Race, Identity & Relationships Intersect In New Coming-Of-Age Poetry Collection

We all love a good coming-of-age story, especially one that we can relate to on a personal level. In Canadian actress and producer Helenna Santos’ new book ‘A Long Dark Summer’, there is a sense of 90’s nostalgia pre-internet and social media, coupled with her personal experiences as a bi-racial young woman growing up in a predominantly white community, and eventually moving to Hollywood to make her way in an industry that has traditionally shut out marginalized voices.

‘A Long Dark Summer’ is a pseudo-memoir told in a compilation of poems set between 1993 and 2021. It chronicles the journey of a young woman letting go of the angst of adolescence and surrendering to the pull of adulthood all while confronting issues around race, identity, relationships, and an unforgiving entertainment industry.

Helenna’s book began forming during the height of the pandemic in 2020, while she was in quarantine with her husband in their house in Vancouver, BC. She made the trek back to Canada after living in Los Angeles, and it became the perfect time for self-reflection as well as new creative ideas.

She is no stranger to writing projects, as she founded and oversaw creative direction for a website called Ms. In The Biz for 7 years. As an independent filmmaker who has worked on numerous commercials, feature films and network TV shows, Helenna’s creative experience has run the gamut and then some. Adding a poetry collection to her repertoire, shedding light on her personal journey throughout her adolescence and career, was only the next natural step.

We spoke with the poet about ‘A Long Dark Summer’, why she chose to go back and revisit her most formative years as a young adult, and what she hopes readers will be able to relate to through her collection.

Tell us where the idea for ‘A Long Dark Summer’ came from? 

I had actually been wanting to publish a book of poetry since I was a teenager, and have journals filled with poems from the past two and a half decades. Once quarantine began last year, I thought it would be a great time to take some new pieces I was working on, pair them with some older poems, and create a collection spanning work over many, many years. I also turned 40 in August of 2020, and I had always thought publishing a book of poems would be an awesome “bucket list” thing to check off by the time I turned 40. 

What was the process of sorting through stories and memories of some of the most formative years of your life?

In order to put the book together I thought the best thing to do would be to have it be a sort of pseudo-memoir so that the reader would be able to go on a journey along with the narrator. With that in mind, I started to lay out where each poem should be chronologically in the protagonist’s life and experiences. 

Putting this book together was very cathartic for me. Some of the things that I write about are my own stories, and some of them are stories from other people, but it’s all based loosely on my own experience as a biracial woman growing up and then navigating through Hollywood. The protagonist has to confront issues around race, identity, relationships, and an unforgiving entertainment industry, all while letting go of the angst of adolescence and surrendering to the pull of adulthood. It definitely brought up a lot of emotions that I needed to unpack. 

There are so many relatable themes woven throughout your poems, especially the coming-of-age ones. Why do you think so many people are drawn to coming-of-age stories? 

I think it’s because no matter what a person’s life experience has been or where they grew up, there are certain things that we can all relate to, and one of those things is moving from being a child to an adult. It can often be a tumultuous experience for many people and these stories show us we aren’t alone, and that we are in fact connected in a deep way just by being human. There’s also a sense of nostalgia that coming-of-age stories often have that can be alluring. 

As a mixed-race young woman, you grappled with wanting to fit in in predominantly white Canada (at the time) while also dealing with issues of race and identity being a “brown skinned girl”. Can you share more about this? 

I was born in California, raised in Singapore, the Philippines, and then moved to Langley, British Columbia Canada when I was five years old. To say that there weren’t many BIPOC people in that area of Canada in the 80s would be a gross understatement. I was consistently one of only 2-3 non-white people in the schools I attended. 

My parents did an amazing job raising me to believe that I was unique and strong and could do anything that I put my mind to, but even though I was always a confident kid, and I took pride in “being a bit different”, there was always a part of me that felt like I didn’t belong in some way. There were only a few overtly racist things that I encountered, but more than anything it’s just the “othering” that I felt from not seeing anyone who looked like me in my surroundings, or on TV and in movies at the time. 

Bringing that personal history to Hollywood, an industry that has been very slow toward progressive change, how did your entertainment career impact or shape your identity?

Well, I don’t necessarily “look” Filipino to a lot of people and my last name (even though it’s a Filipino surname) is assumed to be Spanish by many. When I graduated from theater school, the assumption was that I was Latina, so as an actor, I should learn to speak with a Spanish accent. 

At the time in the Vancouver film industry, it was just accepted that if someone looked vaguely like a specific ethnicity then they could play it. This always rubbed me the wrong way because it felt so completely false to me. I mean, sure the Philippines was colonized by Spain a ton of years ago so there is most likely Spanish in my genes, but I’m Asian and I really wanted to be able to own that and for a long time, I sort of couldn’t. 

It’s really not until maybe the last 4 years or so, thanks to the increased visibility of racial justice issues, that the industry has realized just how important accurate representation and reflections of race are. I’m now able to say that I won’t read for roles that are for someone who is of Spanish or Mexican background if that is central to that character’s story, and that feels good. I’m also able to claim my identity as half-Filipina and show that all Filipinos are not a monolith, and my bi-racial identity can be an asset. 

For Hollywood in general though, while things are getting better, there is still an uphill battle to climb. I mean, it’s not so long ago that Emma Stone was supposed to be something like… a quarter Asian in the movie “Aloha”. I mean, really?! Representation is vital. Inclusion can’t just be a buzz word.  

How did you approach the poem-writing process? Did you follow any particular style, or create your own? 

I love 20th century poets. T.S. Eliot, e.e. cummings, Sylvia Plath, Ginsberg… I studied a lot of their writing in college. I’m also a big fan of Leonard Cohen and Jim Morrison’s writing. They were these cool musicians who also wrote poetry specifically outside of lyrics. Then there’s Fiona Apple, Maggie Rogers… so many incredible lyricists. I think all of those poets and musicians have really influenced my style. 

Although you have clearly been a big dreamer from a young age, life certainly awakened you to reality in a lot of ways. How have you maintained that sense of ambition and dreaming despite this? 

I think it’s because I’m an artist. First and foremost, I have the heart of a creative and the drive inside of me to create and connect through various art forms is what gives me purpose. Any time I stray away from that in some way, I feel a gaping hole inside of me, and I’m always drawn back to communication through art. Not too long ago I realized that this can either be my Achilles heel and a burden, or my greatest strength and something that I can share with the world. I wholeheartedly chose strength. 


You can buy a copy of ‘A Long Dark Summer’ by clicking HERE.

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