Q & A: Jónína Kirton
August 08th, 2022
Jónína Kirton’s (right) third book, Standing in a River of Time (Talonbooks $19.95) merges memoir and poetry to tell of the effects of colonization on her Métis family and her path to healing. Her first two published books were poetry collections, including “page as bone – ink as blood” (Talonbooks, 2015) and “An Honest Woman” (Talonbooks, 2017). She is an SFU Writers Studio graduate and in 2016, received the Emerging Artist Award from the City of Vancouver, part of the Mayor’s Arts Award for Literary Arts. In 2018, she was shortlisted for the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize. -Ed.
BCBookLook: You start Standing in a River of Time when your mother is dying from cancer. Was that the most trying and influential period in your life?
Jónína Kirton: I would not describe her dying as a trying time. It was more of an awakening. As the only girl, I was very close to my mother, a beautiful woman, that I jokingly referred to as the “church lady” due to her devotion to her faith. She was a kind woman, interested in community and always learning. I would not be who I am today without her influence. The way she negotiated her final days, still thinking of others and caring for her family made me realize how selfish and self-centred I had become. Unhealed people can be very self-centred. They can’t help it. They walk around with open wounds, thin skin, that is easily hurt. It is hard to think of others when you are in that kind of pain and yet my mother managed to do this. Seeing this and witnessing the miracle of her leaving her body sent me even deeper into my own healing
BCBL: You describe the toll of losing other family members. Did you come to terms with the loss of two brothers early in life, the death of the nephew you raised after he was orphaned at fourteen and, at the end of the book, your father with whom you never really reconciled?
JK: In the poem titled, tumbling, I describe each loss as a rock that I now had to carry. Thinking of rocks as touchstones, something one might carry in their pocket as a reminder. I begin with my Ancestors, the lost connection to my culture on all sides. These rocks, thin, good for “skipping over the waters of the past” so that they might bring me the stories and guidance I needed.
the first rocks my Ancestors whispering thin
easily airborne skipping over waters of the past
I used the metaphor of the rock to show how each loss is different and that there is an accumulative effect that can make it more difficult to cope. The poem began with the line
I have been carrying the dead my whole life
The line was one of those gifts that come whispering. It was quite insistent, kept circling back to my mind so I knew it was an important message and that I was to write a poem with this line as a starting point. While writing this poem and the book I realized that I was writing about survivors’ guilt and the effects of colonization on my own family. Knowing how they had suffered in life did make their deaths more painful somehow.
BCBL: Your father’s troubled identity as a Métis man who is an alcoholic caused problems in your family. Later in life you learned that racism and colonialism were to blame for many of his destructive behaviours. Do you think he ever realized that?
JK: Despite a few attempts, one that included Antabuse, he was never able to stop drinking. Drinking led to violence, to overspending and to things like drunk driving charges. So even though my father was successful in his career and well respected by many, he lived his entire adult life in that downward shame spiral that comes with alcoholism. Not one to talk about himself, most of what I know about him came from my mother and other family members. I was a teenager questioning our ancestry when my mother told me, “Your father hates being Native.” I was told to not talk to him about it but later in life as I uncovered the rich history of our Métis Ancestors, I decided to share the stories with him. At first, he was resistant but years later around the time the Truth and Reconciliation Committee was in the news he became more open. He was one to keep up with the news and no doubt he read about the findings of the TRC. He never spoke about this to me, but I feel that between the TRC and what I shared with him he did make peace with being Indigenous. I like to think that he began to feel some pride, as shortly before his death in 2017, he told me that he wanted to get his Métis citizenship. This after a lifetime of denying he was Indigenous. I will never know whether or not he was able to put all the pieces together and understand how racism and colonization had contributed to his drinking while he was living. No matter what has happened between us I have always loved him. He is my dad. Not only did he and my mother give me life, but I also know that he tried really hard to give us kids a good life. He deserves to be at peace.
BCBL: When did you embrace your Metis heritage?
JK: I always knew that I was what we called ‘part-Native’ but didn’t know I was Métis until my forties when my cousin, an enumerator for Saskatchewan Métis offered to confirm this. I literally fell to my knees and wept when I received the genealogy report she had put together for me. All those years of being told to not talk about our Indigenous ancestry melted away. I finally felt free. And that confirmation only covered my grandmother’s side. A few years later I had another genealogy report done by the St. Boniface Historical Society, that one was more detailed. It revealed that my grandfather was also Métis, and our Indigenous lineage went back as far first contact. It was a relief to have confirmation about who I came from, but it was still not enough. Now that I know this what now? What does this mean and where can I find my people? I knew lots of Indigenous people, attended Native AA meetings, but in those days, I rarely heard anyone talk about being Métis. Early on, I went to ‘Back to Batoche Days’ but felt on the outside as I didn’t know anyone, and it seemed that being there with a white husband didn’t help. I am so grateful that in recent years the Métis Nation of BC has grown and has been offering more support and chances to learn and gather together.
BCBL: You also pay attention to your Icelandic heritage (on your mother’s side). How has this been a source of strength for you?
JK: I end the book with a quote from my Icelandic grandmother whose name I carry. I do this because I wanted to show that the Icelanders also care for this earth, and the pride I feel about being her grandchild and being Icelandic. She was a strong woman, the mother of seventeen children, all home births. She was a joyful woman and never complained, despite living in poverty. I once said to her, “Grandma, you’ve had such a hard life.” It was the only time I can recall her being upset with me. She did not feel her life was hard and was insulted by my suggesting this. Having her name is an honour. I feel a sense of responsibility to be as strong, as joyful as she was, but it is more than that. My Icelandic aunts and uncles embody her strength; strength that I did not fully understand until I went to Iceland in 2017. While there I saw the beauty and yet harshness of those lands. I saw what it must have taken to live there in the early days. I saw their love of story and poetry and realized that I get my desire to tell stories from both sides.
BCBL: Wanda John-Kehewin writes in your book’s Foreword: “Loss and love run through this work, which is about acceptance and healing through truth.” Was detailing the healing power of truth the major aim of this book? Or did writing your memoir bring out your story of healing?
JK: There has been something very healing about documenting some of the harm I have experienced. The Truth and Reconciliation has truth in its name as there can be no reconciliation without truth. Abusers rarely admit to what they have done and often use gaslighting to keep you questioning reality. Truth becomes muddy and I like clarity. In fact, when referring to my second book, An Honest Woman, Betsy Warland said, “Kirton picks over how she was raised familially and culturally like a crime scene.” Her assessment was accurate, and I was tickled. Writing that book I was on a mission to expose the world that young women and girls enter. When writing Standing in a River of Time, I felt in fairness, that I needed to soften my gaze and share hard truths about some of the things I had done.
The title, Standing in a River of Time, comes from a teaching I once heard about time being a river with the future at our back moving towards us and the past in front of us flowing away. I used this title as I do believe that unless one has the gift of prophesy, we can’t see the future, but we can examine the past and in doing so we can make peace with things that have caused us pain. One of the promises offered to us in AA is that “We will not regret the past nor want to close the door on it.” What I hoped to convey in the book was that the healing may never be done and that this is okay. There can be layers to unpack, and each new loss may bring back memories of old losses. You might want to be done, “to close the door” on painful memories but there is a cost to doing this prematurely. Perhaps there is more to see or learn. The book was never intended to be a roadmap for healing but rather to show how messy healing can be and that accepting our imperfections could bring much needed change in the world.
BCBL: You have turned to many types of therapy and healing practices – from the Twelve Steps of Alcoholic Anonymous, to therapy, to Indigenous and Eastern teachings and connection with nature. Is one more significant than the other? Or is the combination important?
JK: That is a hard question to answer. A little like being asked which of your children are you favourites. Each one is wonderful in their own way. I have always felt that is important to remain open and responsive to a variety of teachings. My most significant and long-standing practice has been prayer. Even as a child I prayed to God and spoke to Jesus. Once older and in my New Age phase it became, God-Goddess-Mother-Father-of-all-that-is or the Universe. As I had more exposure to Indigenous teachings, I began to pray to Great Spirit but later changed to the Creator and the Ancestors. I now oscillate between Goddess and the Ancestors as I feel the divine feminine needs more attention. There are plenty of people saying God and I just want to balance things out.
I know that some consider picking and choosing from different traditions is suspect. Some feel that one should return to the traditions of their Ancestors but being so mixed this was never a realistic option for me. I simply do my best to lean in and listen to what I am being guided to attend to. I have been blessed with great intuition, access to guides who I believe to be my Ancestors. I trust this and feel grateful as it is very helpful to me as a writer.
BCBL: You include meeting and marrying your third husband, who continues to be a source of love and support for you (and to whom you dedicated your book). Was it a case of him being the “right man” for you or were you in a better place to accept love and maintain a good relationship when you met him?
JK: I do believe timing is everything. I don’t mention in the book that months before meeting him I had been getting what I call ‘messages’ that appeared to be indicating that I would be getting married. This made me laugh as not only did I not have a boyfriend, but I had no desire to be married. I was however curious so asked for clarification which was provided in the way of specific dates. I heard things would happen between December 22 and January 8. We had our first chat on January 1 and our first date on Jan 8. We were married years later on December 22, 2008.
I often joke that Garry and I get along so well because our dysfunctions work well together. When we met, we were both broken people seeking recovery. The sources of our pain are very different but the results and the solutions were the same. Being in recovery together does give us a common language and focus in life. This is not to say that it has been easy. It has not but it has been worth it.
BCBL: At your reading this summer at the Denman Island Writers Festival, you said that although much of your writing is sad and tragic, you are a happy, humorous person. Have you always been this way or is it the result of your healing journey?
JK: I have always been playful. Growing up I had many examples of how to be lighthearted even when experiencing difficult times. Despite how hard her life was my Icelandic grandmother was filled with gratitude and joy. Her excitement was infectious and never more so than when her children were coming home. I was once in the car with her when her son, a pilot, was flying over us. She was so looking forward to seeing him and seeing his small plane, she hung her head out the window, hands barely on the wheel, shouting “Its Clifford! Its Clifford!” My mother was more subdued but when things got tough, she always found ways to make us laugh. My Métis family were big on teasing. They never took themselves too seriously. Many Métis, including me, feel that it is our sense of humour that keeps us afloat.
BCBL: What role has your connection to other women and writers played in your life and your writing?
JK: There is a chapter in the book titled, Beside a Well: Walking with Women. It begins with a quote that is from Nüshu text: “Beside a well, one won’t thirst, beside a sister, one won’t despair. Like many other survivors’ despair, the feeling that I want to give up, nips at my heels. It is my friendships with women that has kept me alive. Coming home later in life has meant that some of my Indigenous Elders are my age. The respect and kindness that people like Sharon Jinkerson Brass have shown me has made it possible for me to claim all of myself. Having women writers as friends has sustained me as a writer. One of my favourite people is Chelene Knight. We are both busy so communicate via voice memos that we can respond to when the time is right. I would not have survived the literary world without her support. Having mentors like Betsy Warland and her partner ingrid rose, has allowed me to grow not only as a writer but also as a woman claiming her place in this world. There are so many more women I could name. I have truly been blessed with an abundance of friendships with women of all backgrounds.
BCBL: Are you following the Pope’s current pilgrimage of penance to Canada? Is it meaningful for you?
JK: I struggled with how to answer this as I do want to be respectful of those who found this healing or who follow these teachings. I am not Catholic. Even so, I felt it was important to bear witness to his first apology. I was saddened to see that he did not mention sexual abuse especially as the camera panned the crowd and we saw the pain on the faces of so many Elders. The most powerful moment for me was when Si Pih Ko, sang, then raised her arm and walked away. Seeing her pain reminded me of the pain I saw on my father’s face. I wept and had to go for a walk, to pray and to lay tobacco. After that first apology I only watched brief news clips and each time I did I felt so much anger at how protected he is. Seeing him surrounded by Swiss guard security, knowing how little protection many women have, especially Indigenous women and that there are still many Indigenous women who are being murdered and going missing, infuriated me. The disparity was glaring, difficult to witness.
BCBL: Anything else you want to add?
JK: I was always proud to be Indigenous and only recently learned where this pride may have come from. While doing research, my father’s cousin told me that when I was a small child I would sit on my great-grandfather’s knee while he sang to me in Michif. He played the fiddle and was known to recite poetry from memory. I believe my early years living in Portage la Prairie, surrounded by my Métis family, had offered other chances to experience life as a Métis child. Even though my grandmother denied her ancestry, there were people in her family that did not. I have no conscious memory of this time and yet I always felt in my bones that it was wonderful to be Indigenous. I am certain this is because of how loving, how playful, and strong my Métis family was. I was around six when we moved away from Portage La Prairie. I lost so much when we moved and do wonder what my life would have been like had we stayed in Portage.
An edited version of this interview will be published in the Autumn 2022 issue of BC BookWorld newspaper.