Author, Shane L. Koyczan | Cree Translation, Solomon Ratt
Inconvenient Skin is a collection of poetry written in English and translated into Cree. The poems aim to unpack the challenges of the dark side of Canada’s history and to clean the wounds so the nation can finally heal. Powerful and thought-provoking, this collection will draw you in and make you reconsider Canada’s colonial history. The cover features the art of Kent Monkman, and the interior features work by Joseph Sanchez and Jim Logan, and photographs by Nadya Kwandibens.
SAY Magazine celebrates those who continue to keep our stories and languages alive through various mediums, particularly through literature. Earlier this year, Inconvenient Skin won a CODE Burt Award for First Nations, Inuit and Métis Young Adult Literature in the Indigenous Languages Category. In honour of their contributions and great work, we are pleased to share just a snippet of our interview with both the author, Shane Koyczan, and the translator, Solomon Ratt.
Shane Koyczan is a writer, poet and spoken word artist. He has performed around the globe at universities, and at music and literary festivals. His writing and performances are vital, witty and sincere; he reaches the hearts of his audiences with his powerful verses and has brought the Canadian spoken word movement to the international stage. Koyczan was born in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, and grew up in Penticton, British Columbia, where he currently lives and works. He has published several books, including Visiting Hours, Stickboy, Our Deathbeds will be Thirsty, To This Day: For the Bullied and Beautiful, A Bruise On Light and Visiting Hours.
SAY: When did you start writing and how did that transition into a career?
Koyczan: I started fairly early on. When I was young I didn’t have a lot of friends or people to talk to—growing up socially
ostracized makes that really difficult. You don’t develop the same sort of social utilities that everyone else tends to learn in school. I remember coming home from school one day and being really upset, and my grandmother asked me, “Why are you
so upset?” I told her, “I don’t have anyone to talk to.” I remember feeling very alone. So she went and grabbed a notebook, and said, “Will you talk to this? You can tell it anything, and it’s never going to judge you based on what you look like or what clothes you wear, or any of those things.” That’s what got me started with writing. It has become a form of therapy. When you can start to nail pieces of yourself to the page, I think that it helps you reflect on a lot of things—that’s what writing has done for me. As I got older, I started to change some of that writing into structures, be it short stories or poetry, and I have been lucky to be able to make a career out of it.
SAY: What inspired you to write Inconvenient Skin?
Koyczan: A great number of things. I was at an art show at the Penticton Art Gallery, where my friend Paul Crawford is the curator, and he was putting on a show about residential schools. As I went through the show, I found it very affecting. It was also something in my past that I hadn’t really addressed, given my relationship with my dad and what he went through. Besides that, I grew up in the Catholic school system, and it was something that was never taught or talked about. When we did learn Indigenous history, it was slanted and very one-sided, so I wanted to put something out that addressed a lot of what I missed in school.
SAY: Congratulations on winning the CODE Burt Award for the Indigenous Language Category. What does this mean to you?
Koyczan: Thank you. The main driving force behind the book, and why it was published, is a man named Greg Younging. Greg was the force behind Theytus, which is the longest-running Indigenous publishing house in Canada. Being recognized for this book is significant because for the longest time I felt like I shouldn’t be taking up space in this conversation—that there are voices and experiences more important than my own. Greg was the person that turned me around on that and told me why my experience was so important. A lot of the thanks and praise should go to Greg Younging, who unfortunately passed away just days before the book was released. I am sorry he didn’t get to see and appreciate the fruits of his labour. I owe a lot to him and a deep debt of gratitude.
SAY: What advice do you have for youth who are inspired by your work and want to start writing?
Koyzan: Keep everything you write! Some of it is going to be embarrassing and angsty, but it’s a great marker to chart your growth. A lot of the times when you are writing, you don’t necessarily think you are growing or stretching yourself, but it turns out you are. I look back at the stuff I wrote when I was a kid, and obviously there are miles and miles of improvement. The other thing is to write everyday. You don’t have to write a novel, but just get in the habit of writing. That’s why journaling was so important to me— it created that arena where I could write a stream of consciousness, or a poem, or just journal. Your writing becomes such a valuable resource to look back on—to see who you were versus who you have become, because you do change in life. You go through things and your mind changes about all kinds of things as new information comes in.
SAY: What do you love most about what you do?
Koyczan: So much! It’s medicine for me. I use writing and performing to fight depression. One of the things I really love to do is live shows—touring and performing—which, unfortunately, has been rather critically curtailed at the moment given the pandemic. So I haven’t really worked in two years. Usually, when I get down in the dumps, I find a project and throw myself into it. It’s hard to find that motivation when all of a sudden you’ve been cut off from a very significant portion of what it is that you do.
Another aspect that I love about what I do has to do with connection. Whenyou grow up the way I do, you tend to internalize a lot, and there’s no real release for that until you can find others who are able to nod their heads and understand you in a way that is very personal. Until I started writing, there was just that sort of empty vacuum of “there’s nobody else around that understands me,” and that feeling tends to multiply inside of you. Doing shows, touring and writing all became very important parts of connecting myself to other people out there who are going through the same things that I was going through. Maybe not the exact same thing, but had an experience that was close. That has always made me feel less alone, so I put a great deal of import on that.
Solomon Ratt was born on the banks of the Churchill River in a trapper’s cabin just north of Stanley Mission, Saskatchewan. He went to the Prince Albert Indian Residential School and graduated from Riverside Collegiate in Prince Albert. He attended the University of Regina and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in English and a Bachelor of Arts in Linguistics, as well as a Master of Arts in English. He has been teaching Cree language and Cree literature at First Nations University in Regina since 1986. He teaches all levels of Cree and Cree literature. Ratt is also a writer and a poet, including Woods Cree Stories and Beginning Cree, written as an introduction for Cree language learners, both published by University of Regina Press.
SAY: Do you mind telling us more about your youth and your residential school experience?
Ratt: I was taken away from my family at six years old, and I went to residential school in Prince Albert. I only ever spent two months out of the year at home with my parents in July and August. I never did experience any physical abuse by my teachers while in residential schools, but I was bullied by my classmates. It was very traumatic to be taken away from my family at such a young age. The loneliness, being away from my parents, was the worst thing that ever was.
SAY: How did that impact you as an adult?
Ratt: Well, every winter my parents would tell us sacred stories in Cree (they didn’t speak a word of English) from the time the snow fell until springtime. These stories were lessons on how to live in this world—how to be a parent and how to be a good spouse. This was my education, and it got interrupted by being taken away. I never got to hear those stories again. What I didn’t learn through my traditional stories led me to my alcoholism and drug addiction in my twenties, and my lack of parenting skills. Thankfully, my children turned out okay. But this happened because of the trauma experienced from being taken away from my family, away from my traditions and my culture.
SAY: How did you get involved with translating Inconvenient Skin?
Ratt: I was asked to participate in translating Inconvenient Skin last year. I was really busy, but the reason I decided to take this on was because of what I read on page 15:
“it is not love
when an entire culture is told
by a country still lining its pockets
with the profits of these broken promises”
I read that in English, and I thought, “This is something I could really get into.” Translating stories like this has become part of my healing.
SAY: How difficult, or easy, is it to translate from English to Cree?
Ratt: It’s difficult! In order to be a good translator, you need to be able to know both languages fluently. In English, you run into concepts that don’t exist in Cree, so you have to find synonyms in English and then use what is most appropriate and translate it to Cree. Believe it or not, we don’t have a word for “residential school”. I have used the term “going away to school, far away from home” and most recently I used “church-run schools.” It’s definitely a challenge, but I am lucky because not only do I translate material but I teach translation classes, from Cree to English and English to Cree. I do still have to consult the Cree dictionary from time to time, especially for spelling.
SAY: Do you have suggestions on how people can better learn their traditional languages?
Ratt: If we could encourage people to read books in their language, their knowledge of their language would develop really fast. Literacy promotes language development, but the problem with Cree, with a lot of Indigenous languages, is there’s not a lot of opportunity to practice. Most people who want to speak their Indigenous language outside of the classroom need to continue learning on their own, reading and finding others to speak with. We have to use the resources available to us, and we have to be determined and interested enough to put the time in. Joining storytelling groups is a great way to learn as well—this is something I often facilitate. There are many different dialects as well, so we have to be open-minded when learning.
To see all of the CODE Burt Award winning titles, visit code.ngo/approach/literary-awards.