J.R. McConvey Interview: “Eel of the Lake”

Read “Eel of the Lake” in Reckoning 1.

jr-mcconveyMichael: I love this story of personal identity in the context of collective activism. As I probably told you when I bought it, it made me cry, I think partly because I know how ineffectual and insignificant working for positive change in the world can feel, and the idea of getting such a personal acknowledgement from the huge, beautiful abstraction you’re trying to defend is a powerful thing indeed. I think “Eel of the Lake” makes a fair argument that the escapism of fantasy serves a worthwhile purpose–introducing a ray of hope when we need it most.

But I want to ask you about a particular issue of personal identity this story brings up, one that applies very much to Reckoning as a whole, which is representation and cultural appropriation. To be blunt about it: I’m a white dude, you’re a white dude; Mizay, the main character, is a lesbian woman of Indigenous descent; is that okay? When I first read this, I hesitated, even though it made me cry, because I want Reckoning to be a platform for voices not my own, not like my own, and I want it to be a space where people not like me can feel their voices are being given the attention and respect they deserve. In the end, it was the making me cry that made up my mind: Mizay’s voice clearly didn’t feel fake to me, it felt respectfully and authentically rendered. Still, I have to ask myself, who am I to make that call? So, in hopes you might have better answers than mine, I wanted to ask you the same question. How did you decide to tell this story from this perspective? How did you find Mizay’s voice? If you thought about issues of appropriation, can you tell me about how that went?

J.R.: This question has weighed on me heavily in recent months, and it’s not easy to unpack. A bit of relevant background is that I have worked with Indigenous people on past projects, mainly documentaries, and feel I’ve learned a huge amount from these interactions. A few summers ago, I was fortunate enough to participate in an arts leadership program through the Banff Centre, where I met an elder who helped me further explore Indigenous knowledge, and to see both its essential wisdom, and the beauty and poetry of the stories. I believe they carry answers that will help us navigate the accelerating changes that Earth is undergoing.

When I set out to write this story, I was searching for a way to frame a discussion about climate change, resistance and the ways in which humans are connected to the landscape. It didn’t start out as a story with an Indigenous protagonist, or a story about an LGBTQ2 character – those character traits came out in the writing. But once they emerged, it made sense to me, since marginalization and activism are so connected in cultural discourse. When I wrote it, it felt emotionally true. So I submitted it.

What I can see in retrospect is that one can’t really be incidental when attempting to write from other perspectives, especially Indigenous ones. And, ultimately, you have to admit ignorance, and accept that all you have is an attempt to understand, which may or may not be welcomed by Indigenous people who feel stifled or limited in terms of how and where their voices are heard. I believe deeply in the value of fiction as a vehicle for empathy, and I cherish the freedom of the imagination as the truest freedom. But I also understand that some people feel that what’s at stake in writing from Indigenous perspectives is a more urgent matter, a question of life or death.

So, where I’ve landed with this story is that it’s out there, and I welcome any criticisms of it that will open a respectful dialogue about these questions. I’m willing to listen, which is the request I hear or read most often in discussions around appropriation: listen to us. I’ve given the story to my friend, the elder, and am hoping for an honest assessment of where it falls on the appropriation spectrum. My argument in favour of the piece, such as it is, is that I am (hopefully) not glossing over the complicity of straight white men in systemic discrimination against Indigenous people, women and those who identify as LGBTQ2. If I’m writing from the perspective of a marginalized character, it’s in part to throw an interrogating light on my own privileged position in relation to those who are marginalized.

However, at the moment, it seems an argument isn’t what Indigenous people (or LGBTQ2 people) want or need in terms of response to questions like this. Which makes sense: as soon as you take two steps into the larger discussion around treatment of Indigenous people in Canada, any would-be indignation falls apart. There are communities with no clean water. There are twelve-year-old kids killing themselves on reserves. The last residential school was not shut until 1996. Colonization is still effecting very real and painful consequences on Indigenous people.

So, ultimately, although I still like the way this story feels and reads, and believe it’s as emotionally honest as I could make it—and am happy to have it in a publication like Reckoning, which invites conversations like this one—I’ve since removed it from the manuscript of my short story collection, on the grounds that it’s not really mine to tell, or at least that there’s sufficient debate around that statement to warrant removal. It’s the last piece I’ll write from the perspective of an Indigenous character. As much as it saddens me to see how the world, in general, seems to be dividing and subdividing into closed ranks—how much “us versus them” has become the dominant paradigm—I don’t want my writing to be hurtful to people whose suffering is still so acute, and I have to believe them when they tell me how appropriation contributes to this, even if the context is a story that aims, in part, to champion decolonization.

Sorry for the long-winded response. This is a question that may take a hundred years to answer.

Michael: Because you and I also share the Great Lakes watershed, the particular huge, beautiful abstraction Mizay is protesting on behalf of in this story, I also wanted to ask you about the real-world inspiration for that. Are river outlets being paved and islands drowned near where you live? Does the resistance to it look anything like it does in the story? I’m a transplant here, and for years I was daunted by the level of degradation of the lakes–having never known this ecosystem any other way but polluted and infested with invasives, I found it harder to work up the energy to do anything about it. I’ve gotten over that, thankfully–but I’d love to hear a little of how you think about the lakes, what’s made them worth defending.

 J.R.: It boggles my mind that some people would question the need to protect the Great Lakes. This is the largest source of fresh water on Earth. Like you, I’ve only ever known the lakes in their degraded state, although I’ve lived next to Lake Ontario for most of my life. It’s the sad truth that they were already degraded before I was born. I take some solace in the cleanup efforts that have happened in my lifetime—I can swim in Lake Ontario now, on good days—and in the efforts of groups like Waterkeeper Alliance, who work on spreading the message about their protection. But, while there’s not a specific, local incident of pollution I can point to (invasive species are another matter: Asian carp, lampreys, Zebra mussels…), I think we are generally now headed in a very dangerous direction, with the efforts the current US government is making to destroy environmental regulations.

What is a very visible and present problem in Toronto at the moment is the flooding of the Islands. They’ve been closed since early May, covered in water, and although the city keeps pushing the deadline for re-opening the park, it keeps raining, and I am afraid this may turn into a permanent problem. It’s also a harbinger of the kind of changes I think we’re going to see happening more and more frequently. Frankly, it makes it hard to conceive of any kind of effective resistance… I know hope is important, but the scale of change is so vast, you wonder what can happen on a grassroots human scale that will slow or reverse what’s already in motion.

In the case of “Eel of the Lake,” the point is more that resistance and love are sources of personal strength in the face of big-picture despair, and that the possibility still exists to reimagine ourselves and the ways in which we see and relate to the natural world. Or, if you want to take the fantastical element at face value, that maybe at some point the world will take over, and our struggle to be the controlling factor in nature—on either side of the issue—will be rendered insignificant. I guess there’s some skewed hope in the thought that the Earth knows what it’s doing, and will find a way to detoxify itself. What that would mean for humankind is anyone’s guess, though. Maybe the beast in this story is an omen of personal discovery… or maybe it’s hungry.

Michael: These are great answers! As thoughtful and nuanced as I could have hoped for. Thank you very much. I really appreciate your wanting to engage with me over these questions.

Facebooktwittertumblrmail

Eel of the Lake

J.R. McConvey

“Our water!”

OUR WATER!”

“Our life!”

“OUR LIFE!”

“Our water!”

OUR WATER!”

“Our life!”

“OUR LIFE!”

Neon poster boards glowed pink and yellow in the late August sun, like opalescent scales rippling on a monster made of myriad bodies. Each sign bore a slogan, praise for the lake or a condemnation of the corporate befouler, Lennox-Mills; and the protestors shook the signs in unison, so they fluttered in time with the chanting. Drums pounded. The smell of burning sage filled the air. The day was warm and good for anger.

Mizay did her best to get some oomph into her voice—OUR water, our LIFE!—but found herself holding back from full volume, so she could listen to how Taslin chanted. There was such authority in it, as though her friend were chopping thick logs with her words. Taslin had tattoos that Mizay loved: a pair of iguanas on her tanned calves; a dragon with a spear in its talons on her bicep; an octopus crawling up her back, one of its tentacles tracing the line of raised, red tissue that ran down her left shoulder. Tas was a warrior, for real. If Mizay was honest with herself, Tas and her passion for these things was the real reason she’d come to the demonstration—that, and a day outside in the head-clearing breeze off the lake.

Not that she wasn’t angry, too. The facts were shocking: fifteen per cent of the islands gone in the last two years. Since they’d stabilized the bluffs and built out the new pier in the port lands to put up the casino, the natural currents that carried sediment and gave the islands their shape had been reduced to a slow trickle of sand. Mizay knew most of the facts from Tas. But it had been her mother who’d first told her about the problem, and all the others it was creating—the islands eroding, the north shore crowded with plastics washed up in the altered current, ducks and plovers caught in the tangled knots and strands, toxic algae blooms smothering the inlets.

Mizay fingered the leather pouch on her neck and stared at the clouds gliding across the blueness above. Our people’s land, her mother had said.

Your people, she thought.

“Hey, you okay?” Taslin poked her in the arm. “Gotta keep up the chant, or the man will think you quit.”

“I won’t quit.”

“I know.” Taslin looked at her and lowered her electric green sign. Her thin lips were raisin dark, and a few strands of her blue hair lifted and fell with the wind. Against the mosaic of neon, it looked like a halo of water around her pale skin.

“You wanna take a break? Get a bite, a cold drink, maybe?”

“Yeah,” Mizay said, letting go of the leather pouch. She wasn’t at all hungry. “I do.”

“Cardboard.”

Taslin chewed forcefully, a grimace on her face, and pointed to the water. “They throw the plastic in the lake, and use the cardboard to make pizza.” She tossed the remains of a gnawed-on slice onto her greasy tray. Mizay resisted the urge to pick it up and nibble on it. She was already too aware of her sweat-slick weight leaning against the fiberglass snack table, so different from Taslin’s lithe, dry body.

“You’re quieter than I expected,” said Tas.

Mizay laughed. “You calling me loud?”

“That’s a compliment.”

“From you, yeah. I guess it is. You were shouting pretty good back there.”

“They don’t hear otherwise,” Tas said, sucking sauce off her finger. She sighed. “They don’t hear anyway.”

“It’s still early,” Mizay said, though it wasn’t true. The sun was leaning west; the waves lapped away at the cluttered beach across the main path, licking away sand, trading it for crushed water bottles and faded silicon bracelets. For months, Mizay had felt a sense of things tipping, some shift in the energy of the city. The weather swung wildly, from sulky heat to heaving storms to cool, clouded days. People on the street got enraged at random. Nothing was consistent. Except Taslin.

“It’s late and you know it,” said Tas. “And you know I know you, Mizay Taylor.” She took a sip of soda water and raised her eyebrows, eyes goofy and wide, then looked away again. “Thanks for coming today. It means a lot to me.”

They’d known each other for five years, since Mizay had moved downtown from her childhood home in Ajax. Taslin had been one of four housemates sharing the crowded apartment above the store in Regent Park. They’d hit it off over a shared love of old school hip-hop and monster movies, The Toxic Avenger series and The Host, especially. Tas moved out to live with a doomed boyfriend soon after Mizay arrived, but they’d kept in touch and gotten close over the years. When Mizay’s father died, Tas had been there to guide her through the delirium, the sadness and hatred and guilt and relief; and Mizay had seen Tas burn through dozens of men, and was the person Tas had called on the night the worst of them ran a hunting knife along the curve of her shoulder blade after one too many pills. She’d had Taslin’s blood in her hair and her eyes, as she clutched her friend’s hand in the hospital bed while the nurse put forty stitches in her. Tas had refused any anaesthetic, spent the procedure staring into Mizay’s eyes, saying fuckerfuckerfuckerfucker, over and over again.

Mizay looked out at the lake, the haze gathering on the blue horizon. Without thinking, she reached out her hand and put it on Taslin’s. Right away, she realized how sweaty it was.

Tas let it sit for a second, then drew her hand back and smiled.

“Need to hold hands, lovey? I thought we were being civilly disobedient.” She looked back toward the protest and shook her head. “I’m all for moments, Miz, but I can’t help thinking about why we’re here, you know? These islands. The lake . . .” She shook her head. “Whatever it’s whispering to you right now, Miss Mizay, the assholes at Lennox-Mills can’t hear it, even though it’s screaming it at them. Because of them. We have to make the message louder.” She sat back, hoisting her neon sign with its blunt war cry, LENNOX-FUCKING-KILLS. She looked up at the sky.

“It makes me fucking crazy, you know?”

Mizay smiled, but she felt a bloom of heat in her face. She was an amateur, distracted, and afraid her falseness was showing on her cheek like a mole. She couldn’t commit to causes like Taslin. It was all too slippery, too hard to hold onto.

Tas got up and saluted her.

“Permission to visit the head, captain,” she said. “Be right back. Watch this for me, kay?” She let the sign fall on the table and strutted away. Mizay watched her go, all pumping thighs and chunky leather boots. She felt a tickling in her spine, and thought again about her mother, her father—prayers and smoke, both of them, in different ways. Her father of devout Irish stock. Her mother, Ojibwe, steeped in the brutality of the residential schools.

Our people, Mizay.

With her mother, now, it was always stories from the past. Wordsmoke. Everything was some elliptical tale, relayed in the slow, deep voice that had only slowed and deepened since Mizay’s father died. Wanda Taylor, née Littleshell, had enough stories to last a dozen lifetimes; Mizay called her twice a week to receive them. She was bored by her mother, but loved her.

With her father it was something else. Even now.

Mizay stood up, grabbed Tas’s sign and walked toward the shore, noting clusters of willow and wild strawberry huddling close to the water past the strip of beach. Overhead, gulls curved in the sky, shrieking in hunger or warning. A few sailboats dotted the horizon, far out. Mizay closed her eyes, savoured the kiss of the wind on her face, the smells of seaweed, wet muskrat and dry stone. She imagined herself out in the water, swimming with the current, moving like a torpedo, smashing into the concrete pier and sending the casino toppling to the bottom of the lake. This was her home—this island. This city. She was her people. Her, and Taslin.

“Can you put your filth away, please?”

She opened her eyes, disoriented by the dazzle of the sun on the sand. Swooning, she turned, searching for the source of the sharp, angry voice. She saw a man, white, white sneakers and white socks, red polo shirt and tan shorts, standing beside her, scowling.

“There are kids here, in case you didn’t notice.”

His long, white finger pointed at Taslin’s sign. Behind him, a young boy, maybe six, looked at Mizay with terrified eyes.

“You think you’re making a point? It’s embarrassing.”

“Sorry?” Mizay looked down at Tas’s sign. She took in beauty of it, the bravery, black magic marker scrawled in Taslin’s curly hand on the humming green.

“You should be ashamed of yourself.” She followed the man’s eyes as they traveled up and down her body, lingering over her middle. Mizay sucked in her gut out of instinct, to make herself smaller.

The man turned to go with his son. Mizay looked around for Tas. After a few steps the man glanced back at her, hesitating for a suspended moment before intensifying his scowl.

“Goddamn Indian bitch,” he said, the words pitched like sharp stones.

Not your people.

Mizay wanted to shout, lash out at him. Say fuck you and your people. Fuck you and your world, your plastic and your piers, your terrible manners. Fuck you and your old, stupid ways.

Instead, she stood mute, burning, then folded the sign in her hands and fled, walking quickly away from the man, who had turned around to follow his son along the beach, and had probably already forgotten she existed.

She looked around. The man was right: there were kids everywhere, running, kicking balls, eating ice cream. The protest was only a few hundred metres away, but in leaving its safe space, she and Tas had walked into a different world, a world in which innocent children ran among people who did not welcome her here, and could become them. Natives, Mizay, her father said. Indians, Mizay, her mother said, waggling a status card at her.

Flight instinct flooded her like piping steam, spiked into her belly, made her clench up and hunch and stumble forward, unthinking. She walked, ran, blind, going until she was away from the promenade. The words in her head slapped like a lash: Indian bitch, Indian bitch. It was the normalcy of it, the plainness of the man, that got to her. That, and his son, blond with blue eyes that watched and absorbed. Mizay walked, ran, slithered, seeking damp ground, seeking space.

When she finally stopped, she was on a part of the path overhung with the canopies of tall ash, maple and oak. Greenness surrounded her. The buzzing of the crowds and the faint chanting of the protest were swept over by the wind whushing through high branches, and the rattling of brittle leaves lower down, spackling the path in shadows.

She stood, shaking, huffing breaths, not crying. She was not what her father said, not what her mother said; though she was exactly these, both.

Mizay had no idea how long she’d been standing there when the woman rounded the corner and came toward her, walking with intent. Mizay felt the air pulse, like wind pushed by a great flapping wing. The woman wore a denim jacket and high boots and had hair tied back in a long braid. She wore a satchel on her shoulder and held a smartphone in her right hand.

“You look lost,” she said to Mizay.

Mizay felt a foaming in her belly. She stared at her dark, speckled wrists. She thought of her mother, of the yellowed suds gathering in the stilled bays around the island. She looked up and to her right and saw the high concrete tower spearing above the treetops, marking where the city skyline pushed against the edge of the harbour. She thought about her father, who had also looked so normal, who had been respected and admired among his friends and colleagues.

“No,” Mizay said. “I’m home.”

“You okay?”

“Yeah. I think . . .” Mizay trailed off. Why should she the one to feel shame? She tested it in her mind: he devalued me. Something inside her said she should be used to the slurs, and the thought filled her with rage and despair.

“I’m Cora,” the woman said. Her eyes were deep, black. Mizay thought how they smiled and howled at once.

“Mizay,” said Mizay. The next part like a confession: “Taylor”.

Cora cocked her head and smiled. “That’s an interesting name,” she said. “Do you know what it means?”

Mizay knew what it meant to be Taylor. Then, other times, she didn’t know—couldn’t process being Taylor, because it was part of her, and that in itself was something she couldn’t understand. She’d never liked the first name her mother had chosen, never cared to know what it meant. It was enough, to know it was an Ojibwe word, one of the only concessions her father had ever made to her mother’s ancestry, one he’d always resented.

She shook her head, no.

Cora turned around and surveyed the trees.

“Your mother knows what your name means,” she said. Mizay twitched. Cora walked to the side of the path and rubbed a bit of tufted grass between her fingers. Suddenly Mizay heard the water, lapping, sighing, just past the trees and down the rocky beach to her left. The leaves became more distinct. The sun burnished the clouds a dusky gold. The woman turned and stared right into Mizay’s eyes, which were still puffy and red. “But I think you should ask the grandmothers and grandfathers.”

Mizay blinked. “They don’t talk to me,” she said.

The woman smiled. “They’re just waiting for the right time.” She took a slow step toward Mizay and slid a reed behind her ear, where it tickled like a fuzzy caterpillar. “They don’t judge anyone.”

Mizay swallowed. Her throat was dry. She thought about Tas, about her fiery, mad heart, and her gut wobbled. Tas would be looking for her. Worried. Maybe frantic. How long had she been gone for? She tried to remember what she’d done with Taslin’s sign, and couldn’t. Suddenly she panicked.

“I have to get back,” she said to the woman.

“I think so,” the woman said. “But wait a minute.” Reaching into her satchel, she pulled out a steel water bottle, unscrewed the lid and offered it to Mizay. Mizay reached out and took it. She tipped it back into her mouth, feeling the cool water course down through her body, and handed the bottle back to Cora.

“Thank you,” she said.

“You’re welcome. One more thing.” In a single motion, Cora leaned in and wrapped her arm around Mizay, held out her phone, and snapped a selfie against the backdrop of lush green, the lake peeking through the gaps in the leaves. Mizay saw herself on the tiny rectangular screen, and realized she was trembling.

“Why do you want a picture of me?” she asked.

“Because,” Cora said. “You’re beautiful.” Head down, tapping her phone and humming, she walked back the way she’d come, disappearing around the corner.

Mizay stood, unable to move. She needed to find Taslin . . . but she was afraid. Her hand on Taslin’s hand: she hadn’t even known it was happening . . . even though all she’d wanted, all day, was to take her finger and trace the shape of the octopus down the smooth, scarred blade of Tas’s back.

That man and his child: they were just excuses to run.

The woman had asked Mizay her what her name meant, but Mizay was certain she knew the answer. Ojibwe, Mizay. On instinct, drawn by a current that calmed her breath and gave her lightness, Mizay went after her.

Rounding the path, she came to a clearing, where a stone beach sloped down to a full, wide view of the lake across the curve of the islands’ south shore. Halfway to the tip, a gap funneled inward, the water carving a rill between the clustered trees. In the distance, over on the eastern mainland, the casino was a tiny grey box on the jutting pier, studded with electric lights that blazed in the waning sun, baiting the dusk and the early moon. Cora was gone.

Mizay felt a flexing, an undulance, shoot through her back and down her legs.

Our water.

It breached right in front of her, some thirty metres out. A curving loop of silver, slick and shimmering, muscled and lithe, huge as a subway train, exploding above the polished surface of the lake. Mizay gaped at it, the coils of its snakelike body, its ribbony fin, the feline cast of its head, droplets of foam splashing up as it plunged back into the heaving blue, throwing up plumes of water. As it went under, she felt its presence as a bulging in the sky, a slithering of the sand beneath her feet, a deep rumbling in the wind.

And she knew, in her heart, that what she saw was real. More than that, she knew it was no blasphemy born of pollutants, no scream from the crying lake . . . but a gift, telling how the past would become the future. How destruction and healing would always exist, side by side, in cycles.

She knew that this was the lake returning.

Mizay breathed in, filled with the sun’s warmth, the murmuring sounds of the city and the echoing ripples on the water radiating out from where the eel had surfaced. She heard her mother’s voice. She heard others, too. She would speak with them all, soon.

But first, she would go and find Taslin, and tell her, something new is happening.

Read an interview with J.R. McConvey about “Eel of the Lake”.

Facebooktwittertumblrmail