From the Library: Crow Gulch, Electric Fences, and Blanket Toss Under Midnight Sun

Crow Gulch by Douglas Walbourne-Gough

This book was brought to my attention during a Zoom event hosted by the Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia: a Writers’ Panel on Indigenous Writers to Read Right Now. So many great books and writers were discussed, including long-loved writers like Rita Joe and Thomas King to up-and-comers like Billy-Ray Belcourt and Arielle Twist.

Douglas Walbourne-Gough is a member of the Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation from Corner Brook, Newfoundland, and Crow Gulch is his “attempt to resurrect dialogue and story, to honour who and where I come from, to remind Corner Brook of the glaring omission in its social history.”

This collection of poetry tells the story of Crow Gulch; the people and the place. Crow Gulch was a community that was created during the construction of Corner Brook’s pulp and paper mill. “The Gulch was the site of an old slate quarry, less than hospitable. The gradient of the hill was severe , and there were large boulders throughout the site that outsized the homes. An operational CN railway line ran through the middle, and the community lacked such amenities as running water… Social divisions, particularly those of class and race, arose between the people of Corner Brook and the surrounding communities.

I remember in my own family there would be threats, you know, if we weren’t doing as well in school as we ought to be. My mother would say, ‘You’re going to end up in Crow Gulch if you don’t pull your socks up.’ That was threat number one. The other threat is that you’d end up being a waitress at a Chinese restaurant.

The people of Crow Gulch were eventually moved out of the area to a social housing project in Corner Brook.

Land this old knows better than to beg, / knows you’ll come back hungry–questions / circling your skull like a flock of gulls. / Accept this rock, its odd love.

I especially enjoyed “Influences”, a poem that looks back on the places (“The Wreckhouse, brook trout, black spruce, / Little Port Head, Guernsey Island, balsam fir, / Joe Baggs’ Pond, Table Mountain, Iceberg Alley...”), food (“Skim milk powder, baloney sandwiches, / snow through the gap in the doorframe / of our Dunfield apartment...”), music (“Starship claiming / to have built this city from nothing more / than rock and roll.”), and people (“Spent his last decade / alone, mug after mug of weak tea / as he mourned my grandmother, / raised two grandkids as his own.”).

I sit in this canoe (am I dreaming, / again?) to glean their voices from / the cries of crows, a breeze / through black spruce, an old leather bible, / costume pearls, rewriting all the / long-dead stories we keep repeating / that keep us disconnected, / circling ourselves.

Electric Fences by Gugu Hlongwane

Gugu Hlongwane is currently living and teaching in Halifax Nova Scotia, but was born and raised in South Africa. Her collection of eight stories are mainly set in South Africa and the perfect chance for me to take a ‘trip’.

The stories in Electric Fences “depict the lives of South African black women” during and post apartheid. Despite poverty, discrimination, threat of violence and abuse, these women are “still able to find dignity as mothers, daughters, students, teachers, and lovers.” As Donna Bailey Nurse pointed out on The Next Chapter with Shelagh Rogers, the women in these stories are “well educated”, “determined”, “committed to valuing themselves,” and have a “strong sense of the wonder of life.”

The mother looks at her children in the rearview mirror and is terrified about their futures. The children don’t talk much about the peculiarities of their lives, but quietly take in what is happening. They don’t accept it. In their own way they resist.” [Sweets Shop]

“In America there are barely any fences. Can you imagine the mayhem in our country if there were no fences?” Bheka stroked her arm gently, reminded her that apartheid was all about fences. He said fences were there even when you couldn’t see them.” [Electric Fences]

I would not say my life in Goldsville was eventful. Neither was it typical. Mother was principal at Phakama High, the same school where father taught biology. I say my family was not typical because most of our neighbours were too bogged down with the business of survival to ever open a book. There was no culture of reading. It didn’t help that the public libraries in town were far away, awkward places where we were not welcome.” [Forks and Spoons]

I had never heard of “Red Indians.” They looked fierce and pathetic at the same time. But we loved the fights they put up. Father said they lived in reserves, like us. Natives, and a problem to be solved.” [Forks and Spoons]

Let us admire the wonders of creation, she said. The eyes that speak. Mouths that see. Hands that talk. The skin, the body’s largest organ. Shades of ebony and ivory and chocolate. One of the most vulnerable of the organs. Visible for discrimination. Sometimes too dark, sometimes too pale. But mostly too dark. Therefore this and that. Nonsensical theories that have turned the world upside down.” [Bodies Beautiful]

After reading seven stories about things I have little experience with–big cities, poverty, taxis and buses, segregation and discrimination, hot weather–parts of the eighth story (Linda) feels much more familiar; winter, spring, snow, dandelions, sledding. It’s fun to read it from the eyes of a new-comer.

There was a day when the snow was about fifty centimeters high. I sat on the tall and still-growing mound on the side of my driveway and laughed. That was better than crying about it. My back and arms sore from the previous storm, an ice sheet running the length of the driveway, it wasn’t going anywhere until spring. Jim appeared with a steaming cup.

Blanket Toss Under Midnight Sun by Paul Seesequasis

I was intrigued when I first heard of Paul Seesequasis‘ social media project–collecting “archival photos capturing everyday life in First nations, Metis and Inuit communities from the 1920s through the 1970s” and posting them on social media, where they “sparked an extraordinary reaction.” This project was initially inspired by his mother–herself a residential school survivor–who remarked that she was “tired of hearing just negative things about those times” and that “there had been positive and strong things in Indigenous communities then.”

Blanket Toss Under Midnight Sun is a collection of a selected few of the photographs Seesequasis found, arranged in chapters based on geography: Cape Dorset (Kinngait), Nunavik, James Bay, Hudson Bay Watershed, Saskatchewan, Montana and Alberta, Northwest Territories, and Yukon Territory.

How I would love to lay out everything I learned from this book… But 1) there’s not enough time, and 2) you should read it for yourself if you can! But here is a sampling to whet your appetite…

1.The book highlights photographers who have devoted many years of their time to photographing Indigenous communities for various reasons, some of who are themselves Indigenous. Peter Pitseolak was from Cape Dorset and took photographs from the 1940s to the 1970s. He developed his first photos in an igloo!

2. Seesequasis has also highlighted a number of Indigenous artists, all of which I googled to see more of. Kenojuak Ashevak’s “Enchanted Owl” and “Return of the Sun” were featured on Canadian stamps, and her “Red Owl” on 1999 quarters. And there is a Heritage Minute about Ashevak, which you can see here.

3. In the 1950s and 60s there were government-led dog slaughters across the Canadian Arctic. “It is estimated that twenty thousand sled dogs were killed over the course of two decades.” Can you imagine?! Harry Okpik’s personal story was captured in the documentary “Okpik’s Dream“.

4. The Fort George Rockers is a rock band formed in 1972 and appear to still be playing. In 1974 the band “embarked on what was probably the first ever rock tour by canoe.”

5. Birch Bark art!

This group of books took me to so many interesting places; Corner Brook Newfoundland, South Africa, the Canadian Arctic, and the Prairies. Where have your library books taken you lately?

17 thoughts on “From the Library: Crow Gulch, Electric Fences, and Blanket Toss Under Midnight Sun

  1. Rebecca Foster says:

    Hmm, lemme see, I’ve recently been to Alaska and the Arctic and an island off the coast of Washington State. Also Los Angeles, and a Minnesota winter, and northern Ontario, and Dutch hospitals, and Baltimore, and the rural fringes right nearby. (Well, not just via library books, but in general.) Books are the best for travelling with!

    Your two Indigenous reads sound great. Poetry and photos would be unique ways to discover those stories.

    • Naomi says:

      I especially enjoyed Blanket Toss – it was beautiful, and loaded with wonderful stories and information.

      I can count on you (and Marcie) to have been to lots of places! 🙂

  2. annelogan17 says:

    I followed your link to watch that heritage minute-stunning artwork! I think I actually worked with Paul Seesaquasis very briefly when I worked at Wordfest and had to apply for grants to the Canada Council-he worked there as a grants office for a while I think, so when I see that he’s released a book it is extra exciting!

  3. Karissa says:

    Seesequasis was supposed to be one of the authors at our 2020 Writers Fest and I was excited to read his book but then never got around to it. I think I’ll have to get it out from my library!

  4. buriedinprint says:

    Crow Gulch is now on my list, thank you! I don’t know that press, but maybe they have other indigenous writers on their list too? And I see that I added Electric Fences to my TBR in 2018, but I’d forgotten about it, so thanks for the reminder. I’ve got another South African writer coming up, I think, so maybe I could time them. The Paul Seesequasis was excerpted in “The Walrus” (which I was subscribing to at the time, although my sub has since lapsed…hopefully I can renew soon) and I loved the images there. Just gorgeous. Do I remember that you’ve read something else of his, too, or maybe you were planning to? In today’s reading, I’m in Harlem, Barbados and North Vietnam. What would we do without books? 🙂

    • Naomi says:

      Very interesting variety of places!
      Crow Gulch is Goose Lane, but I’m thinking you mean Mawenzi House? Mawenzi published Electric Fences and it was the first I had heard of them too. I went looking at their other books, of course (most of which I hadn’t heard of)!
      That was my first time reading Paul Seesequasis, but I saw on his site that he has another new one coming out!

      I don’t know what we would do without books!!

      • buriedinprint says:

        Ohhh, I saw that the library had it as Icehouse poetry and it didn’t click that that’s GL’s imprint. Thanks for letting me know. I think I learned about Mawenzi via Pamela Mordecai’s work and I agree that their catalogue has a tonne of interesting titles. One of her novels was nominated for something (maybe the Toronto Book Award or the BOCAS lit prize?) and that took me down the rabbit hole and added a chunk to my TBR. I’m guessing most of their stuff would have to be interlibrary loan for you?

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