français / Mi’kmaq
No 17. Faire communauté / Creating Community / Wel-maw-lukutiek
In Rexton, Phyllis couldn’t make it to open our show with her expressive poetry. The ever-smiling Raymond volunteered to replace her performance with a pre-contact Mi’kmaq lullaby about a father comforting a baby. The song began with a light thumping of the chest followed by words I did not understand, delivered with a warmth I most definitely did. It was a powerful moment that captured the kind of delightful fusion of serendipity and grace one can expect to emerge when a group of artists forms a bond over a theme. The hall that night was long and the song bounced resonantly against the far walls. Whenever I think of the tour, I still hear those memorable echoes.
At first, Creating Community was just another text I had to write for a show. A text that I would have to deliver for that same show. I knew we would be twelve authors in all. New Brunswickers from various parts of the province, from French, English, Indigenous and Immigrant communities. That we would paint a kind of literary picture of New Brunswick and go on the road together.
Our subject was community. A vague subject, that each of us would define differently based on our experiences.
I expected to have some fun with my text onstage, but nothing beyond that. Creating Community ended up being so much more ! Sure, it was a two-hour-long reading, but it was also fits of laughter on the road between Bathurst and Rexton, my hands trying to be understood in English, a lullaby that struck my heart and that still lives in my head, Paul whose name gained an extra syllable, driving down Route 180 after a snowstorm without my winter tires.
In the end, Creating Community was more than just writing a text about community. Beyond anything else, it was about meeting people we don’t often see but don’t realize it.
If I’ve learned anything from this experience, it’s that people who write, when they meet around beers and a bowl of popcorn, all speak the same language. And anyway, it’s what we say that’s most important. Not the way we say it.
When first invited to participate in Creating Community, I was excited about meeting the other writers, hearing them read their work and sharing mine. But what left a lasting impression on me was how what I initially viewed as a series of individual readings morphed into a collective experience. By the time we performed our last readings in Fredericton, I knew exactly how the event would unfold, anticipating with delight the tone and rhythm of each voice, knowing when to expect a pause, a well-timed snap of the fingers, a burst of laughter from the audience. I felt an inexplicable sense of ownership of not only my reading but that of a group of writers, most of whom I had never met before the tour began. It occurred to me that perhaps fellowship is rooted in repetition, that maybe we need to listen to each other’s stories not once but many times in order for a community to begin to take shape.
Apart from three short years spent in Montreal in the last century, I’ve spent my whole life in New Brunswick. This province is my home turf. I’ve basically visited and videotaped each of its cardinal points. And yet, up to this point, up to Creating Community, I hadn’t really heard it.
When you spend decades plucking lint from your belly button and debating the differences between the Acadian dialect spoken in the Acadian Peninsula and Southeastern New Brunswick and by the Brayons, you don’t really pay attention to the various voices of all our other fellow citizens. Not just the voice coming from the larynx of our traditional dance partner in the futile waltz of two solitudes, but also those of the two nations that were here well before our bearded ill-mannered ancestors got here ; the voices of newly arrived people for whom Canada is made up of more than just three cities ; the voices of troubadours exiled from their cultural fortresses ; in short, a polyphony of distinct and captivating voices, all from New Brunswick.
Early December, a snowstorm was coming.
We met in Moncton on that final weekend for the long drive to Edmundston, then back to Fredericton the following day. I remember the kindness and concern. The hugs. The pillow Sonya had placed on the backseat of the van. “Just in case you need it,” she said.
Both Sonya and Philip André said, “Don’t push yourself too hard.” Somehow, without knowing how bad the concussion was, they understood. I spent the weekend dazed and distant, a step behind, forcing thoughts and words through the fog in my head.
In the van, I alternately dozed and listened to the varied voices—First Nations, English, and French, asking questions, telling stories. Near Fredericton, I leaned forward and asked Raymond the Mi’kmaq words for something I wanted to say. He wrote them down and taught me how to say them. Later, while the sun still shone outside, I delivered them onstage to my new friends :
“Gil n’in ginemewei l’nuisi.”
Being a part of the Creating Community tour offered a safe space to share what I feel in my heart about my community. It was an expansive chance to make a positive impact though my voice, movements and written words. This tour made me feel like an important part of a noticeable change in our cultural landscape. I was able to speak my truths and broaden the circle of my vision. Our collective voices as authors radiated and created a cohesion, a fresh look, and a renewed faith in the value of human expression through the arts in our province. The venues also offered a cross-section of the province that made the show accessible to everyone. I am proud to have been a part of this project because it was genuine. My experience was a meaningful gaze into who we are and what we do as a life force of writers.
What great times ! Marvelling at Phyllis’s presence on stage during our first run-through. Travelling by taxi throughout the world in my mind through Muhammad’s humorous story. Hearing Shelby’s allegory and imagining him as a child playing baseball and riding his bike from dawn to dusk. Dreaming up a new world with Sébastien on the road between Bathurst and Rexton. Talking with Beth about her new novel as we walked… Becoming one of the characters in Lee’s story. Understanding Raymond’s universal images. Sitting in the backseat of the van between Moncton and St John and hearing Sheedy talk about her love of music and share her passion with other writers. Recognizing the landscape of Northern New Brunswick described so sensitively by Elizabeth. Attempting to pierce the mystery of writing with Gerard as we sat in the Edmundston Arts Centre’s unique setting. Laughing at Paul’s craziness in Fredericton !
Sheedy Petit Jean
The first thing that struck me about the Creating Community project were the various venues we visited over the weekends during the month-long tour. The ambiance was fantastic and everyone was so welcoming, open and willing to forge ties with the other participants. This was the first time I had the opportunity to visit various French and English communities in New Brunswick. It was a true joy for me to be asked to read a creation of mine, to see it published and circulated, to be given a chance to have my voice heard. On the whole, I found the project, the texts and so much more to be exquisite.
Creating Community was an experience that far surpassed my expectations. As a group, the members represented a broad spectrum of the peoples and cultures that comprise New Brunswick, from First Nations to newcomers. The stories of each presenter’s perspective on the meaning of community—composed in isolation and before the authors had met one another—gained in power and nuance as they were performed within the context of the actual and vibrant coming-together of the many-voiced participants ; we “created community” even as we reflected upon it. I believe that audiences felt this and were moved by it.
“Creating Community” changed my life. I became a member of my own province in a different and deeper way as I travelled and befriended a group of people from linguistic and cultural backgrounds I may never have otherwise met. Those who attended the readings had the same experience. The province has gained immeasurably from this initiative.
Shelby Beaatz Sappier
I would like to express my sincere gratitude for the opportunity to participate in the Creating Community project. Through this adventure, I was able to dig deep within my roots and express myself in a way I haven’t in years, to tell my story and give the reader a glimpse of what community is through my eyes. This opportunity surpassed my expectations in numerous ways. It gave me a greater sense of appreciation and love for writing and helped me improve all aspects of my craft. It allowed me to work with a great team of writers and organizers to bring this idea to life, and I’m truly humbled to have been a part of the experience. From the travelling to the live performances, this was a well-organized adventure I will simply never forget. Not only has this experience moved me, but it has motivated me to continue to write and to share my stories with the world.
Creating Community was an excellent opportunity for me to share my culture and to learn about other cultures through literature. I enjoyed all the works created and how they came to life at the diverse venues across New Brunswick. It was nice to network with great people who welcomed me into the provincial writing community. Touring was a bit tough at first, being away from family, but friendships emerged and I found a “writing clubhouse” that I raced back to every weekend. Let us heal each other with words in the night. For me, this tour was about finding acceptance with other groups. I believe languages are technologies that help us share our unique personal ideas, and therefore there is a power in finding answers to our individual errors in syntax by listening and sharing. We help each other with our own unique forms of Mi’kmaq, Wolastoqiyik, French, English. Ideas for me are messy/beautiful/healing change agents that help promote cultural plurality.
As a fiction writer, as an editor, as an event organizer and from years spent at the helm of the Writers’ Federation of New Brunswick, I expected to know most, if not all of the project’s participants. And although I knew several of them, there were new faces, unfamiliar voices with unexpected stories. Their stories varied widely, as did their styles of writing, but all were affecting. If this was what I experienced, what did the audience experience ? Surely we were mostly unknown to them. On the stage at the Aberdeen Cultural Centre, lectern in front of me, I wondered what stories lived in each audience member. What if every person in attendance had a turn on stage that night ? You see a face on the street, they walk past and you never connect. But by presenting our stories, I realized, we make ourselves known, we connect, and yes, create community.