When Pancouver reaches Métis author Michelle Porter, the first question concerns the cover of her debut novel. The gorgeous beaded buffalo, surrounded by beaded plants, is certainly eye-catching. Designed by Maple Ridge Métis artist Lisa Shepherd, this image provides an evocative introduction to Porter’s bestselling A Grandmother Begins the Story.
“I was blown away by the cover when I first saw it,” Porter says on the line from St. John’s, where she teaches creative writing at Memorial University. “I’ve never seen a beadwork piece like that.”
The cover frames her book’s focus on five generations of Métis women, as well as a bison named Dee. They, along with dogs named Perkins and Lottery, a cow named Solin, and other non-humans, including Grasslands, share stories in the form of a crooked Métis jig.
Porter, who will speak at two events at the Vancouver Writers Fest, started writing her novel with two objectives. It began with her character Geneviève, who shares similarities with her grandmother.
“My grandmother struggled with alcoholism,” Porter, a member of the Manitoba Métis Federation, reveals. “She passed away from cancer when I was young.”
Her grandmother told one of Porter’s older cousins that she never wanted to become an alcoholic. It just happened.
“I thought: what if I gave her—in the story—a different ending?” Porter says. “If she lived, she definitely would have healed and gone through rehab, but she never got the chance because cancer took her first.”
Porter draws on Métis history
Porter’s second goal in writing A Grandmother Begins the Story was to de-centre humans. It’s because Métis people are so connected to the natural world.
“That’s why the bison story became so big,” Porter explains. “We share so much of our stories and share so much of our relationships with the land.
“So, it really became a way of reaching out in a different way to kin,” she adds. “And piecing together—using imagination and stories—to find a way to reach across that species divide that colonialism really brought us.”
Moreover, Porter says that bison experienced their own form of genocide. Like the Métis people, the bison also endured enormous dislocation, which can generate trauma.
“I started with a young bison who had been separated from her mother and who dealt with her—and had to cope with that,” she adds. “All those things have been very close to stories in my family.”
Furthermore, Porter points out that the book’s fragmented format mimics, in a way, how those afflicted by trauma sometimes experience life.
But there’s also a musical component. The fiddle is at the heart of Métis culture, in part because it was small enough to be taken anywhere. Porter says that traditional Métis fiddle players made a song their own by adding notes and by improvising with each performance.
“So, in a sense, where some of the chapters are very short, some are longer,” she continues. “There’s a varying rhythm. That’s to honour that traditional Métis fiddle style that Métis players have played on the Prairies now for centuries.”
Author comes from family of fiddle players
Her great-grandfather, Leon-Robert Goulet, and her grandmother, Estelle Goulet, created some of the earliest Métis recorded fiddle music. But Porter never knew this as she was growing up. She only discovered this when visiting her Auntie Dale in B.C.
In her aunt’s closet were old recordings—a few too brittle to ever play again—some of which have been digitized.
“I had no idea how important that they were to musicologists and archivists,” Porter says. “I hear the first fiddle notes played by my great-grandfather and my grandmother…and it changes me. And I realize that so much of the writing that I do is because I don’t have a fiddle in hand.”
She offers a reminder that the Métis emerged from the marriages of French-Canadian voyageurs and First Nations women. According to Porter, Métis culture is about celebrating joy and music. But her people also endured tremendous hardship.
“In many places, they weren’t allowed to attend the white or European schools and they weren’t allowed to attend First Nations schools,” Porter says. “The schools were a huge issue and that was part of the reason Métis people couldn’t settle in one place.”
In some instances, Métis kids were placed in church-run residential schools with First Nations children, where they experienced brutal abuse. Others attended Métis residential schools, and still others attended church-run day schools.
For a long time, Porter says, Métis people were encouraged to hide or deny their culture. But in recent decades, many, including herself, have embraced their heritage.
“There is so much joy in honouring your roots and finding out your stories,” the author emphasizes.
She also describes Métis as a “free people”.
“Métis people have always loved to make a statement,” Porter says. “That’s why Métis women traditionally always beaded, particularly their men’s clothing, with very beautiful beadwork patterns.”
It’s yet another reason why she’s thrilled with the cover of A Grandmother Begins the Story.
The Vancouver Writers Fest presents Michelle Porter at two events on Granville Island. She will join Alicia Elliot and katherena vermette at The Strength of Storytelling at 6 p.m. on Wednesday (October 18) at Performance Works. Porter will also appear with William Ping and Chelsea Wakelyn at Debut Fiction at 10 a.m. on Friday (October 20) on the Revue Stage.