The Break was the one book that I think all Canadians should read (yet unfortunately, the sheer power of this book led it to being voted off first in the 2017 Canada Reads Debates). It is not only artfully written but it touches on so many important issues – sexual violence, physical violence, post-traumatic stress disorder, possible postpartum depression, racism, spousal abuse, child abuse – and yet balances the story with strength, resilience, love, kindness and caring. It is a story of strong women looking after and loving each other through good times and through hardship. It delves into issues that might be difficult but are important for us as Canadians, as individuals, as parents, as siblings, as grandparents, as humans to think about. It is a call to action to consider how we can support others and understand the impact of our words, our actions and of the racism that still exists in our communities.
Katherena was introduced as Metis author and film maker from treaty 1 in Winnipeg. She acknowledged that when she visits somewhere new, she researches how the land is being shared and taken care of. She laughed noting that everywhere is Toronto to her, even though we were sitting in Brampton. She admitted that she had forgotten her reading copy of The Break and had borrowed the moderator’s copy to read from the beginning of her novel.
When asked if she was worried about the book being received as a dark book, she noted that’s her fear yet “as much as it was talking about gritty things, there is some healing in there”. While difficult things happen to people, the book expresses the importance of recovering from these things. She laughed that her book can be treated as a choose your own adventure story (I loved these as a pre-teen) and that for a less gritty version, readers could ignore the parts told by Stella and the last chapter by Emily. By avoiding these parts, the reader will delve into a family dealing with loss and grief while helping each other.
Katherena said she had fun writing about the casual racism. She was asked about sharing context of colonization and said that you “can’t give a history lesson when you write a character” but hopes that people will do research on their own. She added that it is important to learn all the facts but that empathy is a “tool for the resolution”. The media only provides a tiny glimpse into situations but individuals “need to realize that we are all the same” to gain empathy and understanding. She writes for other indigenous women and hopes “that they see themselves in what i do” since she writes “messy characters” who have lived with trauma and identity issues.
Her own experience as a bi-racial, Metis woman has led her to thinking a lot about her identity, where she fits and where her daughters fit. She said that it feels like “you are never enough but you are too much at the same time”. She explored these feelings through the character of Tommy and shared that “even coloured people buy into the idea that white is better”. Katherena tries to incorporate her heritage and self-care including smudging and tobacco ties in her home but admits that she does not get out to sweat lodges often and laughed that it is wood tick season.
When speaking about her experience on Canada Reads, she noted that it was great to have two indigenous authors represented but stated that they were “both torn to shreds because we were not Canadian enough”. As an active participant of Canada Reads, listening each day and attending the final day, I have to disagree with this sentiment. I felt that The Break should have been the winner but can understand why the strongest competitor was knocked out first in this book debate. As for The Right to Be Cold, it is the one book that I have not been able to finish. The great work and her story was lost in the endless details, acronyms and acknowledgement making it very hard for the reader to keep track of all the organizations and people she worked with.
Overall it was a great morning. Those who also attended will note that I have not commented on the moderation by Hayden King. I have to say that as a Canadian (I guess he would call me white), I felt unwelcome with his comments at the FOLD Festival (The Festival of Literary Diversity). I understand that there is a dreadful history with indigenous peoples including residential schools and the horrible attempts at assimilation but I have not been part of this and want to be part of the solution. I have empathy for the terrible abuses, loss of culture and enduring racism and have learned so much through literature (since unfortunately, my education was lacking even though I live in a community near Six Nations). I appreciate that his experience has led to these feelings but hope that he can have empathy and openness towards everyone which will be essential in the work towards reconciliation.
If you haven’t read The Break, pick it up, read it and pass it on. If you live nearby, there is a copy of this book (not my newly signed copy of course) in the Franklin Street Little Free Library. The book will open conversations, cause reflection and hopefully educate Canadians about the experience of some indigenous families, their strength and their resilience! I look forward to Katherena Vermette’s next novel!