Rachel Bryant is the author of The Homing Place (2017, Wilfred Laurier Press) a book about early settler and Indigenous literature and how we can “listen” to what they have to say today so that we can better understand both distinct groups.
Already it has been shortlisted for several awards:
- Short-listed, New Brunswick Book Awards 2017
- Short-listed, Atlantic Book Awards for Scholarly Writing 2018
- Short-listed, AUP Book Jacket and Journal Show Selected Entry 2018
I have also put it on my 2018 Long-list for a “Very Best!” Book Award for Non-Fiction.
The Homing Place interested me for I had never heard (or read) anything like the ideas and thoughts Ms. Bryant was proposing. Her website https://rachelbryant.ca/ is also quite informative.
The Miramichi Reader: Thanks, Rachel, for taking the time to answer a few questions about your fascinating book The Homing Place as well as some about yourself.
Rachel Bryant: It’s my pleasure! Thanks for the opportunity.
MR: Tell us about your background, education, employment, etc.
RB: I was born in Fredericton and grew up all around southern New Brunswick – Grand Manan, St. Andrews, and the Kingston Peninsula. My undergraduate degree is from the Saint John campus of UNB. I was working at the campus radio station there as the Music Director when I met my partner, who was a travelling musician at the time. We moved to Texas, which is where his family is from.
Back then, I had no plans to attend graduate school, but we lived in a small city – Huntsville – where the biggest industry was the Texas state prison system. I actually tried to get a job in a prison, but they didn’t hire me. The only other place to work in the town where we lived was the university where my partner was finishing up his degree. It was an attractive option after the prison job fell through.
Things changed for me in graduate school when I took an early American literature course with Drew Lopenzina. As an undergraduate in New Brunswick, I had really bought into the mythology that as a Maritimer, there was salt in my blood, that I was of the place where I was born, and that I could learn everything I needed to know about that place by reading the beautiful things that other people like me, other settlers, had written. I actually used to spray paint Atlantic Canadian poetry on the sidewalks of Saint John to create the impression that these voices were the land speaking. I believed that the place currently called the United States was a foreign country and that Canada had its own hermetically sealed history. This was before the TRC (Truth and Reconciliation Committee) era when it was still possible to take an entire undergraduate degree without learning a thing about Indigenous culture or history, and my knowledge of Indigenous peoples was pretty much entirely based on childhood trips to the St. Mary’s First Nation to look at the Christmas lights.
So I was amazed when I began seeing my culture, and the history and development of my own cultural mythologies reflected back at me in these texts from colonial New England and Virginia. Maritimers aren’t trained to look for themselves in those places. We have different stories now about our belonging, about how we got here, how the salt got into our blood, and we like our stories better because, in a lot of ways, they protect us. Our ideologies are so ingrained that we don’t even know we have ideologies. But I became enthralled with these early American materials, which showed me the methods my cultural forbears used to consolidate power against Indigenous peoples and places. Over time, these methods became systems, and we live inside these systems even today. Drew introduced me to these materials, and they changed the way I viewed myself, my family, my society, history . . . they were transformative. So in the end, it’s good that the prison job didn’t work out.
MR: Tell us about some of the books or authors or other people (such as teachers) that may have influenced you to write.
RB: Lisa Brooks’s The Common Pot has been a crucial book for me. Lisa is brilliant and a beautiful writer – but the book is also one that I’ve been able to visit with again and again through the years, coming away from it with something new every time. It showed me how to think about the northeast, not as a collection of disparate units consolidated against each other – contained provinces and states – but as an interconnected space and a network of waterways. Books like Lisa’s are so relevant to this place currently called the Maritimes and yet for whatever reason, they have a hard time making it across the border and informing the way things are discussed and imagined in fields like Atlantic Canada Studies. Part of what I wanted to do with The Homing Place was to show how someone like Brooks could initiate or contribute to important and transformative conversations here.
And I think that one of the reasons Drew’s early American class was so transformative for me was because of the kind of language he used to talk about colonial northeastern history and about literature. He’s an excellent writer, equal parts eloquent and creative, and he knows how to speak about a dreary seventeenth-century sermon in a way that makes it easy and even enjoyable for people to listen. In Fredericton, Elizabeth Mancke gave me a lot of advice about how to lead readers through a story about a topic without losing them along the way. Elizabeth and Drew both taught me a lot about how to respect and encourage an audience while also trying to tell them something or even trying to change their minds.
The importance of creativity gets lost sometimes in academia, but it takes imagination to approach documents and materials in interesting ways, to see things in different contexts, and it takes creativity to write well. Something I appreciated about the English department at UNB in Fredericton, where I completed my Ph.D., was that creative and scholarly track students take courses together and congregate outside of class, and I think this produces a generative environment for approaching and writing about literature in creative ways. This is the same kind of environment in which I grew up; my mom is an artist and my dad has an M.S. in forestry. And it’s the environment in which I live and write now; my partner has a very logical, rational mind, the kind of mind that performs well on an LSAT exam, but he’s also a songwriter.
MR: At what point in your life did you become interested in indigenous affairs? Was there something you read, or a particular event, etc?
RB: When I began learning about the history and development of my own culture on this continent, I also began learning about the people and environments that my culture was consolidated against. One of the most eye-opening things I read during this period was a documentary anthology titled Early Native Literacies in New England. I’d never examined my own ideas and assumptions about what “counts” as literature in EuroWestern thought before, but I very quickly came to understand that I’d never been able to produce the kind of cultural historiography that I wanted unless I figured out how to approach and respect the literacies that my ancestors had silenced and that we in many ways continue to silence – baskets, wampum belts, and pictographs, for example. From grappling with some of these materials I learned that we are not only failing to listen to Indigenous peoples but that we don’t know how to listen.
MR: Is The Homing Place an extension of your informative blog (https://rachelbryant.ca/) or is the blog an extension of your book?
RB: Oh wow, I’m so glad you find the blog informative! It began as a place where I could correct mistakes in the book or elaborate on points that required elaboration. I haven’t done much of this yet because I haven’t actually had time to revisit the book since it was published in October. But the revision process for the book was so intense for me that I knew I’d want to make changes even after publication. This is also just the nature of homing as a process and as a project – of listening across epistemological barriers. Since I am a Settler author writing about issues that I’m still learning about myself, there are bound to be errors and weaknesses in my thought, and I wanted a place where I could both acknowledge and address those errors over time.
So far the blog has been a place where I can share tangential thoughts and ideas that arise while I’m reading, and it’s kept me writing and thinking on those days when I’m avoiding other work projects.
MR: While The Homing Place was written primarily for academia (correct me if I’m wrong), there is much that the layperson can learn from reading it. I thought the chapter on Rita Joe’s poems was the most accessible, so I want to ask: What would be your message to Atlantic Settler Canadians as to what they can do to accept our native people’s reaching out to us?
RB: I’ve been so amazed and heartened with the response to the book outside of academia. Academia often feels like its own contained universe, so prior to these award nominations, I’d never considered myself a New Brunswick or an Atlantic Canadian writer. That came as a shock. Suddenly feeling like I might be part of those communities have been really wonderful and has actually shifted my perspective on what I write and who I’m writing for.
We don’t spend enough time examining those mythologies – where they come from and how they function or affect other people. In the book I talk about how when we arrived on Turtle Island, Indigenous peoples kept us alive. Over thousands of years they had developed and refined the most sophisticated ways of living here, and they wanted to show us how to live here too. But we wouldn’t listen. One thing I focus on in the Rita Joe chapter is her diplomacy – how she keeps extending that same offer to teach us how to live here, to finally step back and accept Indigenous leadership. But we still aren’t listening, in large part because we live inside these systems of thought and understanding that were deliberately designed to distort or silence Indigenous voices.
The field of Canadian literary studies offers just one example of how this all works. There’s been a real push in the last ten years to read and publish more Indigenous writing, which is fantastic, but we still tend to incorporate this material into a highly subjective and uncompromising framework that defines “literature” narrowly, as words that were written down on this side of the Canada/U.S. border in a European language after contact. We don’t reflect on the choices and assumptions and mythologies that are deeply embedded in our ways of knowing, and yet these choices and assumptions and mythologies make it very hard for us to hear, to understand, or to contextualize voices that originate outside our worldview.
MR: That leads me to another thing I wanted to ask. After reading your notes on Canadian Literature is a System of Enclosure, and I quote: “Because when we say “CanLit,” we are invoking these borders, this contained sphere of dominance, this system of enclosure that only exists to hold this section of northern Turtle Island apart and against competing claims.” My question: the term and its hashtag #canlit is used all over social media. Is there a more appropriate term to use in such instances? I know I’ve been using it with books written by or about Indigenous peoples.
RB: I think “CanLit” is a fraught term to be sure, one that carries a lot of institutional baggage. But it’s a complicated question, since some Indigenous writers embrace the idea of their work as CanLit, just like some Indigenous peoples don’t mind being referred to as “Indigenous Canadians.” I like the idea of a term that doesn’t privilege or foreground the shape and substance of the settler state — so something like “The Literatures of Northern Turtle Island” makes sense to me. But that is a mouthful and I am not sure how it translates into a hashtag!
MR: Do you have a favourite book (or books), one(s) that you like to revisit from time to time?
RB: I love Elizabeth Bishop’s poems and Alistair MacLeod’s short stories. I already mentioned Lisa Brooks’s The Common Pot, but another book I’ve been visiting with some regularity is Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass. The best novel I’ve read in the past year is Peter J. Clair’s Taapoategl & Pallet, and I just started reading Joan Baxter’s The Mill, which I’ve heard so many incredible things about.
MR: What are you working on now? Are there any other books in the works?
RB: I’ve just begun research for what I’m hoping will shape into popular history of a New Brunswick residential school. I’m also working on a more academic overview of what I call Anglo Atlantic World literature, which is essentially an examination of key settler colonial literary archetypes from northern British America from roughly 1600 – 1800.
MR: Finally, what do you like to do when you are not writing? A guilty pleasure?
RB: Whenever I’m not working, I’m with my kids. My partner and I have two young children and two more (twins) on the way, and since we are both in the early stages of our careers, it’s chaos. So usually, when I am not working, I’m at the park, playing LEGOs, or making farm animal noises and trying to be fully in the moment with my family.