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Poetic prose: Indigenous author releases third book in Overhead Series

The book is similar in length and style to her previous two books ‘Clouds’ and ‘Stars’
Lucy Hemphill is launching her third book in the Overhead Series On Dec. 7 at 7 p.m. at the Book Nook in Port Hardy. (Submitted photo)

North Islander Lucy Hemphill is all set to release her third and final book in the Overhead Series.

Her first book “Clouds” was published in 2017, which was quickly followed up by “Stars” in 2018. After that, Hemphill took five years to perfect “Trees”, which will launch with an author reading Dec. 7 at 7 p.m. at the Book Nook in Port Hardy.

When asked about the five-year break between her second and third book, Hemphill said life basically got in the way and slowed down her ability to write.

“It probably would have come out a lot quicker if I hadn’t been busy finishing up my bachelor’s degree at UBC,” she said with a laugh. “I had my son Aliwas in June of 2018, and then I returned back to my community, the Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw, and I started working there developing a Bak̕wa̱mk̕ala Language program. I also had my second child, Lily, in August 2022.”

She noted between finishing her degree, having babies and raising them, as well as starting the language program from the ground up, her hands were “really full - so what I started doing was every month or two, I’d do a self-led writers retreat on Malcolm Island for three days, and that’s how I was able to finish it.”

The book is similar in length and style to her previous two books, with Hemphill confirming the genre as creative non-fiction told from a first-person perspective.

Like her previous two books, Trees is published by At Bay Press, a company based out of Winnipeg, who noted Hemphill’s poetic prose “once again transports the reader with intimate revelations on identity by exploring both her personal and ancestral relationship to the forest and the quiet sentinels that root together everything.”

As for how the book came together, Hemphill said the idea behind it originated from her experiences doing landbased healing work in the Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw’s traditional territories of Blunden Harbour, Seymore Inlet, and Smith Inlet.

The Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw were forcibly removed from their homelands by the government in 1964. Their villages were burned to the ground and they were amalgamated together on a plot of land known as the Tsulquate Reserve that’s adjacent to the District of Port Hardy, which is situated on the unceded traditional territory of the Kwakiutl First Nation.

Hemphill noted that all kinds of trees are important to Indigenous people, but that cedar trees “are often considered a cornerstone of kwakwaka’wakw culture.”

She explained that cedar logs are used for the poles in big houses, and that red cedar bark is also handed out and worn for protection during specific ceremonies.

“There’s so many layers to our connection to cedar, but in my book I go through our connection to a lot of other trees as well,” she said. “For example, my son’s name ‘Aliwas’ means ‘Sitka Spruce’, and there’s so much meaning and significance behind why I named him that. For example, we used spruce in ceremonies for cleansing, but there’s also lots of stories and history where spruce plays an important role.”

Hemlock is another tree that holds a lot of significance in Indigenous culture.

“When you walk into a big house during a ceremony, you’ll walk through a doorway that’s bordered in hemlock bows, and there’s so many reasons for that,” Hemphill stated. “Everybody knows that we have a connection to cedar, but there’s so much more depth than that, and my book explores some of that and what it means to me.”

Hemphill has worked in the traditional territories of the Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw since she was just 14-years-old, and as the years passed by, she started to notice huge plots of land that were being “completely logged out.”

“I was seeing these pretty big changes happening to our territories, and the book examines my feelings towards that because I’ve always had a strong connection to our territories.”

She noted she felt sad after seeing all the land that had been logged, but at the same time was conflicted about it due to her family’s ties to the industry (her maternal great grandfather and grandfather were both loggers).

“It’s not just a company coming in and logging our territories,” she explained. “There’s relationships there, so I had to examine how I felt about that and what it means for our people.”

At Bay Press noted the book is “masterfully illustrated by artist Michael Joyal, his evocative dendrological drawings contribute to the overall sensory and transcendent experience.”

Hemphill said Joyal’s illustrations of the trees “really bring it a little bit more to life, as it did with the first two books.”

She went on to explain how Indigenous language is a big part of her daily life, and that her book actually touches on that subject as well.

“Over the last five years I’ve been on a journey to become proficient in Bak̕wa̱mk̕ala,” she said, adding that her ultimate desire is to “create space for more folks in the Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw community, and broader Kwakwaka’wakw communities, to speak and prioritize our language.”

“I’ve started recently dreaming a little bit in Bak̕wa̱mk̕ala, and it feels the more that I become capable of speaking in it that English feels so harsh, like a language of domination, and as someone who feels so connected to the land and the waterways, it feels like English only allows me to brush the surface of things when I’m writing in it or speaking it.”

As for any projects she has on the horizon, Hemphill said she’s not retiring from writing anytime soon.

“I’ll be changing my focus to a different style of writing, I’m actually working on a couple of children’s books that will be in both English and Bak̕wa̱mk̕ala. They explore our world through the perspective of my son, Aliwas.”

Tyson Whitney

About the Author: Tyson Whitney

I have been working in the community newspaper business for nearly a decade, all of those years with Black Press Media.
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