Cartograph, by Cara-Lyn Morgan, is a woman’s healing journey from both accidental injury to the deeply imbued wounds of colonization. Morgan metaphorically maps out the process of recovery within her own body and the land around her, moving though the muscles and sinews of her own being and out across landscapes. Her words create new maps and revisit the ancient ones: Vancouver Island, Georgian Bay, and the prairies all become “a merle of blackbirds,” "wayward unsettling of red lilies after the thunderstorm,” and “soil and sweat, sunlight and crop.” She finds the medicine in each of her different voices: Métis, Trinidadian, and stretchy-pant-wearing yoga lover. In Cartograph she braids together these voices like sweetgrass.
I had a hard time choosing just ten books but, after much reflection I have settled on this list because the stories told have brought voices to largely silenced communities in the Canadian literary landscape. The following are books which, when I read them, made me feel less alone in this country, less unvoiced and less unseen.
The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America, by Thomas King
I do love Thomas King, and would be remiss to honestly choose which of his books I love more and for what reasons. However, I believe this is one of the most important books about Canadian pre- and post-colonial history in print, and I think every Canadian must read this book. Thomas King breaks down the myths of Canadian history, bringing the Aboriginal perspective into historical context, tackling the troubling language of the Indian Act as well as the various misconceptions about the Aboriginal communities in Canada, the role of the Government of Canada, and in general just putting in writing what Aboriginal communities across this country have been saying for generations—“We are Here.”
Assiniboia, by Tim Lilburn
This book is a hybrid of poetry, play writing, and traditional storytelling which brings voice to players in the Canadian historical story who have been largely ignored in traditional teachings. Lilburn brings voice to Sarah Riel, the sister of Metis revolutionary Louis Riel, bringing a deft and feminine perspective to an extremely misrepresented time in Canadian history. He speaks with the understanding of his own colonial perspective, creating a well-constructed visual commentary of prairie history without straying into the realm of appropriation. This is a stunning book which reads well aloud, and settles deep long after the final page is read.
The Break, by Katherine Vermette
This is a novel which has been marking out its space in the Canadian literary landscape since its release. Part mystery, part family history, and part social commentary, The Break is a book that got well under my skin, and it has left me returning to it. Its broad themes about family and the relationships between women, as well as the social implications of the abuse of Aboriginal women, bring to light an extraordinary human story. This is a modern story and timely, one which speaks directly to the experience of Indigenous people in present-day Canada. It emerged at just the perfect time, lending its voice to the collective discussion with beautiful writing and unforgettable characters.
The Book of Negroes, by Lawrence Hill
This book has become a sort of historical textbook since its original publication. When I first read this novel which follows the generally unvoiced history of the TransAtlantic Slave Trade and its cultural implications in Canada, I remember being struck by how rarely a story such as this has been told in Canada. It was the type of story that many Canadians were shocked to discover had occurred in our country at all, which shows how our historical story has been undermined by a colonized perspective, ignoring so many of the important moments which shaped the creation of our homeland. The Book of Negroes is a sweeping historical novel which spans the protagonist's lifetime, as well as spanning the globe, tracing the trade routes of the slave trade and its impact on the cultural fabric of Eastern Canada. This is a lovely, important book.
The Red Files, by Lisa Bird-Wilson
This is a beautiful, heartbreaking collection of poetry which speaks directly to the impact of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and brings to light an intimate perspective on the generations-long implications of the Residential School System. I loved reading this collection, which is short enough to read in one sitting but so impactful that I needed to take breaks between readings in order to settle into the stories. Lisa's poems are raw and human, speaking with a common voice about a topic which has been systematically silenced for much of our history in this country. I think everyone should read this book and begin the process of understanding which is truly necessary for healing to begin.
Settler Education, by Laurie D. Graham
Graham’s second book-length collection combines English, Plains Cree, and Ukranian in her characteristic weaving of the cultures which influenced her upbringing in Western Canada. Graham acknowledges her Settler’s perspective, and its implications as she writes of Louis Riel, Gabriel Dumont, Big Bear, and other important and often over-looked players in Canadian history. Settler Education feels like a poet’s journey through a landscape she has known intimately but that she longs to see with a decolonized eye. This is a book of humility and lyric, respectful and aware. Beautifully written and accessible, this book feels like such an important collection for poetry lovers and anyone attempting to navigate this Canadian landscape from a less-intrusive and inclusive perspective.
The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative, by Thomas King
This collection of stories taken from the famous CBC Massey Lectures gets into the meat of why storytelling is an integral way to connect our ancestral past with our modern navigation of the world. With his trademark humour and sharp wit, King weaves a collection of masterful stories which bring a commentary about the Canadian cultural and political landscape, its rich storytelling traditions and the technical aspects of story-writing. It is a great read for anyone who loves a good tale, or who wants to learn more about the intricacies of writing.
The Crooked Good, by Louise Bernice Halfe
I love this book. Not only is it heartbreakingly beautiful in its writing, but it has a ghostly quality that is so characteristic of Sky Dancer, Louise Bernice Halfe’s, voice and style. I love all of her books but The Crooked Good was the one that, for me, I have carried with me for years. Part song, part traditional storytelling, part memoirist-confessional, this collection is about the experience of women and the mystery and power of femininity. It is also a braiding together of language, and I am a longtime fan of the interweaving of Cree and English that Halfe has introduced to the Canadian vernacular. This is a book which haunts in all the best ways.
Singing Home the Bones, by Gregory Scofield
Deeply personal, this is my favourite of Scofield’s books. Like Sky Dancer’s book above, this collection has a song-like quality which is at different times deeply mournful and profoundly joyful. It reads like an incantation, again combining Cree and English, some Yiddish and French, Scofield tells a very Canadian story about identity, loss, love, family discoveries and secrets, and the darkness and light that lives in each of us. Characteristically soft-spoken, these poems have a whispered quality that brings tears and shivers.
Small Beneath the Sky: A Prairie Memoir, by Lorna Crozier
This memoir of one of the country’s most celebrated poets is a gem to read. Crozier combines prose and poetry seamlessly, braiding together her characteristic poetic voice with the voice of memory. She speaks of the prairie with the keen eye of someone whose bones are rooted in its expanse, and presents an honesty to her life story which is at times heartbreaking and delightful. This is a book I have gifted to many people because it speaks so stunningly of the prairie, my homeland, and also of this country’s beauty, its starkness, and the connectivity of the human experience within it. This is a stay-up-all-night kind of read, one that creeps in and settles and brings you back to it time and again.
About Cara-Lyn Morgan:
Cara-Lyn Morgan’s recent work has appeared in Geist Magazine, the Literary Review of Canada, The Antigonish Review, and various other literary journals across the country. Her debut collection of poetry, What Became My Grieving Ceremony, was awarded the Fred Cogswell Award for Excellence in Poetry in 2015, and her work was selected to appear in Tightrope Press’ Best Canadian Poetry in English, 2015. Cartograph is her second book-length collection of poetry. She lives outside Toronto.
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