Katherena Vermette's novel The Strangers is an intergenerational story about anger, pain and survival
The Strangers won the 2021 Atwood Gibson Writers' Trust Fiction Prize
This interview originally aired on September 25, 2021.
Katherena Vermette is a Métis writer living in Winnipeg. Her books include the poetry collections North End Love Songs and river woman, debut novel The Break and the graphic novel series A Girl Called Echo. North End Love Songs won the Governor General's Literary Award for poetry. The Break was a finalist for the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize and the Governor General's Literary Award for fiction, and was defended by the late Candy Palmater on Canada Reads 2017.
Her latest novel, The Strangers, returns to the world of The Break as readers are brought into the dynamic world of the Stranger family, the shared pain of their past and the light that shines from the horizon. After spending time in foster homes, Cedar goes to live with her estranged father. Being separated from her mother, Elsie, and her sister, Phoenix, is painful, but she's hoping for a new chapter in life. The three women diverge, reconnect and fight to survive in a system that expects them to fail.
The Strangers won the 2021 Atwood Gibson Writers' Trust Fiction Prize. The $60,000 prize recognizes the best in fiction in Canada.
Vermette spoke with Shelagh Rogers about writing The Strangers.
I think Phoenix is the result of so many failures. She was failed by her school, first of all, who reported her to protective services. She was failed by her mother, who was so lost in her own addiction and dealing with her unresolved pain. She was then failed by the system over and over again.
This is a system that puts babies in hotels, or in strangers' houses. Though we all try to do our very best, it's still not their home. Then she reacted like so many kids in this pain. I think that is a valid response to this world and those kinds of predicaments with rage and reaction and violence.
I think that it's really a valid response to respond to this world and those kinds of predicaments with rage and reaction and violence.
I think that's completely understandable.
How do her family members view Phoenix, now that she's in custody?
There's a lot of disjointedness with these family members, and that's part of the idea of The Strangers. They are very disconnected — not only by the systems that were imposed upon them and separate them very deliberately, but also by their own pain and trauma. Elsie, Phoenix's mom, was estranged from her mom just out of their own fighting and their own disagreements. By consequence, her children became estranged from her mother.
Phoenix has a lot of people rooting for her in her family, in their way, perhaps safely and from a distance. Her one biggest fan through the story — and that really broke my heart — was her little sister Cedar Sage. No matter what Phoenix has done, Cedar just remembers her as her elder sibling who took care of her. Phoenix very much was Cedars' place of home.
We're all different people to others, right? Phoenix was a good sister, even though she wasn't always a good person to other people.
Phoenix's grandmother, Margaret, is also driven by rage. Where does her anger come from?
Her rage comes from just being an Indigenous person in the world. Margaret is a fierce little firecracker. She has three older brothers who are a bit of troublemakers. To survive in the world, they made trouble and they got by and they were successful in their ways.
Margaret learned to stick up for herself, and she was always looking for a fight. Reactions to stress are fight, flight or freeze. She was a fighter and she came out swinging. She just never quite knew when to stop. But that is also the result of trauma.
What interested you, in particular, about female rage?
I totally relate to female rage. I'm not a violent person. I hope I'm not a rageful person, though I'm pretty sure my family might disagree sometimes! I understand being angry — and I'm so angry. There's so many things in this world that enrage me: losing people who are too young and addiction. Addiction is just this pain that people can't heal from because it's never-ending. That is pure rage.
There are so many things about being an Indigenous person in this world that fills me with rage.
There are so many things about being an Indigenous person in this world that fills me with rage. But there is joy, too. There is lots of love. I am so proud of who I am and where I come from. But there are so many injustices in this world. They are unjust and they never seem to change. And that fills me with rage.
You explore the mother-daughter relationship within these three generations. There's something about grandmothers and granddaughters and their relationship — and how if the daughter doesn't get along with the mother, she does get along with the grandmother. Is there something in there?
When you are in uterus as a female human, you create your eggs that could potentially become your future children. So your eggs are created inside of your biological mother's baby cells while she's inside of her mother. They're actually created inside of your grandmother.
I love that idea that we come from that egg of our mother that actually was grown inside of our grandmother. I love that idea of how connected we are to our grandparents. I love the idea that we are born literally inside our grandmothers. We are housed inside of them as much as we are housed inside of our mothers.
I always say I love "mama drama." It's such an important and fraught relationship. There's so much there. When we think about ourselves as humans walking around into this world — and about how we're connected to each other — I love grandmothers. I think grandmothers are kind of allowed to be a little more perfect than mothers. They get to be the fun ones in a lot more ways than mothers do.
I wanted to explore those intergenerational effects of how things are passed down, of how we become who we are based on what we've learned.
I wanted to explore those intergenerational effects of how things are passed down, of how we become who we are based on what we've learned, which is mostly from those who came before us in one way or another.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.