Read the Provinces: Peggy Herring
Here to start off Read the Provinces—our celebration of authors across Canada—is BC-based author Peggy Herring. Below Peggy tells us about the fascinating research behind her novel Anna, Like Thunder (Brindle & Glass Publishing), a fresh retelling of the story of St. Nikolai, the Russian ship that ran aground off the Olympic Peninsula into Indigenous territory in 1808; and how British Columbia informs her writing. Scroll on for our interview and an excerpt from Anna, Like Thunder.
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INTERVIEW WITH PEGGY HERRING
All Lit Up: Tell us about Anna, Like Thunder and how it came to be.
Peggy Herring: About ten years ago, I saw a display on shipwrecks at Fisgard Lighthouse, a national historic site outside Victoria, BC. Certain significant shipwrecks were shown on a map of the Pacific coast. One caught my attention: a Russian trading ship was wrecked in 1808 and among those who made it to shore was a young woman who had been married to the navigator and was assumed to be the first European woman to have set foot on Washington state’s Olympic peninsula.
The story resonated with me because I’m Russian on my mother’s side and I had never heard of this shipwreck.
With so little to go on—remember that the internet ten years ago was not what it is today—it took me some time to find any reference to the event. But when I finally did, I was hooked. The historical record explains how that young woman, Anna Petrovna Bulygina, when she had a chance, even though she was supposedly “enslaved,” refused to be rescued. She told her would-be saviours that she was happy living with kind and humane people who we now know were the Makahs. If that wasn’t interesting enough, I also discovered that part of the record is a Quileute oral tradition. Elder Ben Hobucket had told the story in the first decade of the 1900s to an officer of the US Bureau of Indian Affairs.
For many reasons, fiction seemed to offer the greatest scope for reexamining and retelling this story. I knew I wanted to reflect on colonial history which continues to have an impact on nearly every aspect of this city I call home (Victoria, BC). In order to do that, I’d need to know about Russian imperial aspirations, the maritime fur trade in the Pacific, 19th century sailing, west coast slavery, cultural appropriation, and a whole lot about the culture, language, and worldview of the Indigenous peoples involved: the Makahs, the Quileutes, and the Hoh River people.
The research and writing took several years. I read widely. I reviewed archival material in Washington state, Alaska, and British Columbia. I consulted my mother about my Russian heritage and talked about the aspects I didn’t understand and how they might be reflected in the shipwreck story. Then, I visited the Olympic peninsula several times and wandered around the forest and beaches trying to imagine Anna’s world. I also discovered Indigenous authors and academics challenging the historical record and offering fresh perspectives. I visited websites that are repositories for Indigenous language, music, recipes, and other elements of culture. Then came the most interesting part of the research—consulting with the Makahs, Quileutes, and the Hoh River people on issues of culture and language. To say it was eye-opening is an understatement. I came away with a renewed appreciation for the pre-colonial history of the place I call home and frustration that more people don’t or are just beginning to see that.
We talk a lot about reconciliation in this country, but I felt then and still believe we have a lot of work to do on the “truth” part of this process. To me, that necessarily precedes anything that can be called reconciliation.
In selecting fiction to tell this story, though the historical record provides the framework, I had many choices to make. I chose to tell the story from Anna’s limited point of view. Her flaws are there—her youth, her blindness to her own upbringing and culture, her impetuousness. And yet, being female and an outsider on a ship filled mostly with men, she would have a different perspective on what happened. I also chose to use present tense which, once I had reached a certain point in my research, seemed the only way to tell the story. The impact of colonization continues to shape so many aspects of this coast. Finally, I chose to use Indigenous languages in their own orthography for many reasons. I wanted to show respect, un-centre the colonizers even if only briefly, and allow non-Indigenous readers to feel Anna’s disorientation. But if the inclusion of those languages also makes readers curious (as it did me), then I’ll be very happy.
I was fortunate to find a publisher and team that understood and supported my vision for this book. Writing is a solitary occupation but producing a book destined for the marketplace involves a lot of people who bring diverse skills to the table. I leaned on others who were kind enough to let me. Working on this book illuminated a symbiosis that in turn informed many aspects of the book.
ALU: It's been argued that physical geography shapes our identity, that there's a connection between our place in the world and who we are. As a writer, in what ways does your natural environment inform your writing?
PH: I grew up in rural Ontario on the Oak Ridges Moraine, and though the area is only 60 kilometres north of Toronto, in those days, it was a completely different place. Traffic was sparse. Neighbours were far away. We had a small house and, regardless of the season, my brothers and I were rarely inside. Outside were dozens of acres of rolling farmland, forest, creeks and marsh, train tracks that connected Toronto to the west coast, and an abandoned cemetery. I know that land as much as it knows me. My father taught us to forage for wild berries and mushrooms, to fish, to observe the behaviour of birds if we wanted to know what weather was coming, to notice and follow the paths that deer, coyote, and even groundhogs drew on the land. I am lucky that my parents still live in the same house and even though the area has changed so much, as Toronto has grown and spread, there are smells, sounds, and tastes that survive. When I am there, I feel immediately grounded.
I moved to the west coast about 30 years ago in a roundabout way that included many years in South Asia. I don’t know the west coast in the same way that I know the piece of rural Ontario where I grew up, but I bring the same sensibility to how I see the physical geography and what it means to me. The west coast is an extraordinary part of the country. When you’re not from here, how big the physical environment seems, how lush, how green, everything oversized. It can be quite overwhelming. I’ve tried to learn the botany. I’ve foraged for all kinds of things and taught my child what I know. I’ve tried to understand the movement of ocean tides and currents, and what it’s like to find your way around when you’re at sea, without certain land-based reference points. When writing about Anna, I drew on those early impressions and I thought a lot about what it must mean to have an attachment to a particular physical environment that goes back centuries, as it does with Indigenous peoples all over the world, never mind a couple of generations.
Traditionally, a recurring theme in CanLit has been the struggle between man and nature. I think my relationship with the physical world has been quite different, and I hope my writing reflects that. But I suspect there is plenty more left to say about that.
ALU: Who are some of your favourite BC-based writers?
PH: There are so many! I think back to the time before I moved west when I read the works of BC-based writers such as Daphne Marlatt, Jane Rule, Lee Maracle, Joy Kogawa, Audrey Thomas, Phyllis Webb, Ethel Wilson, Susan Musgrave, P.K. Page, and Helen Potrebenko and saw in their work sides of the coast that defied stereotypes. They explored beauty, took me into some dark corners, but also taught me not to be afraid of those places. They are among my literary mothers.
When I consider the BC-based authors who are creating exciting work today and amplifying the work of my literary mothers, I would include Carleigh Baker, Yasuko Thanh, Jen Sookfong Lee, Jen Currin, Rene Sarojini Saklikar, and Monique Gray-Smith, all of whom I think must be fearless.
FROM ANNA, LIKE THUNDER
I spend my days with Inessa and yet know so little about her—not even her real name. In the evenings, after our work is done, she eats her meal in a corner with other young women and children. They talk and laugh—who are her friends? What amuses them? Is she married? I think not, but surely she favours somebody. I watch to see if there’s a young man she gazes at, or who gazes at her with that kind of longing.
Where is my husband, Nikolai Isaakovich? Did he get his coat back? Is he missing me, looking for me? I pass the hours walking to and from the forest thinking about the last time I saw him, his beastly beard, without his coat, his thin shirt no shield from the cold, and the way he hung his head, impotent before the men who, only a few weeks before, had obeyed his every command. I am so disappointed for him, and, frankly, disappointed in him. But I know he’s not a coward—not really. Something’s happened with the crew to influence him, but no matter how hard I try, I can’t imagine what it might have been.
I picture his face when we meet again. How surprised he’ll be if the next time he sees me I’m hailing him from the ship that’s come to rescue all of us. How tightly we’ll embrace one another and how sweet his kisses will be when we’re finally alone again.
One grey morning, before Inessa and I head into the forest again, Makee calls me.
“I will show you the garden today,” he says. “Come.”
We head out along a path that leads away from the sea. Two men, one carrying bow and arrows, the other a spear, accompany us. The path is narrow and muddy, so we walk single file. After a long time and a short time, the sound of the surf vanishes beneath the twittering of birds and the soft breath of the wind in the trees.
It’s a relief to be in the forest with a purpose other than searching for firewood. I can nearly imagine my parents here, my father off wandering in the underbrush, my mother beginning one of her cautionary tales about the leshii. This forest is so different from the one in the hills that surround Petersburg. I wonder if she’d sense the leshii’s presence here, too.
At a bend in the path, two tiny birds flutter away when they see us. Startled, the man with the spear lifts his weapon, then lowers it when he sees there’s no danger. Around the corner, right beside the trail, grows a strange tree with a short trunk that splits into many branches that all grow straight into the sky. Together, the branches form a bowl; the tree resembles a chalice.
“How long did the Spanish live here?” I ask.
Makee shrugs. “Not long—in the end. But they intended to stay much longer than they did. They constructed houses, sheds for their cattle, and even a building where they made metal things—a whole village. After it was built, they surrounded it with cannon. I was a young boy then, but I remember there were six. All facing outward and pointed at us.”
“Why? Were you at war?”
“We should have been. They built it all on top of our houses.”
“On top? How?”
“They came when the people were away. It was summer and naturally everyone was in the forest and up in the hills. When the people came back, their village was occupied. The Spanish men didn’t care, and they even insisted the people stop trading with everyone else. But the Spanish had almost nothing anybody wanted. No one wished to restrict trading like that.”
“So what did the people do?”
“There was no choice. They had to find somewhere else to live. Some of them came to Tsoo-yess—the rest to other villages. That winter, the Spanish suffered a lot and eventually they went back to their country. And when they did, they left everything. So, the people came back to their community. They tore down the Spanish houses. They burnt what they didn’t want, or threw it in the river. The garden is all that’s left.”
We walk until, in the distance, the horizon brightens, and the sound of the sea returns. Gradually, through the trees, the ocean emerges once again. The men with us hold their weapons more casually, and the hard readiness of their arms melts away.
“This is it,” Makee says, and we stop before a tangle of vines and overgrown plants that bolted long ago. It’s hardly a garden. It lies just outside the edge of the forest, a short distance from the sea, at one end of a huge bay that’s empty except for a floating flock of black birds. A lone gull glides overhead.
I kneel and pull aside a desiccated mesh of stalks and vines. Beneath them, life is taking its course: many small plants huddle together. Their stunted leaves are dark but green, so I know they’re alive. Makee squats beside me and pulls the debris even farther back. There, nestled in pale, oversized leaves, is a tiny emerald jewel.
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Born in Toronto and raised on a farm near Tottenham, Ontario, Peggy Herring felt the first taps of love for the written word as a young girl when her grandfather gifted her with her first typewriter. This love led her to study journalism at Carleton University in Ottawa, and after graduation she embarked on a career with the CBC, which took her from the east coast of Canada to the west. With her similarly nomadic husband she traveled to Bangladesh, where she volunteered with the United Nations, and travelled throughout India. After working in Nepal, London, Dhaka, and New Delhi, Peggy and her family returned to Canada, and currently reside in Victoria, British Columbia. She is the author of This Innocent Corner (Oolichan Books, 2010), and her short fiction has been featured in a variety of publications, including Antigonish Review, New Quarterly, and Prism International. Visit her at peggyherring.ca.
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