In her debut poetry collection, Délani Valin explores her fascination with “masking” and the practise of hiding one’s true self and expression in order to “fit in.”
Shapeshifters encompasses many of Valin’s experiments through poetry and self-discovery over the course of seven years.
“The premise of what the shape of it ended up being – looking at – was finding the perfect ‘mask’ … I have these experiences as a Métis person, as somebody who has a late diagnosis of having ADHD and autism … So as a neurodivergent person, having to find the mask that would be acceptable or palatable,” the poet said.
In the collection, Valin explores the idea of an “acceptable mask” and dances with the concepts of persona and authenticity.
“What ends up happening is kind of railing against having to wear a mask anyways,” she said, adding that the concept of having to conceal oneself is far from perfect.
“This is something that is very marked for a lot of neurodivergent people, but I think it’s a concept that a lot of people can relate to, in general … We all have these sort of inconvenient emotions or experiences or expressions … and I think a lot of people, regardless of where they’re coming from, struggle with how to show up authentically … We learn a lot about what isn’t acceptable.”
‘Shapeshifters’ plays with the idea of “trying different things on and taking different things off.”
At the beginning of her journey, Valin said she received guidance from Marilyn Bowering, a Vancouver Island University professor, who helped her mine her subconscious for poem ideas when she felt she needed to find the “most painful things” to explore.
“And it was amping up all the distress I was feeling,” Valin said.
Bowering had given her a copy of The World’s Wife by Carol Ann Duffy where the author explored different personas of fairy tale characters.
“That’s a really fascinating way of skirting around going directly to past experiences or the self and taking on personas … [Bowering] really helped me find what’s possible in terms of writing … and also incorporating different kinds of tones throughout writing … it didn’t have to be the most strenuous kinds of things. It could be a variety of emotions and feelings … I think that really helped unlock some new ideas for me.”
The title of Valin’s collection originated from a poem written for a friend, but as Valin examined the manuscript of the book, she realized the shapeshifting idea was applicable to all her works, as it all examined a period of personal growth.
One such poem, titled Diagnosis Criteria 299.00, specifically relates to her autism diagnosis experience where she looks at it directly but also asks what it actually means.
“There’s a saying: if you’ve met one neurodivergent person, you’ve [only] met one neurodivergent person … Everyone is so unique and individual,” she said. “We can’t really look at it as a disorder, in some ways – so it’s just like pushing back on that a little bit … For me, the diagnosis has helped re-frame a lot of my experiences and to not pathologize who I am and how I show up … It’s really helped me … lean into more self-acceptance.”
Valin’s work won her the Malahat Review’s Long Poem Prize and SubTerrain’s Lush Triumphant Award, and has appeared in Adbusters and other such literary magazines.
Through Shapeshifters, Valin doesn’t aim to act as a spokesperson for the Métis experience or for the neurodivergent experience, but to simply offer her own perspective that people can relate to.
“I hope people will find a friend in the pages,” she said.