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Caretaking, and the joy of language reclamation with Yvonne Wallace in útszan

Yvonne Wallace is part of this year's Femme Festival, presented by the Cultch. Photo by Tae Hoon Kim.

The day before Yvonne Wallace began rehearsals for útszan (to make better), she sat down with her mother to go over the pronunciations. Part of it was written in ucwalmícwts, which means the language of the people.

“We were going over the word q’a7. It means food,” Wallace tells Pancouver over Zoom. It’s a very short word, a glottal sound in the throat. “I thought I knew it.” Her mother, who is a language teacher and fluent in ucwalmícwts, was helping Wallace find where the sound was.

Then, all of a sudden, both of them started giggling. A pair of women, a mother and daughter, laughing over one syllable, one word, in their own language.

“If so much joy can come out of one sound in this learning,” Wallace says, “then what kinds of other things could I learn about myself, and the joy and the sounds of our ucwalmícwts?”

Wallace has written four plays focusing on the topic of language reclamation. Throughout time and around the world, the loss of language due to forced assimilation, colonial violence, or other factors is a devastating and real consequence that affects many communities today. For Wallace, reclaiming her ancestral language is centered around her pride in her identity, and love for her community.

There is beauty in the sounds of her people. There is something precious in speaking the words spoken by her ancestors. Combining this ancestral knowledge with her theatre background, Wallace is merging two worlds, aiming to create something very special to witness on stage.

“When I get to the place where… I said something similar to how my mother would say it, or how my grandmother would say it, or my uncles, or my great-grandmother, or my grandfather,” Wallace says, “That, for me, is joy in the piece.”

In the sphere of theatre as we know it today, sometimes there are conventional rules that help to convey the plot and characters to the audience. Wallace acknowledges that there are beats we know to recognize when an actor is delivering a monologue in English. But for this play, so entrenched in ucwalmícwts and the memories of her loved ones, sometimes we have to forgo conventions and direct translations, and listen.

“When we can get to places where stories are hard—but then we get to giggle at the kitchen table because we learned a sound? That’s the intersectionality I’d like to offer to other people.”

útszan (to make better) first premiered in Whistler, Wallace’s traditional Territory, in 2019. Photo by David Ward.

Language holds onto people and people hold onto each other.

The original title of the production was “transformation.” Wallace was inspired by the transformers, higher beings that walked the territories of the Lil’wat people. “They were the ones who would walk around,” Wallace explains, “and correct people if they were not living in a good way.”

A language teacher had suggested the word útszan. Nowadays, it means “to straighten things out,” like your bed in the mornings… but through Wallace’s examination and exploration of ucwalmícwts, she settled on the meaning, “to make something better.” Just like the transformers, she hopes this play can also make things better in some way.

The one-woman show is performed by the playwright herself. The play is about Margaret reconnecting with her ancestral language when her Auntie Celia chooses to speak only ucwalmícwts in her final days. Drawing on real-life experiences, the show addresses the beauty and wonder of the ancestral language and also depicts the struggle of reconciling with oneself and one’s heritage.

“You really do have to let go of what you think you know [and] who you think you want to be when you are picking up ancestral knowledge,” Wallace says.

It is a story deeply inspired and influenced by the community she grew up in, with the characters based on people she knows and loves. People who have taught her many things, and who are connected to her through the language they share.

“I think the part about making things better,” Wallace says, “is about making space. And speaking whatever language that we have, so that we can make it a normal practice again.”

Watch Yvonne’s short film, cuzlhkán kalāxsa nqwal̛úttena (I am going to remember my language), filmed in the territories of the Lil’wat Nation.

In the process of language reclamation, it takes patience, resilience, and love.

This play touches on intergenerational trauma that is a result of Canada’s colonial history. But at the same time, it is a story about the community that survives. It is about a community that takes care of each other.

“Sometimes when you see our matriarchs in action, it’s just the way things are,” says Yvonne. “And when our matriarchs are no longer with us… All that time and caring that she had put into me and my aunts, my uncles, my cousins, my siblings, our family… We all have little bits and pieces of her, and we see that in how they take care of others.

“There is definitely something to be said about the bits of care that continue on.”

In a way, this play is the Indigenous theatre artist’s way of taking care of the audience. She is well aware of the care given to her by those who raised her and those who loved her. This care is something that has touched her and built her into who she is today. This care is something that will shape who she is tomorrow. Using her storytelling, and her language, she is offering the same care to others in the ways she knows how.

Yvonne first started this play as a conversation around reconciliation. She hopes, for people that come to see the show, that it will be an ongoing conversation. In Canada, many people from different backgrounds, different journeys of migration, and different languages coexist. We are all navigating our own place in this society.

“Things are not always easy,” Yvonne acknowledges. “You’re always needing other elements to understand your position in this storytelling.”

 

útszan (to make better) is a Ruby Slippers Theatre production that will be part of this year’s Femme Festival, presented by The Cultch. For information on tickets, visit their website. The show will run from May 5 to May 13 at the Vancity Culture Lab.

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becky tu

becky tu

becky (she/her) is a writer invested in telling stories that resonate with people in all corners of the world. She welcomes everyone to share their stories with Pancouver.

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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.