Jesse Thistle is Métis-Cree, from Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. He is an assistant professor in Métis Studies at York University in Toronto. He is a finalist for the Kobo Emerging Writer Prize, and the Indigenous Voices Awards, won a Governor General’s Academic Medal in 2016, and is a Pierre Elliot Trudeau Foundation Scholar and a Vanier Scholar. He lives in Hamilton, Ontario.
In his extraordinary and inspiring debut memoir, From the Ashes, Jesse Thistle, once a high school dropout and now a rising Indigenous scholar, chronicles his life on the streets and how he overcame trauma and addiction to discover the truth about who he is.
Interviewed by Mieke DeVries.
Mieke DeVries (MD): What was the process of writing this book like for you? Were there certain memories that were harder to access than others? Did the writing process unearth anything unexpected?
Jesse Thistle (JT): The process for the book was easier than I expected. It took me three months of intensive writing to hammer out the book. Some of the early memories with my father were hard to engage with like when he taught us to steal or the way my brothers and I were taken into the custody of Children’s Aid. I think the most unexpected thing that happened during my memoir writing was that I could voice my pain and let it go in a way. They say part of recovering from trauma is being able to grieve publicly. After I wrote the book, I realized that me sharing was part of this process—a process of witnessing that now the world is part of.
MD: You write a lot about your body, its sensations, its pains, its wounds, and its healing. How has your relationship with your body changed over time?
JT: Somatic writing is like an index recording of one’s body. The scars that populate my body all hold stories carved into skin. We are flesh machines come to life; machines that hold onto trauma but also beauty and love and sensations. Like when I built and rode that go-cart with my Grandpa when I was little. My hair still remembers the way the wind felt that day, cool fingers of joy running across my scalp as I barreled down our street. Also, the way it felt to flip the canoe in late winter, the frigid grip of water seizing my lungs, the thrill of fighting for my life, and the triumph of love in holding Karen as we shivered and laughed. That’s living. That’s life. That’s why I write somatically. I guess the change writing in this way in my memoir has had is that I am kinder to my body now, I can see on the page how trustworthy it has been, through thick and thin, and how I must respect it as it is getting older. Many people have marvelled at how I could have endured what I went through and I guess I didn’t really see how much damage I’d sustained until others read it. In the feedback, I have learned to love my flesh machine a little more; I take lavender baths and go to the spa now instead of jumping off buildings and fighting with cops.
MD: On page 18 of the book, you write, “My words belonged to me, they were the only thing I had that were mine, and I didn’t trust anyone enough to share them.” What has it been like to share your words now in your book? Did you have any hesitations with sharing your words so publicly?
JT: I once saw an interview with Johnny Depp before my book went live and he said once a movie he’s made goes out into the world it is really none of his business. Once his job is done, he doesn’t care. In fact, he also said he’s never watched one of the movies he’s starred in. As well, my Elder, Maria Campbell, once told me as my book was just about to publish, to never listen to the clapping hands of the crowd because if you let the good in, you’ll also have to let in the bad. Well, I have fused both teachings from Depp and Campbell—I realized early on people’s reactions to what I’ve written is really none of my business, that’s theirs. I wrote my book for my own reasons not how others react to it. And I also try not to let the good or bad comments in, because, again, that’s more about others than it is about me and my story. In this way, I had the confidence to share and not really care what others say about my words or what they think or how they say I should have written it in this way or that. As the old saying goes: It’s not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles. I keep that close to my heart.
MD: You write on page 287, “I longed to be part of something again, to be known and accepted, to hear my name. No one ever said my name anymore.” In the next scene, you are climbing a construction tower with the plan of jumping off of it and a woman on the ground is trying to coax you back down. She says your name – a revelation – and you come back down. Why does calling someone by their name – or never doing so – contain such power? What changed inside of you when no one said your name for years?
JT: Because I was involved in the murder trial, and because people actively tried to kill me—as in hunted me to murder me—and because I was a crack addict, I used to give false names, or never tell people who I actually was. The years wandering like that, the paranoia that naturally grew from this, made it by the time I was homeless in Ottawa that no one really knew who I was, nor did they know my name. Of all the harms that came from the life I lived I think the dehumanization of not really having a name, and then not hearing it for months at a time, punched a hole in my soul, turned my spirit into just a bleached set of bones in the desert sun, bones that once were home to a fully fleshed human corpus that knew joy and love. I think that’s why in prison they give inmates an Otis number, or why in concentration camps tattooed numbers replaced names—they were trying to kill the spirit before the shell of a body goes with it. I felt something similar when no one called me my name; a haunting violence that still visits me like a spectre if I hold too still in my day to day life.
MD: There is a moment after you testify against Mike and Stefan, the two young men who killed Baljinder Rai. You hug his nephew, Paul Singh, and you compare your arms opening with “a thistle in bloom, wrapping every leaf around him, thorns outward, keeping us both safe.” How has your name, Thistle, influenced who you are?
JT: The last name Thistle actually comes from the royal emblem of Scotland during the Viking invasions in the 10th century. The old myth goes that the king of Scotland was sleeping in an encampment waiting for the Norse invasion, in an effort to defend his lands. The Vikings, however, had landed further up shore and snuck up to the king’s camp under cover of night. They took off their shoes as they approached, to soften the sound of their footsteps, and, just as they were to surprise the Scots, the lead Viking scout stepped on a thistle and screamed in pain, alerting the king and his men who sprang into battle and fended off the attack. The first man to meet the Vikings in battle that night, apparently, was my ancestor, and they gave him the name Thistle, defender of Scotland. Our family motto is Nemo Me Impune Lacessit, Latin for you cannot attack me with impunity, meaning I will defend myself if you try to hurt me or my people. Well, the incident with the cabbie and those two guys was a moment in my life when I had to stand up for what was right, even though it went against everything I’d been taught as a street person to keep your mouth shut no matter what, and even though I suffered violence for doing the right thing. I put that I hugged Paul after the court hearing because I honoured my family name; I protected like a Thistle is supposed to do. Standing up for justice—I mean really standing up when it matters most, when your life is literally on the line—is not something most people would do. Most people say or think they will and when it comes down to it, they’d rather just turn their head and walk away because they don’t want trouble. I guess I just chose different that day for once, I did what my ancestor in the thistle briar did all those years ago in Scotland.
MD: Your grandfather told you when you were young that “Men don’t cry; you’re a man now.” How did that declaration affect you as you grew older?
JT: I truly believed that being tough was about holding it in, getting on with life, and forcing your way through emotion because that’s what the world needs—tough men who can deal with life on life’s terms. My grandfather was that way; he lived his life the whole time I knew him only once ever crying (my grandma’s funeral). And I lived like that growing up and out on the streets, I let my fists do the talking. In many ways what I didn’t let out by crying I unleashed inward, letting the years of anger and hurt and despair swirl around my rib cage until it formed some uncontrollable tornado of fire, the kind you see in flash brush fires, the kind that rip through forests lighting everything blaze. I lived like that for many years not realizing I was actually a weak man who’d never known the true power of vulnerability, the power my grandfather lacked, the power letting your tears out has in drenching the inferno I’d had since the loss of my family when I was a young boy. Now when I see men cry I know we too have the right to show our emotion; we too are toughest when we wear our hearts on our cheeks.