Saturday, 3 December 2011

Beth Brant: Writing As Witness (Part One)

One of my early teachers and a person who had a profound effect on my life
Beth Brant, portrait by Robert Girard (1990)


When i was a young mum, mother of one, i gathered up my wits and made an application to spend a bit of time among the women, at Westword Summer Writing School for Women. Of all the women teaching that year, the person i most needed to meet was Beth Brant, who was teaching fiction: as a poet, i had to dig far and deep through my sheaves of writing, to come up with enough fiction-like material to complete the application. That is one of my strongest memories: sitting with the application package and the pile of hand-written pages, trying to make a persuasive submission. I was living in the downtown eastside of Vancouver, at the Four Sisters Housing Co-op.

I remember the sun coming in through the window-- we'd just moved from the renovated warehouse to the hi-rise, and i was basking in sunlight, the view of the garden below, life's possibilities. I cannot begin to express what a traumatized person i was, but, this was a hopeful moment, a positive direction. My son was in daycare, i remember, and i was just beginning to grapple with the meaning of sending him out, into a wider world. One evening at supper, he had a very pleased look on his face. He waited til we were all seated, his papa, his mama, food on our plates and beginning the meal. "So, dad," he began. "You and me are better than her, right?"

His dad looked at me, deeply shocked. I felt a flush of rage, shame, sorrow. "You handle this," was all i could come up with, and he did.

I had decided to continue my self-education, by reading all of the books by indigenous authors i could find in the library. I began, as many do, with Maria Campbell, Halfbreed, which disturbed me to such a degree that i threw it across the room. I moved from reno to hi-rise, returned to the library: The Jailing of Cecelia Capture, by Janet Campbell Hale, and Winter in the Blood, by James Welch, had me reeling with an excellent one-two punch. There were others, by Louise Ehrdich, Michael Dorris, Chief Dan George, Pauline Johnson, but these were the first.

My first compensating move was to locate a psychiatrist who, in our single meeting, accused me of being a tourist-- not truly a person with problems to solve, just there because i wanted to see what a psychiatrist looked like. She told me to go home and meditate. I went home, began a meditation, and was quickly overwhelmed by the flashbacks of violence, leapt away from the very dangerous position of sitting quietly, alone, with my eyes closed. Who can defend me from the predations of the past, the attacks from within?

Attending the writing summer school, away from the solitude of my flashbacks and the challenges of my ordinary life, was step two.

I'm not sure if i'd ever heard of Beth Brant, before reading the application package. I'm not sure if i'd read any of her works at that point. What was important to me was, she looked like a kind woman. She was a lesbian, and at that point five of my close family members were lesbian, and thus, most of my extended social group were lesbian women, reading discussing and recommending lesbian authors, and the most important bit of writing i'd read, to date, was a slim chapbook containing an early draft of Audre Lorde's essay-talk, Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power.

It was not important to me that Beth was a fiction writer. It was important to me that she was Mohawk. What was really, really important to me, what made her an essential resource for me in that period, was that she was a mum, she was a teacher who might soon be made available to me, and she was a mixed-blood writer.

[end of part one]

No comments: