A short letter to Katherena Vermette about the pain of recognition
Dear Katherena Vermette,
Every time I read your work I start to cry.
I'm not prone to crying. Not since I was a child. And I don't like to show emotion. I've read enough that reading about tragedy move me, but don't make me cry. I've known enough sadness, loss, dysfunction and displacement in my life to know how to take it calmly.
Books about war, genocide, rape, rape as a tool of war: these are hard, hard topics and I read about them to know more fully the human condition and how our own humanity responds to and even survives such things. But they don't make me cry anymore.
Your books do.
I've been trying to read The Break for months now. I can't bring myself to read it carefully and to engage with it fully. To be honest, I wanted to know what happened so I skipped ahead to find out how things turned out for the main character. But I kept myself from really falling into the book, because it was too uncomfortable, because my emotional response was too strong, too distracting. I didn't know why, at first.
I've never seen myself in books before. Not in this way. It's painful for me. I'm used to anonymity, to invisibility. I'm used to being alone. I'm used to my story being in the shadows. The Break put on the page my family, the dynamics, the pain, the confusion. The details are different, of course, but the core is the same. That is what makes me cry.
So, I am writing to apologize. I haven't been able to make it very far in your book.
And now I have your book of poetry, North End Love Songs. Five poems and I am crying and crying. What is this? What do you do in your writing Katherena? I see myself, my mother, my aunts and cousins in every one of your poems. And I've never recognized myself in this way before.
Oh, maybe that's not quite true, Katherena. There is another book I couldn't bear to read. Years ago, I picked up "In Search of April Raintree" by Beatrice Culleton Mosionier. I think it was my first attempt at this project, an informal and unplanned one: to read about my people and to read books by my people. I still have that book, but I've never been able to finish it. Those stories haunt me; those two girls were my sister and I. The story is very different--my sister and I were never removed from our home, nor from our mother--but the core of the story was too close. I recognized too much of my younger sister and I--who faced very different struggles in the 80's and 90's in Alberta--and I couldn't continue a book that seemed to know so well the kind of pain we went through. I had to quit.
So Katherena Vermette, I haven't met you but you know me. Katherena Vermette, I want to thank you for having the courage to put down on paper all those stories and for helping me to see some of the stories my mother's story, my grandmother's story, my sister's stories, and my story, are part of.
Thank you. Thank you.