Sarah de Leeuw from British Columbia uses poetry to examine language colonization in the islands of Haida Gwaii


The next chapter16:44Sarah from Leeuw sur Lot

Sarah de Leeuw talks to Shelagh Rogers about her poetry book, Lot.

Sarah de Leeuw’s last collection of poetry Plot takes readers to Haida Gwaii, where she grew up. The poems investigate the history, language and violence of colonization and how it shaped the land. Some of the poems contain lists, and they swell, sway and seduce with their rhythm as the poems reimagine archives and historical documents.

In Plot, de Leeuw reflects on her early childhood and the racial complexities of colonial violence. The collection of poetry draws a line between past and present violence and uses lyrical traditions to interrogate the role of language in centering stories of white supremacy on the islands of Haida Gwaii in British Columbia.

The BC poet is also a geographer and writer who mixes social criticism with literary non-fiction. His book where it hurts, a collection of personal essays, was a finalist for the 2017 Governor General’s Literary Award in the non-fiction category. She also won the CBC Creative Nonfiction Prize in 2008 and was a finalist in 2009.

She spoke with Shelagh Rogers of The Next Chapter about writing Plot.

A new point of view

“Growing up on what I understood and called the Queen Charlotte Islands, I knew nothing of Queen Charlotte. Years later, in Prince George, I was doing a poetry reading with a rather amazing scholar, critic cultural and poet himself, CS Giscombe, and he asked me what I knew of Queen Charlotte.

“I said, ‘Nothing, I kind of imagined she was some wretched British monarch bent on colonial acquisition.’ And Cecil said to me, ‘there’s a lot of talk about Queen Charlotte being the first black monarch.’ simple and incredibly violent acquisition-based.

It reminded me, as someone of Dutch Irish descent, that coloniality is a complex, intersectional, multi-layered and incredibly messy process.

“It reminded me, as someone of Dutch Irish descent, that coloniality is a complex, intersectional, multi-layered and incredibly messy process. It is often imagined, re-imagined and taken up again – and backtracked and then violently advanced.

“None of this diminishes colonial violence, but it does remind us that we really need to unpack the language through which colonial violence is viewed, and poetry can be a way to do that.

“So certainly in Plot – which is of course a derivation from Lottie herself, a sort of reference to Charlotte – I tried to do this in part by bringing together these conflicting historical documents, re-imagining them, and then weaving my own voice and experience of growing up with the privilege of never thinking about colonial violence.”

Haida Gwaii is made up of more than 150 islands about 90 kilometers west of the north coast of British Columbia. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

The power of names

“Naming is always violence, especially in colonial contexts. I am not suggesting here that the Haida names for land and place and house and salmon are violence, but the erasure of these names, the systematic overlaying of English onto so many other languages, is a step imperial.

“If we don’t understand as people for whom English is the first language, that’s not neutrality. English and the process of writing, archiving, collecting and naming are integral of colonial violence. Every time I pick up my pen and my writing, I’m actually using the same tools that my Dutch ancestors used to colonize Indonesia, to send ships around the world.

I am not saying here that the Haida names for land and place and house and salmon are violence, but the erasure of these names, the systematic superposition of English over so many other languages, is a decision imperial.

“We have to remember, and I say we very deliberately here as those of us of white Euro-colonial descent – ​​who in some ways have other homelands to reference. This is a defining way of understanding indigenity , as opposed to settler coloniality.

“Those of us who are of Dutch-Irish descent can trace our kinship and lineage to somewhere other than where we currently reside; our language, English, is a permanent tool of coloniality.

“It’s complicated and it’s messy, which is precisely why the poetry, the list and the lyrics, I think, get there.”

An octopus house, the mound of rocks in the middle, is shown here in an intertidal pool at the village of T’aanuu Llnagaay on Haida Gwaii, British Columbia. The houses are circular, domed structures that are usually around one meter in diameter, and -meter high. (Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve)

A lot to expect

“I wanted to foresee a future, to understand my current self as being vitally informed by these geographies and landscapes of my early childhood growing up on Haida Gwaii. The fate of my future is all the messy definitions encompassed in the word.

“It’s sometimes bad ground. Sometimes it’s plots of land. But it’s always a forecast of what I didn’t know growing up in Haida Gwaii and the Queen Charlotte Islands.

One of the things that was important to me in the book was to foresee a future and to understand my current self as being vitally informed by these geographies and landscapes of my early childhood in Haida Gwaii.

“It’s this lot of my future. This lot of places where I could be taken to places that I didn’t understand when I was growing up in Queen Charlottes, Haida Gwaii. And in that way, the lot of my future is hopeful and beyond imagination.

“These are things that in some ways are beyond imagination. These are global pandemics. These are Black Lives Matter. These are #MeToo movements. These are divorce, loss, death and transformation, and they are also poetry… and potential.

“They are everything I didn’t see growing up in Haida Gwaii, on what I understood to be the Queen Charlotte Islands.”

Sarah de Leeuw’s comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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