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.

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.

 

On the Bill at the Leacock Festival, or, “Sistering” is Officially Funny

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In tenth grade English class, we were told that Can-Lit can be funny and our teacher proved it by assigning “The Man in Asbestos” by Stephen Leacock. So it is with a lovely sense of full-circularity that I will be appearing at the Leacock Summer Festival this July to read from Sistering as part of an event on women as the authors and subjects of humor writing. Very pleased. If you’re in Orillia, Ontario on July 23 at 8pm, do come see us.

Bad, Honest Advice on How to Write as a Young Parent

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This 25 year old mother of two is me. Lazy butt had written precisely zero novels.

Enough people have asked how I managed to write two novels while at home with my kids that I thought I’d better craft an answer a little more thoughtful than “by being a crap mother.” Here it is, some very honest and probably very bad advice on how to launch a writing career while masterminding a large, young household.

  • Stop cleaning the house. This is done by a) quitting once conditions become sanitary without proceeding all the way to spiffy and, b) looking at your children the way our great-grandmother’s (and my parents) looked at their children: as a private workforce, a domestic militia of barely competent workers. Assigning one light chore every day and one heavier cleaning task on the weekend should do it.
  • Start mowing the lawn. Look, you’re not going away on writers’ retreats to the Banff Centre any time soon. That’s not the life you chose. But you do need to spend time  alone with your thoughts en plein air, and pushing a machine that drives conversation away all around the backyard is better than nothing.
  • Stay up. My creativity comes in all-or-nothing surges. During a surge, I tend to get about four hours of sleep during the night, maybe less. This isn’t a desperate attempt to make the most of the hours when my house is quiet (though it has that benefit). There’s simply more energy in my mind when I’m creative and it keeps me sleepless for weeks on end. Don’t resist it just because your family needs to get up in the morning. Squeeze a ten minute nap or two into the daylight hours even if it means taking the bus and sleeping away the commute (trust me, most of my university’s student population does this, even the sleep-drooler population). Staying up to write won’t be your lifestyle forever. Think of it as a grueling but temporary training regimen, like going for long, long runs leading up to a marathon.
  • Keep reading. I was badly stuck during the writing of my current novel. There was a difficult decision to be made, I didn’t have the confidence to make it, but until I did, the book couldn’t move forward. The solution was to stop writing for the rest of the day and read some excellent writing that succeeds in doing the very thing I was afraid to attempt. I opened a collection of short stories by Mavis Gallant, read until 1am, and went to bed stoked to take the risk I needed.
  • Don’t spend too long lying around miserable about not being Mavis Gallant. This was an unintended side-effect of reading good writing. It’s inevitable and understandable, just don’t let it go on for too long.
  • Talk to your partner about your book. His input may not make it into the manuscript but airing your story’s sticking points out loud with an attentive adult who wants you cute and happy is a helpful exercise. It also downplays any burgeoning sense of resentment he may have for a) the project that consumes so much of your attention, and b) the way you hog the lawnmower.
  • Share with care. I don’t mean to say you should make your partner to read half-baked early drafts. Don’t do this to your loved ones. They often don’t know what to say and it puts them in an awful position. Instead, use a professional writer-in-residence based in your local library, university, or other arty institutions. These real, working writers are waiting to read fifteen pages or so of your writing and give an impartial, informed assessment of how you’re doing and how it could be better. Their services are free and competition for their positions is fierce so you can usually trust they’ve been well-screened for things like being a jerk. But having said all this, if someone asks you to read their work, do it. You can take a lesson from the writers-in-residence and limit the amount of pages you’ll read, but say yes. Strictly speaking, I don’t believe in Karma but I make a cautious exception when it comes to lending my pickup truck and to helping other writers.
  • Distract. If you have kids at home during the day, introduce them to pastimes they can do by themselves in the same room as you while you sit still and say very little—things other than screen-time, which won’t make anyone happy in the long run. What could those pastimes be? It depends on the kid. For some kids, nothing will fill this bill and you’ll just have to let them trash your house while you get some work done, or learn to type with their heads wedged into the triangle formed by the crook of your arm and the edge of your desk (been there). If they are willing to give you a break, get them some Lego, craft supplies, Play-Doh, a load of siblings, a bunch of ironing to do—anything.
  • Be honest with yourself about other interests competing for discretionary time. If you can’t give up crafting, cake decorating, direct marketing essential oils, etc. in order to make time to write consistently, it might be best to wait until you are willing to make writing a priority. There’s nothing wrong with other pursuits, we just need to be realistic and at peace with how we choose to spend our time.
  • Don’t call your writing a hobby if you’re doing it as a serious artistic project. Don’t let anyone call it a hobby.
  • Go easy on people. People are who you are writing for. Don’t tell me it’s all for yourself, forever and ever. That might be how things turn out but that’s not the goal you have in your heart. Spending time with your kids, your partner, your extended family, friends, colleagues, strangers is part of writing. Nothing is more inspiring than life going on around you. This is an advantage mothers surrounded by people have over other writers. When I was working as a columnist for a newspaper in Fort McMurray staffed mostly by young, single newcomers to the city, a pattern emerged when these people would try to write columns of their own. They’d write a few articles on food they ate or television they watched and then their columns would usually fizzle. What they lacked wasn’t talent or voice or experience, it was other people. They were isolated, lonely, and in many ways creatively bereft. You and I, we are none of those things.

And that is the awful truth of how I do it.

 

 

Reviewing in The Puritan

I’m not the uber-reader it’s sometimes assumed a writer and, heck, a student of literature must be. I love books but I’m slow and busy and sleepy. What I love more than reading books is reviewing them. It’s more fun than reading and easier than writing new material–the best of both worlds.

Please enjoy this review I did this spring for Rhonda Douglas’s short story collection Welcome to the Circus, published by Calgary’s Freehand Books. See, even I can do it. Here’s hoping it inspires people everywhere to hop on their bikes and review some books themselves.

Click here to read the review in the Ottawa-based literary magazine, The Puritan.

Call Me Binoo

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Binoo, on his island, reads a book

In 2005, Quebecoise author Dominique Jolin’s popular children’s books were adapted for English television as Toopy and Binoo, an animated series headlined by an oversized, chatty mouse and a little white cat who doesn’t speak at all.

2005 was also the year my fourth son was born, delivered without a doctor in a Fort McMurray hospital during an April snowstorm. No one thinks her kids are ordinary but this boy has made an exceptionally strong case for extraordinariness. Ask anyone.

While he was still in his super-toddler form, his little brother, my fifth son was born. Baby brother’s birth wasn’t ordinary either. But instead of being a cavalcade of feats of frontier hardiness, my ultimate son’s birth drama was launched six weeks too early, beginning in an ambulance and ending in a neonatal special care unit.

By the time itty-bitty, needy brother made it safely home, our super-toddler had started identifying with Jolin’s cartoon mouse character, Toopy. I could tell by the way he called me nothing but Binoo and the way my new baby was renamed “Patchy-Patch” after the stuffed toy Binoo fawns over on the show. We all played along. It was hecka cute, cost us nothing, and benefitted us in ways I didn’t recognize during the haze of caring for five children under the age of eleven.

I’m not sure if Jolin wrote Toupie et Binou as a script for toddlers confronting the harsh fact
that mothers are busy people with more to their lives than indulging the whims of one child, no matter how extraordinary. When we make art, we may wind up expressing truth we don’t otherwise perceive. Either way, Toopy and Binoo is a work of genius.

In print, the script of an old-school episode of Toopy and Binoo would read as an uninterrupted monologue by Toopy, mostly spoken in the second person to Binoo. Toopy prattles on in the forefront while in the background Binoo cares for Patchy-Patch, makes small adjustments to keep Toopy’s surroundings safe, and gently redirects and makes suggestions without a word—no pop psych editorializing about social skills or recycling. Binoo plays along, lets Toopy’s imagination wash over him, engaging it, validating it without adding much to it.

This is what the daily life of a toddler at home with his mother (especially with a little sibling) really looks like. They are together in the same world, but each of them wanders within it. There’s constant interaction but its intensity ebbs and flows. The mother’s role in the child’s imaginary world is a supporting one, like Binoo’s role in Toopy’s world. She participates almost by default and, though it may be unwitting, fosters the child’s sense of being “fabulous” by letting him take the lead in play.

binoo's island2

“Looks like Binoo has finished reading his book…”

For parents, there’s a self-serving side to this arrangement. A Toopy-kid—imaginative, caring, happy—is secure enough to loosen that strangle-hold toddlers like to have on their mothers’ attention. In the “Binoo’s Island” episode, Toopy can’t reach Binoo because he’s sitting on a blanket, wearing his glasses, reading a book. And it is not a crisis. “Looks like Binoo is on his very own island,” Toopy narrates, adding only, “Wow!” He then spends the rest of the show goofing around with the premise of a marooned Binoo but actually leaving Binoo the frick alone until Binoo himself decides he’s finished reading his book.

That’s some social modelling I can get behind.

There are lulls in the story where Binoo is not even looking and Toopy is happy just to be near him. Sometimes when a Toopy-kid is talking, a real Binoo-mom keeps looking down at her preemie infant or at her screen full of work and just says, “Uh-huh, uh-huh…” Toopy can deal with that. He knows he’s still “fabulous” even if other things and people need some space to be fabulous too. He knows the dividing of Binoo’s attention won’t last forever. Maybe Toopy and Binoo makes a case for the value of “quantity time” because parents are human, houses are small, everyone is important, and sometimes quantity time is all we want.

My penultimate son told me as much. One afternoon, I had been on Binoo’s Island for quite a while when he came into the bedroom where I was working on a novel and just stood at the foot of the bed. I looked up, greeted him, and asked if he wanted anything. “I want,” he said, “to be near you.”

Done.

 

 

“Sistering” Reviewed in “Publishers Weekly”

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This week, my second novel, Sistering, landed a good review in the American industry standard magazine Publishers Weekly. It’s not long but it does say things I can use in arguments with my loved ones like “Quist clearly knows family and sibling dynamics.” The best line is

This is a captivating story bound to resonate with readers who have sisters, and Quist’s sharp observations of human nature and sense for comedy will entertain a broader audience.

Read the whole thing here.

Margaret Atwood Meets Freaky Fan-Girl

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Atwood and Quist, nervous with hands in pockets making her stomach look big

I fall in love easily. Not that kind of love, just regular love, like we’re supposed to be able to feel for everyone. It’s one of the best things about me. But sometimes it causes a scene.

Like all good Canadian girls, I read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale before I graduated from high school. (Take note, aspiring arts journalists. That kind of storytelling is one way to recognize someone’s vast and indispensable contributions to an art form without using the i***ic word.) When my oldest kid was in high school, competing in trivia tournaments, there was a running joke that the answer to every book-trivia question was Margaret Atwood—unless it was a trick question, then the answer was Margaret Laurence. “I wonder,” my big boy said, “if she knows she’s a meme.” That is another way of saying that when it comes to living novelists from my own country, Margaret Atwood is the big one.

I didn’t know she’d be giving a lecture in a concert hall in the city where I live until Laura, my book-scene-friend, mentioned it. Of course I wanted to go, especially at the deeply discounted student admission for which I technically qualified.

Posters started going up around my university, advertising the lecture. “Margaret Atwood,” a classmate said, “is she an astronaut?”

The day of the lecture, the pitch of my excitement started out low. I didn’t dress up, I left the house calmly, well in advance. And then I distractedly took the wrong route. Late to meet Laura, I dumped my car in an underground parkade and bolted up into the daylight, a big metal door closing behind me as I realized the odds of remembering which big metal door to go back to at the end of the night were not good. I was just starting to run through the streets when, through nothing short of a miracle, Laura saw me and called my name.

She got us great seats—the kinds with brass plaques on them engraved with millionaire donors’ names. Margaret Atwood was right there, elevated on a step behind a podium, a step that had been awkward for the taller people who used the microphone before her. I had heard she was tiny. I liked it.

Her lecture was a slide show, the secret history of the Canadian literary community, the one kept hidden from me while I studied sociology during my own undergraduate degree. Margaret Atwood was funny, quick, and sharp. She definitely knows she’s a meme. I wanted to write down some of her remarks but I was afraid I’d miss what was coming next. Her life story is the story of Canadian literature. By the time the lecture was over, I was in tears. I had fallen in love.

The lights came on and I normalled-up for Laura. She’s a book reviewer and critic, experienced at these sorts of events, and she knew if we didn’t line up to have our books signed right away, we’d be waiting all night. In line, I weirded-up again. I wanted to send Margaret Atwood some kind of signal that she is my benefactor. Saying “I’m a writer too” doesn’t convey as much information as it used to. I needed to say something—strange, not hand-on-my-shoulder strange, but something she doesn’t hear at book events every day.

Laura listened to my stupid, stupid brainstorming. She was patient as I took this sophisticated evening out without her little kids and turned it into a night of being wing-man to a freaky fan-girl. “Maybe I could get her to sign my name in Chinese…I could introduce myself to her doing my impersonation of her voice…I should have totally brought her a Margaret Laurence book to sign, that would’ve been hilarious…Maybe I should introduce myself as ‘the Margaret Atwood of Edmonton’ (which would have been even more hilarious)…” It was all terrible. We moved up the queue and I reconciled myself to just saying thank you, which is actually pretty special.

And then, it hit me. I gasped and hit Laura in the arm with my high school copy of The Handmaid’s Tale. The 2015 Dublin International IMPAC Literary Award long-list—there had been nine Canadian books on it. One was by Margaret Atwood, and one was by me. “That’s what I’m going to say,” I said to longsuffering Laura, “I bet that’s what everyone in this line-up who’s been on an awards list with her is going to say.”

I leapt up to the table a little too energetically. Atwood didn’t recoil but I recognized that look people who aren’t afraid of bugs use to watch advancing spiders. As she wrote “all the best” in my old copy of her most commercial novel, I blurted out the one time our work had been mentioned in the same public breath, on the IMPAC list.

“What’s your book?” she asked.

I told her and watched her write the title on a scrap of yellow paper. “It’s just about marriage,” I added.

“I wouldn’t have known,” she said.

Spectacle successfully made, I thanked her and moved on.

After everything that had happened, Laura was still willing to introduce me to people—people whom I showed that my hands were still shaking. I made it back to my car that night only because Laura, invoking another miracle, found it for me.

It was harrowing and ridiculous and wonderful–taking my big, loopy, overflowing artist’s heart to out where it could fall in love with someone who inspires it, right in front of crowds of people. Do it. I recommend it. Just make sure you bring along someone to take care of you.

The 2016 Alberta Readers’ Choice Awards Long-List

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Libraries are good for books and authors. Not only do they buy, circulate, and promote our work, they’re involved in the ever-more delicate process of cultivating readers so the pursuit of professional writing can continue to mean something. In my area, libraries also trouble themselves to run the annual Alberta Readers’ Choice Awards. Our Sistering has been included on this year’s ARC long-list. I am delighted.

Thanks again, libraries.

Finalist Status in the 2015 Association for Mormon Letters Awards

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Sistering has been named a finalist in the novel category of the 2015 Association for Mormon Letters Awards. It’s the first time any of my work has been included in the annual awards and I am very pleased.

Here’s the link to the announcement. The winner is going to be announced in Hawaii the same day I’ll be making a mid-term presentation on the grammatical intricacies of the Chinese 把 construction in Edmonton. Ha!

Here’s the link the to announcement.