Connect better

 

pushcart

Human relationship is full of disconnection. We misunderstand, we miss opportunities, we misjudge. “Every intense relationship between human beings is full of traps,” wrote Elena Ferrante, “and if you want it to endure you have to learn to avoid them.”[1] This reality, in part, drives writers. In spite of the frequent experience of disconnection, or maybe because of it, we strive to connect through stories.

Last week I received some thrilling news. A short story that was published last year in The Austin Review, “Salt,” was nominated for the Pushcart Prize. I’m still processing the honour that this represents. When things are intense, I write to try to dissipate that energy, or repackage it somehow. When I don’t understand, I write in an attempt to make sense. When I feel misunderstood, I write to be understood.

“When I write I am trying to express my way of being in the world,” wrote Zadie Smith, in her essay Fail Better. “That’s what I am looking for when I read a novel; one person’s truth as far as it can be rendered through language.” In that struggle to express the truth of my way of being in the world, I’m feel I’m connected to her and all writers in an unbroken chain that reaches through history and around the world.

Ferrante famously eschews the cult of celebrity by refusing public appearances, and has argued that this decision was not only freeing for her but also created the conditions for more intimate connection with the work. As a creative writing teacher, I’ve taught stories that acquainted my students with writers I love via stories about a chance meeting in Yalta[2], an imagined future in coastal Ireland[3], a stolen wallet in New York[4], and a struggle for power in a steam bath in Mexico City[5]. It’s no small thrill to connect with American readers I will never meet via a story I wrote about a night drive in southern Ontario.

Which brings me back to The Pushcart Prize. Pushcart Press is one of the last surviving co-ops from the 1960s-70s. It began and continues to be a paean to the written word without regard for commerce. It’s sustained by endowments and an army of unpaid volunteers and has been recognized many times over as a distinguished and influential contributor to arts and letters in America.

In this past year, through this story and my debut novel, I’ve come to know some of the publishers and editors and volunteers who helped my words find their readers, here in Canada and in the US. It has been a truly humbling experience to discover the scores of tireless and passionate people who sustain the literary arts with their presses, granting programs, reading series and festivals, literary journals, competitions, and the enormous gift of their enthusiasm and engagement.

So this note is also my thanks for the tireless efforts and acts of faith that went into establishing a new journal that promotes new voices. That effort connects Michael Barrett, Tatiana Ryckman, Vincent Scarpa, and Peter McCrady at The Austin Review in Austin, Texas to founding Pushcart editors Bill Henderson, Joyce Carol Oates and Ralph Elison in Yonkers, NY, where that press began. Their efforts sustain, nourish, and connect us all.

 

[1] The Story of the Lost Child

[2] “The Lady with the Dog” by Anton Chekov

[3] “Ox Mountain Death Song” by Kevin Barry

[4] “Found Objects” by Jennifer Egan

[5] “Mexican Manifesto” by Roberto Bolaño

 

 

A National Shame

res school

Today’s release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report reminded me of a report on TB in the residential schools that showed that as many as 50% of indigenous children did not live to use their education.

According to a 2007 Globe and Mail report, medical officials repeatedly warned Ottawa of the dangers of tuberculosis infection for residential school children. Indigenous children who were sick with TB were often not sent out to hospitals because the church-run schools would lose that child’s per-capita funding from the federal government. Dying children slept beside well children in the dormitories.

Tuberculosis is a highly infectious, airborne disease, and Canada’s indigenous people were uniquely susceptible to the disease for a variety of reasons. In the early 1950s, in the James Bay community where my novel is set, as many as 9 in 10 people were infected. Residential schools became incubators for the disease.

As early as 1909, the department of Indian Affairs received reports from medical officials including the department’s chief medical officer, Dr Peter Bryce. His reports, showing the high death rates from TB in the schools, were acknowledged by the most senior Indian Affairs official, Duncan Campbell Scott (quoted in the House of Commons in 1920 as saying that the goal was to “get rid of the Indian problem”). Dr Bryce’s recommendations were rejected.

From a 1914 essay by Duncan Campbell Scott:

It is quite within the mark to say that fifty per cent of the children who passed through these schools did not live to benefit form the education which they had received therein.

Dr Bryce, who first sounded the alarm, was shuffled to another department. The position of chief medical officer was terminated and the government appears to have collected no further statistics on the matter.

It’s a national shame.

 

 

A Long Way from Home

karsh eskimoPhoto credit: Yousuf Karsh

 

This morning I looked up a passage in A Long Way from Home by Pat Sandiford Grygier, one of the books I read while researching The Umbrella Mender. It’s a microcosm of the cultural disconnections that were a regular part of the campaign against TB in the north. An account of a young Inuit boy’s return to his community in the early 1950s, it was witnessed by Robert Williamson, an anthropologist who lived and worked in the North for many years and has written extensively on their culture and language. Williamson was a Professor Emeritus at the University of Saskatchewan and was named to the Order of Canada in 1983. This is only one of many such stories I read during the course of my research.

The five-year-old boy in this account had been spent several years in a Quebec TB hospital, and during that time he lost his home language and became otherwise southernized. When he was fit to travel he was sent North in stages, with the best intentions of hospital staff, to rejoin his family at their camp. When he reached the nurse’s station closest to that camp, the young, new nurse, who knew little about the country, put him on a mining exploration plane for the last leg of his journey. The plane delivered him to the frozen lake near the camp, far from shore. He was wearing a beret, a white shirt and bow tie, a short-cut jacket, shorts over lisle stockings, and sandals. His family rushed out to pick him up.

In Williamson’s words:

“He was frightened of all these people with their dark brown faces and their skin clothing, and the smell of the North, you know of meat and of a different kind of food. And being nuzzled by these strangers talking loudly, or what seemed loudly because they were so full of joy, in a totally foreign language, was not comforting to him. L. picked him up and carried him to the igloo… and they talked to him about the dogs outside, but he didn’t know what they were saying. And they gave him some morsels of the favourite food they had, like seal meat, which he ultimately ate and threw up: he ate pilot biscuits… By sheer luck, there happened to be staying in that little camp for a short time a white man with whom he could relate, because he spoke French, and who could say, “C’est ton papa; c’est ta maman. Tu es à la maison avec la famille maintenant.” And “Be careful with the dogs!” Because he was a little southern boy in effect, the family were terrified that he would think the dogs were playthings and they would chew him up.

 And that child had a traumatic period of adjustment. He began to sense quite readily that he was surrounded by love and affection and joy, but it was a terrible adjustment that he had to go through. I stayed in that camp for some time to help him make the adjustment, interpreting in French and Eskimo for the little by and for the parents. Well, what would have happened if I hadn’t been there? What did happen in many comparable situations where children were brought back north after two or three or four years away, culturally completely southerized, and then dumped unceremoniously, without and preparation either of the child or of the parents, in either hunting camps or… shanty towns around the settlements?”

 

That was a question that haunted me during the six years I was writing

Masinaasta waskway

Yesterday a photographer was in touch about a Cree artist I profiled years ago, Angelique Merasty Levac, who singlehandedly regenerated the age-old art form of masinaasta waskway (bitten bark). The photographer is also an archaeologist who is based all over the world, particularly in the middle east, but she grew up in Alberta and remembers the dental pictographs from her childhood. They still haunt her imagination.

I know how she feels. I discovered them in 2003 at the National Gallery of Ottawa as part of an installation of indigenous art, Art of this Land, and I almost missed them. They were in a tiny Plexiglas case in a room with a soaring Group of Seven mural. Once I’d seen them, I couldn’t stop thinking about them, and my obsession with this ephemeral art form culminated in an odyssey to Prince George to meet the best-known practitioner of the art. I’d failed to get a commitment from a magazine for the profile I wanted to write and was only going to be in Vancouver for work for a week. Merasty Levac wasn’t easy to reach and we hadn’t set a time for an interview, so I just showed up in her shop one day in late 2007.

Women made masinaasta waskway as they were picking berries, from time immemorial, to alleviate boredom and as patterns for their beadwork. The innermost layers of birch bark, soft as skin, were peeled from the tough outer layers and then folded the way children fold paper to make snowflakes. Their tools were teeth, not scissors. The spatial skill necessary to create the complex designs I’ve seen beguiles me still. Merasty Levac uses no pencil sketches. This is “four frogs.”

Frogs, Angelique Merasty Levac

 

You don’t really get the full effect until you hold it to the light. Masinaasta waskway are essentially negatives; they need the light to complete them. She made this one for me the day I was there.

 

bark 2

 

Bitten bark makes a cameo appearance in The Umbrella Mender, so it’s fair to say I’m still obsessed. This art form seems to do that to people: Merasty Levac herself made a 670 km mid-winter pilgrimage, twice, to learn from the master.

 

 

 

Moose Factory, six years on

I’m just back from a trip to Moose Factory over the weekend. It’s a return trip that has been in the works since I was up there in 2008 and promised (presumptuously!) to be back with the book I was researching one day. As I put the finishing touches on The Umbrella Mender in the spring, I started to make plans to go back. Of course I would, and this time I’d bring books and family.

The trip itself is an odyssey that lasts nearly 24 hours (including an overnight in either Timmins or Cochrane, since the Polar Bear Express leaves only once a day, at 9am). When I went the first time in September 2008, it was the farthest north I’d been.

To get to Moose Factory from Toronto, you fly to Timmins,

timmins

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

take a bus to Cochrane,

cochrane

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

and board the Polar Bear Express to Moosonee.

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PBE2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The train journey north is five hours through the trees and water and muskeg of northern Ontario. You have front row seats as you cross the Abitibi River and pass the mighty Otter Falls.

otter falls

 

 

 

 

 

 

When you leave the train in Moosonee, the first thing you notice is the Cree syllabics that spell Moo-Seh-Nee (ᒧᓱᓂ) on the water tower.

moosonee2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You walk the dirt road to the bank of the river and board a water taxi to take you to Moose Factory, an island in the Moose River.

moose river

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The view from a window in the Cree Village Ecolodge. The channel between Sawpit and Charles Islands leads back to the mainland.

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While I was there I did a short talk and reading from my new novel in the beautiful Ecolodge. Dr Dennis Dahl, the chief of staff at Weenebayko General Hospital (formerly Moose Factory Indian Hospital, the setting for some of the scenes in my novel), heard about the event and announced it at the weekly staff meeting. I was thrilled to have doctors, residents, and other medical staff in attendance, since my great-uncle had been the hospital superintendent when it first opened, as well as two former nurses who worked there at the time of my novel.

after reading

 

 

 

 

 

 

Will I be able to top a view like this as a reading venue?

reading view

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When it was finished, the warm northern hospitality I’d experienced on my first visit showed its sunny face again. Across the road was a tipi with a traditional lunch of goose, moose, whitefish and bannock cooking over an open fire. I’d never tasted goose, so this was wish fulfillment. I was pinching myself.

tipi1

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Dr Dahl offered to take us up island, where he’d seen the Bombardier snow crawler I showed in my presentation…

Bombardier old

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

…decommissioned.

Bombardier

 

 

 

 

 

 

Someone thought to protect the headlamps and windows. It’s at least 60 years old now. Besides dog sled, it was the way people crossed the frozen river in winter. There were no cars on the island then.

Because the Polar Bear Express leaves only once a day from Moosonee, at 5pm, the return trip also means an overnight in Cochrane or Timmins. You save a half day of travel if you fly from Moosonee to Timmins. I was traveling with my husband, mother-in-law, and daughter, and we needed to be back Sunday. That’s a King Air 100, according to the information card in the back of our tiny seats.

King Air 100

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was a privilege to be able to start my tour in the place my book began, and it brought a kind of closure to seven years of labour and dreaming. The place was changed in the intervening years, but not so much in physical topography as in the imagined space I’d made there for the novel. I’d lived there with my characters, walked those roads, scratched myself on wild bushes, shivered in the rain, ate meals, slept, and worked with them. It was a kind of homecoming.