Dr. Tracey Lindberg is a professor of Indigenous Studies in the Centre for World Indigenous Knowledge and Research (where she is also a Canada Research chair), and a professor of law at the University of Ottawa. She’s the recipient of a Governor General Award and is a Harvard law graduate.
Now she can add novelist to her lengthy list of titles.
On May 26, HarperCollins Canada released Lindberg’s debut novel Birdie. This past week it has reached the number-five spot on The Maclean’s Bestsellers list for fiction, has been the subject for reviews in the Globe and Mail, the National Post, the Toronto Star, the Edmonton Journal among others. Lindberg has also appeared on Canada AM and CBC Radio’s Q to discuss her literary labour of love which she says took about 17 years to complete.
The craft and attention devoted to her first book is evident from the start. Birdie is a lot to digest. But its blend of savoury, sweet, and more than a dash of grit will leave you taking tiny bites for sumptuous reflection; Lindberg’s peculiar and somewhat rebellious sentence structures, exquisitely free-styled prose interspersed with Cree poetry, folklore, vision quests, laws, codes and terminology suggest a more methodical read.
Birdie tells the journey of Bernice Meetoos, “Birdie,” a young Cree-Métis woman from northern Alberta and her auspicious expedition to Gibsons, British Columbia. Using a fluid time-space narrative, the book follows Birdie’s bookish-yet-soulful and imaginative life that has been marred by rampant sexual abuse at the hands of an uncle.
Though she feels certain warmth from the abode she shares with her mother, Maggie, and cherishing the latter’s and her feisty auntie’s playful affections, Birdie’s dark secret forces her to blanket herself in her books and a cozy connection to Canadian pop culture.
A crescendo of events eventually leads to Birdie’s swooping descent through darkness and solitude, Sleeping Beauty-like slumber, gargantuan weight loss and eventual awakening to rebirth.
It’s important to note the weight loss has nothing to do with the freeing of Birdie. It’s equally important to acknowledge the novel’s timely release on the heels of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission report was not a strategic marketing move—although the book’s immediate wellspring of attention may in fact derive from this.
Birdie follows the lives of a First Nations community affected by the dire and devastating consequences of colonialism. Although the narratives around sexual abuse, substance abuse and mental health are not in and of themselves analogous to indigenous society, Lindberg’s blend of affable, wry-witted and complex, broken yet thoughtful characters are refreshing examples for a reading posterity of the harmful effects colonization has had on indigenous Canadians.
Moreover, the book’s resolve toward the innate kindness of humans and their ability to rise above violence or atrocity by shame-letting and intermingling with tenacious, big-heart-and-head characters and/or, as Lindberg has noted, “whatever it takes for you to get through it,” stands out fiercely.
Embedded in the powerful story are the themes of strong women and the notion of home and family, and the fact you can create either or both, with the help of the first, irrespective of blood ties.
Also noteworthy is Lindberg’s knack for dotting humour through the darkness—a device which provides welcomed levity to the grittier bits using frequent references to pop culture, mainly Canadiana, and mostly vintage CBC TV.
Many readers, particularly of the Generation X demographic, will be delighted and amused by Lindberg’s love letter to The Beachcombers and its aboriginal logger Jesse, he of the shiny black flowing locks and Birdie’s nod to a strong and trusting male archetype that must exist somewhere, if not yet in her own tumultuous reality. Foreshadow Alert: Perhaps if she goes Vancouver-Island hopping she can see if his braids are as strong as they look.
She also mentions typical seventies teen-and-tween must-have mementos like Tiger Beat magazine, preeminent chick-lit author Judy Blume and The Partridge Family, The Brady Bunch and Happy Days sitcoms. And for a rare few, coming-of-age girls, like Birdie, there was the CBC’s Frugal Gourmet, an incongruous reference, perhaps, but paramount to the protagonist’s metamorphosis nevertheless.
Lindberg herself is a citizen of the Kelly Lake Cree Nation with traditional territories extending through B.C. and Alberta. She’s the first aboriginal woman to complete a graduate law degree at Harvard. She lives in Edmonton and has been a teacher with Athabasca University for 20 years.
~Heidi Staseson is an editor and feature writer with AU News.
Tracey Lindberg Q&A
AU News was fortunate to get the last interview with Tracey Lindberg before she set off on her well-deserved, year-long sabbatical. Here’s some of that conversation between Lindberg and AU News.
HS: When did you start writing Birdie?
TL: The idea came about 17 years ago. The first piece was just a chapter about a girl looking for “Jesse” from The Beachcombers. That sat for a couple of years and then I would write additional pieces over time. Around 2007, I had really done some drafting of my own and got the bones to an agent who got it on the desk of [editor] Jennifer Lambert. Jennifer and Jane Warren worked with me until 2015 on putting it together as a coherent story. It became what it was to become as my rich experience in the communities I work with as a researcher expanded.
HS: How has your work with indigenous communities influenced this novel?
TL: I actually had the opportunity to be able to pull in a lot of the stuff that I was working on, as an academic, working with indigenous communities and indigenous laws, and build what were originally ideas in the book into what I would think became understandings. There was no part of my life that was actually separate from the book and it became another way to approach the stuff that I had been working on: conversations with indigenous knowledge holders and elders.
HS: I would imagine a lot of the creativity stemmed from that as well?
TL: The creativity is actually a response to the academic work. Where I didn’t have to think about it in a formatted or footnoted venue anymore; I could just have conversations with people that exemplified the work that I was doing academically. And in that regard it was much more freeing than the academic work…It was never the intent to glean information to put into fiction but it just seemed that Western academia was so confining in terms of how you present the information and what information you could present. But there was this overflow of creativity that had to go someplace.
HS: Your book is fiction but does some of it naturally draw on your own experiences growing up Cree in Alberta?
TL: As an indigenous woman who grew up, principally, in northern Canada, I had a spectrum of violent experiences and a spectrum of beautiful experiences—and many of those are represented within [the book].
HS: There are many universal themes in the book, like home and hearth, women and sisterhood. What did you want to address to your readers here?
TL: I think that probably when you have those themes in your head, you’re not writing a book about the themes, you’re writing a book about a person. And the weight that it pulls onto itself is sometimes outside of your control; that’s just the way the person developed. And perhaps, for a lot of different authors, when it sounds really heavy, all you were trying to do is make sure you got that person’s story told.
In terms of universality and things that people can touch on—that particular vulnerability we face as women is something I wanted to address.
HS: And that the notion of ‘home’ is different for everyone?
TL: I wanted to make sure that the notion of home—capital H Home—is something like [the notion of] family in that an obvious version of it might not be the one that was built for you. The healthiest version of home and the healthiest version of family might be things that you grow up and find and construct yourself. There is, perhaps, some universality to that because I know we consistently struggle with grief, hurt, anger and guilt if we decide to build our own home. Or if we decide to choose or make our own family apart from what comes to us genetically by birth.
In Birdie I wanted to establish that making your healthiest choice is actually the only thing that you have an allegiance to or the only thing that there is no negotiation about. We should be making that choice. And sometimes you have to leave the past behind, and you have to leave those people who hurt you behind. I’m a strong proponent for leaving behind people who hurt you. I don’t feel you necessarily have to engage with them on an ongoing basis. I’m a strong proponent for ethically sustainable decisions that allow you to live your healthiest life right now.
HS: Exactly. With Birdie, you’ve created images of ‘home’ where something that may seem unsavoury to one person may be comforting to another. For example, when Bernice conjures memories of her mother in her kitchen rolling her cigarettes—it doesn’t sound like a really nice image but those are things that create a sense of warmth for Birdie?
TL: Certainly. And I think that would be true for every one of us. I’m an avid reader and I was reading before grade school and continue to work my way through a swath of books every year. But I learned my letters from my mom spelling them in the dark with a cigarette butt. So regardless of health issues and how I learned it, I ended up being a person who wrote a novel, mid-stream in my life, because I had such a love of words.
My mom taught me how to read early because she did it with a cigarette! She’d [draw] the letter A [in the air], and I had to say it, and then she’d spell words out. Metaphorically, you can build beautiful things from things that aren’t necessarily beautiful.
HS: What about your reference to Canadian pop culture, particularly The Beachcombers? I mean, who has ever written about the character Jesse in a book?! Every Canadian of a certain generation can identify with the show and the character. Did you have a crush on Jesse yourself?
TL: Yeah, absolutely! He was the only aboriginal person I saw on television (besides Buffy Sainte-Marie who was on Sesame Street.) Having said that, in doing this mini book tour I’ve heard lots of indigenous and non-indigenous people say, ‘Yeah, who didn’t have a crush on Jesse?’ I suppose that is part of the gift he’s given is that people found it possible to be attracted to indigenous people as well.
HS: You joke that he had two lines to speak—“two verbs and even an adverb.” So you’re joking in a sense that he’s the ‘token ethnic,’ which there always is on TV. Do you still think that’s the same case in pop culture today? Are you taking that concept to task at all in here?
TL: There’s a part of it that is a critique on representation by indigenous people; there’s also a part of it that’s a critique of representation of indigenous people. And that there aren’t as many in popular culture in ongoing, well-funded international series. If we look at mainstream television, as far as CBC is mainstream television, at the time [in the seventies and eighties], there were only two television channels in a lot of communities.
But in a regular television series do you ever see an indigenous person appearing as a main, featured character? Other than Chakotay from one of the Star Trek series, I can’t think of an indigenous person who’s had a main role.
So we’ve had two series at varying lengths of seasons that have encouraged the perspective of indigenous peoples and the observation of indigenous peoples in Canada. Which is a huge leap forward. It’s just like having indigenous novels written by indigenous peoples: there’s always more proportionality. I’d like us to show up on television as much as we show up in prisons.
HS: What do you want the reader to take away about Cree culture?
TL: The fundamental principles of generosity, humility, kindness, courage are still evident and guiding principles within our Nations. We have our own laws and codes of behavior that determine how you are supposed to act in different situations. We’re quite gentle but nobody’s fools. There are Cree laws that talk about not actively interfering in other people’s business. So often we’re perceived, I think, as possessing a certain passivity—and it’s not the case. We have long, long memories of offense. And we have long, long memories about unethical behavior and we govern our actions accordingly with that.
Once you get a bad reputation in Cree community or with Cree peoples, it’s really hard to clean that up. And one of the teachings that we had along the way was that if you tell a lie or if you act dishonourably, you have to carry that your whole life. So in a way, ill behaviour is its own punishment.
HS: So if you screw up can you correct it?
TL: You correct it by being better, by being kinder, by living with generosity and recommitting to those principles. Live a good life, be a kind person, take responsibility for your actions. Somebody asked me to define Cree laws. I said, ‘you have to live in a way that allows you to get a good sleep at night.’
HS: How has your work with AU enriched your day-to-day life?
TL: Whenever I go to convocation I’m reminded of the story of Athabasca University and why it’s needed and why it’s different than any other institution—and how important the work is.
HS: When you’re teaching at AU do you come across stories all the time from your students who have overcome challenges? Maybe even people of First Nations culture?
TL: I only teach indigenous studies here at the university. I think I heard them more in the days when we used to teleconference more. I think that people are a little less willing to put it all out in an email. I really endeavor to translate our relationships online to one on the phone because I find that’s where you learn the victories people have had and the challenges they’ve faced.
At AU the success stories for people are sometimes just getting in the door and being able to live at home in their indigenous communities and take university courses. People being able to stay home and work on the Blood Reserve, raise their kids, and take a course.
We also have professors who are able to, as tutors, stay at home, live in their community and be able to engage from a First Nation or Inuit community as a professor. I think that’s a huge gift that we give the students and the people who work at the university.
HS: Was it strategic to launch the book around time of the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report?
TL: Complete coincidence. [But] that narrative or storytelling allows you a different jump-on point to have the conversation. There’s a part of me that kind of wishes that the book itself was released at a different time because I don’t want to take any focus away from what I think is an exceptionally important decision-making time in Canada’s history. But I’m also pretty aware that the effect that a book has on a huge event like that is quite nominal.
But in terms of what it has enabled me to do is to be able to have hard discussions that have already started taking place. People are already discussing indigenous impact from the residential schools and the violence that visits our communities and nations as a result of colonization. So in a sense I got an audience that was primed and ready to have the conversation.
HS: You dedicate the book “to all the mothers and little mothers and sisters and cousins who are murdered, missing, disappeared or who feel invisible.” That’s very powerful.
TL: To me, it’s every person that is impacted by that in our communities. And I think that there’s just such perpetual sorrow that to be able to dedicate it to strong women was really important—not to envision perpetuation of a culture of victim-hood or loss [but] we have to start talking about the next [steps].
HS: Did you always know you were going to write a work of fiction?
TL: Yes. I also knew I was going to be a lawyer; I also thought I’d be a rancher, but something had to give! I knew that I would write because I always did write. It truly was a struggle to be a lawyer and a prof, not [primarily] a writer. Because I didn’t think naturally like a lawyer; I didn’t think naturally like an educator.
And in fact, being a teacher came much, much easier than being a lawyer. But the writing was the struggle. Not to bring all of that language and creativity and flourish in to my legal drafting and not to glamorize all the teaching that you do. Some stuff is just bearable; you have to get through the essentials. And so it was about curbing a bit of my enthusiasm for literature and the literary tradition to be able to be those other things.
HS: So what’s next – another book?
TL: In eight hours I begin my sabbatical. You’re speaking to the most delighted version of me! I have a book on Daniel David Moses, an indigenous playwright from Ontario, that I have co-edited with former Athabasca University [faculty] David Brundage coming out in the fall. That has to be finished.
[With] my Canada Research Chair [work] I have two books coming out within the next 18 months so I’ll spend the last bit of time cleaning up one of those and finishing the other. I have a documentary that I’ve done that has to be post-production, finished this year, too. And I have another book like [Birdie] in me that deals with four women. But that takes time away that I don’t have.
HS: Did you ever think when writing the book the fact it’s so quintessentially Canadian it might take away a potential [U.S.] reading market?
TL: Never. I wrote the book for 12-year-old girls who lived in small communities where nobody was going to talk to them about violence. I wrote the book that I wished that I would find on the shelves. So marketability and where it would end up and what would happen after it was published didn’t enter my head.
HS: Do you still envision 12-year-old girls reading this book?
TL: Yup. I say to people all the time: ‘I don’t even care if you like it or don’t like it; Buy it, get it, and put it in a library someplace.’ I wonder would we be able to do a special run where we just sent it to institutions where indigenous people find themselves overrepresented? A book that we could put in junior highs. I hope that nobody ever needs it. But in the event then that people would have access to it and have great librarians who can make decisions about situating it in certain areas in the library.
Kids grow up faster and know more than we do about painful subjects before their time. I would hope that they have access to whatever they need to get themselves through to that understanding that you will be able to make healthy choices in your life about what family looks like is an important message.
HS: Have you met or talked to real-life “Jesse” actor Pat John since all this?
TL: I have not. He’s still a mystery—which I love! I think it’s beautiful. However, I fear that the mystery is going to be solved because Jackson Davies who played the RCMP constable tweeted me and said, ‘Tracey Lindberg, are you coming to Vancouver to do a reading from your book?’ So I hope that means he’s going to show up. And I’ll take whatever information he has.
HS: So you’ve still got a tiny crush?
TL: Of course!
HS: What would you say to him if you met him?
TL: What would I say to Jesse? I would say, ‘Thank you.’
There’s an image in my head of Jesse sitting next to Chief Dan George and I remember thinking, ‘Oh! We can be on TV!’ I recognized that was a big deal to see indigenous people on TV. So I’d say ‘thank you’ for at least constructing a space where a little girl from up north could understand that Cree people could be on TV too.
HS: For someone looking to learn more about First Nations history and culture in Canada, what are your suggestions for required reading besides recent go-to’s like Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian and Richard Wagamese’s Medicine Walk?
TL: Anything by Leanne Simpson. She also has a fiction book out from last year called Islands of De-Colonial Love. She’s exceptional. I would also say anything historically by Maria Campbell. She’s the elder in residence at Athabasca University. She has seven books out and a number of plays.
HS: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
TL: I just want to give a plug for people who are wanting to know when to advocate with indigenous peoples or find out more about issues facing indigenous peoples, they can contact the Native Youth Sexual Health Network.
They’re a fantastic advocacy group of young indigenous peoples who are so far ahead of the intellectual and advocacy curve that we can learn a great deal from them and should invest our time, energy and experience in any activity that they’re participating in because they are enormously changing the way we talk about indigenous peoples.
HS: How does it feel being put on a little literary pedestal at the moment?
TL: But I’m not where I am. Where I am, I’m getting up and hanging out with the same people I’ve always been hanging out with and doing the things I always do, showing up at my AU office every day, making my lunch, running, jotting down some stuff.
The proudest moment for me has been reading at Kelly Lake and the feedback from my own community and that will never swell my head. As long as I keep in my head that that’s why I did it—then the health of me participating in all this stands in quite good stead…
…And I’ve made sure that in every interview that I do—in every [media] place that I appear–I do the same thing every day which is to have a conversation and ask what you’re up to. Because I want to be able to be there, and be present and never take it for granted. Everything that I have gotten from Bernice is an opportunity to get to know people better. So I do that. I’ll do that every day.
The pedestal part–that’s external to me–not what actually is going on in my day-to-day life. I’m starting to see myself as part of a group of indigenous activists who had a toolkit that included writing.
HS: AU is lucky to have you. Thanks for taking the time and go and enjoy that sabbatical!
TL: Thank you.