The Next Chapter

"The land had to have a voice," Métis author Michelle Porter discusses her debut novel

The poet and storyteller spoke with Shelagh Rogers about her novel A Grandmother Begins the Story on The Next Chapter
A book cover featuring beadwork of a buffalo and a photo of the book's author, a woman with long hair wearing an orange turtleneck.
A Grandmother Begins the Story is a novel by Michelle Porter. (Viking, Bojan Furst)
The Metis author Michelle Porter talks to Shelagh Rogers about her debut novel, A Grandmother Begins the Story, which features a multiplicity of voices, human and otherwise.

Invoking a chorus of Métis voices, Michelle Porter relates music to storytelling in her debut novel A Grandmother Begins the Story.

Porter is a Métis writer and academic currently based in St. John's, N.L. Her previous nonfiction books, Scratching River and Approaching Fire detail a lush family history of Indigenous storytellers. Her poetry collection, Inquiries was shortlisted for the Pat Lowther Memorial Award. 

A Grandmother Begins the Story follows five generations of Métis women through this life and the next in this debut novel about navigating identity through one's ancestors. Carter, Allie, Lucie, Geneviève and Mamé are each faced with the many challenges of existing as an Indigenous woman. Told alongside the bison who used to roam freely and the land itself, this book explores family and culture through humour and multiple voices.

Porter spoke to Rogers about A Grandmother Begins the Story on The Next Chapter.

Who told you stories as you were growing up?

Oh, my mother. My happiest times growing up were sitting on the floor at my mother's feet as she would tell us stories. She remains so creative. I don't think she recognizes it because it was such a normal, everyday thing for her to just make up stories. So many stories about the music that that my grandmother was born into and that my great grandfather brought to the family. There was a family band called the Red River Echoes and my mother was just one of the younger siblings so she was there for some of the tail end of the heydays of this music; traveling around, making money, having a career as as a traditional Métis musician. So I owe all this to to my mother for sure.

Is there a relationship with your family that surfaces through the story?

There is and I keep that line there, I think because I have been working in nonfiction for so long. Everything in the book is very much fiction but they are told in a very loving relationship with stories and characters from my family.

The one that would be the closest is Geneviève. Geneviève in many ways was based on my grandmother who was not named and who actually died when I was a child. This grandmother is in her seventies and she has struggled for decades with alcoholism. At this point she's received a diagnosis which means that she's not going to live very long. Many of the details are there, even her dogs that appear are based on my grandmother's dogs. Some of her sense of humour that's very much my grandmother. Maybe there is a reason to why that character has so much spirit because I did imbue that one very directly with the spirit of of my grandmother. 

I thought if she had more time, if she hadn't been taken so young, she would have stopped drinking and found a love of life on the other side of that alcoholism. I walked for a little bit; I talked with my grandmother and I said, 'I want to give you a bit of a different ending to your story. Is that okay?' I did feel very much that  it was okay and that part has been such a joy for me. 

That's lovely. Is she the grandmother that begins the story?

She is definitely. The stories that my mother would tell about her was just filled with so much love and laughter and compassion. I knew her only a little bit growing up and I have very few memories. But that the power of my mother to evoke everything that was wonderful and strong, resilient and funny about my grandmother is in Geneviève. So I think both my mother and my grandmother are in Geneviève.

But that the power of my mother to evoke everything that was wonderful and strong, resilient and funny about my grandmother is in Geneviève.- Michelle Porter

These characters... you could lay them on sort of a skeleton of my family tree. But again that's about all you could really do. I think I find the tension of creating something new, imagining new stories on a sort of a scaffolding of parts of family tree was incredibly spirit giving to me. 

I told stories that present this emotional truth about what it is like to survive and live through intergenerational trauma. The kind that that you get as a result of the kinds of loss of land, the social tensions, the racism experienced by Métis people throughout the decades, and then living through times of erasure to get to the time now when we're actually all encouraged to say yes, we can be Métis and we can be proud of our culture and we can be very open about it.

I think about a word that that runs through your story a number of times and that is 'crooked'. A fiddle tune can get played crooked and there's the crookedness of time. What does crooked mean to you?

Part of the reason I love crooked is because of its other meaning here in Newfoundland and Labrador. That sense of some mornings I do wake up, and if it's a stormy day I am some crooked, I tell you. But in this book a lot of that crooked has to do with building a story in relationship to and within traditional Métis song structure. One of the things I loved about doing research on my great grandfather and my great grandma and my grandmother and the music they played was learning what makes Métis music Métis. But what really stuck with me was this idea of crooked music. Because in traditional Métis playing, most of it was improvisational because they didn't have recordings very early on. Each time you played the song it was different and it needed to be different. You changed some of the notes, added beats whenever you felt like it and it was improvised so it would every time you played a song it could be different. So I brought that to this novel. I've written a crooked novel. I give each character moments to have their crescendo, to have their extra beats and then others back at different times to make room for that crookedness and improvisation. As a result of writing this novel and doing some of the research, I really have this strong feeling of myself as a musician who sings songs or makes music with words.

I've written a crooked novel. I give each character moments to have their crescendo, to have their extra beats.- Michelle Porter

Do you feel that hearing this story from many narrators gives you a chance to engage more closely with with some kind of truth than just one or two?

Definitely. This whole chorus of characters that that I wrote that came to me as I wrote is so such an important part of that idea of all my relations, but also just the way life is actually unfolds and is actually experienced across time and how all of our stories connect with each other. How all of our stories speak to each other but all those voices together just like notes of a song say something that individually, they wouldn't say. In listening to my mother's stories, that's what all these voices were like.

The other aspect is that I didn't want there to be a hierarchy. I want to get away from that hierarchy of the individual. That idea that there's one main character in anybody's life story. In this story, it doesn't work that way and especially the hierarchy of the human. So you know, the bisons' stories are told right beside the human story. The dogs come up and they have their say, the car has a say, the land has a say. They all contribute to this, this greater narrative about the struggle to rebuild relationships that have been broken and rebuild within a context of trauma. This applies to the land too. This book is actually so much about that intergenerational trauma, but now we're facing it so much with the land and that's why the land had to have a voice.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.