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.

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Author: J.R. McConvey

J.R. McConvey is a writer from Toronto. His stories have been shortlisted for the Journey Prize, the Bristol Short Story Prize and the Matrix Lit Pop award, and he won the 2016 Jack Hodgins Founders’ Award for fiction. His work has appeared in The Malahat Review, Joyland, EVENT, The Puritan, carte blanche, filling Station and The Feathertale Review, among other outlets. He sometimes reviews books for The Globe and Mail, and exists on Twitter @jrmcconvey and on the web at jrmcconvey.com.

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