‘Fluid communities’: An Interview with Katherena Vermette


biopic04By Ariel Gordon

Katherena Vermette is a Métis writer based in Winnipeg. Her first book, North End Love Songs (J. Gordon Shillingford Publishing, 2012), won the 2013 Governor General’s Literary Award for Poetry and was the 2015 selection for the Winnipeg Public Library’s provincial book club, On the Same Page.

Her next project was writing picture books for children based on the seven teachings of the Anishinaabe—love, wisdom, humility, courage, respect, honesty and truth—published in 2015 by Portage & Main Press.

This month, House of Anansi Press launched Vermette’s first novel, The Break, in which a young Métis mother looks out her window in the middle of the night, witnessing a violent crime.

The novel opens with protagonist Stella waiting for police to arrive after reporting the incident, as the blood on the ground outside is slowly covered with snow.

What do you want people to know about The Break?

I don’t know. It took me a long time to write. It tore me up in many ways. Maybe more accurately put, I saw my family and friends in these characters. I was writing for my sisters, my daughters, my mother, so my very best was the least I could do for them.  

What does community mean to you? What does it mean to your main character Stella, who has been living in isolation from her family, both because she’s got little kids but also because her husband is afraid of her neighbourhood and her community?

To me, community is like family. It has the same sort of good, bad, ugly, beautiful, messy but still-tied-to feeling. It’s also fluid. I think we can have many communities, both adopted and imposed throughout our lives.

I think there are many reasons Stella is isolated. She really self-imposes this isolation too, doesn’t she? I think she’s lonely and longing. She seems to know what she wants — her family — but her own feelings of shame, both past and present, keep her away. I think estrangement like this leaves so many things unresolved and unspoken. I don’t know what community could mean to her, but she does seem to treat it in the same way, and is absent from it as well.

Is it important that the rookie cop in The Break, Tommy, is Métis? What does this mean about his access to and distance from Indigenous communities?

I’ve always been fascinated by police and the justice system. In my adult life, I’ve met and worked with many police officers who do amazing work. But when I was younger, I didn’t have access to that. I only knew stories, and the relationship between Indigenous persons and the police seemed fractured at best. I’m interested in how an Indigenous police officer would deal with that narrative.

Tommy kind of came fully formed. He was the last character I wrote and he is like and unlike many people I’ve known in my life. Like some Métis people, he is disenfranchised from his community. His culture has been taken from him and [he] feels on the outside. But there are still ways he’s able to be a part of the community too.

Let’s talk about how violence operates in The Break. The sisters, Paulina and Louisa, who are at the core of the novel, witness sexual violence against their friend as teenagers. They intervene, but only when it’s too late. That violence cycles around and affects one of their children and their relationship with their cousin. But Paulina says, “I don’t give a fuck about her story…” when Louisa suggests that the aggressor was “a pretty messed-up kid.” 

In that scene, Paulina is reacting to the victimization of her daughter. I think anger is a very real, valid response to that. Louisa seeks understanding and compassion. That is also a real response.

But doesn’t her story matter? That she’s both a victim and an abuser?

Of course and of course. The cycle of violence is the whole point. There are many reactions to violence and one is more violence. Hurt people hurt people. It’s a cycle. It doesn’t stop. It has to be stopped.

You see your writing as art and as a form of activism, yes? How do you walk that line? Or is activism inherently part of being an Indigenous writer, being part of a community that is so outspoken and so supportive?

I’ve been getting this question a lot lately. While I acknowledge my writing contains elements of activism, I don’t think I am a real activist, if that makes sense. I know activists. I know people who are tireless and vocal, who own megaphones and can organize a thousand-strong march in a matter of days. To me, those are the activists. Those are the people changing the world. I write what I see. I write about the things that affect my heart and spirit, and about subjects I think are worthy of artistic attention. It feels a lot less active by comparison.

Which books did you look to when writing The Break?

I read a lot of Toni Morrison. I don’t recommend it. Toni Morrison has a way of making a writer feel wholly inadequate.

Who do you consider your literary peers? The people you’re writing to/alongside? For me, it’s mostly women writers, mostly on the Prairies and in other off-centre places, and mostly people interested in nature writing of all stripes. 

Well, communities are fluid and I’m a member of a few. I feel great affinity and kinship to Indigenous writers and artists, particularly women; all women really, women of colour as well. My life does feel surrounded by women. Men are cool too. I know some pretty cool guys.

Tell me about the support the Indigenous Writers Collective has given you over the years.

I joined the IWC in 2004 and they gave me my first opportunities to read and publish. We’re a loosely knit group of all sorts of writers with all sorts of experience. It’s a fun, supportive, courageous group of people who really put the fun in dysfunction! (Must credit Rosanna Deerchild with that one…)

You completed UBC’s distance MFA in 2014, right? What tools did that program give you? Did it make you more comfortable working in genres besides poetry?

I wanted to know how to write fiction. Before that, I think my fiction was more like big, prosy poems. I also met a lot of great people along the way.

Tell me about the hubbub after your first book, North End Love Songs, won the Governor General’s Award for Poetry in 2013.

There was certainly a lot of hubbub. I think I was in shock for a full six months. The attention part was pretty daunting. Appreciated, but it was so beyond expected that I really didn’t know what to do with it all.

Since North End Love Songs was published, you’ve come out with the picture-book series The Seven Teachings Stories (2015) and now The Break. And you also co-directed on a documentary, The River, with Erika MacPherson. What’s next?

Hmmm, what genres are left? Just kidding. I am writing some poetry right now. I love poetry. It feels like home.

Post a Comment

Your email address is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>


Ariel Gordon

Ariel Gordon is a Winnipeg writer. Her second collection of poems, Stowaways, won the 2015 Lansdowne Prize for Poetry.