The January Spoken Ancestries in Lower Saint Lawrence
Maya Angelou wrote “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time. People know who they are much better than you do.” The January Issue showcases stories from a multigenerational group writing in the Lower Saint Lawrence, exploring who they are through the prism of ancestries: not only the people they have descended from, but the experiences, voyages, places and reflections that make them who they are.
Under the guidance of spoken word artist Dona Nham, working through the Quebec Writers’ Federation’s regional StoryScaping project, these writers explore fromness in all its forms. There are stories of place and settlement; of immigration and integration; of the frustrations of adolescence and gender battles, of generational impacts, and of the reconciliation of fragmented identities. The tones range from lyrical to wry, in poetry, prose, storytelling and spoken word. They are linked by a frank and brave questioning of who and why the writers are who they are today, living on the banks of the Saint Lawrence River. We hope that you enjoy.
I don’t remember when I didn’t connect with earth and sky and words. But I do remember the world emerging as I learned about the heart of things. It wasn’t just about their names; it was how they fit into the world. The red bird became a cardinal, who fed on seeds and sang loudly in the spring. The green blur distinguished itself as oak.
As I learned about the world that surrounded me in the Edwards Plateau, where I grew up in central Texas, the stories included words for limestone, scrub oak, streams, and juniper. I remember trips to the Rockies, camping and hiking, discovering wildflowers and aspens. California places called to me, too. Redwoods grew near my grandparents’ home in Northern California, the forest floor blanketed with ferns, mosses, and oxalis. The stark beauty of Yosemite and the White Mountains, where the bristlecone pines live, called to me, too.
I started thinking about sense of place, and ‘places of the spirit’ decades ago, with clear memories of what kinds of places spoke to me, and where I felt most at home. They weren’t high deserts, tropical beaches, or Mediterranean hillsides, although all of these are beautiful. It was spruce-fir and deciduous forests, rocky coasts and expansive skies, flowing waters and lakes, with mirrored images of surrounding hills. It was fields of wildflowers, alpine meadows, and wild berries ready to be picked. I see these special places, as I remember them.
At home, being surrounded by green brought me back to myself. The strong limbs of trees covered in lichen and foraged by a woodpecker moving methodically up and down a tree trunk. The sound of a Carolina wren singing was surprising, an improbably loud voice for such a small bird. The hummingbird appearing at the feeder, suddenly, seen from the kitchen window. Two squirrels chasing each other around the trunk of the slanted oak; they also brought me back to myself.
Waking up to the rich smell of coffee and eating homemade toast and fruit on a rosy-tinged morning set the start to being at home for another day. Home for now is the Southern Appalachians, in the mountains of western North Carolina. When in Quebec, we are in the Northern Appalachians, near a magical place of firs, water, rocks, and beaches. Looking out the windows of our cottage, I am once more wrapped in soothing hues of green.
The richness and complexity of greens was shining in the needles of pine, buds of fir, and the mosses underfoot when I walked in the nearby national park after our return North last summer. Early morning sun drove reflections from droplets of dew which had coalesced overnight. The greens enveloped me as I walked, soothing my spirit, welcoming me home, and bringing me back to myself.
I wish I could read the stories in the rocks, protruding from the sea. They are folded, with stripes and striations, colours varied. I know they tell a story, if only I knew how to read it. The rocks speak a language that I don’t understand, but I recognize is a language, with meaning in the patterns, shapes, and colours.
A green thread has woven its way through my life. It pulled me forward from childhood to career and work through midlife and beyond, keeping me connected to the earth. Some of my ancestors must have been gardeners and farmers, but most were shopkeepers and teachers. My parents weren’t gardeners at all. My grandmothers gardened, though, especially my maternal grandma, who grew vegetables and fruits to can and preserve, for winter sustenance.
It has been a gift to return to the Northern Appalachians, after a long, unexpected absence. The mountains, the Saint Lawrence River, and the expansive skies are indeed places of the spirit.
It is good to be home.
Spoken Ancestries is a workshop that was inspired by my own introspection into the question “where are you from?” and the idea of fromness. At first, I thought about fromness as ancestry. People and place. Like blood, DNA moves and travels through generations, traverses lands, builds cultures that either fade or refuse to wither in the cold and colonial seasons of Canada. Ancestry is roots and it is heritage. But then, I felt this perspective was limiting because the idea of fromness is complicated.
Fromness is often shown in the image of a family tree with graphic lines connecting people, place, and time. Suggesting linearity and form. Ease. But not everyone has the privilege of knowing their tree. To go back in time, to find something, anything, to connect the dots in this way. So I searched in between the lines and was reminded that a tree relies on so much more than just the seed it came from
We have these tiny chromosomal cells that hold ancient history within our bodies like the way rivers carry stories back to the ocean. We dream dreams that are maybe ours, maybe not, but sometimes we use them like our north star or a fire under our a#@! We move around. Maybe only within the same place, or across many oceans, meeting many people (or not), living many lifetimes, either way. We get knocked down by life only to be held by it again and whether it’s joy or hardship, it can shift the way we move in life and what we hold onto and what we pass on and what becomes legacy.
This workshop was a container to listen to the stories (and reflections) that can arise when we reveal all the directions a person can come from and the experiences that people have had making them who they are today. In this way, ancestry is where one moment can change everything and everything exists in one moment.
Like how the scent of a flower exudes many possible paths to attract pollinators who stick their noses in and get a world of pollen, of possibilities, stuck on their fuzzy coats. Catalyzing pollination and growing future seeds that are ancestral memory and experience contained and once formed, casting their legacies across landscapes by force of nature and by chance. And the cycle continues again. A simple thing like a scent can impact an entire ecosystem. Ancestry is where past, present, and future naturally greet one another like a bee following a scent. Where known and unknown can co-exist and still be meaningful like two flowers each giving a path to possibility. Our stories are our seeds. Yes, our fromness is powerful, limitless and interconnected like that.
This issue features a multigenerational group of people from Heritage Lower Saint Lawrence who are mostly new and emerging writers. It was truly a privilege to hear their writing being shared across generations and to witness their process, which wasn’t always easy. Fromness is not always a happy place, let alone trying something new like writing about it! Yet they showed up, bringing their authentic selves into the present moment. I am proud and inspired by this group who embraced the activities with courage and curiosity. Whose stories will now live on in our minds and in this issue—and maybe inspire another flower to bloom along the way.
One October Day
Every now and then I think about that day
crisp, sunny October morning
paddling down the rapids and then,
canoe breaks around rock
leg jammed under bench
trapping me below
the cold river rushing by my face
trying not to scream
working hard to stay alive
submerged under water
My free leg signalling to those on shore
methodically moving back and forth
my yellow boot showing just above the surface
losing my bearings in the current
working hard to stay alive
submerged under water
Strong current thrusting against my face
sips of water to replace a breath
scenes from my life flashing by in high-speed motion
working hard to stay alive
submerged under water
And then, no more leg movements
no more gulps of water
it’s too much
away I go,
surrender and well-being take over
no longer fighting for my life
submerged under water
Help was on the way
couple furiously paddling up the rapids
he, reaching into the river
blindly grabbing parts of me and pulling strenuously
freeing me from my underwater cage
leg no longer trapped
Down the river I floated
devoid of breath
courageous teenagers rushing in
bringing my limp and helpless body to the pebbly shore
breath of life bravely given back to me
by a swift-thinking young man
And so I was able to amble on my way
to press on with my destiny
meet my beloved
bear children who gave direction to my life
a grandchild to rejoice in
Thankful for the gift of breath restored to me
to allow the cycle of existence to prevail
several generations were saved that morning by the river
for which I am forever grateful
every now and then I think about that day.
Welcome to Québec
Well, yes, I admit, I am a bit fed up with it. I feel, that I’ve had my fair share of COVID sanctions and of all its connected absurdities, and I am not talking about the thickly fogged glasses and the mask straps entangled with the hair and with the frames of my glasses behind both ears, when entering a shop, with a bobble cap or anything similar ridiculous on the head. You struggle to keep your patience while you detangle the mess behind your ears with one hand and the gloves under the armpit and realize that others who have similar problems, but you, on top of everything else, stand in their way.
At this very moment, when the glove decides to fall into the ugly slosh of half-melted snow, dirt and salt, you see in the reflecting window that the cap and the straps have made you funny hobbit ears and that you look absolutely stupid, then THAT’s the moment when you realize that you don’t want it any longer.
That was about my state of mind when I moved to Canada, in the height of the Corona restrictions during the third wave. That was Gamma, the one before Delta, do you remember?
After I had applied for permanent residency, I received my PR card in a world-record speed, after a little more than a year. My wife thinks this stunning administrative speed was because she signed a form obliging her to cover all my future costs, so that, under no circumstances, would I start sucking from the Canadian social security. Thus, she had officially taken me under her wing. I instantly liked the concept and started making jokes, lots of heart-warming ideas occurred to me and happily flourished (maybe I should buy a new boat over here, a little bigger one this time?), but why did I have the impression that my wife didn’t find this all THAT funny?
So, I was packing up my belongings, sent the container off, and left the Baltic Sea for good. The container arrived in Canada in no time, and only three weeks later the movers in Quebec City rang nervously and asked when to bring it to Rimouski. I, however, was still on my way, since I was stuck in a nightmare of a COVID-odyssey. I don’t want to bore you with the details but it boils down to making me an expert in transatlantic travelling and immigration with a container in Quebec City under quarantine and COVID-conditions, with principally non-solvable problems with immigration forms, while constantly annihilating loads of money in crazy quarantine hotels.
Weeks later, however, all problems were solved by a young cool chap at Customs who said “Oh, yes, I know, these guys in Montréal. They always do it strictly by the book, and in principle they are right, but in COVID-times it’s all a bit different. You need to be flexible, don’t you? … Do you have alcohol, food, drugs, weapons, explosives or anything illegal in your container? No? OK, then give me your forms.” Said it and, beng, beng, beng, they were stamped. All problems solved.
And that’s what I’ve experienced in Québec so often. Well, I am carried away again, I know, but…up there in the hills I was cycling, the other day, when a police car stopped me. If I didn’t know that a snowstorm was coming up. Sure, I did, but then again, it wasn’t there yet, though dark clouds were closing in. To be constructive, the police simply invited me to put the bike into the trunk and offered to drive me home. Can you believe it? Well, at least my Québécois friends think I make this up.
A while ago, I was flying out for a short job. In Quebec City at the airport, I got a bit lost with the car and found myself suddenly in front of a parking that I couldn’t access. No left and right. The only way out was backwards. OK, no traffic, so I reversed. Thirty seconds later blue and red lights, sirens, police and a big NO GO!! Behind me. I thought, now I was in real trouble, but no, they understood my problem after I explained (in French!! Yes!), overtook me, opened the gate for me, then another gate to let me out again, then showed me the way to the parking area that I had missed and wished me a bonne journée. My wife thinks, that’s because I had charmed them, but a Canadian friend said, that was because I am white. “Imagine”, he said, “if you were Black or Indigenous, ha ha, do you still think it would have been so? If yes, believe me, you are dreaming”.
Well, I don’t know. He might be right, I admit.
But then again, this is what I have experienced here so often. People with a smile and a helping hand who make me feel so welcome to Québec, even in Corona-times and with my funny hobbit-ears.
Fragments by Lisan Chng
Fragments of them in
fragments of me
They are lodged
inside of me.
I look at these pieces.
Sometimes in wonder.
Sometimes in anger.
Why does history repeat itself
even if I resist?
I try to understand.
I try to out-think me.
These fragments suddenly
became all of me.
a beast out of its cage
and howling through its rage.
These emotional blocks
these metamorphic rocks
trapped memories of the past
from my clans I did not ask.
They are jagged.
They split me apart.
I try to understand.
I try to out-think me.
Why don’t the pieces fit?
Incoherent is what it seems.
Realities that don’t meet.
Fragments of them in
fragments of me.
not on my own
I can see them morphing.
Love has shown.
into the tension.
the power of comprehension.
My body reverses the score.
My mind is so much more.
I look at them closer.
The edges soften.
The pain lessen.
The beast will be tamed
not without a groan.
Teacher of my animal instinct
bringing me into zones unknown.
These fragments are mine.
I own them now.
I am these fragments.
They are awkward.
They are brilliant.
They are a start of
stories that tell me apart.
That is when I realize
it is possible to welcome
pieces that don’t fit
as long as
I don’t forget
Are You My Ancestor?
I trace my ancestry back fifty-five generations to Attila the Hun, the Scourge of God (seriously, that’s what the paperwork says). Nearly 1,600 years later, he’s still known for brutally waging war through Europe.
Since then, we’ve become nicer, more cultured. For example, I’m descended from a tutor to the children of the Danish royal family. A great-great-great-grandfather was a United Empire Loyalist, who left for Canada during the American War of Independence, saying to those southern upstarts, “You have the power to take my house, but not to force me to give you my society.” How classy is that? Another great-great-grandfather came to Canada due to the Highland Clearances in Scotland, walking barefoot, we’re told, from Quebec City to Montreal to save shoe leather, before making good – very good. Sadly, between his considerable philanthropy and seventeen children, I didn’t inherit wealth… but I digress.
While on the one hand I’m proud of these more recent ancestors, on the other I’ve come to question my pride that we’re so much better than Uncle Attila. Though I don’t identify as a colonizer, because my family came poor to Canada and worked hard, I’ve benefited from being white (well, pinkish) and English-speaking.
I haven’t known the systemic abuses that others have, but I’ve felt the sting of a verbal lash. As a ten-year-old child, I heard something I only knew, years later, was racist and anti-French bigotry. A woman spoke sharply to another, “speak white.” A year later, Pierre Vallières published N—– blancs d’Amérique, comparing the situation of French-Canadians to that of African-Americans. At ten, I’d had my first lesson in hatred and ignorance, and how this wounded everyone around – not just the target of the words.
I learned in school about what then were called “Indians” – mostly wars between different First Nations, and with or against the colonizers. Looking back, I believe much of this information was wrong, biased, or incomplete. It certainly didn’t cover residential schools.
Indeed, my great-great-grandmother named her cottage in the Lower Saint Lawrence Staquan Lodge while my grandparents named theirs next door Sassaguiminel. Both names were chosen to respect the First Nations of the area, there for thousands of years before us settlers. In fact, the people of the Lower Saint Lawrence were never conquered by the French, and so the land was not legally ceded to the British colonizers. Unaware of this, my forebears did settle there, returning every summer, just as the nomadic Mi’gmaq and Malécite (Wolastoqiyik) did. Sta’kwin is Malécite for balsam firs. Sassaguiminel – the inelegantly-named ‘bunchberry’ in English – comes from Shâshâkuminânakashî, the Innu word for the ground plants surrounding the house with white flowers in the spring and red-orange berries in the summer. I treasure the century-old sweet-grass-trimmed box, porcupine quill napkin ring, birchbark-and-stick wood carriers, and large woven basket made by an Indigenous family that spent summers camping in the village, making and selling traditional crafts.
I knew little about my great uncle Wilfrid Bovey, who greatly respected the Indigenous peoples of Quebec. The more I learn, the more I appreciate his qualities – ones that I think ancestors should have: someone who brings people together, a bridge between solitudes. While, by today’s standards, he might be considered paternalistic, trying to solve problems of those of a different race or class for them, he did this out of genuine regard for their wellbeing. For a time, he led the Canadian Handicrafts Guild, finding markets for locally-made Indigenous, French, and English handiwork. Recognizing another need, he helped veterans find a future through the Canadian Legion Educational Services. He wrote Canadien: Étude sur les Canadiens français (1935) and The French Canadians Today (1938). A bit risky, but these books were received favourably by learned francophones of the day.
Fast forward to today. As I struggle to reconcile my own solitudes – those of my own heritage, and between people in Canada, I’ve been reading about racism and becoming a good ancestor. I’m learning about people who achieved great things, yet were never given the proper recognition due to their being “different” from the White majority – Indigenous peoples (Dan George), people of colour (Robert Sutherland), and others.
My forebears are guides in the way that I try to live my life. Where I have gaps in my knowledge and experience, I seek others I might ‘adopt’ as ancestors for guidance – Phil Fontaine for his ability to reconcile, Roméo Dallaire for his continued caring, John Lewis for bravery, Louise Arbour for human rights, and Greta Thunberg for her commitment to this planet.
I think if my great uncle Wilfrid were here today, he’d be speaking thoughtfully about changes that go beyond protecting French language and culture to causing pain for anglo- and allophones and, yes, francophones too. He would align more closely with another Quebec-born man who said, “L’amour est cent fois meilleur que la haine. L’espoir est meilleur que la peur. L’optimisme est meilleur que le désespoir. Alors, aimons, gardons espoir et restons optimistes. Et nous changerons le monde” —(Jack Layton – 1950-2011).
I still hear the wail of sirens piercing the blacked out night
I still sense my parents ushering us out into the dark unknown
I still enter a Mad Hatter’s world, rushing around no end in sight
I still feel the urgency as we scurry across the garden like frightened mice
I still see fireworks of bombs exploding in the night sky
I still smell the dank, musty shelter we shared with frogs
I still remember us all settling into bunks, tiny and cold
I still imagine games played, stories told in the darkness
I still relax at the sound of all clear sirens
But do I really remember? I was so young.
Or am I repeating stories told over and over again?
Still reminded of those frightening sensations
As I see images of daily destruction in far off lands.
The feelings so disturbingly familiar
And I still wait for the all clear sirens
A Girl’s Point of View
I’m a girl. Shocking, isn’t it? My name is Emy Harwood-Jones and I put myself as different or unique. See, I don’t act like a girl my age, to the point that people have asked me if I’m eighteen years old. Some even said that if I wanted to go to a bar, they wouldn’t ask for my ID. Why? Because I am mature for my age, mentally and physically.
I am many things. I am smart, educated, observant, creative, independent, proactive, a good listener, honest, and loyal. I’m also a good leader but I don’t show this in school. Why? Because if I did, I would be bullied for it. Some boys don’t like to be weaker than a girl. I see a lot of toxic masculinity in the world; I see it everywhere I go, and it just gets increasingly sad.
In school, I wrote a poem about the things that happen to girls. I am sick and tired of all the things I get judged for. I am a blonde-haired girl, which leads people to think I am dumb because of stereotypes. I am a lifeguard at a campground. When it was my day off, I wanted to do some extra work but they would not let me do it. They needed somebody “strong”—or in other words, they wanted a boy to to do it. They made me switch with my brother even though I am stronger than him.
What I am trying to say is that I am angry. Angry that no one sees what I see or maybe they just won’t admit it. All the dumb boys objectifying girls, rating them out of ten. The never-ending excuses. The gratuitous comments every day. Always blaming someone else and never taking responsibilities. I don’t want to see it anymore. Even though it’s not all boys or men who do it, most do. Worst part is they don’t even know they are doing it. But as soon as you mention it, they either deny it or get defensive, even though you’re just trying to help. Why should I even try? I’m just a dumb shy blonde girl with a rating of two.
I wasn’t the same back then, I will not be the same tomorrow. I am not the same today. Yet again, we still think about it. So much time to process that through our heads, but not much to observe, to realize. I’m not the same I was before, or actually, maybe I am. I’m still me. Just smarter, stronger, more independent, and more responsible. I’m aging every day, that’s true, we all are. Our bodies change, yes, that’s true too, but, if you think about it twice, there is still a part of you that reflects your childhood. It might be pretty, it might not, but those times reflect who you are right now.
As a young teenager, I have my own space; my world, as I like to call it. I dream a lot. I think about what I want to be when I get older. For example, when I was nine, I wanted be a police officer. Now, I want to be a voice actress. It’s always good to look back at those thoughts, and compare them to those that you have right now. Be open to your imagination, and never limit yourself.
We are now advanced in the future; we can be who we want without anyone telling us the opposite. If you look around you, see how the world changed since the last time you saw it. It’s different, right? Take a look at what you’ve become. I’m sure you aren’t the same as you were, but, with a touch of the personality you had back then.