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Books by Gregory Scofield
- Thunder Through My Veins: Memories of a Métis Childhood
- The Gathering: Stones for the Medicine Wheel
- I Knew Two Métis Women
- Love Medicine and One Song
- Native Canadiana: Songs from the Urban Rez
To write and to be able to be honest and to be able to be reflective. And to be able to touch people. To be able to make medicine. Even out of something bad, to be able to make good medicine out of it. When people read, it's not just the book that they read, it's the medicine behind via the words. That's where the power comes from. That's where the healing comes from.
It's impossible to read Thunder Through My Veins and not be moved by Gregory Scofield's story and transported by his powerful and widely-admired prose. In his fifth book, the 33-year-old poet has turned to non-fiction and the marriage of his evocative writing with his own traumatic memoir makes for powerful reading. Powerful medicine, the writer himself would likely say.
Through an early childhood filled with poverty, deprivation and separation from his parents; to an adolescence filled with confusion about his heritage (he's a large part Native Canadian: Métis), and his sexuality (he's gay). In Thunder Through My Veins we follow the younger Scofield through foster homes, emotional and physical abuse, a psychiatric treatment center at 15 and the streets of Vancouver at 20. Two important things keep Thunder from being an overwhelmingly down read. One is the happy ending. Scofield is well on his way to becoming one of Canada's best known poets. He is a previous winner of the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize and the Canadian Authors Association Air Canada Award for the most promising writer of 1996. And you can't help thinking while reading Thunder that it was the travails of his early life that helped forge the awesome talent Scofield displays in his writing.
Which brings us to the second thing that keeps Thunder Through My Veins from either bogging down or overwhelming the reader with maudlin anecdotes from a troubled youth: Gregory Scofield can write. He tells his story with a simple yet engaging honesty that doesn't ask for sympathy or even understanding. And -- yet --somehow the reader can't help but offer both. Like the tree that grew in Brooklyn, Scofield has grown against impossible odds to offer hope to any that might be following.
Linda Richards: I have enjoyed Thunder Through My Veins so much. A lot of it is very sad stuff. I think it must have been very hard for you to write. It's very honest. Was it difficult to be that honest?
Gregory Scofield: I don't think it was difficult as far as being honest. What was difficult was actually going through the whole process of reliving a lot of the memories and the process of actually sitting down and putting those memories on paper and seeing them come to life via words. And I constantly had to check in with myself that, you know, now I'm grown up and I'm writing the story and I'm not actually reliving the story. And I had a different idea and a different perspective of them now that I'm older. But a lot of the earlier memories -- as far as childhood stuff and any kind of trauma -- was quite different going through it again and writing about it.
Was this the first time you'd written about it?
Yes. Like I've often told friends in the past, it seems like I've told my story to so many different people that over the years in telling my story it was almost very much like I was telling somebody else's story, I was so completely disconnected to anything that was painful or anything that was difficult in my childhood. So the process of actually sitting down and writing it was very much taking ownership of the story and for the first time saying, you know: this is my story. These are things I've gone through.
So it was therapeutic in a way?
Yes. It was therapeutic insofar as kind of forcing myself to get back and finish off chapters or to write. There where times, of course, when I just sort of wanted to abandon the whole idea. I didn't want to write it. I just wanted to forget about it and do something else. I didn't want to relive the stuff. That whole feeling of vulnerability. How would I feel about strangers reading my story? How that would be accepted and just kind of all of those fears. But it was very therapeutic in being able to see the whole story in its entirety and being able to take a look back at it.
One of the beautiful things was receiving a hard copy of the book a couple of weeks ago and kind of flipping through it after packing it around for the day and realizing that all of this stuff was the past. That it was gone. That I had captured it and here it was. But I had the whole rest of my life to make new memories. I have new things to write about. So it was very empowering.
There's a scene in the book where you were in grade nine and you're getting ready to get on a bus. You take all of your writing and you burn it and throw it away. I don't know how you feel about it now, but I felt really sad when I read that part. Do you regret that? Do you wonder what those childhood writings might have been like?
No. I mean that was very much a part of my process when I was younger and feeling so disconnected from myself and having such little self worth and understanding of the things I was going through. Being so disconnected, it was easy to get rid of the stuff. It was easy to burn the poems. It was easy to rip them up and throw them out and be completely disassociated with, not so much the poems, but the feelings and the emotions and the things I was struggling through via the poetry. Via the writing. So it's kind of out of sight, out of mind: get rid of it and it's not a part of you anymore.
Because the writing has always been a part of your life, hasn't it?
Well, yeah. Writing for me originally was like a best friend. Was like a confidant. It was my time to be able to go someplace and sit down and be someplace quiet and to be able to write about whatever I wanted to write about no matter how good it was. No matter how bad it was. I'd just be able to go through that process of writing and if I wanted to share it with people, or if I wanted to throw it away I could.
You talked about writing this book making you feel empowered. The little that I've read about your life in the now strikes me that you lead a very empowered life. Doing empowered things. You're doing wonderful things for your community. Do you feel that way? Do you have a sense of that?
It's like I've always said insofar as community and insofar as the native writing community, is that I've always considered myself very much one small voice out of a community of powerful singers. I always maintain that. Because, of course, there are many different voices. Many strong voices. What's important is that in each of those voices there is power that's being created and there's a whole sense of spirituality and a whole sense of reclaiming, which is really important because when you put it all together it becomes this kind of entourage of powerful words and powerful sentiments of things that are about healing.
This is book five. Four of your books have been poetry?
Actually book four is called I Knew Two Métis Women and it's a book about my late mother and my late Aunt and it very much chronicles their lives and their experiences. It talks about the hardships and it talks about their indomitable strength and their willpower. The poems are very much fused with old time country music which was their favorite music and their way of coping, by listening to this music.
This is the first prose book?
Is it non-fiction or creative non-fiction? How do you define it?
It's considered non-fiction and it's memoir. I guess creative non-fiction is taking facts and being a little too creative with them. I haven't taken facts and been too creative with them.
One of the things I really considered when I sat down to write this book -- I'd been talking with one of my great mentors, Patrick, about this and we'd been talking about the idea of this book and Patrick had commented that as soon as you write something -- whether it's based upon fact or fiction -- as soon as you write something, it automatically becomes fiction.
Because it's your perception?
Yeah. Because it's your perception. There will be people in my family who chose to read the book, that say, "I don't remember it that way. I think you've elaborated a little bit." But, of course, these are my memories. These are my remembrances of them.
And some of those are childish memories. A view from this angle.
Exactly. So it's a whole interesting process.
Are you working on something now?
I'm kind of swimming around with a bunch of different ideas. Nothing that I can really talk about right now.
So it won't do me any good to ask if the next one is prose or poetry? And you can just say no. [Laughs]
No actually, the next one is probably going to be poetry and the one after that is probably going to be non-fiction.
Now that you've said all of these things, are they gone? Are they really gone? Do you think you'll ever write about them again?
No. The things in this book are done. It's over. It's finished. It's behind me. It's the past. My greatest hope for the book is that any younger people people coming out of the native community and any young people coming out of poetry or coming out of situations where there's any kind of trauma that they'd be able to find a book like this and be able to read it. Become inspired somehow. That the book would help them. When I was on my path and looking for things there were a lot of books that really helped me. Stories that were about aboriginals: other Métis people. Even books like Margaret Laurence's The Diviners or The Stone Angel. Those books were incredibly helpful to me as far as giving me the confidence to find my own voice.
You've become a storyteller yourself.
Very much. I still have a hard time viewing myself as a poet. I don't call myself a poet. I see myself as a community worker or a storyteller: that's the closest I can get as far as being a "writer." A storyteller. So far, the stories that I've told have all been the stories within me. The stories that are based in autobiography.
Did you do anything education-wise to prepare you as a writer? Or is it all natural?
I never went to school to learn to be a writer.
For a poet that might not be a bad thing.
[Laughs] I've heard that over the years. But for people that have gone through university to creative writing programs there's that kind of tinge of envy. I think, gee: to know about form and technique and style and stuff like that. But I also realize that my whole process has been the way it's supposed to be. If I had been meant to find my voice via sitting in the classroom then it would have been that way.
But there must be part of you now that says, "Hey: I guess I do know something about style and technique and form." Because you keep makin' these pretty books.
Well, it's funny because you take a look at all of your pretty books and you're starting another book and you think: you know what? I can't write a poem if my life depended on it. [Laughs] Or, I'm an awful poet and why are people even publishing me? So you go through this whole kind of thing of self-doubt. When the voice is there and the writing is there, then the writing is there. The way I see that is when I'm sitting at my dining room table at three o'clock in the morning drinking tea and smoking and I feel my grandmothers behind me and I'm writing and I'm working on a poem or I'm working on trying to convey a certain experience or a certain emotion or a certain thought, that's when I know I've got the voice and I'm getting the voice happening. It's the nights that I sit at the table and I kind of smoke aimlessly and look at the walls and everything else and feel kind of completely vacant. And I scribble a stanza and read it and think, how more contrived could this possibly be? [Laughs.]
That's a universal thing, I think. I've talked to some really well known, top selling writers and almost all of them have told me that there's times when they look at their work and think it's all awful. Maybe that's something that all writers go through at some point? And to me it was very encouraging to hear that. Because it means you're in pretty good company.
I guess it's all part of that process. And you do see what you've accomplished, so you get really frustrated when you've got an idea in your head and you want to see it come to life but you've kind of got that block happening. It's kind of like someone has squeezed your larynx and they've closed your voice off and you're trying to make them let go of it.
When I get in those moods it's awful because I'm so superstitious about stuff. I'll be standing in -- like -- the Shopper's Drug Mart and I'll be eyeing the writing pads. I'll go to touch one and I'll think: no. This one I'm going to end up going through every piece of paper and it's going to end up in the garbage so no... I'm going to go for this one. You kind of go back and forth.
You're somewhat superstitious about the materials that you use?
Well, I guess in kind of a strange way. I have to have certain types of writing pads. I, of course, write everything longhand. I can not for the life of me imagine myself sitting in front of a computer screen and compose a poem with this screen looking at me. For me it's very tactile and I need to feel the pen or the pencil and the cigarette and the ashtray on the table.
So it's almost ritualistic?
Oh, completely. My whole table will end up an entire mess. But if it ends up a mess and I'm writing, that's great. Because I'm writing. I'll end up with papers all over the place: scribble here, scribble there. When I'm ready to make a poem, I'll be pulling pieces of paper and looking through this and looking through that, thinking: OK. Where did this line go? Where did this idea go? And trying to piece it all together.
Do you scribble ideas to yourself when you're out?
Sometimes I do and sometimes I'll be walking and I'll speak them out loud and I'm completely oblivious to those around me. Or sometimes I'll walk in front of cars. It's awful. [Laughs]
Writing is a very dangerous profession for you! [Laughs] You talked about being blocked. So when is it all right? When does it all come together?
When it's supposed to be. When it's meant to be right. My grannies and my grandpas are ready to say, "All right my boy. It's time to write again." Some people call it their muse. I call it my grannies and my grandpas. If they say it's time for me to write, then it's time for me to write.
Is it also a spiritual connection?
Very much. I approach everything that I work on very much like medicine. Because I believe that the things that we do, the things that we say, the things that we create, ways of being, everything that is created under the human form I think of as medicine. And books are no different.
When you're sitting down and writing a book and working out of the context of the community that I do, it's very important to me that when I'm working on something that I'm doing it very consciously. And I'm doing it very respectfully. It's like the old time storytellers. When the old people are telling the stories you don't interrupt them. You don't look at them. You don't question them with your eyes. You sit there and you listen to them. In the old days when storytellers would come to visit, if their story took three days to tell, if it was a sacred story you would sit all day long at the table and they would tell you a story. And then you would go to bed, and you'd wake up again and they would continue the story for all the next day.
I very much approach my writing that way and make offerings for my grandmothers and my grandfathers when I write. I make tobacco offerings for them and I ask them to come and sit with me and to give me courage and strength. To write and to be able to be honest and to be able to be reflective. And to be able to touch people. To be able to make medicine. Even out of something bad, to be able to make good medicine out of it. When people read, it's not just the book that they read, it's the medicine behind via the words. That's where the power comes from. That's where the healing comes from.
I think that this particular book could be very powerful for kids with similar backgrounds.
I hope. For people coming into their background and being able to come full circle as far acceptable issues, as far as belonging issues. I was very, very conscious working on the book because I realized I would have given my eyeteeth in school to be able to go through the school library and be able to pick out a book that I thought kind of looked interesting and that I could really relate to. I'm not only talking about Métis students or Métis youth, but I'm also talking about gay and lesbian youth. I'm talking about youth that are struggling with issues of sexuality. And about belonging and acceptance and self acceptance and being OK with those issues.
Of course, at school there's absolutely nothing on the coming out process or there's nothing positive at all about gay people. There's nothing positive whatsoever as far as relationships. I'm in a generation right now when men in their 30s -- and I'm talking primarily gay men -- don't have the skills. They don't know how to be in healthy, committed relationships. People have to work towards that. Because in school we had no role models. We didn't have the opportunities to learn about courting and about respect and all of these things that heterosexual youth had the opportunity to do. So it's my hope that youth that are struggling with that background will be able to pick out this book in their school library -- and whether they're Native or not Native and whether they just relate to the whole sexual identity issues and looking for that, they can find something out of the book and they can say, "I'm OK."
I think that we're kind of entering a time of where political correctness is highly important and hopefully within that whole movement of political correctness -- as I grin, because I think it's been taken a little bit to the extreme -- I think it's important that any kind of diversity of people are able to realize, no we're not all the same. We're not all coming from the same ethnic backgrounds, we're not all coming from the same backgrounds of class and privilege and race, nor are we coming from the same backgrounds of understanding our sexual beings. So there's an incredible amount of room for diversity and accepting that diversity as is.
Thunder Through My Veins isn't a political story, is it? It's a human story.
Well, no. That's not entirely correct. It is a political story. The whole history of my family. The whole history of denial. The whole history of Métis people. That's all about politics and it's all about histories of shame. Histories of denial. Histories of poverty and coming out of a disadvantaged environment. This book is the contemporary -- if you will -- of those politics to date. The shame of my grandfather. The denial of my grandfather of being Native. That all comes from a political history. If people were afforded the opportunity and the human right of being allowed to be who they were, then maybe things would have been different. I was taught that everything you do from the way you brush your teeth, to the way you comb your hair to the way you walk down the street is political. You're showing your politics and what you believe. | September 1999
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of several books.