Indigenous Authors Contemplate a “New Normal”

This June marks the 11th anniversary of National Indigenous History Month in Canada, where we are fortunate to find the work of many Indigenous authors who have enlightened our hearts and minds through writing. This ia time for recognition and reflection on the unique heritage, culture and contributions of First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples. As it happens, this is also a time for monumental change, as the world continues to adapt to the effects of a global health crisisTo spotlight the Indigenous experience during this pivotal timewe asked three Indigenous writers, who have released a book within the past 12 months, how their writing has been impacted by COVID-19. Below, you’ll find their deeply personal responses and discover their hopes of a new normal, post pandemic.

David A. Robertson

David is a national bestselling author and graphic novelist of Swampy Cree heritage. In 2017, he was named Best Indigenous Writer at the High Plains Book Awards. His writing focuses on educating young adults about Indigenous history and contemporary issues. His upcoming bookThe Barren Grounds,  – the first book in the The Misewa Saga series – is described as Narnia-meets-traditional Indigenous stories of the sky. His memoir, Black Water: Family, Legacy, and Blood Memorywill be released in September 2020.

How has your writing been impacted by COVID-19?  

A lot of writers have had difficulty finding inspiration and motivation during this time, and I understand that. There have been times when I’ve felt stuck. I think some depression creeps in, especially when you’re prone to it after living with anxiety. You think a lot about what has been lost, what has changed, and because there is so much uncertainty, focus becomes hard. At the same time, by virtue of the fact that I’ve spent more time at home, more time at my writing station, I’ve been able to get a lot of work done. But there’s a caveat, I suppose.

The work I’ve gotten done has, primarily, been working on existing projects: Substantive, proof, or copy editing work, to hone it for publication or submission. So, you haven’t needed inspiration, because the inspiration came as the work was being created. But I’ve written some new stuff: I’ve written a children’s book manuscript, most of a middle grade novel. Considering that, it’s hard to say that I haven’t been productive. Being shut in, I guess, has its advantages.  

What are your hopes of a new normal when the pandemic is over?  

I’ve said often, mostly to myself, that I don’t love the term “new normal”. I think it’s because I want things to be normal  normal, how they used to be. Maybe. But I admit that probably won’t happen; not for a long time. The world has changed, is changing, and we don’t know where this journey will lead to. Wherever it leads to, I hope that we continue to find ways to connect with each other. To share stories with each other. To justbewith each other, so that we can learn and grow together as a community. I think stories have an important role in that connectedness that I hope happens.

Stories have always historically brought people together. If they are the tool that continues to make this happen, in whatever way it happens, I think wherever we go, it’s a place worth traveling to. And you see suggestions of it now. Where once I visited with teachers face-to-face, in person, I’m doing it face-to-face, virtually. Readings are the same way. But as long as we still see each other, and hear each other, I think we’ll be okay.  

Jesse Thistle 

Jesse is a Métis-Cree writer and assistant professor in Métis studies at York University in Toronto. He was one of Toronto Life’s Most Influential People of 2019, recognized for his strong advocacy for Indigenous understanding of homelessness. His debut memoir, From the Ashes, is a #1 National bestseller, CBC Canada Reads 2020 and Kobo Emerging Writer Prize finalist and Globe and Mail book of the year.

How has your writing been impacted by COVID-19?  

My writing has been impacted in that I am focusing on work more than being creative. I have written over 20,000 words for lectures and only a few poems, grim poems, and one Toronto Life article about returning to Indigenous teachings amid the uncertainty of these new times. Creativity, at least for me, is inspired by the world around, by people and events, live music, the way someone looks in a cafe, the smile of person in the audience when I give a speech – that sort of thing.  

I am not really out and about in the world, like everyone else, thus my creativity is kind of at a standstill. My work writing has a different nature and purpose other than personal expression; it's more about teaching and disseminating information about Indigenous history and culture. I can control my mood and anxiety when I work which helps in these bleak times. When I write creatively I let go and let the river within flow out. It takes a certain kind of vulnerability to let go like that and I don't feel I can turn off and release when life needs manager – and soldier – Jesse to march through and keep my household safe.

What are your hopes of a new normal when the pandemic is over? 

My hopes for the new normal when the pandemic lifts is we finally address the gaps in social policy that were exposed by COVID-19's scramble to fix them or lives would be lost. Particularly, I hope we can finally see an end to small rent apps like Air B n' B that have forced large segments of rental spaces off the market and contributed to the homelessness epidemic that has grown steadily since its introduction over a decade ago. Next, I would hope provincial and municipal governments take ownership of the hotels they took over when they realized homeless density in city shelters more or less doomed homeless people to situations where transmission of COVID-19 was unavoidable. I know they took over hotels to house and space out homeless shelter users because, mainly, the homeless were seen as vectors that could possibly affect other "normal" middle class people in Canada – which is sad, really, when you think about it. No matter how they sell it, they did it because they were afraid of homeless people not because they were good people.   

Well, I hope the hotels stay because they've shown that if the political will exists we can solve homelessness at a drop of a hat, we just have to want to. We have the data now and they can't deny it can be solved by rapid rehousing. Lastly, I hope we as a nation can keep prescribing a safe supply of narcotics to those who are sick with addiction. They did this in Vancouver in the first few weeks of COVID-19 when there was an immediate spike in overdoses once the border closed. Dealers get their supply through cross-border trade and when the border closed they began mixing narcotics with more and more lethal compounds to sell and keep profit margins high. This caused a sharp increase in overdoses and Vancouver reacted by administering a safe supply of opioids and benzodiapines. Having a safe supply of narcotics – and not just methadone – will collapse illegal drug markets, lower rates of crime, and weaken organized crime, and save numerous lives who do not have to engage in street activities to stay well. I hope this stays and that we start seeing that Canada's laws of drug prohibition have created the market, which in turn has caused death and crime. For an example of this, just look back one century to the Volstead Act of 1919 and solidification of the American Mob.  

Tyler Pennock  

Onanankkwaap (Star Watcher) is a two-spirit writer, poet and educator adopted by a Cree and Métis family around the Lesser Slave Lake area of Alberta. He is graduate of Guelph University's Creative Writing MFA programHis debut collection of poetry, Bones, explores the life of a young two-spirit Indigenous man moving through shadow and trauma toward strength and awareness.

How has your writing been impacted by COVID-19?  

The experience has been as varied and complex as all other things. I found that with stay-at-home advisories, I've been able to commit to more creative endeavours in general. I've started a podcast, I've engaged people in a few online groups – including one from our days on the streets of Toronto in the 90s. I've been able to pour more effort into stories, memories, and conversations – this has been the rewarding part. 

However, I feel like there is an overall lack of interest in writing poetry right now. The spirit doesn't come easily, and my mind would rather be busy than introspective or pondering at the moment. Perhaps it's the lack of pressure, given that I ostensibly have more time to set aside. 

Survival here is entirely dependent on relationship. One thing that definitely hurts is the apparent lack of spontaneous relationship, of people to engage with my poetry. Aside from postponing the launch for Bones, I've also missed witnessing people as they engage with my words. I store the reactions of audiences and friends in my body (if that makes sense). In this, the experience of writing a book of poems, and some submissions, lately feels like shouting into an anechoic chamber. 

What are your hopes of a “new normal” when the pandemic is over? 

Anything I hope for wouldn't be new. Hope doesn't jump out at you from behind corners and Indigenous people from every experience would not be here without hope.    

What I like about the impact of physical distancing is that people are reflecting on what isn't needed. I don't mean merely objects and various material things. People have now had the opportunity to evaluate what necessary is – for them. I've watched people become more social, reaching out and providing aid to others. I've seen people normally quiet, burst forward in a flurry of creativity, sharing things that bring them joy. Seeing a person flower and grow into their purpose and gifts is the sweetest thing.  

There are many things about our world I wish would change, and COVID-19 may not do much to hurry them along. What I enjoy though, is the changes in people – the kindnesses, the project creations, and surprisingly – social interaction. If anything, I would like to see the positive social interactions flow out and impact the negative aspects of this lockdown. I'd like more people to care and support each other like this in all ways  and I'd like that to be visible, contagious in its own right, and dissembling the worst parts of us that have shown recently.   

Hope is never new – though now I dream of a hope so pernicious that it starts to unravel our own worst evils.