Troy Sebastian |nupqu ʔak·ǂam̓ is a Ktunaxa writer from ʔaq̓am. Troy has a MFA from the University of Victoria where he teaches writing. His story tax niʔ pikak̓— a long time ago– was longlisted for the 2018 CBC Short Story Prize and the 2019 Writers’ Trust Journey Prize. He was selected as a 2020 Writer’s Trust Rising Star by Lynn Coady and longlisted for the 2020 CBC Poetry Prize. He is represented by Rachel Letofsky at CookeMcDermid.
Troy Sebastian |nupqu ʔak·ǂam̓ will be in an event celebrating new/ as-yet-unpublished writing by local authors, therefore no particular book is featured.
Interviewed by Mieke de Vries
Mieke de Vries (MDV): Who do you write for? Who do you write to?
Troy Sebastian (TS): Those are some really, really good questions.
Throughout my life I have written for myself. Before I ‘became’ a writer, I would write at the end of the day in a journal, or I would scribble a poem of sorts out during never-ending meetings between my nation and Canada. These small spaces of solace that I found on the page were ponds of expression that I could visit and leave and return to for reflection. I learned a lot about myself in that rhythm. I did this for years. Over time, those ponds of expression revealed an ocean that I could give myself to, entirely and without reservation. When I realized that I could write I also knew that I must write.
I write for myself, for Ktunaxa, for future readers who have yet to be born. I think of future Ktunaxa reading my work, long after I have passed, and seeing the writing as a space and environment for them to see themselves but also to find space to write away from. That is to say, all writing is bound by the era, sentiments and prejudices that the writer finds themselves in. I realize the limitations and temporal parochialism that my writing inhabits. I hope that it is a space that future Ktunaxa can relate to especially when attempting to glean meaning of their past for their present. So, I am writing to future Ktunaxa and, by doing so, I serve Ktunaxa futurisms. This is critical to me as we have had such limited ability to do so, to craft for our future throughout our history under Canadian rule and occupation. It may seem a jump, but I do not underestimate the power, opportunity and responsibility of exchanging the Indian agent for the literary agent.
MD: All of your work reveals your hilarious sense of humour, but this is especially clear in your piece published in The Walrus, “The Art of the Snag”. Can you speak about the space humour occupies in your work? Do you aim to make readers laugh, or is this none of your intention or concern?
TS: When I was growing up I spent a lot of time alone. I learned to entertain myself whether it was playing with toys or reading comics or whatnot. I was raised by a single mom so she was my primary audience but not my sole audience. I don’t know when it happened but at some point when I was very young I learned to make myself laugh. I have learned humour as a space to exist that is safe and that can be both good and bad. The good is obvious. But the challenging part is the performative nature of humour of racialized people to suit or assuage a white majority. There is nothing funny about that. The other part of this answer is that Ktunaxa are very funny people, my family in particular. I take great pride and joy in that knowledge.
In 1952, the government of British Columbia published a series of booklets titled British Columbia Heritage Series ‘Our Native Peoples’. These booklets aimed at explaining the various tribes of the province for a k-12 audience. That publication stated that the Kootenay are fond of jokes and have a keen sense of the ridiculous, which often causes them to enjoy the discomfort of others.
MDV: There is a short glossary included with your piece published in The Walrus, “Tax Niʔ Pik̓ak”, which translates some of the Ktunaxa words into English. Was the inclusion of this glossary your intention, or that of the publisher/editor? What is it like to write and publish — and think and exist — in two languages? What do you hope Ktunaxa speakers and other Indigenous people take from your work? What about English-speaking settlers?
TS: I think the glossary was the publisher’s idea but it was a discussion that was worth having and I am glad to have published so much Ktunaxa in that story, especially in the title and in the name of the author. That was the first time I had my Ktunaxa name in print.
I do not dream in Ktunaxa and I can hardly carry on a conversation in the language. My father was fluent and learned English as a second language. So, I am not sure I really exist in two languages. I try to allow my mind to leave whatever confines English demands. I have no idea what adverbs or adjectives are. I detest grammar, it is just another Indian agent permitting and prohibiting at will. I chose to write with Ktunaxa words as that space takes me some place that I want to go to. Specifically, I wrote Tax Niʔ Pik̓ak in about three hours for a deadline. The three characters in the story are my grandmother ka titi, my uncle Pat and my brother Skin. I never knew any of them so I was using the story to imagine what a conversation would be like between them. I like the idea of existing before time, or, as Ktunaxa have said ‘in the vast geological distance’. My hope is to have Ktunaxa read the story and marvel at the bullshit just as though I was telling a tall tell to them directly.
I don’t have any hope for settlers, literarily or otherwise.
MDV: In your piece published by The Walrus, “Raptors, Race, and Belonging”, you write “Authority determines who and what a hero is through means stronger than simple morality and taste. Power gives affection to that which is allowed to be heroic and casts judgment on that which challenges that power. This has been true in this country since Macdonald and Louis Riel. But times are changing—along with buildings, bridges, and memorial statues that honour cruelty. Through the clarity of justice and the erosion of hegemony, heroes of previous generations are giving way to new heroes.” In “Tax Niʔ Pik̓ak”, you write about the erection of the statue of David Thompson and how he was celebrated as “some great explorer”, despite how he actually arrived in Ktunaxa ʔamak̓is “hungry, lost, and afraid.” What pulls you to write about heroes and heroism? What can examining heroes throughout time — from David Thompson to Kawhi Leonard — reveal?
TS: I wrote about David Thompson stealing his story of exploring our territory from my brother because it made me laugh and because it is true. Do white people really think that David Thompson and the other bandy-kneed dude-bros actually ‘discovered’ anything? Sad.
I suppose I have written about heroes due to the volume of colonial villains that we have to contend with. Their names are on nearly every street in the city and on every dollar in the bank. I was attracted to write about Kahwi as I cherished the idea of someone who was so celebrated and coveted throughout the country who then turned around and left it all for greener pastures- the idea that however enviable and attractive the country may seem to many, especially for those that it was built for, it could be so easily relinquished for something else. Indigenous peoples in Canada do not have another country, yet, to turn to. But Kawhi did. Plus, I got to go to the victory parade in Toronto and that was absolutely amazing.
MDV: In “New Year’s Eve, 1984”, you write “There is no memory like the one written in the blood. It boils you clean from all intention until there is nothing left but instinct.” Do you write from this instinct? How do you go about writing your past and writing memory?
TS: I write with instinct, fear, obsession, love, hate, heat, loss, a chase of memory, with a chaos of bones & expectation and most of all I write with my gut. When I write the best, that is when it feels the best, I write without anything between me and the page, we are the same and I am whole in that moment. But it doesn’t last and that is probably a good thing or else I would likely get hungry and ornery.
MDV: What are you currently working on? What is your writing process like? Do you usually have one project on the go, or multiple at one time?
TS: I am working on a short story and a collection of short stories, a poetry collection and, of course, the manuscript for my novel which I dearly want to finish. I am also starting a PhD program this fall at UVic.
MDV: What writers and artists inspire you? Who and what are you currently reading, listening to, watching, and enjoying?
TS: I love cinema. Throughout the pandemic I have been obsessing over film noir and hardboiled – crime drama essentially. Films like The Lady from Shanghai, Gilda, The Third Man, The Long Goodbye, The 39 Steps, though not technically noir, as well as No Country for Old Men and Fargo, and the artistry and worldcraft of Raymond Chandler, Rita Hayworth, Glenn Ford, Orson Welles, Carol Reed, Joseph Cotton, Hitchcock, the Coen brothers and Cormac McCarthy evoke something in me that I find very compelling. This has led me to contemplate what these films and genre offer to me and why am I attracted to them. In these worlds corruption is rife in systems of administration, in law and politics, in business, throughout society, throughout the city…and no matter the work of the protagonist there isn’t much positive change that is possible. The world is askew and the protagonist inhabits very shaky moral grounds. For instance, at the end of Fargo a Sheriff gives a murderer a lecture on the futility of crime, but there is also a futility in the lecture and in the pursuit of law enforcement- in spite of great sleuthing a swath of innocent people, and some not so innocent, are killed. I am attracted to the principles of noir and hardboiled genres as they speak to the reality of living, surviving and recording Ktunaxa life in the face of ongoing and systemic genocide. This is not to say that these are conclusions that I endorse or that I feel are inevitable, far from it. But, these genres offer an artistic space to create and craft and I find that so attractive. This has led me to consider the idea and opportunity of Ktunaxa noir as a genre of writing, and, naturally, to always have a rock-solid alibi.
The writers that inspire me, Kim Senklip Harvey’s Kamloopa is brilliant and essential playwriting and Helen Knott’s In My Own Moccasins is such a powerful and essential memoir. I have also been reading Canisia Lubrin, Kaie Kellough and all sorts of Alan Moore.