Unearthing Soraya Peerbaye’s Tell

Tell, Soraya Peerbaye
(Pedlar Press, 2015).

Reviewed by Tanis MacDonald

             Tell, winner of the Trillium Award for Poetry and finalist for the 2015 Griffin Poetry Prize, is a book with a history. I read Soraya Peerbaye’s excerpts from the manuscript in The New Quarterly in 2009, and I knew from those poems that Peerbaye would be honing in on the race crime of Reena Virk’s beating by several teenagers and her subsequent murder by two or more of them in November 1997 in Victoria, B.C. It’s a terrible story in any version, and there are lots of versions: Heather Spears’ Required Reading, from her dual perspective as poet and courtroom artist during one of the trials; Joan MacLeod’s Jessie Richardson Award-winning play The Shape of a Girl; and Rebecca Godfrey’s non-fiction Under the Bridge. I also recall the many pieces of journalism about bullying, especially those featuring girl-on-girl violence, that surfaced in the years following Reena’s murder: stories that may have been displaced by “bigger” stories of global violence and rape culture, but stories – as Tell makes clear – that spring from these same narratives of gendered power, xenophobia, and toxic capitalism, as well as the cruelty that such narratives cultivate.

One of the aspects that sets Peerbaye’s book apart from other accounts of the murder is her productive conflation of race and place. Peerbaye works with parallels of racialized violence from her own experience, making these “poems for a girlhood” poems that are for and from, potentially, multiple girlhoods. (See Sonnet L’Abbé’s excellent review for more on this point: http://thewalrus.ca/painful-sympathies/). Peerbaye’s etymological exploration of “tell” as a midden reminds readers that any story of human violence works by accrual rather than by erosion, and that Reena’s dying place has been neither “wiped clean” by the water nor clouded by time or progress. Her work with silt that gets everywhere and endlessly tells the story of the remainder – what lasts even when things are “washed white” – is potent. Though it’s tempting to think that a watery death means a “clean” murder scene, Tell’s geological time shows that what is gathered there – shell remains, fish bones, fragments of stone – demands a different archaeology:

(tell, a word from Arabic, from Hebrew

a site that holds evidence

of successive human occupation

to untell,  to uncover the layers

of this evidence

(“Tillicum Bridge,” Tell, page 85)

             This untelling, the dig through the layers of successive human occupation with violence, includes Peerbaye’s interrogation of the colonial legacy of the area, a history hiding in plain sight at the Craigflower Schoolhouse. View Royal is on the traditional land of the Songhees First Nation, and the gorge that has been depicted in other tellings of Reena’s murder as alternately picturesque and evil has been and continues to be something very different for the Songhees people: a site of sustenance and sacred the way waters that sustain people must be. Peerbaye’s retelling of Cheryl Bryce’s retelling of the myth of Camosun, a young woman who comes to the Gorge and is fed herring and duck by the spirits, is handled with sensitivity: an acknowledgement that young women have been nurtured by these waters for centuries, and only the legacy of toxic capitalism, enacted by the recolonized children of colonizers could distort the girl in the water from a symbol of sustenance to one of violence.

Peerbaye’s evocative use of French, her mother tongue, to play with the simultaneous estrangement and familiarity of violent expressions surrounding speech, including the throat as gorge, the urgency and impossibility of telling, reminded me powerfully that this is both a Canadian story and a story about global violence. Her work with French colloquialisms as part of a linguistic midden eerily points to the murder, its site, and the beating that preceded it as embedded in language, as much a part of our violent heritage as much as the colonizing of land. Reena Virk would be 32 today had she lived. Tell disturbs as it ought to, and must: not only because it examines violence against children by children, because also Peerbaye makes it clear that none of us are outside of the circle of accusation that it draws, the geology it unearths, the history it underscores.

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