The Next Chapter

B.C.'s Sarah de Leeuw uses poetry to examine the colonization of language in the islands of Haida Gwaii

The B.C.-based geographer, poet and author spoke with Shelagh Rogers about exploring the legacy of colonial violence in the islands of Haida Gwaii.
A whie woman with red framed glassed smiles as she looks down to the bottom-left corner of the frame.
Sarah de Leeuw is a B.C.-based geographer, poet and author of the poetry collection Lot. (Caitlin Press)
Sarah de Leeuw talks to Shelagh Rogers about her book of poetry, Lot.

Sarah de Leeuw's latest poetry collection Lot takes readers to Haida Gwaii, where she grew up. The poems investigate the history, language and the violence of colonization and how that has shaped the land. Some of the poems contain lists, and they swell and sway and seduce with their rhythm as the poems reimagine historical records and documents.

In Lot, de Leeuw reflects on her early girlhood and the racial complexities of colonial violence. The poetry collection draws a line between past and present violence and uses lyric traditions to interrogate the role of language in centering stories of white supremacy on the islands of Haida Gwaii in British Columbia.

The B.C. poet is also a geographer and writer who melds social criticism with literary nonfiction. Her book Where It Hurts, a collection of personal essays, was a finalist for the 2017 Governor General's Literary Award for nonfiction. She was also the winner of the 2008 CBC Creative Nonfiction Prize and was the runner-up in 2009.

She spoke with The Next Chapter's Shelagh Rogers about writing Lot.

A new perspective

"Growing up on what I understood and called the Queen Charlotte Islands, I knew nothing about Queen Charlotte. Years later, in Prince George, I was doing a poetry reading with a pretty amazing scholar, cultural critic and poet himself, C.S. Giscombe, and he asked me what I knew about Queen Charlotte.

"I said, 'Nothing, I kind of imagined that she was a miserable British monarch intent on colonial acquisition.' And Cecil told me, 'there's a lot of conversation about Queen Charlotte being the first Black monarch.' That just really threw a wrinkle in what I think is too often imagined as sort of a straightforward, incredibly violent acquisition-based process of colonialism.

It was a reminder to me, as somebody of Dutch Irish descent, that coloniality is a complex, intersectional, multi-layered, incredibly messy process.

"It was a reminder to me as somebody of Dutch Irish descent that coloniality is a complex, intersectional, multi-layered, incredibly messy process. It's often imagined and re-imagined and taken up — and moved backwards and then violently moved forward.

"None of this makes any less of colonial violence, but it reminds us that we have to really unpack the language through which colonial violence is considered, and poetry may be one way of getting at that. 

"So certainly within Lot — which of course is a derivation of Lottie itself, sort of a reference to Charlotte — I tried to do that in part by gathering together these conflicting historical documents, re-imagining them and then sort of weaving my own voice and experience of growing up with the privilege of never thinking about colonial violence."

Haida Gwaii is made up of more than 150 islands about 90 kilometres west of British Columbia's north coast. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

The power of names

"Naming is always a violence, particularly in settler colonial contexts. I'm not suggesting here that Haida names for land and place and home and salmon are a violence, but the erasure of those names, the systematic overlay of English onto so many other languages, is an imperial move.

"If we don't understand as people who for whom English is a first language, that that is not a neutrality. English and the process of writing and archiving and collecting and naming is an integral part of colonial violence. Every time I pick up my pen and write, I am in fact using the very same tools that my Dutch ancestors used to colonize Indonesia, to send ships around the world.

I'm not suggesting here that Haida names for land and place and home and salmon are a violence, but the erasure of those names, the systematic overlay of English onto so many other languages, is an imperial move.

"We need to remind ourselves, and I say ourselves very purposefully here as those of us of white Euro-colonial descent — who have in some ways other homelands to reference. This is a defining way of understanding Indigeneity, as opposed to settler-coloniality. 

"Those of us who are of Dutch Irish descent can trace our kinship and our lineage somewhere other than where we currently reside; our language, English, is an ongoing tool of coloniality

"It's complicated and it's messy, which is precisely why poetry and listing and lyric, I think, get at that."

An octopus house, the mound of rocks in the middle, is shown here in an intertidal pool at T’aanuu Llnagaay village on Haida Gwaii, B.C. The houses are circular dome-shaped structures that are usually around one-metre in diameter, and one-metre high. (Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve)

A lot to look forward to

"I wanted to forecast a future, to understand my present self as being vitally informed by these geographies and landscapes of my early girlhood growing up on Haida Gwaii. The lot of my future is all of the messy definitions encompassed in the word.

"It is sometimes a bad lot. It's sometimes plots of land. But it's always a forecasting of what I didn't know when I was growing up on Haida Gwaii and on the Queen Charlotte Islands.

One of the things that was important to me in the book was to forecast a future and to understand my present self as being vitally informed by these geographies and landscapes of my early girlhood growing up on Haida Gwaii.

"It is that lot of my future. That lot of where I may be taken into places that I didn't understand when I was growing up on the Queen Charlottes, on Haida Gwaii. And in that way, the lot of my future is hopeful and beyond imagination.

"These are things that in some ways are beyond imagination. They are global pandemics. They are Black Lives Matter. They are #MeToo movements. They are divorce, loss, death and transformation, and they're also poetry...and potential.

"They're everything that I had no sight of when I grew up on Haida Gwaii, on what I understood to be the Queen Charlotte Islands."

Sarah de Leeuw's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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