Mapping Empty Space in Sarah de Leeuw’s Where It Hurts

Canada is full of empty places. I was raised in one, a village smackdab in the longitudinal centre of the country and surrounded by dairy farms. My sense was, growing up, that the rest of the country consisted mostly of villages like mine, a feeling supported by the road trips my parents schlepped our family on each summer, east as far as Quebec City, west to visit my grandparents in Saskatoon, or more west and up, up, up to the Yukon. What I remember most about these trips is staring out the car window at hours-long stretches of yellow fields, brown fields, green forest, brown forest, and lots of rocks. I remember highway. And I remember hundreds of “nothing towns” flashing past. 

In Where It Hurts, Sarah de Leeuw stops to take stock of these places. Set in “throw-away spaces” like Belle Island, Ont. and Prince George, B.C., the essays refute suggestions of inconsequence and vacancy (33). Instead, vivid story-snapshots and powerful, pin-pointed detail document colossal loss and violence in a collection centred around the people preyed upon in Canada’s “empty” places.

As harrowing as this documentation may be, Where It Hurts asserts that injustice left unnamed is injustice made invisible, insidious, and unimportant. In “Soft Shouldered,” an essay about the thirty-three missing and murdered Indigenous women of Highway 16, de Leeuw urges that nothing and nowhere areas, like the side of a road outside a remote northern resource town, are exactly the places “worth looking closely at, if only to see what has disappeared, what is missing” (73).

Where It Hurts implicates the reader directly in the text. Whether employing an intimate, second-person point-of-view or addressing a “you” whose subject ranges from ex-husband to Oma, de Leeuw denies the reader the role of bystander. “Take off your undershirt, sweat-stained from almost four hours of snowshoeing along the Skeena River,” begins “Aesop” (91). “Think of any northern city with mills at its heart,” comes the instruction in “Quick-quick. Slow. Slow” (67). “You hurt in places you didn’t know could exist,” aches the collection’s opening, title essay (28).

Each essay is deeply rooted in space and time, from the last row of the shag-carpeted movie theatre during Terrace, B.C.’s biennial film festival, to “the family Y on a Tuesday night, 7:30 p.m. sharp during the high months of winter” in Prince George (63). This positioning works to both map the contents of “empty” locations and use landscape as a visible symbol of unseen turmoil. In “Belle Island Owls,” the end of de Leeuw’s marriage is tied to Belle Park’s landfill which leaks toxins into the surrounding rivers and lakes. “Seven in 1980” connects the eruption of Mount St. Helens to the murders of eleven children by Canadian serial killer Clifford Olson. The asbestos mine in Cassiar, B.C. is the backdrop to the young women whose bodies are “pulled under the currents of northern rivers” in “What Fills Our Lungs” (60). By linking physical geography with de Leeuw’s experiences and observations, Where It Hurts renders abstractions of grief and cruelty grimly tangible.

In the title essay “Where It Hurts,” de Leeuw focusses on “all the strange truths people keep hidden inside them” (8). Flashing through a series of painful anecdotes, the essay exposes some of these truths: “up in the reserves,” boys hang themselves with garden hoses; a young mother nervously allows a stranger named Cowboy to hold her newborn and then, years later, finds Cowboy’s obituary connected to an article on women found murdered along the Highway of Tears; three men in Terrace, B.C., assault, rob, and set on fire an intoxicated homeless man. Uncovering these stories does not bring healing, but it does demand that we stop and take stock of the suffering.

Occasionally, the essays’ disparate images and anecdotes struggle to coalesce into fully realized metaphor, but this collection is more interested in finding and naming what’s been lost in Canada’s forgotten places than interpreting those losses or suggesting solutions. In “Soft Shouldered,” de Leeuw writes, “the sparseness of findings and inquiries has resulted in almost nothing and so nothing has been circulated…So begin with me at the edge. That borderland where pavement ends and soft shoulder begins” (72). 

Where It Hurts is at times brutal in its refusal to look away. However, by studying the toxins seeping from landfills scabbed over, by pulling over to the side of the highway, by noticing the fire and the “smoke hanging in the air containing fragments of a man who has burned to death,” the essays show how in isolated, overlooked spaces, people are similarly ignored and erased (100). With precise and potent essays, Where It Hurts memorializes those who have disappeared too soon from the landscapes they considered home.

Review by Sarah Ens, co-editor of the RVRB. A poet and essayist, her work has appeared in Poetry Is Dead, Sad Mag, Room Magazine, and Arc Poetry Magazine. In 2019, she won The New Quarterly’s Edna Staebler Personal Essay Contest. Her debut collection of poetry, The World Is Mostly Sky, was released with Turnstone Press in Spring 2020. 

Taking up the Work of Reconciliation: A Review of Trevor Herriot’s Towards a Prairie Atonement

In Towards a Prairie Atonement, award-winning Saskatchewan naturalist and birder Trevor Herriot honours the prairie itself, and Indigenous and Métis people as the land’s original inhabitants. A 2017 Saskatchewan Book Award winner, the text focuses on reconciliation regarding the brutal 1939 final displacement of Métis farmers from the Ste. Madeleine area of eastern Saskatchewan near the Manitoba border, where the Métis had practiced a form of sustainable prairie land management for fifty years. Herriot laments “[a]nother loss indivisible from the first beyond the deprivation that comes with expulsion. That is the greater loss of not recognizing the land governance system for the common good to protect ‘ecological integrity’” (95).

Herriot is a settler-descended activist and writer of six books addressing the Great Plains habitat, its species, and its history. Underlying the book is Herriot’s lyrical appreciation for the interrelated life of the Plains ecosystem across species and time. Herriot interweaves site visits accompanied by respected Métis cultural and Michif language preservationist Norman Fleury, with astute historical and contemporary politico-economic commentary, and archival research of the region’s fatal clashes following the Pemmican Wars between the Indigenous Peoples, including the Red River Métis, the Hudson’s Bay Company, and the Northwest Company traders.

Herriot’s writing is noteworthy for the accurate summations of two centuries. For instance, he refers to the Hudson’s Bay Company’s sale of Rupert’s Land around 1869 to the Dominion of Canada for £300,000 as a “backroom deal that would set off a cascade of policy and exploitation that would exterminate the buffalo, force treaties and starve Indigenous People into submission on reserves” (66).

These encapsulations set the stage for readers to appreciate the injustice of the 1873 Homestead Act that cut up the prairie into 160-acre sections only European settler men could claim despite assurances to Métis that their lands and hay privilege would be preserved. Herriot takes pains to portray the Métis land management system as one that respected Indigenous rights, private property rights, and commonwealth rights, but a federal law enacted in 1938 caused the Red River Métis’ descendants to be violently driven off the land—not only costing them their way of life, but costing the prairie and all future generations a sustainable model of land management that balanced social, economic, and ecological needs.

Herriot is deft at drawing insightful parallels between the past and the present’s political, economic, and socio-cultural dynamics. For instance, he notes that the strategies for creating a successful colony in the late 19th century are the same central ideas at play in the political present—the need to “fuel economic growth [in large part, through ensuring cheap food for workers], improve value for investors, [and] manage indigenous people” (36). Similarly, he observes, “All the elements that plague our decisions about these lands today were present then: powerful corporate interests, misguided public policy, groups of disenfranchised people with long tenure on the land” (32).

Sometimes Herriot’s lyricism is pure: “with a nest to crouch beside, all theories and apprehensions fade as the genius of the place … in contrapuntal melodies … carr[ies] notes from the continent’s boreal crown to the grassland at its heart” (12). Other times, it’s edged with an understandable Anthropocenic cynicism—“scattered archipelagos of native prairie islands surrounded by a sea of cash crops” (5). The former grasslands of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta are now recognized as the largest, most altered landscape on Earth, a fragile ecosystem, home, at the time of publication, to thirty-one species at risk.

Towards a Prairie Atonement’s release was and is timely in several ways. It resonated deeply following the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s recommendations for reconciliation, which called for restitution of oppression committed in the name of colonialism against Indigenous People and their descendants. One of the book’s major contributions to truth is its exposé of the dominant history—of Canadian Government agents’ falsified accounts, deliberate propaganda, and ongoing oppression of the descendants of the Red River Métis. An index would have made this valuable information more easily accessible.

Herriot’s descriptions of the Métis land management system may also have broken new ground for general readers and nature readers alike. Going forward, he addresses and holds out an activist’s hope for restoring the previously reserved federal community pastures whose protections were removed under the Harper government. As of the book’s writing, though the pastures’ futures were controversial, they were still in Crown care and not sold to private interests. Herriot’s insights on grassland reclamation also resonate deeply with the reality of the Anthropocene and climate change.

At just over 100 pages of text with a map, timeline of historical events, notes, references, and an Afterward by Norman Fleury, the book is an inviting one-sitting read. In its hip-pocket sized format, heartfelt humility, and meditative circularity, it invites the reader to return and also meaningfully engage with a concerned community of activists in the process of prairie reconciliation.

Herriot dedicates his 2016 meditation “[t]o those who take up the work of reconciliation” (v). Herriot’s own work begins “with the act of recognizing and honouring what was and is native, but has been evicted” (13). The honesty, humility, and compassion of Towards a Prairie Atonement offer lessons that extend beyond prairie horizons, enriching those of us seeking paths of reconciliation in all our relationships.

Review by Susie Hammond, a Seattle-based Canadian poet. Susie’s awards include the 2019-2020 Edney Masters Scholarship for International Understanding Through the Humanities and Fine Arts, and residencies from The Banff Centre and Catalonia’s Faber for the Humanities. She is an editor, arts educator, youth mentor, and member of the Saskatchewan Writer’s Guild.

Placemeant: The Impact of Form on Content in Aritha van Herk’s “In Visible Ink”

At its most basic, Aritha van Herk’s 1991 essay, “In Visible Ink,” is about her trip to the Arctic. She presents us with facts of this trip: she went in May; she drinks hot tea and eats bannock; she wears caribou skin and Kamik boots “of Inuit design” to protect against the cold; she rides a komatik pulled by a snowmobile (3). At one point, a runner blade on the komatik breaks, and her guide, Pijamini, repairs it with plywood and nails (6). A simple story, and yet the narrator agonises over not being able to accurately convey the story, the true experience of being in the Arctic.

Aritha van Herk’s In Visible Ink, 1991

How can we write an experience beyond words? Where does the writer belong in a wordless world? And, what if that world turns out to be not wordless, after all, but written, spoken, understood, in a language the writer cannot possess? How does the writer reconfigure herself in a world where ‘possession’ is not a concept? I will address these concerns in my breakdown of “In Visible Ink’s” narrative arc, showing how, where, and why the narrator comes to certain conclusions about the practice of writing within the space of the Arctic as contained by text. What van Herk’s essay wants to talk about is writing, and the invisible limits of writers.

“In Visible Ink” opens with a view of the landscape as text, as van Herk (the narrator) considers the land and sea “both consummate empagements, intagli in the white” (2). The land and sea seem equivalent to words and the snow that covers both becomes a blank page, as if the Arctic itself is written in invisible ink, waiting to be read. A clever gesture to the title that tells us much about the narrator as the consummate writer—this landscape of Arctic is interpreted as she would a text, in a writerly fashion.

After these initial descriptions, the narrator muses about the questions she will be asked of her journey when she returns home: “how long did the trip take? how far did you go? how cold was it?” (3). And in these questions is the echo of familiar questions asked of writers: how many words did you write? how long did it take you to write that book? how many rejection letters have you received? van Herk decides these questions—and here we can assume she means the direct questions about her trip and those pesky questions all writers face—are not without meaning, but beside the point. These questions accept only quantifiable measurements and cannot possibly convey the experience of either the Arctic or writing. And in this acknowledgement of the similarities between experience and writing, the narrator confesses a desire for temporary escape from words and writing, to have the same experience as writing without the act of it, which she finds in the Arctic (4-5). This newfound experience leads her to realise the impossibility of rendering the Arctic in words when she asks: “how to describe or even begin to evoke this landscape?” (5). And the reader asks back: but haven’t you done so? She may have described a setting, but she claims failure at evoking the Arctic (a failure of writing, a failure as a writer committed to render a truth).

After the narrator acknowledges her inability to write the Arctic, she continues with her description of the place, presented now as a reading, not a writing. She ‘reads’ the tracks of polar bears and foxes and the komatik in the snow (6). Treating the Arctic as text, as a being to be read, is the highest level of praise from a woman who has made reading her career. But, again, she finds her limitation: “I cannot read these reaches” (8). She presses on. If writing and reading fail her, then what of speech? This is where van Herk realises that the failure is her own language: English is not sufficient. Inuktitut (the language of the Inuit) has the capacity, is as expansive as the Arctic, and can therefore encapsulate the landscape and experience as one, simultaneously. And as she has been absorbed by the experience, she finds herself only describable by and in those same Inuktitut words. Words that she refuses to repeat because they are not hers. She can borrow some, a small handful, while she is in the Arctic, but otherwise they stay with the Inuit, with her guide Pijamini, who gets the last laugh (did he know the Arctic would foil Southern attempts at articulation all along? Of course).

Throughout “In Visible Ink” we are confronted by the limitations of writing, and yet this essay is beautifully written. How can the form honour/uphold the content if the form is the essay and the content the inability to write it? If form and content were to truly mesh, wouldn’t that necessitate the essay to never have been written, to only remain a distant thought, an anxiety in the writer’s mind? Perhaps, if she were a poet.

As shown in my breakdown of the narrative arc, the essay moves back and forth from landscape and Arctic to ruminations on the Arctic that are ruminations on the practice of writing. This constant movement enacts a continual erasure and re/placement of the previous text with its forward progression.

Consider the words (those vessels van Herk finds so faulty). “In Visible Ink” is written with high-level diction—academic, and fearlessly inaccessible. As writers, we’ve been told to write simply, to invite our readers in. But van Herk breaks this rule, purposefully, to emphasise her point that the Arctic is not accessible, not for Southern readers. Journeying through the Arctic is a commitment that requires experience and a guide, so reading this essay needs the practice of reading academic / theoretical texts. And yet she maintains that the words fail.

The words are suspect (to the writer, the narrator, the reader), but readers tend to trust the narrator. We believe her struggles of articulation, and we know van Herk has been to the Arctic. The doubts she voices about her abilities regarding her portrayal of the Arctic seem genuine, rather than falsely self-deprecating. We believe that if she has failed at conveying the Arctic, she has not failed as a writer because she voices the anxieties associated with writing more generally. And she acknowledges the unwriteability of landscape, of Arctic.

The problem is in the multiplicity of Arctic. van Herk gestures to these versions of place (of self) with the tension between the present-tense narration and the second person addresses. Present tense exemplifies the act of continual erasure and points to the endurance of writing. The trying/erasing/trying/attempting to understand something/anything/erasing/trying, until, finally, some words remain on the page. This has the multiplied effect of mirroring the Arctic’s endurance and seeming timelessness, of amplifying the essay itself in its efforts to press forward, to rewrite what has already been written, and to speak to the practice of writing. The present tense keeps the narrator, forever, within the Arctic. In her state of wordlessness.

The second person addresses to “the reader” complicate this. The essay has already been written. It has been read. What is writing without a reader? The use of second person implies van Herk’s experience of the Arctic must be relegated to the past, along with the essay’s words as she writes them.

The Arctic exists outside of the boundaries we writers come up against and transgress—the Arctic has no need for boundaries, except where the snow melts. The Arctic is not a blank page on which to write, or which will reveal its invisible ink. The Arctic is not a book to be read. The Arctic is itself a writer, and it speaks a language other than English. Inuktitut. The Arctic is a writer in that English fails, has no better word for a landscape contiguous to our practice of writing. The Arctic wrote van Herk while she occupied that landscape, and in doing so reveals a writer’s reflection in the ice.

Works Cited:
van Herk, Aritha. “In Visible Ink.” In Visible Ink: The Writer as Critic: III. NeWest Press, 1991. pp. 1-11.

Essay by Allie McFarland, RVRB Editor and co-founding editor of The Anti-Languorous Project. Allie writes novel(la)s—concise, women-centred blends of prose and poetry.