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Wanda John-Kehewin is a BC-based poet marking the publication of her first book of poetry. She is mother to four young people, ranging in age from 22 years to about six months. Wanda and I first met in a program for entrepreneurial indigenous folk, and being the two writers in the mix, we drifted together. We are also both part of the rather substantial prairie émigré influx to the lower mainland. Not so long after we first met, the Aboriginal Writers Collective West Coast was formed, and we have met regularly since then, and under the collective’s auspices, collaborated on a number of literary projects.
In the Dog House, published by Talonbooks, is a very attractive presentation of twenty-eight poems, organized by the author with the four directions/ medicine wheel in mind, with brief prose entries by the author on either side. Time and care was taken in the layout, so that even the spiralling “Chai Tea Rant”— so smooth in oral delivery, such a challenge in textual realms— reflects the intent of the author, over and above the convenience of a swift-flowing publication stream, or the ease of the reader. Through both content of the work and her stylistic choices, this author requires us to take a moment, to get off the highway and slow things down a little.
“Chai Tea Rant”
Joanne Arnott: First off, I’m curious about your origins. You are forty-two years old. When did you start writing? About how old were you, where did you live?
Wanda John-Kehewin: I started writing when I was a child. I had paper, pencils and nature as toys as poverty is rampant on reservations. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see me hanging out in a tree writing and constructing poems out of nature. I just loved how I could put words together until they sounded ‘just right’ together and I wasn’t hesitant to share my work. I remember writing a poem in Grade one. At the time I didn’t know it was a poem but I thought it was amazing that I didn’t use any punctuation, the nun teaching at the time was upset and gave me a zero for not using capitals or punctuation. I remember thinking that I didn’t want to capitalize anything, nor did I want to use punctuation. I lived on the Kehewin reservation, three hours north east of Edmonton. I wrote a poem when I was 16 that was published in the Windspeaker newspaper, called “Best Friends.” It was about losing my best friend. I think I wrote every time something bad happened, or if I was feeling sad about something and needed to understand it. But when I was a child I did not know this, I just wrote and wrote and kept journals.
JA: When did you get into poetry, specifically?
WJK: I started reading poetry when I picked up Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss. I was fascinated how he could write so well and how the words flowed together. I wanted to write like he did, of course today my poetry doesn’t rhyme which is probably a good thing; there isn’t word that rhymes with colonization.
JA: Dr. Seuss is still pretty godlike; I read him with all of my children. Many of his values— both his sense of play and his sensibility— continue to speak to young people today. I have a sense that some people are just word people, the sensitivity is there and we take to it, rise to the stimulus. Is that how you would describe it, then, a natural outflow of how you go about being in the world?
WJK: I wouldn’t say Dr. Seuss is my poetic hero but he was a big influence on me as a child. I loved how you could read and memorize his work. I remember my older brother reading it to me and wanting to memorize it and so I did.
JA: Are there any other writers/poets of the past who you feel had a big influence on your development as a writer?
WJK: I can’t really say there were many poets of the past that influenced my writing. I think when I really started to be inspired was when I heard that there were other Native writers, and that wasn’t until I moved to the West Coast in 1991. For some reason I didn’t think it was actually something an “Indian” could do. There weren’t any books in the library that were by First Nations people when I was growing up. While growing up there were only negative mentions of First Nations Peoples. I also remember learning the alphabet and those cardboard alphabet pictures littering the top of the wall. “A” was for apple, “I” was for Indian, “T” was for teepee. I did like Robert Frost’s work, as well as Elizabeth Barrett Browning but as far as being to write like they did, I would have had to grow up off the reservation. Old saying goes, you write what you know as far as content goes.
JA: That’s something we’re still thinking about and considering, how to get the word out to the indigenous audience, that this writing and publishing has been going on for some time.
I have spoken with other writers about feeling harmed by certain books considered important to share with young indigenous people, such as Cam Hubert/Anne Cameron’s Dreamspeaker. Did you ever come across that—not the specific book necessarily, but a book that while intended to be helpful, in fact communicated hopelessness and despair? Does that concern you, and how do you as a writer approach the subjects that you engage in a way that is not likely to be experienced as discouraging by your readers?
WJK: I think travelling to different communities as literary performers would be the first step, with many, many books by Indigenous writers in tow. I have not read Cam Hubert’s book. I don’t think my book necessarily communicates hopelessness and despair. I think it promotes healing and understanding through being honest and open, standing in my truth so to speak. I am speaking my truth, my mother’s truth, and for many generations we were silenced. I feel very honoured in a way, to be able to give the past a contemporary voice. It is only a small collection of poems and history is way bigger, so, there`s lots to write about. I think it’s the perfect time for First Nations writers to finally be free to write the truth and to share it on a larger scale. I think First Nations communities need to have books written by First Nations authors, as well as book fairs and literary events in First Nations communities.
JA: Did you ever read Pauline Johnson’s poetry or stories?
WJK: I have one of Pauline Johnson’s books. Her poetry has beautiful imagery, but I haven’t read enough to be able to say much about it. She did have a very interesting life though. One thing I can say about her was that she was able to live on “both sides of the fence” and did so very well. Perhaps had she been full First Nations she would not have been travelling overseas sharing her work. Hopefully that doesn’t sound negative but in those days, the idea of ‘taming the savage’ was very much alive.
JA: We have shared a lot of stories about growing up, and about Catholic roots, in our front porch discussions, along with Michelle Sylliboy. I am really interested in the idea of Catholic routes, as well. There’s a saying, ‘once a Catholic always a Catholic’, but it seems that both of us found similar antidotes, becoming immersed in Asian spiritual teachings and practice of one kind or another.
What would you say are the main differences between your experiences as Cree Catholic, and as part of a Vietnamese Buddhist community and family? How does that spiritual journey, and the aesthetic influences, inflect (or show up in) your writing?
WJK: Growing up as a Cree Catholic definitely has influenced the way I write; in as far as I don’t feel a connection to Catholicism. In my writing about it, I think there is a hint of indifference and probably a touch of anger. I think I have to distinguish between the Catholic influences of the past (residential schools, churches on reserves) and contemporary Catholicism. I immersed myself in another culture as a way to unbind myself from what I thought damaged my heritage in the first place. I was a practicing Buddhist and a vegetarian for seven years with the goal in mind to respect all life, which at the time, I didn’t think Catholicism did.
I think it was a necessary road for me to travel to get to the mindset I am at today. I am always open to new learning. I doubt life and spirituality is all cut and dried, as different faiths lead us to believe. If I had to analyze my writing I’d say I was still angry at the church for past injustices. It was easier for me to follow the Buddhist faith as they were more forgiving. I have made peace with Catholicism so to speak.
Nowadays, with my feet immersed in to so many different pools of faith, I am more accepting of the different belief systems out there. As long as you aren’t harming anyone then I’d say it was a path meant for you to take.
Writing for me is therapeutic and it’s the only way I can tell how I really feel about a situation. I’m not sure where this comes from, but writing definitely is a big part of healing and processing of information.
JA: I found In the Dog House a very moving collection, rooted in your experience as a girl and woman, poems of resistance and of witnessing.
Your writing isn’t strictly “confessional“— although as a past Catholic that would make sense! In a number of poems, you make a wide empathetic leap into the lives and concerns of people in Japan, in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake & nuclear disasters, and of people in Gaza. How is your writing process the same or different, in delving into your own experiences and/or in immersing yourself imaginatively in the lives of others?
WJK: I think I can write in ‘other people shoes’ because I believe pain is the same everywhere, be it if you’re on the reservation experiencing hunger and oppression or a mother with children on the Gaza Strip. I truly believe pain is all the same and the only difference is, there are different levels of pain. An example is my poem “One Thousand Cranes.” I was experiencing a loss at the same time these events were unfolding. I thought about how deep in mourning I was.
At the same time, the survivors of the Earthquake were experiencing a massive loss and yet, two worlds apart, our pain was quite real and quite similar… Losing a loved one for me was huge. In Japan, there was so much loss compacted. I felt a deep affinity with the survivors because in a way, I was left behind as well, to pick up the pieces. In the “Gaza Stripped” poem, I thought about how devastating it was, and yet at the same time some of the same things were going on in reservations all over the country. Stuff like hunger, pain, suffering, loss, fear, hopelessness etc. Once again, it’s about different levels of pain and yet the same emotional response.
JA: You speak extensively of your father, in the closing section of the book. You’ve mentioned your mother. What do you think is the relevance, if any, in your life as a family person, and in your life as a writer?
WJK: I think being a mother has really shaped my writing, and my will to write as well. I do it for my children in order to leave them a written record of their mother’s life, as well as a means to give them understanding into their mother— who was never a very good verbal communicator, but a good writer. It’s a way for me to leave something behind for them for when they have their own questions. It’s a way to teach them about my life and to explain why life wasn’t so perfect, as I’d have wished for them. It’s also for my future bloodline like my grandchildren and their children and so on.
I think I needed a way to express to my children all the injustices without sitting them down and trying to explain these things, especially when they are too young to listen and understand. I also write to give past generations a voice to be heard. It’s almost like this obsession, to shock people with truth, to hopefully bring about understanding. I give my mother a voice in the book that my father always wanted me to develop and use.