Following up from our special double issue launch party last weekend, Ricepaper Magazine would like to present the works of our writers who gave readings at the event. These works were published in our Aboriginal & Asian Canadian Writers Special Double Issue 17.3 / 17.4, but for some of you who haven’t gotten the chance to read the issue, we have wonderful treats for you this Saturday afternoon!
An Indian Never Dies Peacefully
by Wanda John-Kehewin
Colonization teaches hate. I have hated myself because of it. It mystifies me, lies to me, confuses me, and always brings me to my knees; it tears me to little pieces that scatter in the lone wind, landing in different parts of the world I’ve never been. It has brought me to Africa where the lions, giraffes, rhinos, and elephants roamed the land and hungry children thought about being me, with plenty of food while I thought of them having plenty of love, and wondered, which was worse? Was Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs wrong in stating food comes before love? How can one truly know?
I read the National Geographic at school once and the spread, with graphic pictures, was about a mother who watched her children starving. The love and sorrow written on her face was undeniable and I wished someone loved me that much too. I wish I could read the love for me upon someone’s face and then I’d know I could make it. Here I had enough food but not enough love. There they had no food but plenty of love. Which was worse? I fantasized about being a child in Africa with plenty of love and nothing to eat, but at least had a mother who cried for the state I was in and who stroked my head lovingly and I was always in her thoughts. My imagination, love of reading, and few TV shows took me all over the world, out of my life and into fresh starts onto clean pages in my head that I rewrote each and every day.
We managed to get one channel with tin foil and rabbit ears and we would watch shows like Beachcombers, Coronation Street, and Sesame Street. Around holidays like Christmas, there were specials airing over the remote airwaves like Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer or movies that touched me where no one else was able to. Santa was always nice to children and Rudolph found himself after being mistreated. I was going to find those places where children were treated nice and little girls find themselves after being mistreated, I left home at 14, eager to leave a barren land with no hope and possibly find some in another land, outside of the reservation, about as foreign as you can get especially when as a child you think you are at the end of the world, getting ready to drop off at anytime. “Anything would be better than here”, I thought even at six years old, always dreaming of one day leaving, never coming back and finding my mom.
I had my first thought of suicide when I was nine years old while washing my face. The fake, sad, yellow of the bathroom surrounded me casting a lonely glow I felt deep in my heart and I knew what it was like to truly be alone. My saddened reflection already knew too much and I didn’t want to be here getting ready to walk to church for another round of how God is good and how Jesus would save me. I didn’t want to learn about a God who didn’t care about me when I was being abused. I remember thinking that God did not exist or if he did, he didn’t want to help me and I hated him. I hated him for my mother and father leaving me, I hated him for allowing abuse to happen, I hated him for allowing me to be born Indian. I thought that possibly he didn’t help brown people, after all Jesus in church had blue eyes, brown hair and pale skin. Any chance I could, I swore at him. How could a God exist and allow me to be sexually abused and beaten for telling? How could he take my father and mother away from me? How could he leave me in this horrible place if I was his child? I guess it takes more than this to give up and try to find a way to die with dignity and to be remembered as something other than just another Indian who until recently, nobody heard of or read about. It’s all stats without names or faces or even headstones to mark that they have ever been here, no one’s problem anymore.
My uncle Jimmy committed suicide on a calm rainy day in the middle of summer when I was nine. My mother fell to the floor, continuously stamping her feet on the grey, peeling linoleum and couldn’t stop crying. Her thinning hair matted to her face and her eyes swelled before my eyes. I can still hear the grass dancing in the wind through the open window. He had hung himself with a belt in a white closet. The paint hadn’t even had time to gather a brownish yellow hue from smoking. He was in his thirties. I never really knew him. He was always in jail or off in another city drinking and using drugs and I hated him for it. He was nothing like the uncles I saw on TV. As I grew older I wondered just what pushed him over the edge. As an Indian it doesn’t take much after years and years of mistreatment and suppression. Time seems to calm lives down but sometimes, time moves to slow to give any hope.
My aunt Donna was only 18 with her first child when she put a shotgun in her mouth and pulled the trigger. I was about 10. I can still see her smiling face as she played with her son perched on her tummy, making the baby giggle uncontrollably and it made me jealous, I wanted to laugh uncontrollably too. I wanted to laugh and not feel guilty for being happy. Donna and the baby were so happy on my mothers’ orange and brown crocheted bedspread, with the rain gently falling from the sky and tapping softly on the window. The bedspread I remember so well mom must have crocheted when she thought she may actually have a chance at happiness and possibly for once, the memory demons would quit chasing and death would stop catching up to her. My mom used to say, “Don’t laugh too much, or bad things will happen.” I thought about this years later and my only explanation is she must have felt that if you kept your emotions even and downplayed your happiness, then sadness and sorrow wouldn’t feel as horrible. Maybe if you kept yourself in the pits of sorrow, nothing could ever devastate you again.
My uncle Leonard also used a gun to escape the demons of his past. One day he pointed it at his head and pulled the trigger like it was the most normal thing in the world to do. And for him, maybe it was. He was in his twenties. Some his age were collecting diplomas, medals and grad gifts. He was collecting bullets, prayers and playing Indian roulette with a cocked shotgun fully loaded. Again I wondered what had happened to him to make him feel he had no way out.
My auntie Mary died from cirrhosis of the liver and that’s the way she wanted it. My mother begged her to quit drinking once, just after the doctor told her she was definitely going to die if she didn’t quit immediately. My aunt told us that she was going to leave this world drinking and that it was the only way she was ever happy and could forget. Even though she was bleeding from all her orifices, she drank herself to death and was buried on a rainy Vancouver day without a headstone. Indians don’t want headstones. They cost too much money and it’s only the loved ones that want them but can’t afford them. My mom wanted one for her sister.
My Uncle Jerry’s death is a mystery. My mother believed wholeheartedly that it was the police that killed him. She said the last time anyone ever saw him again was the day before he died, in the back of a police car. Jerry was found in an industrial area, outside of the city in the winter, beaten up with no shoes, no socks and no jacket. She said that when she went identify the body, his feet, face and hands were frostbitten. I didn’t believe her when she said someone did this to him and it may have been the police. Many years later I read Starlight Tours by Susan Reber and Robert Renaud and finally believed her, but what can anybody do about it twenty or so years later? What can you do about it but mourn when you have no money, no voice and no hope?
One of my cousins hanged himself from an unfinished ceiling. He was discovered by another cousin who I’m sure is still haunted by this event. We were both in our late twenties and early thirties when he decided that he didn’t want to be in this world of heartache and pain. His heart and soul must have had enough and time didn’t pass quickly enough to offer up a solution. Days on the reservation pass so slowly and it’s worse when you have no hope. We played together as children and boy could he ever hit the baseball far out into our uncles’ field. He must have felt so proud on those days when he would be chosen first to play on a team. A team of Indian kids wanting to play and hit the ball far pass where the bullshit grew; a moment to be normal, and a moment to shine when hell was always around the corner and even sleep brought minimal relief because you never knew when you would get woken up.
My Uncle Clarence died from addiction and disease. I cut him down once from a shower dowel in the bathroom during a suicide attempt. I was 16 and all my mom could do was stand there and scream. It’s probably the only thing I could do if I had seen my brother hanging by the throat from a shower pole with a white sheet wrapped around his neck, turning blue, eyes and lips swelled almost twice the size. Years later, I question why he wasn’t helped sooner; the ambulance attendants left him at his home, making him promise he wouldn’t do it again and take up their time. They all had a good laugh about it on the green grass. My mom went to her AA meeting and my uncle went uptown to drink. Just another crisis averted and things went back to a different kind of normal.
Frank Paul died of hypothermia after being released from custody at 8:30 pm. He was left in an alley by a police officer. What was it like to know that no one cares and that they can leave you in an alley not caring whether you died or not? What was it like to be the officer who left a human being in an alley in the cold dead of night with snowflakes swirling all around like an old Christmas movie you see on TV every year? What was it like to know that you were responsible for another human being’s death? How many excuses ran through his mind like, “I thought for sure the cold would wake him up. It’s not my fault he had nowhere to go and the jails were full. It’s his own fault for choosing his lifestyle. He would have died sooner rather than later.” Or possibly he could put it out of his mind like yesterday’s news and never think of it again, not seeing himself as half the problem. Frank Paul was someone’s child. someone’s sibling, someone’s friend. He could have been a father. I think he finally found peace when he took his last breath and his soul finally came back to say goodbye.
It was through education, counselling and plenty of tears that I was finally able to understand why Indians never die peacefully. Colonization is a disease that attacks you from the inside. It makes its ideas your own and makes you feel like a failure for never fitting in anywhere. It steals your identity and in its place leaves plenty of masks that you must choose from to put on before every unstaged play. It sings you songs you never heard before and don’t want to listen to but in order to survive, you must. It tells you who you are and where you must go in the face of racism and adversity. It puts you to bed at night humming a nuclear lullaby that surely you must not pass on to your children but do so anyway unconsciously (ripple effect). It is a silent disease many suffer in silence, until they can bear no more, that is when they stop playing the game, stop putting on different masks, stop believing in goodness, stop hoping, stop trying to catch up to the unknown; instead they turn to alcohol and drugs to place a thin mask of numbness over the entire world and seal their fate on their own accord. They know that it is easier to be bad than it is to be good especially when you’ll have to fight everyday of your life to bring about a baby, a step of change, a drumbeat of heart. Maybe in dying and giving up they give hope to others who struggle to raise their children just the opposite of whatever road they see their brothers, sisters, fathers, and mothers travel, and maybe, just maybe, they are Indian Jesuses who sacrifice themselves for the good of the whole, to leave an example of roads travelled and where the dead ends are. One thing I am sure of is that whatever pain and sorrow I have witnessed or felt firsthand, my children are better off than past generations and their children will be better off than their upbringing and maybe one day they will pick up the drum and sing a lullaby to their little ones because starting over and adapting and reintegrating is better than giving up and forgetting and better than masking the self with anything other than what you truly feel deep down inside. It’s alive, the drummed heartbeat of mother and Mother Earth, the breath of life through pain and reaching the other side of the river of colonization, and finally accepting the past, and maybe, just maybe, writing about it for defense and understanding. They say when an elder dies, more knowledge is lost but maybe, just maybe, they will come to us in words and resolution.
I sit in a barely pink room
Surrounded by ashes and dust
Memories and rust
Feeling dead inside
Because they all tried
To beat death
At its own game
opportunity did not knock
they chased it
with a passion
by Carrie Calvo
We arrived in August.
A heat wave, they said.
white calves in white socks
wearing colourful sandals
I had on a red sweater. I was not sweating.
Mom said: “red is a good colour.”
I heard the extra letter
when she said “colour.”
We waited for our names
as if entry was determined by
a wall of Plexiglas and a middle-aged
man with a scar on his nose
He had a comb-over.
We were afraid of mistakes. Somehow
the stamp on a white sheet of paper
was not real until its twin
declared its approval.
I asked: “what happens if they say no?”
“We go home?” Kuya said.
I looked at my Papa
slant his head in agreement. He opened
a HSBC bank book, nodded some more.
The man admired my mother’s ring.
I was told after that the stamp
looked more like a smear
The Space in Between
(Ode from Cebu to Vancouver)
by Carrie Calvo
I don’t know if you are home.
No, I don’t know if you were home.
I wanted to see my past self –
fifteen years of nostalgia –
yet, in retrospect, all there was
are shadows with their weight and
unfinished words childhood
half-forgotten expectations left behind
The first time I saw snow
The first grey sky, bleached of colour
I wanted to hear the cacophonies of neighbours.
It’s not the noise; it’s the density
the space between dwellings
shanties with charcoal fire and no
running water. It’s third world poverty
without the pity, and the one-dollar-a-day
My thoughts speak English now
It used to lilt and curve in the syntax
of my native tongue;
yet assimilation – such a tawdry noun –
has taught me to live in the in-between.
Fifteen years has not taught me an understanding of
residence, residents, a place of permanence.
When gated arrivals parcel welcomes in decimals
permanent resident card (insert number here):
Come in. Welcome. Please leave your ethnicity
behind. Transient is what comes to mind.
Solitude is Engaged
by Michelle Sylliboy
to my effortless
landscapes of tomorrow
restoring a consciousness
held in captivity
what is hidden between
layers of vulnerable pieces
like a sequence
without any proof
humbly adored from afar
without a compass
unco-ordinated appointments broken
the way whispers of sanity
have already conveyed a story
misplaced on purpose
by Michelle Sylliboy
to the other world
is often between hollow trees
facing luminous atrocities
the way a trail of stars promote
unleashing a lone warrior
who stood alone praying
the mountain stood up and walked
the earth beneath her feet trembled
until she stopped and talked
I’ve been dreaming of this day
that you arrive, this day”
smoke dust clears
she was gone
The Chronicles of Thunder Woman: Prologue
by Russell Wallace
My Dearest Sister:
It is with a deep and sombre concern that I write this letter to you. I truly hope this letter finds you. Since the road has been built here I cannot trust the usual means of communications. You were right about both the building of the road and the city. I have tried to be strong but the face of our lands is changing. We are indeed the last of the old ones and my dear sister, I fear for my life here. That is a dramatic statement I know but you must sense the impending growth of the city and its effects on the local peoples.
If for any reason you feel the need to visit here please do so.
I know you said to welcome the new peoples to our lands but too many of them have arrived and with them a new system of rules. The Little People Nation have had to abandon the traditional guilds and tribal systems of governance and adopt the way of the elected council because of this new road. The Strawman has become their spokesperson in the city and he has brought in new people to develop the lands on which we grow our community farms.
There was a horrible poison put into the water of those who opposed the development; many of the families have left in fear and I don’t blame them. The new jobs that the developers bring wreak havoc with our ancient forests. We used to grow many things but now there are many who come to chop down the trees and dig up the land looking for the precious yellow stones. Those workers get away with murder and have the backing of the new development.
There is one developer in particular who is especially bad. Dorothy is her name and she has threatened me many times and has turned many of the Little People against me. They call me a witch and say the old ways are oppressive and they also tell everyone that growing crops for food is not profitable enough for the economy.
At first she bribed me and then she threatened me and I did not budge, but she finally found out (with the help of the Strawman) the only weakness I have is the one and only possession that I care deeply about: our mother’s shoes. You may think I am a fool to put shoes before my own life but they comfort me in times like these. Dorothy has said many times that she could make me disappear and that she could use my bones as the foundation of her new house.
I will stay here as long as I can but I can only guess that your very presence might make a difference here. The entity that was known as Wizcorp has been granted the status of a person and has filed many lawsuits to take over this land and believe me, he will set his eyes towards the West. Beware the water my sister, beware the water.
All my Relations
Your sister in the East
by Elaine Woo
The path to Quarry Rock and composing poetry are pregnancies:
the anticipation and the climb,
the initial retching discomfort,
breakthroughs over log bridges suspended over gullies,
advance over vertical.
Mt. Seymour lies like the convex of my belly,
unconscious water body beneath my skin,
beneath the mountain.
With child, with word, with connection
by Elaine Woo
For the beauty of strong, creative women is “ugly” by misogynistic
standards of “beauty.” The look of female-identified women is “evil”
to those who fear us. As for “old,” ageism is a feature of phallic society.
Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism
My body’s eco-system: mamillae dormant,
neither pulsating nor lactating,
filaments of moss over the mysterious cavern,
tunnel of life,
voluptuous belly, residue from joy of doubling,
legs, fluid water,
arms, vines that twine,
head, a peak that weathers fires, storms, and calm alike,
all lending to discovery and self-reclamation like
utilizing the linguistic to explore and own the contours of the universal.
by Jonina Kirton
from my kitchen I see the Fraser River
where tug boats pull covered barges some 100 times their size
often a single man walks the deck or leans in the open door
in that gaping entrance he smokes
a modern day Marlon Brando working on the water
white t-shirt cigarette pack rolled up in one sleeve
today I watch the water glisten hear the buzz of the saw mill
chop onions wear apron wipe forehead feel tickle in nose
between sniffles tears brown rice and lentils simmer
add mint a little feta scoop ingredients into peppers
red green yellow orange placed on pan cooked at 350 degrees
their flavours coalesce merge mingle
the cat emerges from his basket life is simple for him
he sits in the window watches the glisten of the water
he too has seen the red tugboat the salient angle of the logs in tow
knows that some do escape their fate
wend their way down river or to make their way to shore
I have seen them on my walks stray logs in search of a safe harbour
those washed ashore bask in the sun as sand water abrade their exterior
turning them silver grey smoothing their edges
long days in my kitchen no one knows how I imagine myself
the modern day Marlon Brando (some days his lover)
or best of all the log the one that got away
I want the water to touch me wend me down the river
leave me to float in the moonlight