The characters in Virginia Pesemapeo Bordeleau's debut novel
Blue Bear Woman, translated by Susan Ouriou and Christelle Morelli (Inanna Publications), came naturally out of her own family history and her grief at the loss of her father. Virginia joins us in this #alureadtheprovinces interview to share more about the book – which tells the story of a young Cree woman's search for her roots and identity – and how her own life and writing has been shaped by nature and the Indigenous environment.
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INTERVIEW WITH VIRGINIA PESEMAPEO BORDELEAU, TRANSLATED FROM FRENCH BY SUSAN OURIOU
All Lit Up: Tell us about your novel Blue Bear Woman and how it came to be.
Virginia Pesemapeo Bordeleau: I began writing the novel in 2005, one month before my father, who was hospitalized, passed away. We knew that time was running out for him. The idea of writing my family's story had been in the back of my mind for several years, however, I hadn't known where to start. Losing my father was hard for me, he was the last one in his line, so I knew that once he was gone I would become the eldest family member. But the writing came quite naturally, allowing me to deal with my grief by immersing myself in the past and in our family's history, which I fictionalized at times. It seemed to me that the characters were so strong and novel-worthy there was no need to invent them. However, having been published too early in the history of francophone Indigenous literature, the novel took more than ten years to attract attention. Its current translation into English opens up new vistas and gives access to a wider readership.
ALU: It's been argued that physical geography shapes our identity, that there's a connection between our physical place in the world and who we are. As a writer, in what ways does your natural environment inform your writing?
VPB: I was born in nature, in the forest, while my parents were out on their hunting and trapping grounds. The place I feel most comfortable is still in nature, where I continue to live today. There is a feeling of great freedom that comes with wide open spaces and with the solitude and silence. I can truly say that nature is in me as I am in it; it never leaves me even in the midst of a big city. The Indigenous environment has also shaped me and is very present in my literary universe. So of course, my tendency is to develop plotlines that take place in nature, although I could just as well set a story elsewhere in the world inspired by observations made during my travels.
All Lit Up: Who are some of your favourite Quebec-based writers?
VPB: The author I re-read the most is Anne Hébert. As for writers working in Quebec today, I enjoy Larry Tremblay and Daniel Grenier as well as, without exception, all First Nations' authors.
THIS MORNING, we set out for James Bay. I have no idea the journey will lead me to obscure territories hidden deep in impenetrable atavistic memories. The dream that pulled me from sleep was most likely a warning.… In it, Daniel and I tour a church.
Peculiar its architecture, somewhere between medieval and modern. On the altar in the centre is Christ on his wooden cross. A lever protrudes from the granite flagstone in the floor. Daniel reaches out to see how it works. My warning comes too late. He’s already pulling the handle toward him. Immediately, the flagstones beneath our feet begin to shift. I grab Daniel’s arm and cry, “Follow me!” Without waiting, I run through the wide open doors. The steps pull free one after another behind me, my feet barely touching them. Certain that my husband follows close behind, I only look back once I’ve tumbled into the arms of my brother, Maikan, who stops me in my tracks. A terrified crowd witnesses the church’s collapse. But Daniel isn’t behind me. I see his hand, his ring hand, emerge from the pile of rubble. I cry out both in my dream and in bed as my worried spouse shakes me.
The morning begins with a timid sun hiding behind clouds. July’s heat is behind us and mosquitoes have grown scarce by day. To be on the safe side, we buy fruit, vegetables, rice, pasta, and packaged sauce in Amos. Red wine. We’ll eat off picnic tables and sleep in the van or tent.
We stop at a few interpretive signs the tourist bureau has labelled “Les voix de la voie du Nord”—Voices of the Northern Route. Mining sites. A lake with emerald waters. An esker. The afternoon hours tick by. We keep an eye out for a place for our evening meal. I’d like a discreet location, a lake to bathe in. At the crossroads to Joutel, a former mining town, we admire the view of distant hills. A few people are busy consulting a road map spread out on the hood of their car. A woman laughs loudly. Not that anyone is in danger of getting lost here since there’s only one road to follow.
Behind the steering wheel, Daniel waits for a Matagami-bound truck to pass. Across the road, I see a sign: Camping sauvage. I touch his arm and nod at the sign for wilderness camping. He smiles, crosses the road, and drives up a wide sandy path. A chain link fence surrounds the spot, but the gate is open. Through jack pines, we see a lake. We make our way to the empty campsites and crumbling fire pits invaded by pine and birch regrowth. We like the site and its ruggedness. I shed my clothes and slip into my swimsuit. The cold water invigorates me and I push through a few lengths, humming to give me strength.
A shout, somewhere between astonishment, incredulity and joy, sounds from shore. It’s Daniel calling me. I wade out of the water and am immediately swarmed by mosquitoes. Daniel stands by the picnic table, his hands full of chanterelles. My favourite mushroom! “And this is nothing!” he says. He parts the bushes to reveal the gleam of not just a multitude of saffron-capped chanterelles, but lobster mushrooms, too.
That evening, the mosquitoes give chase. We light a fire in the firepit that we feed with green grasses. The thick smoke gives us some respite as we prepare to dry our harvest. “Thanks be to Kitchi Manitou!” Daniel says. We have no idea that we’ve just entered nature’s fast food court and that we will have many more occasions to thank the Great Spirit.
A dream. A friend asks me to smudge her house haunted by a spirit. There are no windows, no light. I’m not sure I’ll be able to help. Daniel shoves me with his behind and I wake up. With the van parked on an incline, I’ve been rolling into him all night long. Because of that incline, I’ll remember the dream.
The rising sun throws the pine trees’ long shadows across the small lake by the road. We can already hear transport trucks driving by. The coffee gives off an enticing smell and I make a mushroom omelet. Meanwhile, my husband explores our surroundings. He discovers the relics of a large well-appointed campground with concrete foundations, tumbledown buildings, and an old playground. It’s as though I can hear the joyous cries of vacationing families in the wind brushing past. Where there are mines, cities are born then die. Men and women harbour the hope that the earth’s womb will provide gold or copper in perpetuity. The seam runs out. So hope is abandoned, to be buried and left behind, eyes averted. In sorrow.
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Virginia Pesemapeo Bordeleau is an internationally-recognized visual artist and published author of Cree origin. She has published three novels and two poetry collections in French. Born in Rapides-des-Cèdres in 1951, of a Cree mother and a mixed-race Quebecois father, she holds a Fine Arts Baccalaureate and has participated in numerous exhibitions in Quebec, United States, Mexico, Denmark, and received several awards for her art. In 2007, she published her first novel, Ourse bleue, translated to the English language by Susan Ouriou and Christelle Morelli as Blue Bear Woman, in 2019 (Inanna Publications). Her collection of poetry, De rouge et de blanc (2012) was awarded the Abitibi-Témiscamingue literary prize. Her subsequent novels include L’amant du lac (2013) and L’enfant hiver (2014). She lives in Abitibi, in northwest Quebec.
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