Why Katherena Vermette's heartbreaking debut novel The Break continues to resonate with readers
'I crammed in as much love and hope as I could'
Katherena Vermette is a Métis writer from Treaty One territory in Winnipeg. She won the Governor General's Literary Award for poetry for her first book, North End Love Songs, and her debut novel, The Break, was a finalist for the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize and the Governor General's Literary Award for fiction.
The Break offers a glimpse into the world of a Métis community in northern Winnipeg. Told from 10 points of view, the interweaving stories deal with the pain and truths Indigenous women endure.
The novel was defended by Candy Palmater on Canada Reads 2017, and was the selection for this year's national One eRead Canada virtual book club, presented by the Canadian Urban Libraries Council.
Vermette spoke with Shelagh Rogers about how The Break continues to resonate with readers years after its release.
Tough inception to positive reception
"It took me forever and ever to write. I didn't know what I was doing. I'm still astounded by this and the reception that it received. It was a very hard book to write — I acknowledge that it's also in many ways a hard book to read. I crammed in as much love and hope as I could.
"But it was hard to get out into the world. So I've always been surprised by how well it's been received. And it's still going — it's still being read; it's still being taught."
"This book came about many, many years ago in a number of different ways. But part of it — maybe the most important part — was I was living in a house very similar to Stella in the book, and did overlook 'The Break.' It was a very unusual place; a very sturdily, staunchly working class kind of area. I was a young mum at the time. I had lived in the North End for a number of years, and it started this recounting of childhood stuff. And really just being there caused me to confront a lot of things.
It was a very hard book to write — I acknowledge that it's also in many ways a hard book to read.
"It's very much a sister book to my first book of poetry, Northern Love Songs. They both came from that same era, where I was figuring stuff out — trying to be a grown-up and processing [it all]."
"I think Stella [was the character that] came first. When it comes to that 'fight or flight or freeze,' I'm definitely a freezer. And just that act of not being able to do anything, as debilitating as that is spiritually, but also for the community, it's devastating on a communal level because you're not able to help.
"I was thinking of what I would do, and I don't know what I would do at that time with young kids in that situation — and as much as that felt shameful, it also felt there was something rooted there. And then what happens with Stella after that point is she goes through this spiral of vicarious trauma, which is something in my work and in my life I've experienced so often.
One of the things I was really exploring in this book was how trauma lives in us and how we experience it, and how two people can experience the same thing and have completely different reactions to it.
"As I'm trying to be a grown up, I'm realizing shame is never the right response. We are always so shameful about what we cannot do. One of the things I was really exploring in this book — and I think I'm continuing to explore in everything I do, for better or for worse — is the idea of trauma and how trauma lives in us and how we experience it, and how two people can experience the same thing and have completely different reactions to it."
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"To bear witness is about holding, you know? We often do this with stories — we hold stories, like knowledge, on a different plane. Knowledge holders hold that knowledge. I always love that distinction between knowledge-keeper and knowledge-holder. We're holding it — we're just keeping it safe. You're not keeping it from people. You're holding it in order to share and hopefully do service.
"Stella's holding this pain, and some part of it is affecting her. And I hope she goes on to further learn from it and learn from her past. And maybe next time she won't freeze. Maybe next time she'll be able to take action. Maybe somehow in there, she'll find empowerment and peace, acknowledging the sacredness.
Knowledge holders hold that knowledge. I always love that distinction between knowledge-keeper and knowledge-holder.
"It's the idea of the things that have affected me and the things I want to honour, and I think very deeply about how to honour them properly and the best way possible to show what they are — which is not just tragedy; not just trauma. It's the survival of that, and it's the love and it's what happens and how we heal from it — how we're still here throughout all of it."
Reflections on resilience
"'Resilience' is not my least favourite word, but it's one of those words I think too often gets thrown around and loses power. You know, I say the same thing about the word 'reconciliation.'
I think that we were all resilient in different ways. And just because we go through trauma and tragedy doesn't make us stronger.
"Their humanity is like my humanity. It's not a complete word — it's not a complete telling of what it is. I think that we are all resilient in different ways. And just because we go through trauma and tragedy doesn't make us stronger. It's something that is unjust and needs to stop happening."
Katherena Vermette's comments have been edited for length and clarity.