Canada Reads: 5 Lessons from Birdie author Tracey Lindberg in Thunder Bay
'Grotesque events can happen to you, but it's not you,' Lindberg says
Canada Reads author Tracey Lindberg visited Thunder Bay, Ont., and in a warm, witty and thought-provoking discussion shared some of her thoughts on what readers might take away from her debut novel, Birdie.
The book tells the story of Bernice Meetoos, who leaves her Cree community in northern Alberta and travels to British Columbia in a search for home, and hope, after a childhood shattered by sexual abuse.
Here are five things the audience at the Thunder Bay Public Library learned from Lindberg, who is also a professor at the University of Ottawa and an activist for the rights of indigenous women and children.
1. Where the author and main character meet
The answer to that question is complicated, and varies from day-to-day, Lindberg said.
"Today, I feel full-on Bernice."
"Having peeled back the layers, to be able to say to them, gross things can happen. Grotesque events can happen to you, but it's not you," she said.
"The part of me that wrote the book is absolutely here today, and I can say lots she experienced."
2. Use your words
Birdie is a novel rich in Aboriginal concepts and culture, and sometimes Lindberg couldn't find the appropriate English word to describe the emotions and relationships her Cree characters were experiencing.
But she came up with a very literal solution, by simply creating the words she needed, such as "motherlove", "sistercousin" and "fearanger".
"Somebody had called them compound words, and I don't think of them that way," Lindberg said. "I just think of them as big enough. Finally, there was a word big enough to encompass what I was feeling or thinking and I would press them together and they made sense to me."
3. The Beachcombers still matter
Lindberg cheerfully admitted she had a picture of Jesse hanging in her bedroom when she was growing up.
"He was gainfully employed. He was attractive. He was an Indian man on TV," said Lindberg.
"That was it. You'd see Buffy Ste. Marie on Sesame Street and that was the extant of it. In terms of iconic, that was the only person I saw on tv until, I'm sure, my teens," said Lindberg.
Leonardo DiCaprio's role in the film The Revenant suggests things haven't changed much, said Lindberg.
"There is still a skewed perspective of who is the imaginable Indian and that's a male dominated form and it's often the sort of awful, stigmatized, savagery that goes along with it," she said.
4. Familes are born and made
Bernice is also on a quest to find a sense of belonging, and to create a family, whether or not those people are blood relations, said Lindberg.
Bernice decides the healthiest people around her are these three women - her auntie Val, cousin Frida, and Lola, who runs the bakery where Bernice works.
"In that, there is all sorts of forgiveness, unspoken, and all sorts of kindness, and also an adjudication about the worth of kind people around you and that nobody is the worst thing they ever did. People are the best they do," said Lindberg.
Lola is white, and her inclusion in the family can surprise people, said Lindberg.
"Lola is metaphorically Canada", Lindberg said chuckling. "She's a little bit of a bigot at times, but she's loving and kind and well-intentioned and she's good."
5. The art of reconciliation
Birdie hit stores shelves the same week the Truth and Reconciliation Commission delivered its final report.
"These things are never solved in a courtroom. These things are never solved in a city council room... These things are solved in our kitchens, in our living rooms," she said.
"Art allows us into other people's bedrooms, other people's kitchens, other people's homes," she added.
Lindberg said since the book was published she has heard from people that they now look at Indigenous women in a different way.
"Maybe that's what art can offer us, in term of change — that we can change one heart at a time," she said.
"Maybe we've been too mindful. We've been thinking about changing people's minds and dictating through law and legislation where people go," she said. "Maybe it's actually about changing the way people feel."