The following is an open letter to my friends and colleagues in British publishing. I’ve drawn on Indigenous history within Canada in order to reflect on Palestine, on the language we use when speaking about suffering, and how with our words we can choose either the healing road or harm. I’m also aware that current events are weighing heavy on many of us, and the legacy of residential schools in Canada is extremely traumatic; please take care when reading. These opinions are my own and do not reflect the position of And Other Stories.
It’s a moment where I can’t stop thinking: words matter. Words make up narratives, narratives make up nations, and nations, especially nations of settlers, make up narratives to hide the harm they do. Origin myths. I’m from Canada; by virtue of my national narrative I am polite and I am nice and I don’t like to hurt anybody’s feelings. How true that is I don’t know. Most of my ancestors came to Canada as settlers; I know that much. And I know that of the vast majority of places I lived in or visited, I lived in or visited them as the beneficiary of centuries of occupation. None of that sounds especially nice to me. The history of settlement in Canada is anything but.
And while there have been moments in which the Canadian government – which, after decades of lobbying by Indigenous activists, was finally pushed into action by the UN’s Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007 – attempted to account for the harm it perpetrated against the First Nations, Inuit, and Métis people of Canada, it’s taken more than the Truth and Reconciliation Committee or the National Inquiry into #MMIWG2S+ to shake up the nice story for good. An instrumental change happened thanks to Indigenous journalists, who pushed against the CBC policy banning words like “genocide” and “survivor” from coverage pertaining to residential schools (to which Indigenous children were removed, by force, from their parents, often at a distance of hundreds of miles, and in which physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, starvation, neglect, and cruel experimentations were rampant).
The tipping point, however, happened only two years ago, in May of 2021. With the help of ground-penetrating radar the remains of 215 Indigenous children were found at the site of a former residential school in Kamloops, British Columbia. Indigenous communities have said for over a century that their children hadn’t been coming home. It shouldn’t have taken the bodies of children for those bereaved parents to have been heard – but it did. It became instantly clear how the friendly and helpful self-image to which Canadians cling was making it impossible to address the rift over which the nation stands. And, for the first time, outside of the Indigenous communities who have always known this to be so, the genocidal nature of the country’s settler-colonial project was finally accepted.
Words shape our response to crisis, they shape our policies, our interventions, and the heartbreaking lack thereof. They determine who has our empathy and who, in the words of Hala Alyan in the New York Times, has to audition for it. They enable or shut down our capacity to mourn alongside others. And the question of how and who we mourn for is, of course, the one currently dividing liberal politics in Britain.
I offer these examples because the Canadian truth and reconciliation process shows with painful clarity how intertwined the naming of trauma is with the process of healing and redress, just as it shows the power of state and media silence to undermine the vulnerable. And I must state unequivocally that until the genocide ongoing in Palestine is acknowledged as such by the British, American, and Canadian governments – acknowledged as it is already by the UN and by over 790 scholars of international law – then silence does more than prohibit intervention on behalf of the people being killed there at terrifying rates, and preclude the dismantling of a violent and illegal occupation. To the millions of people around the world who suffer from colonial violence, either in their home territories or in exile, who have been collectively re-traumatised by the events of the last three weeks, silence sends a grim message. It puts the lie to official reconciliation policies. It says your pain is inconvenient. It says your pain is not real.
Again, eh. Not especially nice.
The actions of Israel and the silence of other settler-state governments reflect a too-familiar and deadly pattern, one in which Britain is also inextricably involved. Our governments, our media, our publishing industry, and our literary culture needs to be open about this. To be open and vocal about the genocidal nature of Israel’s settler-colonial project is essential in order to end the current violence against Palestinians, just as it’s essential to understand the grim reality of apartheid for Palestinians in the Occupied West Bank, under Israeli siege by land and sea in Gaza, and in the exiled diaspora around the world. In the last hundred years Palestinians have lived under British colonial rule, have suffered and are now suffering again from mass displacement, have suffered and are still suffering from land theft. They have endured and are enduring the extreme and violent occupation of their remaining territories. We in literary culture need to be present with that pain, to hear it, sit with it, accept it. We also need to acknowledge that the pain of that experience is stamped in echoes across sites of colonial violence the world over.
Nor – and I can’t say this emphatically enough – does understanding the long history behind Hamas’s attacks on 7 October preclude our other obligation, which is to be present with the deep pain of Israeli hostages, the dead, the survivors, and their families, who have suffered not just a physical attack but messages of genocidal intent that will be profoundly triggering. There’s long history there too. Words matter; it is essential to acknowledge there is re-traumatisation happening now throughout Jewish communities as well. Calls for an end to violence on the basis of race, religion, ethnicity, and gender must be inclusive. They must be based on understanding of historical context and present conditions that is wide and deep. And they must be intersectional by default. No one should have to hold their pain alone.
It won’t come as a surprise to hear that some of the earliest, most vocal, and most strongly worded support for a free Palestine came and is coming from Indigenous peoples; this statement of solidarity by Anishinaabeg writer Leanne Betasamosake Simpson is an example. And, as I’ve read petitions and signed petitions over the past few weeks, for ceasefires and deoccupations and safe return of hostages and the end of violence full stop, I felt beneath each signature a desire not just for healing but for words. I want to speak, write and publish the words that will allow me to stand in advocacy and in grief alongside all my human kin. I want the words that build humility, courage, respect, honesty, love, and the wisdom and truth that come after. When we take care of our words we take care of each other. We are word people. And in times of collective trauma it’s essential we choose our words carefully, making them the tools we need to shape the world we want.
Miigwetch, and take good care of yourselves,