Emily Riddle is nehiyaw and a member of the Alexander First Nation in Treaty 6. Her nonfiction and poetry appears in publications across Canada, including the Globe and Mail, Canadian Art Magazine, Prism International, Briarpatch Magazine, and Guts Magazine, and she also writes for the Yellowhead Institute. She just completed a poetry mentorship program through the Writers’ Trust with Joshua Whitehead, which has resulted in a poetry manuscript that will soon be published. She is also working on a novel.
Lenore Hietkamp is an editor and artist living in the Cowichan Valley, BC, on the traditional and unceded territory of the Coast Salish Peoples, the traditional territory of the Quw’utsun (Cowichan) Tribes.
Lenore Hietkamp (LH): In Kazua Ishiguro’s lecture when he accepted the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2017, he notes how the world has become so divided, on the right and the left. One of his recommendations is that for literature to continue to be meaningful, we must listen to many voices. What do you bring to literature that’s new, that he would want to read to understand that deep divide in the world today?
Emily Riddle (ER): A big question to start off with. I feel that I’m part of the community of nehiyaw, or Cree writers that are pushing things in literature, so it’s hard for me to position myself as an individual without the context of that community. So, within the philosophy that we have as Cree people is really about our kinship to everything, to everyone too. I think that settlers have kind of forgotten to move forward, and our thought is how to relate to people, or how you are related to people, and how that effects our everyday interactions, and what that brings to governance, too. And I started off more in academia and also in a position of governance so I kind of bring that lens to literature. It’s only in the last few years that I started doing more lit writing rather than op-eds or things like that, too, so I guess I bring a bit of that lens.
LH: Why did you want to do that?
ER: I feel like it was the freedom from writing policy. I still think there’s ways to make freedom within policy, but feeling more unconstrained, particularly within poetry, is really effective for Indigenous audiences, which is different from the more nonfiction writing I’ve done for reports or things like that. And working in different genres, I am thinking about different audiences and who I’m writing for in particular.
LH: Writing about relationships, it reminds me of something the new lieutenant governor talked about when she took office, about how the only way that things will change is if we actually get to know each other on an individual, one-on-one basis. And that kind of blew my mind, because I thought, “Where do I come in contact with any First Nations people?” It seems like a great failing in our society that we are so separated. And as you say, settlers have kind of lost that tie- or we have that to learn.
In your stories and your poetry you often include observations as if you are from the outside looking in to the society around you, but yet you have a very acute knowledge of what that society is like, the Western general society. Is that a theme for you? And how does it drive your story making?
ER: I’m actually at work, in a library. And the Elder that I work with – I work for them just at the library – we’re both from this territory. So, Edmonton is part of my greater traditional territory, my community is about forty-five minutes away from here, but this was a significant gathering place for us, in the time before it was built into a city. And so she talks a lot about how when we leave our houses or our apartments in this city, we’re bombarded with this other culture which is not indigenous to this place, and so we’re facing a kind of culture shock every day and interacting with all these processes and things on our own land. My critique, and talking about settler governance and those kinds of things, comes from that. Being raised in a mixed family, I have a non-Indigenous dad too, so I’ve seen the way that two different people are able to interact with this world, and the two different kinds of worlds they inhabit. I really don’t like to say I walk in two worlds, because I think that puts us off to not acknowledge that we live in one world with systemic injustice, but I do see the way that they interact with the world differently.
LH: It reminds me of your story “An Immodest Proposal.” You talk about how the bros, the men, talk about revolution and nothing ever happens. How the application of the idea somehow fails. And it’s like you’re trying to ground yourself in the world we are given to live in, that this is a single reality with lots of flaws in it. Do you think about that? That this is a flawed world full of chaos, things we don’t understand? I think you have a comment in one of your stories about that.
ER: I think about time a lot. From a nehiyaw point of view, there are all these timelines happening at once, so time isn’t as linear as it is in most Western thought. We do live in a really chaotic time, especially now with the pandemic, climate change quickening, and things like that, too. Also, returning to “An Immodest Proposal,” I think that a lot of Indigenous men who are in academia will often romanticise the idea of a revolution, but we’ve seen people who have lived in countries with actual physical revolutions like that, and it’s often women and children that are suffering from that actual revolution. What does revolution look like? We have a pretty clear guideline from our History of Creation story for Cree people that we’re not supposed to revolt in a violent way, too. So I did a lot of reading of Frantz Fanon, which will show up in a bit, and other revolutionary thinkers, and reading Western political philosophy and thinking about violence through my own cultural lens was interesting. Like, what is violence? What is revolution? And time?
LH: Well, at the end of that story I was sort of expecting a manifesto, a ‘This is what we need to do.’ And then it becomes a kind of… I don’t want to say flippant, but there’s definitely some humour at the end, like you’re looking inwards and seeing the irony, I suppose, or the paradox. Do you like to write with humour? Is that something that you try to accomplish?
ER: Yeah, I do. I sent my sister a manuscript and she said she cried, and I said, “You were supposed to laugh!” I feel like being funny is important for my writing—or I would aspire to be funny, anyways. Or cheeky, at least.
ER: Something I like about poetry is that – other people say the opposite – I feel like I can hide behind poetry, other people say they feel like they’re more exposed. I feel like I can hide, to an extent, in a way I can’t in non-fiction.
LH: That’s interesting. Because poetry is a lot of images, isn’t it? You can leave things unspoken for the reader to fill in those pieces, so that’s a reader-writer experience that is maybe different in non-fiction, or fiction.
You also talk about storytelling and how it’s alive and ever-changing, and you mentioned that earlier just now as well. When I was a kid I understood stories to be one way, and then I became an editor – and that’s what I do, that’s how I make my living, as an editor – and I’ve become exposed to different ways of writing and shaping words. And I’m not sure where I’m going with this question—maybe that the definition of stories that are alive and ever-changing, but what were you thinking about?
ER: In “An Immodest Proposal”? Stories have particular cultural significance to us. We have a History of Creation story for Cree people, for Plains Cree people in particular, and it takes four months to recite if you tell it in full. And it actually, if you hear excerpts of it, include us in the present day, so we’re part of the story. In that way, our stories are ever-changing, and we’re still living out the particular timeline that we’re in. And also, that’s a separate big ceremonial story, but there’s other stories that we tell. Personal stories, or the kind of writing that I do. And it’s interesting, I think, that it gets frozen on page in this way because it can’t change. I always think about that, and I’ve asked other writers, interviewing them, that you have to show care for that version of yourself that you’ve documented in that publication. It’s a certain version of you that doesn’t exist anymore.
LH: So, the story that is told is different, it can’t be captured, so the thing that you write is just a different thing.
ER: Yeah. I think about that with my poetry book right now, too, because it’s changed a lot in the last few months. Then at what point do I say I’m done and on to the next project here? I could write or edit it forever.
LH: Animals come up often in your work. I know you mentioned earlier about how, with relationships, we’re interconnected, and I see that in your writing. I grew up on a farm, and farm animals are just farm animals, right, and I always had this uncomfortable feeling that, ‘Isn’t it slightly cruel to do that to a milk cow? Oh well, it’s just a milk cow.’ I wonder if that is something that’s part of your growing-up process, too, becoming aware of animals and their value and how they parallel our own world.
ER: There’s lots of animals in my poetry. I grew up in the city, but there are lots of animals that occupy the city, particularly the River Valley in Edmonton. There’s lots of fish… It ended up being a lot about fish, actually, in my book.
But we’re just taught that animals are our kin, and we’re relatives to them, and there’s lots of teachings around animals. I’ve been really interested in, in particular—sturgeon show up in my poetry a lot, because they live in the North Saskatchewan River, and they’re a descendant of dinosaurs. So I have some new pieces that are about them. People have this assumption that the kind of bitumen that we harvest from the tar sands in Alberta is actually made of dinosaur material, and it’s from a different era. So I’m thinking a lot about dinosaurs as kin and relatives in that way, and our relationship. It’s this false story about fossil fuels, too.
LH: I like that line in one of your poems about sturgeon at the bottom of the river. There’s this sense of uncovering the mysteries beneath the surface of the water. Is that part of what you engage with when you write about fish?
ER: I think there’s lots of worlds under the water. I think water is so productive when thinking about trees and women and that sort of stuff. The fish are beings that inhabit that other world, and maybe a different timeline that we don’t see. And I’m fascinated that the sturgeon have witnessed so much change and still remain around, and will likely outlast us.
LH: Are you still working on the novel, “Quartz and Horses”?
ER: Yeah, I am. I’ve been stuck in poetry world, but I have been working on it a little bit when I get the chance.
LH: It feels autobiographical. Harriet has a mother who you say provided her with the space to be self-determining, but sometimes Harriet struggles with that amount of space. And she also talks about being in balance, and Harriet struggles with what that means. That theme of balance comes up in your poem “Storm Formation” as well, where the storm ends up resolving in balance. I find that very intriguing. Do you see that theme as something that you explore?
ER: It’s funny that you say “autobiographical” and then that line, because that is something that my mom would say growing up. One of our teachings is that balance doesn’t mean being stagnant, so it’s okay for things to change. My mom’s probably better at change than I am, where I like things to be regimented. She would always say it’s fine for things to change, they can remain in balance. Some parts are ordained for ourselves. Newo means a four-bodied person. So, trying to maintain balance between the mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual quadrants of our being is one of our core teachings—to be in balance. So it does come up a little bit. Something I try to think about a lot, in part in the pandemic, is that we’re just heads, we’re not as connected to the physical and spiritual aspects of our being.
LH: We have to find a different way to shift that balance. In that line, I felt that you knew someone like that I could feel it, I thought that probably was your mother. That’s what made me think it was autobiographical. You talk about how she gave Harriet space, which makes me wonder, is that space what led you to want to be a writer? Someone gave you enough space, perhaps, to find your voice as a young writer?
ER: I think she gave me lots of space. I don’t know if I included that piece in there, but my mom is a hairdresser and always was an artist, too, so she really encouraged my sister and I to make art, and to write. So that was always encouraged and given space and resources, and, even though we didn’t have that much money growing up, buying us books or taking us to the library or providing us with art supplies, too. That was always a major encouragement. I think the other thing that made me a writer was just being around other writers, and having mentors and being around those folks too. I think I was very against being a poet, for a while. I had this idea of just writing nonfiction, but then I hung out with a bunch of poets.
LH: Well, there’s nothing wrong with becoming a writer just through osmosis. And I’m really curious about where that story’s going to go. I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be neat if Harriet’s letters ended up changing the course of history?’
ER: I’m trying to find this novel right now. It’s really hard, because I can almost see it being more than one book. In that particular part of the novel, I’m not talking that much about Louise, but I’ve written some poems about her. She’s one of my aunt’s sisters who was married to the chief factor of Fort Edmonton in a particular era. So, trying to build out a bit more of what she would think of being in—this story takes place in about 2027, a little bit past where we are right now. So, thinking about what she would think of this era, and trying to think through what is her mission in being here. Because in the poems I’ve written about her, she comes to the future to restore the matriarchy, or to tell people that we were a matriarchal people and that’s the sort of governance we should be living within. So what does that look like for her? I still have to think that through a little bit.
LH: It will be very interesting to see where that comes out.
ER: I have a grant right now which is mainly focused on research, to do more research about that era and the fur trade. Because they go back in time again, both of them, into the past. Making sure that things are accurate about the fur trade is actually pretty jerky.
LH: Right. You mean in terms of the First Nations experience at that time?
ER: Both. I’ve been able to rely on primary sources, but also talking to Elders that know what our lives actually would have been like. For example, the letter would have been written in syllabics, I’m asking Elders, ‘In this time period, how many people would have been literate in syllabics? Or have the missionaries affected the ability for that communication in that time?’
LH: Has there been much written about Indigenous history? So much of it is based on settler records.
ER: Yeah, a lot of it comes from settler historians. There’s a few more Indigenous historians that are coming out, now, too.