Writing Our Way To Where We Belong

“Do you know what people really want? Everyone, I mean. Everybody in the world is thinking: I wish there was just one other person I could really talk to, who could really understand me, who’d be kind to me. That’s what people really want, if they’re telling the truth.” Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook

When my brother-in-law was young, his dad went through a period of frustration over a household item that was routinely misplaced. They had an old hamper for their laundry to go in and it had a removable lid. Mr. Edwards would come home from work to find that the hamper’s lid had been left lying on the floor.

This happened so often that he finally confronted his children and my brother-in-law was exposed as the culprit.

You see, the hamper made a great transporter pad so that Martin could beam down on Away missions with Kirk and the gang.

This revelation showed that what had become a point of frustration (a household item being left where it didn’t belong) and was actually a vehicle for a child’s imagination. He wasn’t limited to watching his favorite characters go on missions on TV. Through that hamper lid he could go with them.

When we interact with art through television, books, music, etc.many things can happen. We can be inspired, and we can also form connections to the world around us. My brother-in-law, Martin, was captivated by Star Trek at a young age and remains a science fiction fan. Our lives are a constant process of redefining ourselves by discovering our interests. Martin’s interest in Star Trek could account for the reason he works with electronics. When we form connections they can shape us.
This is the superpower that books have. They can take us on a journey to explore new worlds or to escape from our own.

I see now that my reading as a child was about finding a place to belong and escaping from my own reality. It wasn’t as simple as just being bored playing with my sister and wanting something else to do. Others may have thought that living in the same house from the age of one through to my college years with two parents who had stayed together represented a stability that others would be envious of but any sense of security was an illusion.

My mother was undiagnosed bipolar. Being lost in a book was a way of escaping from the pendulum swing as she went in and out of her manic phases. As a child you don’t understand that there’s something clinically wrong.

I grew up believing something must be wrong with me.

Factions of our family were always in conflict. I couldn’t make sense of why we couldn’t get along. I couldn’t keep track of who we were and weren’t allowed to talk to at any given point in time.

I remember my grandfather being at our house when I was young and then leaving and not coming back. I remember the cards he sent being returned by my parents.

Those cards had money in them. I remember wanting that money.

Too young to understand that he’d been caught burning cigarettes into my sister’s arm. Kept in the dark, but still caught up in another family conflict.

I lived with the long shadow of many secrets in my life. Although I would return to the same house at the end of the day, I never knew if it would be a day when fists would go through walls or when another prolonged conflict would begin.

Returning to that house, in that town, was its own form of imprisonment for me.

Some may say I was simply too sensitive. Others certainly had more difficult lives than I did, but what seemed normal to others was just the moments between the mayhem, the seconds when we held our breath hoping that somehow the tensions that filled our house would not lead to another revelation that turned our lives upside down.

Like finding out about an uncle I had when my mom read in the paper that her brother had died.

Like finding out that this brother had been the product of my grandmother being raped by her brother.

Like finding my mother hallucinating after an overdose one of the many times she tried to end her life.
How do you think about prom and parties and frivolous things in high school when your mom’s been in intensive care and then sent to a psychiatric hospital?

I couldn’t connect to the world around me. When people asked how you were they didn’t want to hear the truth. They didn’t really mean for you to tell them what was actually new at home. They wanted hollow platitudes so that they could feel like they’d taken an interest when they really didn’t care. I was Goldilocks, saying too much or too little and never getting the balance quite right.

Kids bullied me. I suppose they sensed the vulnerability. Who else was going to stand there and take it when a group of girls they didn’t even know decided to beat their face in? Me. No matter how many time someone hit me in my life I was more likely to run to my older sister than to ever hit them back.
The kids at the youth groups I went to didn’t understand this type of chaos. Say a prayer and everything would work out.

But things were never okay. Whatever secrets are buried have a way of coming to the surface, and my family secrets continued to wreak havoc with my life long after I packed my bags and went overseas at age 18.

Long after I moved clear across the country to escape when I was 21.

I continued to find that it was hard to form connections to the world around me. I was trying to make sense of myself and who I was while others had been able to figure out these things when they were young.

A few constant loves, for me, remained. I could lose myself in books and I could lose myself in writing.
When I went to Bouchercon I heard someone say that it was like they had finally found their tribe. Where they belonged.

I felt this way too, but the sense of true belonging was elusive. After a convention one must return home and face the reality of their life.

The reality of my life had always been that I was far too serious to be good company. I wasn’t entertaining. And many of the things that others had done, such as getting drunk at a party and trashing a house (my classmates were those kids!) was something I would never do.
My parents had a belt and they knew how to use it.

Over time, the writing became a way of reconciling myself with facets of my life and my experience.
Even when I wasn’t consciously thinking about how different events in my life had shaped me as a person, I found elements of my experiences emerging in my writing.

I was invited to write a story for an anthology called The Dame Was Trouble and took the opportunity to write about a post-op trans woman named Jordan who starts off wanting to die.

You see, one of those other family secrets that I haven’t already shared? My dad has wanted to have a sex change for decades. He spends part of his time traveling hundreds of kilometers away to live his female life between the days when he’s at home running the business with my mom.
And he still won’t admit it to the rest of the family.

2018 also marks the release of my new book, THE SPYING MOON. I approached this possible cross-border investigative series with one clear idea in mind. I was going to have different books from different characters’ perspectives.

My subconscious had other plans. For the first time I produced a book told from one character’s point of view and she became her own force of nature and continues to call to me to tell the rest of her story.

Kendall Moreau is part Native, part white. Her mother went missing on Canada’s Trail of Tears and Moreau has spent most of her life bouncing from one foster home to another.

Moreau may not have been a victim of the residential school abuses but there are aspects of her life that were similar. Like so many Indigenous people in Canada, Moreau has been stripped from her heritage and cut off from her people.

People make superficial judgments and assume that, because she has fair skin, her mother was white. Her mother was Native, and Moreau was the product of rape.

I wanted to play with people’s prejudices. I wanted to confront our assumptions about the perpetrators of violence. I wanted the story to represent how vulnerable women are to sexual and physical abuse and in Canada, no single group of individuals is more likely to be a victim of violence than Native women.

That has to end.

THE SPYING MOON is about Moreau’s isolation as much as it’s about the crimes investigated in the book. At every turn there is an obstacle that Moreau faces. Stuck in a border town with legal boundaries hampering where she can go in her investigation, she’s surrounded by chauvinistic men who don’t want to work with her. From roadwork to wildlife to the discrimination she faces, Moreau constantly finds herself hampered in her efforts to solve her cases and integrate into her workplace and the community she’s been sent to serve.

She’s on the outside, looking in and her lack of emotional connection is conveyed even in the writing style I chose to use. In the same way I sometimes feared saying something that would make my mother have a meltdown, Moreau tends to focus on her work and shares little of what she’s thinking and feeling. When she finally uses her partner’s first name it’s significant. It represents a bond that’s starting to form.

Despite our ability to communicate across thousand of miles instantaneously via social media and platforms like Skype and FaceTime, in some ways people seem more disconnected now than ever. There are more people to tell you you’re wrong on Twitter and more people to attach your opinions on chat groups.

The Washington Post recently reported that a study by Cigna concluded the loneliest people are individuals ages 18 to 22. The individuals amongst the most likely to be connected online are the most disconnected personally.

Moreau is braver than I ever could be but she shares that loneliness. She’s on a journey to find where she belongs and those she can connect with. For Moreau, that’s bigger than finding a friend or a lover. She’s trying to find out the truth about what happened to her mother while she’s struggling to understand what it means to be Native.

It never occurs to me to not have characters in my stories who are Native. I went to school with kids from what was then the Gibson Reserve and is now known as the Wahta Mohawk First Nation. One of the RCMP officers who helped me with my research was part French, part Native. I spent years living on the island adjoining Penelakut Island and had friends from the reserve there.

While other people order DNA kits to find out what their blood says about their heritage, I look to what it is that calls to me. I am deeply bothered by injustice and I see no people in Canada who have suffered more than the First Nations peoples have. I have infused Moreau with my own struggle to understand myself and my goal is for that it to amplify her cultural awakening as her story unfolds.
I’ve had only a few things published in the past six years, but what I have written has been more personal. I have made sense of my experiences through characters who reflect aspects of my life. My hope is that others will find that they connect with these characters, and that by sharing their journey they too will discover a world where they belong.