4/4: Rita Wong is Downstream

Every day this summer I biked down to one of Vancouver’s local beaches and swam. After my swim I drank cool, clean water from the metal flask that I filled from the tap in my kitchen. When I came home from my swim I took a quick shower to rinse the salt off. I have travelled enough to recognize how miraculous these simple activities are. Vancouver poet Rita Wong goes further in this recognition by actively engaging with communities that protect our water sources. Rita’s community work and her poetics are strongly intertwined and her creativity and energy are fine reminders of the possibilities of poetry as the “Summer of Women” draws to a close.

KM: The environment and its care is a core part of your creative and academic work. Recently your focus has been on water with Downstream: A Poetics of Water.  Which communities support you in these endeavors? Who or what gives you hope?

RW: When you start to follow water’s inevitable movement and process of perpetual transformation, you realize that the environment is not just “out there,” but “in here”—air and water circulate, binding us together whether we know it or not. In our interdependency, if we better understood it, may be seeds for hope.

It’s been said that the wars of the future will be fought over water (and that current wars are already being fought over water), but love for the water commons could also be a path to peace. Many Indigenous communities have long understood this, as seen in grassroots groups like the Keepers of the Water who are trying to protect the Arctic Ocean watershed, the Mother Earth Water Walkers who have walked the entire perimeter of the Great Lakes, the 2012 Peace and Dignity Journey  with runners from Alaska and Argentina meeting in Panama for the sake of water. They give me hope because they are dedicated, humble, and focused on what matters. They remind us of how important it is to do things in a good way, where intellectual, physical, emotional and spiritual aspects work together. I’ve been fortunate to be inspired by and to work with women like Dorothy Christian, who organized with Denise Nadeau a forum called Protect Our Sacred Waters. My current work is a response to that forum’s call to pay attention.

In March we organized a workshop focused on intercultural, interdisciplinary and creative work with water. One evening, Lee Maracle and Michael Blackstock read, and Jeff Bear screened an episode of his series, Samaqan: Water Stories . I am heartened by the wide range of work being done, too much to list here, but as someone born in Alberta, I do want to acknowledge Melina Laboucan Massimo, a woman from the Lubicon Cree Nation who has been working tirelessly to protect waters up in northern Alberta, and whose community experienced a devastating oil spill that continues to poison their waters and lands. I met her at the Healing Walk for the tar sands . She, and the many youths, adults, and elders trying to protect what’s left of their homelands, are an immense inspiration. As someone born in Calgary, I know that I have benefitted from the oil industry, while others have unfairly suffered from it; I feel that I have a responsibility to learn about the devastating price that has been paid, and to find ways to give back and to build better relationships than what colonization would consign us to. It means not being fearful, treading carefully, educating myself, listening, learning from my mistakes, and fostering both quiet courage and ethics. Alberta is still home to me, and I care about it. I know there are many smart, hard-working people within the oil industry, and I feel like it’s a waste to direct their talents toward massive fossil fuel extraction at a time when we urgently need to be making a big shift to renewable energies for future generations.

Vancouver is also home to me, and I’ve also been gifted to have some wonderful neighbours and friends who are working on daylighting some of the hidden creeks (over 50 salmon streams that have been culverted and paved over) or at the very least reminding urban people of our local natural history as a way to guide us toward what kinds of futures we might imagine and build. This summer we painted Vancouver’s first street mural on the pavement, honouring the creek that flows underneath, now a sewer. Starting with the local, the specific, gives one an anchor from which to think of the planet as home (which it is, if we consider that every second breath we take was produced by plankton in the ocean). In doing small projects with creativity and joy, may we encourage a larger network of such activities.

People who live on the west coast are very conscious that one oil spill could devastate our communities; up north, folks in Alaska continue to deal with the problems caused by the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989, as Riki Ott has compellingly written about in her book, Not One Drop. If we educate ourselves more about how we are related in terms of watersheds (of which Canada has five, draining to the Pacific, Arctic, Hudson’s Bay, Atlantic, and Gulf of Mexico), not just provinces, we better understand that we share flows of water and a hold common need for the healthy ecosystems (living rivers, diverse forests) that have made our quality of life possible. People who respect and are willing to learn from the land and water give me hope. People who care about and want to protect the well-being of future generations give me hope.

KM: Your book forage addressed the environmental and human cost of both the manufacturing and recycling of electronics. I am thinking of your poem “sort by day, burn by night” and the impact of recycling on Guiyu village in China. There are so many overlapping concerns with this issue that it is difficult to know where or how to focus one’s attention. As a poet do you find that writing is a way to inform both yourself and others?

RW: Yes. Writing is very much a learning process, involving lots of reading, listening, field trips, experiments, risks, contemplating, and going out of one’s comfort zone. This might sound tough, but the alternative is worse—as Gabor Mate points out in When the Body Says No, it can be more stressful to avoid difficult questions than to face them because avoidance assumes you are not strong enough to handle reality. Of course, one has to decide which questions one feels ready to face, and when. But in terms of where to focus one’s attention, I start with the everyday, what’s around me, the ground on which I stand and walk. I’m implicated by the computer I type this on, and it is hard, unresolved, painful to think about what was involved in both the manufacturing of the computer (mining, pollution, labour exploitation, etc) as well as the eventual disposal of it (often shipped to places like China and Africa for toxic dismantling that hurts people). But knowing this means I can consider alternatives, like Free Geek, who repurpose old computers, and nothing is likely to change for the better unless people face these painful realities. I come at it in fragments, as I can. There is always more. We have to start somewhere.

KM: You are a teacher. Do you bring your environmental projects into the classroom or do you take the classroom out of its usual structure (and location) to engage with some of your ideas and concerns?

RW: I tend to stay in the classroom much of the time, but sometime take my classes out for field trips. For instance, in a Humanities course focused on water, we visited the Seymour watershed and contemplated where our drinking water comes from. It was a great experience, and I would love to do more of that. We’ve also gone for walks around Granville Island, and I encourage students to walk, observe, and write in response to places that interest them on their own. I’m grateful to the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, which supported and encouraged me in the development of the water course.

What people imagine to be “nature” is not just out there in the forest, but in the city itself, from the horsetails that sprout up through concrete cracks to the rain that falls so persistently upon us to our own bodies, even if we may be alienated from natural cycles like the tides, the moon, the seasons. Just because we often don’t pay enough attention to the larger environment that sustains us doesn’t mean we’re not part of it.

As Sandra Steingraber phrases it in her book, Raising Elijah, “In fact, the environmental crisis is actually two crises, although they share a common cause. You could view it as a tree with two main branches. One branch represents what is happening to our planet through the atmospheric accumulation of heat-trapping gases[…], and the other branch represents what is happening to us through the accumulation of inherently toxic chemical pollutants in our bodies. Follow the first branch along and you find droughts, floods, acidifying oceans, dissolving coral reefs, and faltering plankton stocks… Follow the second branch along and you find pesticides in children’s urine, lungs stunted by air pollutants, abbreviated pregnancies, altered hormone levels, and lower scores on cognitive tests. The trunk of this tree is an economic dependency on fossil fuels, primarily coal (plant fossils) and petroleum and natural gas (animal fossils).” It’s important to go both inside and outside to address the environment, to see its relevance to our daily lives—not just in terms of illness and threats, which are very real, but also in terms of the ongoing sustenance of our lives, each breath we take being a small gift from the planet that enables us to continue learning, talking, problem-solving, dreaming, organizing, working, playing… Whatever the outcome may be, the journey is what we make of it through our willingness to learn and work together, challenging as that may be. We can face the challenges together with curiosity and dedication, figuring out what each of our roles are, depending on our talents and joys; as Rebecca Solnit suggests in A Paradise Built in Hell, in times of crisis, people can rise to the occasion, and often have, historically.

KM: This summer there has been much talk about critical communities and women writers. How would you describe your own critical community and what role do you play within that community?

RW: I’ll interpret “critical” not only in terms of literary criticism or reviews, but in terms of communities with social and cultural critiques that urgently need to be heard and understood by more people.

One of the reasons I moved to Vancouver years ago (apart from coming here to study) was because I wanted to connect with the Asian Canadian Writers Workshop, and it’s been very important for me to learn about and understand my community’s history in this country, as a woman of Chinese descent. At the same time, anti-racism is not enough—given the history of the original peoples of this land, decolonization is imperative. I’ve been glad to see more relationship building and learning happening; this fall, for instance, there’ll be a collaboration between the Asian Canadian Writers Workshop and the Aboriginal Writers Collective West Coast. Also, I was honoured to write an introduction for the anthology, Salish Seas, published by the Aboriginal Writers Collective West Coast (wonderful folks like Joanne Arnott, Michelle Sylliboy, Russell Wallace, and more).

It has been said that South Africa adopted its apartheid system based on the reserve system in Canada, and this historical inheritance may factor into an often unconscious, normalized literary apartheid that continues today in a number of spaces, unless it is consciously resisted. We live in a contact zone, and I’m particularly grateful to writers who remember and understand the Indigenous history of the land and watersheds in which we live, and who share their knowledge, like Lee Maracle, who I first met at a workshop in Calgary in the mid-1990s. I want to respect the communities who have been here for millennia, not to erase them or ignore them or shy away from the hard history, because we need the strength that honesty gives us in order to build a fuller future, a more grounded culture than what imperial delirium would reduce us to. This is the first critical community that needs attending to: the Indigenous peoples whose homelands we live on. This is not only an ethical matter, but a practical one—if we care about respecting history, land and justice, we need to be working with these communities more closely, and we can’t do so effectively unless we do our homework to decolonize ourselves, probably a lifelong process—several generations long, actually.

As someone whose first book was published by Press Gang, obviously women writers and the feminist movement have been crucial to me; I am fortunate to have taken workshops with writers like SKY Lee, jam. ismail, Dionne Brand, Olga Broumas, Lydia Kwa… I’ve also learned a lot from poets like Fred Wah and Roy Miki. Recently, I’ve felt grateful for the work CWILA is doing, that you’re referring to (and maybe you’re thinking of the discussions coordinated by Meredith Quartermain as well?), and I have responded to this at http://cwila.com/wordpress/an-interview-with-rita-wong/

I’ve been very lucky to have a supportive writing community in my life, including Larissa Lai, Hiromi Goto, Walter Lew , and many more than I can name here. Lately, I’ve been happy to participate in collaborative projects like the enpipeline initiated by Christine Leclerc, Rebuild by Sachiko Murakami, a poem “In Memory of Jack Layton” coordinated by Sonnet L’Abbe, and more. I’m excited to see work by the Press Release collective; reading their work and listening to their concerns keeps me honest, as does specific work by Cecily Nicholson, Proma Tagore, Mercedes Eng, Cynthia Oka, Hari Alluri …. I’m grateful for the community facilitated by Rhizome Café in Vancouver, which is a very writer-friendly space that feeds and sustains social justice in so many ways. As you might expect, the work of ALECC (Association for Literature, Environment, and Culture in Canada) is important to me. So is the work around the commons that folks like Harjap Grewal, Fiona Jeffries, Maryann Dobbs and more are doing. When I think of critical communities, lots of powerful gatherings have happened this past year: No One Is Illegal comes to mind, including a great solidarity event they organized for the Unis’tot’en Action Camp, and so does the Mining Injustice conference organized by the Council of Canadians. The Kootenay School of Writing has also been an influence, and the work of poets at SFU (ie. Steve Collis on the Occupy movement, Jeff Derksen’s work on globalization, Clint Burnham and Lorna Brown’s Digital Natives, etc.) Not sure how to describe my role in all of this activity (and more, serving on the editorial review boards of journals such as West Coast Line , for instance, and a new journal called Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education and Society), but a couple of lines from one of Chrystos’s poems (“Shame On”) comes to mind: “Walk quietly, do what needs to be done./Give thanks for your life; respect all beings.”

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