Excited About Everything: Indigenous Brilliance

Interview by 
Isabella Wang

A series in which Isabella is excited about everything that is happening at Growing Room 2019, so she sat down with some festival authors to hear about their work, and what events they are most excited to take part in. Learn more about the 2019 Growing Room festival by visiting our website, festival.roommagazine.com.

Jessica Johns is nehiyaw and a member of Sucker Creek First Nation in Treaty 8 territory in northern Alberta. She is currently living on the traditional territory of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples.

Patricia Massy is Cree and English, and a member of the As'in'i'wa'chi Ni'yaw Nation. After 17 years of working at various bookstores and non-profits, she was inspired to open her own used bookstore that would also serve as an event space for the community. She believes books connect us to our humanity and couldn't imagine doing anything else! Ask her about Indigenous Studies, Psychology, Health, or the Rare Book Room.

Emily Dundas Oke is an emerging artist and curator. She is a grateful Cree, Métis, Scottish, and English visitor on the unceded and ancestral territories of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh Nations.

ROOM: Hello, Jessica, Patricia, and Emily! How are you? I’m so glad to be having this discussion together, because each one of you have had a pivotal role in seeing this year’s festival transform, from beginning to finish. As much as Growing Room is about the festival and showcasing our 100+ incredible authors, I feel that it is equally about what goes on behind the scenes. Would you like to talk about your roles and contributions in the months leading up to the festival? What was it like to take part in programming the festival?

JJ: I was on the programming committee for the festival, and I helped put together the opening night party with DJ Kookum and Virago Nation. I’ve been a part of the festival in a volunteer capacity and as a programmer for the past two years, and I will say what a true honour it’s been to see this festival grow. Also it needs to be said how blown away and grateful I am for the care with which Chelene, Meghan, and the rest of the programming committee have handled not just programming, but the entirety of the formation of this festival. It’s a kind of care that is rarely implemented with festivals and large-scale events, and to see it so personally is a true gift.

PM: This is the first time I’ve been involved in any literary festival, and let me tell you, A LOT of work goes into making these things happen. I really had no idea. I hold my hands up to everyone at Room, including the volunteers, for putting on such an incredible and full festival.  My involvement has only been with the Indigenous Brilliance team at this point. It has been a great learning experience, a joy, and an honour working with Jonina, Jessica and jaye. I’m equally excited to work with Emily. The programming, writing, and idea generating has been fun, and to see it all come together is immensely fulfilling. Not just with this festival, but with every other Indigenous Brilliance event we’ve put on, my love for Indigenous literature and artistry has grown deeper and deeper, and it has enriched my life in more ways I can express. It truly is a gift to be part of something like this..

EO: Being invited to assist with such a brilliant festival has been immensely rewarding. I’ve witnessed the importance of events such as these as a member of the community. With the opportunity to work with the team that puts them on, I’ve learnt what forms support and immense growth can take. I was brought on to assist directly with Indigenous Brilliance and the Future Ancestors event. Everyone’s commitments to our communities has meant that I’ve been invited in to dream big, imagine, and work towards growing platforms for the artists, writers, and creators within our community.

ROOM: On March 9th, 2019, Indigenous Brilliance will be holding a day-long event, featuring some of the most brilliant Indigenous poets, writers, singers, visual artists, academics, beadworkers, medicine makes, and more. But not only that, you will be celebrating the one-year anniversary of the series! Let this be a space for each of you, as co-founders, to reflect upon the past year. How did this series get started? jaye simpson isn’t here with us today, but would you like to speak to their contributions as well? How has it evolved? What are your plans of carrying it into future years?

JJ: Patricia can speak best to how this series started, as this series wouldn’t exist without her and Jonina first coming together and creating it. I am very grateful that I was involved with Room and able to come on board after its conceptualization. It has changed alot since it first came into being. Jonina stepped back as an organizer and host, as she’s modelling self care and boundaries with capacity which I really respect and admire. We were so incredibly lucky to have jaye come on board after that.

It’s evolving all the time, as we keep considering what it means to celebrate Indigenous brilliance and Indigenous storytelling. Storytelling exists for us in so many different forms, and we really want to celebrate and highlight that. This is why at the festival we have an Indigenous marketplace set up in the lobby, why we have a mix of page writers, slam poets, musicians, and academics during the events. So for the future, you can expect us to keep attending to these different forms of brilliance that exists in our worlds.

PM: Two years ago (has it been that long?!), I contacted Jonina and asked her to read at an Indigenous women’s literary event I was organizing. At that point I hadn’t actually planned anything, so Jonina recommended we approach Room to see if they were interested in collaborating. Jessica then came on board and took the project by the reins, and completely transformed our vision from a simple reading event to an entire reading series. When Jonina had to step back, jaye joined, and has not only been a brilliant and hilarious co-host with Jessica, but they are responsible for recruiting many of the incredible readers/performers you’ve seen at our events. In terms of the future, I think we discussed having an Indigenous Brilliance festival one day!

EO: As a new addition to the Indigenous Brilliance team, I view the role created for me as exemplary what the team tries to do: I’ve been held up, invited into a community, and supported. It’s clear in my discussions with Jessica, jaye, and Patricia that the priorities for our organizing, from the current events to the platforms we are building into the future, that Indigenous Brilliance grows from a place of love.

ROOM: During the day-long event, Indigenous Brilliance will be featuring four readings, as well as hosting Indigenous women/2SQ vendors, entrepreneurs, and artists throughout the entire day. The sheer volume and range of talent here is truly breathtaking! Talk us through one aspect of the event that you are personally, most excited for.

JJ: I’m most excited to have all of this brilliance in one place. To be surrounded by Indigenous women and two-spirit brilliance is something that is so powerful and so special, and I’m trying consciously to really enjoy being in that, and not be so busy that I miss any of it.

PM: Oh that is too difficult a decision to make! I’m excited for them all!

EO: Perhaps it’s just that: the vastness which I am most excited for. Personally, it’s very exciting to have a day dedicated to all this brilliance across so many fields converge: beadwork, storytelling, art, rage, and tenderness (to name a few). I’m excited to see well established writers and creators, such as Joanne Arnott and Lindsay Nixon, share space with emerging creators. Creative mentorship has been immensely impactful for myself, and I hope we can contribute to mentorship. Also, I know jaye’s outfits are going to be out of this world, so I can’t wait to see what they wear!

ROOM: I would love to hear all about your own work as well. What are some current projects that each of you are working on, writing or community wise, or both? What do you do for fun?

JJ: I just released my chapbook, How Not to Spill, with Rahila’s Ghost Press. That was a really exciting thing to do, working with a press that I love, my editor, Shaun Robinson, and collaborating with an amazing Cree artist, Maddi Singh, on the internal artwork. It was all very wonderful and rewarding. So I’m trying to bask in the light of that, because I think it takes a conscious effort to sit in completion before moving onto the next thing. Especially in this day and age, and with the fast moving culture of the writing industry. I’m trying to make more time to be outside, to take care of my one plant, and to brew as much kombucha as possible.

PM: My life is pretty boring, which is something I am entirely OK with these days. Recently, a lot of my time has been with family, but when extra space in my calendar opens up, I head outdoors to the mountains, to recharge and get grounded. My husband and I are planning a nine-day hiking trip around Mont. Blanc this year, so I’m excited about that! I also love cooking. My husband's and my kitchen is full of every cooking utensil you can imagine, from a 50-year-old cheese grater from value village (don’t worry, it has been cleaned!), to the newest gadget from Kitchen warehouse. I have like 4 French press coffee makers, it’s ridiculous.

EO: I work predominantly in visual arts, and have recently returned from an artist residency at Nida Art Colony in Lithuania. A lot of my work comes from a curiosity and critique of how we remember the past. In my work, I try to recentre the body as an agent of knowing, and work through how forms of organization, such as tea around the kitchen table or beading groups, are political formations. My undergraduate degree was in philosophy and visual arts, so I think a lot about epistemology and try to counter the authority of the written word. Much of my work is inspired by personal and political histories of my grandmothers and my grandmother’s sisters. Growing up away from them, I find I connect to them through different acts. Lots of my energy lately has been put into my little indoor garden, and I think this connects me to my grandmother who taught me to care for plants.

ROOM: Jessica and Emily, you will both be hosting and participating in several events and readings, including Indigenous Brilliance Youth Reading Future Ancestors, taking place at Massy Books. The program for Indigenous Brilliance on March 9th can also be found here. But tell me, what are some other events that you  are most keen on attending? And why?

JJ: I’m really excited about the opening night dance party with DJ Kookum and Virago Nation. That kind of collaboration is rare and beautiful, so it’s going to be extraordinary. I’m also excited to be a panelist in the “Kinship Bonds: The Love that Holds” with Sharon Bala, Arielle Twist, and Katherena Vermette, moderated by Amber Dawn. Any opportunity I have to talk about love and kinship, I am so thrilled about. I’m also very excited for the “A Chrysalis of Being” workshop being held by Anne Riley and Cease Wyss. I’ve had the great honour of sharing space with these folks before, and I know the power that the workshop participants are going to feel with them.

PM: Sifting through the festival program is really quite astonishing. The list of events is ENORMOUS this year. As things go in the world of owning your own business, I’m unable to leave the bookstore unattended for every event I’m interested in. Of the ones I can make, I would say I’m most excited for The Vast Inscape (to learn more about the complexities of mental health and creative life), Textual Tactics for Growing Words and Stories Out of Difficult Situations (interested in the relationship between trauma and writing as a tool to manage and cope with that trauma), The Might of the Pen: Writing as a Political Act (the title of this event speaks for itself and what I’m interested in—how writing can make change), and Black Voices Raised (to hear about people's experiences of being black in Canada, and to learn more about the issues surrounding race, gender, and sexuality). I’m also excited for the opening night dance party. Most people don’t know, but I’m a really good dancer!

ROOM: Thank you all, for taking the time to sit down with me. I’m so excited for Growing Room 2019, and I’ll see you at Indigenous Brilliance! 

Isabella Wang’s debut poetry chapbook is forthcoming with Baseline press in 2019. At 18, she is the youngest two-time finalist and writer shortlisted for The New Quarterly’s Edna Staebler Essay Contest. Her poetry and prose have appeared in over a dozen literary journals, and she holds a pushcart prize nomination in poetry. She studying English and World Literature at SFU, interning at Room Magazine, serving as the Youth Advocate for the BC Federation of Writers, and co-ordinating the bi-weekly Dead Poets Reading Series.

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