Thursday, 16 July 2015

Birdie



No one ever talked about a lot of things. What happened to Freda's mom. Why Freda lived with everyone at one time or another. Why Maggie stopped talking to anyone. When the electricity would come back on. Why no one stayed with the uncles. The silence about what was happening around them seeped into the kitchen, first. Permeating the curtains. Eating into the linoleum. Eventually settling in the fridge. It was like some sort of bad medicine – it made Freda skinny, Bernice fat, and Maggie disappear.
In a recent report, it was determined that 1,181 Canadian Native women went missing or were murdered between 1980 and 2012. That's a terrible fact, naturally prompting calls for more studies, commissions, and official inquiries – something needs to be done – and in the middle of this national conversation, Birdie is an astonishing contribution: a book written by a Cree woman, giving voice to the women who, broken by their lives, put themselves at risk with violent men, or who choose to disappear, or who, like the main character Bernice/Birdie, go missing within themselves.

Bernice is a wonderful character: although we learn nearly right away that she was repeatedly sexually assaulted as a child, she is resilient and loving and sharp-witted. Raised by a single mother who disappeared one day, Bernice eventually lived with her beloved Aunt Val, an overcompensating white foster family, on the streets of Edmonton, and in a psychiatric facility nicknamed “the San”. When Birdie begins, Bernice has walked out of the San, deciding to move to Gibson's, B.C. – the setting used for The Beachcombers – where she hopes to somehow meet Pat John; the Native actor who played Jesse on the show; Bernice's longtime celebrity crush; a healthy, working Indian man. Bernice gets a job in a bakery (owned by a nice enough former Californian hippy-type woman; another overcompensating white person who acts like she's “never met an Indian before” and who feels vaguely responsible for protecting Bernice). After indulging in frequently risky sexual behaviour, Bernice has a breakdown one night and takes to her bed. After a few days, the bakery owner, Lola, calls in Bernice's Aunt Val and her cousin Skinny Freda, and as Bernice lays catatonic – having either a vision quest or a mental breakdown – the women do what they can to heal her. 

Bernice lies in bed, motionless, but feels the gentle rush of water against her as she makes her way upstream. Past her past. It feels peaceful. She knows she will have to push her way upstream sometime. For now, she floats, feeling anything but free. For now, she knows it is enough to be able to slip along without plunging. For now, she stays in bed, none of the women-gathering around her aware that she is travelling. Bernice knows, somewhere at the core of her, that she is on a voyage. Whether it is to someplace or from it, she is not sure. All she knows is that water is a woman. Protective. She does not fear sinking.
Because Bernice is confronting her own history, the timeline shifts around, hinting at events and then making them clear – and while this can be confusing, it makes for a rewarding structure. Each chapter begins with a Cree word or idea and its best English translation, followed by a snippet of a continuing Acimowin (or fable-like story), excerpts from Bernice's dreams that often feature a recurring motif of the Pimatisewin (life or Tree of Life that Bernice feels responsible for healing) and instructions from James Beard, The Frugal Gourmet – Bernice's other favourite CBC show. There are many idiosyncratic writing quirks: sometimes Bernice thinks in sentence fragments like –More importantly, she thinks that she is becoming. Something. Else. – and she uses novel portmanteaus like “feasttalk” or “skinnyhappiness”. While I do enjoy word play, if I had a complaint about these quirks, it would be that they're used too seldom to call it an overall style of writing; I think they wouldn't be as jarring if they occurred in every chapter. And yet, while many of author Tracey Lindberg's writing choices made this a non-straightforward read, I'm sure that's rather the point –Birdie is about the lingering effects of the “colonization-bomb” and it would be unfair to expect it to strictly follow the grammatical/narrative rules of the coloninizers' language.

All of the women (including Lola) in Birdie have been broken in some way, and as a result, every one of them puts herself at risk with potentially dangerous men. Although we get an idea from Bernice's memories as to why she would behave this way, it's a bit of a mystery for the others (beyond hard living on their remote Reserve in northern Alberta), and the two sections from Bernice's mother's point of view that bookend Birdie did nothing to explain why she put herself at the most risk of all. And that's what I found to be the most effective part of this book: beyond one sentence referencing residential schools and their efforts to stomp out Native cultures, Birdie demonstrates the dangers inherent in being a Native woman without overtly blaming “the white man”. But that's not to mean that there isn't blame to go around – the Reserve system (and the lingering effects of the “colonization bomb”) is shown to be responsible for the poor treatment of Native women. Yet it also demonstrates the power that Native women have to heal themselves. This is a message that we from the colonizing culture can understand without getting our backs up – and that's exactly what it will take to have a productive conversation about the horrifying fact of the murdered and missing 1,181 women. 

According to this article, Tracey Lindberg is a lawyer and a Professor of Law at two Canadian universities, and as such, wanted to explore in this book the tenet of Cree law known as Wahkohtowin: That all human beings treat each other like relatives, that we have a reciprocal obligation to take care of one another as if we were universally bound by family ties. Lindberg goes on to say:

The reason that I wrote this novel, rather than write it as an academic article is that I’ve seen, along the way, it’s really quite easy to make decisions in law about indigenous people as a category. It’s really easy to lecture about indigenous peoples if it’s a topic...So what I hope that the book does — that good stuff — is to humanize us, humanize indigenous woman, indigenous girls, so that, in a way, we’re thought of as relatives. Because you care about your relatives. You don’t let your relatives get murdered or go missing.
And that is exactly what Lindberg achieved here. Bernice is a fully human character whose experiences filled me with empathy – and whether the dangers she faced came from within her own community or were a direct result of the harms done by my own, it's time to forget the political posturing and protect these at-risk women; recognising that we are all, indeed, family after all. Birdie is an important and rewarding read.



I may not have had a crush on Pat John -- or anyone else -- from The Beachcombers when I was growing up, but I certainly did watch it with my Dad, like, all the time, so I was fairly starstruck when I met Bruno Gerussi once in Edmonton. I was working as a waitress in the bar at the Citadel Theatre, and he must have been appearing in a short-run play or just meeting with the Artistic Director or something, because only the once, Bruno Gerussi came in and politely inquired about the soup of the day and asked for a serving to go. I'm a total dork and really wish that I had told him how much I had enjoyed watching his show as I grew up, but awkwardness got in the way, and beyond my lunatic smile, I just put through his order and wished him a good day like he was any other customer.


It would have cost me nothing to act like a fangirl, and Gerussi may or may not have appreciated that, but I do regret not at least attempting to let him know that he was an important presence in our home.

With the release of the report on the missing and murdered 1,181 Native women, I've been one of the voices pushing back against a further commission. Three factors influence that: Native men are murdered at twice that rate with no one demanding an official commission investigating that; reports show that most of the violence that Native women suffer come from within their own communities (so there is no great mystery to investigate); and further studies will take years and just kick the ball down the road for some future government to deal with. Birdie confirms my opinions and I just wish that it showed me a path forward, but, perhaps, it did by demonstrating that it will take strong Native women focussing on their own welfare to stop their being taken advantage of by broken Native men. That's a similar message to what I took away from Up Ghost River (in which the author advocates for Native men creating their own healing circles).

And I'll add again all of the ways in which I am the most recepetive of audiences for a book like this: my own grandfather was a 'Breed (what a despicable word, but Lindberg used it to mean someone like Grampie; a half-Mi'kmaq man who suffered prejudice within his community, being unaccepted within either of his heritages; eventually passing the shame down to his two eldest sons -- my twin uncles who both drank themselves to death; one of them on the streets of Toronto, where I'm sure he was just another invisible drunken Indian); Lindberg put Birdie in territory that was familiar to me (Edmonton, Lethbridge, and Waterton Park); and I have always felt a yearning for Native culture (not in some fake Grey Owl wannabe way, but with a fascination and respect for what has been lost to my family). I was impressed that Tracey Lindberg could write a book like this without overtly blaming "the white man" (which I find so offputting about books by some other authors, like Thomas King) and I would be very interested in learning more about what her vision for the future might be. I also wonder what the reaction to Birdie might be within the Native community -- will Lindberg be ostracised for not placing all of the blame for the missing and murdered women on the dominant culture?

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