Reading on the prairie: Finding community and a sense of place through literature (by Dr. Heather Phipps)

 

20160918_180304-1.jpgNow more than ever, we need art to inspire hope and change in the world. The arts—poetry, music, literature, visual works, film and other forms—enable us to feel emotion, gain the perspective of another, challenge assumptions, and provoke new ways of thinking and understanding. 

I recently moved across the country to Treaty 4 Territory to begin a new teaching position at the University of Regina. I have always dreamed of being part of a Book Club, although I had not joined one in the past few years living in Montreal while I completed my PhD dissertation.  In the whirlwind of starting my first year as a professor, I was intrigued when I found out about this Book Club organized through the University of Regina’s women’s group. This fall seemed like the right time to join.

We first met on a Sunday in late October. For our meeting, one of the women had selected a book that we all read in advance. The book we started with was Ru by Kim Thuy. Some of us had read the text in French and others in English. As it turned out, the language of the book became a topic of discussion during our first meeting.  The fact that our Book Club was able to read in both languages added to the richness and pleasure of our conversation. During our discussion, the question arose as to whether the text read differently in French and English. Translations of literary works enable cross-cultural understanding, as they provide a window that opens up worlds. We also discussed the meaning of the title, Ru, which the author writes “En français, signifie “petit ruisseau’ et, au figuré, ‘écoulement” (de larmes, de sang, d’argent)’ (Le Robert historique). En vietnamien, ru signifie ‘berceuse’, ‘bercer’. (Thuy, 2009).

The story Ru by Kim Thuy is narrated from the perspective of a woman who travelled by boat from Vietnam to Canada. The short chapters narrate her memories of her girlhood and the refugee experience, adjusting to life in the francophone town of Granby, Québec. The story is not told as a linear narrative. Thuy describes the narrator at various stages of her life as a girl, woman, and mother. This text provided us with rich material for discussing issues of identity and belonging, adjusting to life in a new country, and the complexity of family relationships and love.

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At our second meeting in November, just before the deep freeze of the Saskatchewan winter, we met to discuss Birdie by Cree author Tracey Lindberg. Leanne Simpson, Anishinaabe poet, has stated (about Birdie) that “This is the novel Canada has been waiting for.” Indeed, the text has been recognized with several awards and nominations, including being shortlisted for the CBC Canada Reads 2016.  The text is told from the perspective of Bernice (Birdie), a Cree woman who remembers her girlhood as she takes a journey from Northern Alberta to Gibsons, B.C. The author’s vivid descriptions of geographic locations—on the reserve near Grande Prairie, later on the streets in Edmonton, and at various places in Vancouver and eventually Gibsons, BC, makes the story come alive as we can feel and imagine these places.  Many of us in the book club had lived in or visited various locations of the book. This is a poignant story that addresses the social justice issues of gender-based violence that affect many Indigenous women and children, as well as systemic racism in society. Lindberg’s dedication is written in Cree and English:

Kakinow anniki okawipanak, nimisinanak, niseeminnak, kaki

Mantotacik, apo anniki westawo mekwac eka ka piswenemicik

Kiwicikapowistatinan, kakinow annis omma kiwakotonanow

To all of the mothers and little mothers, sisters and cousins who are murdered, missing, disappeared or who feel invisible. We are one. We are with you. We are family.   (Lindberg, 2015)

Our conversation over this book was filled with emotion and opened up a space where we discussed the ways that this text challenged to open our hearts so that we could follow Birdie on her journey of healing. Lindberg (2016) writes that “Sexual assault may seem to be at the centre of Bernie’s story, but it is not. Bernie’s wellness and kindness is the centre of the story. The understanding that you can uncover, and recover from sexual assault is important: knowing that you can make a healthy family, a healthy self and a ‘good life” is even more so” (p. 265). Birdie’s relationships with her aunts are a very significant part of the narrative. After our Book Club meeting discussion about Birdie, I was left with a sense of hope of how literature, particularly texts addressing social justice issues, can be transformative for the reader and for society.

Since joining this Book Club with the University of Regina Women’s Group, I have also become a member in a second Book Club with another small group in Regina, and it promises to be equally thought-provoking. I’ve now got two books to read for my next meetings with both of my book clubs…Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madelein Thien and Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah.

Now that the snow and cold weather has arrived in Regina, I am especially thankful for the warmth, sense of community, solidarity and friendship that I have found within these reading groups. It is -17 in Regina as I write this and I am looking forward to curling up with a couple of good books over the holiday.

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References

Lindberg, T. (2015). Birdie: A Novel. Toronto: HarperCollins.

Thuy, K. (2009). Ru. Montréal : Les Éditions Libre Expression.

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