The Next Chapter

Rebecca Thomas explores Mi'kmaw language in poetry collection I place you into the fire

The Halifax writer spoke with Shelagh Rogers about writing poems that call for justice and empathy.
I place you into the fire is a book by Rebecca Thomas. (Nimbus Publishing, Robert Short/CBC)

This episode originally aired on March 20, 2021.

Rebecca Thomas is a Mi'kmaw writer from Lennox Island, currently living in Nova Scotia. She was the Halifax poet laureate from 2016 to 2018.

Thomas is also the author of the children's book I'm Finding My Talk, which is a poem responding to the iconic Rita Joe poem I Lost My Talk. She dedicated that book to her father, who went to the same residential school as Joe.

Her debut poetry collection, I place you into the fireexplores language and what it means to be the daughter of a residential school survivor — and is a call for Indigenous justice and empathy.

Thomas spoke with Shelagh Rogers about the power of writing, words and culture.

The power of language

"I was blown away by the nuance of how [Mi'kmaw] language works, because I grew up speaking English. I did French immersion for a long time, so I speak French as well. It never occurred to me that holding a long vowel could change the entire meaning of something. 

I was just blown away by the nuance of how [Mi'kmaw] language works, because I grew up speaking English.

"It was a big eye-opening experience for me to understand that language, and how you speak it, is truly a window to a culture and a world view. 

"It was imperative that I at least try to understand the structure of the language and what it means to somebody, even if I'm not necessarily ever going to be fluent."

For the United Nations' International Year of Indigenous Languages, initiatives to strengthen ties between Indigenous people and their languages are being taken up across the world. This week on Unreserved, stories of reclamation and revitalization of Indigenous languages.

Understanding identity

"I experience a lot of privilege — depending on how I style myself and how I speak, I can be 'ethnically ambiguous,' which is often the term that I use. I have a lot of privilege in that I can be 'white-passing' in a lot of ways.

"I recognize that — and for a long time that used to be a source of insecurity because I wanted Indigenous people to see me as Indigenous. 

There are so many Indigenous people who are of mixed blood, but it's about who claims you back and community membership.

"There are so many Indigenous people who are of mixed blood, but it's about who claims you back and community membership.

"As I became more comfortable in who I was genetically, I started to recognize that it wasn't about my genetics, what percentage of Mi'kmaw that I was, but rather that I belonged to a community and they accepted me and claimed me back.

"That was where the big 'aha!' moment of recognizing my Indigeneity — who I was became much more concrete and much more confident."

In Mi’kmaw, three similarly shaped words have drastically different meanings: kesalul means “I love you”; kesa’lul means “I hurt you”; and ke’sa’lul means “I put you into the fire.” Former Halifax poet laureate Rebecca Thomas uses these Mi’kmaw phrases to underpin her first book of poetry, I Place You Into the Fire. Thomas joined Tom Power to discuss how her poetry serves as a rallying cry for Indigenous justice, empathy and equality.

Motivations for writing

"I never, ever thought that I would publish a book. My motivations for writing was never to be a writer, but rather to change the minds of people who look at Indigenous people with less empathy or respect or understanding. I did that through performance, and I did that through writing — and also to help me process my experiences. 

My motivations for writing was never to be a writer, but rather to change the minds of people who look at Indigenous people with less empathy or respect or understanding.

"Then a publisher wanted to publish my work and I was very humbled by that. I understand that it makes it a bit more accessible... so there's an opportunity for people to sit with the words and process it in a different way than through performance. 

"I see it as an additional expansion of my end goal to make people think about us differently."

Rebecca Thomas's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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