The Chat: Trevor Corkum Interviews Katherena Vermette

Katherena Vermette © Lisa Delorme Meiler
TREVOR CORKUM cropped

This week, I’m chatting with Katherena Vermette, author of the extraordinary debut novel The Break. The book was recently shortlisted for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Award and has been receiving rave reviews across the country.

The Globe and Mail calls The Break “an incredible feat of storytelling.The National Post says “Vermette puts a human face to issues that are too-often misunderstood, and in so doing, she has written a book that is both one of the most important of the year and one of the best.”

Katherena Vermette is a Métis writer of poetry, fiction, and children’s literature. In addition to winning the Governor General’s Literary Award for Poetry, her first book, North End Love Songs, is the 2015 selection for Manitoba’s provincial book club, On the Same Page. Vermette has recently been shortlisted for the inaugural Beatrice Mosionier Aboriginal Writer of the Year Award. Her work has appeared in literary magazines and anthologies across the globe. She holds a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia, and lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba. She is a co-director of the National Film Board short documentary this river.

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THE CHAT WITH KATHERENA VERMETTE

Trevor Corkum: How was The Break born?

Katherena Vermette: Well it was born from one of those dream-type things writers get and don’t know where they come from or why they come to us.

I was living in house much like Stella’s house in the book, and my windows overlooked an area much like the Break. I don’t know if it was a real dream or a thought but I saw the violent incident that Stella witnesses in the first chapter. Not only did I know what happened, but all at once, I knew everyone’s story, too—the witness, perpetrator, and victim. It made me hugely sad, and for a long time I had no idea how to write it, or if I even wanted to write it. But it stayed with me. I did long to understand it, the why of it really bothered me and followed me for a long time before I started to write it.  

Not only did I know what happened, but all at once, I knew everyone’s story, too—the witness, perpetrator, and victim.

TC: Your novel is set, for the most part, in the North End of Winnipeg. Thinking about the setting, how did you go about building your fictional world? Was it important to you to replicate the specific details and energy of the North End? Or did you give yourself permission to embellish or change certain details in your fictional world?

KV: I kept most of the setting real—or at least my perception of that reality. I love the North End. It’s very much a home to me, and I like exploring all that murky, contradicting love that comes with home. Where we are and where we are from are such significant parts of ourselves.

In many Indigenous cultures, including my own, one of the first questions you ask a person when you meet them is where they are from. Knowing this is to know something about who they are. In my mind, I always visual a pin in a map and think of their land, how rich or wanting it might be. Cities are not exceptions to this. I have always lived in the city, and much of that has been inner city. I think there is still land connection there. It looks different, is often more wanting than rich, but it’s still there right under us.

TC: At the heart of The Break is brutal crime committed against a young Indigenous woman. The novel tells the story of this crime, directly and indirectly, through a series of people connected to the victim. There’s a spotlight in Canada right now on relations between the police and Indigenous and other minority communities. Why is this an important story for you to tell?

KV: Like I said, I don’t know that I wanted to write it, but I get that it’s important. I think it’s important for Indigenous persons to tell their stories and articulate their worldview. This story is one of my stories, and I felt compelled to explore it. I chose to tell it by using many different voices, and one of those is an Indigenous—Métis—police officer, Tommy.  

I wrote Tommy last, because he was the missing piece of the plot and all those things that were in the shadows before. He really pulled a lot of symbolic and storytelling pieces together. He was also the only character who came already formed because he was a supporting actor in many of the other scenes. He interested me. I was interested in how an Indigenous police officer would balance those separate histories, what his world would look like, how he would justify his choices. It seems like a tip of the iceberg kind of situation. I feel like I only started to know Tommy and broach all those questions.

TC: One of the things I loved most about the book is the weaving together of so many generations of family—in particular, the strength, determination, humour, and courage of several generations of related Indigenous women. Can you talk more about the importance of family relations in the book?  

KV: Family really comes through as a strong theme, doesn’t it? I didn’t know that’s what I was writing at first, but it’s better for it. When I started this, it was a story about the perpetrator, the victim and the witness, and of course, that became intensely depressing really fast. Then I heard the other women—those aunties and mothers and friends—and writing them really lifted that initial heaviness and gave the story hope. That was when I figured out what this book was about it. It wasn’t about the violence or trying to understand the why of it. This is a story about the how we get through it. And that answer, of course, is with each other.

That was when I figured out what this book was about it. It wasn’t about the violence or trying to understand the why of it. This is a story about the how we get through it.

TC: Finally, this is your first novel. It appears following your Governor General’s Award-winning collection of poems, North End Love Songs. What was it like to write in a new genre? What challenges or opportunities confronted you as you wrote?

KV: Well, I did write a children’s picture book series, The Seven Teachings Stories, in between. I seem to write in all sorts of genres. I like change and challenge, or at least, I do at the start. In the middle of something, I am never quite sure why I got myself into this.

Somewhere in the middle of this book, I realized novels are very, very hard. They are big and cumbersome and seem to go off track very quickly. I love multiple-points-of-view books and was committed to this, but it felt huge and messy for a long time. I resolved this by concentrating on each character’s story individually first, and polished and formed those arcs. Then I fit them together. The fitting together was a wrinkly puzzle that constantly needed ironing. I’d like to think I’ve got it down now, but knowing each project demands its own process, I’m pretty sure I’ll get myself into the muck again before too long.

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Excerpt from THE BREAK

STELLA

STELLA SITS AT her kitchen table with two police officers, and for one long moment, no one says a thing. They just sit, all looking down or away, for a long pause. The older officer clears his throat. He smells like old coffee and snow, and looks around Stella’s home, her clean kitchen and out into her dark living room, like he’s trying to find evidence of something. The younger one goes over his scribbled notes, the paper of his little coiled book flips and crumples.

Blanket over her shoulders, Stella wraps one hand around a hot mug of coffee, hoarding the warmth but still shaking. In her other hand, she balls a damp Kleenex. She stares down. Her hands look like her mom’s did, older-looking hands for a young woman. Old-lady hands. Her Kookom had hands like this too, and now that she’s an old lady all over, her hands are practically transparent, the skin there worn thin. Stella’s aren’t that bad yet, but they look too wrinkled, too old for her body, like they have aged ahead of her.

The officer breathes heavily. Stella finally looks up and braces herself to start explaining, again. The officers both sit with shoulders up, and neither touches the steaming mugs of coffee she has poured and placed in front of them. Their uniformed jackets are still on. The radios at their shoulders spit static and muffled voices, numbers, and alerts.

She has given up trying not to cry in front of these strangers.

Officer Scott, the young one, finally breaks the silence.

“Well, we know something significant definitely happened out there.” He looks at her side-eyed. His voice matter of fact, slow and hinging on the words happened and out there. His mouth frowns in a practiced sympathy that Stella knows is fake but takes anyway. The older one, Officer Christie, doesn’t look at her, only agrees with a quick nod of his bearded head and another throat-clearing noise. Stella thinks he’s bored, and the young one, he’s so young, is eager, maybe even excited.

Officer Scott tries to look nice, again, and asks her, again, “Can you think of anything else? Anything at all?”

Stella blinks a tear and shakes her head. She looks out the window at the Break, that empty expanse of land next to her house. She doesn’t have to look to know it’s snowing lightly. She can hear the faint buzzing, the low drone of the Hydro towers just out of view. The sky is still bright pink in the night, swollen with more snow to come. The Break is mostly a blank slate of white stretched out to house beyond. The house’s siding and the snow reflect the streetlights and the moon, but the windows are dark, of course. Everyone’s windows are dark except Stella’s.

The two officers had gone out there, stomped around, and made a circle around the blood, the puddle that melted the snow. Stella can just make it out from the window, a corner of it. It lies across the white ground like a dark shadow, probably frozen now. Flakes fall on top of it, wanting to cover it up. It doesn’t look sinister. It doesn’t look like what it really is.

Excerpted from pgs. 7-9 of The Break copyright 2016 by Katherena Vermette. Reproduced by permission of House of Anansi Press Inc., Toronto. www.houseofanansi.com

September 28, 2016
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