“Writing has saved my emotional, spiritual, and intellectual life in a country where I wasn’t supposed to exist, let alone thrive. It allows me to sort out the mess of structural inequity, bureaucratic obfuscation, colonial racism, and sexism. It allows a space for my voice and sense of self.” Room’s 2016 poetry contest judge, Marilyn Dumont talks with Jónína Kirton about writing, identity, race, and politics, and how they intertwine.
Jónína Kirton (JK): Your first book, A Really Good Brown Girl, was just re-released. Originally published in 1996, it won the Gerald Lampert Award. Your most recent book, Pemmican Eaters, has been shortlisted for the 2016 Raymond Souster Award. In fact, all of your books have won awards. This is quite the accomplishment and no surprise given the quality of your writing and the timely nature of the themes you pursue. Have you always been a poet? Once you began writing did you have any idea that it would take on such an important role in your life? How has being a poet changed you?
Marilyn Dumont (MD): I had no inkling that I was a poet. I was always artistic and wanted to dance, sing, or create visual art. When I began writing in a journal that is all I wanted to do. I later studied poetry, and then took a non-credit course. From this experience, I began dabbling in writing poetry and sent two poems to CV2. They were accepted for publication and that scared me.
JK: Jennifer Andrews, of Canadian Poetry, said that A Really Good Brown Girl “cultivates its own space of in-between-ness.” Anyone who has lived in the between-ness of life will find good medicine in this work. When you started writing this book, did you have a theme in mind or did it reveal itself as the collection unfolded?
MD: I just wrote from what was inside me. Sometimes I was surprised by what I discovered and was afraid to make it public. The theme revealed itself the more I wrote.
JK: The collection is so well named. At what point did you know what the title would be? Were there other working titles that you entertained, and if so, what were they?
MD: I can’t remember when I decided to name this collection, A Really Good Brown Girl, but I was certainly influenced by reading a combination of Aboriginal/African- American women writers.
I don’t recall if I had other titles or what they were, because I worked on this collection intermittently for ten years before it was published. Once it was accepted for publication, it took two years to see it in print.
JK: There are so many poignant moments regarding identity. In your piece, Memoirs of a Really Good Brown Girl, you take us to your first day of school, where you plunge us right into the deep end of skin colour and language:
This is my first day of school and I stand alone; I look on.
…they talk differently than I do, I don’t sound the way they do, but I don’t know how to sound any different, so I don’t talk…
And later when a white school mate exclaimed, “Are you ever brown!” you tried to ignore her “but she persisted, “Are you Indian?” to which you said “No,” and simply walked away.
You end with a confrontation with an English professor that corrects your spoken English in front of the class. You stand your ground. I get a sense that this is something you have been doing your whole life. Was this book written as a way to stand your ground, to claim some psychic space for you and all the ‘really good brown girls’?
MD: Indeed, my mother modeled “standing your ground.” I haven’t always acted on my thoughts because of the colonial repression, but now as I age I appreciate what my mother taught me.
JK: Throughout the book, you continue to hold our feet to the fire. No one gets off easily. In the Squaw Poems you touch on all that we, as Métis women, were taught, by those around us, so that we might become “aggressively respectable.” I have heard this referred to as respectability politics – the ways in which we police each other thereby enforce the values of the dominant culture, while devaluing our own culture. As I read your pieces, I kept seeing the faces of my Métis grandmother, her sisters, and my aunties, all trying so hard to be “respectable” by scrubbing their bodies, their homes and their children, all in an effort to achieve some unreachable standard of respectability. As a young girl, I learned to fear and to distance myself from the term squaw, but it was lurking around every corner. These are painful teachings that we as Aboriginal children take into our very being. Sadly, your book feels as relevant today as it was when it was originally published twenty years ago. Did you have any idea that this book would go on to have such a long life, that it would be a place of safety for many, offering many a way to name their experiences and, in a sense, also a place of the sorrow for all the “little brown girls”?
MD: I really believed that A Really Good Brown Girl was timely in 1996, but now I realize that it was ahead of its time. I had no idea it would outlive me.
JK: In your piece, Leather and Naughahyde, you further explore identity politics between the Métis and their First Nations relations. I really had to chuckle as I assumed naughahyde was a Cree word, so I looked it up and was surprised to find that it actually meant “artificial leather”. This was such a clever way to address the tensions between our people. I cannot tell you how many times I have introduced myself as just Métis, as if my “diluted blood” was something to apologize for. What this and your other books do so well is highlight the reality of the no-win-situation that the Métis often find themselves in. Few realize just how much the Métis have also been impacted by colonization, which is compounded by the exclusion that we have experienced in both worlds. Many have utilized political action and activism to bring forward our unique needs. I hold my hands up to them for the sacrifices they have made. My way has been poetry, as I find it to be a powerful and subversive tool for activism. I prefer a much quieter existence and the less public life of a poet. Has writing been your mode of activism? What have the costs and the rewards of this path been?
MD: Writing has saved my emotional, spiritual, and intellectual life in a country where I wasn’t supposed to exist, let alone thrive. It allows me to sort out the mess of structural inequity, bureaucratic obfuscation, colonial racism, and sexism. It allows a space for my voice and sense of self.
JK: As Aboriginal writers, there seems to be an expectation that we represent our community. Many see you as one who speaks for the Métis community, how comfortable are you with this role?
MD: I reflect on the difference between representation and responsibility. I believe I have a responsibility to my relations and my community, but I don’t represent them because how can I represent such diversity?
JK: Your work has touched the lives of so many people. No doubt some have taken the time to contact you, to offer thanks. What has been your most rewarding interaction with a reader?
MD: When Métis connect with their internalized racism and shame through several selections in this collection I am grateful that I have alleviated someone’s suffering in some small way.
JK: Your poetry is subtle, multi-layered, and at times sweet. When necessary, you do not shy away from being fierce. Your skillful way with words allows us to feel safe and trust you, even when you take us to those hard places. These difficult narratives push on the reader in ways that non-writers may not understand and given this they may question the writer’s need to reveal so much about their lives and the lives near them. There can be backlash. What has been your experience with this? Do you have any regrets?
MD: I don’t have regrets, but I did initially receive push back from my family. I heard these comments second hand and I was crushed, but their intense reactions spoke to the significance of my work and I owned and stood behind my experiences. Now my family stands behind me as they have decolonized over the past twenty years.
JK: Writing of a deeply personal nature often requires support. There are both emotional and literary needs. In my own experience there are many drafts, some tears, and consulting with others (in my case, it is my husband, who is also a poet and usually my first reader). There are also the ‘gift poems’ that arrive complete. I find these are a rare and precious occasion. Most poems require a lot of effort, research, contemplation, long walks, and making it through painful dry spells. How do you support your writing efforts? Do you have a first reader or belong to any writing groups? Are regular retreats a part of your writing life?
MK: As I reflect on this question, I am aware how my life as a freelance writer has reduced my world to merely working to make a living. The Writers’ Guild of Canada’s recent study confirms that writers work more and earn less.
I am not part of any writing groups, nor have I attended retreats recently because of financial constraints. I maintain my connection to language through my teaching and through reading, but learning through feedback from other writers is critical when preparing a manuscript.
JK: Many Aboriginal writers have expressed concerns about working with non-Aboriginal editors. Some say this is due to the disconnect created by our differing worldviews and approaches to storytelling. In my experience both have their advantages. What are your thoughts on the subject?
MD: It really depends on the editor. I have never had any ideological conflicts with any editor. I think this has to do with knowing where you are submitting your manuscripts. A poet needs to research their publishers carefully before submitting a manuscript.
JK: Room, is thrilled to have you as our 2016 Poetry Judge. What is the best piece of advice you have received about writing and what advice would you give to our contest hopefuls?
MD: Read widely in your chosen genre. This will be instructive about craft and content that has already been experimented with.
Write, rewrite and rewrite.