[Book*hug Press; 2024]

Tr. from French by Howard Scott

Can intergenerational trauma be healed? In Natasha Kanapé Fontaine’s first novel, translated from French by Howard Scott as Nauetakuan, a silence for a noise, a young woman sews, laughs, and dreams her way to an answer.

When we meet twenty-seven-year-old Monica, she has been living in Tio’tia:ke/Montreal for eight years, but hasn’t formed any lasting friendships. She claims to be an art history student, although the “bland” academic mode of criticism doesn’t speak to her. Nothing in her urban environment inspires her; her senses are dulled by the meaningless drone of satellite static, cars, the fridge. Her cat’s name is Kitty.

But a “sad girl novelNauetakuan is not. Monica’s emotions are dulled, and she is profoundly unhappy, to be sure, but, unlike the narrators in recent works of fiction by Ottessa Moshfegh, Sally Rooney, or Naoise Dolan, who adopt a glassily ambivalent, insouciant voice in response to the late capitalist condition, Kanapé Fontaine writes Monica’s plight with earnest lyricism and distress. “Who knows her?” the close third-person narrator wonders, as Monica ambles along, silent and alone in a crowd, “What would she have to say in the ambient noise, the fleeting conversations, the self-conscious laughter?”

Instead, we might see Nauetakuan as part of a contemporary literary trend of representing Indigenous Canadian subjects who throw up emotional shields against the ongoing violences of colonialism. Take, for example, Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg scholar and writer Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s Noopiming: The Cure for White Ladies. In that 2020 novel, a young person named Mashkawaji is frozen under a layer of ice, numbed to all feelings (Mashkawaji, in Ojibwe, means “frozen”). Like Monica, Mashkawaji experiences this alienation as a twisted type of freedom. In such purposeful isolation, both Mashkawaji and Monica sever themselves from the pains of their own childhoods, as well as the collective traumas they have had to carry as Indigenous people.

Things begin to change for our lonesome heroine when she attends an exhibition of the Anishinaabe artist Rebecca Belmore at the Musée d’art contemporain. The exhibition, a reference to Belmore’s 2019 retrospective “Facing the Monumental” show, is one of many extratextual references that tie the novel to a real-life ecology of Indigenous creators. There, in front of Belmore’s piece “Fringe” (the same piece, coincidentally, that features on the cover of Noopiming), Monica feels something stir in her chest. An “invisible shadow” wraps around her as she walks through the exhibit, as the injustices invoked by Belmore’s work hit her again and again. In the small projection room where Belmore’s “Vigil” is playing, Monica weeps. Art—Indigenous art—has broken through her shell. And it’s at the exhibit, too, where she meets Katherine, a spunky Innu-Anishinaabe woman who takes wide-eyed Monica under her wing. “It seems like you don’t know much, eh!” Katherine says to Monica, sizing her up, “I mean, it seems you don’t know Innuat or other Indigenous people in the city.” Katherine invites Monica into spaces where Indigenous communities thrive. She makes Monica laugh, move her body, dance. Through this friendship, Monica begins a process of creative awakening, re-learning her people’s traditional crafts like beading and sewing, and takes up reading novels for pleasure. More and more, Monica has flashbacks to her childhood, when her grandmother, Émilie, would speak to her in Innu-aiman, and would guide her hands as they practiced adorning white moccasin leather with a pink bead on a thread.

And so Monica begins a period of self-expansion. Under the guise of research for her university’s newspaper–which Kanapé Fontaine playfully calls Sans détours, Monica ventures off to conferences on Indigenous art and literature in western Canada and Tenochtitlan/Mexico City. In these places, Monica feels welcomed and warmed by Indigenous faces that seem familiar to her, causing her to pick up on affinities among Indigenous people across the borders of nation-states. Standing in the main zócalo in Mexico City, surrounded by hurried passersby, Monica feels something shift in her vision, the images around her vibrating strangely. Time slips, reality becomes malleable. She is able to visualize the Indigenous past in the capital’s central plaza:

The square is full of those ancient memories, passing lives that have left remnants of their lineage, of their feelings, like a lingering aroma. Monica can see them all. There were joys, loves, flowers, and also sadness and despair. She takes it all in, from across the centuries. The gazes of the Elders. The women, the children. Their presence is strong. Unwavering.

Monica’s vision is sensory and emotional, conjuring a community bound by intergenerational regard, not by a fixed sense of national identity. “I am at home everywhere in the Americas,” a poetic interlude in the novel reads. By tying Indigenous people together across space and time, Kanapé Fontaine lays out a more expansive way of defining community beyond the parameters of the nation-state.

Then Monica hears the whoosh of a bird’s feathers in her ears. The sound of footsteps follow her, signs that the “invisible world” is materializing, trying to communicate something important to her. After attending a peyotl ceremony in Tenochtitlan, Monica finally heeds the “inner call” to return to her hometown of Pessamit, in eastern Canada, where she lived with her grandmother Émilie, until her mother moved them away from the town, separating Monica from her extended family.

When Monica returns to Pessamit, she stays with Aunt Marie-Anne, her cousin Laurie, and Laurie’s sweet children. In Marie-Anne’s home, the women cook eggs and brew coffee. They stay up late talking around a barrel-campfire, blanketed by the Milky Way. They laugh, and laugh. In Nauetakuan, Indigenous characters’ laughter disrupts the serious, restrained norms of literary fiction. Monica often doesn’t say things—she laughs them. And when she is with her relatives, this laughter is not the self-conscious tittering of the Montreal art gallery, but superabundant, explosive, and contagious—exactly what Monica has been missing. When one of Laurie’s kids runs into Monica’s arms for a hug, Monica wants to “keep that soft warmth against her, savour the moment, and especially the feeling of finally belonging to a family.”

Monica’s mother Claire had told her, several times during Monica’s childhood, that she regretted having her. Claire would yell at Monica incessantly, criticize her for everything she did, down to the way she cut her toast. Monica secretly nicknamed her mother Fog: “Claire was impossible to see through . . . so hard on herself and others but at the same time so hard to pin down.” For much of her life, Monica felt anger at “not being loved” as she wanted and needed to be. But, as she learns more about the history and present of Indigenous peoples in Canada, she comes to attribute her mother’s indecipherable, hard-hearted behavior to intergenerational trauma caused by the residential school system that her grandmother Émilie was forced to attend.

From the 1880s to the late 1990s, residential schools in Canada separated approximately 150,000 Indigenous children from their families and home communities. At the schools, children were banned from speaking in Indigenous languages or engaging in Indigenous cultural practices, and regularly suffered physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. Due to disease stemming from malnutrition, overcrowding, and poor sanitation, many children died at the schools, although their families were often told that they had run away or disappeared. The residential school system was built on violence, did not teach love. “Claire never knew how to be a mother,” Monica thinks, “because Émilie didn’t know how to be one either. And it wasn’t her fault. The residential schools broke all three of us, one generation after another.” Striving to heal from the open scars left on her family by residential schools, Monica sews herself back into a cultural Innu fabric. Her efforts are directed at the arts, language acquisition, and strengthening relationships with other women. She reconnects with her grandmother across “space-time,” sewing strands of color into leather, and tries to learn more about her kukum. “To understand my mother,” she thinks, “I have to understand my grandmother.” But when she asks her aunt to tell her more about Émilie’s experience of the residential school, Marie-Anne looks away. “I can’t talk about it, okay?” Monica will not receive clear answers to all of her questions. “There’s no need to explain everything,” an Elder Innu man in Pessamit tells Monica.

Instead, answers and guidance often come in the form of images—a pair of lungs fly into the air, trailing red veins beneath them, a She-Bear appears in Monica’s dreams, black feathers float suggestively in her path. The writing in Nauetakuan is strikingly visual, at times even ekphrastic. A whopping six and a half pages are devoted to descriptions of Rebecca Belmore’s work, inviting the reader to pull up the images themselves. Kanapé Fontaine regularly references works of Indigenous visual and performance art, music, and poetry—there is the Innu Nikamu Festival, the Blackfoot slammer Zaccheus Jackson, the Innu musician Eric Vollant. As I read through Nauetakuan, the tabs bloomed on my search bar—a delightful series of rabbit holes.

In the face of the ongoing erasure of Indigenous languages and cultures in Canada, Kanapé Fontaine raises up Indigenous creators. Nauetakuan does not shy away from the pain left by the residential school system, but neither does it reduce the experiences of Indigenous peoples to a singular narrative of suffering. Monica’s path towards healing is filled with struggle, but also overflows with loving female relationships, art, and boisterous laughter. “Wait,” Monica says one day to her friend Katherine as the two joke with each other on the beach, “I need to . . . laugh some more!” This is perhaps the most notable difference between Nauetakuan and the “sad girl novel”: in the end, Kanapé Fontaine doesn’t leave her protagonist coasting, swaddled by the armor of flip disaffection. Instead, Monica works to repair and nourish her relationships with her family and culture. Through being with others, she moves towards healing.

Anna Learn is a PhD student at the University of Washington, where she studies Persian, South Asian, and Hispanic literature.

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