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On Compassion and Community - Some Thoughts

Sara General

Illustration by Sara General.                                        

Illustration by Sara General.                                        

I have been thinking a lot about writing and compassion and community for the last week.

As someone who writes, I have a lot of compassion for other writers. I have compassion because I know what it’s like to worry that you’ll write something people won’t like and the great risk you take in sharing your art. I know how much courage it takes to continue in the face of self-doubt and to withstand the near-constant questioning of your own work.

As an Indigenous woman who writes, I have a lot of compassion for my people and my community and when I’m writing my principal worry is not about me at all—it’s that I represent my people well.

Well can mean many things. It can mean briefly highlighting an issue I’m thinking about more closely through a character. It can mean imagining what would happen if a situation were to change (like everyone could suddenly speak our languages with a high level of proficiency). It can mean telling a story that has been completely disregarded by the historical record. It can be learning an oral story. It can mean being honest but compassionate in exploring the complex nature of our histories.

Writing has also been a way for me to learn about, heal from and challenge the impacts of colonialism in my life. Because of colonialism I have grown up aware of some things and unaware of others. I suspect it is this way for other people in my community—that even though we grew up here, there are those of us who did not realize the depth to which colonialism sought to eradicate our stories, our relationship to land and water or to one another. And as a result there are tons of stories that we might only now be learning as we do other things—raise families, finish school, start our careers, learn the language, reconnect.   

I admit I am more aware of the impacts of colonialism now than I was when I was younger. I am aware that colonization occurred because early settlers wanted the land for their own purposes. I am aware that government policy continues to operate in a colonial manner in that it enables resource extraction and control of Indigenous lives by defining the terms of—everything: access to clean water, education, and health care. I am aware that trying to talk about reconciliation without a discussion about land is to ignore a critical treaty matter. And I am aware that even though the treaties set the foundation for peaceful co-existence, many of these things can sound threatening and scary for non-Indigenous people. Colonization has made it so.

In such times, knowing more and having more information about one another becomes a way of creating the conditions for ongoing peace and understanding. Who are you? Where do you come from? Do we know any of the same people? What happiness, or sadness, or grief do you bring with you? How are we to get along and share this space? These are questions I've been asked many times.

The question, “where do you come from?” is one I usually get when I am out and about on Turtle Island. I got it a lot when I was working for the Chiefs of Ontario and travelling for various meetings. I rarely get asked this question in my home community, Six Nations. Usually the question I get asked here is who is your family? Sometimes (though it is admittedly rare) this question is asked in the language.

Who is your family? Who's your mom? Who's your dad? Where do you live?

For me, those questions extend (both playfully and seriously) to: What history do our families have with one another? What stories do you know that I might not know? How do I let you know that you can trust me? How do I earn your trust? How do I share with you? What are the boundaries we need to have so that we both feel safe and valued? What kind of future do we want for our children? How can I help?

All of these questions are important. Stories emerge from questions. Stories about relatives that have passed away. Stories about family members you might not have known as well as you wished. Stories about important events in our history, like the first time one of our lacrosse teams won a national championship or one of the women from our community became the first Indigenous registered nurse in Canada or a Cayuga chief travelled to Geneva to meet with the League of Nations. There are so many stories about the people and places that make up our community and they are all special. It’s no wonder there are so many talented Indigenous writers, now and in the past sharing what those are.

In this manner, questions about who we are and where we come from are not an indictment. In many ways they are the very foundation of relationship building. They are the starting point. They create a space to share and exchange stories. They are a way to start new ones.

When The Orenda first came out, I started to read it and eventually put it down. I primarily read fantasy, science fiction and other people’s dissertations so I knew from the start of the book, it probably wasn’t the book for me even though I understand and respect that many people did and do like it. Mostly I read it because I was curious about the use of the word orenda, which is an important and powerful concept from my culture and because I had mixed feelings in seeing it used as the title of a book. It made me uncomfortable in the same way J.K. Rowling’s Magic in North America stories did. So I appreciated when others finished reading it and then asked for clarification about the portrayals of our people in the story and the research that informed the book. Those answers eventually confirmed that the book was primarily informed by Jesuit accounts, which were written from a colonizing lens and with a colonizing intent.

I admit this was mildly upsetting for me. And I realized that I could do one of two things. I could put my energy into going back and reading The Orenda, study Jesuit Relations and then point out all the perspectives that were left out of both accounts so that my own children wouldn't read these narratives one day and believe they told the truth about who we are.

Or I could direct my energy elsewhere, into creating the stories I wish existed.

I was already working on a collection of stories inspired by Jikonsaseh, one of our clan mother titles. I could continue my own work and try connect with other writers and artists and encourage them in whatever way I could. I could write and make my own mistakes and become a better writer though practice. And while I would write honestly, I also decided I would write with care and compassion because I love our communities and I’m invested in our continued healing and our ongoing effort to decolonize.

I chose the second option because I wanted my children and nieces and nephews to have different kinds of stories to read if they wanted to. And I’m glad I did. Since then I’ve written many books and learned many things. Perhaps best of all, one of my nieces has read and liked the stories I've written which has made the process of writing and learning about publishing so awesome and worth it. 

When I started sharing my writing at the start of this year I knew that an important part of doing so meant that I would always be willing to talk about the choices I made or share the ideas behind the stories I was telling should anyone in my community feel inclined to ask (since there was no question they had every right to critique). And the truth is, I want to share that context because while I write fiction—and fantasy at that—the challenges my characters’ face are not the least bit fictional. Indeed, the issues impacting their lives are complex and require reading and listening far beyond my books—as most issues do.

So being free to write the stories I feel called to is something I understand and feel is important. But being accountable to my community is also very important. And this brings me to the question that is being asked of author Joseph Boyden: where are you from?

Over the last week I’ve read many important points that go some way in illustrating how complicated this is. I’m sharing them here because while I know not everyone will want to read them or accept them, they are valuable. I truly hope some people will read and think and consider the points that are being made and not chalk up asking a question to identity policing or jealousy, which some articles have already done. And on that note—while I acknowledge these points of view, I find it ironic that anyone would talk about identity policing when the whole point of the Indian Act is for someone else (in this case, the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs) to define First Nation membership for the sole purpose of eroding rights.

For my part, I recognize that of course, writers need to continue to write about what they choose. That’s the nature of writing. That’s how it works. But the fact that it’s a choice means that as writers, we can decide to not tell other people’s stories for them if we want to and still tell plenty of wonderful stories in the meantime. We can create space for fellow writers. We can create frameworks that help us gauge whether our stories are empowering our communities or if they are perpetuating stereotypes. And while we have to stand by the work that we do, we can still go on the record and admit when we could have done better. After all, mistakes have been made and they will probably continue to be made. I’ll probably make some of them myself. We can also choose to not do these things. That's part of how it works too.   

In this way, writers will continue to do their work. And I hope that they do. 

Indigenous Nations on Turtle Island will also continue to do their work. They will do what they have a right and responsibility to do—decolonize the notion of citizenship, develop future leaders through ceremony and education, protect water, stabilize our languages, honour Creation, build safe, welcoming communities and find ways to bring our people back together to create a sustainable future for us all.

And sometimes, that means asking questions. Of the Crown. Of the Governor General. Of the Prime Minister. Of corporations. Of individuals. Of each other. 

I sincerely hope that things can work themselves out and that we can continue building our relationships and enjoying books and the process of creating books. I hope that we can create a space for belonging for our people who may not live in the community but who are a part of our family nonetheless. I hope our questions will turn into meaningful conversations in which people feel heard and action is taken and fears are abated. Moving forward, I think there is an opportunity to do all of this, with kindness and compassion. Probably because I've always veered toward optimism and I have a lot of hope. Hope I want to share.

Sending peace and good thoughts to you all. Nya:weh, 



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