Katherena Vermette on capturing the brutality and beauty of Winnipeg's North End
Katherena Vermette won the Governor General's Literary Award for her 2013 poetry collection North End Love Songs, an ode to her Winnipeg neighbourhood. She returns to her hometown in her debut novel The Break, which was defended on Canada Reads 2017 by Candy Palmater.
The Break unfolds in the aftermath of a violent assault on a young Indigenous girl. The story drifts between the voices of women and men in the neighbourhood, who are all connected and are either seeking or escaping accountability.
No place like home
My North End is a rich, fascinating neighbourhood. I grew up there in the late 1980s, early 1990s. It was my stomping grounds, where you wander around the streets and find your friends. It was really my home. I acknowledge that there are issues that need to be addressed. But I really wanted to look past that. It's a rich, full place with all sorts of people and all sorts of strengths and virtues. I wanted to fill up that picture.
Wherever there are broken things, there are people who are struggling and fighting and succeeding every day fixing them. That's where, I think, the beauty lies.
The push and pull of city and country
They [the Indigenous family in the novel] are of both the bush and of the city, but those are conflicting desires and wants. It's a very Indigenous experience, where's there's such an intense connection to the land. We're not far away from a rural experience and something that's perceived as "traditional" and that "real" Indigenous experience. Often, we're not exposed to a lot of stories about the urban Indigenous experience — at least I wasn't growing up. There was a feeling that it wasn't real or genuine; that we had to get to the bush in order to be real Indians. At the same time, we're from the city and we love our city and we love our community. I saw that a lot growing up. I see that a lot in my adult life with myself, as well as my friends and my family. Often we've had to come to the city for opportunity. My family has been in the city for several generations because of that opportunity, but at the same time we've never lost that connection to wanting to be out of the city.
Finding empathy for people who do bad things
I think that having people you can rely on no matter what is what makes us strong. I think we rely on our families — whether that's your biological family or your found family — in so many ways that we don't even realize every day. I think the isolation of not having that family is very damaging. I tried to be as empathetic with [the character] Phoenix as possible. She commits violent acts. She comes from violence. She's in a violent world. She reacts to that abuse by abusing others. It's hard to be empathetic to someone like that. It's very hard to practice compassion, but I empathize with that situation, being taken from her family. She has no one that she can rely on wholly. She is completely abandoned by all those sources.
Katherena Vermette's comments have been edited and condensed.