciences.” And I was like, “What? I’m the daughter of an actor and an English teacher. I love writing. That’s my not so secret dream.” What I’ve come to realize since then is that a lot of science education is in practice very similar to history (at least, in my experience). It’s not so much about your own cycle of inquiry or answering questions, it’s about who discovered what, this is how the model of the atom developed over time... The learning skills were similar to the skills I was using in my history classes, a lot of memorization. But now I hope I will be able to use the cycle of inquiry to ask and answer more interesting questions.
RS: Do you have any other causes beside organ donation that you’re passionate about?
GB: The ones that come to mind to me immediately are science communication things - education about vaccination is huge - trying to be non-judgemental about it and address people’s real concerns but also emphasize the importance of certain behaviours and choices.
RS: What are your thoughts on capitalism and how has it affected you?
GB: I’m definitely no longer assuaged by the idea that “it’s the worst system except for all the others we’ve tried.” I don’t feel like other options have been given a proper chance and I hope that challenging times ahead will lead to more redistribution of wealth. In case I haven’t done it already, let me come out and condemn capitalism! It’s going to affect the rest of my life. I don’t personally have a single cohesive view of another system. Basic tenets like higher taxes for higher earners and universal basic income are appealing to me. Universal health care, universal access to housing, increased public infrastructure. But who knows? I don’t know if we’re going to see that kind of radical change in our lifetime.
RS: It’s getting bleak.
GB: I think it’s kind of ridiculous when people make claims that everyone has an equal chance. But that’s just people who are deceiving themselves. Like someone who thinks that you start in the mail room and then become CEO one day… It’s laughable.
RS: What does nature reflect to you?
GB [chuckles]: A time limit? No, but it’s hard not to be really down about climate change. Things like that are big issues. How can we talk about them and take drastic action to mitigate the effects of it?
RS: I think you do a lot. You reduced your meat consumption for environmental reasons, you conserve water, you care about the environment so much.
GB: Thanks. I try to be on the lookout for little things I can do just to make things better. Maybe picking up the occasional piece of trash.
RS: You’ve picked up trash every day on this trip.
GB: Even if I put it in a bin, it still exists on the planet. We're still going to ship it to the Philippines or another "developing" country. I guess it might prevent leaching into the soil in my neighbourhood, or an animal choking on it, but it's not like environmental activism. I take really long showers and I love taking baths, It’s all a system of tradeoffs which is why I like to see the opportunities where it’s easy for me to do the right thing - and seize them.
RS: What are you reading right now?
GB: A book of essays called The Collected Schizophrenias (a mental health-related memoir). I recently read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, which felt really good and special.
RS: What makes you laugh?
GB: I’m lucky to have very funny friends. My good friend David Y makes me laugh very frequently, my friend Nick T, many others. Character-based comedy. I love the Jeeves and P.G. Wodehouse books… British quiz shows.
RS: I heard you’re on a trivia team.
GB: Yes, at various points of my life I have been on a trivia team.
RS: What’s your area of expertise?
GB: Sometimes I come in clutch with a random thing that I just happened to read about or know. One question was, Palm trees can grow coconuts and what other types of fruit? I knew it was a date palm, because my mom told me she had one in her childhood home. Otherwise, sometimes it’s literature, sometimes it’s music.
RS: What jumps out to you with music?
GB: Interesting lyrics and instrumentation, which often leads me to indie pop, folk, rock...can be anywhere. If I just want to dance or something, I love reggaeton. As my sister said, surprising no one, I enjoy reggae from time to time.
RS: Why does that surprise no one?
GB: In many ways, I am just a huge hippie. I don’t think of myself in terms of that label but on paper, I recognize that I could easily be that. I’ve already talked my housing coop and being vegetarian in this interview!
RS: What would you put in your starter pack meme?
GB: Buying vegetables because they’re on sale but then using them in some weird way the instant before they get moldy. What are other Grace habits?
RS (laughs): Saying “LET’S REFOCUS.”
GB: “Let’s put a pin in that,” another Grace quirk.
RS: Is there anything that freaks you out or makes you think too hard?
GB: Sometimes crowds and people behaving erratically/obnoxiously on the subway. Looking at a word on a page too long. Realizing that all facts are just consensus. Language is where I find it the most, this word doesn’t mean anything. Realizing how arbitrary the meanings of the sounds we make with our mouths are and the scratchings we make in the dirt are. Sometimes money will do it too. I’m just handing you a piece of paper, now i’m not even handing you a piece of paper. I’m just saying, Move this data to that data and your life is made or broken… It’s wild.
RS: What else does language represent to you?
GB: I am really encouraged by it, to be honest, because I think it is this huge compromise. And even though I think everyone’s subjectivity is unique to them (they don’t even fully understand it), I love that language is something we’ve managed to compromise with. It gives you just enough of their world to be able to operate together… Even if the colour blue means slightly different things. Back in the day on Windows Movie Maker, there was an effect where you had a picture and you’d put text over it and you could only see the picture through the text. It very much feels like that. Language is sort of the key hole through which you can see someone else’s world. And it’s an incomplete view. But it’s doing its best.
RS: Are you nostalgic?
GB: I’m resisting it even as I say it... I wonder if I’m more regretful than nostalgic. My next thought is, "That's not..."That’s not a fun person to be, I hope I’m not like that... but that’s what came to mind immediately, so who knows? There’s some memories I cherish and like to look back on but in general, I guess I hope for something new coming along. Over the past few months, I’ve stumbled upon some great turns of phrase about this and one of them was Being alive is like being torn between optimism and nostalgia. Maybe I’m more future-oriented.
In any case, we know Grace has a bright future ahead of her. Thanks for the interview, Grace! //