On the second day of Canada Reads 2020, actor Kaniehtiio Horn opened up to her fellow panellists about the negative feelings she experienced while reading one of the battle’s contenders: Jesse Thistle’s memoir From the Ashes: My Story of Being Métis, Homeless, and Finding My Way. When host Ali Hassan asked Horn how successful the book was at building empathy, Horn confessed that she had a problem with From the Ashes. The memoir, which follows Thistle’s itinerant and sometimes bleak coming-of-age story as a disconnected Métis youth, was the top-selling Canadian nonfiction book of 2020. But Horn announced that she didn’t want to read Thistle’s “trauma porn.” “I think it appeals to a non-Indigenous audience. As an Indigenous person, it was triggering,” she said. “Indigenous people know this story. . . . I either know people who’ve lived it or I lived it.” Her remark contributed to the panellists booting From the Ashes from the competition.
In recent years, trauma porn has emerged as an insidious charge against a certain type of art that deals with abjection or pain—the kind, its critics say, that continues the violence it portrays for the audiences that perpetuate it. In the spring of 2020, storyteller and theorist Kim Senklip Harvey published the meditative and thoughtful blog post “No Indigenous Trauma Porn,” where she defines “colonial trauma porn traps” by how these works make her feel immediately afterward: “Do I feel nourished by it and activated to participate in the emancipatory Indigenous revolution or does this work trigger trauma and propel people into draining conditioned imperial responses, like feelings of anxiety, depression, hopelessness and hurt.” For Harvey, the trauma porn star’s compulsions arise from the shallow motivations of “subservience to colonialism,” “unaddressed trauma,” and “egoic creative practice.”
Similar calls to stop creating trauma porn have circled around valid concerns that these artworks are consumed at the expense of the communities they depict rather than being works created deliberately for those communities. Works considered trauma porn are not culturally challenging, this thinking goes, and are made only to appease that idealized “Canadian reader”—typically a white, bespectacled, middle-class woman who reads with her book club weekly, shops indie, and listens to the CBC’s Front Burner with her morning sip.
The conceit now seems to be that, if creators actually cared about Indigenous readers, they would innately know to write toward utopian joy, to tiptoe around resilience narratives due to the risk of reinstating harm. This idea suggests that a joyful body politic is Indigenous readership’s antithesis to trauma porn. It is for our betterment.
But what about nonidealized Indigenous readers? What is for their betterment? Horn’s and Harvey’s calls for Indigenous readers to move beyond the stories they “know,” and for Indigenous writers to stop writing them, should both be taken seriously. However, they also seem to overlook the many Indigenous readers who grew up outside of their communities and do not recognize the textures of their experiences within already-existing literatures, readers who lack the rez cred and don’t embody all things decolonial and regenerative and anti-imperial. All those readers who grew up on the fringes of empire or submerged in it.
As a writer of memoir, I pay attention to who gets to tell difficult origin stories, and I consider their motivations for doing so. I also pay attention to my own motivations for reading these memoirs and for writing one, both of which feel inherently less motivated by capital-R Representation and the betterment of my society and more about trying to expand consciousness.
At a recent Word on the Street panel that connected Jesse Thistle with Helen Knott, author of In My Own Moccasins: A Memoir of Resilience, interviewer Tracey Lindberg broached the topic of trauma porn and asked the authors how their respective testimonies may or may not “invite people in who shouldn’t be in that space.” Thistle replied that his story goes over the heads of mainstream readers who come only for his pain. But it was Knott who gave my concerns about mislabelling certain stories trauma porn some footing by expressing the danger of selective, even ordained platforming. “We talk so much about what silencing looks like and how not to do that in real life, in practice, as helpers, or as people who are within good relations with each other,” she said. “There are still people who are living stories that are very similar, very hard, and they still need to see themselves within the literary space . . . because they exist.”
Within the fraught history of Canadian publishing exists the short history of contemporary Indigenous life writing. One could reasonably trace it back to publisher Jack McClelland’s green-lighting of Maria Campbell’s Halfbreed, in the spring of 1973, as a “biography with a purpose.” Campbell’s seminal autobiography gave voice to the political and personal hardships Métis women faced in the twentieth century. Business risk and good intentions also tasked it with representing, and setting the precedent for, the Indigenous experience to all those settlers. Basil H. Johnston’s memoir Indian School Days and Lee Maracle’s autofictional Bobbi Lee Indian Rebel appeared in succession to break the silence on the residential school experience and urban Indigenous inner-city hardship, respectively. These works built Indigenous readership, but they were also misread by others: guilty Canadians used them to assure themselves that they had not annihilated the Indigenous population, and their narratives accommodated settler readers’ perverse and sometimes condescending fixation on anything related to suffering or pain.
This misreading continues today. Last year, after Melville House released Alicia Elliott’s essay collection, A Mind Spread Out on the Ground, in the US, it was met with a tone-deaf and racist review in the New York Times, bearing a title that ballooned at its reader: “The Harsh Realities of Being Indigenous in North America.”
The review clumsily pivots from a summary of Western colonialism’s hypnotic sprawl to the assault of chief Allan Adam and the killing of Colten Boushie, leaving just enough room to finally address Elliott’s essay collection. But the review is so rhetorically opaque and sound-bitten that it is unclear whether the piece is a muted critique of Elliott’s “materially harrowing” multigenerational polemics or the reviewer has yet to meet a living NDN. There’s no mention of A Mind Spread Out on the Ground’s precision or urgency as the collection finely balances cultural criticism with Elliott’s experiences and covers a variety of topics from head lice to subsisting on corner-store food, issues that have affected many Indigenous communities but do not exclude non-Indigenous readers. Whether unwilling to understand or unable to offer a critical analysis, the reviewer ends by telling readers they are better off getting the Haudenosaunee experience at the National Museum of the American Indian, in Washington, DC.
I think it is possible to trace a through line from the dismissal of difficult stories as trauma porn to the reviewer’s treatment of A Mind Spread Out on the Ground: both come back to a lack of compassion. Any reading that lacks the willingness to approach a difficult story flirts with what Elliott calls “literary colonialism,” which, she reminds us, can “not only reflect but reinforce troubling attitudes of colonial ownership over Indigenous people within the literary community.” Literary colonialism reeks of sweeping comprehension, of having seen it all, of telling you the ticket price isn’t worth it. It doesn’t give the possibilities of the form their due.
Despite Indigenous writers writing for Indigenous audiences, they are still caught up in the trick that is commercial publishing, which is infinitely hopeful and still invested in the concept of resilience. So, if Thistle, Knott, Elliott, Campbell, Maracle, Terese Marie Mailhot, Darrel McLeod, Richard Wagamese, and the dozens (and counting) of other Indigenous life writers published in Canada don’t write about their experiences “for” Canadian readers, how ought they write or alter their writing to suggest as much? Perhaps they should embrace the oxymoronic metaphor that is decolonizing publishing and help the structure improve without returning land and resources to Indigenous people? Maybe abandon the Canadian industry entirely and continue to organize, making their own publishing houses, book stores, and even literary agencies? Billy-Ray Belcourt, in A History of My Brief Body, writes, “To my mind, one of the most vital modalities of decolonial life is that of remaining unaddressable to a settler public that feasts on our misery. Most of the time, writing a book seems incompatible with this.” If the Indigenous writer makes a meal, is it their fault if the settler wants a bite?
To wrestle my own intentions as a writer, I called Lee Maracle. During our chat, I told her about my concerns as a memoirist penning a sometimes-difficult story that embraces my family’s intergenerational attachments, and I asked her what responsibility I had to an audience, my audience. She laughed one of those big-ass Lee Maracle laughs and told me everyone seems to forget that writers are just people who are good with words.
“People think writers know everything, you know? You know about words, right? You know how to put them together so they find a life of their own . . . . Now, here is what I believe: the story found you. A woman I know once said, ‘I don’t think writers make up stories. I think stories go around looking for someone to write them down.’ As though they were living beings. So think of your story as a living being that found you . . . . You are humble about that. But, at the same time, protect it. Those are the only two things you need to know. You’re carrying it, like a little baby.” Maracle’s understanding of a story as a living being reminds me that our stories have been alive longer than we have. It reminds me why I’m drawn to reading and writing in the first place.
In the fall of 2018, as I drafted my debut memoir, Maracle agreed to mentor me. Throughout that time, I began to think carefully about my readers and anticipate what ideas they might bring to this story-in-progress without making concessions about things that could make them uncomfortable or challenge their world views, especially if their backgrounds are adjacent to mine. I’m always thinking about those kinds of readers: who they are, what’s happened to them, and why I’m telling them anything at all. But, more than any of these concerns, I’ve wondered why Indigenous memoirists get held to the same, if not higher, standards as those writing recklessly about Indigenous bodies and lives. After all, we cannot control who reads our stories or how they read them or why. We can only shape the way we tell them.
Whenever Maracle and I met, she would share stories about stories about stories, some of which were very old and very funny, and I would listen carefully. During our workshops in her office, she would sometimes talk about a place she called the shadow land. She taught it to me as the space between the living and the dead, where terrible things can be looked at. And, through those talks, I realized it is often when reading Indigenous testimonies, origin stories, memoirs, creative nonfiction, poetry, and other dynamic forms of life writing that one can begin to approach this space thoughtfully. It also made me think about how this space is an inherent risk for the writers who dare venture into it and how recklessness is often the first charge Indigenous readers make against anyone who enters it.
If anything, to venture into the shadow land is to confront the stories some people would do anything to forget. To do so is to nosedive into remembering those whose lives got challenged by Little Miss Dominion’s failed-yet-continual attempts at extinction and assimilation. And perhaps writing one’s way into and out of the shadow land is not motivated by imperial conditioning, the need for therapy, or ego—all common accusations levelled at “trauma porn”—but is something that happens voluntarily: a storyteller enters and centres that space in order to counter the silences of those who have died, are dying, but also of those of us still alive. And does it with dignity. With respect. Could that be nourishment? Who but ourselves decides if it is?
Maracle, in Memory Serves, a brilliant assemblage of regenerative oratories, says, “In shadow land we experience the discomfort of the unknown. . . . Each of us is called upon to open our eyes to see what we have not dared hitherto to look at. . . . Inside shadow land lies the dynamics of hidden being. We can see its behaviour, gauge its patterns, note the direction of its movement, and come to grips with it in relation to us. We can see its journey, and render it as story.”
Jordan Abel’s NISHGA treads into the shadow land with all the care and thought one could possibly bring to a book. Published by McClelland and Stewart in May, NISHGA is Abel’s profound attempt to confront the generational impacts of the spiritual and cultural and biological disaster that was Canada’s residential school system and how it affected his family life, his practice as a writer and thinker, and his concerns surrounding his position and experience as a Nisga’a person growing up outside the community. A recovery project and a feat of literary arrangement and found text that reckons with many silences, NISHGA seeks to expand the still-narrow understanding of what stories Indigenous people ought to “know” and what Indigenous life writing can do and should be. And, while anyone who reads NISHGA will confirm that it is most certainly a singular experience, it is nonetheless a familiar story to the many readers who, like Abel, don’t have the privilege of access points to culture and tradition and community.
“If I’m being totally honest, I think that confrontation with the silence that surrounds residential schools and intergenerational trauma is something my whole life has kind of been pointed toward in one way or another,” Abel told me during a phone call last year. “That silence really shaped me as a person, especially earlier on. I just felt eventually it was always going to be necessary that I confront that silence and that I move toward addressing that violence and that absence in my life in whatever way that trauma comes to form. That’s where I’m at right now.”
I try to imagine the average ethical settler pulling up to the ninth page of NISHGA, where, after a barrel of epigraphs that will have them peeling each page in anticipation of a jump scare, a photograph of two people appears. The duo, perhaps a couple, is smiling. It’s cute, but something feels off. Uncertain. They are made opaque through palimpsest and a scan of customary art laid over (or maybe underneath?) them. Upon closer inspection, the couple might strike one as oddly familiar, and it might bring one back to the cover, where this same smiling couple is embedded. These acts of palimpsest vary thematically and visually, and it becomes impossible to tell which specific layers to focus on, which produces within readers the experience of Indigenous people who might not know enough about themselves or where they come from.
This is all to say that NISHGA is a place of scraps. Like plenty of dispossessed people, Abel is left to meditate and make sense of a box of court documents, photographs, journal entries, and scans gifted to him by his mother. And, where other forms of life writing break the silence with narrative prose, NISHGA’s more memoiristic “[notes]” sections are often outweighed by the many found texts within it. “When I imagined enormous, large blocks of prose in this book, it felt wrong to me somehow,” Abel said.
In NISHGA, Abel marks his transcripts of past talks, interviews, and lectures down to the second, like a recording, which allows him to capture myriad silences within his university lectures about his practice as a writer that reveal the respect he carries toward “talking about trauma without talking about it.” These time stamps, when coupled with the deadening blankness of the page, will, per Abel, “allow the text to circulate as a found object, in the same way that some of the photographs are also found objects.” Reading NISHGA is more akin to the spare and muted paintings of Alex Janvier. There are pages that I sat with for minutes, whole beers. And throughout NISHGA came this feeling of recognition. Of being seen. Even in these scans that Abel shares, little paraphernalia and found texts that can horrify and amaze a reader at the same time, whether the logo of the Vancouver Aboriginal Child and Family Services Society, an affidavit, an access record, or even a Google search.
“For me, the only way that made sense was to try to re-create this very personal experience of me sifting through this archive and trying to piece together my family history,” Abel says. “This book is very much about trying to be as open and honest as I can about me and my family and this experience. And I think there is no more honest way to do that than to move those documents in front of the reader so they can encounter them in the same way I encounter them.”
Rather than focus on a single voice, NISHGA prioritizes a collective. One member is poet Gregory Scofield, author of the classic memoir Thunder Through My Veins, who, in a Facebook post, describes the concept of the circle, “which by nature of its shape has room for many voices, to expand without breaking.” By the end of the narrative, the reader has encountered dozens of perspectives and texts, which form a sort of circle to assist Abel in addressing his intergenerational traumas.
“It is impossible to just tell my story of intergenerational trauma. It necessarily involves a whole bunch of other people. And so it felt like the only right move was to re-present their voices rather than filter. . . . There’s some things [my mother] says and some things that I’ve included here in this book that are very difficult for me to put into my own words.”
If, as Maracle notes, our stories are babies, it seemed right to see what Abel hopes NISHGA will grow up to be. “I personally really would have loved to have read this book earlier in my life, and some of the realizations I come to in this book I wish I had had earlier. I wish I hadn’t spent so much time without having those realizations. But things played out the way they did. I think it would be wonderful if the book reached the people it would be helpful for. And if it did some good in the world in terms of creating dialogue around things we’ve been silent about as individuals and as families and as communities.”
Indigenous life writers have the ability to start conversations within families and nations. We must trust that their stories will find their ways to the readers who need them. To this end, not only should Indigenous writers be allowed to write about, toward, against, or in the throes of their individual experiences of this collective shadow land, but they should be able to render these spaces with the support of their larger communities. Those who go to this place deserve for us to, at the very least, be willing to listen. Because one reader’s trauma porn is another reader’s way home.