Sarah de Leeuw, award-winning researcher and creative writer, answers IFOA’s 5 Questions about her new work Where it Hurts. Sarah will be in Toronto on April 12th for an in-depth interview with Ariel Smith, Executive Director of imagineNATIVE.
Find more info here!
IFOA: Missing geographies and people, how do we talk about those who are lost, but not forgotten?
Sarah de Leeuw: With great care. With compassion. With an understanding about the sociocultural and historical contexts and powers that have produced hierarchies of worth, that have produced and positioned some people and places as mattering more (or conversely less) than others and that, consequently, result in attention being paid to certain entities/subjects/people/sites while ignoring so many others.
With that said, I think it’s imperative to note that for the people who inhabit the bodies, families, communities and geographies that are actively maligned and sidelined, that are deemed to ‘not matter’ or that are overlooked and forgotten, there is SO OFTEN a tremendous sense of worth, of resilience, and of value, love, caring and connection. In so many ways, that’s the confusing thing: those of us who inhabit places of the margin (and certainly even here there exists hierarchies – as a settler woman, I occupy spaces of privilege and power not offered to others —Indigenous women— who live and work in rural remote or northern geographies) understand ourselves and our spaces as having value – yet we are devalued in normative discourses, in the gridlines of power that are circulated beyond and without us. I think we want to see ourselves, to take up space, to be heard. We are confident we are worth more than a writing-off. So I think we have to write ourselves back in, in part by talking about the missing and the forgotten, the overlooked and dismissed. I can say that is what I devote a lot of my writing to doing. I by no means have the ability (or right!) to tell all stories – butI hope by telling mine, new possibilities for more and different stories might be availed.
IFOA: Why did you choose to write creative nonfiction to tell your stories?
Sarah de Leeuw: As I’ve mentioned in other places, I think creative (or literary) non-fiction has always occupied a kind of ‘outsider’ genre status in writing, a kind of in-betweenness, a balancing of multiple worlds with different expectations and constraints and conventions. There is an energy in that uncertain status, in the edge. The genre itself is thus especially well-suited, in my mind, to documenting people and places on the margins, those with marginal status in circuits of power . I also genuinely believe that ‘fact’ (for what that word is worth, given I don’t really believe in any ultimate, singular, or universal truth) is often as exciting as ‘fiction’ – and I do feel that something rich and resonant can arise when a writer puts literary traditions (word and sound experimentation, metaphor, rhythm, etc.) to work in the service of (re)telling or illuminating “real life” people or events.
IFOA: Do you incorporate your academic research, if at all, in your creative nonfiction work?
Sarah de Leeuw: In so far as I enjoy undertaking research, including interviews or archival research or doing searches of literature or data bases, to inform my creative non-ficiotn then, yes, I suppose I do integrate some of the ‘tools’ of the more ‘academic trade’ into my creative writing. Also, I’d say very broadly that ALL my writing work (creative or academic) is preoccupied with some kind of aim toward social justice (and I don’t have any firm summary of what the end goal of that might be!) that tries to unsettle taken-for-granted disparities and inequalities. With that said, my academic and research scholarship really has a much different look and feel than my creative work – and I think it’s also destined for different audiences and markets! What is interesting, however, is that I think in the last 5-7 years, academics and scholars are increasingly taking an interest in the methods and methodologies of creative practitioners. I can only hope that interest doesn’t become predatory!
IFOA: Is there some kind of catharsis in Where It Hurts?
Sarah de Leeuw: What an interesting and engaging question. The honest answer is: I don’t know. I don’t think so. I shy away from complicated issues being tidily wrapped up. I think the action of “closure” allows for the (mis)conception that we can ‘move on’ – I think (especially non-Indigenous) Canadians, especially in this time of Truth and Reconciliation, in this time of Idle No More or Standing Rock (in the USA) want a comforting sense that there’s a happy ending, that we’re headed toward some kind of conclusion, that soon there will be some relief or release – or, put in the manner of your question, that we’ll have a catharsis. I’m not sure we deserve that right now. Or even that it would productive, enlivening. I think there is too much to be done. I don’t want to despair and I hope my writing never results in a closing down (I know sometimes people say my essays are downers – but hope there can also be found in them the humour and resilience that I also try hard to document and celebrate) . I hope my writing, by being open–ended (and perhaps not very cathartic) behaves more like a calling, an invitation, for more attention to be paid to the missing, the forgotten, the overlooked.
IFOA: What are you working on now?
Sarah de Leeuw: On the creative writing side, I recently completed a new book of poetry (Outside, America) that I’m shopping around. Perhaps more interestingly, however (well, at least to my mind!), I’m working away, still in infancy stages, on a long poem about growing up on Haida Gwaii (the Queen Charlotte Islands). Haida Gwaii is a (somewhat problematically, I think) romanticized place especially by non-Haida people (of course if you’re Haida, it makes sense to love your traditional homeland and territory!). The islands have a long and fascinating geological, ecological and anthropological history. I am excited to juxtapose those histories against my own somewhat inconsequential (except not to me!) childhood and adolescence. I’m also working on a variety of academic papers and texts on colonialism, humanities in medicine and geography, and the determinants of Indigenous peoples’ health.