From the Prairie Bookshelf

In this latest regional news piece, Dr. Polina Anang (Prairies Region Representative on the CACAP Board of Directors) shares her views on recent literature by Indigenous authors that carries relevance to the practice of psychiatry:

McNally is one of the last independent bookstores in Winnipeg. They used to have one full bookshelf unit dedicated to Indigenous authors, now there are two, bursting at their seams. I started frequenting this section because I am an IMG (International Medical Graduate), with rudimentary knowledge of Canadian history. Now I keep coming back because I am fascinated by these incredible voices of people so deeply connected to this land, and yet disconnected from families, cultures, national pride, all the contradictions resonating with my own story.

Split Tooth by Tanya Tagaq

If you are interested in mythical contemporary narratives, where childhood horror and cruelty morph into old legends and magical creatures take over when the pain becomes unbearable, you will devour Tanya Tagaq’s Split Tooth (Penguin Canada, 2018). This story of being haunted by childhood trauma is set in a breathtakingly vast Arctic landscape, recreated with so much love and humanity, your heart will ache. It is a beautiful read for those who have been privileged to visit the Inuit Nunangat (Inuit homeland), and a vivid imaginary travel for those who have not yet been. If you get a chance to hear Tanya Tagaq’s throat singing live, take that chance, you won’t regret it. It’s the most visceral experience you can imagine, it awakens the beast in you, and scares you to your bones.

Mamaskatch by Darrel McLeod

From Nunavut, let’s move to Alberta, where Darrel McLeod grew up. Mamaskatch (Douglas & McIntyre, 2018) is a loving tribute to a family of Cree story tellers. I find it hard to put my psychiatrist hat away while reading, but I try to remind myself that I was not consulted, and no one really cares what my professional opinion would be as to why Darrel’s mom was riding naked on a horse around town. I believe this book should be read by every psychiatry resident in Canada. This unsentimental and yet heartbreaking narrative of calling Child and Family Services to initiate apprehension of your younger siblings after years and years of doing everything in your power to avoid it teaches the meaning of family bonds. The theme of family continues in McLeod’s second memoir, Peyakow (Douglas &McIntyre, 2021). I was disappointed in Peyakow in the same way I was disappointed by Obama’s Audacity of Hope after reading Dreams from my Father. Looking back at a political career is less magical than reliving the coming-of-age miracle. 

The Break by Katherena Vermette
The Strangers by Katherena Vermette

Situated firmly on prairie ground, unmistakably depicting the streets, homes, and jails of Winnipeg, are the two masterpieces by Katherena Vermette. The Break (House of Anansi Press, 2016) is the nightmare of every youth forensic psychiatrist, when you see a tragedy unfold, and you cannot leave it in your office; when it gets under your skin and follows you around. The story line is so familiar, told and retold in Emergency rooms, and in forensic assessments, only it goes much deeper, it is captivating, it sends shivers down your spine, and soothes you with beautiful language and human kindness. The second book, the Strangers (Penguin Canada, 2021) follows the perpetrator through her time in prison, falling asleep to the voice of the Elder who talks but does not listen, who arranges a name giving ceremony but misses the point by not bringing in anyone from her family. Her mind wanders back to the crowded brown house on Henderson, with her great-grandmother ruling as a matriarch of a proud Metis family. Her story splashes against waves of her mother’s story, and her grandmother’s story, and her younger sister’s story, and when you read the last sentence, you know that there will be part three. I can’t wait! The Strangers will compliment academic reading about the soul shattering damage of separating families, foster care, oppression, and racism. 

Unreconciled by Jesse Wente

Speaking of racism, Jesse Wente, Genaabaajing Anishinaabek from Serpent River First Nation, compiled a collection of his own stories, puzzled together with his maternal grandmother’s stories, and used them as poignant reflections on the national myth of Canada.  In Unreconciled (Penguin Canada 2021), Wente illustrates his musings on white supremacy as the foundational ideology of this country with the anecdotes of his own humiliating encounters with the police, as well as his existential angst of being “not Indigenous enough”. Wente highlights tokenism, explains appropriation and narrative sovereignty, all while using cinematography as a marvellous backdrop to our distorted reality. Once again, I will make it a MUST READ for University of Manitoba psychiatry residents. A better understanding of the history of Canada from the Indigenous perspective will help you become a competent psychiatrist.  If you hurry up, you can still get a copy of Unreconciled that was signed by the author at McNally.