ALU Summer Book Club: Interview with Anna Marie Sewell

We met with the author of our July ALU Book Club pick Humane (Stonehouse Publishing), Anna Marie Sewell, to discuss (among other things) conversation as community-building, so-called “magical realism” as a true lens by which to view the world, and empathy as the ultimate driver to do good.


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ALU: The dialogue in this book is very snappy – especially between Hazel and her daughters – and has that comforting feeling of being with loved ones around the kitchen table. Can you talk about the importance of conversation in community and how it came to play out in Humane?

Anna Marie Sewell: Conversation is community, in a deep sense. I’m fascinated by what people say to each other, and how many codes we deploy, depending on the context. What we say, how we say it, and as importantly, what is understood without words, reveals belonging and flags what matters. So in Humane, that plays out privately, over a meal or a cribbage game; publicly, going for coffee allows those codes to develop and play out in ways that weave individuals into communities. In Humane, the characters frequent Spinelli’s. In Edmonton, as in Amiskwaciy, some remarkable conversations play out there, often over generations. The local watering hole… it’s a worldwide connector.

ALU: The book plays with magical realism elements – talking dogs, a watching spirit, other things redacted for spoiler reasons – how did you strike a balance between incorporating these magic elements and still grounding the narrative in the real and immediate?

AMS: Culturally, traditionally, these elements that you’ve labelled ‘magical realism’ are understood as grounded in the real and immediate. That acceptance of the mystic/magical as normal is a strong aspect of the allure of tribal cultures worldwide. It’s also open to fearful manipulation, because ‘magic’ can also be described as ‘science you don’t understand.’

So it mattered to me to present characters who are educated both in modern and ‘primitive’ ways, who walk with a skepticism rooted in this philosophy: 1) accept that the world is multi-dimensional and we are part of a web of relationships; and 2) engage as honourably as you can with such relationships as reveal themselves to you; and 3) stay curious, because Life is a Great Mystery.

ALU: Humane deals with very heavy subject matter: the ongoing tragedy that is Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) across North America, as well as the mechanisms of colonial Canada on Indigenous people – Status cards, Indian Agents; what Hazel’s daughter Missy calls “That Dead Old Euro-Imperial Patriarchal Sexist Shit.” How did you give voice to Indigenous people struggling against ongoing violence and oppression in this novel?

AMS: I didn’t. I consider, instead, that I wrote down a portrait of people like me, who are also hopefully like you, and who use their voices every day, within the circle of their influence. They don’t need me to give them a voice. I wouldn’t dare claim that, lest they kick me. They might kick me anyway, for interpreting their voices. I hope they don’t. I hope anyone who recognizes a bit of themselves in Humane sees themselves as loved.

Hazel has no wish to be an activist. She wants to live well, and to her that means a responsibility to support those around her in also seeking to live well. She’s raised two amazing daughters, got a practical education and makes a sufficient living. She’s angry because of empathy.

She’d never admit it, but it’s empathy that drives her, and that provokes her anger. It seems important to me, in this social moment, to offer that thought for consideration, because I see empathy as a driver that needs calling forth. We can be brought to despair by the magnitude of our problems. Hazel is. In despair, she makes a prayer – the real kind that people make in extremis. And she accepts the answer given, however bizarre it might seem, and steps into that fundamentally human but magical power of saying ‘yes’ to life; which remains far more wondrous than any book could portray.

ALU: The sequel to Humane, Urbane, just released last month. Did you always know there was going to be a sequel, or did it reveal itself to you? Tell us a bit about your experiences in revisiting Amiskwaciy and these characters.

AMS: It was clear to me fairly early on in writing Humane that there was potentially much more in the story than one book could hold. The characters around Hazel intrigued me more and more, and I wanted to discover more about them, and about her in relation to them.

I still do, so I’m writing more.

I intended to move the story in a particular direction, but in Urbane, I felt compelled to give more time to Devin, to honour his remarkable strength of spirit and mind; young men these days face huge challenges in terms of reconnecting to healthy masculinity. I also couldn’t resist forcing Hazel to face her history, and how that history sits within the context of real Canada, and our shifting balance of rurality and urbanity, globalization and local community.

ALU: Were there books, films and/or music that inspired Humane? Which ones?

AMS: So many! I want to be careful in answering this, not to give spoilers, but I will say that they include: late night stories that ruin your sleep for years, live music from kitchen and community hall parties; The Six Million Dollar Man; Dvorak’s Symphony from the New World; Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series; Dick Francis’s oeuvre and 90s sitcoms (sharp dialogue); Amy Tan’s The Kitchen God’s Wife, (survival and loyalty); Isabel Allende’s Of Love and Shadows, House of the Spirits, Eva Luna (magic realism?); and an agent from the UAE compared Humane to The Godfather… it took me a while to agree, but I see it now, they’re both about the struggle to maintain one’s humanity within a context of oppression and violence, in pursuit of a life well lived.

Finally, thinking back to question 3, a lyric springs to mind, from the mighty Van Halen song ‘Jump,’ – ‘You’ve got to roll with the punches, to get to what’s real.’

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Anna Marie Sewell is an award-winning multi-genre writer/performer, whose career has centred around collaborative multidisciplinary work, including Ancestors & Elders, Reconciling Edmonton (which featured the first ever Round Dance at Edmonton’s City Hall), Braidings, Honour Songs, and Heart of the Flower. As Edmonton’s fourth Poet Laureate, Anna Marie created and curated The PoemCatcher public art installation. She founded and ran Big Sky Theatre, a three year training and performance project producing original Aboriginal (it was the 90s) theatre with urban youth. She is also a founding member of the Stroll of Poets, which has provided an entrée into Edmonton’s public poetry community since 1991.

Anna Marie authored two critically-acclaimed (and much-shortlisted) poetry collections, Fifth World Drum (Frontenac House, 2009), and 2018’s For the Changing Moon: Poems & Songs (Thistledown Press). Her essays and articles appear in Eighteen Bridges, Alberta Views, New Trail, Write Magazine, Legacy and various scholarly publications. She’s even had a recipe published in a cookbook.

Urbane is Anna Marie’s second novel, a much anticipated sequel to Humane (Stonehouse, 2020). She lives in Edmonton, Alberta.

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Thanks so much to Anna Marie for giving us more insight into Humane – which, friendly reminder, is 15% off on the site this summer!

To catch up on book club, click here.