“This is a nice way to meet the audience!” trills our host, Ryan Van Winkle, as he passes out little red books to a roomful of expectant listeners. Inside, excerpts of ten writers’ work. Five are Scottish, and five are from the Americas. The Outriders project, of which this book is just a small part, saw these writers paired together not only to share stories, but to travel together in different corners of the New World, which of course is the Old World too, though this is often forgotten.
Harry Giles, an Orcadian poet and performer, joined up with Métis poet, novelist, and documentary film-maker Katherena Vermette in Toronto, Canada, and together they journeyed west by train to Winnipeg and then by plane north to Churchill, where it was minus twenty degrees in May. For Giles, who was tracing the settler colonization of this land by Orkney residents, the signs were everywhere. They came to Canada to work for the Hudson’s Bay Company as fur trappers, and left their mark on the landscape – in Manitoba, Orkney names populate streets, districts, statues, graveyards. It is a legacy that is often celebrated in terms of adventure and discovery and the ‘making of Canada.’ Vermette picks up on this in the talk when she quips, tongue-in-cheek, “all of us indigenous people didn’t exist until the Scottish, thank you.”
These are the kind of conversations that Giles and Vermette had on that long 36 hour train ride west – talking about the connections between not only the countries of Scotland and Canada, but the particular connections between their ancestors, the Orcadians and the Métis (indigenous Canadians who are descended from First Nations people and European immigrants). And as they each read from the poems that they wrote as a response to their travels and their conversations, you can hear those reflections in their words.
Katherena reads from her poem Métisage, (Métis-ness), and in it settler colonization becomes not a thing of the past, but an urgent present. ‘It is not history, it is still happening’. The now-gone fur trade has moved on to tar sand extraction, and First People are still suffering. Harry’s reading comes from Traveller’s Lexicon, a long poem which is as much a product of travelling as a meditation on it, and yet still we hear the echoes of their conversations. Each letter of the alphabet its own miniature poem; ‘Discover: to cover’, he reads.
It’s political and important, and the arts sphere is one where the narrative of histories can best be challenged. I look forward to reading more from Giles and Vermette – their work will soon be published together.
For more on the Edinburgh International Book Festival and it’s programme click here.