Katherena Vermette 

vermette

Interviewed by Napatsi Folger

Katherena Vermette is a Métis writer from Treaty One territory, the heart of the Métis nation, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. Her first book, North End Love Songs (The Muses Company) won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Poetry in 2013a. Her novel, The Break (House of Anansi), was a bestseller in Canada and won multiple awards, including, the 2017 Amazon.ca First Novel Award. 

Ms. Vermette is also the author of the children’s picture book series, The Seven Teachings Stories, and recently published the first book, Pemmican Wars, in the young adult book series, A Girl Called Echo. Ms. Vermette’s second book of poetry, river woman, was published in the fall of 2018. Her National Film Board documentary, this river, won the 2017 Canadian Screen Award for Best Short.

Vermette lives with her family in a cranky old house within skipping distance of the temperamental Red River.

 

You’ve written poetry, fiction and other genres, do you have a favourite genre?

I always say that poetry is my favourite because it feels most like home. But the others all have their merits too, except for fiction.There is nothing comfortable about fiction. 

 

I’m intrigued by your statement “there’s nothing comfortable about fiction.” could you elaborate on this? I know it is not your main genre but your piece of fiction The Break was so strong and successful. What about fiction makes you uncomfortable? Is it just writing fiction or does reading fiction also feel uncomfortable for you?

 

Reading fiction is so comfortable. I love fiction. I love reading a story by a writer I trust and just knowing I will be led to beautiful places. I meant writing fiction. It doesn’t feel as natural to me as poetry. It feels hard and layered. There are so many things to keep track of – you have to remember where you put characters, you have to follow some sort of plot, or not, which arguably is even harder. I just meant it feels like work. Poetry is home; fiction is work. I love my work, but it’s work.

I recently read your poem “When Louis Riel Went Crazy” and thought it was fantastic. It seemed like a non-fiction poem, but people don’t tend to link non-fiction and poetry together.Would you consider the combination of poetry and non-fiction as a sub-genre that your work could fall into?

I have always thought of poetry as non-fiction. It might be because at my local library, poetry has always been in the nonfiction area—is that not normal? For me, poetry is far closer to my life story or a life story than anything else. I don’t know what it’s like for other writers. I do know poetry always feels more personal. It feels closer and immediately intimate somehow.

 

As for poetry not being non-fiction, now that I think about it, it does seem like the right fit, I guess we tend to discuss them as such separate things, and I think people sometimes associate non-fiction less with creativity and more with a sense of textbookishness.

 

I have never written CNF and have no ambitions to, but from what I hear, it sounds an awful lot like poetry – you look at something, you try to see and portray it in a different way, and take truth and make it fancy. That sort of thing. 

What kinds of literary works inspire you? For example, I am a non-fiction and fiction writer but I find the most inspiration from poetry and music, are you similar or do you get inspired by good work in your specific genres mostly?

I get inspired by young people’s stories. I love watching new writers find their voice. I’m never limited to genre. You’re right- it comes from all sorts of places.

 

If you could work with an author (in any capacity) of your choice living or dead, who would you choose?

I am currently doing a deep dive into Métis history so these days, I’m thinking a lot about my ancestors. I would love to sit down and chat with Louis Riel, talk poetry and politics. That’s the dream to me.

 

What inspired you to become a writer? Has your inspiration for writing changed since you began?

For many years, through childhood and young adulthood, I was really just writing to stay alive. It was a way I could process and think about things, mostly bad things but that’s just how my life looked at the time. But it’s always been a way of making sense of the world, either through fiction or poetry, it was a filter and a lens. It hasn’t changed much in that way. It’s still a very cathartic experience for me, at least at first. But when you write for others, in school or for publication, you add other steps to the process- many, many more editing steps, for one. I do like editing. It lets you write away and around the initial idea. You can polish it and make it better. Usually better. Sometimes not so much.

You cover very intense themes in some of your work.Has your writing been embraced by your community? Have you ever struggled with backlash from those community members close to you (encountered people thinking you are writing about them or exposing the darker aspects of life in your community)?

I’m not sure what you mean by community, really, but I’m going to assume you mean this place now called Winnipeg and the Métis folk I tend to write about. So no, I haven’t gotten any backlash from them. I’m sure there are critics but I’ve never heard anything like that. It’s also worth noting that the only people who think my community would be mad at me for “exposing darker aspects” are not from my community. My community knows where these “darker (I would say negative myself) aspects” really come from- these are systemic and colonial abuses that were imposed upon us. An oppressed community doesn’t have the privilege of having any aspect of its lives free from that oppression.

 

I find your response to that interesting and I asked because, and I’m not sure if this rings true for Metis people as well, but, Inuit were very much integrated into Christianity. I’ve found that these factions of modern evangelical Christian Inuit often dislike the exposure of our imperfect lives to the larger outside world. What I’d like to know is do you come across barriers or negativity in the world of CanLit because of your heritage or subject matter? If so do you have advice for other Indigenous writers who encounter similar treatment?

 

Yes, I get that. And I have no doubt there are critics who hate what I am writing, but I have been lucky to be insulated from that. I say lucky because though there is always criticism, and I have taken a lot of creative writing classes so I think I have a thick skin about some of it, but I have no skin about criticism from my own community. For them, I am just raw and vulnerable. I try my best to be respectful in all things, speak truthfully, speak from my own individual experience and never on behalf of anyone, so if I was ever accused of the opposite I think that would break my heart.

 

I do understand the Christianity thing. I do understand that idea that we should keep ourselves to ourselves, but I suspect that comes from fear, and fear should always be challenged. Fear is a completely reasonable, valid response, but I also think Indigenous nations have absolutely nothing to be ashamed of. Ever. Always. I also think ignoring and avoiding truth, and hard, negative things, serves no one, least of all the persons most affected by them. I also understand and try to convey that the issues affecting my community affect all communities of every walk of life, everywhere, but are exacerbated by the long term, intergenerational effects of attempted genocide and perpetual colonial abuses. There is a reason things are the way they are, and it is by design. Nothing else. 

 

In this era of Canadian “reconciliation” talk, what do you think non-indigenous writers can do to support reconciliation and their Indigenous counterparts?

Support Indigenous writers, stories, books, voices. Make space. We all have stories to contribute to this idea called reconciliation. We just need to support and give space to each other, I think.


Who would you consider your target audience?

I write first for my community, and also myself, in some respects. I don’t know that I have a target audience. That sounds like something marketing people deal with. I’m the worst at stuff like that.

 

What do you most want readers to get out of reading your work?

I would like Indigenous persons to feel seen and respected. I would like non-Indigenous persons to see and have respect for Indigenous subjects. 

If you had an assignment where you had to write a piece of fan
fiction what work would you choose to cover?

I wish fan fiction was a thing when I was a teenager. I would have loved it. It would have been all about bands, like Pearl Jam and Nirvana. Road trip stories, bands on tour, probably. That sounds like something I would do. Or I’d make everybody vampires. It was the 90s after all.

Will you please write a choose your own adventure poem?

I love this idea! But it’s yours, so you know what that means. I look forward to reading it one day.

Napatsi Folger is a freelance short fiction and non-fiction writer from Iqaluit, Nunavut. She is currently in her first year of study in the MFA Creative Writing Program at the University of British Columbia. Napatsi studied history and English at the University of
Toronto, and worked in policy for the Government of Nunavut for 12 years. She has written both fiction and non-fiction for publications such as Word Hoard, Puritan Magazine, The Walrus, Matrix Magazine, The Town Crier and published her first Young Adult novel, Joy of Apex, in 2012 with Inhabit Media.

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