David Jón Fuller joins me from Manitoba, for another Tesseracts 17 interview.
CA: “Sin A Squay” is a tale of overcoming monsters. We have heard the horror of residential schools and new nightmares seem to be unearthed every day. What drew you to putting this element into your story?
It’s a national horror that was made worse by decades of denial despite more and more residential school survivors coming forward. Despite some indications that people allowed or even wanted their children to attend the schools in the early part of their existence, they just became an institution of systemic abuse and earned their appellation of an instrument of genocide. I wanted to explore this in a context of what that does to people over time – how even escaping them can have a cost, and that the oppression that was perpetrated against the children in the schools – treating them as less than human, and the endemic abuse that comes to light more and more – can leave a lasting mark. But I also wanted to explore how those horrors could be confronted and overcome.
I had doubts whether this was a subject I should even write about, no matter how much research I did – I worried that it wasn’t something that, as a white person, I had a right to write about. But I felt without trying to address it in some way through my fiction, I would just be ignoring it, and adding to the silence, in a sense. Whereas I think anyone who learns about what the residential schools system did to so many First Nations people for so long would be within their rights to condemn it as horrific.
CA: Have you seen or experienced aspects of residential schools or your own childhood traumas that you used to draw on for this story?
No – nothing on the scale of something like this. Tough times for me as a kid meant dealing with the occasional bully or being the “new kid” at school. Definitely not a systemic oppression, or even life-scarring single event. And like the majority of white people in Canada, I grew up privileged to live with many doors open to me as a default. I relied a lot on research to create the characters and the background for this story.
CA: You have two different monsters in your tale; the beasts that prowl the mythic landscape and residential schools. Why did you feel this story worked better with the mythic or horrific element?
Partly because I think the fear of certain monsters says something about the culture in which they are feared. Some monsters have embodied fears of our animalistic natures, and of the “wilderness” – and I think that speaks to a Western European (particularly continental) fear of predators. Hand-in-hand with that went the European colonialist attitude that white people were “civilized” and everyone else was to some degree “savage” (read: wild). I wanted to turn that around a bit, and look at how that attitude itself – of seeing certain people as “less than human,” which is certainly what the residential schools embodied: the view that “Indians” were lesser people, savage, or inferior – was monstrous.
I do tend to think that in mainstream pop culture these days, certain monsters are “othered.” Vampires are currently glorified – embodying, I think, our fear of old age, since the “eternal youth” trope seems played up nowadays as opposed to the “foreign devil will seduce our women” theme that ran through Dracula. Werewolves, on the other hand, are frequently the lackeys and/or cannon fodder if they appear alongside other creatures in a given show, or they are stuck in an endless retread of savage/animalistic/bestial archetypes. This isn’t as true in a lot of urban fantasy fiction, but it seems to be the gear they’re stuck in in movies and TV. And I hate that!
Also, considering the way the characters’ relationships change in the story, I wanted to explore whether what one culture sees as “monstrous” or less than human, might actually be a source of empowerment, and how an oppressor’s sense of invulnerability might actually become a weakness.
Those things being said — no matter how terrifying I might make the mythic monsters, for me, the more I learned about the residential schools the more stunned I was that this had gone on for so long. Much of what I put in the story pales in comparison to what actually went on in many of the schools.
CA: Often survival comes at great cost. Do you feel your main character has only survived through her years of escape, or is it just that life can bring ghosts back to haunt you even if you have triumphed in the past?
I think Marion gained a lot in her initial escape from the residential school, but while her body got free, a part of her was still trapped there, and in the abuse she experienced there. She was not able to bring who she became as an adult to bear on those old fears, and fully put them to rest, without confronting someone or something from her days there. The opportunity to face down one’s oppressor, and have that oppression acknowledged as such, is something that has been denied to generations of residential school survivors. Canadians are still denying a lot of what went on, despite mounting evidence, and that kind of brushing it under the carpet just perpetuates the injustice of it, in my opinion. I thought that perhaps by putting Marion in a situation where she was forced to face those old horrors, she might be able to hold them back, or even triumph over them.
CA: What other pieces are you working on right now and what are you exploring within those tales?
Mostly working outside my comfort zone and doing a ton of research. I’m trying to work on not just including non-white, non-male perspectives in my fiction, but on making them central.
After submitting “Sin A Squay” to Tesseracts, I started working on other stories in the same world. One of them, “No More Good Indian,” is about Marion’s escape from the residential school, and it placed second in the Robyn Herrington Memorial Speculative Fiction Short Story Contest. I worked backwards from there to write a story about Marion’s grandfather, and how his experience of shell-shock as a First World War veteran had disturbing parallels with the post-traumatic stress his children experienced after residential school – and on how this could be if not healed, at least helped, through familial bonds, tradition and shared experience. That story, “A Deeper Echo,” was accepted into the anthology Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History, due out next year.
I’ve also been delving into human evolution, megafauna mass extinctions and prehistoric Canada – it’s fascinating to see how much our knowledge has grown over recent decades, and how this is changing the way we look at the past.
When I’m finished writing a few other short stories before the end of the year, I’m going to take a hard look at a novel manuscript I was letting lie “fallow” and then apply what I’ve learned this year to tune it up and start submitting it.
David Jón Fuller was born and raised in Winnipeg, Manitoba, where he now lives, and has also lived in Edmonton, Alberta. He earned an honors degree in theater at the University of Winnipeg and studied Icelandic language and literature for two years at the University of Iceland in Reykjavík.
His short fiction has been published in Tesseracts 17, In Places Between, The Harrow and in the upcoming Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction From the Margins of History. His short story “No More Good Indian” took second place in the 2013 Robyn Herrington Memorial Speculative Fiction Short Story Contest. He currently works as a copy editor for the Winnipeg Free Press, and as time allows he blogs at www.davidjonfuller.com.