The Next Chapter·Q&A

Nicola I. Campbell's memoir Spílexm weaves poetry and prose to tell 'remembered stories' of resilience

The Nłeʔkepmx, Syilx and Métis author speaks with Shelagh Rogers about her memoir Spílexm.
Nicola I. Campbell is a Nłeʔkepmx, Syilx and Métis author from British Columbia. (Kalvin Warbus Photography)

This interview originally aired on Jan. 8, 2022.

Nicola I. Campbell is a Nłeʔkepmx, Syilx and Métis author from British Columbia. Her stories weave cultural and land-based teachings that focus on respect, endurance, healing and reciprocity.

Campbell has written five books for children, including Stand Like a Cedar and Shin-chi's Canoe.

Her latest book, Spílexm, is a memoir that reflects on the connection between culture and family. Intended for older readers, Spílexm mixes poetry, stories and letters to reflect on life experience and hard-fought wisdom. Spílexm means 'remembered stories' in the Nłeʔkepmx language and each story presents the people, places and languages that have touched Campbell's life. 

Spílexm was nominated for two 2022 Manitoba Book Awards, including the Mary Scorer Award for Best Book by a Manitoba Publisher, and is a finalist for the Jim Deva Prize for Writing that Provokes at the 2022 B.C. and Yukon Book Prizes, which will be awarded in September.

(HighWater Press)

Campbell, based in Sardis, B.C., spoke with Shelagh Rogers about writing Spílexm.

Why did you choose the word "spílexm" as the title for your book? 

Nicola I. Campbell: I was at a loss for what to call it. The only thing that kept coming to my mind was Spílexm because it's a memoir and it's all remembered stories in poetry. That seemed fitting. And I don't have fluent knowledge of my language — I know words. So that was a word that I knew. 

The word "spílexm" was relevant because it wasn't all events that involved me. It was events that my elders spoke of, that my family spoke of, that I wrote about. 

After the success that you've had with your children's books, why did you choose to write this book, which is so personal? 

Nicola I. Campbell: Well, it actually started to unfold itself over 25 years ago — parts of these had started coming together in my early stages of writing. Some of my earlier poems are Salish Dancer and poetry about the loss of my brother. And they weren't intentionally part of a memoir when I wrote them.

Unfolding the letters my mother wrote was really interesting because they spoke of a time that I don't remember.

It wasn't until my aunt handed me a stack of letters quite randomly, and said, "Oh, I found these letters your mom sent to me when your dad was still alive." She handed me these letters in pink envelopes. My mom spent a lot of time having nice handwriting so the script on the envelopes stood out to me. Unfolding all of the letters was really interesting because it spoke of a time that I don't remember — when I was just an infant and learning to walk. To hear those stories about my dad had quite an impact on me.

The writer Maria Campbell, your father's sister, is the last person you thank in your acknowledgements. And you thank her for courage. What did she give you? 

Nicola I. Campbell: She gave me awareness and understanding and her memories about my dad. My mom was in a very abusive relationship when I was a child. Violence against women was so normalized back then. And I say this because as a child, there are so many incidences — I remember women walking around with black eyes and not knowing as a child how wrong it was to be exposed to that, to witness that assault on women.

Hearing my aunt's voice as a young person gave me an awareness that I don't think I would have had otherwise.

It took me quite a few tries to read Halfbreed. I knew that these were stories about my family and about my dad. But also her foreword, where she writes from that voice in the here-and-now — I came to see things in a different light in our community. 

It's an understanding of what it means to be Indigenous — as well as Métis and also Nłeʔkepmx and Syilx in Canada. I came to understand the role of Canada in our lives, and that was a huge turning point for me. Hearing her voice as a young person gave me an awareness that I don't think I would have had otherwise. 

What inspired Stand Like A Cedar, your children's book? 

Nicola I. Campbell: I wanted to write something that was in the here-and-now of where I'm at in Stó:lō territory. My kids both liked I Went Walking and Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? I was thinking if I were to Indigenize that, what would it look like and how would that feel? And the rhythm was in my mind. Also, it's so much a part of who we are every day. This is how we live every day, all year round. We travel the land, we harvest. Harvesting our traditional foods is not an option, it's how we live with the land.

So a big part of it was reflecting on that and those questions. I remember my elders asking those questions: "What did you see?" or "What did you hear?" And they're innocent questions. But every time the question would come to mind, I would hear it in the voice of my elders. 

You write about an elder who was a speaker at a language conference near Seattle — he talked about the power of words, and he had a lasting impact on you. Why did he say we have to be careful about the stories we tell? 

Nicola I. Campbell: What he says is that stories are a spirit and they're alive, and they use us as their vehicle. All we are is the voice that brings them to life and that we have to take time to really deeply consider what we're saying. 

It made me realize how stories can heal and how stories can hurt and how stories can open hearts and minds everywhere they go.

It made me realize how stories can heal and how stories can hurt and how stories can open hearts and minds everywhere they go.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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