Moose-hide, Pocahontas, and Other Things That Won’t Make You Indigenous

canoeladyI was born and spent my early childhood in northern boreal towns in western Canada—Prince George, Prince Albert, St. Paul, High Level—remote, freezing places bristling (if you’ll forgive the Can-lit cliché) with black spruce and lodge pole pine. These towns were the centres closest to large Indigenous communities my father worked with as part of the federal government, and later as an employee of First Nation governments themselves. My uncle, my father’s older brother, worked in the same field, in the same communities. As a little girl, I wasn’t sure exactly what my personal connection was to the local reserves or to the people who lived there. They were my father’s colleagues, his hockey and softball teammates, and often, as politics would allow, his friends. As a four-year-old, I didn’t understand anything about anything and ignorantly assumed from my sickly pale features—a genetic throwback to my parents’ Irish ancestors–that I probably wasn’t Indigenous myself. But I wondered about the rest of my family. I was a little girl taking the only surroundings I had ever known for granted, and I suspected my father and my uncle might be Indigenous.

Whatever they were, their connections to the communities seemed profound. Dad’s Indigenous colleagues were generous and he was given gifts of art and crafts like the hand-made beaded moose-hide jacket and gloves that hung in our storage room. My father treasured them, but felt unqualified to wear them in public, wary of “pretending.” Still, these articles were a part of our home. When we’d been away from home for a few days and came back no longer habituated to the smell of the house, I could smell my father’s moose-hide clothing from the front door.

Despite their time and goodwill, their gifts and service, my father and his brother were not Indigenous. Eventually, I figured this out without having to ask. Our family history includes rumors of a grandmother in New Brunswick in the 1800s—a midwife and accomplished canoeist—who was descended from Indigenous people. But I’ve researched the line and haven’t been able to substantiate the story. It remains conjecture—fascinating but certainly not something anyone in my family has ever staked anything on.

My husband’s family history is more illustrious and better researched. It unfairly benefits from romantic exceptions to old racist American policies. He and our sons are among the thousands of North Americans who can trace their ancestry to Pocahontas and her English tobacco magnate husband. It’s not a fairy tale–unlike the ridiculous gossip spread by John Smith and embellished and repeated by Disney itself. While I have not seen the Disney film (our twenty-two year boycott of the movie is going strong) I have seen the genealogy—name by name–that links my children to the most famous Indigenous woman on the planet. Even so, I wouldn’t presume to try to get my kids recognized as status Indigenous people so they could enjoy benefits meant to curb the marginalization of Indigenous communities while simultaneously enjoying the privileges of moving through Canadian society free from racial marginalization. Of course not.

Claims of aboriginality have become an issue in the world of Canadian literature lately as one of our celebrity writers has been challenged to provide clarity and credibility for branding himself as part of Canada’s Indigenous community. The writer in question is Joseph Boyden—a man who has recently also made a howling mess of a university’s labour tribunal against a male creative writing professor, leading a chorus of sexual harassment victim-blaming. In the latest controversy, the best Boyden has come up with in answering questions about his heritage is to make vague references to the same kinds of indigenous connections I have—murky ones on the east coast from generations ago—ones that in no way give people like us the right to presume to speak for (or, as one Anishinaabe/Metis writer has said, to speak over) Indigenous communities. Boyden has admitted that his roots are mostly “Celtic” but he hasn’t backed down from identifying as Indigenous.

Before all of this, I went to hear Boyden speak. It was in a large auditorium to a sold-out crowd. He read from The Orenda, from a chapter narrated in the first person by an Indigenous character. I remember him speaking the words in an accent most Canadians would identify as “Native.” It’s too much.

Boyden has said little in his defense but of what he has said, one statement keeps coming back to me. He said, “A small part of me is Indigenous but it’s a big part of who I am.” This may be something someone like my father could rationalize saying himself—only someone like my father would understand that it’s wrong.

Oh So Mature Student

artsowl

I’ve been in and out of this door since the 1990s but hadn’t noticed this owl reading a book carved over the door until my husby pointed it out this Fall.

My first semester of graduate school has just ended. It was my first full-time gig outside our house since my kids were born. With school, my kids, and continued work on my career as a novelist, my commitments amounted to more than full-time. This would probably be the case for anyone who’s been alive as long as I have–who’s had this many years to complicate a life. Still, if you’re an old person (by which I mean, over 28) thinking about going back to school, I say take the time and do it. You can do it, especially if you heed these handy tips:

  • On campus, never use the bathrooms on the main floors. They are “oversubscribed.” The clean, peaceful third floor bathrooms are worth the hike and will provide all the privacy we need for using the facilities, or maybe even a quick cry. Which reminds me…
  • Get a good backpack and carry some Kleenex in it. You will be asked for it. In fact…
  • If a newly-minted grownup, a student, is lost on campus, desperately wishing their mom was around, and happens to see you walking along like a personal gift from a benevolent cosmos, they will prefer you over a peer as someone to stop to ask for directions and to help them generally feel less alone and sad. This is not a time to get snarky about “emotional labour.” It’s a time to be kind and patient and cultivate a rough knowledge of the whereabouts of those obscure computing science labs. But remember…
  • As far as educational achievement goes, the young students are our peers. It is completely inappropriate to try to assert dominance over them. If they don’t revert to treating us like they would their mom’s friends, great. Go with it. By and large, they are lovely humans and it is an honor to have any significance in their lives. However…
  • Go ahead and have high expectations of those young classmates. For a student, doing 80% of a perfect job will still earn them a decent final score on their schoolwork. For people who’ve been in the workforce, we know doing 80% of a perfect job could getcha fired. It’ll do the young folks good for you to insist on bringing that esoteric bibliography format up to code before you pass in the group project. And in the same vein…
  • As far as educational achievement goes, our professors, no matter what their ages, are not our peers. We must present ourselves to them every bit as humbly, as open-mindedly as the young students do. No one likes an old student who comes to class to act like she and the prof are out for coffee with a bunch of annoying kids tagging along—not the other students and not the professors either. As we show respect for our professors and the work they did obtaining academic expertise while we were doing other things, they will in turn show respect for us and those “other things” we were doing to contribute the world outside their expertise. Showing off and shutting people down are not how this respect is earned. And anyways…
  • Showing off would only set us up to look even stupider than necessary when the moments come for us to make dumb mistakes as school. Everyone messes up sometimes, especially people re-adapting to an educational system which had just about passed them by. The quicker and more good-humoredly we admit, own, and laugh off our mistakes, the more likely we are for other people to let them go too and maybe even to look out for us next time. Frankly, there is less social and academic peril in letting people think you’re a tiny bit stupider than you are than in letting them think you’re much, much smarter than you are.
  • Go ahead and be cool. As far as I can tell, there are two kinds of cool: selfish cool and selfless cool. When I was young, I admired the heck out of selfless cool people (I’m looking at you, Angie Dahl) and wished I knew how they did it. I think both kinds of cool include elements of not being overly anxious about taking social risks—even little risks like talking to strangers or to a room full of people—and taking those risks with ease and confidence. In cases of selfish coolness, this confidence is maintained by pre-emptively lashing out with cruel humor, abuse, or the shunning of those who would call into question the coolness. In selfless coolness, this confidence is maintained with warmth, sincere praise, and believing people are good and wish us the best until they actually do. The ease with which those kinds of feelings come is the best thing about being an old broad at school. I spend all day in a place where everybody is brilliant, beautiful, and loveable. School has always been this way, and now I am finally old enough to know.

Eulogy for LC and the USA

cohenmonkThe morning the results of the 2016 United States election were confirmed, I cried. I am not an American but, like all of us, I am affected by its foreign and domestic policies. And I do ache with empathy for people whose vilification by trumpism has now been wrongly—evilly—legitimated. I reject that legitimization. It is sickening and terrifying.

Later the same week, when Canadian poet Leonard Cohen’s death was confirmed, I cried again. I didn’t know him personally but, like many of us, I am affected by his work. I posted an American magazine’s eulogy of Cohen on my Facebook feed along with half of a stanza of a poem, a song, I’ve known from memory since I was sixteen when my dad would play it in the car on our way home from late night shifts at the doomed sandwich shop we owned at the time.

The rain falls down on last year’s man,

an hour has gone by and he has not moved his hand.

But everything will happen if he only gives the word.

The lovers will rise up and the mountains touch the ground…

Cohen’s “Last Year’s Man” is one of his prophetic works. I’ve always felt it was, even when I was a young girl. I’d listen to verses like

I met a lady, she was playing

With her soldiers in the dark.

One by one she had to tell them

that her name was Joan of Arc…

and I’d feel like they were important. I didn’t foresee an election where no amount of reasons to prefer a flawed but qualified woman over a car wreck of a man could convince people to follow her. Cohen wouldn’t have foreseen it either, but he could still write poetry about it way back in 1971.

In the same song he could write about a declining world power, the end of its moral authority, with poignancy and pathos, with just

And the corners of the blueprint are ruined since they rolled

far past the stems of thumbtacks

that still throw shadows on the wood.

I took Cohen’s death hard not because as a white person from outside the country I was exercising my luxury of being able to flip the channel on my grief machine as the mood hits me. I do have that unfair luxury but it wasn’t operating for me in this instance—not in the way it may seem. I publicly mourn Leonard Cohen because enfolded within my feelings for his death are my feelings about the 2016 US election. Cohen’s work—especially the stanza I posted in public—speaks to my grief and frustration as someone caught powerless in this moment of history.

Cohen was a spiritual person. He called out hypocrisy in people who claimed to be the same—who mouthed piety while indulging in hate, prejudice, greed, and violence. He pointed out the true character of religion is not about cupcakes and work ethics but about loving the world in spite of suffering and sacrifice—about reading “from pleasant Bibles that are bound in blood and skin.” Paradoxes are inevitable and vital. Hypocrisy is not. Consider this verse from “Suzanne.”

And Jesus was a sailor when he walked upon the water

And he spent a long time watching from his lonely wooden tower

And when he knew for certain only drowning men could see him

He said, “All men will be sailors then, until the sea shall free them.”

This is the theme I saw in the verse I posted from “Last Year’s Man.” No one compares to god. Even when he appears to be still, or impotent, just watching–none of us compares. And this world is to be transcended and overcome. We were made to rise out of it, to be free of it even though to do so is a miracle. We have two faculties for transcendence: suffering and love. Combined together, these faculties become hope. In revisiting Cohen’s work the week he died, I have connected with my grief for American society, and also with the beginnings of my hope for it–for all of us.

And so, we sail on.

 

My New Fiction in “Prairie Fire” is Also a Preview of My Novel-in-Progress

prairiefireLast night, right before lights-out, I checked the website of venerable old Canadian literary magazine Prairie Fire and found it had been updated to show the Fall 2016 issue–the issue featuring a short story called “Everybody’s Horror Movie,” new fiction written by me. The news meant I couldn’t sleep but I was happy enough not to mind. See, nothing is harder for me to write and to publish than fiction. I am always ecstatic when it happens. What makes this publication credit extraordinarily exciting for me is that the short story in Prairie Fire is the project from which my current novel-in-progress evolved. I needed an infusion of hope and encouragement that this novel will have a life outside my computer and the publication of this story did exactly that.

The story isn’t available online but if you get a copy of Prairie Fire, have a look.

Current Issue

“Sistering” is One: Happy First Birthday to My Second Book

5sis

Me and My Real Sisters in 1992 – just because I can’t get enough of this picture

When a book is part of the Fall publishing season (as both of my novels have been) the anniversary of its publication, its birthday, comes in the summertime, in the season for not noticing typical business. Yes, once again, I forgot my book’s first birthday—no tweet, no Facebook post, no mental note to self in the shower, not even a mention to my husband over non-coffee.

So happy belated birthday to Sistering, my second novel, now thirteen months old. I didn’t completely forget. I still remember:

  • The reviews, balanced but not at all bad. The first review was one I heard rather than read. It was an interview on a province-wide CBC Radio programme between Chris dela Torre and reviewer Angie Abdou. A stand-out line for me was, “Jennifer Quist makes you believe it.” Tempted to have some T-shirts made…
  • Finding Sistering among fifteen newly published titles on CBC Books’ 2015 Fall Reading List.
  • The Edmonton launch at Audreys Books where I was sick with a terrible cold but made it through the evening on my feet, in good enough voice, and in excellent company. The beautiful artisan cake my sister supplied is probably what saved the day.
  • Travelling to Red Deer and Calgary to read during the early launch days, seeing old friends, meeting talented and interesting people, and having some very unflattering pictures taken of myself voice-acting a chapter from the novel. All’s fair in the promotion of a humor novel.
  • Being recognized by fellow members of my faith community and invited to Laie, Hawaii to receive the Association for Mormon Letters Best Novel Award. For once, my husband was able to go with me to a fly-away writing destination. Going to paradise with my favourite to celebrate a book I wrote that other people read— totally worth taking a hit on that missed Chinese quiz.
  • Coming home to find I’d been long-listed for the 2016 Alberta Readers Choice Awards. We didn’t move past the first round but it was (wait for it) an honor to be nominated.
  • Getting interviewed. I know this is rare in the blogosphere, but I love talking about myself and what I do. Ha! It’s especially true when interviewers know the book and don’t get in the way with preconceived ideas (read: are not hell-bent on a cute-mom story).
  • Coming closer to a Canadian literature icon than ever (not counting having Margaret Atwood sign a book for me this spring) when I was invited to be part of the Leacock Summer Festival in Orillia, Ontario at the museum to Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock.
  • Appearing at book clubs. I love this. If you have a book club, call me. One of the clubs I visited had everyone vote for their favourite sister of the novel’s five main characters. Everyone except “Suzanne” got a vote but “Ashley” ran away with it.
  • The satisfaction of writing a book my mum and her bff could genuinely enjoy.

That was our year. What a business. It pushes us ever onward and I am now finishing up the manuscript of my third novel, one I also love, but won’t promise to remember its birthday when the time comes either.

 

 

 

Wherein My Son Doesn’t Die

nathanbasin

My Middle-born Boy

My middle-born son, age fifteen, did not die on Wild Hay River last week.

He did not die there but he did go there on a canoe trip with his Scouting group. As they went along, the flotilla wound up in an unforeseen, dangerous flooded section of the river. I wasn’t there but I am told a couple of boys evacuating a nearby canoe accidentally capsized the boat my son, my husband, and another boy, only twelve years old, were in. All three of them were dumped into the river. The current was strong, rushing toward a large spruce log covered in spiky broken branches spanning the river from shore to shore. It was large and dense enough to obscure the view of what was on the other side of it. Beyond and beneath it, there would be more water, and maybe all hell.

In the water, the current divided my husband from the kids. He stood in deep, fast water on one bank, anchoring himself by holding onto slippery tree branches with his cut and bleeding hands, shouting out to the boys not go under the fallen tree but to try to grab onto it if they couldn’t get out of the water. Fighting to stay on his feet, he remained in the water, waiting to see if the boys would be able to stop themselves. If they couldn’t, he would let go and let the river push him after them—a bad but only hope. And that would be that.

The younger boy was closer to the opposite bank and strong and smart enough to grapple out of the water on his own. Our son was further in. He was leaning back against the current, digging into the rocks of the riverbed with his bare feet, his boots long gone. My son’s friends stood on the bank in shock. They watched him being pushed closer to the fallen log—a horrible, unknown. To them, the spiked log might have looked like a barrier in a video game—the kind that ends the level and uses up a life.

I have a vivid imagination. It’s an important part of my trade but it’s also awful. In that imagination, I can see a curly, blond, drenched head pushed along the surface of a rough, glacial river. I can see a little white face with eyes just like my grandfather’s in it, staring up out of the water at jagged spikes.

As the log came within his reach, my son rose up out of the water, moving higher and faster than anyone watching thought was possible. He took hold of the tree’s broken branches and stopped himself from being pushed underneath it. “I’m okay,” he told himself, and hand-over-hand, without the help of anyone he could see, he pulled himself out of the river. Safe, he turned to see his father give him a thumbs up and climb out of the river on the opposite shore.

Earlier this year, I had been invited to the Scouting committee meetings where the trip was planned and I didn’t attend a single one. I wasn’t there asking if the river had been scouted yet this season. I wasn’t there to insist on it or to offer to strap on a can of bear spray and scout it myself. I didn’t do any of those things but I get to keep my son anyway. Do not underestimate my gratitude for the grace extended to parents who mess up.

Sure, many good things will come to my son from this experience. He learned it’s possible for him to rescue himself. The boy who was so unsure of his abilities he didn’t perfect riding a bike until he was eleven has now had the experience of reaching out and saving himself. He also lived through one of those tricky human paradoxes where difficulties placed in our paths (like the fallen tree) are often themselves the ways out of the difficulty. He got more perspective on what he is worth to his father, both when his dad stayed in the water until he was out, and when he saw his father safe on the bank advocating for a difficult portage, for not getting right back into the river even if it meant abandoning the canoes in the woods and reimbursing the Scout group for the loss of them out his government salary. Stuff is nothing, work is nothing, money is nothing. You, boy, are everything.

These are all good lessons—powerful lessons, the kinds of mishap-lessons that find all of us no matter how we live our lives. The world is dangerous and unpredictable for everyone. However, I don’t believe these lessons are the ones Scouting has in mind when it promises kids adventure. It’s a stodgy old Commonwealth institution, actually, one with waivers to sign and plenty of liability insurance. It offers character building in terms of well-organized food drives, and gaining confidence and competence by going into the wild to learn to traverse, navigate, build shelter, find and cook food, and stay safe. It’s about exploration, not exploits—understanding the immense power of the natural world, standing close enough to sense its awesome power, and then taking a respectful, sober step back into the preparations and planning that are our best chance for coming home. We will go back and we’ll do better next time.

Downstream on the Wild Hay River, the canoe my family had been in—the one that had capsized and washed away, upside down, under the fallen tree—was recovered. It was sitting upright and aground on a gravelly bar. In it was the bag containing my husband’s driver’s license, and one of our son’s hiking boots. Gone was my husband’s sloppy Scouter hat I had openly hated. So sloppy–here’s to its passing.