New and notable: Tracey Lindberg's Birdie

Dr. Tracey Lindberg, citizen of the As’in’i’w’chi Ni’Yaw Nation Rocky Mountain Cree, a Harvard-trained lawyer and current professor of law at the University of Ottawa and a Canada Research chair at the center for World Indigenous Knowledge and Research at Athabasca University, can now add writer of fiction to her many titles and achievements. Birdie, her debut novel about a Cree-Métis woman's jounrey towards recovery from the traumas and tragedies of her past, has been chosen among the 2016 Canada Reads contenders with good reason. The theme of this year's Canada Reads competition is "starting over" which fits Birdie perfectly, as the titular heroine (a.k.a. Bernice) moves from her home in Northern Alberta to Gibsons, B.C. in search of a new beginning. However, despite leaving behind everything familiar to her, the past isn't finished with Bernice. Memories, both painful and tender, come in great waves, unbidden, threatening to overwhelm her. Much of the story unfolds in these memories, which occur while the present Bernice lies in bed in a semi-conscious "sleepwake state."

It becomes known early in the story that Bernice's past is rife with trauma, much of which began when she was sexually abused by her uncle as a young child. Passages describing her troubled youth are never gratuitous, but paint a vivid picture of Bernice's backstory, and provide context for the precarious state of mental health she finds herself in upon moving to Gibsons. Lindberg's narrative drifts from dream states to reality as Bernice's recollections and reveries move through time non-chronologically. It isn't always immediately clear whether a particular moment is happening in the present, past, or a dream. Snippets of Cree mythology, language, and fables are woven into the narrative, to great effect. 

Bernice is an immanently likeable character: funny, honest, resilient and smart, and the most stand-out passages of the book describe her interacting with her equally charming relatives. A bookish kid, Bernice is constantly annoyed by the frequent, raucous parties at her family home. She pushes back by loudly slamming the door to her bedroom under the stairs, but her attempts to shame the adults into going home and leaving her in peace are usually futile. That being said, she also has many beautiful memories of moments spent with her family, and their love for one another is enduring. She comes from a family of strong women who teach her early on the importance of loving and relying on each other first; men are often transitory in their lives, whereas the bonds between aunties, mothers, and "sistercousins" hold true, even if circumstance pulls them apart.

Much as Bernice's past continues to assert itself in her present, Canada's own legacy of colonial violence continues to impact our present. Indigenous women continue to be disproportionately affected by violence: the statistics are appalling in themselves, but we must not forget that behind every number is an irreplaceable woman, whose loss will forever be felt by those who love her. The recent move towards a national inquiry on missing and murdered women is a positive step, but decolonization is more complex than that and requires more than a state-run inquiry. Storytelling is powerful, both in Lindberg's Cree nation and for people from all backgrounds, and it is crucial that the narratives of indigenous women are heard. Lindberg alludes to this power in this interview with the National Post, stating: "“It’s really difficult to dismiss or dehumanize indigenous peoples if it’s a person. So what I hope that the book does — that good stuff — is to humanize us, humanize indigenous woman, indigenous girls, so that, in a way, we’re thought of as relatives. Because you care about your relatives. You don’t let your relatives get murdered or go missing.”

Until Canadians unite to end this ongoing violence, we can never truly begin anew, nor put the past behind us. Though Bernice is a fictional character, we can all stand to learn a lot from her.

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