5 Questions for Brittany Luby

Interview by the Young Adulting Editors with Verena Rodriguez

Brittany Luby is an award-winning historian who originates from Treaty #3 in what is now known as northwestern Ontario. Luby believes that ink is a powerful tool. The words we write lay the foundation for our future. Luby writes for social justice and seeks to stimulate public discussion of Indigenous issues through her critical and creative work.

As a history professor, what did your research process of Encounter look like? How long did it take and how much longer did it take to condense all that information into a picture book format? What was the biggest challenge in your writing process?

Encounter was borne of my experiences in the classroom. I had students who had been raised to think of Jacques Cartier as a “founder of ‘Canada’.” There was very little understanding that Cartier’s arrival also symbolized the beginning of oppression for Indigenous peoples in what would become Canada.

My research process began with the question: “Why are my students struggling to imagine Jacques Cartier as a colonial agent?” I learned that many graduated from high school without being taught that multiple interpretations of history exist – that every historical actor has a unique perspective to offer. I learned that many students had written multiple choice or fill-in-the-blanks tests, suggesting that history is a collection of facts (rather than interpretations).

Now, I believe that the best teaching is scaffolded. I started wondering, “How can I prepare students to hear multiple histories?” I scoured Jacques Cartier’s diaries for statements that could be challenged with children.

For example, Cartier wrote, “They go quite naked, except for a small skin, with which they cover their privy parts.” How would you describe the weather in July? How do you like to dress in the summer? Why might Cartier feel more clothing was necessary in July? These were questions I could ask children. This is why Fisher and Sailor criticize each other’s dress in Encounter.

Passage selection took months. I decided to unpack a moment of relative peace – the day before Cartier’s violent abduction of Dom Agaya and Taignoagny– to encourage discussions about perspective. This was a difficult choice (a challenge, perhaps) – but, if I had chosen a moment where behavior could be categorized quickly as “good” or “bad,” I would have missed an opportunity to prompt children to think about whose lens we are approaching history through.

As you were working on Encounter, how were your interactions with the illustrator, Michaela Goade, for creating the visual text? Did you have a previous idea of how you wanted the pictures to look? 

During the developmental phases of Encounter, Little, Brown Young Readers encouraged Michaela to communicate through an intermediary. This would help to protect our creative freedom, allowing us both to imagine Fisher’s and Sailor’s world without interference from one another.

We shared questions and ideas through our editor, Susan Rich. For example, Michaela asked how Fisher, a 16th Century Stadaconan, might have waved. The historical records I had access to could not answer this question. I suggested moving the sun, so that Fisher could be read as awaiting Sailor or blocking the sun. Michaela experimented with this idea. The results? The spread on pages 9-10.

I did not have an idea of how I wanted the pictures to look, but I had a sense of how I wanted the pictures to feel – dreamy. Because Encounter is a reimagining of one fleeting moment in time, I did not want Fisher and Sailor to look real. Their watercolour bodies fade at the edges – just like this moment of relative peace faded from history.

I am thrilled with the results! Shortly after the proof arrived, Michaela and I connected by phone. I was privileged to say, “Thank you for enlivening Encounter. Thank you for sharing your skill with me.”

Spread from Encounter by Brittany Luby, Illustrated by Michaela Goade (2019).

Encounter shows the possibility of a harmonious first meeting between cultures; how these encounters ideally should and could be. However, North American history is fraught with colonial violence which still resonates throughout Indigenous communities. How should young readers (who may or may not be aware of this history) engage with Encounter without misinterpreting history and contextualize this harmonious story within a context of colonial violence?

Encounter is based on a French expedition to North America in 1534. This was the first of three expeditions Cartier would make hoping to identify resources that could be exploited for France. Cartier’s arrival marks the beginning of Canadian colonialism.

We are still living in a colonial society. For this reason, Encounter is future-focused. I want to communicate the message “You are worthy. You are no less than” to Indigenous readers.

Canadian media (print and visual) bombards us with the message that “White” is beautiful, desirable. In Encounter, animal teachers offer an alternative. Crab reminds us that beauty takes many forms. Mosquito finds that both Fisher and Sailor “taste delicious.” When we reject Sailor’s lens, we find there are many ways of being – none better, none worse – in the world. Difference can simply be “different.”

I also wantto encourage children todevelop a framework through which to approach (and challenge) contemporary colonial violence.

Diversity advocate Verna Myers encourages us to “get out of denial [that not seeing race is possible] and go looking for disconfirming data.” She states, “The problem was never that we saw color. It was what we did when we saw the color.” I agree.

Fisher and Sailor are discomforted by each other’s differences. They hesitate before meeting, but they walk toward difference. They seek “disconfirming data.” Like Fisher and Sailor, I believe we need to be willing to get uncomfortable and learn from one if we are going to build a better future.

This is not to suggest that something systemic like colonial violence can be solved by individuals acting in isolation. But my decision to prioritize these messages was shaped by my growing-up experiences: I was a “mixed blood” kid in a racist town. I experienced bullying. Children in the schoolyard spun stereotypes into jeers. Limited fear of recourse may have reduced the perceived risk of teasing.

I now understand that colonial hierarchies can be reinforced or complicated through individual actions. My classmates acted upon colonial teachings that “Indian” was “bad.” Collectively, we need to challenge systems that penalize some and protect others, that divert resources away from some to nourish others. Our willingness to challenge the “status quo,” however, depends on our ability to consider and to value alternate perspectives.

There are few books about Indigenous cultures throughout the American continent. What would you like to see published? Why do you think it’s still so difficult to publish these books?

The Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison determined that approximately 1% of the 3,400 children’s books published in 2016 by major Canadian and American presses were about Indigenous peoples. Only 0.002 percent of these texts were produced by Indigenous authors. Those numbers increased marginally in 2018.

And so, I would love to see more – more picture books, graphic novels, sci-fi, fantasy, horror, romance, fiction, non-fiction, you-name-it by Indigenous creatives.

Why do I think it is difficult to publish works by and about Indigenous peoples? I can only imagine. I have two speculations to share.

Firstly, the Canadian publishing industry has a history of underrepresenting Indigenous creatives. In 1996, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP) noted that after Pauline Johnson died in 1913 “almost six decades passed before Aboriginal authors reappeared on the literary scene.” Canada went from World War I to The Godfather (roughly) without being exposed to new Indigenous voices.

I imagine that limited sales data increases the financial risk of publishing Indigenous works. It may be harder for publishers to gauge what sells, whether they’ll be able to recover costs. While the ethics of Canadian publishing may have changed, we need publishers who are willing to test the market.

Secondly, I imagine that we need to educate buyers. Statistics vary, but in Canadian urban centres like Toronto, the average parent is having their first child at 30. They would have been born in 1990. They would have been born before curriculum changes. They may have seen media coverage of the Ipperwash crisis, which presented Indigenous peoples as aggressive troublemakers rather than land defenders.

Let’s imagine our work as an extension of our person. If folks do not have Indigenous family, friends, or colleagues, why would they bring us, as strangers with bad media record, into their home?

We need to educate our buyers, we need to send the message that Indigenous literature is valuable, that Indigenous voices are diverse, and that Indigenous creators are producing a range of material.

We need to teach people that “Reading Indigenous” means picture books, graphic novels, sci-fi, fantasy, horror, romance, fiction, non-fiction, you-name-it. Much like your friends, you can choose which books you invite into your home.

In saying all of this, let us remember that governments can support or suppress Indigenous education initiatives and, by extension, Indigenous creation. Doug Ford has made it more difficult for Indigenous creatives to produce by eliminating Ontario’s Indigenous Culture Fund.

If you are reading this, I beseech you to use your purchasing power and your vote to demand a better, more inclusive, future.

What’s next for Brittany Luby? Are you planning to create more picture books on a similar topic? Perhaps a graphic novel?

My next picture book is a celebration of home.

I have the privilege of working with artist Joshua Mangeshig Pawis-Steckley and translators Alvin Ted Corbiere and Alan Corbiere on a bilingual (Anishinaabemowin-English) text that teaches children about seasonal change.

This story, tentatively titled This Is How I Know, draws on ancestral teachings about our animal teachers. For example, it asks questions like “How do I know spring is here?” and answers “when red-breasted Robin lays her blue eggs.”

This Is How I Know is also a sort of homecoming — it exposes me to Anishinaabemowin, a language denied to me as a result of Canada’s Residential School legacy.

I’m thrilled to announce it will be released by Groundwood Books in Spring 2021.

I have two more stories up my sleeve. But I’ll keep those a secret for now.

Our reviews of Brittany Luby’s books:

Encounter, Review by Verena Rodriguez

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