By Joanne Arnott
In 2008, PEN Canada created a tour, Words Without Borders, to reach beyond its usual geographies by partnering with a range of local literary organizations. The tour showcased a number of exiled writers living and working in Canada and highlighted the Writers in Exile program. As the day approached for the tour’s Vancouver event (co-presented by the Vancouver International Writers Festival) one of the presenting authors found she was not able to attend. I was invited to present in her stead.
This was an unusual opportunity for me. I had been observing the solitudes in Canada and some of the functions of language, thinking, and governance that have preserved the disconnection between indigenous people, on the one hand, and settlers and immigrants and refugees, on the other—the same things that work to preserve the invisibility of indigenous realities on a national level. This radical act, inviting an indigenous writer to co-present with writers in exile, provided a rich opportunity for me to explore and to teach, to illuminate connections and to invite deeper recognition.
The talk has been lightly edited for textual presentation.
I would like to begin by acknowledging the indigenous people upon whose traditional lands we are meeting tonight. Coast Salish people, the Musqueam, the Burrard, the Tsleil-Waututh and many more have been holding gatherings around here for thousands of years. Lee Maracle is a fine writer of the Sto:lo Nation; if you want to know a little more about the land and the water, the women and the men, of this exact location on the world’s globe, you would do well to begin your studies with one of her many books. Lee Maracle is also a very fine orator, and so if you see her name on a poster somewhere, you will not regret it if you follow the impulse to show up, to come out and listen to the fine storytelling and the passionate oratory of a woman who was born and grew up on her people’s traditional lands, just around here. My own homeland is on the prairie, my people are the mixed blood, the Metis. So, I am an incomer here.
Aboriginal people in Canada—First Nations, Metis, Inuit—are oppressed nations, still deeply involved in the wave of experience called colonization. For each Nation and each family, the particular details of how the waves of immigration and the facts of colonization arrived and unfolded are unique, as different from one another as the original cultures that pre-existed contact with European, Asian, and African peoples, and others.
The stories that have unfolded and continue to unfold are very, very interesting. Many Asian, Hawaiian, Polynesian immigrants married into First Nations families, especially here on the west coast. Many French, Scottish, Irish immigrants married into First Nations families on the east coast, through Quebec, Ontario, and the prairies. Many immigrants and the descendants of immigrants continue to marry into First Nations families, from coast to coast to coast, to this day. The most exciting place, politically, in Canada today—this may be debatable—is probably the far north, Nunavut in particular, where the Inuit are succeeding in negotiations with governments in a world-shaping way; the same process is underway all across the land, including areas of entrenched law-breaking by governments and large corporations, and including areas of renewed energy in recent progress in negotiations between nations.
When I first heard of Edmonton’s Writers in Exile program, I was visiting in Edmonton. I thought, this is truly brilliant, this is a truly inspired program. I hope that every other wealthy urban municipality in Canada soon follows suit: we need writers in residence programs, and we need writers in exile programs, to help the people of Canada understand ourselves and the world that we are living in.
What a wasted resource writers in exile can be. What a cruel gift it is to offer home but no interface between the past self and the Canadian one, between the world of the writers’ origin and the world of disconnected Canadians, shovelling walks and lining up at the food bank. Writers in exile, like Goh Poh Seng who came from Singapore in the 1980s, who made his home in both Vancouver and Newfoundland, and who has always been a brilliant and innovative literary voice, is somehow still in the shadows of things. He falls between the chairs of one country and another, and whereas recently Singapore has remembered him and begun celebrating his contributions both before and after his self-exile, Canada is a bit slow.
Where I live, in the nearby suburb of Richmond, BC, amnesia is very, very strong. I recently attended a birthday celebration for Lily Shinde, a Japanese Canadian woman who was born in Greenwood, BC, where her parents and elder siblings had been interned as Japanese Canadians during the war. She lives in Vancouver. Her parents had a marine hardware store on Moncton Street, in Steveston village, now a thriving district in the city of Richmond. Her parent’s business was, at the time of the internments, a thriving enterprise too. Many of her neighbours in Greenwood had been self-employed as fishermen, as farmers, as small business people in Steveston, an old village first settled by the Musqueam, and bit by bit and more and more, by immigrants from Japan and from Europe and elsewhere. The Second World War was very much like 9/11. It was the 9/11 of its time, an excuse for governments and corporate interests to sweep in and legally take and destroy with an astonishing greed. Although slowly the government of Canada is beginning to say “I’m sorry,” to the masses of people stolen from, relocated, driven out and economically or culturally destroyed, the city of Richmond is a lot like the country of England, sitting quietly upon a tremendous economic wealth held by families and corporations, the sources of which are theft and dislocation. Sitting quietly and hoping against hope that no one remembers.
Musqueam people of my generation, some of them, are the firstborn generation of the final families driven from Richmond municipality, under threat of being stripped of their legal identities as Musqueam people. Now that that generation is in their forties, some of the urban Indians like myself, who have wandered in from all points of the globe, with our mixed blood families and our own families’ versions of cultural shock, we have begun calling them home. It is very difficult. Emotionally, it is a very difficult thing, to be driven from your homeland, and silenced, and then, to be called back. It is a good thing. It is a healing thing. Some elders, like Larry Grant, and some younger cultural workers, like Terry Point, say yes to us immigrant urban Indians, and immigrant cultural workers of other races. They come to share the stories and the knowledge that they have of this place, this land, this water, these people. How it was done in the old days, and how we might do it better today. This gift that they share, however proudly, however tentatively, is an essential part of the restoration of a global view of reality. We need to hear the voices of those who have been driven out, under threat of death or economic ruin, in order to understand clearly what is going on, really, what has been going on for all these years. Identifying the common threads, never for sure but always with hope, looking for the answers to those deep questions: how can we do things better?
It seems to me that the very least thing that one human being can offer to another is compassion, compassionate listening. This costs us nothing but our time, and the willingness to open our hearts. If we open our ears, and if we open our hearts, we will be changed by the stories that we hear. This is good. We will become compelled, at some point, to tell our own stories. This, too, is good. The only requirement is that we learn to take turns, listening compassionately to one another, so that all, all, all of us, can be heard. Breaking through the recurrent amnesia, spilling our stories in the streets, these are the prime motivations of artists, of writers the world over.
When I was a young woman, twenty-one years old, I was already a poet, already writing. I was very, very poor. I also had a freshly broken heart. In this condition, travelling by bus between Vancouver and Windsor, Ontario, returning to hopefully finish my degree at university, I met a Traveller. This Traveller was a wonderful storyteller, and his stories called to my heart: I wanted to go with him, to leave the difficult path that I was on, and to be on the path that he was on instead. I returned to university, but there was no one in that town to offer me sustenance. I returned to university, started setting up a home for myself, but my body was very, very unhappy to be there.
This Traveller came to see me, and at the same time, classes were delayed, as the professors all went out on strike in hopes of better wages. There was no home, and no normal to anchor me. So, asked again by the Traveller to go travelling, I said yes.
The journey covered thousands of miles, from southern Ontario to northern Alberta, hitch-hiking through cold, autumn landscapes. Within about three weeks, I realized what an idiot this Traveller was. In so many ways, this Traveller was not my kind of Traveller. Being young, and naive, I didn’t think through the flock of dangers that had gathered around me before showing my hand. I simply walked to the top of a hill, there on a bushy turn in the isolated highway, pulled off my pack and sat down beside it, and said,
o fuck off.
i’m not travelling with you anymore.
The assault that followed in the bush nearby is a story that I continue to learn from, to this day. I wrote fresh new poems, published in my first book, beginning on that journey and in the Edmonton Women’s Shelter, where I found refuge later. As years pass, new insights are revealed and new healing occurs, new uses and applications for this one little story that took only a month to unfold in real time.
Sitting by Victoria Harbour recently, under cherry blossom trees with young birds singing and feeding at my feet, I found myself wondering about this Traveller’s life story. Did he ever heal, or did he continue to break? Did he get better at what he was practising, locating shell-shocked young aboriginal women, luring them into the bush, and trying to murder them? He came very close, with me. Did he ever meet up with a girl more murderous than him? Or is he still following that path of murdering young aboriginal women? If not him, someone, someone is.
As I thought these things, I was approached by another Traveller, scrappy pack on his back and a generally impoverished demeanour. He asked me for tobacco, which, for those of you aware of First Nations and especially prairie teachings, is a very significant thing, a spiritual, a ceremonial thing. Giving and taking tobacco is a transaction between Teachers and students, between Healers and those seeking help. I looked and listened, carefully.
I gave him a cigarette from my package. He thanked me and started to walk away, and then he stopped and turned back to me, and he asked me a simple question.
Would you allow me to pay for it?
Given the nature of my thoughts and the timing of his visit, his question held a lot of resonance. There are many traditions throughout the world of paying for things, spirit journeys and spiritual gifts, with coins.
Yes, I said, thinking of the deeds of that long ago Traveller. I’ve already paid for that lesson. My family have all paid for that lesson, my children have paid.
The idea that this stranger, this Traveller, might come and offer to purchase back this lesson, to take back to the Source all further need for myself and my associates to continue to pay for this lesson, was amazing to me. But it was not so amazing to me that I didn’t recognize a bargain when it was offered to me.
Will this be enough? he asked me, and he showed me two coins.
Yes, I said, that will be plenty.
The coins changed hands, and he smiled at me, and I smiled at him, too. Then he continued along his travels, and I sat with the water and the sun.
More recently, I had a dream. I had a dream that I was sitting on a bus, in Richmond where I live, and a Traveller stood in the aisle next to me. I began to speak to this Traveller, and he looked disturbed, and he said something to me, in the form of a reprimand, a deflection. So I stopped speaking to him, and I looked away. After a moment, he spoke to me again, and he spoke to me with all the resonance that a dreaming mind can muster. I turned and looked in his face, and he said to me, I Am Sorry.
I Am Sorry.
These are the words that come, after the trauma, after the long years of compassionate listening and speaking, after the burden has been lifted and paid for, these are the words that finalize the deal, that lead to reconciliation and healing.
I welcome the work of PEN Canada’s Writers in Exile Network, and all of the individual human beings who are a part of that network. I honour all of those who have once been, are now, and all who may one day become, writers in exile. Whether you are exiled within your own lands, as so many indigenous writers, whether you are called to travel the globe widely in search of relief, I honour the stories that you carry, and the work that you must do, to carry those stories without breaking yourself.
As Maria Campbell, Metis writer, filmmaker and broadcaster, has said, every emotion we are given is a teacher. Each experience we are given is a teacher. May the strength of the many carry your stories, very, very far: may all of your hard-won stories do good in the world, and bring us healing.
Joanne Arnott is a Métis/mixed-blood writer, editor, & arts activist, originally from Manitoba, at home on the west coast. She has nine published books, including Halfling spring (Kegedonce, 2014), which has just been short-listed for the Pat Lowther Award, A Night for the Lady (Ronsdale, 2013), and, as text editor, Salish Seas: an anthology of text + image (AWCWC 2011). For more of her work, go to i am thankful for my ability to make love.