Fort St. John writer and Indigenous advocate Helen Knott has many compelling passages in her new bestseller, Becoming a Matriarch.
The longtime wellness worker’s memoir opens with a tale of matriarchs giving birth. Her great-grandmother, Nina Chipesia, had three kids who survived—June, Mary, and John—as well as a baby who died at childbirth. Knott’s grandmother, June Bigfoot, usually referred to as “Asu” in the book, also had four children. They included Knott’s mother, Shirley.
“Asu would often give love first and ask questions later and this is one of the most important lessons I’ve learned from her,” writes Knott, who’s of Dane Zaa, Neyiyaw, Métis, and mixed-European ancestry.
“She saw people who needed to be seen,” the author continues. “She reminded me of what it really means to be everyone’s relation.”
Shirley matched her mom and grandma by also giving birth four times. In her opening section, Knott describes what childbirth does to women’s bodies, including the one time she had a child. And she explores how bringing life into this world marks a monumental shift in a woman’s life.
Over Zoom, Knott tells Pancouver that she grew up in a Christian household. The start of her book is a twist on how lineage is described through men in the Old Testament of the Bible.
“I was, like, ‘Let me tell the story of my family at the very beginning through birth—and women,” Knott declares.
Elsewhere in the book, she maintains that “single parenting in impoverished conditions is traumatizing”.
“It is a marathon without a medal,” Knott writes. “If it were a place, it would be a park where your skin got snagged on a rusted nail and you bleed all over, but man you can still recall how high you went on the swing set.”
Knott writes about mom’s cancer
Becoming a Matriarch is her second memoir after In My Own Moccasins, which was published in 2019. This time, she says that she allowed herself to become more flowery with her writing. Yet it’s still direct, evocative, and easily understood.
“I feel like I try to write a lot like I am in conversation, but obviously dressed up,” Knott states. “And I’m trying to ensure that the stories that I tell remain accessible for people who don’t normally read, too.”
Knott also knows the agony of losing a matriarch to cancer. In Becoming a Matriarch, the author reveals that her mom underwent aggressive chemotherapy. Through this period, her mother’s spine “morphed into a question mark during the last year and a half of her life”.
“Mama was fifty-one years old, and it was as if her body was asking, why?” writes Knott.
Knott tells Pancouver that it was not easy to write this section of her book.
“There were days when I sat down to write and I would just start crying,” Knott says. “And I would close my laptop.”
This week, Knott will speak at two events at the Vancouver Writers Fest, which runs from October 16 to 22. (Details are at the bottom of this article.)
Nowadays, Knott is giving a great deal of thought to the intersection of memory and storytelling. This, in turn, has propelled her into considering that Indigenous bodies are no longer just a site of survival.
“What does it mean to fully embody Indigenous joy and to be kind to our bodies?” she asks. “For me, that comes from a healing space of looking at ways that we’ve learned to dissociate and compartmentalize throughout generations in order to survive. And then coming back to body in this new way.”
In My Own Moccasins covered how Knott overcame addiction and responded to intergenerational trauma on her way to becoming sober. As a result, she says that it’s easy to look upon her life as being very segmented—starting with childhood, followed by trauma, and then finding her way to survival.
“I had to learn how to integrate everything so my life was a full story rather than these very separate pieces,” Knott says. “And I think that arrived by learning how to be very compassionate with myself and very gentle, but being able to own all those parts of the story.
“Then, that led me to this space of, ‘Okay, how do I inhabit my body and be kind to it in ways that weren’t available for those who came before me?’ ”
In her own life, Knott says that she has gone through a lot of talk therapy. She has also relied on narrative discussions while facilitating workshops on intergenerational trauma. But when her mother became ill, she learned to pay more attention to her body and the value of somatic healing.
In Becoming a Matriarch, she tells of her experience with deep bodywork in Antigua, Guatemala. When the practitioner pushed hard below her right shoulder blade, she could feel intense pain. She screamed at him to stop. He then urged her to take up space by yelling.
She writes that after this happened, she started pulling sounds from her body. She screamed out “frustrations that were buried beneath my sadness”.
“The learnings when I was in Guatemala caused me to pay attention to my body more—and realize that my body holds the story,” Knott tells Pancouver. “So, I have really shifted my understanding.”
The Vancouver Writers Fest presents Helen Knott at two events on Granville Island. At 10 a.m. on Friday (October 20) she will join authors Faye Myenne Ng (Orphan Bachelors) and Charlotte Gill (Almost Brown) at Memoirs of Belonging at the Waterfront Theatre. Then at 11 a.m. on Sunday (October 22), Knott will be part of a panel discussion called Food for Thought at Performance Works. She’ll join Gill and fellow authors Stephen Marche (Writing and Failure), Holly Hogan (Message in a Bottle), Valerie Jerome (Races), and Taras Grescoe (The Lost Supper).