Today on the Chat, we speak to Michelle Porter. Her powerful memoir, Scratching River, is now out with WLU Press.
Author Lisa Moore says, “Michelle Porter’s Scratching Riveris both a reckoning and an elegy; a scathing, powerful roar against social injustice, the scars of trauma, climate crisis, environmental damage and, at the very same time, a love song to the power of family, Métis history, rivers, Bison, burdock, and the Métis storyteller and musician, Louis Goulet, who is her great-great-grandfather’s brother.”
Michelle Porter's first novel will be published by Penguin Canada in 2023. Her first book of poetry, Inquiries, was shortlisted for the Pat Lowther Memorial Award in 2019 and was a finalist for the E.J. Pratt Poetry Award in 2021. Her previous non-fiction book, Approaching Fire (2020), in which she embarks on a quest to find her great-grandfather, the Métis fiddler and performer Léon Robert Goulet, was shortlisted for the Indigenous Voices Awards 2021. She is a citizen of the Métis Nation and member of the Manitoba Métis Federation.
Trevor Corkum:Scratching River is a powerful read, a memoir about your brother, a river, a Métis ancestor and relations among all things. It’s a braided narrative grounded in the richness of relationships and the resilience of life. Can you talk more about when and how you began to work on the project?
Michelle Porter: I’d planned to write in conversation with a Métis ancestor, Louis Goulet, whose memories had been recorded in a book Vanishing Spaces. I set out to write a creative response to his travels across the prairie homeland and the beauty of the landscape. I wanted to write about the past, present and future Métis relationship with the land. I did write that story, but I braided my brother’s story around it. In a way I think this is because geography is personal.
As I was reading about and following along Louis Goulet’s travels and movements across the homeland—reading his evocative descriptions of Red River cart movement across the prairies—I experienced physical body memories of my own travels as a child. Only instead of being in a Red River cart, I was in a car and we were going to see my brother. The rhythms in these travels were indelibly connected to our travels and to the resilience of our people, the Métis.
I recall a moment when I felt the 14-year-old girl I was sit down beside me and say, I have a story to tell. What could I do? I had to tell it. The story she wanted to tell was about her older brother. My brother is autistic and schizophrenic, twin diagnoses that made his behaviour so challenging my mother placed him in a home for children with his range of mental disabilities. He thrived in that home. When he turned 18 (and I was 14) my mother had to find a home for her adult son—he couldn’t stay at the children’s home. She found what she thought was a beautiful ranch for him to live in—but it turned out to be a place where my brother experienced severe injury and hospitalization and was in the newspapers for suspected abuses and investigations. This is the story of how that 14-year-old and her brother survived it in different ways.
I wrote the book from the perspective of the 14-year-old girl who was still in the grip of trauma inside of me and I wrote it as I was discovering her and her trauma and was caught up in its current. In writing this book, I am saying this is what trauma can be like, it can stay hidden and then surprise you and then you realize a part of you had been looking at the world from that dark place. I am so thankful that other writers have been brave enough to map out their own journeys to healing and I offer this story as one that might help others create their own healing.
I wrote the book from the perspective of the fourteen-year-old girl who was still in the grip of trauma inside of me and I wrote it as I was discovering her and her trauma and was caught up in its current.
Hope can be a tough nut to crack. Especially in today’s world where so many tough things are happening and yet we all need to know things will be okay, that they can be okay even after the worst has happened to you or to someone you know and love. Writing this book was the process through which hope was returned to me and I want this story to be a sort of map or guide to others as they search for the hope they may have left behind at some point. I was in my forties when that fourteen-year-old self spoke to me, asking to let her tell her story through this book, and in the process of writing it and rediscovering a trauma I didn’t know I’d had, I found the hope and healing that had been lost by that teenager. I found it in my brother and in properly witnessing his recovery and his return to love, family, and joy—in his own way.
This book I think can help anyone who asks, where did my joy go and at what place in my life did I put it down?
TC:The book is very much an assemblage, in which details, stories, events, newspaper clippings, photos, and reflections accrue, spiralling into deeper and richer meaning with each page. Why did you structure the book in this way?
MP: It’s the way I think. I’m an assemblage. We all are. We’re assemblages of the past and the future and of the earth and water. We’re all part car and part electricity. And now, according to some research, we’re all part microplastic too. (Some scientists recently found microplastics in human blood).
How do we make meaning of all of this? In many ways this book is an answer to this. Although this book is nonfiction, it is very much about poetry and is in a sense one book-length poem. The braiding not only brings different streams of time, relationality, and story together, it encourages the reader to stay with moments in the way poetry can do. As with poetry, when you let moments and images sit alongside each other they reach across the space between them and make another meaning together. What I love about this storytelling style is that the meaning that is made can be different for each reader because each one pulls on different strands.
We’re assemblages of the past and the future and of the earth and water. We’re all part car and part electricity. And now, according to some research, we’re all part micro plastic too.
The other aspect is the fragmentation of memory and thought that is the result of trauma. So many stories about trauma actually try to smooth that crooked story-line out. I decided to show the fragmentation and to bring that to the structure of the book. I told it the way the 14-year-old experienced it and even the way I remember still today, in short, sudden images and not as a whole, comforting, complete story. Scratching River is a completely honest recounting of a girl’s grappling with the evil of what happened to her brother and her struggle with it. And yet, the other side of trauma can lead to the beauty of healing, renewal and growth. The book isn’t a fragment — my brother’s spirit and his ability to be loved led me down that same path and his talent for love in a sense is the narrative arc in this story, the part of the story that is more than fragmentation, how his talent for love led to healing.
TC:There’s a focus on mapping—both visually (you provide sections of maps) and also in terms of mapping personal and collective histories. Why are these ways of mapping important to your creative process?
Mapping collective histories as stories is an important way to understand where we are and how we move into a the time and space we call the future. In essence the maps do what the Métis infinity symbol does, they move forward and backward while always returning to a central point. I use the visual maps to tell parts of the story I couldn’t tell with words. In a sense they are from the eyes of the fourteen-year-old girl I was and they tell a parallel story by upending and inverting the conventions of mapping.
Official maps can be very impersonal, but a memory map or a creative map can show the meaning we make between time and space. It was important to me to tell the story of the convergence of the past and the present and how these come together to shape the future. I use an old map of the Métis homeland from the 1800s that was used in my ancestor Louis Goulet’s oral histories Vanishing Spaces. I blend that map in different ways with a number of contemporary images and messages to show that even though the maps have changed the story of the Métis people continues. Also it was through the maps that the teenager I was spoke about her life in St. Albert and her feelings of distance from her brother.
TC:One heart of the memoir is the story of your brother, who survived horrific abuse while living in a facility for autistic men but whose incredible spirit, generosity, and powerful determination live so vividly on every page. What’s it like to see your brother’s story head further out into the world, with the publication of the book?
MP: I’ve never been so nervous or worried about a story. Because it’s my brother’s, I wanted to make sure it was told right and treated right. So, to see the care the publisher took with this book and this story and to hold the physical product in my hand, it’s really beautiful and incredibly moving for me. I’m so proud of my brother and so proud that he was able to speak to me through all the people who loved him, to speak to me through the love he evoked from all of these people.
You know during Covid I haven’t been able to see him, but writing this book has kept him with me these two years. I hope to get back to Alberta in the fall to see him.
But there’s another element to this too. This didn’t just happen to my brother. It wasn’t a one in a million situation. it happens to too many other children and adults with mental disabilities. You know, for parents of adult children with mental disabilities, the search for home for their children is long and hard and fraught with risk. The home where my brother was abused had been investigated before and was investigated multiple times. Employees spoke to news organization about abuse they’d witnessed while working and even abuse they had inflicted and felt remorse for and quit—but were not fired. There were warning signs and there were complaints. But the regulations did not protect these children. I think that the situation has improved in many places, we still don’t have enough suitable and safe housing for children or adults with mental disabilities who can’t be cared for by their parents.
You know, for parents of adult children with mental disabilities, the search for home for their children is long and hard and fraught with risk.
The two highest risk years for people with mental disabilities are when they become adults and transition into adult housing and care and also when they become seniors and they no longer have parents alive to look out for them. We can do better as a society and I’m hoping this book can be part of the storytelling that can inspire change in the way of increased investment in those who are among the most vulnerable among us. I’m hoping this story will go wild like my brother was and is and take root and make change, like the burdock plant in the book. If it is true, as Mahatma Gandhi said that “the true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members,” then Canada still has some work to do.
TC:In the afterword, you write about the care you’ve taken in telling the story through a series of relationships, and decisions around braiding narrative, so the story rises organically, so as not to displace or overwrite your brother’s voice. For those who haven’t read the book, can you talk a little more about your concerns in relation to telling your brother’s story?
MP: I didn’t want to speak for my brother and I didn’t want to speak from any sort of authoritative space about him. He’s my brother and that’s the central part of my relationship with him so I chose a relational approach to the story. This relational approach is so important to Métis storytelling of all kinds and relationality carries the potential for deep healing. We are so much a part of our relations. Using a relational approach, I de-centred my adult voice. In this way this book is about the power of relationships to change us and to heal us.
I didn’t want to speak for my brother and I didn’t want to speak from any sort of authoritative space about him. He’s my brother and that’s the central part of my relationship with him so I chose a relational approach to the story.
I didn’t want to take on an authoritative voice at all or have the book be all about my own perspective. I wanted the book to be relational and the use of the second person allowed the book to be about the relationship with my sister, who is obliquely the “you” referred to, but also to the reader who gets pulled into the narrative in a more intimate way. In this way I am saying this story is mine and it is also yours—let’s carry it together.
I wanted this book to follow in the heels of Métis storytelling traditions and ways of relating and the use of the second person makes parts of the book a conversation with my sister and the reader. My brother can’t speak and so he couldn’t tell me his story and so the way to build the “all my relations” ethic in this book was to reach outward in conversation with my sister and to offer my mother’s words as well. In this way, I am de-centring myself and telling my brother’s story as a constellation of his relations. I think he’d tell me he loved that, if he could speak.
Excerpt from Scratching River
There’s No Way to Control a River
Like my brother, I only wanted to get away from here and go there and I leaned into the easiest route. We want to believe what we leave behind will stay in the place we first found it, and that’s the reason we try to control rivers. But there’s really no way to do it.
The council didn’t show it, but they were worried. Scouts sent out on reconnaissance were beating the flames and lighting small blazes to change the currents of air rushing to feed the main fire. They reported to the council that the fire was running along a big ridge that snaked between two muskegs.
—Louis Goulet, Vanishing Spaces
Without water, grasslands lose their knowledge base. The stories passed from grass to soil tell how to let water in, how to let life in, again and again, into the soil so it doesn’t all slip away. Water’s stories tell how to provide a bed, a base, a source for the flow of rivers and streams. How to flood and how to parch.
Without intact grasslands, the Prairies struggle with the biggest water security issues in Canada. Without those grasslands, there’s always too much water and too little water at the wrong times. Downstream from disturbed, converted, or redacted grassland there is increased runoff from cropland, carrying excess nutrient loads from fertilizer and chemicals. There’s floods, like the ones in recent years in Manitoba. There’s nothing to hold the water in and during the spring rains, there’s too much and the ground can’t soak it up. In the summer, the grass isn’t there to share the water it keeps in the earth, so the soil dries up and, without an underground source flow, the rivers run themselves to a trickle.
One hand cupping one ear: ah-da, ah-da, da-da-da. I always went, you know, back then.
One of the front-line care workers became particularly close to Brendon. When new staff couldn’t get him to cooperate, they’d go find her. The bathtub was always an issue. He often refused to come out. It got to where she could stand out in the hallway and say, Brendon, what are you doing? And then he’d come running out of the bath and laugh at her. It took a while, she said, but he was just one of those kids that formed a bond. It’d make her laugh. Sometimes, if she was working with one of the other kids, he’d sit beside her on the couch as if to say, you’re my person and you’re not supposed to be working with anybody else.
. . .they’d practised manoeuvres to assure that the carts could be quickly and efficiently harnessed and moved in the direction of any sloughs that had water enough to protect them from the flames. —Louis Goulet, Vanishing Spaces
. . . A lot of dedicated professionals
tried very hard to
do something to help the 22
residents at REDACTED Ranch,
but Oldring wasn’t one of
them. . . . For the sake of silent
men, locked in a frightening
world of their own, he could
have risked court action and
negative publicity on the
hunch that time would prove
him right. He chose to do nothing . . .
Excerpted from Scratching River by Michelle Porter, copyright 2022. Reproduced with permission from Wilfrid Laurier University Press.