While 2020-21 was an enforced season of solitude for most of us, many of us carried on with our work despite all. During this time I had the great privilege of being the lead academic on a major Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) funded project, Li Keur Indigenous Language Database.This partnership is with the Canadian Mennonite University, a small university in Winnipeg with a stated will towards reconciliation.
Drawing on my training as an information professional (MLIS), a scholar (PhD), and working closely with a tremendous team (see article) and generous, amazing translators and elders, we were able to explore aesthetic translation of Anishinaabemowin, French-Michif, and ‘Heritage’ (‘southern’) Michif, using the text from my new major work (with composers Neil Weisensel and Alex Kusturok), Li Keur, Riel’s Heart of the North, which premieres in Winnipeg in 2022 with the Winnipeg Symphony.
This research is just the tip of the iceberg. My goal is to develop a model transferable to other aesthetic translation projects of Indigenous languages. The translators we work with have told us that working on this project has stretched their translations skills even further. All I know is that the result of this collaboration is the gift of hearing the beautiful languages of the central continent brought to their rightful place at the heart of cultural institutions and performance venues where they rightfully belong!
Neil Weisensel and I are thrilled to be the recipients of a 2020Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC)Connection Award — one that will enable me to work more closely with our Saulteaux and Michif(s) translators, and for Neil to found a Michif choir and to mentor Michif conductors. The work will be based on the text I’m writing for Li Keur, Riel’s Heart of the North, premiering in Winnipeg in October 2020 with the Winnipeg Symphony.
From the grant description:
“Dr. Steele will continue her work alongside the Indigenous translators to further develop protocols and methods of poetic translation (from English to Michif and Saulteaux) established in the initial phase of the project. Steele has a very strong connection to the Métis community and is highly respected by its members; the translators from the Metis and Saulteaux communities are Elders and traditional knowledge keepers and as such are highly qualified in their respective language and cultural traditions. In tandem with this, we will create a multimedia Michif/Saulteaux Pronunciation Database for the translated texts. This knowledge will be transmitted to the Metis Chorus, who will be involved in the October 2020 performance of Li Keur, through a series of workshops and seminars (see below).”
“The Michif/Saulteaux Pronunciation Database and translations will be made available to other interested parties, including but not limited to Indigenous language scholars, graduate students, the Indigenous communities to which our translators belong, singers and choirs in the extended Canadian musical community, and other interested groups. These resources will be valuable not just for additional future performances of Li Keur, but can serve as a model of methodology for other writers and creative artists wanting to create new works using Indigenous languages. It is important to note that the translations are intellectual property of the translators. We will be developing a proper strategy in concert with the translators, a Cultural Consultant, and other Elders to ensure this knowledge is appropriately mobilized.”
“The 80-person Metis Chorus will be created using connections established with, and outreach by, our community partners: Manitoba Metis Federation, l’Union Nationale Métisse de St. Joseph, Canadian Museum for Human Rights, Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, Manitoba Opera, our Indigenous translators, our Métis Chorus Director, and previous Metis Chorus members from 2018 workshop performances of Li Keur. In a series of further workshops and seminars, the Métis Chorus will integrate the results of our work with the Indigenous translators, making use of the Michif/Saulteaux Pronunciation Database. The Métis Chorus Director will be responsible for training the chorus and integrating it into the larger body of the piece, Li Keur: Riel’s Heart of the North, for performance in October 2020.”
Sometime ago, while I was living overseas for the majority of the past nine years, Canada embarked upon a consultation and conversation with the Indigenous nations. It was/is a huge and mightily ambitious project—to examine the impact of the past four centuries (or so) on the Indigenous peoples during the commencement of this nation of nations, Canada; the residential schools and how they harmed the Indigenous peoples in particular was the focus. Acommission was established, thousands and thousands (millions?) of people participated, reports, summaries, and findings were made public.
Here is the commission’s stated goal: “There is an emerging and compelling desire to put the events of the past behind us so that we can work towards a stronger and healthier future. The truth telling and reconciliation process as part of an overall holistic and comprehensive response to the Indian Residential School legacy is a sincere indication and acknowledgement of the injustices and harms experienced by Aboriginal people and the need for continued healing. This is a profound commitment to establishing new relationships embedded in mutual recognition and respect that will forge a brighter future. The truth of our common experiences will help set our spirits free and pave the way to reconciliation.”
Besides the findings of the commission an accessible and beautifully written report was made available. One I highly recommend people read. In particular Vol. 3 on the Métis experienceis of interest to us of Michif heritage as it describes the breadth of experiences of Michif peoples, many being quite different experiences than perhaps that of First Nations peoples or Inuit.
Another outcome of this laudable project was itsCalls to Action (if you read this you’ll see that these calls are manageable). When I returned from the UK in 2016 I was intrigued and a bit overwhelmed by the ubiquitousness of these ‘calls to action.’ I saw them or heard of them almost everywhere I turned—from schools to churches to colleges and universities, media, sports orgs, and individuals. Almost all had drafted or articulated well-meaning sincere responses and programs to the calls for action. Meetings, visits and new partnerships with the local First Nations, self-examination became a modus vivendi. And that’s great. I began to notice, too, that there was a lot of wearing of hairshirts by some of the more well-meaning individuals. And so too, as the years rolled on and goals set out in 2015/16 failed to be attained, a lot of anger. (And it just occurred to me as I write this, that fuel for some of this might also be attributed to the rise of governance by tweet, the rise of the troll and the echo chamber etc. etc.)
Last night I spoke at a gathering at the Vancouver Aboriginal Friendship Centre, an event hosted by Métis Night (a modest weekly gathering of Michifs far from home in the centre of the continent) and as part of the Heart of the City Festival. I was there with my co-collaborator, Neil Weisensel, soprano Leah Alfred of the Namgis, Kwagiulth Nation, the maestra of Michif dance Yvonne Chartrand, and Ella & the Other Fella (fiddler E. Speckeen and guitarist J. Hilberry) and the organisers of the festival, hosted by the stalwart Pat, who keeps the Michif peoples gathering. I spoke of the new major work I’m writing, a musical drama on Louis Riel that premieres in 2020 and introduced Leah and Neil who performed the ‘Mending of Violence’ aria, one I wrote the lyrics to and which we had translated into Saulteaux. Later we danced to Michif fiddle tunes and a fine time was had by all. But I also spoke of our project as a Truth & Reconciliation piece, one that has brought much joy and many challenges, and how my goal is to see our languages and narratives back where they belong, central to the cultures of the central continent.
Later in the evening, a well-known personage of the Nlaka’pamux First Nation took me aside and told me that my words had had an effect on him, and we arranged to meet to talk later about what I had to say. Last week too, I had the chance to speak to a primarily non-Indigenous university faculty on the TRC Calls to Action. They wanted to know what concrete things I could envision for their department. I do not doubt their sincerity, not one little bit, they are thinking, sensitive people who genuinely want to see change. Just as I do not doubt the sincerity of all the churches, arts org., educational institutes etc. who want to do the right thing. But I made some observations to them, as well as to the person from the Nlaka’pamux First Nation when he told me that ‘our youth are angry that nothing is happening’ that seemed to make sense.
We live in a reactive age. One engendered by spontaneous and somewhat anonymous communication. We live in a culture where we can cancel each other or ghost each other with no social penalty. We live in a culture that seems to have developed a Pavlovian response to likes and a whole host of icons that symbolise emotional responses. And these are responses we do not really have to be responsible for despite the harm they can bring others, and even ourselves. Given our digital responsive-ability we have also turned to wanting to solve problems immediately and this is what I see in all the ambitions and disappointments of the promises made in response to the TRC.
So my thoughts on the subject that I communicated to the Nlaka’pamux person and the university faculty are as follows:
We didn’t get here overnight folks, it took 400 years (at least) of cultural exposure/clash to get us to this place and we can’t resolve much, if anything, in four years, never mind 40. This is a generations-long project. But we’ve begun it and that counts for a lot. The starting place, I sincerely believe, is startlingly simple: to still ourselves, really still ourselves, and to develop our listening skills in preparation for speaking or responding.
To still ourselves. To listen. Prepares us to hear. This is the stuff of calm maturity, of peaceableness. Because we cannot hear anyone’s truths if we’re in high-response mode, nor can we make relationship (other than an enemy binary of them/us). Nor can others hear us if we are in response mode as we won’t be able to speak with eloquence or heart.
Yep, basic stuff. Don’t panic. And I sincerely hope, don’t give up. We can do this.
Here’s a nice article on my most recent doings! Thank you curator Paul Crawford, what an honour to share billing with Mary Riter Hamilton, one of my war artist heroes. She was neglected in her lifetime and I’m so glad Paul is bringing her home to us all.
How I love this article by Ocean Vuong for its insight into a different way of writing, especially handling narratives and literary techniques such as metaphor, and in the writing of On Earth We Were Briefly Gorgeous. I suppose I am grateful for Vuong’s voice at this moment because with the opera I am writing I feel pressured to write a classical dramatic arc with a main protagonist (Riel, of course), someone who DOES SOMETHING! In this much-anticipated work on Riel, I feel especially pressured to write something political/historical rather than the multi-layered work I have written to date, one with multiple persons, choruses, narrator, all working in an ensemble to create a whole. Thus it is fascinating to read Vuong’s literary provenance— that they are a poet does not surprise me.
In the article, Vuong (a McArthur Genius Award winner) writes: “In Western narratology, the plot is the dominant mode to which all characters are subordinate. But I wanted a novel to hold these characters thoroughly and, most importantly, on their own terms, free from a system of governance, even one of my own making. I could not employ the plot-heavy strategy because I needed these people to exist as they are, full of stories but not for a story.” Vuong cites
I love their commentary on the use of the metaphor from the point of view of non-Western literature. So often, it seems, we are warned not to write in clichés, nor to write in a style that is too metaphor-heavy. But Vuong comments that metaphor is ‘an alternate speech act’, and that ‘metaphor in the mouths of survivors became a way to innovate around pain’.” Oh how interesting, metaphor being a time-honoured building block of poetry empowers rather victimises the one who has experienced trauma; it is not a sidestep, nor a blocking.
What I am particularly intrigued with is how Vuong cites his use of Kishōtenketsu, a Chinese/Korean/Japanese literary form (Ki – Introduction; Shō – Development; Ten – Twist; and Ketsu – Conclusion). In this way they felt able to describe violence but not privilege it: ‘”It was important to me, at least in this book, that violence remain independent from any character’s self-worth, rendering it inert, terrible, and felt—but not a means of “development.” Through Kishōtenketsu, violence becomes fact and not a vehicle towards a climax.’
Now if I understand correctly, the Ten, or the twist, is a contrast rather than a climax in a ‘typical’ Western narrative arc. In some cases, the Ten is a cautionary tale within a tale (I’m just beginning research on the form so forgive me if I don’t have it correct!). Interestingly, Kishōtenketsu is used in gaming narratives (google the term in Google Scholar for a wide body of analyses), and given the relative youth of Vuong I could see how this might be a natural narrative ecology. The author offers this statement on why they used this form: ‘I could not employ the plot-heavy strategy because I needed these people to exist as they are, full of stories but not for a story.’ I like this very much in the context of my current work that focuses on the multi-cultural peoples—the composers and conductors may feel daunted as they juggle the forces on stage, but somehow, to me, it just feels right.
a quick note to say that two of my video installations have opened at the Penticton Art Gallery’s war artist show. I’m thrilled to know that I’m sharing the billing with Mary Riter Hamilton (1873-1954), my hero actually. Riter Hamilton spent three years painting the still-smouldering battlefields of the Western Front from 1919-1922, losing her health and partial eye-sight doing so and suffered greatly afterwards, financially and physically. Her work has been neglected for a century. I wish she could see it exhibited so beautifully by curator Paul Crawford. More photos from the exhibit coming soon!
I am pleased to announce that two of my video installations will be on exhibition at the Penticton Art Gallery this autumn, and that I will be giving an artist talk on Saturday, September 21 at 1 pm. Curator Paul Crawford has assembled a fantastic exibition featuring the much neglected, but fantastic war artist, Mary Riter Hamilton’s (1867-1954) work. I have long admired Riter Hamilton and have lectured on her work, and I am so grateful to Paul Crawford for bringing her work back to us. I am humbled to be part of this show.
The work of mine that will be on display includes Road to War (2014), a video triptych shot over the two years I was embedded as a war artist with the 1st Battalion Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. The footage, shoot using a handheld digital camera, intends to provoke thoughts on the paradox of the war narrative—a narrative at once private, and yet so very public. The work is intended to be viewed selectively, that is, one chooses how to experience the triptych, e.g., as a single screen, a double screen, a triple, with or without ambient sound, or my poetry as voice-overs. First seen at Scotland’s wondrous StAnza International Poetry Festival, the work has been exhibited in Canada and Britain.
The other video installation I will be exhibiting is one I shot on the battlefields, in the woods, and the graveyards of the Western Front in 2014, the centenary of the start of the Great War. Champs de Visions/Fields of Visions/Blickfelder is a meditation on the consequences of landscape—all footage was shot from the ground up, so flat and dangerous was the Western Front. I hope you can join us for this innovative exhibition that includes women war artists from almost a century apart.
I often get asked how it is that my work as an editor includes a Middle East/Islamic studies specialty, given that I’ve only been to Dubai and Afghanistan briefly, and speak neither Arabic, Farsi, nor Pashtun, Dari etc. Additionally, I am patently not an Islamic or Middle East scholar. While I have worked as a writer and editor for management consulting companies for over two decades, I’ve developed this sub-specialty. A brief perusal of the work I’ve edited in the field reveals a wide range of topics: Islam and democracy; Saudi feminism; the use of the conditional in modern Arabic; several studies on various aspects of Sufism, historical and contemporary; Kurdish studies; undocumented labour in Saudi; Indonesian pedagogy; Egyptian EFL teacher training, and much more, including the geopolitical. Each editing job has provided fascinating and contemporary insight into cutting-edge research, and has allowed me to see the many facets of the complex Arab and Islamic world, a world seldom examined outside the conflict narrative. So how did my Middle East editing practice start?
A few years ago, while doing my PhD research at the University of Exeter, I discovered the beautiful Institute of Arabic and Islamic Studies (IAIS) on my way home to our apartment on campus. The Institute is housed in a building one can truly describe as serene, and was one that I gravitated to particularly because of its gorgeous architectural lines, its honey-coloured stone, and the lovely light from its oversize windows. Rather a nice break from my own faculty’s modernist architecture, one replete with 1960s aluminum-cased windows that whistle with winter winds off Dartmoor, and that always seemed to have a sense of over-crowdedness.
Soon I began working in the common room of the IAIS, which led to attending lectures on contemporary or historic issues, all of them dedicated to Middle East and/or Islamic subjects. I also attended art exhibitions and openings. The lectures on contemporary Middle Eastern or Islamic subjects were by world experts, and for the most part, provided me a welcome respite from my own subject—war and the complexities of personal war narrative. Sometimes the topics at the Institute were quirky, such as Dr. Jenny Balfour-Paul’s fascinating lecture on the history of indigo. Other times they were deeply complex lectures on some aspect of Arabic syntax. No matter what the subject, I learned so much, and mused at how I’d love to take the elementary Farsi or Arabic courses. But I had enough on my plate already.
Often I’d meet my neighbours at the institute. My 14-year-old daughter and I lived in the wonderful apartments set out by the university for international families where we had the great fortune to be surrounded by post graduates and their families from Korea, Syria, Kuwait, Saudi, Turkey, Iraq, the UAE, Libya, and other countries. The apartments are built around a playground over which we looked, and from the beginning of our residency my daughter and I were welcomed by the women who often sat outside watching over their children (a few were the post grads, but most were wives of post grads). Over the two years we lived there, we became good friends with the families and frequently were invited to share meals, or tea and goodies. More than once I’d come home from a day’s work and find a bag of delicious food hanging on the door. The children were often messengers sent to invite! We reciprocated by hosting Easter egg colouring (by request from the mothers and children I must add) and Canada Day cupcakes and celebrations.
The friendships we made included invitations to meet extended family visiting from Kuwait, e.g., and, joyfully, new babies born into our little community while we were there. I will always remember sitting on blankets and sharing tea and food, and especially our farewell gathering, at midnight during Ramadan when all we women feasted together in the semi-moonlight while the children slept. Even our Saudi neighbour, a very busy Master degree candidate with a sick child, came out that night and enjoyed our companionship. I’ll always remember a knock on the door and a beautiful pearl necklace delivered by a child, a gift to me from his mother. We shared a lot there, not the least being the stress of doctoral research and raising children in a foreign country, especially for those whose countries were at war (sometimes a regime change eradicated years of research).
Over the course of a few years I began to be recommended through word-of-mouth and have rarely advertised. I learned a lot, and continue to do so. One of the things I’ve learned to do is to communicate up front to non-native-English writers: English is an extremely complex language, even for native-English speakers. Indeed, I remind my clients that even editors need editors, not the least because one is too close to the subject often, and, in the case of large research projects, too often all the writer wants to do is FINISH IT! But as I recently reminded a Dutch client, it’s the last 5% that makes all the difference in the final work.
Another major challenge for my authors, I believe, is that at home in their respective countries they are amongst the most fluent English speakers and writers; they are top academics or functionaries accepted into a first class university. And for some it is difficult to accept that their English is not perfect. I counsel these writers and reassure them that their English is VERY GOOD, but that it is a notoriously challenging language, and that there are some inexplicable grammatical conventions learned by ear at a young age. A colleague of mine and I discuss this quite often. And so there is some ego involved in having one’s work edited. (Personally, I like to have a good edit of my work—I’m often too close to it to really hear or see its imperfections.)
Once in awhile I was asked to help edit some of my neighbours’ papers. Soon I was asked if I could edit dissertations, frequently being recommended by supervisors. And I loved it, and continue to love editing in the subject (and others). What I find when I edit non-native English writers’ work is that I learn not only a lot about the subject, but also a bit of how the culture intellectualizes, lays out a formal argument. For example, through editing for syntax and flow I found that many Arabic writers use long, very complex sentence structures. Frequently the argument comes at the end of the paragraph(s); interestingly, I found this while editing native-German writers’ work as well. When I queried one of my Arabic- speaking clients about this they referred to certain classical Arabic writers whose sentences often flow on for one or two full pages!
Ultimately, I believe it is my job to be a cheerleader as well as an editor for my clients. Writing a major work such as a PhD dissertation, a Master thesis, a book, or even an article, is a lonely business, one fraught with self-doubt. I love working with these fascinating people who teach me so much. My clients benefit from the fact I know the PhD trajectory well, having just completed mine in 2017. They also benefit from my Master of Library Science, and my genuine interest in their world. I love this work, I really do, and I am so glad I entered the institute years ago, it continues to feed my curiosity for a world I’ve known so little about, outside conflict and oil. There is so much, much more.
It’s the 50th anniversary of Woodstock. Last thing I heard, the anniversary edition was canned, revived, moved, canned, and possibly revived yet again. Lazarus never rose so many times. But I’ve never been much for festivals and can count on one hand the number of them I’ve been to. Even then, I was on stage performing for most of them. Too many people, too much garbage or mud, just too much of too much. An introvert’s nightmare. But in early August I had a chance to see the beautifully run festival, ArtsWells, in the sweet little town, Wells, B.C., in the centre of the province.
You learn a lot about a village by counting the number of churches it has. Or bars. Or churches AND bars. But what about a village bursting with performance venues? I’ve travelled this world a whole lot over my lifetime and I’ve never seen such a charming little village with so many perfect, human-size venues, as the tiny village of Wells, population 245 (or 300, depending upon who has guests over). Invited to appear there as a poet and speaker, I was one of the significantly larger, temporary population of festival-goers, one I can only guess swells to maybe 10 times the usual population number.
In its 16th year, this celebration of ‘all things art’ is run by Julie Fowler, Paul Crawford, and an amazing ArtsWells team (thanks Sam for the 1001 responses to my emails). This was one festival I’d wanted to see for years, most of all because I’m a longtime fan of Jeff Andrew, one of the most original voices of his generation – think Woody Guthrie of the digital age. To catch Jeff is a rarity and ArtsWells is one of his haunts, so for me to be invited as an artist in order to get me up there at long last, well, that was a very fine thing. Thanks Julie and Paul.
On the August long weekend we packed up early and headed north from Vancouver. Off we went through the Fraser Canyon, [Sto:lo (in Halqemeylem), Lhtakoh (in Dakelh), ʔElhdaqox (in Tsilhqot’in)] up to the Cariboo, places I’d adored as a child, entirely enamoured of the geography – I mean who doesn’t love a river and a canyon and valleys? And it was the Cariboo that kickstarted my love of history – Indigenous and post-contact. I admit, as a kid I had gold fever. Our 9 1/2 hour drive morphed into a 13 hour drive due to bad weather, and a truly terrible accident that closed the highway.
We arrived in the early evening and the festivities were well on their way with a parade of giant puppets, slightly drenched, and the fab Queen, Ms. Fondle, as Parade Marshall. What a welcome sight after our arduous journey on back roads (and sobering too, as a woman had lost her life on the highway and two seriously injured). Forgoing the evening’s multiple events we headed to our cabin at Barkerville and rested til morning.
Up early to a still-sleeping village, we ate and then went to shake the road from our bones at Dance Church with Grampa Groove. Seriously fun way to start the day. Then for the next three days a truly fun and intelligent program made such a great festival. It got me thinking of what made it different from other festivals I’ve observed (mostly from afar). I think it is ArtsWells modesty and its programming brilliance. We’re not talking brand names such as at the big festivals, we’re talking talent, pure talent that works its a$$ off while on stage, and better yet, clearly loves their art form. Every single act I caught, every workshop I attended, was compelling, original, and thoughtful – andyes, the music on every single stage was fabulous. The people in attendance – a huge proportion of them are artists – all so colourful and interesting. Outbreaks of music and theatrics were frequent and seriously delightful.
For my Sunday session I gave a reading, showed video footage (with actors’ voiceovers of my war poetry) and dispelled as many Myths of the Poet as I could. Apparently I did. Even the sound crew were wide-eyed; one of them came up to me afterward and said “I didn’t think I liked poetry until now”. We wandered and watched, ate, and enjoyed the acts, and especially Jeff Andrew, whose rock-out session in the pub left me even more amazed at his talent than ever before, his use of guitar effects tasteful and intricate. (Generally I’m no fan of guitar effects because most people overuse them.)
On Monday, I hosted a session, Becoming, a storytelling with Quinton and Darren of the Snotty Nose Rez Kids currently on their wildly successful Trapline Tour. Dialling it back, waaaay back from hype and crowds and expectations, we had a chance to be people together, people telling our stories. I began with the session by inviting everyone to relax, close their eyes and listen to the Becoming story I’ve written for the overture to my new opera. That I heard a few zzzzzzzzs coming from the crowd was a great reward to me as that’s exactly what I had in mind.
I invited those in attendance to take this chance to be still, to listen and settle, to begin to hear the soothing voices of these men tell their truths. Because in this noisy age of keyboard strokes and opinion, listening is really such a balm. The young men took over, each taking half of the large group, and spoke softly for over an hour and a half – so different from their hip hop delivery of their truths – and not a person stirred. I am so grateful to these men for showing up to tell the Becoming stories of two Haisla boys from the tiny coastal village of Kitamaat and how they became Hip Hop artists. They told much more. It was a profound experience for the listeners, and I wish them well. Fame, fast fame carries a lot of stress.
The final performance we caught was Bruce Horik’s Assassinating Thomson. This one-hander has won numerous awards and deserves to be, as cited, a Canadian classic and much more. Horik, legally blind, manages to juggle a triple narrative of the mysterious death of painter Tom Thomson with his own narrative of going blind at age 9 as a result of a genetic blastoma (with poignant reference to his father’s own struggle and sense of guilt with the same thing), with an onstage demonstration of his painting skills. To say it is a tour de force sounds cliché, but it is a tour de force.Horak’s acting, writing, and painting on stage is a triple threat. It was a fitting end to the first festival I’ve been to in years. We left Wells early on Tuesday morning, satisfied, grateful, and inspired. Thank you Julie and team.