Reading the Unfamiliar: James Kendrick in Conversation with Carleigh Baker

Carleigh Baker

Malahat volunteer James Kendrick talks with Open Season Award fiction judge Carleigh Baker about Canadiana, colonialism, and the origins of writing.

 

Carleigh Baker is a Cree-Metis / Icelandic writer who lives as a guest on the traditional, ancestral, unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples. As an 'urban' person of mixed ancestry, she has a complicated relationship to identity and to the land, and often deals with both in her writing. Baker's work addresses issues of climate change, particularly as it relates to the destruction of plant and animal species. Read more here.

 

Click here for details on entering the Open Season Contest.

How will you judge the fiction entries for the Open Season Awards? What kinds of stories do you hope to see?

I'll judge the entries fairly, and with an open mind. Part of being asked to judge a contest is the implication that you're some kind of cultural tastemaker. I've also heard this position described as a gatekeeper, which I think really resonates with people from marginalized communities. There's always someone standing at the door, deciding who gets in to the CanLit club. Often those people are looking for work that is familiar to them and their lived experience, rather than work that challenges and interrogates. As a judge, I need to spend time with a piece of writing if it's unfamiliar or makes me feel uncomfortable, and ask myself why. This is a big responsibility, and I take it seriously.

I hope to see stories that are brave with their style choices, whether that means innovating within the form, or honouring a traditional storytelling approach. I love to see work that has clearly withstood a thousand revisions and workshops, and still feels like a unique expression of the writer's experience. I admire stories that are confident and not trying to please everyone. I also admire stories that have a lot of emotion bubbling under the surface.

In an article on your website, you write about a period of time during which you were not reading or watching any news. During this time, were you writing? How is that period in your life reflected in your writing now?

Ha, that was a few years ago now! To give some context, I had launched a kind of do-it-yourself recovery process from amphetamine addiction, and was going through some pretty intense anxiety. I've always been a little high strung, but this was beyond anything I'd ever experienced: agoraphobia, paranoia, and compulsive behaviour, with cycles of depression mixed in. I was a lot of fun to be around!

The news, which was full of overwhelming information, was just feeding my fear of…everything. Reading required more focus than I had. I think maybe what I was doing was trying to get control over all incoming information, because I wanted some inner peace. I just needed to stop the input for a while, until I figured out how to be a person in the world again. 

Not gonna lie, I played a lot of video games during that period, and listened to a lot of Drum and Bass and just stared at the wall. But I did write as well. The writing from that time is sitting in a big black sketchbook that I'm afraid to open. It was mostly journaling, because I had a lot to figure out. A lot of lists about how I was going to fix myself. They changed constantly, and included things like "learn hula dancing" and "reupholster the furniture" and "write a screenplay." I did all of those things during that time by the way, with varying levels of success. There's a terrible stickman comic series in that book, something about smoking weed and fighting crime, I think. And a lot of terrible poems and song lyrics. I'm glad it exists, though. It's proof of my resilience, and most of my writing today is about resilience.

In the same article, you talk about the need to share and read positive-minded stories. How does this fit in with your writing career?

Yeah, this is a thing. At the time I wrote that piece, I was desperate for happy endings. These days, I have a pretty broad definition of what makes a story "positive." A lot of people find my stories sad and depressing. I understand this, but I respectfully disagree. I write stories about surviving, which is challenging, and dotted with moments of regression and moments of triumph. I think characters with agency and goals are positive characters, even if they're making mistakes. One of my favourite novels, From the Mouth of the Whale by Sjón, is in some ways a tragic descent into madness (I'm not doing the book justice by generalizing like this, so forgive me) but the protagonist is busy appreciating nature and chasing his nightmarish goals throughout the book, with a lust for life that captivates me. So I guess you could say that it's not a comedy/tragedy binary for me, so much as stories that delve deeply into both.

Your bio on the Malahat's website says you write about "how conservationism is used as a tool of colonialism." Since nature poetry and fiction is so popular in Canada, I was wondering if you could elaborate a bit.

Yes. To be clear, I don't think ALL conservationism is used as a tool of colonialism. But I believe that the idea of setting aside protected spaces constitutes an othering of the land—as if we shouldn't be honouring and protecting all land. Indigenous-led land stewardship (again, forgive me for generalizing, because there is not one essential "Indigenous" perspective, but rather the varied lived experiences of many Indigenous cultures) reflects this understanding, that "wilderness" isn't wild, it's just home. And home needs to be respected.

Settler environmentalists seeking to "save the land" are often still assuming an inherent ownership over that land, and this can be devastating for the people who actually live there. The same goes for the protection of animal populations. Greenpeace played a big role in vilifying the Inuit seal hunt by not adequately differentiating between Inuit peoples, whose existence is predicated on hunting (sustainably), and commercial hunters, who were decimating the seal population. Greenpeace later apologized for this, but significant damage had been done. Zealous conservationists continue to get fired up about the seal hunt to this day, and folks like Tanya Tagaq, who I'm sure has many other things she'd rather be doing, have to get on twitter and educate people.

Recently, a sixteen year old boy from Gambell, in northern Alaska, hunted and killed a bowhead whale, providing enough food for his entire village for over a year. Sea Shepherd founder Paul Watson publicly bullied the boy on social media. This sixteen year old boy received death threats. Some conservationists don't seem to be able to draw the line between those who can live in harmony with nature, and those who exploit it. Refusing to acknowledge Indigenous ways of being effectively erases Indigenous presence, and that is a product of colonial thinking.

The othering of the Canadian landscape (in a literary sense) began with early settler writers. The portrayal of land as an adversary—something to be feared (and occasionally respected) but always separate from humans, does not reflect Indigenous perspectives. Margaret Atwood goes into this at length in Survival, and scholar Margery Fee takes Atwood's fairly privileged look at settler literature into a much deeper realm with her book Literary Landclaims: The "Indian Land Question" from Pontiac's War to Attawapiskat.

Fee posits that Canadian literature not only presents the land as an adversary, it has also been used to provide evidence that the only answer was to conquer and "civilize" the wilderness. And the same goes for Indigenous peoples, whether depicted as vicious killers or noble savages. As she says: "Indigenous people have long been represented as roaming 'savages' without land title and without literature."

Fee's book is not a giant finger pointed at Canadian writers, suggesting that every poem about birds is a contribution to genocide. But it is a very important look at how Canada was built. If literature is used to erase Indigenous existence—to essentialize or dismiss Indigenous experience, then it is undeniably colonial. This is unsettling stuff, but oh man, it's important to learn about.

Your first journal submission was a winning contest entry. What could a new writer get out of winning this contest?

Yeah, lucky me! The Lush Triumphant Award! Very thankful for subTerrain for this. I got that news on the way to the end of the year party for The Writer's Studio at Simon Fraser University, so we pulled over to pick up some bubbly along with the beer. Yippee!

I think an early win like this is a mixed blessing. It can bring confidence, sure. But it can set up some pretty high expectations. Like every other writer, I got a million rejections after my first publication. I may have taken myself so seriously that I bemoaned having peaked early, and assumed that it was all downhill from there. And by "may" I mean yes, I definitely did that. But I'm fortunate to have been given a thumbs up at an early stage, and I hung on to this through the rejections. Holy cow, there are a lot of rejections. That's part of the job.

 

James Kendrick

James Kendrick

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