Jennifer Manuel explores the complexity of belonging through the reflections of a nurse in a First Nations community.
A SENSE OF BELONGING is critical to our quality of life, but what exactly does it mean? While our connection to neighbours, friends, family and other local networks is obviously part of it, as soon as I shift my view to a wider perspective of, in my case, being a settler on unceded territory in BC, the notion of belonging becomes much more complicated.
In her new, debut novel, Duncan resident, writer and educator Jennifer Manuel looks head-on at the complexity of belonging in such a situation. The Heaviness of Things that Float (Douglas & McIntyre) centres around the dying days of nurse Bernadette Perkals’ 40 years of service in the fictional northern Vancouver Island reserve community of Tawakin. Her story draws on Manuel’s own experience of living and working in isolated aboriginal communities, and her realization that no matter how far she went from home or how close she became with those around her, she could not escape her difference and her privilege.
That struggle is part of the conversation that Manuel felt needed to be included in our literature at a time when all of us sharing this land must work towards long-overdue reconciliation—another word not so easy to define.
Manuel is a 40-something non-aboriginal transplant to coastal BC. Born in Toronto, she grew up in White Rock and now lives with her husband in Duncan. Over her years here, Manuel has worked for the Ktunaxa Treaty Council; chaired a national committee on aboriginal archives; worked alongside aboriginal non-profits to deliver education to vulnerable adults in Vancouver; and taught for several years on the lands of the Tahltan and Nuu-chah-nulth peoples, first in Dease Lake and later on the exposed northern edge of the Island at Kyuquot, where she was eventually adopted by elder Kelly John and given the name aa ap wa iick—Always Speaks Wisely.
Manuel has continued to advocate for First Nations education issues generally, and now in this book she gives non-First Nations readers some valuable lessons: about self-awareness, self-questioning, and the need to work at understanding others without ever assuming you completely can.
Though the novel begins with Bernadette’s imminent departure, it’s also about arrival and what we each bring with us in that moment of meeting. Bernadette was in her 20s when she came to the nurse’s outpost, situated across a cove from the 100-person reserve. A week later, a local man asked her “Do you know about Raven?” and she answered: “Tapping at my chamber door.” She didn’t know then how revealing it was to complete Poe’s line: “Only this and nothing more.”
Gradually, Bernadette becomes open to the stories she is told to listen for—that she’s told grow in the eelgrass, fly on the crows’ wings, unfurl in the ferns, or turn with the tide among the kelp. The new ways of hearing, seeing and being she learns in Tawakin shift her understanding, and over time, Bernadette becomes more aware of—and in tension with—her privilege living among people she has come to deeply love.
The novel’s plot driver is the disappearance of Chase Charlie, a 33-year-old man who Bernadette had delivered, known all his life, and cared about as if he was her own son. That love breaks her heart open to the fact that she feels the people of Tawakin are her family, the outpost the only home she’s known as an adult. But she’s also torn by having to break away and return to south Island city life “made to fit people like me.” In doing so, she must confront her assumptions about the nature of her belonging, uncomfortably asking herself: “Exactly who was I to the people of Tawakin?”
Being the nurse, the “secretary of secrets,” means Bernadette shares people’s intimate and often hidden histories. But as a mamulthni, a white person, she painfully discovers that she’s kept out of the loop of people’s lives. Despite her intentions and her commitment, there are things the local people feel she just wouldn’t understand. “My heart,” Bernadette says, feeling that pain of divide, “filled with sand, with stones.”
As the title suggests, the book deals with concepts of weight, displacement, and the thin line between floating and sinking. And the physical landscape, described with sensuous detail, teaches that where some might see ambiguity or uncertainty, there is possibility. “Like how the gathering of black clouds might bring rain, or maybe hail, or maybe no precipitation at all…Neither the sea nor the sky nor the stories can ever be controlled.” Indeed, in navigating the land and the people of Tawakin, it is important to learn that “Things in the world were not all they appeared to be.”
“It took being in a couple of faraway places to change perspective,” Manuel tells me of her own experience. Working as the treaty archivist in Cranbrook changed her life, she says, referring to a moment when she realized some elders were laughing at her in their own language—that uncomfortable position on the other side of the fence gave her a completely different view. Of her then-20s self Manuel now laughs: “You think you know so much.”
She was also changed by the women who ran the treaty council and the nation, women she worked with, like Sophie Pierre. “Savvy and powerful, driven with vision,” Manuel says. “I wanted to be them.” Then, when she lived in Kyuquot, she watched her young daughters flourish, excited by new ways of living and learning.
Like Manuel, Bernadette eventually sees the presumptuousness, the unconscious bias inherent in the concept of measuring aboriginal communities in relation to urban centres, of thinking of them as being “far away from everything.” One person’s middle of nowhere is somebody else’s rich and beautiful centre of the world.
Structurally, the story unrolls like an incoming tide. The narrative pushes forward incrementally, pulls back over the polished stones of Bernadette’s reflections, then, collecting power, surges ahead a little more. In this way, knowledge and insight are uncovered slowly, rhythmically, over the pulses of her life story and the story of her relationships with Tawakin’s people. And as with a rising tide, you find yourself surprised by how far and how gently things have moved to close the space between you.
Ultimately, that’s what we can all do: try and close the space between ourselves and others. One of the lessons to be learned from Bernadette’s sadder moments of connection in Tawakin, both as a nurse and a human being, is that even when you haven’t managed to understand someone the way you’d hoped, you still help each other out of a sense of empathy and human respect that transcends difference.
“People who come up to me at readings are so passionate,” says Manuel, fresh from several appearances at the Victoria Festival of Authors. “People want to make things right.” To the obvious question of “how?” she admits: “I don’t have an answer. People will flounder and might feel hopeless. Maybe that’s okay—as long as hopelessness is not the end. But it can be the start.”
The award-winning Manuel, who has previously published short fiction, also started the online TRC Reading Challenge, where people sign up and commit to reading the Truth and Reconciliation report. So far, about 3,500 people have taken the pledge. “People know it’s not enough, but it’s a way to publicly say ‘I’m listening.’” Manuel believes an important step in confronting colonial privilege is to “listen deeply when you have the chance, including with the TRC, and that means having an openness to be changed by what you hear.”
Perhaps the foundation of belonging is built on that kind of curious and humble self-opening—an exchange where we both reach out and take in, creating, as Manuel writes, “the invitation to believe something new.”
Writer, editor, and musician Amy Reiswig is going to give herself the winter/holiday gift of taking on the TRC Reading Challenge and doing some serious listening.