"For years I used my poetry as a tool to help people to heal and never thought to publish it or to use it for any other purpose. As long as the words that came to me could help to open doors for others to get at their feelings and their own words that is all I cared about."
Vera Manuel, 2008
Vera Manuel, 2008
"VM: My people are very visual storytellers, and I come from that too. My father was a well known leader, and I used to see that when he'd tell stories. . . and my mother was a spiritual leader and I used to see that when she talked. And so my whole life I've been really working closely with my people, with the struggles that I see my people going through, generational grief things that people are struggling with. And I see that, when I started coming to it I see that they were silenced, you know, and there was no way to tell that story because the grief was so big, and a lot times they were so frozen, so numb, so I used to work closely, I still do work closely with people who are [...] survivors.
"So I use theater as a way to get them to be able to put words to their experience, and I ask them to develop, and start telling me, a little bit about their story. I ask them to show it to me. And so I started to get interested in that way, and I used to write it down like poetry, when somebody would tell a story, I'd get that image stuck in my head. I remember this one woman talking about how, when she was a little girl, she used to be so quick she would catch fish with her hands, and then something happened, she lost that. And so I get an image like that and I start working with it, and working with the person with that image.
"The first play that I wrote, "Song of the Circle," it was the first time I had actually written a play, and I didn't know anything about Act One or Act Two or anything about character [...], and I was asked to write this play for this youth conference, and I just started to write and all these characters came up from my experience. People that I knew of and some of my own experiences came in [...] And I saw how powerful it was for healing, for people to be able to see their experiences, and what a powerful tool it was. So I got excited about it, and that's how I started.
"I did that play for awhile, and it was shown at different places, but I felt like that wasn't enough. It seems like as I was evolving, the ideas would get bigger. The first play had to do with the place that I was, and I wanted to move further along that. And so the history of residential schools is something where there's lots of silence, and people have a really hard time talking about that history. And so I wanted to [...] a passion in my heart to write a play about residential school.
"And all of that came from stories my mom told me. Listening to her stories over the years, you know we'd go on trips and she'd just be talking and talking -- she'd be talking to keep me awake cause I was the one who was driving -- so she'd talk and talk and a lot of times she'd tell me the same story over and over, and I'd think, "doesn't she remember she told me that story back in [...]" And we'd be going along and she'd tell it to me again. And she told me so many stories, and sometimes she'd tell me really deep stories that I know was coming from someplace was inside her, that she'd been holding onto for a long time. And she'd tell me these stories and I decided I was going to write this play called "The Strength of Indian Women," and that's all I had was the title. But I was going to write this play about the strength of Indian women.
"And when I started to write, I don't think the idea of being a playwright or storyteller, that I had planned it that way, I always think about it that I was chosen to do that, because I had this gift to hear what this girl said. And so when I write "The Strength of Indian Women" a lot of those pieces, like Maria, it's a long piece, a long monologue, that's exactly what came out, and I heard the accent of the woman who was speaking, and I was writing and it was like she was talking as I was writing . . . then I'd get up to walk around and cry for awhile because that's what was happening [...] and then I'd go back to writing, and I wrote it all down, and then I never touched it again, I didn't change anything [...]
"And so that's how it is a lot of times when I'm ready to write, it comes out like that, and it's just such a sacred experience that I was really concerned about where my words are going to end up, what's going to happen to them because it was a sacred ceremony that brought them, and they are connected to ancestors, to the ancestors' stories. I always thought about it that way, and I always think that I could wake up tomorrow and quit writing. So every day I have to say thank you for it, for that gift, because when it comes out of me, it releases hundreds of years of oppression, coming off of me, and I think that that's a real gift, and that was such a big responsibility to care for the people.
"So I've been asked to do another play about residential school in Canada, that is this Aboriginal Community Foundation that's been set up, and the issue of residential school is front and center [...] and I've been asked to write another play about residential school that would take it into a bigger scope, not just women but the men's experiences, and families, and how it broke families. So that's already starting to come, and I'm really excited about that. But I don't know how long I'll be doing that. I write poetry too, I write lots of poetry, short stories sometimes. But I travel to a lot of really remote communities in the north and I work with Native people and black people, and I use this way a lot, it's a big part of what I do."
Vera Manuel, 1999
2008 quote, excerpt from Vera Manuel's poetic statement, published with a short biography and her poem, "The Catholic Church," in Rocksalt: An Anthology of BC Poets, Mother Tongue, 2008.
Two plays about residential schools by Larry Loyie & Vera Manuel, book cover image provided by Larry Loyie & Constance Brissenden of Living Traditions Writers Group, my thanks for permission to share. While the book was very successful, it is now out-of-print.
1999 excerpt, NAWPA Author's Roundtable, March 1999. "an informal discussion that took place in King Library at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio... participants included...: Rebecca Howard (RH); JudyLee Oliva (JLO); Diane Glancy (DG); Monique Mojica (MM); Shirley Huston-Findley (SHF); [Vera Manuel (VM);] Marcie Rendon (MR); Paul Jackson (PJ); LeAnne Howe (LAH); Victoria Kneubuhl (VK)." Follow NAWPA links for full discussion.