The Next Chapter

Tracey Lindberg on telling Indigenous stories

Author Tracey Lindberg on her debut novel, which is in the running for this year's Canada Reads.
Tracey Lindberg's first novel, Birdie, is one of five books in the running for CBC's Canada Reads 2016. (HarperCollins Canada)

CBC's Canada Reads is coming up on March 21-24, and this year's theme is "starting over." In the coming weeks, Shelagh Rogers will be chatting with the five authors whose books have been selected for the annual battle of the books. The series kicks off this week with Tracey Lindberg, the author of Birdie, which will be defended by G Adventures founder Bruce Poon Tip during Canada Reads.

Lindberg grew up in northern Alberta, in the Kelly Lake Cree Nation. She studied law, and now teaches indigenous law at Athabasca University and the University of Ottawa. In law school, she often found herself drafting stories instead of taking notes, and she's still writing now on top of her career as a successful lawyer and professor. Her debut novel, Birdie, is the story of a young woman who is struggling to recover from an abusive past. It deals with some dark themes, but it's also a luminous, funny novel that brings Cree stories and cultural traditions to life. Tracey Lindberg spoke to Shelagh Rogers in Toronto before the Canada Reads shortlist announcement.


As I hear people talk, at the law school or on the news, I keep thinking: Whose voices aren't we hearing? Who haven't we listened to? And then sometimes when a person's voice comes through that's powerful and resonates and you don't expect it, I think: Now that's a story.


I do a lot of work with indigenous communities and nations that govern themselves inherently. They're not people who subscribe to the Indian Act — they continue to govern from the lodge. And I've sat down with them and said: Tell me about how it is that your laws relate to child welfare. And they look at me like: What language is that? And then I'll say things like: Who is it that make decisions about kids? Who makes decisions about women? Who is it that makes decisions about the best way to live? And they can tell you that. And it somehow colonizes it to even call it [the law]. I'm asking them to put it through a filter that doesn't necessarily look like the Cree place that they come from. And with the book, what I've hopefully done here is not tried to colonize the way that [Birdie protagonist] Bernice or her family think about the law, but to put out very clearly that as women, there are lawful obligations to be followed. Particularly when there is lawlessness within the community.


Bernice has made a decision to find home. She's never had a healthy place. She's had this upbringing where the place that she's living with her family was not safe. Physically she was not safe — there were attacks made on her as a child, where she was viewed as sexual before she ever made the decision to be viewed as sexual. I could tell you from my own experience how many of our family members have those random "uncles," who are allowed to come and go as they please. But they have no reciprocal obligation to the people of the house, so they don't have to be kind, and they don't have to take care of or be responsible for people's safety. I think what Bernice needs in her home is a reciprocal obligation between her and the people around her. She's looking for understanding, and she can't find it.


It changes from day to day. Sometimes I just want people to recognize that we are relatives. Sometimes I just want them to look at  Bernice and say, "Aaah. That is a cousin. That is somebody that I have responsibility for." Some days, that's enough. Other days, I really want people to get a broader picture. I don't want to be preachy about it, but I want people to understand that individuals do make choices, but sometimes those choices are quite limited by the circumstances in which you have been placed. Or you have been defined by, or marginalized by, the circumstances that create an environment where hostility and violence can take place. I don't want people to say "bad uncles," I want people to say, "How do we ensure that families are safe places?"

Tracey Lindberg's comments have been edited and condensed.