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How an Olympian Turned Her Tales of Trial and Triumph into a Best-Selling Memoir

Perdita Felicien—champion hurdler, Olympian, television host, speaker, and now, author—finds a creative home in Graham's Writer's Studio.

The cover of Perdita Felicien's memoir, My Mother's Daughter: A Memoir of Struggle and Triumph.

Perdita Felicien knew she had a story to tell.

A 10-time national champion hurdler in her native Canada, 2004 Olympian, and two-time World Champion, Felicien clutched an inspiring and unlikely tale. From her mother’s hardscrabble journey from St. Lucia to Canada as a domestic worker to living in a women’s crisis center to becoming a world-class athlete, Felicien’s story covered the full spectrum of the human condition, littered with joy and sorrow, triumph and pain.

While many public figures like Felicien lean on ghostwriters, Felicien was determined to pen the story herself. No one, she thought, could capture her experience – her unflinching love for her mother, the promise and pain of leaving home behind, or the anguish of three different Olympic season heartbreaks – with the requisite emotion and truth.

“I needed to get this book out of me,” she says, “and I needed to do it myself.”

Transitioning from athlete to writer

Though a lover of words who maintained a journal as a child, Felicien felt she lacked the necessary tools to pen a structured, compelling narrative. After earning a degree in Kinesiology at the University of Illinois, Felicien embarked upon a decade-long professional track and field career before transitioning into media. She had crafted television scripts, sure, but not narrative nonfiction. She needed help and support.

In 2014, Felicien left the familiar comforts of Toronto and moved to Chicago, enrolling in the Graham School’s two-year creative non-fiction program to write the book simmering inside her.

“I knew I had a story to write, but how do I do it? That’s what I needed to learn,” Felicien says. “This became my next gold medal.”

The first time she walked into instructor Kevin Davis’ Writer’s Studio classroom, the enthusiasm of the room overcame her. She found her creative home, a safe, comfortable space that would empower her to discover, explore, and grow into the writer she yearned to be. She consumed personal essays and memoirs to analyze narrative techniques and engaged in energizing discussions with her classmates and instructors about the craft of writing. And soon, she began spinning her own tales with more discipline, focus, and flair.

“There was no complacency in that environment. It was iron sharpening iron in a respectful, giving way,” she says. “I was forced to be better and get better and had a framework for helping me do so.”

Onward to publication

Felicien remembers Davis arranging an open mic night one evening, classmates and friends cramming into a tiny Ethiopian restaurant in Chicago. He tasked each of his students to read a piece.

“That was an extra-mile effort from him,” Felicien says of Davis. “He didn’t have to do that, but he did it so our writing could get beyond the walls of Graham and be celebrated.”

Though Felicien had never before presented her writing in a public setting, she was “giddy with joy” to stand before others as “Perdita the writer” and share the results of her labor. This was a different performance from the Olympian and the crowd’s applause meant something different, too.

“That night gave me the feeling that my words deserved to be heard,” she says.

Validated and emboldened, Felicien marched on, eager to enhance her narrative skills and explore her stories on a deeper level. Peer critique sessions served as invitations to improvement, and Felicien fine-tuned her voice and the arc of her story. Armed with polished pieces of work to show potential publishers, she also began investigating the market for her heartfelt tale, one centered around her mother’s plight and sacrifice as the foundation for Felicien’s own journey.

Just as Felicien was finishing the two-year program at Graham – which she describes as “rigorous, but instrumental years” – she earned a book deal with Penguin Random House Canada. Felicien’s memoir, My Mother’s Daughter: A Memoir of Struggle and Triumph, dropped last March and became an instant bestseller in Canada, while Felicien herself was shortlisted for the 2022 Kobo Emerging Writer Prize, a prominent Canadian literary award.

“I think of myself as a writer now, and that’s something I never would’ve thought before my experience at Graham,” Felicien says. “The writing program provided me the confidence and skills to share my story. I’m better for the experience and so is my book.”

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Daniel P. Smith

Freelance Writer

Daniel P. Smith is a freelance writer at the Graham School.

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