Jennifer Manuel is a writer based in Vancouver Island. Her previous work, The Heaviness of Things that Float./won the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize. She is an activist on Indigenous issues and was previously an elementary and high school teacher in the lands of the Tahltan, Nuu-chah-nulth, and Cowichan peoples. The Morning Bell Brings the Broken Hearted is her second novel.
The Morning Bell Brings the Broken Hearted follows Molleigh, a new teacher in the remote Nuu-chah-nulth community of Tawakin. In her attempts to fit into the community while keeping her distance, she makes a critical cultural transgression, triggering a series of unsettling events. Giant boulders appear in the front of her house, furniture moves on its own, and unseen hands knock on doors. All the while, Molleigh grapples with her role as a temporary teacher, and the role of stories in someone’s life – especially a child’s.
Jennifer is being interviewed by Brianna Bock.
Brianna Bock (BB): The Morning Bell Brings the Broken Hearted and The Heaviness of Things that Float are both about white women who arrive in Indigenous communities for work. What is it about this narrative/theme that makes you want to explore it from multiple angles?
Jennifer Manuel (JM): The situation is a common one, yet at the same time unfamiliar to many Canadians who have always lived in urban and suburban centres. The nurse profession intrigued me because it is a profession in which you learn personal details about the entire community through their medical moments. The teacher character offered the opportunity to explore the deficiencies in how the government offers public education in our very remote communities. In both cases, these remote communities tend to attract some unusual characters—and sure, there are unusual characters in every community, but their presence in a remote community is amplified.
BB: Since both of your novels take place on the same island, what made you want to return to it and the same community for The Morning Bell Brings the Broken Hearted? Do you think you’ll return to the community in future novels?
JM: I knew before writing The Heaviness of Things That Float that I also wanted to write a novel about a teacher in that community. The first book is about the tenuous nature of belonging as an outsider, whereas The Morning Bell Brings the Broken Hearted is about the nature of hope and how that can or cannot be instilled in others. I also knew from the start that these were the only two novels about Indigenous/non-Indigenous relations that I wished to write about.
BB: What was the writing process like from writing an older protagonist who’s seemingly established in the community, to a younger one who’s brand new to the community?
JM: It was a trickier process because I found it difficult to write Molleigh’s reactions to things without bringing my more experienced knowledge into her understanding. Mind you, it would have been a much different book had Molleigh been in her early to mid-twenties like many new teachers who move to these communities. At nearly forty, Molleigh was more like myself as I didn’t get my teaching degree until my mid-thirties as a single mom of three children.
BB: What made you want to focus on the BC education system in Indigenous communities for this novel?
JM: I do not think that the BC education system is serving small, remote communities well. What makes it especially difficult is the transient nature of educators in those communities. Kids grow cynical about teachers when several of their teachers leave suddenly in the middle of the school year because they can’t cope with the isolation.
BB: I listened to your interview with the Next Chapter about The Heaviness of Things that Float while thinking of interview questions, and you mentioned that Bernadette was in an emotional glass jar. Was Molleigh in a glass jar?
JM: Bernadette was in an emotional glass jar until I finally struck upon what I truly wanted to say, which was: if you mistake your truths for your neighbour’s truth, you will overestimate your belonging as an outsider in these communities. I did go through a similar period of being stuck about Molleigh’s character, but in almost the reverse: I knew too much what I wanted to say and had to let go of that in order to prioritize the story, not my agenda.
BB: I’m always interested in stories about stories. In writing The Morning Bell Brings the Broken Hearted, what made you decide on weaving the importance of stories in people’s lives into the narrative?
JM: When I was doing my education degree at UBC many years ago, I was in a Social Justice in Education class when a classmate explained that he couldn’t understand why people of lower socioeconomic status didn’t make use of loans and grants to attend university. It occurred to me that it is not enough for people to have choices. They must believe they have choices. How does that belief arise in a person? Stories. There’s a reason why the Bible is written in stories, and not in bulleted exposition. This book is ultimately about hope and belief in choices and how that comes from stories.
BB: With one of the themes of the narrative being the importance of the stories we tell ourselves (culturally and personally), is the story of the woman and the baby in the box your own creation or was it inspired by a particular story? If it was inspired, what was it about the story that spoke to The Morning Bell Brings the Broken Hearted?
JM: At one point I was convinced that I was once told about a woman in an opened casket on one of the small islands on the northwest coast of Vancouver Island, but I’m not so sure now. Wherever the notion came from, it intrigued me for a few reasons. One is the idea that no one is obligated to tell her story. Two, she represents exile and “outside-ness.” Three, despite the feeling of exile, she seems to me to represent independence and resilience. I don’t know why that is, it just is.
BB: The full story of the woman and the baby in the box was never fully revealed to the reader. We hear snippets of it, but never the full original context. Was this intentional?
JM: Yes, this was intentional. As Sophie Florence tells Molleigh in the novel, the Elders will tell the story if it needs to be told, otherwise, accept not hearing the story. We live in an age in which people seem to expect that their demands for information will be met.
BB: I was really fascinated by Molleigh’s justification to herself in not coming forward to apologize to the community until the very end of the book. She has plenty of opportunities beforehand, but is ultimately paralysed in being seen as a bad person by the community. Was it challenging writing a protagonist who falls into inaction? How do you make that paralysation compelling to a reader?
JM: She only fell into inaction so far as the apology was concerned, which is something I can understand when an apology requires cooking for the entire community. The paralysation of a character can be very compelling if the result is tension.
BB: The back of the book mentions ‘the complexity of hope’ and the ‘limits of good intentions’, and it got me thinking that hope is often portrayed as a universal good thing. But here you show a person rewriting a cultural story to give children of the community hope that I read as more giving them despair when they didn’t find what they were looking for. What made you want to focus on the complex side of hope for The Morning BellBbrings the Broken Hearted?
JM: One of the things I found most difficult to understand as a non-Indigenous teacher in an Indigenous community was that my concept of “success” was different than my neighbours’ concept of “success.” This was explained to me by an Elder early in my career and as much as I tried to acknowledge that different perspective, I found it impossible to reconcile in the context of public education. I think the same holds true for other concepts like hope and belief. You need to let go of assumptions that your concept of hope and your notion of how to build hope in others may be inaccurate or misaligned.