White Beggar Woman, or, Where I fail is where I begin

August 12, 2015 

I started writing this update in April, tried again in May, and now find myself in August, once again, a failed blogger. But also a poet who read poetry in Tallinn, Estonia—Head Read, the best literary festival EVER—and a novelist who has finished the rewrites of her novel (her sex and house-cleaning novel, pub-date to be announced, called The Change Room), also a mother who has taken her kid cycling over 24 km of trestle bridges on the Kettle Valley Railway, and a happy teacher who talked, played, and laughed a lot in Wells, northern B.C., where I taught a memoir workshop in early July. Island Mountain Arts is an inspiring place to learn, eat, breathe, and make art. I actually finished my novel there, while my students were busy writing away in the afternoons. I hope to teach there again next summer; will keep you posted.

But I get ahead of myself. As usual. That’s what happens when you are a failed blogger, blogging once every six months instead once every week or two.

For those of you who followed the last time I was intensely and relentlessly online, I wanted to return to the theme of my furious postings here and on Facebook, and say a few words about the Cindy Gladue protest and vigil. That takes us back to April 2nd, when people across the country, led by long-time Indigenous activists and their allies, protested the non-verdict and abhorrent acquittal of the man responsible for Cindy Gladue’s death, the man who murdered her. The protests provided space for an unequivocal national moment of strong, clear attention, a resounding "No!" to the injustice so long inflicted on Indigenous women in Canada. It was especially powerful because it came with strong critiques from First Nations women about how the so-called justice system itself fails Indigenous people. The vigils included words from Cindy’s family and a sincere, loving appreciation for her life.

After the protest in Toronto, I lingered as long as possible, chatting with one of the drummers and watching the lone dancer dance. And dance. And dance. Tattooing the concrete with her presence. Taking up space. She just kept going, even after the drummers were done. Her dance became its own protest, there on the downtown concrete. I write about the protests, the ongoing war, and that dance here http://penguinrandomhouse.ca/hazlitt/longreads/same-war

I am not a full-time political activist: I am a writer who writes from a political, engaged state. Being a good writer requires solitude and separation from the heat of political activism. That’s something I learned in Burma and on the Thai-Burma border, among lifelong activists, revolutionaries, and dissidents. (And I write about that struggle and my own in Burmese Lessons, a love story) Part of me has always disliked the enforced quiet of the artist’s life; it means that I cannot always be yelling my head off at the injustices I see in my own country and in other parts of the world.

 Besides, yelling my head off all the time leaves me headless. Or all mouth, which is not useful. Certainly when it comes to our relationships with Indigenous people, white people/settlers need to be quiet. We need to listen, to hear, to hang back, to make space. Moving respectfully is a learning experience. Trying to make space, to give voice, I asked an Indigenous activist if I could quote her online work for the Hazlitt piece I link to above.

My request made her angry; she lobbed accusations of plagiarism and untrustworthiness at me in emails, in public social media, and privately to her colleagues. She said that white women would not have cared at all about Cindy Gladue if she, the activist, had not written about the case. But I did not learn about Cindy’s tragic death from her writing; I learned about it from a friend, and a newspaper report. It was the sick violence done to Cindy Gladue herself that ‘made me care.’

To care (and to act out of care) is no feat, and should not be. When they were made aware of the details of the case, thousands of people across Canada showed care, expressed outrage, came to protests, wrote letters, wrote editorials and articles. Though the Solicitor General of Alberta wrote me a letter saying that public protest cannot influence the legal position of the Crown, on the very day of the national protest, the Crown Prosecutor's office announced that it would seek to retry Bradley Barton, the man who murdered Cindy Gladue.

Those weeks later, when faced with my critic's accusations, I explained politely in a follow-up email that I am not a plagiarist, and that because I have family members who’ve worked in or been closely involved with those in the street sex trade, I’ve often written about the vulnerabilities of sex workers. I've also published and spoken publicly, often, about the need for all Canadians to face the legacy of violence against Indigenous women, children, and men. Trying to make peace did not work. The activist called me a “white beggar woman” trying to steal Indigenous labour—and many other nasty things on social media. “Know your boundaries! Know your privilege!” she wrote, implying that knowing one’s boundaries and privilege means accepting wrongful accusation, name-calling, and general rudeness as a mode of communication. Some of her colleagues, and mine, without knowing anything about the substance of our exchange agree/d with her, and also castigated me online. I had some emails from strangers, charging me with racism cloaked as white-saviourism. I approached one of her colleagues for advice about how to deal with what had happened; she, too, told me I had a problem with boundaries, and refused any communication.

Hmm. In a way, she is right. I DO have a problem with boundaries. That problem has often led me to live outside of them, around them, against them, and almost entirely without them. Not morally or legally, but in the sense that I reject the Western notion that we, as humans, are hopelessly disconnected, boundaried into separation from each other, from the Other, from the natural world, from Holiness, or God, or the Goddess. I do not believe in the boundaries that are constantly being thrust down our throats even as citizens in a sort-of democracy in the free world. That we are separate and lost to each other, to this earth, is the Great Hoax, the cause of every kind of war and many sorts of pettiness, too. Granted, sometimes we cannot understand each other. So what? Not understanding and not knowing my boundaries has led me to learn, to love and to experience being wildly alive in this world, across many borders—linguistic, cultural, sexual, religious, political.

Months later, after that unhappy, painful exchange, where am I? Do I know my boundaries? And my privilege? Though the activist’s words were delivered in anger, I also took her accusations seriously, because white people are notoriously stupid about what it means to be non-white. We do forget our privilege; I’ve spent much of my life trying not to be forgetful. Damn, I thought, after all this political and personal work, trying to be human, am I really a white beggar woman? Just stealing, no, begging from those I wish to honour? Am I going backwards?

White beggar woman. Hmm. These are incredibly loaded words, brilliantly subverted. Such a complex, rich insult. Insult? Begging. Panhandling. White beggar woman. It makes me think of all the beggars and panhandlers I know and have known. (Agatha! Jerry!) Some are dead now; some have moved on to warmer climes. Ron is still here, the old (white) junkie for whom I regularly buy cheesies and chocolate milk and yogurt. (White food, too!) It makes me think of the old Jewish injunction that beggars give us a sacred opportunity to be generous. In ancient Greece, too, the beggar was often a holy person or a hero, disguised. Odysseus himself pretends to be a beggar when he finally goes home to Ithaca. But that’s not the point. The point is, the gods reward those who are kind to beggars.

Who am I, as I turn my own face to history? There are beggars, too, in Come Cold River.

Search for answer, I turned to that book, my own personal history book, Come, Cold River, a collection of poetry I worked on for a decade. http://quattrobooks.ca/books/come-cold-river/

It took me a long time to find a publisher for the collection. Poetry that engages social justice themes is seen in Canada as out-of-date; if you can understand the words, if you are down-to-earth, if you don’t reference Foucault or a chainsaw, you must be writing confessional women's pap. Editors repeatedly told me that "They don’t publish this stuff." I most enjoyed: "Hasn't this all been said before?" Poems that sing and sometimes howl the truth about violence against women and children; plain words about street sex workers, and the heinous violence we allow them to face on our streets, with our men; poems about the women of Vancouver’s downtown east side, the lost, beloved ones. Poems about my own turbulent, addicted, angry family. (It’s a good family, by the way. Good-humoured people, still crashing along, making jokes, making a goddamn mess. I have gotten over any longed-for fairtytale ending: it will never be all better. Look at this world. I love my family. It's a book of love poems, really.)

Come Cold River is also an imperfect book. Its imperfections are possibly the most useful thing about it. The way it tries. The flaws teach us the most; they teach us what we need to learn. Where I fail is where I begin. So I thank my angry critic, who did not want me to quote her words. She lent me something better; her outrage, her disgust. A Metis friend, a lawyer who has worked on land claims cases across Canada and is a living encyclopedia of legal history and wisdom, told me that if you still stick your head up in this particular storm, you must get struck by lightning. This storm is fueled by pain, rage, injustice beyond comprehension---as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and their reports show us.  http://www.trc.ca/websites/trcinstitution/index.php?p=3

(The TRC is a group of Indigenous people telling the truth about the violence and genocidal intent of Canada’s residential school system, and by extension, of the Canadian government. Both the commission and the extraordinary reports it produced—which are available online above—are funded by Indigenous people themselves, not by the Government of Canada.)  

A Buddhist teaching counsels that we must thank those who condemn us publicly, bow to them as to important sages. However I failed, whatever raw nerve I touched that is storm-linked to the wounded heart of one woman, of her people, of many peoples, of theirs lands, of the true, still-being-written histories—that is where I begin, at that tender, pulsing, fiercely alive place. I move from there, more humbly, more gently, astonished, sometimes, by who we are. And stumbling. I am grateful to my teachers, however they arrive.